Why has technology not yet disrupted primary & secondary education?
By: Curtis Linton
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Why has technology not yet disrupted primary & secondary education?

Submitted for Oxford Map the system 26 March 2018


Despite the proliferation of computers and tech-based teaching tools in primary and secondary schools, education systems have not experienced the expected productivity gains in student progress and quality of learning that should be expected from disruptive new technologies. Early innovations in adaptive assessments and gamification showed promise, but investments in educational technology (ed tech) have not paid off as they have primarily focused on compliance and directed learning management tools that have not serviced the need for more personalized and robust educational solutions. Contrasting the impact of traditional directive ed tech on teacher and student engagement with promising examples of constructive learning environments illustrates how all students can develop the 21st Century skills they need. This analysis substantiates new design principles for constructive ed tech that can govern the development of disruptive educational technologies that globally scale student engagement and application.

Directive ed tech: A failing investment

Ed tech’s early promise was automation and consistent student achievement. While automation of management needs in terms of Student Information (SIS) and Learning Management (LMS) Systems have fulfilled much of their intended promise, the impact of ed tech on student learning has been less so because of its focus on digitizing rote learning and assessment. Students face a rapidly changing world that demands the application of 21st Century skills like problem-solving, collaboration, and analysis (NCREL, 2003) rather than the more traditional memorization of facts and figures.

When students use rote learning tools, such as phonics and math practice software (Hattie, 2009), they disengage and become passive participants in their academic progress simply because they are bored. This is the challenge of directive ed tech: it simply digitizes traditional learning rather than embracing the student’s highly connected and dynamic world (Broadband Commission, 2017). Despite the proliferation of technology in the classroom (Cauthen, 2017), investment by school systems in ed tech has mostly failed (figure 1):

Figure 1: Trends in mathematics performance and number of computers in schools (OECD, 2015)

The investment in ed tech has typically focused on directive tools explicitly designed for teachers and administrators to increase management efficiencies, control the learning environment, comply with regulatory needs, and remediate basic skills (Lettvin, 2016) with only a secondary focus on authentic student engagement. This is problematic because traditional education has never served all students well (Darling-Hammond, 2010), thus simply automating inefficient traditional education only perpetuates learning inequities. As described by Bill Gates, “Automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency” (As quoted in OECD, 2015).

Inherently limiting learning productivity, Directive Ed Tech:

  1. Treats either the teacher or student as a passive participant
  2. Digitizes traditional learning by moving rote learning from paper to a digital device
  3. Focuses on standardized assessment rather than personalized engagement
  4. Locks down and limits collaboration and feedback loops
  5. Expects the consumption of knowledge rather than its construction
  6. Perpetuates legacy systems due to systematization and lack of on-going investment

With these technologies (Lettvin, 2016), teachers are held more accountable for fidelity to the system’s educational approach then they are for student engagement (Johnson, et al., 2014). Research from the OECD concluded, “Technology can amplify great teaching, but great technology cannot replace poor teaching” (OECD, 2015). Likewise, students are explicitly trained that learning is whatever the teacher assigns, whether on paper or a digital device. Thus, step-by-step both the teacher and student lose their sense of self-efficacy, regulation, ownership, and direction in their own learning (UNESCO, 2017). This is the shallow promise of traditional ed tech: higher test scores in exchange for teacher autonomy and authentic student learning.

Two lenses illustrate the impact of directive ed tech (see figure 2): the motivations of the system (policy makers, administrators, and vendors) versus the impact on the end users (teachers, students, and support staff). Far too often, the vendor’s product is better aligned with the needs of the purchasing administrator than it is with the day-to-day use of the teacher and student.

Figure 2. Directive Ed Tech: Impact on People vs Product

This passive nature of engagement helps explain the generally flat growth of global student performance (Hanushek, et al., 2012), and achievement gaps persist despite billions spent annually on classroom technologies. When systems invest in expensive technologies student achievement gains, the public loses trust as in Los Angeles Unified School District’s failed $1.3 billion purchase of over 43,000 iPads (Margolin, et al., 2015).

Nonetheless, our social progress is too dependent upon student success to spur the potential impact of technology on primary and secondary schools (Hattie, 2009).  Critically, schools must demand a redesign of educational technologies so that the classroom becomes a place of curiosity, inquiry, and construction of relevant knowledge facilitated by technology.

