The worst thing about educational technology is educational technology

Wednesday 30 March 2011

by Nik Peachey

This must seem like a contradictory title and an odd one especially coming from me, as I am an educational technology consultant and writer, but to be honest I stand by this statement and I’d like to tell you why.

Over the last ten plus years ‘consumer technology’, and by that I mean the everyday gadgets that we use for entertainment and communication in our homes, have become increasingly cheaper and at the same time progressively more powerful and easy to use. Personally, I believe this a really wonderful development and one that is really changing the way we socialise, communicate, access information, interact as a society and most importantly – learn.

Wall image


If we contrast this with ‘educational technology’ and  by this I mean technology that is designed to be used in schools and universities, we can see that almost the opposite has happened. Prices seem to go up and up as the hardware becomes increasingly complex and at the same time more difficult to use. I recently saw an interactive whiteboard that can be used both vertically and horizontally, due to the very cleverly designed short throw projector and ingenious swivel stand engineering, so now your IWB is not only able to project onto your wall, but can now become a table too! Um? Useful for? And what does that cost?

Another ingenious invention I recently had the misfortune to encounter was a podium style computerised classroom control with both a normal computer monitor in and a touch sensitive one. The touch sensitive one could be used to control the podium and switch modes to enable a laptop to interact with the board instead of the regular computer. Unfortunately on the one I tried the mouse control only functioned on the touch sensitive screen ( where you didn’t need it) and couldn’t be persuaded to move over to the to normal computer screen where of course you did need it, so the thing was rendered completely useless.

I have to say that I’m not against IWBs per se, there are advantages to being able to control the computer from the front of the screen and if money is no object then I’d rather have one than not have one, as long as it has been set up correctly, but in many of our schools we know that money very often is in short supply, especially when it comes to training or paying teachers, so why is so much money being spent on hardware that is often very quickly left out of date or redundant?

I think there are two answer and the first is marketing. To have this kind of hardware visible and in photographs of classrooms etc can help convey that your school is up to date and students at the school will get very modern training with the best equipment.

Unfortunately this often isn’t the case, because many of the schools that invest heavily in the hardware don’t back this up with an equivalent investment in the all too invisible connectivity. So this is like buying a Ferrari and then trying to run it at high speed with only half a litre of oil in the engine and often with the same result- the whole thing sizes up and grinds to a halt, and this is what often happens in many of our technology supported classrooms.

The second answer is that many managers don’t really have a great understanding of how technology should function to support learning, but they know that they should be doing something about it and so by investing in hardware they feel they have ‘done their bit’ and now they can leave it to the teacher to make it work.

So, what should be happening? Well really it is quite simple. Instead of buying those expensive swiveling interactive whiteboards and magnificent e-podiums, we take the money and invest it instead in really fast easily accessible broadband connectivity and we start encouraging students to bring along their own mobile devices, tablets and laptops to class and get them to use the connectivity. That way students can take responsibility for their own virus protection, install whatever software they want on their computer and work on a device that they are familiar with and which doesn’t have sites blocked on it. We can start to encourage a culture of open and fast technology support within our lessons, and what’s best about this is that it puts the technology into the hands of the students so they can actually start to develop their digital literacies and study skills instead of watching teachers struggle with theirs.

It won’t look as smart in the marketing photos, and it will require some help and training for teachers, but the result will be smarter lessons, smarter teachers and much smarter students.

So what do you think?

  • What’s the connectivity like in your school?
  • Do students have access to a wireless network in the classroom?
  • Are they encouraged to bring along laptops or other devices?
  • Is the connection fast and reliable?
  • Is there an internet connection?
  • What happens if ten or twenty students start to access a video sharing website? Does the connection slow down to a crawl?

If you prefer to leave a video message to some of these questions or see other answers check out this link and click on the questions to record your answer.

