Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Better Education Through Technology

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 10, 2011

I was in a restaurant in Monterrey when I remarked to a number of colleagues who had joined me about how many staff were in attendance. There were people to guide us to our table, others to offer us a drink menu and obtain our orders from a bartender, still others to take our food order and bring it from the kitchen, where it would be prepared by a culinary staff, still others to remove our plates and refill our drinks, still others to wash the dishes, scour the pots and shine the cutlery, and various managers attending to our needs and making sure all was in order.

The same scene is evident on the street as well. Where in Canada we may see a street with just a few people walking from place to place, in Monterrey (or Medellin, or Kuala Lumpur) we see people sweeping the street with brooms and trash barrels, parking attendants directing traffic and watching over cars, vendors of lunch snacks, sunglasses and magazines, police officers directing traffic at intersections, and more, much more, so that what would be a quiet Canadian street is transformed to that hive of activity we all enjoy so much when we leave home.

And the thing with most of this is that, in a straight up-and-up comparison, most of the tasks being performed on the Mexican street are in Canada performed by some machine or another. Take parking management, for example. In Canada, we just find a spot at the side of the road or a stall in a parking lot, walk over to the parking meter or ticket machine, deposit our money and place the stub in the window. That's it. No person is required to guide us into a spot because there is plenty of room and neat lines painted on the roads and parking lots. There is no person needed to take our money, and nobody needed to watch over the car while we're gone (if security is required it is centralized using surveillance cameras).

The immediate reaction of the typical Canadian (ie., me) on seeing a sight like this is to suggest that everybody would be better off with a little more investment in technology. After all, the people who direct traffic, take your payment and watch over your car while you're gone make only a pittance. The same with the staff in the restaurants; they can hire so many people because they pay them so little. But they could instead higher fewer people, pay them more, and use technology to make up the difference.

Of course, as with most immediate reactions, it is wrong. It's not so simple just to replace these people with automated systems. For one thing, there would be no new jobs at which these displaced persons could work. For another, it takes a lot of time and effort to maintain technical systems, much more so in places like Mexico, Colombia or Malaysia. But third, and perhaps most critically, you don't actually get any improvements in output using the technological solution. Your food doesn't taste any better, your car isn't parked any better.

It is in this context we need to read an article like Kentaro Toyama's Can Technology End Poverty? Toyama's argument is much the same as we see here. "In the developed world, there is a tendency to see the Internet and other technologies as necessarily additive, inherent contributors of positive value," he writes. "But their beneficial contributions are contingent on an absorptive capacity among users that is often missing in the developing world." He explains this via the thesis that "technology - no matter how well designed - is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. It is not a substitute."

And he has a point. Technology won't make things happen where they weren't happening before. A goods restaurant that invests in a dish-washing machine will still be a good restaurant, while the same investment in a bad restaurant will yield only a bad restaurant. Parking meters in a safe neighborhood will result in good parking, but installing parking meters in a bad neighborhood will not make your car safer; indeed, it may well make the car less safe. So it is easy to see why Toyamo would argue that the same sort of logic applies to educational technology.

In a recent and widely circulated article, There Are No Technology Shortcuts To Education, Toyama expands on this argument with respect to educational technology. Specifically, he offers four specific arguments countering the advocacy of technology in education:

    - The history of electronic technologies in schools is fraught with failures.
    - Rigorous studies show that it is incredibly difficult to have positive educational impact with computers.
    - Technology has a huge opportunity cost in the form of more effective non-technology interventions.
    - Many good school systems excel without much technology.

It is interesting to note that much the same statements could be made with respect to parking meters.

Take, for example, the deployment of parking meters in Bangalore. Prakash Advani writes, "The Hi-Tech city of Banglore has a parking meter at Brigade Road. The funny part is its a manned by a person who puts the coins. So why have a parking meter in the first place?" And the rest of the argument is much like Toyama's. "So why have a parking meter in the first place? Its better to have a person writing a receipt. The problem is that people want to get Hi-Tech but not everyone knows how to use it."

And yet - in Canada we have a widespread deployment of parking meters. We do not employ people to deposit the money, and in only a few cases do we actually employ people to manage parking at all, and this only in very large and busy parking lots. Why do we do it this way in Canada, when surely we must have faced exactly the very same issues and challenges faced by the people attempting to deploy parking meters in Bangalore?

The simple answer is: it's better and it's cheaper. But it would have been very difficult to show this prior to the fact.

