By Dr. Sonny Magana
I want to tell you a little story: There was once lived a pioneering designer who invented technologies to make work and life easier and more productive. He worked long hours developing and iterating until he invented something completely new and extraordinary. He promoted his new technology as transformational, even revolutionary. The technology tool transformed nearly every human endeavor into which it is applied. Billions of dollars exchanged hands and tremendous value was generated. The designer decided to market this new technology into education by highlighting the inherently transformational nature of the tool. He confidently asserted, “Books will soon be obsolete in schools; our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years!” Ten years passed. Books didn’t become obsolete. Schools didn’t change. The promising new technology had minimal impact on student achievement.
Does that story sound familiar?
It should. It should also serve as a cautionary tale, but not a modern one. The year? 1913. The pioneering designer? Thomas Alva Edison. The transformational technology? Motion pictures.
This anecdote illustrates a number of issues regarding the selling and marketing of technology tools in education, but one in particular should be taken as paramount: exploding the myth of technological determinism. Technological determinism is a kind of theoretical mindset which suggests that simply putting digital tools into educational settings will automatically transform what happens in those settings. It’s reflective of the movie Field of Dreams in which Kevin Costner’s character hears a disembodied voice imploring him, “If you build it, they will come,” The only difference is that the disembodied voice of technological determinism says, “If they [your education customers] buy it [technology], transformation will come.” The reality, for the last century, has fallen far short of that myth.
I’m an educational futurist and so my work focuses on harnessing the immense potential of digital tools to enhance what transpires in teaching and learning environments. At this risk of sounding like a heretic, I have to make a statement about technology in an educational context: Digital educational technologies have no inherent value in and of themselves. Zero. They are inert. They don’t do anything by themselves. But I also have to add a qualifier: The value of digital technologies in education is made manifest not by their presence, but by the manner in which they are used.
That should sound reasonable to you, or even self-evident. The trickier part is understanding how to reliably use technology tools to enhance instructional quality and learning productivity.
I’ve been studying the impact of digital tools in education for 34 years. That’s a long time to observe the phenomenon of digital disruptions in the realm of teaching and learning. I’ve taken a serious look at the impact of digital tools in education and have seen distinct patterns emerge over time — patterns which I’ve tested with the tools of the researcher: inquiry design, observation, data collection, analysis, interpretation, and synthesis. One common pattern I’ve witnessed for the last four decades is called the “novelty effect.”
I first saw evidence of the novelty effect in 1984 while studying the impact on student engagement of the Apple IIe and a software program called “The Oregon Trail.” The sample was a group of inner city middle school students in Camden, New Jersey. At first, students’ engagement levels were very high as they learned to interact with the computer program, and each other, to make decisions, plan ahead, and respond to the consequences of their decisions. Then something strange happened — or not so strange, really, if you’ve ever spent any time around middle school students — they got bored…and then disruptive. Quickly. The level of engagement dropped like a wagon train careening off a cliff. There are only so many times one can die from a snake bite or drown in the Blue River before one’s attention starts to strain.
Unfortunately, when it comes to digital tools for schools, education has been on a novelty effect roller coaster. Student engagement goes up at first, and then almost always comes back down as the novelty of the tool wears off. One new technology tool after another has been purchased based on the digital promise of increasing student engagement — which may indeed occur in the short run. But in time that high level of engagement will almost always drop off.
Here’s one implication of the novelty effect: If your sales and marketing messaging to schools only focuses on the attributes of your product and how it will increase student engagement, then over time you run the risk of losing the trust of your customers. However, if you focus on presenting the technology tools you are selling in a manner that is reflective of high impact use of your tool, then over time you will earn the reputation as a trusted advisor. So, how can you know what is reflective of high impact use?
Here is another pattern I’ve observed from compounding evidence: When technology tools are used to replace teachers, on average, one can expect very small to small gains in student achievement. When digital tools are used to supplement teachers’ current instructional practices, one can expect modest gains in student achievement. But when technology tools are used to enhance instructional and learning practices that are well grounded in sound research and theory, one can expect large to very large gains in student achievement.
I recently synthesized my life’s work on solving the wicked problem of technology integration into my latest book, Disruptive Classroom Technologies: A Framework for Innovation in Education. My hope is to disrupt the long-standing narrative about technology in education by providing an evidence-based framework that increments technology use into three distinct domains: Translational, Transformational, and Transcendent. While each stage is important, the impact of translational technology tool use — that is, simply translating teaching and learning tasks from an analogue to a digital realm — is anemic. However, the strategies associated with transformational and transcendent technology tool use, as I’ve defined and identified in Disruptive Classroom Technologies, have an impact on student learning that is equivalent to three or more additional years of student achievement in a single academic year, perhaps even more. That is clearly an idea worth pursuing and sharing with your customers.
As a nation, we would all benefit by learning more about and sharing transformational and transcendent technology use in schools. For folks serving schools in the educational technology industry, doing so will bring benefits that are both immediate and sustainable. So now I have a question: Are you willing to help shatter the myth of technological determinism? Let’s have a catch and find out…
About the Author:
Dr. Anthony J. “Sonny” Magana III is an award-winning educational futurist, best-selling author, and pioneering educational technology researcher. Sonny is a highly sought-after leadership consultant, speaker, and instructional coach with more than thirty years’ experience helping educational systems around the world realize the power of transcendent learning. The author of numerous research studies and articles, Sonny’s newest book, Disruptive Classroom Technologies: A Framework for Innovation in Education, was recently published through Corwin Press to wide international acclaim. Sonny can be reached via Twitter @sonnymagana or at www.maganaeduction.com.