Does Technology "Solve" Education?

Not really, no. Hasn’t yet. Probably won’t for a long time. It’s not entirely a dreary landscape though. We seem to be learning from our errors.

Disclaimer: This article comes off as accusatory and it probably is. However, the intention behind it is not to accuse anyone, instead, it is written as a reference guide for evaluating EdTech against. I am personally involved in EdTech in various capacities and so I write this more for myself than for anybody else.

Note: This is a long one. I have used lists and added emphasis to text to assist you in skimming. Cheers.

Note this too: I’ll probably update this article over time. If you’ve got suggestions or questions, do get in touch.

Technology is supposedly the great disrupter. What Uber did to taxis, Airbnb to hotels and Amazon to book stores - EdTech (cl)aims to do to schools. But that’s not a fair comparison to make because -

  1. Taxis, hotels and shopping are transactional and quantifiable in nature.
  2. The agency of the transaction is shared equally by the parties involved.
  3. Access to a taxi, a hotel or a book does not threaten social power structures.

Not so much with education. Education isn’t transactional in the sense of exchanging a product or service. Instead it is a spectrum with skewed power relations. And the agency of the exchange is rarely with the user and mostly with the service provider instead. Plus, restriction on education is a classic tool of social oppression. (Ask a minority group near you for details)

Let me rephrase. The users in the case of education are the students and the service provider is the teacher.1 Traditionally, the teacher holds much more influence over the learning experience than the learner. And because you’re dealing with real humans with real human experiences and needs, the spectrum of education is so vast and muddy that there’s no easy way to quantify it for a machine learning model.

It doesn’t have to be this way though. By making slight modifications to the methods of EdTech, we can significantly improve the impact of technology in education.

Let’s take this one thing at a time.

  1. What have been the shortcomings of EdTech so far?
  2. Why have these shortcomings existed?
  3. What does research and experience say?
  4. How do we improve this?
  5. But what about…

What have been the shortcomings of EdTech so far?

  • Most EdTech uses poorly designed user interaction. This is a personal gripe. I mention this in another article as well. When Facebook, TikTok and Candy Crush never have to demonstrate to users how to use their apps, why do 99% of EdTech apps require a 3-day orientation workshop?! Do some user research! Build an app that is intuitive for them! It’s not that hard.
  • Entrance exam ranks and business metrics are false goalposts. Most EdTech solutions falter at two levels - they fixate on really low academic standards (e.g. offering exam prep coaching; teaching “programming” to 5 year olds; looking at literacy as a chopped up ladder rather than a spectrum) and their success metrics are entirely business driven (number of app downloads is somehow more important than gains in learning levels).
  • Failure to create a reason for learning. This is true as much for analog teaching as it is for digital. No one is ever going to be interested in learning anything unless they have a sufficiently convincing reason to do so. Some EdTech tries to gamify learning and they do have some success with it. But…
  • Education is less a problem of scale and more a problem of social will. Case in point: Is education political? F**k Yes. And somehow EdTech seems to skirt past the whole political conversation by toeing the line of convention and being non-confrontational. Paulo Freire would not approve of this behaviour.
  • The bizarre focus on mathematics. Why are all EdTech apps trying to teach you maths? Two reasons come to mind - one, unlike the arts or languages, maths is amenable to being chopped and sliced which is nice for a computer; two, technologists personally understand maths better than social sciences so they have a predisposition towards it.

Why have these shortcomings existed?

Technologists have misunderstood the problem.

  • They see technology as a means to replace rather than support the teacher. This doesn’t work because learners do not necessarily have the motivation, rigour and structure necessary for optimal learning. Learning is still a deeply personal activity that requires a human connection. Artificial intelligence is yet unable to pick up on the behavioural cues of learners and make adjustments the way a human teacher can.
  • Even so, they expect too much from the teacher. Teachers are victims of heuristics just like every other human being. They are set in their ways of doing things, they have their biases, they will not necessarily modify their behaviour or way of working unless given a strongly convincing reason. So when an educational intervention (including but not limited to tech) aimed at supporting teachers expects them to modify their entire teaching style or log a hundred data points per student every week or spend an hour preparing for each lecture… it’s bound to fail.
  • Their solutions have been biased by their personal experiences. Because a technologist or their friends experienced learning in a certain way in their university or school, they tend to believe it to be universally true. It’s not. This is why you need academic rigour and on-ground experience. Simply reading a few research papers or watching a documentary about a learning system is not enough to create an effective learning solution.

In addition…

  • Learning is contextual. What works with public school students in Kenya will not necessarily work with private school students in Kenya let alone any other part of the world. Technologists and education economists have the nasty habit of transporting education interventions between Africa and South Asia. It just does not work that way. The best way to do it is to trans-create, i.e., learn what works and why, then try to recreate it in a different location by accommodating the realities.
  • Disconnect with biological needs. Stop. Teaching. Toddlers. With. Screens. It doesn’t work. It won’t work. Biology is real. Please respect it.
  • Reading on a screen is not the same as on paper. Multiple studies have shown that when you’re reading to actually learn something, reading on paper still commands greater recall and understanding in comparison to reading on a screen. But EdTech by its very nature is limited to a screen. It needs to move beyond displaying paper-like interfaces on a screen towards presenting mix-media content that recreates memory anchors and peripheral cues in a digital landscape.
  • Curriculum is not just the course content. A curriculum is the macroscopic objective of a course of study. The course content is simply a manifestation that achieves the set objective in an effective manner. What we see in EdTech often is a 10-part video course that teaches you how to do X but there is little clarity on the relevance or context of X and how that changes with a change in learner demographic.
  • Education is marred by unequal access. Quality education comes at a price. And so does quality EdTech. Despite the fact that EdTech is touted to make education more accessible and scalable, learners from disadvantaged backgrounds usually either do not have access, or lack the prerequisites, or receive subpar solutions.
  • A boring lecture = a boring video. Videotaping or animating a bad lecture cannot make it interesting and appropriate. That’s just common sense. Yet 99% of educational videos out there are so mind numbing.