Take the suggestion that it's better, for example. It almost never is, on a point-for-point comparison. As Advani notes, parking meters actually take too much money. They take extra time to fiddle about with. They do nothing to enhance security. Similarly with dish-washing machines. Hand-washed dishes often come out cleaner. Or consider the case of automated check-out services now being deployed in Canadian supermarket. These are the slowest lines of the lot, an inexperienced customer cannot scan a price as well as an experience cashier, and the customer has to do his or her own bagging. The same could be said of any other technology. It doesn't do the old job as well as the old method, and it often makes a bad situation worse.

Taken in a wider context, however, the new technologies are invariably better. Typically, once people are used to them, they provide a great speed advantage. It takes much longer to negotiate parking with a person than it does to just pop a few coins into the machine. And there's the advantage of volume. With a dish-washing machine, a single person (such as myself, when I was eighteen) can manage all the dish-washing for a complex of 800 people, three meals a day, something that would take a team of workers to accomplish by hand. But more, these and other technologies make it possible to do new things. Automated parking enables multi-level parkades, greatly increasing capacity and allowing for the creation of large malls and downtown office buildings. Dish-washing machines enable the creation of residential homes for the elderly.

Saying that technology is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity is like saying that an elevator only amplifies the intent and capacity to move up and down. But 'more' rarely means 'more of the same'. An elevator allows you to have a thirty floor office building, something that is not practical or feasible with stairs alone.

With respect to the suggestion that technology is cheaper, here again we may think at first glance that it's not. No doubt drivers in Bangalore would rather see the money spent on better roads than on parking meters that don't actually save on the cost of parking. And it is questionable whether the restaurant in Monterrey would find a $30K Hobart like the one I used to use to be a worthwhile investment. But that's only because staff are so poorly paid and because the technology, which often must be imported, is so expensive. When the staff begin to be paid more, the economics of a dishwasher make more sense - and now savings can be had in other areas, such as the cost of water and detergent used, the overhead required to manage the staff, and more.

If parking meters and dish-washing machines were not actually better and cheaper, wealthier economies would not use them. But it is no coincidence that these technologies are found in wealthy economies. It's not that the technologies are useful in these economies because these are wealthy economies. Rather, it's the other way around - these technologies (and others like them) made the economies wealthy.

This, then, brings us to the impact and cost of educational technologies in particular.

Toyama argues, "Three months after a large-scale roll-out, and despite teacher, parent, and student excitement around the technology, students gained nothing in academic achievement." That's probably true. But it is ridiculous to expect an improvement in educational outcomes from the one technology alone and within the short time frame of three months. The first few months of telephone service probably did not bring any great advantage to people either. It takes more than three months just to figure out what the things do.

Similarly, Toyama argues, "the best-performing nations have a political commitment to universal education, high standards for achievement, and quality teachers and principals. Notably absent is any mention of technology as a critical element of a good school system." All true, but nonetheless one cannot help but note the correlation between educational outcomes in technologically advanced countries such as Canada, Finland and Korea, with the corresponding placement of the less industrialized countries in the bottom half of the Pisa list. And while it may be true that one can teach basic literacy without technology, just as one can climb a five floor stairwell, at a certain point it becomes more and more difficult to offer a quality education.

And it is arguable that some of the technological environment is simply taken for granted. It would be difficult to find a correlation between the use of electric lights, or the installation of flush toilets, and educational outcomes, but there does seem to be a wider correlation between the use of these technologies and the feasibility of offering an education at all. And while one may question the utility of radio and television in prompting specific educational outcomes in a classroom environment, one wonders what impact the widespread availability of such technologies have on expectations of literacy and other educational attainments at all.

It has been argued - and I have been one of the ones to argue it - that educational outcomes increase because of a wide range of factors, the most important of which being social and political. Technology, I agree, has no direct bearing on educational outcome. But technology is essential to creation of social wealth and political stability. Technology - including educational technology - as a whole, contributes to the well-being of society. Such technology, in turn, contributes to the education necessary to function in such a society. It becomes a part of the wider social milieu that promotes improved educational outcomes.

Let me finish by addressing Toyama's 'myths' point by point.

- To the proposal that "21st-century skills require 21st-century technologies" Toyama asks, "What exactly are the '21st-century skills' that successful citizens need?" He suggests, "The skills haven't changed; only the proportion of people requiring them." He adds, "As far as I know, not in the 500+ years since Gutenberg invented the printing press did anyone suggest that every school, to say nothing of every student, needed a mini-printing press to learn printing skills."

