Is Diane Ravitch anti-technology?

Screaming at computer

I confess that I’m struggling with Diane Ravitch lately (and not for the reasons I struggled back in 2010). I think that she’s a valuable voice in the educational policy landscape and I greatly appreciate her passion and her ability to energize educators and citizens as she speaks up against political and pedagogical abuses of our public schooling system. Heck, I just quoted her three days ago. But, despite her usage and leverage of social media to enhance her own voice and visibility, she’s increasingly appearing very anti-technology:

  1. On July 18 she said, “The demand for virtual schools is a sure indicator of the dumbing down of the American public and the triumph of American capitalism at its greediest.” In a comment to that post, I asked, “Diane, do you not see any role for online learning in P-12 education?” She replied, “Yes, I see a role for virtual learning. I see no useful role for for-profit schools. I see a very limited role for home kind nonprofit virtual schools.”
  2. Also on July 18, she blogged that she is against Bill Gates’ statement that educational gaming can be “an adjunct to a serious curriculum.” In a comment to that post, I asked, “Diane, do you not see any role for gaming and simulations in P-12 education?” She replied, “A limited role. Gaming is fun and kids can learn from gaming. But kids need to learn to concentrate and to persist when they are not having fun. Gaming doesn’t teach that. Nor does gaming teach how to understand theory or philosophy or how to read critically or how to understand the reason for the game.” When Moses Wolfenstein pushed back quite thoughtfully on those statements, she said, “Actually an all-game school is perfect for the training of drones.”
  3. Today she blogged against online education again, stating that she is “old-fashioned.” She went on to say:

there is something having the eye-to-eye contact, the face-to-face contact that is really better for purposes of teaching and learning than sitting alone in front of a computer.

I am not saying this to put down technology. I understand how wonderful it is to see visualizations, dramatizations, to see famous people giving famous speeches instead of reading them, to see events rather than reading about them. All of that can be incorporated into lessons.

My gripe is with the very concept that you can learn just as much sitting alone as  you can in a group with a live teacher. It may work with adults (although the author of this article doesn’t think so). But it strikes me as developmentally inappropriate for children.

So I’m struggling with her absolute, categorical refusal to recognize that SOME online learning options might be good for SOME public school children (who, after all, also have learning needs that sometimes would be better met by online courses, just like homeschooled children). Like Diane, I abhor the abuses of the online schools and companies that she so aptly describes on her blog. But there’s a difference between calling for better education / oversight and unilaterally denying the medium itself. Online learning is NEVER a good thing for public school children, under any circumstances? I disagree.

Since she’s willing to rail against educational gaming, I’m also struggling with her lack of understanding of the potential benefits of learning games (and maybe also simulations?). Her statement that educational games don’t teach children how “to concentrate and persist when they’re not having fun” shows an ignorance of children’s experiences in many of those games. Like Moses said in his comment, I’m sure that scholars like James Paul Gee, Kurt Squire, Chris Dede, Constance Steinkuehler, David Shaffer, and others would be glad to remedy her misunderstandings. And I’m guessing that they also might be able to teach her how learning games can do some of the things that she says they can’t.

Diane’s anti-technology rhetoric matters because she has a voice that people listen to and others look to her for guidance. As such, her language is quite dismaying because educational technologies will only proliferate, not diminish. Online learning is here to stay, learning games are here to stay, computer-adaptive learning systems are here to stay, and a whole host of other learning tools are as well. The issue is not – as she seems to believe – that they never have any value. The issues are 1) Under what circumstances do these new learning tools and spaces have value?, and 2) How do we create learning and policy environments in which that value is most likely to be realized? [side note: Larry Cuban, for all of his wonderfulness, also typically fails to make this distinction]

Perhaps Diane will blog her belief system(s) about learning technologies and clarify any misperceptions that I have about what she thinks. But right now her beliefs are not ones that I wish she was espousing…

[UPDATE: Further proof of my claim that she’s anti-technology:]

Image credit: Bigstock, Screaming at the computer [no, the image is NOT of Diane Ravitch!]

30 Responses to “Is Diane Ravitch anti-technology?”

  1. To agree with you and respond to Diane Ravitch, see the many articles that echo the now-familiar argument about the concentration, persistence, and repeated failure involved in gaming:

  2. She may be “anti-technology,” but I’d say the greater problem is that she’s not well-informed. Remember when experience and/or expertise mattered?

