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Technology is the Answer to Educational Reform

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Training in Instructional Systems Technology is like obtaining a graduate degree in pragmatism and critical thinking. Those pursuing advanced degrees in the field are taught the practical skills of media design and production, and the theoretical understanding of learning science, all filtered through the lenses of human computer interaction (HCI) and user-centered design. One of the most important lessons that fledgling instructional designers learn, however, is that the most technologically advanced solution to a problem is not necessarily the best or most appropriate one. All potential means of addressing the unique needs of learners should be considered when crafting an intervention.

Educator Justin Tarte, in a June 21, 2012 post on his Life of an Educator blog, wrote that "technology is not the answer and will not solve all of our problems in education." This is a view that aligns with my own, that technology is not always the solution to a problem. However, in this case, I believe that technology should play a significant role in repairing what Tarte refers to as the "damaged foundation" of our education system to help move education into the 21st century.

Technology Should Be the Foundation
Tarte summarizes his take on the situation in education as follows:

"I love technology and I love how it can be used, but let’s focus more on the instructional side of things. Let’s focus more on the teaching side of things. Let’s focus more on the student side of things. If we continue to use our cracked and leaking foundation to support new initiatives and approaches, we are going to be sorely disappointed. Let’s get back to the basics and strengthen our core before adding more weight on our already damaged foundation…" (21 June, 2012).

Unfortunately, the problems with the foundation of the education system are far more significant than Tarte suggests. In the industrial age, the foundation of education has been basic instruction in the most relevant areas needed to transform young people into productive contributors to society. The "basics" have consisted of sound instruction in literacy and numeracy and the socialization of students to make them compliant with the norms of society.  Since the invention of the personal computer, Internet, and most recently, mobile devices, a fundamental shift has occurred in the way that society functions. We now live in a technologically connected information age where the models of knowledge and literacy are changing and our economic, political, and social institutions are adapting accordingly.

The cracks that Tarte notes in the foundation of education are not the cause of a failing educational system, but rather are symptomatic of attempting to make an existing system conform to a new model of how the world works. In the 21st century, advanced communication technologies and computers are the underlying foundation of society and thus need to become part of the foundation of education if the institution is going to adapt to the new world order.

How a Technological Foundation Benefits Students
While Tarte indicates that the fundamental problems with education cannot be solved through technological solutions, a change in the underlying assumptions of what education should be – including a deep, systemic integration of technology as a core component – would provide students with the background skills and knowledge to not only be contributors to the global economy, but to become the innovators and entrepreneurs who drive it. Here are some of the ways in which making technology the core of education would benefit students and society:

  • Incorporating new media as the primary means of student expression and communication provides them with an understanding of the ways in which real world interactions occur and aids in developing technological literacy. Essentially, students become fluent in the language of the information age.
  • Technology enhanced education facilitates a student centered, personalized learning model that allows each individual to pursue their interests and to chart their own course for learning. This reflects the way that people learn in a DIY world, where new technology requires constant adaptation.
  • Technology helps to facilitate authentic experiences that allow students to apply knowledge, share their insights with the world, and participate in global discourse about real issues.
  • Individualized and adaptable education options facilitated by technology would allow education to shift to a 24 hour a day 7 day a week model that would benefit all students by allowing them to learn at times that best suit their lifestyles and goals. This model would also encourage lifelong learning by making inquiry an important part of daily life.
  • In addition to being available any time, technology allows for the possibility that education and learning can be accessible anywhere and in any medium. Students can learn in authentic contexts as easily as they can at home or in the classroom.
  • Technology and student-centered, individualized learning options make it possible for education to become mastery-based rather than dependent on fixed schedules. Each student can strive to meet their own objectives or societally prescribed ones at their own pace rather than at pre-determined times. In this way, failure becomes unlikely as all students are encouraged to reach mastery.
  • A reliance of advanced communication media as a core of education encourages publication and portfolio creation by students and helps to move education toward authentic assessment and away from standardized measures that cannot accurately capture the big picture of learning over students’ lifetimes.
    (Based on Forecasting the Future of Education, 3 July, 2012)

These are some of the ways in which making technology the core of education could benefit students. These innovations are not dependent on whether learning happens online or in a face to face environment. They are relevant and realistic in both contexts and help to demonstrate the ways in which information age education does not need to rely exclusively on either model. But rather emphasizes that, when technology becomes the foundation of learning, a hybrid model is a natural outcome.

Repair it or Blow it Up?
These ideas about technology-enabled learning represent a fundamental shift in what education could and should be in a connected world. Tarte believes that there is still a solid foundation for education that can be repaired and adapted to make the institution viable in the 21st century:

"I believe we have a solid foundation in education. Will our education house crumble and completely collapse, absolutely not. I do however think the cracks and leaks we have in our education foundation will continue to grow, and in no certain time this damage will be irreversible. We will no longer be able to repair the damages, and when you are taking about a foundation that can’t be repaired, you are left with only one option… tear it down and start over" (21 June, 2012).

While there certainly is a well-established foundation for the American education system, there is also a fundamental disconnect between what it should be in the information age and what it currently is.

Blowing up any social system and starting from scratch is not a desirable thing to do and would introduce an entirely new set of problems such as determining who is in charge of it, where funding comes from, and how to evaluate outcomes. But a drastic redesign of our education system is well overdue. The current model is based in the industrial age and operates on a factory model designed to turn out uniform pieces rather than innovative individuals. The real question is whether such an outdated system can be updated to meet the needs of a rapidly changing world.

There may be potential to keep some aspects of the education system intact and make the transition to technology-based learning gradually and mostly painlessly. The first step in doing this will be to move technology to the center of education rather than keeping it as the peripheral piece that it currently is. The time has come to add technology to our curriculum as a core subject. This would represent the first step in patching the foundation of the education system and strengthening its structure so that it could support the rapid growth and change that is characteristic of institutional change in the information age. Strengthening our foundation through technology would stabilize the system and prepare it to move forward. From that point the natural course of technological innovation will take over and lead education in directions we can’t currently even imagine.

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