Technology That Can Be Used For Education Is Not the Same As Educational Technology

Matt Richtel has a nice story in the New York Times about the vast quantity of time kids, and low-income kids in particular, are wasting on electronic devices. The article also hints at why it’s so unproductive to conflate technology that could serve educational purposes with actual transformative educational technology.

“Despite the educational potential of computers, the reality is that their use for education or meaningful content creation is minuscule compared to their use for pure entertainment,” said Vicky Rideout, author of the decade-long Kaiser study. “Instead of closing the achievement gap, they’re widening the time-wasting gap.”

It’s a mistake to expect something like an iPad to magically make somebody a good student. While an iPad is a tool that can be used for educational purposes, it was not created for education. Even if it allows you to connect to the internet or use a specific educational program, it won’t have a transformative effect unless it restructures the way something is learned or induces an significant increase in motivation and learning time.

There is no reason to expect a laptop, X-Box, or iPad to do that. If a new iPad comes out that’s twice as good, for every “unit” of additional technological advancement leisure activities are most likely going to get better at a faster rate than learning activities. The outcome is somewhat counterintuitive — even though learning with and iPad will be more entertaining and engaging than before, the opportunity cost is higher because when compared to an iPad video game, learning is now less engaging than before. That’s why the “time-wasting” Rideout talks about continues to grow.

You might be thinking “So what?” Who cares if iPads and other gadgets aren’t a panacea for struggling students?” The problem is that haphazardly throwing around the phrase “educational technology” distracts and pulls resources away from the technologies that are actually panacea-ish. School districts across the country are attempting to signal their quality by sinking money into highly visible, low-impact tools like iPads, and the result is a lack of focus on improving and implementing big-idea technologies like those being used by Rocketship schools or School of One. It’s counter-productive that watching a science video on an iPad gets the same label as doing a math exercise on a computer program that feeds you specialized problems after quickly figuring out that you have difficulty multiplying polynomials when the last term contains a negative coefficient. The former makes an evening more enjoyable. The latter can change an education system.