    As I read/hear all kinds of horrible takes on MOOCs, online learning, etc., I’m reminded of the caution to “stay in your lane.” On these matters, I’m afraid Dr. Ravitch is way out of her lane.

    • I thought about that ‘stay in your lane’ issue too, Jon. I don’t spout off about teaching English-language learners or particle physics, for example. i think if we’re relatively unknowledgeable about a topic, it probably pays for us to be relatively humble when speaking about it.

      Dang it. Now I gotta go back and check all of my old posts to see when I’ve violated this rule myself!

  3. I don’t think it’s all her fault that 99% of the examples out there of “ed tech” or “educational gaming” ARE instructionist and support her points pretty well.

  4. Scott, I don’t think she’s anti-technology, but I do believe that she isn’t in the field of educational technology enough to understand the nuances. For example, on the virtual schooling front she lumps all forms of K-12 online learning into one big group in most of her public comments, but when I’ve pushed her she seems to be very much in favour of the supplemental, extend opportunities kinds of K-12 online learning. She’s against the corporate, cyber charter school kind of K-12 online learning, but in most of her speeches and in almost all of her tweets, she doesn’t differentiate between the two.

    I think if she stuck with the governance and ideological issues, she’d do much better because she understand the nuances in those areas much better.

  5. Technology-noun
    1. application of tools and methods: the study, development, and application of devices, machines, and techniques for manufacturing and productive processes
    “recent developments in seismographic technology”
    2. method of applying technical knowledge: a method or methodology that applies technical knowledge or tools
    “a new technology for accelerating incubation”
    3. machines and systems: machines, equipment, and systems considered as a unit
    “the latest laser technology”
    4. cultural anthropology sum of practical knowledge: the sum of a society’s or culture’s practical knowledge, especially with reference to its material culture

    I don’t think she’s anti-technology. I’m not sure she has embraced certain elements of CURRENT technology. “Online learning is here to stay, learning games are here to stay, computer-adaptive learning systems are here to stay, and a whole host of other learning tools are as well.” If there’s one thing we can all be sure of, it’s that little, if any, of current technology is “here to stay”. By definition, today’s technology is a point on a continuum. It will definitely be replaced by something else. Probably because,through the course of time deemed inadequate in favor of a newer technology (that some will no doubt declare is “here to stay”)

    • Okay, so that’s a good point. But we live in CURRENT times. Online learning, gaming, adaptive learning systems aren’t going to disappear for a while. Will we adopt their uses in positive ways or deny them?

  6. I suspect we agree for the most part here. Maybe you are worrying too much about Diane’s position on a few of these technologies. I don’t see her position as being wholesale anti-tech. Maybe she’s just not an early adopter on some of it? For example, most physicians will not change a prescribing habit from a current therapy to a new medication until it has been on the market a few years. That way they may consult with colleagues and review the data to ensure that a new therapy is more effective than what has already been proven effective, doesn’t have unintended consequences (safe), and is cost effective compared to existing therapy (new is always more expensive). With so much edtech available today, I’m not going to quibble with someone that decides not to endorse a portion of it. Those like Diane, with a large share of voice should be particularly careful.

    • Two thoughts…

      1. Online learning, at least, has been around at least a decade. Educational gaming has been around for a long time as well. How long do we wait before paying attention and realizing there’s something there?

      2. I agree that she should be particularly careful. But around being more restrained, not more oppositional.

      • Scott, while K-12 online learning has been around for about two decades now, what we actually know about it based on reliable and valid research is still quite little. Unfortunately, those neo-liberals that have latched on to K-12 online learning as a way to help the privatization of public education don’t bother with whether the research is reliable or valid – or even what it says in many instances, given how much they misuse it.

        You can’t blame those who don’t subscribe to that neo-liberal ideology for utilizing some of the same tactics.

  7. OK, so here’s another point. Diane gave the keynote at the California Computer Using Educators (CUE) conference a few months ago. She was very clear about the distinction between technology being used to replace teachers, monitor students, and take high-stakes, standardized tests vs. things that elevate the capacity of children to create and learn. And you have to realize, she’s not a progressive, never has been, and that hasn’t changed.

    She got a standing ovation from the audience – many of whom immediately went to the next meeting about how to make sure that all computer labs statewide were properly configured give the standardized tests that Diane was speaking against. The same people, who you would say are the experts, can’t get this right or make that distinction when it counts the most.

