Every online conversation about education, every network of professionals has its share of it these days:

The promise of new – of magical improvement due to technology, dressed up as the Redeemer of Broken Education, painted in broad messianic brush strokes.

And in between here and then, a leap of faith.

Facebook is supposed to become a transformative force in education. Twitter will replace traditional teaching. Learning by video will connect synapses effortlessly. Digitizing textbooks will make students more interested in the learning process. And so on and so forth.

The Denial Divide

The only problem, according to technologists is the fact that there are too many schools and too many students who aren’t yet fully connected, geared up to the maximum extent – and therefore the education revolution isn’t here, yet.

But rather than an absence of hard- or software, the real issue is an ever-growing denial regarding real world learning.

And, yes, education start-ups know what they’re doing, in a business sense. They’re building and selling products.

In the end someone has to buy them.

Therefore, the question whether their expensively marketed tools will really help people remains shrouded under the veil of glossy copy-writing.

And, as the NYT reported:

School officials, confronted with a morass of complicated and sometimes conflicting research, often buy products based on personal impressions, marketing hype or faith in technology for its own sake.

The Emperor Has No Clothes

We have two trends here.

  • The education technology evangelists inflate the importance of technology in learning for either a) marketing purposes or b) an almost messianic belief in polished boxes and code regardless of context
  • Faced with budget cuts, distracted students and not enough teachers, educators are desperate for change – so much that they are ready to throw caution to the wind and believe almost anything that “technology consultants” and the marketing people of the next big thing from Silicon Valley tell them.

This exploitation of educational issues and the unwillingness and/or impossibility to cause any serious change without major budget increases is problematic enough.

What’s even more problematic are the effects of these trends on the students, the learners, from kindergarten to university to adult students.

Should education serve the needs of students or should students serve the needs of marketing departments and the blind hope of principals and education policy makers?

Part of the Occupy Wall Street Protest is the issue of rising student debt. It has become harder and harder for students to acquire a higher education without sliding deeply into debt in the U.S.

Selling more iPads to schools and aggressively marketing new apps or software will not change the fact that the education system and its general approach as a whole is not adequately tuned to the requirements of our situation, today.

In the current climate around education, it is easy to fall prey to quick and shiny new solutions, both for educators but also for students and their parents.

Here are three ways which can be used as an indicator when evaluating the next “transformative education technology”:

1. Proof, Evidence And The Lack Thereof

Unfortunately, as described in the NYT article quoted above, many of these new technologies aren’t subjected to effective studies before they are deployed in the classroom.

The start-up culture encourages the bending of truth towards customer benefits, even if there is no real proof that their system or software really delivers what it claims to do.

Some firms misrepresent research by cherry-picking results and promote surveys or limited case studies that lack the scientific rigor required by the clearinghouse and other authorities.

The only real evidence would be studies conducted by independent third-party researchers who are impartial to the outcome of their test. Those are rare, unfortunately – And there are so many start-ups and software companies in the education sector that noone could possibly test all of them.

Therefore, 99% of education technology providers force people to buy the pup in a poke.

Again, their marketing copy will not present it like this. They will have concocted their own studies, complete with their own desired results. But there is still a difference between perceived value of a limited case study and actual objective research. Educators should be aware of this, shouldn’t they?

2. Promising The Moon And Delaying Delivery Indefinitely

The second way to identify whether you’re dealing with just another vaporware is to look at the promises its copy makes.

The more outrageous, the more wildly speculative – the higher the likelihood you’re dealing with people who want to succeed very much but might not be able to deliver even an iota of what they promise. (Often this is because IT people and business majors never once worked with learners directly.)

Next, let’s look at the pricing.

If it’s just a $0.99 app for vocabulary drills, ok. But if educators spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on iPads or software licenses for whole schools, one has to marvel at the willingness of people to see time-tested proof where there is only anecdotal evidence and reckless wishful-thinking.

3. The Best Teacher Is Still A Human Being, Not A Machine

This is the point it always boils down to, in the end.

Here’s an example: Everyday I see new technologies that claim to have revolutionary features such as “real-time feedback” and I wonder how we can advertise technology for the fact that it imitates (very rigidly) human core characteristics.

No machine (at least none currently existing) can replace a human being’s real-time feedback system because computers and software lack two absolutely fundamental capacities for dealing with people: empathy and understanding.

And this is where we can ask the question: Is the start-up, advertising or technology consultant offering you a technology which empowers the teacher’s and student’s human capacities or does the app or hardware force students to comply to its way of handling things.

All too often I see headlines on education technology blogs and Twitter time-lines that count the chickens before they’re hatched and jump to conclusions about what will be the next big thing without even bothering about the fact that people aren’t machines and do have particular non-quantifiable needs!

As a rule of thumb I’d say: If a technology promises to get you in touch with people more effectively and then doesn’t intrude on the conversation with pop-ups or esoteric settings, it’s worthwhile to consider.

If it’s just another brain-dead app or clumsily “interactive” video-format, there’s no need to get over-excited.

It’s just a machine. A piece of software devoid of compassion and care.

And in the end we all have to ask ourselves:

Would we rather do an “interactive” physics quiz with our refrigerator, complete with text-to-speech, learning-progress graphs and crowd-sourced recommendations or – have a conversation with someone like Nikola Tesla?