Unobtrusive EdTech: Avoiding More CueCats in Education

Karen Cantor writes, “Technology will not replace teachers. There, I said it. And with these words, I am jumping with both feet into a debate that has alternately raged and simmered since computers first began appearing in schools in the 1980s.”

With all due respect to Ms. Cantor, who we admired greatly for her contributions on a recent NYT panel, does anyone actually think technology will replace teachers? (Our robot teacher overlords better be ready for parent-teacher conferences, too!) At the risk of sounding Clintonesque, this vacillating debate seems to revolve around the meaning of “teach”. First, people thought computers could replace teachers because teaching was imagined by edtech enthusiasts to be a binary endeavor, characterized by a lot of text with a bunch of questions with right-or-wrong answers interspersed. Computers, then and now, are great number crunching machines and could hold tons of information. “But wait!” we cried. “Teaching is more dynamic than that!”

Then, to gloss over several decades of debate (remember the CueCat?), we discovered the great MOOC, which leveraged the newly prized power of technology to connect us, along with the bandwidth to share media across those connections. The great lecture can be brought online! Technology and a handful of teachers will replace the rest! But, again, we forgot that teaching and learning involves a great deal more than an engaging monologue. A good class cannot be replicated through a lecture and digital discussion.

Whatever’s next – perhaps wearable computing? – someone will decide teaching is over because Google Glass immediately tells you anything you need to know. And again, they’ll be wrong. Pundits will overestimate technology yet again.

The technology is not to blame, however. The people are. Looking to technology to “replace” any aspect of education is a mistake. Technology is at its best when it is used to enhance teaching and learning. In Ponder’s case, technology helps teachers know what their students are thinking while they read, how much and what they’re reading, and how to start the discussion when class begins the next day. Once in class, teachers use what they’ve learned from students’ use of Ponder along with their understanding of their subject, of their students, and of teaching to form a web that connects otherwise moving targets: a student’s interests, abilities, and prior knowledge, and certain content and skills. This is not a binary process. It is not even quantifiable.

Technology cannot supplant this web, much less form it. But it can fill in gaps, help teachers capture some of those targets, and introduce new connections that are otherwise unattainable. Teachers, you better than anyone can identify these gaps. Entrepreneurs can then try to fill them for you. That’s our job – helping you do what you do best. It is a tool – a really useful and powerful one. At its best, technology seamlessly enhances teaching and learning. At its worst, it interrupts the important activities of a classroom because its proponents overreach. It will never replace teachers. If edtech enthusiasts remember that, perhaps they can moderate their ambitions and, only then, create technology that truly enhances teaching and learning.