    To me, that is a much more serious indictment of education than talking about a nuance of Diane Ravitch’s position on ed tech.

  8. I’ve been thinking a lot about Diane’s recent writings as well, and I think her rhetorical position has a lot to teach progressive ed-tech advocates.

    For the past few years, progressive ed-tech folks have led a great deal of exciting activity in the ed tech space. In the last year or so, these efforts have been completely overwhelmed by ed-tech entrepreneurs allied with free-market ideologues/advocates interested in accelerating an old model, using technology as a vehicle for voucherization of schools and classes, or simply extracting profits from public schooling funds.

    In the midst of a media landscape dominate by short posts and quick thoughts, positions of nuance on this issue could easily be perceived as supporting the whole for-profit, free-market, ed-tech sector, whose momentum has really dwarfed the pockets of Dewey-inspired ed tech advocates.

    In other words, lots of us can jump and shout about the possibilities of technology to transform student learning (meaning, expanding the definition of schooling, empowering learners, etc.) but the public hears, “Hey, these guys love K-12, Inc.”

    I increasingly feel like those of us who are trying to advocate for using technology to reinvent learning in progressive way are increasingly at risk of unintentionally benefiting technology advocates who have a very different vision of education. The calculation that Ravitch makes increasingly makes sense to me, and I’m having a really hard time figuring out how to respond.

    • Tech in K12 education has a funny history. Early computers had BASIC built right in, offering students the chance to direct their use of tech. Instead, the drive to control has taken tech by storm. “Computer as a tool” has become even worse, “tech as a content delivery system.” In fact, the tech is most prominently a tool for “data” collection. What school doesn’t have a student “management” system? Focus on that term, “management” and think back.

      We’re a long way from the dreams some of us had in the 1970s.

      Maybe, just maybe, tech like the Raspberry Pi with built-in Software Freedom may make an impact. Let children get one, but watch out if it actually becomes a “tool” in the hands of the managers.

  9. The author apparently needs to do some additional schooling on the subject of ‘straw man fallacies’. Either with a real teacher, or on-line; each of these options will probably benefit the author.

    To be more direct: the author blatantly misconceives Diane’s point of view regarding the use of on-line learning or the use of games. From her comments, it is obvious that she is not against a limited use of these tools. But she fears – and rightly so – the risk of them being overused, and for a profit (because they are cheaper than live teaching).

    The author changes this sensible viewpoint into:
    – “Diane is anti-technology”
    – “Diane absolutely, categorically refuses to recognize that SOME online learning options might be good for SOME public school children”
    – “Diane unilaterally denies the medium itself”
    – “Diane asserts that on-line learning is NEVER a good thing for public school children, under any circumstances”

    This ‘rephrasing’ or rather distortion of what Diane said is utterly ridiculous.

    Now I see two options. Either the author is too stupid to see the difference between what Diane said and the way he ‘rephrased’ her viewpoints. Then he’d better start a weblog about cooking Italian pasta. Or he is a mean guy and wishes to make Diane suspect in the reader’s eye by attributing idiotic viewpoints to her – for whatever motive.

    I’d like to know which of the two is true. If the author won’t comment, I will have to choose for myself.

    • Else, this is Scott McLeod. I’m the author of this post and the owner of this blog. I may not always be correct but I always publicly own anything I write. You are welcome to call me ‘Scott’ instead of ‘the author.’ More about me here:

      FYI, this is an active community of discussion and you are very welcome to disagree vehemently with the ideas and statements made here. But please know that usually we refrain from name-calling.

      The statement that online learning is “developmentally inappropriate for children,” is Diane’s, not mine. When she says online learning is only appropriate for a few home-schooled kids, it’s not only difficult to reconcile that statement with the one in my previous sentence, it’s also difficult to see why some kids in public schools wouldn’t also benefit since their learning needs are similar. I stand by my statement that right now she appears anti-online learning for children and that is of concern to me.

      On the educational gaming front, she uses stereotypical characterizations of learning games and fails to acknowledge the increasingly-rich scholarship around them. Instead of inquiring more about schools like Quest to Learn, she dismisses them as “perfect for the training of drones.” I stand by my statement that right now she appears anti-educational gaming for children and that is of concern to me.

      Thank you for taking some of your valuable time to comment. I will look forward to your reply.

