Three competing visions of educational technology. Which is yours?

Gary Stager says:

There are three competing visions of educational computing. Each bestows agency on an actor in the educational enterprise. We can use classroom computers to benefit the system, the teacher, or the student. Data collection, drill-and-practice test-prep, computerized assessment, or monitoring Common Core compliance are examples of the computer benefitting the system. “Interactive” white boards, presenting information or managing whole-class simulations are examples of computing for the teacher. In this scenario, the teacher is the actor, the classroom a theatre, the students the audience and the computer is a prop.

The third vision is a progressive one. The personal computer is used to amplify human potential. It is an intellectual laboratory and vehicle for self-expression that allows each child to not only learn what we’ve always taught, perhaps with greater efficacy, efficiency or comprehension. The computer makes it possible for students to learn and do in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. This vision of computing democratizes educational opportunity and supports what Papert and Turkle call epistemological pluralism. The learner is at the center of the educational experience and learns in their own way.

Too many educators make the mistake of assuming a false equivalence between “technology” and its use. Technology is not neutral. It is always designed to influence behavior. Sure, you might point to an anecdote in which a clever teacher figures out a way to use a white board in a learner-centered fashion or a teacher finds the diagnostic data collected by the management system useful. These are the exception to the rule.

While flexible high-quality hardware is critical, educational computing is about software because software determines what you can do and what you do determines what you can learn. In my opinion the lowest ROI comes from granting agency to the system and the most from empowering each learner. You might think of the a continuum that runs from drill/testing at the bottom; through information access, productivity, simulation and modeling; with the computer as a computational material for knowledge construction representing not only the greatest ROI, but the most potential benefit for the learner.

Piaget reminds us,“To understand is to invent,” while our mutual colleague Seymour Papert said, “If you can use technology to make things, you can make more interesting things and you can learn a lot more by making them.”


kindergarteners could build, program and choreograph their own robot ballerinas by utilizing mathematical concepts and engineering principles never before accessible to young children. Kids express themselves through filmmaking, animation, music composition and collaborations with peers or experts across the globe. 5th graders write computer programs to represent fractions in a variety of ways while understanding not only fractions, but also a host of other mathematics and computer science concepts used in service of that understanding. An incarcerated 17 year-old dropout saddled with a host of learning disabilities is able to use computer programming and robotics to create “gopher-cam,” an intelligent vehicle for exploring beneath the earth, or launch his own probe into space for aerial reconnaissance. Little boys and girls can now make and program wearable computers with circuitry sewn with conductive thread while 10th grade English students can bring Lady Macbeth to life by composing a symphony. Soon, you be able to email and print a bicycle. Computing as a verb is the game-changer.

Used well, the computer extends the breadth, depth and complexity of potential projects. This in turn affords kids with the opportunity to, in the words of David Perkins, “play the whole game.” Thanks to the computer, children today have the opportunity to be mathematicians, novelists, engineers, composers, geneticists, composers, filmmakers, etc… But, only if our vision of computing is sufficiently imaginative.


9 Responses to “Three competing visions of educational technology. Which is yours?”

  1. The computerized utopia described by computer proponents always contains a higher expectation, and an assumption of more competent teachers than have, probably ever, existed in our existing systems.

    How does this system propose to deal with teachers who are computer illiterate, or worse, those unwilling or incapable of achieving the proficiency required? Or school leaders who will not push the agenda because they fall into one of the aforementioned categories?

  2. During a discussion today with another technology integrationist, it was suggested that we close schools, redesign and start over if we want true change. Maybe she’s got a point? If you look at schools like the Science Leadership Academy, other than closing a school, that’s how it was done. It was a brand new school, supported financially, led by an administrator with a vision who hired all new teachers willing, and able, to take risks. What school couldn’t succeed with all of those pieces in place?

  3. I agree with Jeff S. This utopian vision is one thing, but on the ground it is very different. Don’t get me wrong, I am an integrator , and help others to integrate, but teachers are a massive hurdle. This will change over time to a degree but there will always be those who refuse to change. However my biggest issue is whether students are able to exercise their agency or whether they tend towards being distracted by technology. Certainly my 1:1 experience suggests there are many, many issues as well as benefits in enabling students with technology. Overall I believe there is huge potential but I think your vision here is too idealised. That said, I love the the levels you have described, and the post provide a great venue for discussion and sharing. Thanks!

  4. I am a grade 4 teacher and currently integrate technology extensively. I have done so for many years now. We use computers daily. We make videos, write books, create soundtracks, research, and collaborate. My class has their own websites, blogs, and youtube channel. Our ipads are important tools. We use them to create movies, ebooks, and to share our work. We work in partners and teams. Working together to understand, create and solve gives us purpose, guides our learning and teaches respect. Many of the hurdles faced by teachers are rooted in the 1:! rational that every student needs to have a computer or iPad or…and that all students need to be doing the same thing at the same time. In reality, they all progress at different rates and every project entails lots of discussion, paperwork, reading, drawing, planning, and sharing. It is not the technology but the learning we need to focus on. If we want teachers to value integration we need to give them the encouragement and the safety to take risks needed to support change. We can not focus assessment on stanardized testing if we want individualized learning environments to be established and valued.

  5. Thanks for sharing this! I would have to agree with lrdyck, that it’s not just the technology itself, but rather the learning that is important. The technology is a tool, although not a neutral one, as Stager pointed out. If we can imagine learning differently, there is plenty of technology to support it!

  6. It’s unfortunate we tend to envision solutions from only within an existing paradigm. The 3 definitions of technology you provide are all 3 valid tools of education. 1) Education as an industry, expected to produce educated members of society and must be measured in meeting that goal. 2) an employer that is expected to provide the best tools possible for employees to perform at their best. 3) Embracing the technologies that are reshaping society by how we gather and use knowledge and by how it expands our individual life-long educational desires.

    The only thing that causes these three aspects of education to compete is funding – nothing else.

  7. I’m currently teaching a computer curriculum to sixth, seventh and eighth graders. What I’m discovering is that kids may be great at social media, but they really don’t know digital tools as well as we think they do. Every class, I offer a challenge — last week it was graphic design — and someone says, “oh, I know how to do that.”. And ten minutes later, that’s changed to “wait, how do you do that??”. So sometimes, computer education is driven by top-down, measurable goals: system-driven goals. And sometimes this class is driven by my needs as the teacher: “I can do *this* on my computer. Can you?” but always, always, always, I try to bring computer classes back to the point of student-driven projects. Many of my colleagues don’t understand that kids are learning to use computers as productivity tools in school, at the same time that they’re learning to be productive — most adults today learned to be productive and then learned to use computers to extend their productivity. Kids today are learning both, simultaneously, and it’s a complicated process.

  8. Andrew I completely agree. Too often I see technology used as a babysitter or a distraction. Games and videos are fun but they don’t teach children how to use technology as a tool, and create a false sense of competency that children are competent at using a computer or tablet.

    I will never forget how excited my students were when I taught them how to save a document. It was mindblowing how a simple act that adults take for granted was so foreign to my 5th grade students, and a source of pride for them.

  9. An interesting & thought-provoking post.

    Andrew & Jess – also interesting points – I sometimes feel that the concept of “digital natives” partly feeds the assumptions that students are already fully competent with technology. I think we should not overlook the fact that even though our learners may be competent with tech in some respects, they still need the guidance you describe.

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