What does research and experience say?

Simply, there just isn’t much evidence that technology, as of today, is helping in learning. The general notion that computers and digitisation fix everything has been proven patently false numerous times.

  • Kentaro Toyama, the founding director of Microsoft Research in India, wrote a book rubbishing claims of tech disruption and published this analysis – “Even in an age of amazing technology, social progress depends on human changes that gadgets can’t deliver.
  • Prof. John Hattie’s meta study on various influences and effect sizes on student achievement found that ICT and one-on-one laptop usage has a less than average impact on student learning achievement. In contrast, something as simple as summarising a lecture has twice as much impact than ICT!
  • Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent nearly $700 million in Chicago and found at the end of it that the use of technology had counterproductive results. (Report) (Article)
  • In 2015, OECD released an analysis that found that “even countries which have invested heavily in information and communication technologies (ICT) for education have seen no noticeable improvement in their performances in PISA results for reading, mathematics or science.”
  • In fact, countries that introduced computers in their classrooms saw a fall in PISA rankings.

And to top it all off, this article’s title is enough to give you a hint -

The gist is - use of computers rarely ever contributes meaningfully to learning, and sometimes technology can lead to reduced learning.

How do we improve this?

Here’s how -

  1. Put the learners in-charge. Give them a structure. Let them think, don’t do the thinking for them.
  2. Make it personal. Learning is better when the student can personally connect with the material. And for some students it gets better if there’s scope for collaboration and peer review.
  3. Understand the context. The context of education as a discipline (what is worth learning and how), as a system (what are the realities of schools and teachers) and as an activity (what are the dynamics of the teacher-student relationship and why).
  4. Solve problems that already exist instead of creating new ones. Why focus only on students? Why not focus on teachers, parents, administrators, organisations and state systems? They’ve got problems too and quite a few them could do with the efficiency and scalability of tech. (Please for the love of god don’t develop a panopticon)
  5. Set better targets. Instead of mindlessly offering coaching for university entrance exams or solving homework, offer services that give new experiences, have a space for reflection and widen the horizons.
  6. Be equitable in your bid to be profitable. Why focus on only the English-speaking 1%? They’ve already got the privilege to access high quality learning. Do something for the marginalised, the minority groups, the underrepresented! Uplift their situation and you’ll win people’s hearts by undoing decades of oppression (which in my opinion is better than the CNBC Awaaz IIT Coaching Startup of the Year Award)

But what about…

But the reality is that parents, teachers and perhaps children as well just want to score better in exams and go to top colleges! If we offer them services on logical thinking or social-emotional learning, they wouldn’t want it!

Not sure if that’s true. One, improving general skills such as rational thinking, SEL or communication can and often do lead to improvement on test scores. In fact, in a lot of cases these general skills are what act as bottlenecks to learning “advanced” concepts. If a student feels hurt and lonely in the class, no wonder they don’t do well at integral calculus. Would you rather help improve their mental state or offer an animated explanation of Rolle’s theorem? Two, even if you’re here just to make a quick buck and don’t really care much for morals - isn’t reconciling general skills with exam prep an interesting problem to solve from a business perspective? It’s like Apple removing the headphone jack from the iPhone and being able to arm-twist the entire industry into following suit. Come on ye Steve Jobs worshipers I beseech thee!

The market dictates the services being offered. If there is demand for coaching, there will be supply for coaching!

Yeah, that were true we’d still be using carrier pigeons for communication and horse carriages for transportation. The whole point of innovation is to offer the market an alternative that not only cures their itch but does it in a way that is hitherto unknown or unimaginable. Plus, I personally feel that equating education with smartphone manufacturing is immoral. Take healthcare as an analogy. The market wants morphine because it cures all their itches - do you as a service provider offer people morphine in an attractive new packaging? Unless you’re dead inside, you probably don’t. Then why would you offer an EdTech service that is well-known to be disastrous to mental health, limits growth and traps unsuspecting parents in extortion-esque loans?

Someone’s gotta be doing it right!

Yep. Some people sure are doing EdTech right but nothing is 100% right. There are lessons that can be drawn from each intervention. Without naming any names, in my personal review I have found EdTech solutions that -

  • Get the parts about presentation down really well. Do you know who these are? It’s your YouTubers and social media influencers. They are able to attract and hold attention of huge audiences like no teacher can. And the material they present somehow sticks in your memory far longer than anything you ever learned at university. I’ll write a detailed analysis of this eventually.
  • Gamify the content really well. Those language learning apps seem to have gotten a hang of it.
  • Use mixed-media content. There’s this app that provides book summaries in a visually appealing form. I quite like what they do, I think they’ve got quite a few things right about presenting mixed-media.
  • Attracting the learners. The billion dollar enterprises are able to market themselves quite effectively it seems. Something to learn there.

In conclusion

There is tremendous room for improvement in education technology. And it is all worth the effort both from a commercial and pedagogical perspective. Technology surely is going get increasingly more important in education. This combined with the projects that I am involved in makes improving EdTech an important personal objective.

Shoot me an email if you’d like to discuss this topic - contact at this domain.

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  1. It doesn’t always have to be a student-teacher pair though. It can often be a teacher-trainer pair or teacher-administrator, or even admin-technologist. ↩︎