EdTech Promised to Change How Students Learn, But the Real

In my first year of teaching, I was blessed to have a SMART board in my classroom. My excitement was palpable given that this fancy piece of technology was (and is) a luxury for most educators. At least that was the case for a few months before a screw fell from the ceiling and landed in the middle of my classroom. My SMART board’s projector was hanging on by a single screw, much like any hope that this fancy technology would improve my teaching and instruction. At that point, I was reminded of a quote from Thomas Edison in Larry Cuban’s Teachers and Machines:

I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks…The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture… where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency.

Something tells me that a loose projector hanging from the ceiling was not what Thomas Edison imagined when he proclaimed that motion picture would transform our education system.

Last fall, nearly six and a half years after my SMART board was fixed, I started a new job and became a deeper learning coordinator, leading the implementation and creation of an edtech ecosystem for the entire Reynoldsburg school district. My actions no longer just impacted my classroom; I now had to consider how every student and school uses technology to teach and learn.

Throughout the last 100 years, technology has promised to revolutionize how we teach, radically reconstruct the relationship between teacher and student, and fundamentally change how students learn and work together. Many of these promises have yet to be fulfilled when implemented in classrooms where teachers and students do the work of teaching and learning every day. It begs the question, what of our educational innovations have lived up to their big promises and how can we redesign systems to provide equitable educational experiences for all students?

Technology Will Revolutionize the Way We Teach

One of the first computer-assisted instruction experiments occurred in Texarkana, Arkansas in 1969. Students sat at machines to take diagnostic tests, complete lessons and answer basic questions to earn a transistor radio. The company promised to revolutionize how students were taught, except without teachers. The company measured its success based on a curriculum created directly from the test; as it turns out, the company profited off the students’ lesson progression.

While this approach found some success in reducing the dropout rate of students who participated, there were no measurable improvements in achievement. At the time, teachers wondered if students were really learning or just remembering long enough to get the reward.

My district’s purchase of a new blended learning software followed the same formula. My students took a test that created a “personalized learning path,” followed their path, then took the same test again to see if it worked. While the students improved on the platform’s assessment, they did not enjoy this kind of learning. As I looked at my students staring at their computers as they halfheartedly clicked through their lessons, I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what education should be.

Despite our best efforts, we have not created any program that can teach better than a well-trained, supported educator. The basic premise – actionable data for educators and timely, “just right” lessons for students – is admirable, but was this the revolution we were looking for?

Technology Will Radically Reconstruct the Relationship Between Teacher and Student

On Jan. 7, 1929, the Ohio School of the Air was founded at my alma mater, the Ohio State University, and began broadcasting educational programming over the radio. The school felt that teachers in the classroom were not cutting it, and instead of helping teachers provide high-quality educational experiences, they turned to radio. The program promised to recruit the best teachers in the world to provide engaging lessons to students and the school felt technology could do it better.

Although supporting research lacked scientific rigor, most data from the time indicated that radio usage in the classroom was negligible; many teachers felt, as Larry Cuban writes in Teachers and Machines, “indifference and lethargy, even antagonism” towards radio.

As a new teacher, I relied on technology like it was the world’s best teacher — yet, I kept running into disappointment. The SMART board was unreliable and the blended learning platform was lackluster. The broken promises kept adding up and my students deserved better than innovation for innovation’s sake. They deserved opportunities for engagement in deep, real-world learning. Rather than dwell on these broken promises, I began thinking critically about how technology could radically reconstruct my relationships with my students and provide more opportunities for meaningful and engaging experiences in our classroom.

Technology Will Can Change the Way Students Learn and Work Together

To understand how technology can change the way students learn and work together, you only have to go back to March 2020. When the pandemic sent us all home, schools were desperate to provide students with something to fill the apparent void in teaching and learning. Coincidentally, the “edtech” industry experienced an unprecedented renaissance in 2020 that was only outpaced by an even bigger boom in 2021.

Despite the money spent, our students have yet to recover from the learning loss. Coming into my new leadership position, I began to untangle what was happening in classrooms and dove deeper into the promise of edtech and why schools considered it “high-quality.”

After learning that most companies don’t actually research whether their platform works, I realized that the missing piece I was not considering in this puzzle was me. Even on its worst day, hanging from a screw on my classroom ceiling, edtech provides incredibly useful tools, but these are just tools. Edtech cannot revolutionize teaching and learning — only us, the people who show up daily for our kids and communities, can do that.

Teachers Can Change the Way Technology Works for Our Students

We have an unprecedented opportunity to flip the script on technology education. Technology is never going to be the magic solution to our problems. Still, it can help connect to worlds beyond ourselves and stretch the limits of human knowledge.

There is no replacement for great teachers who love their students, but there is room for teachers and technology to co-exist for the sake of students. We can train teachers to utilize technology that helps students read, problem-solve, and explore the world around them. We can ensure that every student can access functional technology that supports student learning. Most of all, we can stop hanging our hopes on the promises of edtech and use it to craft an equitable and accessible future.