Constructive ed tech: Engaged & Applied

If you have ever wondered how a child learns, watch them at play. The moment they get curious—why water goes downhill, how a bug walks, what makes a bike work, even building rollercoasters in Minecraft—they are hooked and unlikely to quit learning until they are satisfied. When a young child asks the question “Why?” they assume there is an answer as they construct new knowledge.

But this curiosity doesn’t always last in school unless the student is lucky enough to be in tech-infused STEM-focused learning environments. These unique, engaging and high performing schools (RTI International, 2017) embrace constructive ed tech that is focused on skills application and the actual construction of knowledge, rather than just its consumption (Bingham, 2017). Likewise, these schools have implemented 1:1 models where each student has their own device throughout the learning experience (Stone, 2017).

These constructive ed tech innovations in hardware, software, curriculum, implementation, and pedagogy focused on knowledge application show great promise (figure 3) for student engagement and learning (FitzGerald, 2018).

Figure 3: Directive Versus Constructive Ed Tech

Promising new research-based models (Zhu, et al., 2016) have emerged that frame applied learning and the use of constructive ed tech in the classroom, often described as “SMART Learning Environments” in that they:

“Automatically make appropriate adjustments to what a learner knows, has mastered, and wants to learn next…just as a person who makes appropriate adjustments to activities and processes given the constraints of a situation or context. Smart people are flexible and adapt to changes as they occur; smart learning environments can do likewise.” (Spector, 2014)

Furthermore, the EnGuage (NCREL, 2003) and ISTE Standards (ISTE, 2017) frame how classrooms work with applied, project-based, and collaborative learning. As Zhu and Bin describe (2012), “Smart pedagogies can be facilitated as to provide personalized learning services and empower learners to develop talents of wisdom that have better value orientation, higher thinking quality, and stronger conduct ability.” Even though these “SMART” learning environments remain inequitably rare and unavailable to most students, the promise of constructive ed tech is to make these environments a reality for all learners.

Levers of change: Constructive design principles

A recent report concluded, “Teachers who use inquiry-based, project-based, problem-based or co-operative pedagogies often find a valuable partner in new technologies.” (OECD, 2015)  Coupled with the global ed tech market soon exceeding $120 billion, (Economist, 2017) it is high time that tech resources engage teacher and student alike in the pursuit of applied learning. Research now describes how well-designed software and hardware supplements teaching, aids knowledge discovery, and facilitates teacher support of students (Hattie & Yates, 2013), with the strongest results when technology supplements rather than replaces the work of classroom teachers.

Devoid of well-designed resources and training, schools may not be ready to, “leverage the potential of technology” (OECD, 2015). It is the industry’s turn to build tools that reverse these gaps for the benefit of students.  If key design principles can be implemented in both the development and implementation of new educational technologies, these principles will lead to the disruption of education by focusing teacher and student alike on the facilitation and application of necessary skills, not just the memorization and assessment of learning. These Constructive Ed Tech Design Principles (figure 5) aim technology on the collaborative production of knowledge rather than its isolated consumption:

Figure 5: Constructive Ed Tech Design Principles

Interacting with technology, teachers facilitate student engagement in learning that is personalized, collaborative, and focused on the production and application of knowledge. Furthermore, constructive ed tech embeds coaching, feedback, modeling, and developmental support into the actual curriculum, integrates with management platforms for compliance and reporting, and takes advantage of teacher-assisted machine learning (AI) that refines and optimizes the learning experience based on the unique needs and progress of each student.


When these constructive ed tech principles are implemented, it changes the way teachers and students utilize technology in the classroom. Real learning innovation takes place when teachers facilitate engagement using tech that serves the innate curiosity of each student. This is illustrated in the STEM programming provided by Operation Breakthrough (Esselman, et al., 2017), a tech-centric early elementary focused on serving economically disadvantaged youth in Kansas City, Missouri:

Djuan, a 4-year-old preschool student, built and programmed a helicopter to turn its propellers and whirr.  To prepare for this project, he had taken apart a ceiling fan at the hacking bench in the school’s MakerSpace and learned how to code at the coding table.  When Dejuan isn’t constructing helicopers, building robots, or using alternative energy circuits, e is developing the habits of mind that allow him to strengthen his abilities to communicate, collaborate and problem solve.

For students to attain the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in today’s economy, educational technology can play a key role facilitating engagement and application for teacher and student alike. These key design principles for constructive ed tech will drive greater learning efficiencies, both in rate of student progress and in the quality of their learning. Building on these understandings, policy makers, administrators, and educators are better served in their effort to design, purchase, and implement disruptive ed tech that impacts all students.

(2,000 words)




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