The Technophilic EdTech Skeptic

This guest blog post is written by Dr. Dave Mulder. Dave is a teacher educator at Dordt College, where he takes his work very seriously, but himself decidedly less so. His professional interests are related to preparing pre-service teachers for technology integration, online teaching and learning, and social presence and community development in online settings.


I have been a professional educator for all of my adult life; I’m beginning my 20th year of teaching this fall. I have always been a “techie” teacher, and I definitely have a love gadgets and learning about the latest tech toys. I was often (and continue to be) an early adopter of various educational technologies on the various faculties I’ve been part of, both when I taught in K-12 schools and also now in higher education.

But…

The longer I’ve taught, and the more technologies I’ve tried out in my own teaching practice, the more skeptical I’ve become of the claims made of the value of many potential educational technologies. I am a technophile, but I’m also an EdTech skeptic. I am simply not convinced by the claims made by many companies touting a particular educational technology that they will have the promised impact on student learning.

I wonder sometimes about the supposed need to become certified in using various EdTech tools. Do I need to become an Apple Distinguished Educator? Should I invest the time in becoming a Google Certified Innovator? If I want to use tools like FlipGrid, or VoiceThread, or Edmodo, or a SMARTBoard, do I need to pass some sort of course first?

Let’s back up for a moment and think about what EdTech tools are supposed to be doing in the classroom.

Actually, let’s back way up, to the 1700s.

What, you thought EdTech began with the advent of the personal computer in the 1970s? I suppose it depends on your definition of “educational technology.” I prefer Neil Postman’s thinking about what makes a “technology” from his 1992 book, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, where Postman suggests that technologies are tools devised by humans to solve particular problems. This broad definition goes far beyond the typical conception of “technology” as something digital.

Postman uses examples as “low-tech” as the practice of assigning letter grades in school: “This procedure seems so natural to most of us that we are hardly aware of its significance. We may even find it difficult to imagine that the number or letter is a tool, or, if you will, a technology; still lets that, when we use such a technology to judge someone’s behavior, we have done something peculiar” (Postman, 1992, pp. 12-13). Postman goes on to elaborate the beginning of the assignment of letter grades to judge the quality of students’ work at the suggestion of a Cambridge University tutor in 1792. This use of a technology–a tool, even if that tool is really just an idea–to evaluate the quality of students’ work is so taken for granted today, it almost sounds a little odd to think about letter grades as an educational technology! But…should we require “Letter Grade Assignment Certification” as a prerequisite for allowing teachers to wield this technology?

Do you see what I’m getting at here? Do teachers need to be certified to use tools in their classroom to ensure that they will result in students’ learning? Should teachers be “textbook certified,” or “chalkboard certified,” or “pencil-and-notebook certified” if we expect them to use these tools?

You might argue, “Well, Dave, digital tools are different! They are more complicated and have more features than these analog tools. So teachers need training and support!”

You’re right about that. I think that the tools are often more complex, and if we really do want teachers to use them to their utmost, the will likely need training and support.

But…

Here’s my real question: is it worth the tradeoff? If teachers need to devote that much time and energy to being able to effectively use a digital tool, is it worth implementing it in the classroom? Is “good enough” technology…good enough?

What do you think? What criteria should we demand for educational technologies we use in the classrooms of today and tomorrow?

Work Cited:

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vantage.

4 Replies to “The Technophilic EdTech Skeptic”

  1. Dave,

    Thank you for this relevant post! Many teachers are far more skeptical than you when approaching tech use. In Asia, we have yet to see a serious shift in teacher mindset. Things are still very much traditional here. As for training, do you do all of your own vetting? That would be tiring. I have to look to others (usually in blogs) to see which technology is worth spending time on.

    Regarding the ancient tools of letter grades, teachers do still look to rubrics for guidance in awarding these. I would argue that rubrics may even be more difficult because each carries different wording. At least technology has the advantage of having a finite number of capabilities. Nevertheless, there isn’t enough time in the day to train to an expert level — and it may not be necessary.