23 responses to The worst thing about educational technology is educational technology

  1. Tim Bray says:

    I agree with almost every thing you stated. Our school is 1:1 with Macbook computers, which the families purchase themselves. The money saved by not providing computers to each student has been put into the network which currently has about 1000 computers on it. Sometimes we see some traffic issues, but normally my entire class of 20 can access and stream videos and upload content to the Internet. Each student having their own computer allows them to search and gather information and resources independently; instead of all of them watching me or one student do it on a IWB.

    • Nik Peachey says:

      That’s fantastic Tim

      It’s great to know that there is at least one place where they are getting it right. Gives me some hope after banging my head against a brick wall for years.



  2. Jo says:

    It seems so obvious that most classrooms have thousands of dollars worth of computing power going idle (or, being misused): student’s cell phones.

    And, for the students, they are deeply attuned to using these devices which they cherish on a deep personal level.

    Not tapping into those resources misses on at least two fronts.

    But, many educators are reluctant to make this leap..therein lies the problem. There is an emerging fear that mLearning will invade a teacher’s role. It’s foolish, but, there is an emerging knee-jerk reaction starting to be voiced.

    Mobile phones may be the penultimate Generation gap; you’re on one side or the other.

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Jo

      Thanks for your comment. Personally I feel that the teacher’s role needs some invading, but I can understand some of the fears. Teachers are really being dropped into this kind of environment without much support or training and of course there are other issues around getting students to use their mobiles for school use, especially in the case of teenage or even younger students.

      Schools really need to engage with this issue as it really isn’t going away and this knee jerk reaction of banning them from school or class isn’t really a solution at all and it just increases the gap and could make it more difficult to deal with the issue when it can no longer be avoided.

      This is the kind of problem we’re seeing now with many teachers who have been in denial for so long and kidding themselves that technology will go away and they can keep their classes all about the human contact. They are now so removed from the reality of what’s out there in the real world outside of their classroom that they don’t know where to begin even if they want to.



  3. Really excellent points here, Nik, and I find myself in strong agreement. 98% of the IWB-use I see in schools replicates what we can basically do with a connected beam projector (as in, accessing Internet, playing video and audio, etc.). And you’re right, bandwidth and connectivity have to come first. Also agree with your point about mobile devices (and think schools should invest in class sets of tablets instead of IWBs), as it reinforces the growing and very important priority of learner autonomy and the decentralised classroom (IWBs still reinforce a teacher-led/fed approach to some extent).

    Been having some strong feelings along similar lines, so this post really resonated.


    – Jason

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Jason

      Thanks for this comment. Yes, you are absolutely right about the use of IWBs and even looking round at videos from some sites of what they describe as best practice, I don’t really seeing anything great going on in terms of the way students are interacting with the materials or each ther as a result of the IWB. The other problem is that the IWB software (which is usually provided by the company) isn’t really an authentic software environment, by which I mean it is not software that students normally use in their everyday lives, so it isn’t really helping to develop digital literacy, even if the teacher is generous enough to let the students get their hands on it.

      Tablets are a much better solution and there are very cheap and even free apps that allow the tablet to control the main computer that’s connected to the data projector, so using something like this every student can access the board from their seat using their tablet.

      All this of course though requires the necessary investment in connectivity, but when you consider that in the UK at least you can get a 100 Mb connection in your home for around £35 a month, that doesn’t seem a lot to ask.



  4. Berni Wall says:

    As with many things the simple solutions are usually the best and give the best results. I agree wholeheartedly, put money into getting good teachers to drive this forward. The best bit is the students take their own equipment away with them to continue doing stuff outside of the lessons.

    Great post and great title!!

  5. Faten Romdhani says:

    Thank you Nik for this article. The title is well-thought of and as a teacher of English as a foreign language, I think that introducing the computer-lab sessions for beginners in Tunisia has made learners more & more engaged and motivated. As a teacher, I think that teaching with technology should be part and parcel of the learning/teaching situation everywhere. But what is really missing is that more money should be invested in training the teachers who need to. We really need more & more hands-on sessions because in order to meet our learners’ needs perfectly, our needs as teachers should be met as well.

