Musings about Technology in Work and Life

The history of technology has shown again and again that its primary purpose has been (and is) increasing productivity, that is, doing more with less (see here, here, and here). In doing so, technology has also increased choice and creativity in both work and life.

Examples of applying technology to work to increase productivity range from the invention of the stocking frame in mid-18th century England (thus, prompting the outburst from weaver Ned Ludd and his supporters) to the agricultural harvester in the late-19th century U.S. to the latest MRI that diagnoses patient ills . In each instance, increases in textile productivity, farm output, and diagnostic accuracy meant more efficiency in labor and, ultimately, more profits for those who owned the technology and used it. Also choices increased (see here, here, and here). The Internet (and especially social media) has broadened access to information, altered how people shop, and broadened relationships and, in doing so, has expanded personal choice for anyone with a connection to the web.

Nonetheless, even expanded personal choice is secondary to the main thrust of embracing new technologies: do more and better work with fewer resources. As one CEO looking at the higher education market recently said:

The value of education technology should be measured by the extent to which it enhances the productivity of people and organizations in the field—students, professors, and administrators who can accomplish more (better, faster, and cheaper).

Ultimately, as we strive to replenish and improve the overall supply of human capital more effectively, we must ask: Are we increasing the number of people who are equipped to lead productive, rewarding lives?

True in business and, for sure, true for K-12 public schools.

Because public schools depend on voters agreeing to pay taxes to operate, efficiency has been one of its driving forces. Seeking organizational, curricular, and instructional efficiencies has been a compelling motive driving school boards and their superintendents since the mid-19th century. That is where districts now adopting new technologies and adapting business software and applications to classroom activities enter the picture.

Read what former U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan said in 2010:

Technology can play a huge role in increasing educational productivity, but not just as an
add-on or for a high-tech reproduction of current practice. Again, we need to change the
underlying processes to leverage the capabilities of technology. The military calls it a force
multiplier. Better use of online learning, virtual schools, and other smart uses of technology is
not so much about replacing educational roles as it is about giving each person the tools they
need to be more successful—reducing wasted time, energy, and money.
Note the recognition by the former U.S. Secretary of Education that technology in schools is an “add-on.” But as Duncan points out increasing teacher and student productivity–doing more work in less time and for less money–is apparent. Just as apparent is the dream of increased productivity in the hullabaloo over “personalized” learning.

“Personalized learning”, of course, is another milestone in the long road U.S. practitioners have been on to individualize instruction since the mid-19th century. Progressives in the early 20th century and during the 1960s chased after programs promising new and better ways to individualize instruction and, at the same time, increase student productivity and creativity.

The pumped up language accompanying “personalized learning” resonates like the slap of high-fives between earlier Progressive educators and current reformers. Rhetoric aside, however, issues of efficiency, research and accountability continue to bedevil those clanging the cymbals for more customized learning. Research supporting “personalized” learning” is, at best thin. Then again, few innovators, past or present, seldom invoked research support for their initiatives. As with the earliest software–old-timers will remember “programmed learning” in the 1950s–efficiency is one of the driving forces propelling “personalized learning.” The language touting such software is clothed in words about fostering student creativity and imagination, seldom garbed in the blunt language of increased productivity. But it is there now as it has always been in the introduction of low- and high-tech devices to classrooms.

Productivity in the workplace is clearly important be it in an office or classroom. For decades increased productivity was a factor in raising wages and rising standards of living. I have no animus toward increased efficiencies in teaching or learning. In each of our lives, we seek productive short-cuts to get through the day–think multi-tasking and FitBit.  The point is that technology has surely given us expanded choice, even creativity, in our daily lives but when it comes to a helping profession such as teaching where interactions between students and teachers are crucial to sustained learning, it is well to note that many of the software applications used in school then and now were add-ons that came from the business sector originally designed to get more work from less money spent.





Filed under technology

15 responses to “Musings about Technology in Work and Life

  1. If you want personalized, individualized learning, Montessori is the best way. It may not be faster or cheaper (technology is also not cheaper), but it gives the best results if what you want is choice and creativity and “increasing the number of people who are equipped to lead productive, rewarding lives.”

  2. Hi Larry — I love your blog!

    My definition of technology-enhanced personalized learning might be different from yours. I envision a technology system that can test the knowledge of what a student knows and provide input for new learning at a speed that is optimal for each student and review learning just before a student forgets it. Technology would provide the tools to test students exiting knowledge, rate of learning, and rate of forgetting. Then technology would provide teachers with tools to group students and provide the best platform with up-to-date verified and vetted content (by teachers) for learning to those groups of students. Teachers would have more time to focus on the relationship aspects necessary for learning including social-emotional check-ins with guidance, coaching, motivation, and problem solving.

  3. Laura H. Chapman

    I thought you might be interested in this announcement. The president thinks all students should have a chance to study computer science, with coding the centerpiece of the science. I have not looked at the details of this proposal but treating this as some sort of requirement for all students is certain to put a squeeze on curriculum time in addition to increasing the amount of time that students are facing a screen and the potentials for profit from software and hardware. The comments from experienced programmers are among the most interesting.

  4. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    Some important points being made in these “musings” + relevant sources throughout the text!

  5. Larry

    I had been considering a blog on topics related to education, or the abuse of education, when I came across your blog. There are interesting articles and comments, so for the time being I’ll just read yours.

  6. sydneymitchell17

    I really enjoyed this blog post! I think that implementing technology as a tool in education can be beneficial if it is done in the right way. There are many challenges that come with using technology within schools. The key is to be sure that the technology isn’t a distraction to students, but an enhancement to their education.

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