Why Have Instructional Technologies Been an Add-on to Classrooms?

My primary care doctor is an early adopter of technology. He is a believer that new hand-held computers can replace the stethoscope, record EKGs, and other functions. These are labor-saving devices that make him more efficient, he told me. They give him more time to spend with the patient (although the HMO I belong to mandates 20-minute appointments with longer visits allowed when special requests are made).

One of the few physicians in the HMO who volunteered to use Google Glass when it was being sold, my doctor asked me if it is OK for our conversation to be recorded as we talked. He does not use the video function of Google Glass when meeting with patients. When I asked him why he is using Google Glass, he said that with a scribe located elsewhere in the building taking down what we talk about and producing a transcript later, while I am with him, he does not have to constantly switch back-and-forth looking at the computer screen and then me. We converse about my health, answer questions, and discuss issues bothering me.

These visits with my doctor got me thinking about how teachers and physicians have encountered new technologies as they practice the art and science of teaching and ministering to both the healthy and ill. From what I encountered in schools over the past three decades when computers have been used by teachers for instruction and doctors for diagnosing and treating illnesses, I began to wonder why doctors so easily integrated new devices–either as early adopters or even “laggards”–into their daily encounters with patients while it has been a long slog with getting computers integrated seamlessly into daily lessons.

Why  has “technology” in education been considered separate, an add-on, when that has not been the case when technological tools have been applied to business, medicine, architecture, engineering and other professional work. For some reasons in these other workplaces, high-tech tools are part-and-parcel of the daily work that professionals do in getting the job done well and efficiently. As the conversation between my doctor and me over Google Glass illustrated, hand-held devices that do EKGs and monitor heartbeats, machines that do CAT-scans–help physicians figure out what’s wrong with a patient. Not, however, in schools and higher education. There, use of efficiency-driven tools is both the subject and predicate. The instructional problem to be solved is secondary. Why, then, unlike other professional work, has educational technology monopolized discussions about improving schools, changing teaching, and preparing students for the labor market?

There are, of course, some easy answers to my question. Initially, for teachers access to desktop and, later, laptops and now Chromebooks and iPads was an issue. Too few shiny new devices were available. School boards and superintendents had to find scarce dollars to buy hardware and software, establish wireless networks, provide on-site and district assistance, and set aside even more funds to build teachers’ capacities to use new technologies. Limited access helps to explains the slow-motion use of new devices in classrooms. In the past half-decade, however, allowing for some exceptions, access is no longer an issue in the nation’s classrooms. One-to-one laptops and Chromebooks and iPads on classroom carts, BYOD programs, and giving students a device to take home have largely replaced computer labs and media center machines.

The issue now is teacher use or the seamless integration of devices into daily lessons much as doctors have done to varying degrees when they work with patients. Instances of integration, that is, using hardware and software as part-and-parcel of the lesson and not as an add-on tacked onto activities during the school day. Examples of smooth and continuous integration cross grade levels and subjects occur in classrooms, schools, and districts. But as yet such easy use of the new technologies as essential tools like paper and pen are not as widespread as advocates want. Why not?

Any answer to the question has to take into consideration the differences between the practice of teaching and the practice of medicine. Teaching is a group process, one adult working with 15-30 students at a time while the latter is commonly one-to-one. Moreover, the age-graded school gives teachers located in self-contained classrooms a degree of autonomy; yet the structure also isolates them from colleagues. It is hard for teachers to collaborate within the school, much less the district level, and to become part of a culture where constant improvement is the norm, not the exception.

While doctors do practice in organizations driven by efficiency criteria, they retain a great deal of autonomy. After the physician knocks and enters the exam room to see you, it is just you and the doctor. Access to research literature, collegial advice, and direction from the HMO often, but not always, create a culture that embraces change and continuous improvement.

Those differences in organizational structures and culture between medicine and schooling become the initial framework for any in-depth and nuanced answer to question:  why have new technologies have been seen as add-ons in schools and classrooms? A second related question comes quickly on the heels of this one: If technology has been an add-on to schooling, how does integration into classrooms, schools, and districts occur at all? That is what I will try to answer in my next project (see here).




Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

18 responses to “Why Have Instructional Technologies Been an Add-on to Classrooms?

  1. JoeN

    I think it is easy, for outsiders particularly, to underestimate the considerable challenges that teaching as a “group process” entails. I also think that the teacher is in a different position from any medical practitioner in another crucial respect.

    Whereas the doctor applies a body of current research knowledge to each encounter with a patient, a teacher is constantly required to make decisions and choices based on who they have in front of them, the knowledge they are seeking to convey, the time and the resources available. Good school teaching is a live event.

    Teaching doesn’t have to be. Indeed in the military and in lots of professional contexts, instruction can be given in all kinds of ways, including wholly through technology. But we expect more from our schools because they are dealing with children.

    You only have to reflect on how many people, how much money, rehearsal time and repetition are devoted to the technology needed to run any commercial live event, to appreciate why technology hasn’t made much of an impact in good schools and classrooms.

  2. lenandlar

    Could it be also that no one has thought about replacing doctors with tools like many think about computers replacing teachers.

  3. Larry

    If I’m clear on your article, that doctor/patient structure lends itself to technology for the good of both to a point, whereas the teacher/student relationship is not so regimented the technology can as easily replace the teachers. Doctor can become efficient with the technology automating “some” of the things they do. But there is a line. The same with teachers. Doctors can use technology as you illustrated…recording the office visit. Technology can also go further as we’ve seen with various scanning and diagnostics, but subjective work is the line. A scanner can record a mass, but a scanner should never be allowed to diagnose the scan. That is the sole responsibility of the doctor. The teacher has functions technology can automate for efficiency such as records keeping, course material displayed electronically for all to see and so on, but the student is the teachers “patient” and the direct involvement with the student cannot be relegated to technology. Additionally, the output of both occupations are subjective; computers cannot deal with subjectivity. They are only ‘1s’ and ‘0s’; no abstract analysis such as a doctor or teach can perform. To point a fine point on it; technology can support both as described above. But when administration sees an opportunity to exploit the technology for profit such as with MOOCs and other online predatory approaches, the line has been crossed between education and predatory business.

