The issues of tech in education are a mixed and mottled bag. Some folks are driven and excited to get any tech into a classroom no matter what, and other folks automatically rise up in revolt when education technology darkens their door. I fall into neither camp.
Modern ed tech can be hugely helpful and enormously valuable. It can open up a whole world of possibilities. But like most magic, it comes with a price, and sometimes the price is too high and the benefits too small.
When someone wants to drop some tech on us, it's time to ask some questions, and boy, are there many questions to ask. How do we distinguish between tech that can enhance education and tech that needs to be avoided? I think we can cut to the heart of the matter with one question.
Who is being served?
Some software serves students, helping them work better and smarter. A collaboration-enabling software like Google Docs lets students who live far from each other still work together on a project without having the additional hurdle of managing transportation and schedules.
But there is plenty of software that does not serve students at all. For instance, putting a simple test of algebraic functions or elementary grammar on a computer doesn't serve the students a bit. The test isn't any easier to take (in fact, for many students it is harder), and the test doesn't measure anything more accurately. What the software does is make it easier to report the student's results to Other Parties. The software doesn't make it easier for the students to see how they're doing, and it doesn't make it easier for the teachers to see how they're doing-- it makes it easier for Other Parties to see how they're doing.
The computerized Big Standardized Tests do not serve students. They could theoretically help by providing near-instantaneous results-- except that the testocrats insist that the tests must be scored before anyone determines what a passing score will be. But the computerized BS Tests don't make it easier for students or teachers or parents to see how the students are doing-- the tests make it easier for Other Parties to see how students are doing.
As part of the Great Alignment of the Age of Core, many teachers have
found themselves creating lesson plans on a computer platform that
allows them to link standards to plans, lessons, activities, worksheets, tests and anything else that moves and breathes. This does not serve the teacher, and it certainly does not serve the student. It serves people who want to be able to more easily monitor what the teacher is doing.
Competency based education could be a useful approach to education, but as currently packaged and promoted, it is welded to technology, and that technology is not there to serve the students. It does not make it easier for the students to learn; it makes it easier for Other Parties to monitor student learning. It does not make it easier for teachers to teach-- it makes it easier for Other Parties to monitor what is happening in the classroom.
There will always be people agitating for the Next Big Thing-- we should get this tech for students because then students will have this tech! There will be people agitating for magical tech-- if we put this on a computer, then it will magically transform into a Super Effective Teaching Thing. This is tech that is purchased just to meet somebody's need to feel cool, up to date, and keeping up with the Jones Area School District.
Sure, there are other issues. Are Other Parties collecting data that actually tells them how students are doing, or are they collecting junk? Who will these Other Parties be, and what do they want to do with everything that they collect? Is the price of this magic actually worth the magic that will be performed? Those are legitimate questions, huge questions, important questions.
But the question that matters, the question that tells us whether the technology should be welcomed into the classroom or run out of town on a rail-- that question is the one we started with.
Who is being served?
Because if the answer is not "the students," then we don't even need to move on to the other questions. If the promise of the technology is not to serve the needs of the students, then the conversation should be over. And that promise can't be some sort of indirect quid pro quo-- you scratch our backs and we might do something to help out the students.
Yes, some tech will fail to fulfill its promise, and yes, some tech may fall into a bit of a grey area. But when considering a new tech-based computer-driven slice of whiz-bangery, it is still the most important question:
Who is being served?