Worst practice in providing educational technology, especially to developing world

March 22, 2013 at 1:12 am 11 comments

I followed an insightful chain of blog articles to this one.  I started with Larry Cuban’s excellent piece about “No End to Magical Thinking When It Comes to High-Tech Schooling” which cited the quote below, but first when through a really terrific analysis of the explanations that educational technology researchers sometimes make when hardware in dumped in the developing world fails to have a measurable impact.  I highly recommend the whole sequence for a deeper understanding of what real educational reform looks like and where technology can play a role.

1. Dump hardware in schools, hope for magic to happen

This is, in many cases, the classic example of worst practice in ICT use in education.  Unfortunately, it shows no sign of disappearing soon, and is the precursor in many ways to the other worst practices on this list.   “If we supply it they will learn”: Maybe in some cases this is true, for a very small minority of exceptional students and teachers, but this simplistic approach is often at the root of failure of many educational technology initiatives.

via Worst practice in ICT use in education | A World Bank Blog on ICT use in Education.

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11 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  March 22, 2013 at 8:41 am

    In regards to problems with OLPC, a recent article from Rodrigo Arboleda of OLPC highlights (indicates) that OLPC considers their project to be more than simple technological determinism but rather dependent on comprehensive intervention http://bit.ly/11oEBzR.
    I found it interesting and somewhat at odds with some of the less than positive critiques I’d heard of OLPC.

    Cuban’s article raises interesting questions. Among them, where does the magical thinking occur and how is it propagated? Papert, a significant figure in instructional technology, certainly had visions that extended beyond technological determinism – ‘constructionism’ was a theory of learning and pedagogy – which extended well beyond using technology to improve learning (it is more concerned with individual construction of knowledge through the construction of artifacts). Given Papert’s work and discussions (e.g. soapstone sculptures) – it is highly improbable that he would be among today’s technological determinists (e.g. expensive teacher centered white boards). The point being – who is? and what can we do about it?

    This relates strongly to other discussions that have been on this blog e.g. code.org. I seem to be among a minority of people who was less than overwhelmed by the recent code.org video. Why? My background is in primarily low SES schools and in my experience with students very few (read 1 in a class) knew of Bill Gates. Without going on (too much of) a tangent, the film seemed to reinforce rather than allay stereotype threat. By contrast, projects such as ECS http://www.exploringcs.org/about/team seem to get less attention (‘buzz’) – although the project is staffed by a team of CS educational researchers who are especially qualified to improve meaningful access to and interest in CS. This raises the final question – (how) can we (as a society or as educators) generate greater awareness and support for projects with strong theoretical and empirical foundations (such as ECS)?

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  March 22, 2013 at 8:57 am

      Don, were you at SIGCSE 2013 at Denver? Jane Margolis gave the closing plenary, and she made a similar criticism of code.org. She said that it was a video about people with privileged access. My colleague, Betsy DiSalvo, has made a similar suggestion as you about the efficacy of code.org for reaching low SES students. Will under-represented minorities going to be inspired by a video of white billionaires?

      • 3. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  March 22, 2013 at 9:57 am

        Unfortunately, I did not attend. The video can be picked apart even further. I’m glad to see that such respected figures in the CSE world are trying to generate awareness. I would be interested to know how much success they may have had e.g. was there a lot of contemplative head nodding as Margolis made her points? Another question – where might DiSalvo’s comments be found? [Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a transcript of Margolis’ speech.]

        • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  March 23, 2013 at 10:14 am

          It was a big (1200 person) lunch, I’m not sure how well Jane’s points were taken. She was asked during Q&A what she thought about online education (explicitly, MOOCs and code.org) to support high school CS efforts, and she gave a great response: it’s still early, but all the data we have so far points in the wrong direction. I don’t think a video or transcript was made — SIGCSE doesn’t usually have the funds to do that. Betsy’s comments were just to me. Her paper on face-saving will be out soon, I hope — just finished the second review-and-resubmit cycle.

          • 5. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  March 23, 2013 at 12:23 pm

            I contacted Dr. Margolis and she indicated she was in the process of transcribing her comments and that we might expect them in two weeks.