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Faten
      Thanks for adding your perspective to this. It’s sad to see that the neglect for training and support is so international. You are also right about the types of training too. A lot of it seems to be very theoretical. To really get teachers using the technology they need lots of hands on practice so that they feel confident when they are with their students.


  6. Pietro Polic says:

    Hello Nik!
    I found your link on the Global English Forum, a group I run on Facebook.
    May I just explain that I’m a retired teacher of languages, though I taught predominantly technical and business English. In fact I used to teach in the IT department of a re-training centre for adults in Heidelberg, Germany.

    Every student used to have his/her own PC in the classroom connected to the Internet, and so did I. That means that I could interact with the students also via PC-PC or via PC-projector. For me this was an ideal combination, since my paperwork was minimal and I could use the Internet for additional research on exercises or vocabulary. Thus, I have good and positive memories of educational technology, as you call it. Anything that helps the teacher and the student is to be welcomed. Anything exagerated (and unnecessarily expensive) is unwelcome. We know that some people love to have the latest gadgets and are proud of them. But in my opinion a gadget is useful only if it improves the quality of teaching and if its use is not too complicated. Otherwise it has failed its purpose. A second thing is this, it’s all very well having the latest gimmikry as long as the people who will be using it also get the proper training and learn how to handle it effectively.
    As far as the equipment mentioned by you in the article is concerned, quite frankly I can’t see that it brings any significant advantages.

    Thanks for the insight.
    Best to you,


    • Nik Peachey says:

      Thanks for the comment Pietro.
      It’s nice to hear from at least one person who has worked in an environment where technology was supported properly and where teachers and students were able to feel the benefits. I hope the situation soon changes for more teachers and students.


  7. phil says:

    Good topic Nik.

    There seemed to be a craze about IWBs a few years ago but now I seem to find lots of them gathering dust in classroom corners. I saw one that had been covered over by a pull down projector screen.That perhaps defeats the object.

    When I asked why they said it broke and because they never found any good software and because the teachers were never trained on it nobody was bothered. I guess you really need to invest fully in them to get the benefits.

    What do you think of the portable ones?
    How could we use the XBOX Kinect style technology maybe?



    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Phil

      Yes, I think what you are describing is a common scenario and a sad one. It really shows how little planning goes into the implementation of technology in many schools. It seems that by spending the money on the hardware, many administrators feel like they have done their part and now it’s someone else’s problem to make it work.

      I haven’t tried anXBox Kinect yet but I am fascinated. I know that they are also doing marvelous research into voice recognition and control too with Project Natal and that could really have a big impact on language learning.



  8. Bob says:

    Thank you for this interesting article, I do however agree that there is definitely a training need for teachers, especially older teachers.

    I am not afraid of technology but I have had no training and although my DoS periodically reminds me about our ‘multimedia suite’ most of what I see it being used for is gimmick/entertainment.

    I therefore manage to stay out of it for most of the year. Yes, I can see the value of using the internet, powerpoint etc to introduce topics, raise interest etc but feel that to use a rooms’ facilities for 5 minutes out of 90 is not worth the effort of changing rooms!

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Bob

      Yes, you have a good point and it’s a common problem. Multimedia rooms are great for students to work in autonomously and get them real hands on with technology for learning, but if you want to use them during class time they can be a nightmare to fit in to your plan and often you only want to access the computers for short time, but a trip to the computer room can be very disruptive, so lots of teachers end up doing things that aren’t so useful , just to justify the trip.

      I think this is where things like iPads, mobiles and tablet PCs really help, especially if the students bring their own, because it gives us the ability to send students to specific places online quickly and just for short bursts and then get back to interacting in class without all the wasted time.



      • Bob says:

        Thanks Nik and Phil (below) – I used the quotation marks when talking about our multimedia suite because it is just the one computer connected to a projector! I agree that IT is here to stay but it has to have a valid teaching purpose not just entertainment.

