Two Camps on Ed Tech

(This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

I was struck recently by the degree to which we’re having two distinct, contrary conversations about technology and schooling. I was up in Boston last week for a three-day symposium on “Personalized Learning” (hosted by the Software & Information Industry Association, ASCD, and CCSSO) and felt like I was witness to two completely unrelated visions of education technology.

The romanticist camp traces its roots to Rousseau’s Emile and its radical “progressive” vision of the unchained learner. This stance, voiced by so many educational administrators and pedagogues talking of the “tyranny of testing,” celebrates the need to let “imagination blossom” and recoils from the notion that kids need to learn dates, facts, or formulas when these can be Googled on the nearest iPhone.

The productivity camp has more faith in pedestrian notions of essential knowledge and the teacher’s central role. It regards technology as a tool for delivering instruction in new and more powerful ways, for engaging student interest, and enhancing educational productivity and efficiency. Folks in this camp hail sophisticated and finely calibrated assessments, and have talked with gusto about devising powerful algorithms for configuring instruction (such as that which underlies NYC’s School of One initiative).

As any number of funders and high-profile corporations wade deeper and deeper into the ed tech space, we see continuing evidence of the age-old inclination to embrace the cheerful romanticist vision and to hail googly-eyed progressives as the gurus of choice. Now, I’m all in favor of breaking down old systems and allowing students to learn in new ways, at an appropriate pace and in the manner they prefer–but I worry about inattention or hostility to measures which ensure that students are actually learning, or which leave what and how much gets learned to the mercy of adolescent whims.

Neither experience nor research has left me confident that students, left to their own devices, will opt to learn the things that the adult community or that their educators deem important. Progressives view this as evidence that the adults are mistaken. I see it differently. My students, for instance, in high school and college, always shared an uncanny interest in music, sports, television, fashion, and dating. Nothing wrong with this. But I worry that a 14-year-old’s customized learning environment, absent strong adult guidance, may very well consist of cruising the web playing fantasy football and first-person shooter games. And that’s not my notion of a quality education. (For an on-the-ground take on the difficulties of using ed technology smart, check out What’s Next–the book on Philly’s School of the Future that I did earlier this year with Microsoft’s whip-smart Mary Cullinane).

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