To which I respond that the use of the Gutenberg press is illustrative. It is quite true that people did not need to become printers (though many did). What they did need to learn how to do was to read. In fact, reading, the skill Toyama says 'never changes' is the first and foremost of the new Gutenberg literacies. The suggestion that 21st century skills are as simple as 'learning to Tweet' and 'learning how to operate a computer' misrepresent the change the new technologies are bringing to society. Basic literacies such as pattern-recognition, contextualization, logic and association form the foundation of a 21st century literacy. These precisely are skills that are not taught in classrooms today, which is why we don't see evidence of them when we conduct classroom tests for literacy in reading, writing and mathematics, as Pisa does.

- To the proposal that new technologies allow interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered, [insert educational flavor of the month (EFotM) here] learning," Toymana replies that "without directed motivation of the student, no sustained learning actually happens" and that good teachers are interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered and all that and "... are also capable of something that no technology for the foreseeable future can do: generate ongoing motivation in students."

My response is, first, these are not simply flavours of the month, but are examples of successful pedagogy largely because they do take into account such factors as motivation, and second, that technology can be shown to generate motivation in the absence of teachers. What draws people to technology, and what makes them want to learn using technology, is the possibility of being able to do something they could not do without the technology. This is as true of earlier technologies such as ships, cars and airplanes, as it is of today's technologies.

- Ah, responds Toyama, "but the novelty factor of most technologies quickly wears off, and those which don't tend to turn viewers into zombies rather than engaged learners."

I respond that if we view technologies as gadgets, then the novelty wears off quickly, however, there are many technologies that engage learners for sustained periods, often involving entire lifetimes. An oscilloscope may become boring in a few weeks, but an interest in electronics lasts a lifetime. A stethoscope may become boring after you've listened to your pet's heartbeat, but medicine can become an all-consuming career.

- To the suggestion that "Teachers are expensive [and] technology is a good alternative" Toyama responds, "Low-cost technologies are not so low cost when total cost of ownership is taken into account and put in the economic context of low-income schools. Furthermore, technology cannot fix broken educational systems. If teachers are absent or poorly trained, the only proper solution is to invest in better teachers, better training, and better administration."

I reply that there might be a point here if we were to treat the role of teaching as an indivisible whole, but as I have argued, 'teaching' actually consists of a number of different professions, each of which ought to be assessed individually. Moreover, as I have argued, while in a low-tech economy the cost of some technologies may appear excessive, this is only through comparison to the low wages that exist. It is worth noting that the increase in teacher quality will be concurrent with a rise in teacher wages; people who have professional-level skills are no longer content to work at minimum wage salaries.

- To the suggestion that "for the price of a couple of textbooks, you might as well get a low-cost PC," Toyama replies that "anyone who says this is using American predatory pricing of textbooks as a guide. In India, a typical text book costs 7.5-25 rupees, or 15-50 cents. For $1-3, you could buy all the textbooks a child will need for the year."

I respond to this by observing that this amounts to six or seven books per student per year, which seems to me to be a very impoverished supply of reading material. In more developed countries, and in richer households, children are surrounded with reading materials. That is why they become proficient readers. Six or seven textbooks is not a close substitute to that. One would want the equivalent of a daily newspaper or magazine, plus the equivalent of books and catalogues they may read for fun, plus more. We are talking about hundreds of dollars of reading materials, not three dollars, even at Indian prices. But more, and perhaps more significantly, a book on the computer is not the same as a book on paper. It can become not just a passive experience, but an immersive one, involving speaking and writing as well, contributing to literacy through a variety of modalities.

- To the suggestion that technology is being used to fix a bad educational system, Toyama argues that novelty for its own sake is unwise and that "technology has never fixed a broken educational system... if other efforts aren't working, maybe the school system needs to be thrown out and rebuilt from the ground up, as Qatar recently did with its education ministry. There are plenty of new things to try that don't require new technology."

In response I agree. It does not make sense to continue to do the same thing as before with technology. The addition of technology to the equation allows educators to do new things, like introduce people from different sides of the planet to each other, or visualize flying a jet airplane, or create music videos. The very idea that technology simply replicates schools and teachers is mistaken - and yet this is exactly Toyama's thesis when he says that technology is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity.