    • larrycuban

      Apart from the clear difference between 1:1 in clinical medicine and 1:25 in teaching, the distinctions you draw about making judgments, I agree with. There is movement, however, by unskeptical advocates that algorithms can be written that would, indeed, make medical and educational judgments.

  4. Alice in PA

    Based on this example, I am not sure if I buy that tech is more of an add-on in education than in medical or even other fields.
    I see a lot of efficiency/administrative uses of technology in medicine, as you have shown. The doctor was recording a conversation for someone else to transcribe for a record. The data from a check up is recorded electronically…no more paper in many cases. The PDR is available electronically. I can go to my insurance or doctor’s website for information and for scheduling.
    However, the fundamental work of being a doctor also involves talking with the patient to both gather and dispense information. This is not being radically changed with technology. Doctors do not have their doctor-patient communications electronically. Patients do not fill in bubble multiple choice questions about their symptoms. They talk in person. There is room in the patient file for “free response” notes. Patients are given tests/formative assessments that then provide data for treatment. But that is not automated, as Larry pointed out above with cancer screenings. As far as I know, there is no technology used that takes the results of my blood tests and automatically prescribes a medicine.
    Many schools (most?) also use technology for administrative purposes like grades and communication. I record my grades electronically. We also have websites. Teachers have electronic resources to use. This is not really an add-on anymore than record keeping in businesses.
    So what exactly are “we” looking for technology to do in schools that is not being implemented in other professions?

    • Isn’t the main role of technology in medicine to help cure or diagnose? Sure, there are efficiencies, but at the end of the day, what matters to the patient is getting the correct diagnosis and treatment, right? I don’t care so much that someone else is transcribing the conversation, unless of course my physician needs that to make an accurate diagnosis.

      I don’t think the role of technology in schools is that straightforward. We could say that we want to use technology to help teachers teach, which in my experience, is 90% of the motivation behind the purchase and implementation of tech in schools. I would argue, however, that the fundamental role of technology is not about teaching as much as it is shifting agency over learning to the learner, much like the role technology and Web access plays outside of school. That, however, requires a fundamental rethink of the whole schooling structure and process. And so, we don’t allow technology into schools in it’s most transformative ways. Thus, it becomes an add-on.

      If we ever want it to be more than that, we’ve got a lot of other conversations to have first about what an education is and what the roles of teachers, classrooms, and schools are in a networked era where learning is driven by passion everywhere but within the school walls.

      • larrycuban

        In your first paragraph, Will, you ignore how important the relationship is between doctor and patient in making that diagnosis and figuring out the best treatment. You make the exchange between doctor-patient a purely technical one. I do not see it that way nor do those doctors who write about their patients and practice–see Jerome Groopman and Atul Gawande,for example. Ditto for teachers and students and learning.

    • larrycuban

      You ask fine questions, Alice. Thanks for comment.

  5. Chris g

    I’ve found that seamless tech integration is often fuddled by assessment issues (compounded by the group nature of teaching you mention). It’s very hard for teachers to switch assessment/instructional modalities in non one-on-one scenarios.

    Assessment questions are much closer ties to moral value & ethics than most any other aspect of teaching.

  6. David

    I might add here that if you look at most technologies utilized in medicine, most are specific to the medical field–that is, they were designed with a medical fucntion in mind and accomplish specific medical tasks. The ed tech devices being pushed into schools were NOT designed for an educational purpose–they were built with consumption (be it information, entertainment or products) in mind.

  7. GE2L2R

    I would submit that there might be another factor affecting the adoption of technology and its integration in education – whether the innovation improves the actual educational process and is therefore selected and used by the individual teacher or whether it is the result of a top-down decision-making process in which the technology is imposed on the classroom teacher because it is either trendy and faddish or even useful for its bragging potential.

    There is software designed to help teachers determine student grades and maintain student records that is well designed. These programs may be adopted by individual teachers for their ease of use, effectiveness and timesaving qualities. However, many districts adopt software packages to integrate multiple aspects of record keeping – grading, attendance, student records over time as well records associated with individual student accommodations that, while they do what they were designed to do, it is too often at the expense of utility for the classroom teacher. This use of technology, out of necessity, is a top-down decision but the “clunkiness “ of some of this software renders it both difficult to use and may not meet the needs of the classroom teacher who, while they have to use it, may not embrace it.

    Classroom teachers, when given the autonomy, resources and opportunities to decide what technology satisfies their needs to improve the quality of instruction have adopted many technological innovations.

    In my career as a chemistry teacher, I had the good fortune to integrate a number of these innovations. The development of the hand-held calculator and more importantly, the scientific and graphing calculators greatly simplified many of the calculations that were formerly accomplished with a slide rule. None of my colleagues advocated a return to those days – the benefits of these devices were so obvious that we didn’t need anyone directing us to use adopt them. The advantages that the development of electronic digital balances, thermometers and nearly all laboratory instruments were so obvious that they too were enthusiastically integrated into programs.

    The top-down, decision-making process treats teaching as a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It is not surprising that over time, useful technologies are retained and valued whereas those that are imposed may be viewed as burdensome and if they are unhelpful, either ignored or otherwise forgotten.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s