Technology Can Make a Better World: But Not Technology Alone

August 19, 2015 at 8:44 am 7 comments

NYTimes recently had a series of op-ed articles about the role of technology in our world, specifically, “Is Silicon Valley Saving the World, or Just Making Money?” The piece by Melinda Gates (quoted below) caught my attention because she’s invoking the desire to meet students’ “different learning styles” (see blog post on this theme, and why it leads to worse learning).

There’s an important issue here (beyond me critiquing Melinda Gates, who does important work that I admire). It’s not all technology. We need other disciplines as well. Educational psychologists should be informing these developers at Facebook to tell them, “Stop. That’s a bad idea.”

I was at a workshop last year at Stanford about how to grow more CS Education Research in the United States. Andrew Ng spoke to us about the research going on at Coursera. He was clearly not previously informed about the focus of the workshop. When asked, “Would you want to hire more PhD’s in CS Education?” he answered (my paraphrase), “Sure, but we just hire CS PhD’s, and they’re smart enough to pick up anything on-the-fly.” No, that’s wrong. CS is not a superset of all other disciplines.  That belief is exactly the problem I see in the below quoted piece. Scholars in other areas do know things that CS PhD’s don’t, and they bring something unique to the table. Believing that it’s all technology is exactly why Silicon Valley gets accused of being more interested in money than having actual positive impact.

One of the biggest problems in American education is that teachers have to teach 30 students with different learning styles at the same time. Developers at Facebook, however, have built an online system that gives teachers the information and tools they need to design individualized lessons. The result is that teachers can spend their time doing what they’re best at: inspiring kids.

via Technology Can Make a Better World, If We Want It To –

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ICER 2015 Report: Blocks win–Programming Language Design == UI Design Interesting Pushback Against Incentivizing Active Learning in CS Classes

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. diana franklin  |  August 19, 2015 at 9:15 am

    What is your take on differentiation, then? Maybe learning styles have been oversold. But students have different levels of skills in related areas, experiences, interests. Even with uni ersal design, classroom teachers need to account for different learning paces and disabilities of different types. I agree education experts need to be there to design – cs experts have no special knowledge about teaching and learning. But cannot technology help with some of this?

    • 2. Mark Guzdial  |  August 19, 2015 at 9:32 am

      Differentiation, adaption, determining student understanding and fitting to a zone of proximal development — all of that makes sense. It’s “style” that doesn’t exist, as far as we can tell. Teaching to a particular style (e.g., “You’re an auditory learner, so I’m going to talk you through all your subjects and you’ll end up getting diminished visual stimuli”) likely results in less learning. Willingham suggests no differentiation at all (see link here), but I don’t know of evidence saying that he’s right.

  • 3. Raul Miller  |  August 19, 2015 at 9:23 am

    I think that “Stop. That’s a bad idea.” is insufficient to be convincing.

    I think you need to include some specific suggestions as to how to make things better (perhaps: “include good people with relevant practical experience in teaching as well as good people with relevant practical experience in the domains being taught”).

    But I imagine that this would be even more convincing if it was accompanied by illustrative case studies.

    • 4. Mark Guzdial  |  August 19, 2015 at 9:35 am

      If Facebook were to hire educational psychologists, the psychologists should absolutely should make specific suggestions and offer illustrative case studies. The point of my post is not to offer Facebook advice — they can hire me if they want that. The point of my post is that technologists alone aren’t going to solve educational problems.

      • 5. Raul Miller  |  August 19, 2015 at 9:40 am

        Well, sure – they can easily wind up making things worse, at least in the short term. I’ve seen plenty of that from other people in a variety of fields. But then when put into practice that would become apparent and they could try something else – eventually either wiping out or becoming a tolerable drain or perhaps eventually achieving something useful.

        And I wasn’t suggesting that you go into any great detail – just that the quip by itself wasn’t convincing.

  • 6. kirkpams  |  August 19, 2015 at 11:45 am

    “CS is not a superset of all other disciplines.” I would add a corollary: “Education is not a subset of all other disciplines.” Back-to-school time is always interesting, because I see so many Facebook posts and memes about how to “fix” education, all proposed by people who have never taught.

  • 7. gflint  |  August 19, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    Many kids do not want to be inspired, they just want to survive. On the teaching side has technology really changed things? I look at the Math courses I teach. If I were to lose all the tech I use to teach Math would that much really change or would I have much of a problem switching back to 1985 methods? Not really.


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