  • 6. Academic-Zone  |  March 22, 2013 at 9:07 am

    Although I have not had a chance to read the related articles to this post I find what you have stated to be very true. Technology cannot be simply dumped into a classroom and improve a students skills. In my opinion, technology needs to be integrated into the classroom with direct help and support of the educator. Technology works as a great supplemental resource to provide students with access to additional practice, help, information, etc. When used BY educators, technology can perform wonders, students need educators to guide them through because no matter how intuitive technology is, it cannot and will not replace face to face communication.

  • 7. alanone1  |  March 22, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Imagine we are wandering in a wasteland trying to find our way out. We find some evidence that we are going in the wrong direction. Those of us unskilled in thinking, and using the 2 valued logic that is built into human nervous systems, will want to go in the opposite direction, forgetting that there are many “direction-values” and simply choosing two to put in opposition brings up a low chance of success. There will be disputes that will quickly degenerate into debates where both sides are trying to win … etc.

    Discussions of these issues that do not include: what humans are as a species, as a product of culture, historical parallels, etc. should be very suspect.

    1. For example, as a species we failed to discover/invent much of interest for most of our first 200,000 years on the planet. (Writing is about 5000 years ago, modern math a few thousand, science a few hundred.)

    This implies that we cannot rely on humans without knowledge to come up with much in any short period.

    2. We are curious, but the curiosity of most of us is quite satisfied with stories, and reinforced especially by our local culture, much of which is presented in terms of stories.

    This implies that we have to actively learn how to get around story thinking and learn the techniques needed to do deeper thinking, many of which are different that our commonsense methods.

    3. When the printing press happened, it happened rapidly all over Europe even though less than 1% could read, and the combination of it and movements to individualize religion (and to a lesser extent opinion in general) meshed well to give rise to vernacular writings and organizations of various kinds that started to teach reading and writing, and these brought forth many new (and different) kinds of teachers.

    This suggests that technology is more of a driver than many would like to think — in part because of convenience, but also because of the privacy personal media affords. A really important point is that technology also drives changes of context and perspective in many subtle ways that have been pointed out by McLuhan, Ong, Havelock, etc.

    These three points plus many others suggests strongly that most people opining and arguing about these issues are generally wrong at many levels (i.e. it’s not worth contrasting them). They have not bothered to gather enough perspective to think and form opinions even good enough to criticize.

    As Wolfgang Pauli once said to an erstwhile physicist “Your theory is not even wrong!”

    One way to think about this problem is that people find it very difficult to suspend judgement and opinion until they have really learned enough to have “opinions above threshold”. Because of this they are in thrall to “what seems to be”, which is almost always an illusion fostered by their beliefs, desires and particular past.

    When we were inventing these technologies in the 70s we fervently hoped that the world would not have to go through the 150-200 year learning curve that the printing press required. This was one of the reasons we built about 2000 Altos and many Ethernets, etc. to give a practical real picture of what it would be like. Why we tried to get many forms of “educational institutions” to learn about this and start to teach it…..

    However, at the current rate of actual learning about humans and technology, this could take 100 years despite the great amount of knowledge we have compared to 600 years ago. And it could take much longer because of the much greater ability of the computer to simulate other less powerful and more pernicious media (such as television and things like television).

    Best wishes


  • 8. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  March 23, 2013 at 10:10 am


    I rathered enjoyed this succinct description of how hegemonic ‘forces’ (or societal metanarratives, or however one chooses to describe such forces) function:
    “2. We are curious, but the curiosity of most of us is quite satisfied with stories, and reinforced especially by our local culture, much of which is presented in terms of stories.”

    However, I do have concerns about:
    “This implies that we have to actively learn how to get around story thinking and learn the techniques needed to do deeper thinking, many of which are different that our commonsense methods.”

    Can we really escape ‘story thinking’? I’m not actively propagating a post-modernist epistemological stance – however, it may be beneficial to operate from the position that we all engage in ‘story telling’ behaviors – rooted in each individual’s interactional histories. One problem amongst these discussions is often that actors (many CS educators, researchers, policy makers) operate from the assumption that there is one correct, absolute way to view truth (e.g. the ‘truth’ of CS pedagogical best practices, students’ motivators, etc). Perhaps rather than eschewing all ‘story telling’, we might seek to promote ‘story telling’ that cultivates societal metanarratives (and other frames of reference) which, in turn, promote greater positive implicit associations with CS among students and a broadened, more ‘understanding’ view of learner needs among CS educators.

