The mistake we keep making with educational technology

February 6, 2023

Educational Technology Professor Mesut Duran says we’ve fallen for the allure of the next big thing over and over again. But there is a way to put educational needs above the market.

A high school teachers, wearning a mask, takes a professional development training via Zoom, with a dozen of her colleagues appearing on the screen.
Credit: Allison Shelley for EDUimages/Alliance for Excellent Education via Flickr/Creative Commons

In the mid-1990s, President Bill Clinton made a persistent pitch to voters, and later, to Congress, for a technology revolution in education. It was marked by headline-grabbing initiatives to “put a computer in every American classroom” — and to link all those computers to the “information superhighway by the year 2000.” It was a push that was also motivated, to a large extent, by market forces. Fundamentally, there was a fear that unless we equipped classrooms with the latest technology, the American economy could, at best, lack a sufficient workforce to power new industries. At worst, it could lose its innovative dominance. But UM-Dearborn Educational Technology Professor Mesut Duran argues that despite this strategy having a certain appeal, it was, in some ways, not all that fleshed out. “At the time, the administration’s own report even acknowledged that research on technology’s impact on education was inadequate, but still recommended that ‘deployment of technology in American schools [not] be deferred depending on the research.’” The message, he says, was buy the latest technology and worry about the details later.

A headshot of Education Professor Mesut Duran
Education Professor Mesut Duran

Duran, whose new book chronicles 30 years of big moments in the history of educational technology, says the Clinton anecdote exemplifies a type of thinking that’s historically defined our approach to technology and education. Rather than take a nuanced look at educational needs and then design technologies around them, we tend to embrace the latest exciting technological trend and then go hunting for classroom applications. To take one of the most recent examples, Duran says the initial COVID shockwave sent schools scrambling for quick technological solutions. With most schools closed to in-person learning, the early adaptation paradigm consisted of learn-from-home education powered by Zoom classrooms and low-priced Chromebooks. The approach seemed to make sense at the time, and certain mistakes can be forgiven considering the unusual circumstances. But students and teachers alike quickly learned the setup was far from ideal. “We know that Chromebooks require high-speed internet connections, so immediately we ran into digital divide issues,” Duran says. “And what about students with special needs, did they have access to assistive technologies? What about home use of the technology outside of school uses and the legal and ethical issues that come with that? And did teachers have training in the strategies for making remote learning effective in K-12 education? This techno-centrism — purchasing the next big gadget, without giving consideration to other important factors — often doesn’t lead to the best results.”

So how can we do better? As the COVID-Chromebook example illustrates, Duran thinks we’d benefit from looking at educational technology as a complex system, with political, social, and economic dimensions that transcend the actual hardware and software. To deploy technologies effectively, we have to make sure we’re accounting for all the ways these tools can alter the learning environment in both the short and long term. Does the purchase of Chromebooks, for example, fit into a schools long-term technology plan? Can the district afford to upgrade them when they’re obsolete in three to four years? Will teachers be receptive to, say, a new learning analytics system, do they have time to learn how to use it, and will it ultimately be that helpful? And fundamentally, is a particular technology a good fit for the challenge we’re hoping to solve? These are questions Duran says schools often fail to resolve when facing an alluring new technology purchase, leading to mixed results and wasted money.

Moreover, Duran argues that we’d be better served by a paradigm in which known educational needs are driving technological innovation, rather than the other way around. As a case study, he points to the success of assistive learning technologies designed to help students with specific disabilities. Hearing aids or text-to-speech scanning pen readers for students with vision impairments aren’t particularly flashy. But Duran argues they’re unquestionably effective precisely because they were designed to meet specific human needs. “I think it’s fair to say that special education has seen the most unqualified success in this realm because they’ve come at it from the right starting point,” Duran says. “It’s the opposite of an approach where you invent something and then let students or teachers try to figure out a use for it.” Indeed, the growing commercial pressure exerted by the educational technology industry is a part of this conversation that Duran says can’t be ignored. Globally, “EdTech” is now a $200 billion industry. Powered by growth in AI and virtual reality, it could touch the $1 trillion mark by 2030, much of it aimed at K-12 schools. Duran says companies have a powerful incentive to keep their latest creations flowing into our education system. But beyond the point of purchase, it typically falls to schools to figure out the complexities of how to get the most out of them.

Heeding Duran’s call to develop a new, healthier relationship to educational technology arguably couldn’t come at a better time. COVID has disrupted long-standing traditions in both K-12 and higher education, and combined with new disruptive technologies, companies are eager to show us a new way of doing things. After two decades in which STEM dominated the educational technology arena, Duran says artificial intelligence is poised to define a new era. In the present and near-future, that’s likely to come in the form of “learning analytics” — systems that can track, measure and analyze our behavior and biology for signs of engagement and learning challenges alike. Duran says whether such technologies make their imprint on education before their well-documented issues with privacy, racial bias, ethics and overall effectiveness are resolved, is still, for the time being, our choice to make. 


Do you want more of Professor Mesut Duran’s analysis of major moments in the history of educational technology? Check out his new book, “Learning Technologies: Research, Trends, and Issues in the U.S. Education System.”