Oversimplifying Education Technology

Tucked away in a letter from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation last week, along with proud notes about the foundation’s efforts to fight smoking and tropical diseases and its other accomplishments, was a section on education. Its tone was unmistakably chastened.

“We’re facing the fact that it is a real struggle to make systemwide change,” wrote the foundation’s CEO, Sue Desmond-Hellman. And a few lines later: “It is really tough to create more great public schools.”

-LA Times, Gates Foundation failures show philanthropists shouldn’t be setting America’s public school agenda

I worry that the future of education will be determined by wealthy philanthropists who do not understand the realities of classrooms and jump to spend money at flashy ideas without the substance to back them up. The article references above explores in depth the Gates Foundation’s challenges in trying to do so. An article in today’s Economist attempts to take a more balanced perspective, looking at both the potential and the liabilities of education technology. While doing so, it puts a veneer of research-based authenticity on ideas that do not deserve it, and falls victim to the same faulty logic that has proliferated bad ideas in too many schools.

There are some useful ideas:

Backed by billionaire techies such as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, schools around the world are using new software to “personalise” learning. This could help hundreds of millions of children stuck in dismal classes—but only if edtech boosters can resist the temptation to revive harmful ideas about how children learn. To succeed, edtech must be at the service of teaching, not the other way around.

A solid start. But when it gets into specifics, things get rough:

In India, where about half of children leave primary school unable to read a simple text, the curriculum goes over many pupils’ heads. “Adaptive” software such as Mindspark can work out what a child knows and pose questions accordingly. A recent paper found that Indian children using Mindspark after school made some of the largest gains in maths and reading of any education study in poor countries.

I found what seems to be the study they are referencing. Students do make gains, but effect sizes of 0.36 in math and 0.22 in Hindi are smaller than numerous other, more well-understood interventions. At the same time, this program was not compared with any other intervention. Students attending an after-school session up to 80 times in half a year learned more than students who didn’t. That’s unsurprising to me; one would hope all of that time would not be wasted. And the authors of the paper acknowledge one of the challenging realities of edtech: they were able to implement their program with a great deal of fidelity because they were running a small study with great resources. They acknowledge that it’s an open question whether something like their intervention could operate at a large scale. And taking something that seems to work in a small setting and extrapolating it to millions of students is too often a hallmark of edtech philanthropists, eager to seize on thin evidence without reading the fine print.

Another example from the article:

The other way edtech can aid learning is by making schools more productive. In California schools are using software to overhaul the conventional model. Instead of textbooks, pupils have “playlists”, which they use to access online lessons and take tests. The software assesses children’s progress, lightening teachers’ marking load and giving them insight on their pupils. Saved teachers’ time is allocated to other tasks, such as fostering pupils’ social skills or one-on-one tuition. A study in 2015 suggested that children in early adopters of this model score better in tests than their peers at other schools.


This is even more vague about the research referenced, but if the author is referencing the Gates/RAND study, the results have been criticized elsewhere, and in detail. In short, conflating a wide range of pedagogic and technological strategies as personalized learning does little to help us understand what works and what doesn’t. Grouping students based on performance data, discussing data and learning goals with students, and providing spaces for students to work at their own pace are very different strategies, and each can be implemented in lots of different ways. This study groups them together under “personalized learning” and says they “work”, a level of ambiguity that helps no one. Additionally, the schools in question were largely charters, implemented their own interpretation of personalized learning, and received additional grant funding; it’s hard to know the difference between the effects of the various personalized learning interventions and the increased resources that each school had access to.

The original article goes on:

A less consequential falsehood is that technology means children do not need to learn facts or learn from a teacher—instead they can just use Google. Some educationalists go further, arguing that facts get in the way of skills such as creativity and critical thinking. The opposite is true. A memory crammed with knowledge enables these talents. William Shakespeare was drilled in Latin phrases and grammatical rules and yet he penned a few decent plays. In 2015 a vast study of 1,200 education meta-analyses found that, of the 20 most effective ways of boosting learning, nearly all relied on the craft of a teacher.

I can barely keep up with the non-sequiturs. There isn’t even a source cited for the bold claims here, and while plenty of educators would agree that knowledge enables creativity and critical thinking, others would disagree, and most of both groups would tell you that Shakespeare’s education is probably insufficient evidence for best practice in today’s schools. And conflating a knowledge-based education with the influence of teachers is at odds with how edtech often plays out in classrooms; too often technology is dehumanizing, and the “playlists” that students are learning through are associated with shallow knowledge and memorization.


I’m often reluctant to wade into debates on edtech. Emotions can run high, and I’m hesitant to come down on one side or the other; in my experience, the philosophical or technological decisions matter far less than how well they are implemented. Any tool can be used well or poorly, it’s the teachers that determine whether students learn.

At the same time, I am frustrated at popular media fawning over technology, playing fast and loose with research, and making broad assumptions divorced from classroom realities. Edtech is a hard field to understand. It’s broad and complicated, with lots of players and lots of motives. No one is helped by reading shallow takes with a veneer of authenticity. The Economist tries to take multiple perspectives, but only scratches the surface of half a dozen different ideas and pretends that reading the abstracts of a few studies is a substitute for understanding the complexities of education. Instead of trying to survey all of education technology in a thousand words, I would much rather read a well-reported exploration of a single example or a few closely connected examples. Generalizing about big, messy problems in education and oversimplifying the challenges involved gives the impression that there are easy solutions, if only the stubborn teachers and unions would get out of the way and move into the 21st century.

I’ll finish by returning to the LA Times’ article on the Gates Foundation:

Philanthropists are not generally education experts, and even if they hire scholars and experts, public officials shouldn’t be allowing them to set the policy agenda for the nation’s public schools. The Gates experience teaches once again that educational silver bullets are in short supply and that some educational trends live only a little longer than mayflies.

One thought on “Oversimplifying Education Technology

  1. Ole Rapson

    So we’re traveling … which means my copy of the Economist is at home for reference. But I sincerely hope that you sent this in to them … and that I see your name in the ‘letters’ section of the next Economist!


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