Is technology the answer to improving education? The technology revolution characterised by the internet, social networks, smart phones, ipads and smart boards promises much when it comes to education. In my own subject, English, with its crucial connection to literacy, which I think most people would concede is a cornerstone of education, there are continuous initiatives and courses about how ‘Blogging can improve literacy’ or how engagement with a class lesson is increased by using a smart board – information readily supplied by the smart board company themselves. With so many teachers interested in new technologies and schools and councils buying into the idea we might expect a literacy explosion soon. However, based on my observations I wonder: are we deluding ourselves that technology has created better learners? Are we focusing on the wrong area in our attempts to gain improvement?
The most complex piece of technology in human civilisation has already been in classrooms for almost 30 years, readily available to all for the last twenty. It hasn’t improved literacy. Literacy indices have not gone up with the introduction of the computer. It might be expected that such a revolution, with its opportunities for word processing and easy access to a thesaurus, would have had a startling impact on literacy; yet nowhere is that seen to be the case. If the greatest tool that mankind hasn’t improved literacy and learning then why will these other tools?
As far as I can see, hopes placed on technology to improve standards in education are naive and without any evidence. In fact the evidence is to the contrary, and it is overwhelming. Twitter does not make people spell better. Billions of tweets, after years of Twitter, show no discernible improvement in quality in terms of literacy. Facebook does not mean that learners are engaging with education. The most ‘informative’ and ‘educational’ pages have a tiny amount of ‘likes’. Smart phones do not make people think better. Information in essays is no more relevant than before despite having essay access to an overwhelming amount of it.
What we’re getting out of technology is very similar to what Marshall McLuhan theorised all those years ago. He argued it didn’t matter, for example, what TV showed; the effect on society would be the same – millions of people sitting in living rooms. This was its impact. In the same way technology might mean that millions of people sit tweeting, texting, reading, blogging, but they are fundamentally, passive. If they weren’t interested in spelling correctly before, they won’t be changed by typing on a smart phone.
The technology of a textbook provides a learner with all they need to do well in a subject. Add in paper and a pencil and you’re sorted. Technology is changing this slowly, not for the better, not for the worse; it’s just change and it is unlikely that learners will be better educated before the technological revolution than after, with regards to literacy and a range of other important skills. (Obviously technology is fundamental to Computing and Graphics and so forth.) The short history of computing technology and its promise of a better world is already littered with failure and false dawns, and it would be better to start treating many claims of technology assisted improvement with scepticism. The micro-chip cannot replace the desire to learn.
‘Technology makes content more attractive to the learner and this helps education,’ argue technophiles. I haven’t found that to be the case. Education doesn’t struggle with content. It never has. It’s always been there whether on the board, in what a teacher says or a text book. Likewise, content delivery is not that important – a tape recorder and an ipod are not radically different. If a student has no interest in World War 1 poetry, having content from youtube or on wikipedia, on a smart phone or on a smart board, makes no difference; disappointing, but true.
Where the improvement in education lies are in the obvious areas – engaging social relationships, engaging topics, providing the opportunity for pupils to learn for themselves, and having someone who sets a high standard (if they struggle to set it themselves) and supports them with that standard. In this case an important, albeit still quite conservative change, would be to reduce class sizes. This, more than any emergent technology, would improve education.