    I don’t have to know everything about mobile learning to assign my students a task on Facebook for that evening. I only need to know enough to show them how to complete the task. In a sense, tech learning is part of the dynamic growth of knowledge that is central to connectivism.

    I often learn from my students a new obscure feature of tech that makes the process more efficient. In turn, I share it with others and others share with me. Growth is incremental but the process is much more enjoyable. I’m not suggesting that Google training is boring because I haven’t attempted it. But I’ve worked through some of the Apple training: Here, read these 15 books and then take a multiple choice test. Yawn…..

  2. Dave,

    Thank you for this relevant post! Many teachers are far more skeptical than you when approaching tech use. In Asia, we have yet to see a serious shift in teacher mindset. Things are still very much traditional here. As for training, do you do all of your own vetting? That would be tiring. I have to look to others (usually in blogs) to see which technology is worth spending time on.

    Regarding the ancient tools of letter grades, teachers do still look to rubrics for guidance in awarding these. I would argue that rubrics may even be more difficult because each carries different wording. At least technology has the advantage of having a finite number of capabilities. Nevertheless, there isn’t enough time in the day to train to an expert level — and, you’re right, it may not be necessary.

    I don’t have to know everything about mobile learning to assign my students a task on Facebook for that evening. I only need to know enough to show them how to complete the task. In a sense, tech learning is part of the dynamic growth of knowledge that is central to connectivism.

    I often learn from my students a new obscure feature of tech that makes the process more efficient. In turn, I share it with others and others share with me. Growth is incremental but the process is much more enjoyable. I’m not suggesting that Google training is boring because I haven’t attempted it. But I’ve worked through some of the Apple training: Here, read these 15 books and then take a multiple choice test.

    Yawn…..

  3. Hi Dave,

    Great post. In comparing the two school systems in which I’ve worked (Germany and the U.S.), I do find that North American schools seem to jump on the tech bandwagon without second thought. If the money is there to spend on the latest system, all that is needed is a convincing individual (or outside consultant) to appear at the right time and *VOILA*, we are all required to train on and use Mastery Manager, Canvas, Skyward, and the list goes on.

    In contrast, in Germany, technology as a whole is viewed much more skeptically (the sharing of personal information online and accessibility online is not viewed amicably in many arenas), so many schools are “lacking” in technologies – or so Americans would say. However, learning is generally faster-paced and more in-depth (depending on the track of school, that is), so as to properly prepare students for their next level of education – whether that be vocational training, an internship, an apprenticeship, a school-work program, or university.

    And then there exist those of us who have to be in both worlds. Keeping up with the latest district technology demands whilst simultaneously growing learners in our classrooms. I find it’s a fine line between using technologies effectively and becoming inundated with just-for-the-sake-of-it tools.

    When it comes down to it, I think of educational schools centuries ago raising up what were to become some of the foremost thinkers, inventors, experimenters, and “do-ers” of history, and realize that at the base of it all are “enlightening experiences” – whether they are formed via old-school learning systems or guided by the modern illuminations of computer screens doesn’t really matter. It’s that they occur in the first place!

  4. Thank you for this post! I have had discussions with educators who feel that technology should be used for technology’s sake, but I think those teachers forget about opportunity cost; each dollar spent providing a new technology without a solid pedagogical foundation is a dollar that could have been used to supply other needs (and there always seem to be some). Each minute spent training teachers to use a new tool without proven results is a minute that could have been spent in other ways.

    That’s not to say that technology is bad; if I felt that, I wouldn’t be enrolled in an educational technology program. It’s just that technology should be added when there is either an effective method that has been demonstrated, or at least a solid theoretical reason as to why it should work (after all, someone has to be first). Using a blog because the instructional goal is to have students socially construct knowledge is good, but using a blog simply because it involves a computer would probably not be as effective because you probably would not integrate the technology in a way to maximize the impact.

    So to answer your question as to whether or not the trade-off is worth it, my answer is that it can be, but that technology should be analyzed for educational impact versus the opportunity cost of implementing it.

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