        Unfortunately a lot of my students don’t have access to ipads and some of the more useful portable technology either so some of these ideas are still a no-go for me. Thanks for the advice about BIgThink – I have bookmarked it to look at later.


  9. phil says:

    That’s a good summary of many teachers opinions but IT is not going away and in some schools/unis it is always used.

    The hassle factor is still there though. We spend about 15 minutes setting up and booting up laptops today which you have to work into your LP or so before class.

    My only argument is to try online materials and I don’t mean printable EFL stuff. Use a video segment or short talk like at BIG THINK. Let students deliver their presentations via powerpoint (they probably know how to do it better than us). Get them using the mobiles for recording speaking and then review it at home. Or get them to write up homework on a blog they set up.

    Our students will always be ahead of us tech wise so ask them and see what they can do. I definitely went overboard at the beginning using gimmicky sites but afterwards I realised that you can just do the same sort of lesson as normal but with computers and it adds a lot more possibilities. A basic hitech example is a lesson on cities. Students could read a text online about a place, look it up on google maps and find the places mentioned. They could then write your own guide book for their city and add photos and even a voice recording. Language exercises and work can easily be added along the way.

    A lowtech one could just use photos via a projector and google earth.

    My advice is check out Nik’s blogs and try some activities in your class.

  10. Jean Miranda says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

    Here in Brazil Education has been through an endless crisis but we see politicians spending fortunes on technlogy with a short view of education and with no idea of a long term educational policy. Without well-defined goals all the technology will just hide the failure of the system under the disguise of modernity.

    • Nik Peachey says:

      Yes Jean

      I think that’s the case round much of the world. They seem to think that throwing money at the problem and spending on hardware absolves them of the responsibility for really commiting to making it work. That’s left to the teachers of course. Very sad because so much more could be accomplished with some thought.



  11. Neil says:

    I’ve been to many educational seminars, seen many gadgets and played around with allot of software but my opinion has always been the same, if it’s not REALLY useful then it’s another fad.
    This is coming from a whiteboard software designer, my checkilist for the classroom:

    Laptops (students too if possible)
    Online web app – which I built myself

    You can get free open office software which takes care of documents.

    All cheap and flexible.

  12. Nik Peachey says:

    Hi Neil

    Yes I agree. A more minimalist approach to technology (hardware) is much more likely to be successful.

    So often, the wrong approach is taken because teachers aren’t involved in the decision making process and because the people who make the decisions are overly impressed by shiny hardware that will look good in their marketing brochure or management report.



  13. Jody Gilbert says:

    Very well put Nik – a great read! – this came up for me in a conversation on the weekend at a symposium on tech (Alberta, Canada), where your name was mentioned as ‘one to look up.’

    I think the conundrum here is that the tech changes so quickly that the people making the $$ decisions are so worried about being ‘left behind’ and want to demonstrate that the ed. system is keeping up with the latest technology, providing ‘the best’ to the students. So the money is spent, but at the same time we’re unsure exactly how (or if) that new tech. is being used in the classroom, which is what matters most.

    Maybe it’s a matter of clarifying whether the ed-tech in the classroom is for teaching, or for learning, because we know these aren’t always the same thing. Are we most interested in impressing the students/parents with tech which we think will help them learn? I think that’s the formula for the ed-tech companies, as you say – Wow the managers/teachers, sell the tech. Or, is it having the students learn to USE the technology in the a way that they know facilitates their learning (much less exciting for the companies selling the tech). If that is the case, surely the key is to allow each learner find that ‘way.’ Having that tool at the fingertips of each student in the room, as you suggest, is really what makes the most sense to me too, in my context (university EAP, Canada) and this is what I have turned to lately. Just like a pencil or textbook, connectivity in the classroom provides yet another tool, available for use as needed. As the tech. continues to improve, perhaps this is the ‘natural’ integration of tech into the learning environment Stephen Bax speaks of…

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