Is There Too Much Hype Surrounding Technology in Education?

A student from South Island School, a school belonging to Hong Kong’s English Schools Foundation, looks at her computer screen while working on a marketing project.

Photo by aaron tam/AFP/Getty Images

This week, Arizona State University (a partner in Future Tense, along with Slate and the New America Foundation) is hosting the Education Innovation Summit in Scottsdale, Ariz. Attendees are discussing how technology can enhance, supplement, or even replace the modern classroom. Video game learning, using Big Data to better assess students’ strengths and weaknesses, interactive textbooks, distance education—if there’s a screen and a student, it’s being talked about here.

Given the very complicated problems facing our educational system, it’s no surprise that some believe technology may serve as a savior, bringing down costs, personalizing the learning experiencing, and improving student outcomes. Whoever creates the best versions of these products, many entrepreneurs at Education Innovation are betting, stands to make a lot of money.

But while it’s easy to get excited by the blue-sky promises, there are reasons to be cautious.

Just last month, the Washington Post reported that South Korea, home to one of the most rigorous, effective, and stressful education systems in the world, is standing down on electronic textbooks. Where once it seemed poised to move toward entirely digital textbooks, officials now say that paper will have a place in the classroom for several years to come.

One more cautious speaker at Education Innovation today was Chris Lehmann, principal of the Science Leadership Academy, a partnership of the School District of Philadelphia and the Franklin Institute. (If you haven’t been to the Franklin Institute, start planning a long weekend in Philadelphia now. It is an amazing museum.) Lehmann expressed concern that too many in the burgeoning education sector hope to replace teachers with tech. “Before we rush to embrace the idea that the market might do education better than educators,” he says, he wants to see a lengthy conversation about the “worst consequences of our best idea.”

There is a tension here, then, between the entrepreneurs and more traditional educators. The former think that the school system is too slow to adopt new technologies; the latter think that there is a rush to digital. Further, the two groups are deeply skeptical of each other’s motives, with many for-profit innovators accusing teachers unions of trying to hold onto a monopoly, and many educators alleging that companies prioritize profits over students. For example, the November/December 2011 Mother Jones ran a piece titled “Jeb Bush’s Cyber Attack on Public Schools,” criticizing the former Florida governor’s efforts to reduce policy barriers to online learning. Tomorrow, Bush will speak to a much more supportive crowd.