Ed Tech’s failure? Not so much


I came across this paper by Justin Reich recently, which has the title: “Ed tech’s failure during the pandemic, and what comes after”. In it he argues that many had been promising a lot from ed tech, and then during the pandemic when it had the chance to shine, the experience was pretty miserable for lots of learners. His claim is mainly laid against the ed tech hype merchants (Christensen et al) who have been promising some tech driven revolution in learning for so long, and the Mitra Hole in the Wall, autodidact myth. These are what I referred to as ‘rapture’ solutions – emphasising the need for wholesale apocalypse and change rather than incremental solution.

In the pandemic these evangelists got a version of the apocalypse they have long talked of, but the payoff was not there. Reich emphasises that the problem with technology solutions is that they require a long time to develop skills to use effectively. he sums this up neatly as “every technology solution is also a human capital problem: New education technology tools are only as powerful as the communities that support their use.”

The title of Reich’s paper caused some initial hackles to raise, but the paper does a good job of setting out a more incremental, tinkering approach: “It may not be ideal to teach via email and Zoom meetings, but it’s better than calling students on the phone and mailing them packets of materials. And for all of the ways that math tutoring apps fall short of providing a comprehensive mathematics education, they can make positive contributions to student learning, both during the pandemic and after”. I’d agree with all his conclusions, so the paper is worth a read.

Beyond the paper, I’d phrase it more as a reality check for the Prensky/Mitra/Kahn simplistic view of technology revolution. But it also gives us a chance to frame what ed tech got right. It scaled up massively, almost overnight, with over 80% of the world’s population suddenly learning online. Complaining that this experience wasn’t always great is a bit akin to moaning about the customer service in the NHS at the time. The scaling up of response was the achievement, and that demonstrated the robustness of many of the underlying (rather boring) technologies and also the flexibility and commitment of educators. The failure was in the robustness of face to face education, and yet that is the model that must be adhered to in the view of many.


  • John Schinker

    Technology makes it much easier to adopt a pedagogy that’s not centered around dissemination of information to learners. It reduces the friction for learning that is participatory, relevant, and engaging. It makes analysis and application of learning concepts much more practical.

    But if that’s not what you want to do, it’s a disaster. If “learning” is all about “remembering stuff,” then technology makes teaching much more difficult.

    The problem during the pandemic was that we had great tools with the capacity to redefine learning in very positive ways. We had the technology and the expertise, along with that great motivator: lack of choice. But what we WANTED was the familiar. We wanted school to be just like it was in 2019. It’s not so good at that.

  • Leo Havemann

    Interesting, I will read the paper. I think the statement “every technology solution is also a human capital problem: New education technology tools are only as powerful as the communities that support their use” is part of the picture – but I wonder if this tends to imply that the tech itself is always benevolent in intent, and neutral or beneficial in effect as long as it is used properly…

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