Things That Edtech Makes Better (and Worse)

Education technology in the twenty first century has made some remarkable progress. The ubiquity of software tools with cloud-based computing, the significant drop in price of powerful computing devices, and the explosion of easily accessible content represent more significant quantum leaps than say the VHS did over 16mm film.

via Grégoire Lannoy on Flickr
via Grégoire Lannoy on Flickr

This new edtech is beginning to change what education looks like. There is more independent learning that happens. Have your kids ever watched a Youtube video to get inspired for an art project? Try searching Rainbow Loom. We all have access to creative tools that can make whatever we do look like the work of skilled artists. Ever mistake a friend’s Instagram post for an advertisement? And we can more easily connect all that we do to the people that matter to us, whether we have met them in person or not.

Some things don’t change, of course. In my work as a teacher, teacher trainer, and now as lead educator for the Hapara team I am constantly reminded that people still need to know where the bathroom is, take a break for lunch, and get a good night’s rest. Edtech, well applied, supports best practices in education. Conversely, edtech mindlessly applied or perhaps applied without sufficient attention to the foundational needs of the learner, can make things worse.


Paramount among the needs of people as learners are relationships. My life’s work has taken place in the K12 context. Here, the relationship of adult to child takes center stage. Good teachers know their students and use all the tools at their disposal to keep them in a zone of proximal development. Education technology now makes it possible for teacher and student to collaboratively decide on a course of study that engages the learner in both independent and social learning.

Because the tools exist to customize the student challenge in, for example, a levelled reading program, students are now much more likely to stay engaged for longer periods of time in independent work. This opens the door for the teacher to commit more time to individual and small group discussion; the constructivist discourse that we have known for centuries and that research continues to re-affirm makes the most significant impact on student outcomes.

When many children can be independently engaged in meaningful, challenging learning, the teacher can have authentic engagement in small, pull-out groups on an ongoing basis. I observed this in schools in the Manaiakalani cluster in Auckland, New Zealand, where students are now progressing at record levels as evidenced by a variety of metrics including standardized exams.

The dark side of using technology to increase the time students spend on independent work is that it is sometimes used to replace authentic engagement. I have seen this too. Practicing basic mathematics skills and drilling vocabulary are essential elements of building understanding. When drilling becomes the dominant activity of the student or worse, when poorly facilitated internet use turns into unstructured web activity, the contract between learner and teacher is broken. An example of this broken contract is the elemental credit recovery programs that many schools use as a way to increase graduation rates.


Few young learners really want to learn about the Bolshevik Revolution because it is a standard on the state curriculum and they might be asked to identify key players and dates. Miraculously, many will do it, but they will not like it. They might be more interested if their teacher first taps into their adolescent rebelliousness and curries an appreciation for the difference between the private and the communal. Even then, no teacher will net all of her charges on this topic.

Education technology, now further buoyed by more open standards, can allow differentiation in both skill and content that gives a skilled teacher the ability to find and target each individual student with challenge and topics suited to their individual abilities and interests. The twenty percent time movement in education is an example of how teachers are slowly making more and more time for students to pursue passion projects while still developing the concrete skills we want them to have. Rich content resources like those aggregated for free at Goorulearning, and at Khan academy, and fee services like Newsela and Learnzillion make it much easier to differentiate content and level so that students can be engaged, while they build skill.

Unstructured time strikes fear into the heart of many educators, yours truly among them. There is good reason for this. The monoculture artificially constructed in schools with thirty same-aged children placed in a room really can turn into a re-enactment of The Lord of the Flies in the absence of a healthy structure facilitated by a skilled teacher. I have seen this happen too.


Having everything in DropBox, OneDrive, or Google Drive can be great. It certainly makes searching for something easier when all you have to do is remember a few words you typed in the document. But, is a messy cloud storage destination better than an organized three ring binder? Probably not.

There are numerous digital tools to help students organize, curate, share, and showcase their work. The challenge is that there are so many digital tools to help students organize, curate, share, and showcase their work! If every time a student pursues a line of inquiry or trajectory of study she does so with a new tool and stores the work in a new place, it is unlikely that some of the benefits edtech promises, including longitudinal analytics, will ever be realized.

It is tough for students to curate their work if they can’t find it or if they forget their password. It is unlikely that progress is visible to a teacher if it is difficult to see the work over time in a single location. There are plenty of options for schools to offer teachers and students a platform for the storage, retrieval, and visibility of digital files, but teachers must have time to select the best tools for their context and then invest the time in training students to use them properly. I know a little about one good example from my current work at Hapara. 😉

Autodidacts and then the Rest of Us

The yeoman learner myth is still alive and well. Why can’t everyone become a millionaire musician like Prince did by simply practicing by themselves in their basement? Can’t anyone become a lawyer come president like Abraham Lincoln did simply by reading law books in his one-room, un-heated, log cabin?

There is a lot of support for flat access to high quality content as facilitated by education technology. Nobody would argue that this is a good thing. But the nations who kick our butt on the PISA support education that is social, interactive, and dependent on highly trained, and highly respected teachers. Edtech that supports access to content, creative tools, and powerful assessment and analytics is only good if it lands in schools that support the fundamental needs of learners. We all need context for our learning, and for young people, that context is built, maintained and improved by well prepared teachers in supportive schools.

About Jack West

Writer, analyst, teacher, coach, maker.

3 Responses

  1. whereiskatima

    This is a good piece. I would love to see you address the issue of ‘quality’ in edtech…..there seems to be some unusually low standards which include problems with science misconceptions, math being learned algorithmically and misleading history ideas.

  2. This is a very insightful piece. Thank you for emphasizing the importance of relationships and the important role schools play while content becomes free and accessible.

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