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Misperception of Technology's Value for Learning

Posted By Administration, Sunday, October 9, 2011
Updated: Thursday, October 17, 2013

October 9th, 2011

In the New York Times today, a front-page article repeated the same sensational story we've read about for decades: software can't replace the teacher! Gee, what a startling discovery. In the late 1980s, "intelligent tutors" failed to teach students to write. Why, 25 years later, is this "news" still misleading people into thinking that's what we educational technology people are trying to do?

Here's the article: It's about Carnegie Learning, just purchased by the University of Phoenix, a math tutoring program. Gee, the math tutoring program, on standardized tests, may not have made a difference. Ergo, technology is no better than books.

And a few days ago, David Brooks strayed into an article about innovation, lamenting that America is no longer innovating.

While conceding that some innovation is occurring with technology, he claimed that in general we have lost our innovative push.

Both of these articles leave me incredulous. With technology, scientific research has been fundamentally altered and discoveries are coming faster and faster; research into genetic indicators of disease potential in humans may lead to preventive measures we could not have dreamed of; micro-chips control most complex machinery in our society; they run our economy and our society. But these are all too sweeping and silent for Brooks to notice, it would seem. Our economy has been altered to favor different kinds of skills than even 10 years ago -- oh, but we are not innovating, of course.

What both articles miss is the millions of changes going on all at once that are both subtle and irreversible. The writers of both articles are looking for a moon shot or the first solo flight across the Atlantic: a singular spectacular event. What they are missing is the very ground they stand on shifting and their whole world re-orienting.

Technology cannot be the traditional teacher; this is a grand delusion. Technology, instead has changed the nature of knowledge, how people collaborate, communicate, represent knowledge and discover new knowledge. Learners can capture learning experiences with smart phones, upload that evidence to their eportfolios, and personalize their own learning.

What Brooks was blind to is the change that no one notices because it consists of millions of tiny changes constantly occurring. Maybe the most profound revolution is the one no one notices? Or takes for granted?

We are used to great breakthroughs in physical mobility, or a magic preventive like antibiotics -- a singular breakthrough -- what people miss is the constant slow movement, the million-changes a second in our language, our consciousness, our social interaction, and in our learning patterns. At a time when humans are changing the most rapidly in all of human history, David Brooks thinks we are in a time of stagnation.

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