    In doing, we (as a society) will then also strive to promote ‘story telling’ which is more reliant upon statistically significant facts rather than commonsense assumptions. I’m sorry if this seems like semantic quibbling, but the perspectives assumed in such discussions may greatly impact their efficacy. Operating from the assumption of Bayesian rather than Boolean ‘truths’ may help move the dialog further.

    I found your discussion quite interesting – could you elaborate on: “And it could take much longer because of the much greater ability of the computer to simulate other less powerful and more pernicious media (such as television and things like television)”?

    • 9. alanone1  |  March 23, 2013 at 12:24 pm

      Hi Don,

      My discussion was not “postmodern”, but in “modern” terms. So there are no “hegemonic forces” or “social metanarratives” lurking.

      Instead I based much of it on what has been found out by various sciences about what kind of creature is shaped by our genes, and what kinds of creatures we can turn into via being embedded in various kinds of physical, cultural and media environments.

      The question is whether we can override story thinking — and how we assess stories — and use other methods when that is required by the situation. There is nothing like a story in Maxwell’s Equations and they are assessed by careful experiments done by others than Maxwell, and judgements are not made on whether we “like” the four (or two or one, depending on the math you use) lines.

      We have a harder time overriding story thinking when under stress, and this is a real problem. However, some people have learned how to do it, and I think lots more can learn.

      As far as your “CS educators, researchers, policy makers”, etc. are concerned, their way of looking at things is distinctly “pre-modern” and much more in attune with the thinking mechanisms that form our commonsense reasoning and remembering.

      It’s not Bayesian or Boolean (not math) but using science for what it was invented for (to help get around what is wrong with our brain/mind) and to deal with “what’s out there” in a stronger fashion. This is not just about reasoning, but about the relationship between what our 3 lbs of porridge can represent and manipulate and “what’s out there”.

      Anything that is like an environment (surrounding us for our waking hours) presents to our nervous system signals to be accommodated to . Innis, McLuhan, Ong etc saw that this was true of communications media, and McLuhan was especially interested in how we accommodate to “reading and writing via the printing press” and television via electronics.

      Put simply by him “We become what we behold”. In longer terms what’s interesting and most important about these environments (and including media ones) is what we have to become in order to use them, and what we become by using them.

      And just as people in a culture think they are normal (rather than literally artificial as all members of all cultures are), what’s happened is quite invisible to most.

      This is one of the largest double edged swords ever revealed. Can you see why?

      Best wishes,


      • 10. Don Davis (@gnu_don)  |  March 24, 2013 at 9:59 am

        ‘hegemony’ and ‘social metanarratives’ are just ways of describing processes of the propagation of the behaviors of culture. (Though the use of these terms may have tipped at postmodernist slant – the observations were grounded in a radical behaviorist / Skinnerian epistemology.)

        The last two paragraphs resonate rather strongly with me. I’ve done a bit of investigation into video game and media effects as well as the role of perspective / identity on academic trajectories. But more relevantly, I’ve recently finished reading Skinner’s ‘On Behaviorism’, ‘Walden Two’ and ‘Beyond Freedom and Dignity’. (I finished BFD last night.)

        I find that Skinner is quite right and did a very good job of (implicitly and explicitly) predicting some very important trends.

        Your double-edged sword analogy is quite apt. The double-edges can be seen in multiple ways. As far as the edge that cuts the owner – it seems that societal insistence on ‘common sense’ understandings of the world (including the ‘mentalistic’ notions Skinner notes) is drawing a lot of blood. It’s ‘commonsense’ that we are all ‘free’ and that at the end of the day only we determine our actions – i.e. we can immerse everyone and anyone in any given media, culture, interactional history, etc… and expect their actions / behaviors to be independent of such influence. [Consequently, it might be expected that student X has all the same needs as student Y and they should respond identically to the same instruction – any variation therein may simply be attributed to an internally situated (perhaps organic) lack of ‘motivation’.]

        Yes, your point as I see it – media can and does influence people. This may occur to society or the individual’s benefit or detriment. [I’m not sure if this embedded in your statement or not – ] Further, it is increasingly problematic that we (as a society) willfully ignore (or insist against) the fact that such effects can and do occur.

  • 11. Ed-Tech | Is Educational Technology Worth the Hype?  |  March 29, 2013 at 7:37 am

    […] Worst practice in providing educational technology, especially to developing world […]


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