- In response to suggestions that studies show that technology is effective, Toyama asks, "how good was the educational environment in Study Z without the technology? Invariably, it will have been good; often, very good. This means it was secret-sauce + technology that caused the benefit, not technology by itself. Second, what was the total cost of the technology (including training, maintenance, curriculum, etc.)? Inevitably, it will be a factor of 5-10 more than the cost of hardware. Both issues suggest that for ailing schools, technology is not the answer."

In response I observe that there's a lot packed into these statements, including some unproven generalizations about the nature of the studies being criticized, some presumptions about the cost of owning technology that are incorrect, and mistaken beliefs about the way in which technology improves education. Specifically, let me argue that technology does not improve education by making what you are already doing better, it improves education by making what you are not doing possible. Teaching children isolated in the bush, the outback or the Arctic: without technology, impossible. With technology: common. Teaching doctors and pilots through simulation: without technology, impossible. With technology, common. That's why, as well, the cost of ownership is not comparable. Even if the total cost of ownership of a simulation system is some amount of dollars, you still can't simulate flight with a teacher in a classroom for any amount of money.

- In response to suggestions that "Computer games, simulations, and other state-of-the-art technologies are really changing things" Toyama responds "this article was written with current and near-term technologies in mind" and postulates that "sophisticated software could become richer in the range of things they can teach and the degree to which they sustain motivation" but that "any such advances should pass lab trials, pilot runs, controlled experiments, and cost-effectiveness analyses before anyone starts advocating them for widespread use" and "so far, no technology has met this bar."

In response, I would observe that current educational methods have not passed such a level of testing either. In fact, we are barely struggling along, unable to meet most of the world's educational needs at all, poorly serving large portions of the population, and offering quality learning only to an elite few in developed countries and economies. Meanwhile, we have ample demonstration that people can learn a wide range of things using existing technology, which is why such technology is widely deployed.

- In response to the argument that "technology is transformative, revolutionary, and otherwise stupendous! Therefore, it must be good for education" Toyama replies that "This myth is pervasive because it is so easy to believe and because we want to believe it so badly.... But, why do we believe this? It makes no sense. We don't expect that playing football video games makes a child a great athlete. We don't believe that watching YouTube will turn our kids into Steven Spielbergs. We don't think that socializing on Facebook will turn people into electable government officials. And, if none of those things work, then why do we expect it of writing, history, science, or mathematics?"

And of course, in response I argue that nobody expects a simple computer game to make a person a great athlete, but would point to the wide range of technologies employed by football teams - from video of previous games to exercise machines to statistical analysis to simulation and visualization to better athletic equipment and more - to counter the argument. To suggest that technology is not used to train football players is to not understand football! And while watching YouTube by itself won't make a person a great director, no person could become a great director without watching hours - days, months! - of film or video. And today's aspiring Speilbergs are greatly assisted by video editing suites, CGI effects, digital distribution channels, and much more technology without which video production would be impossible.

Toyama writes, "A good education is second only to parenting in the importance it has in raising capable, upright members of society. We would never think to replace parenting with technology (and when we do at times, we do it with shame, and only because we're too damn tired to parent, not because gadgets are superior to us). Why do we keep trying to replace teachers?"

And yet he ignores the many impacts technology has had on parenting, from the intervention of in vitro fertilization, intensive care units and other advances that make childbirth much more possible and safe in the first place (it is worth comparing infant and maternal mortality rates in those societies that don't use technology with those technologies that do, even though it cannot be demonstrated that the use of technology produces better babies). Families in industrialized countries can benefit from multiple incomes because a wide variety of labor-saving devices - from cooking utensils to dish-washers (originally invented for restaurants) to entertainment systems - make parenting easier and less time-consuming.

To conclude, it is disappointing, as Toyama says, to read reports of the failure of the deployment of educational technology in India. Disappointing, but not surprising, if what was expected is that everything would be preserved, and that technology would magnify only, and not change. What needs to be understood is that technology fundamentally changes what you are doing because it makes new things possible that were not possible before.

Toyama summarizes by paraphrasing Anurag Behar describing what he learned from education leaders in Finland and Canada (two countries who consistently do well on PISA): "not a dollar will we invest in ICT, every dollar that we have will go to teacher and school leader capacity building." That's exactly the wrong lesson to learn from Canada and Finland. These are advanced industrial economies with a high degree of technological sophistication, in which significant effort is directed toward income parity and provision of social services. These economies could not exist without technology and would be surprised at the suggestion that their children's education would be just as good without it.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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