  10. As a new virtual school principal of a for-profit education management organization, I welcome the criticism about virtual schools.

    The virtual school team we have assembled is comprised of highly committed, passionate, stewards of learning and achievement for all of our students.

    We recognize that our virtual school meets the needs of a select niche of students and families. We do not set out to substitute and/or replace traditional brick-and-mortar schools.

    Instead, we strive to meet the needs of our students, which vary from family-to-family.

    I wish more educators, advocates, and scholars would look beyond the organizational/business structure –for-profit, not-for-profit, private, public — and remain focused on helping each respective school maintain high academic standards and yield high results for our students.

    We ought to be uniformed in our mission toward educating all students. Placating one model as being ineffective and obsolete should go against our fundamentals of choice, options, and educational differentiation for learners.

    • James, I think many in your industry are part of the problem (and the reason that Diane – and many others in the media – are able to over-generalize). The vast majority of cyber charter school proponents would not state that they are out to “meet the needs of a select niche of students and families. We do not set out to substitute and/or replace traditional brick-and-mortar schools.” Most in your industry are out to do just that – and those proponent often use rhetoric to hide the real goal of profiting off the public education system in much the way the insurance company profits from health care in the United States.

      Now I’ve worked with a lot of folks in your position, and most of those hired to work in these schools have good motives. Those backing these schools on the other hand, are the reason why Diane can paint the picture in black and white terms.

      • I appreciate your response, particularly for sharing that there are virtual school principals/teachers working for education management organizations have the right pursuit–improving/enhancing student learning.

        I can assure, that is my only drive/motivation on a daily basis.

        • It is the people above you that are intent on using this issue (and by extension you) for other means.

          Full-time K-12 online learning can provide real opportunities for some students, particularly when the program is specifically designed to target certain populations (which unfortunately most statewide cyber charter schools don’t do).

  11. Diane is not speaking in absolutes, at least not when you consider her full body of material.

    You are taking her out of context. Surely you aren’t expecting one blog post to represent a person’s full opinion.

    Two ways of trying to accomplish the same thing:
    1) resist junk technology in hopes that it will improve (Diane)
    2) embrace all technology in hopes that it will improve (You)

    I’m personally with Diane. Embracing the junk providers now will make it that much harder to extricate ourselves later.

    • Thanks, Jeff. I appreciate your support of Diane and would love to see other comments by her that are more pro-technology. Her recent ones, as I note above, give me concern…

      Just to clarify, I don’t believe in embracing all educational technology and hope it will improve. For example, I don’t typically advocate for technologies that are more teacher-centric, favoring instead those that are more student-centric. However, I also believe that technologies and the organizations and societies that incorporate them must go through transition periods where they navigate through less-desirable changes in order to eventually make sense of and optimize new ways of thinking, doing, and being. We should be as thoughtful as we can as we proceed along this journey, but we don’t do that by holding up perfection as the requirement. So, for example, instead of being categorically against online learning, we should be figuring out when/how it works well and for whom, trying to make more of that happen, and exercising appropriate oversight along the way. Does this make sense?

  12. One of the distinctions about technology in education that Diane and many others fail to make is that it’s not all or nothing. We absolutely need to use technology; traditional brick and mortar schools have been horrendously slow at teaching our students how to use current literacy tools, which is part of the allure that online schools provide. If traditional schools where face to face teaching is possible used current literacy tools instead of 19th Century methods, the K-12incs of the world would have a much harder time selling their product.

    Writing, which is necessary in every discipline, is the area that is most in want of current tools. I wrote about that on this blog almost 2 years ago. See Writing – The Elephant in the Class Room
    Students need for instruction in how to use current tools is even greater than it was two years ago. BYOD is the obvious way for schools to ward off the advances of the for profit schools. Diane would do us all a favor by insisting that all students be instructed in the use of current writing tools as their primary form of writing. If Diane blogs, so should every student.

  13. I’m new to this blog, as one of our tech people in our district introduced me to your blog. While I would agree that Diane Ravitch, is probably not 100% current technology, with how often she blogs and that she does address technology issues, I would say that she is not totally opposed to all of it either. On a side note, from my ‘informal’ observations of fellow teachers, there seems to be two types of teachers would it comes to current technology use. Obviously this is going to be an over-generalization. The two types IMHO are: 1. Those who see technology as a valuable tool to help reach as many students as possible in the best way possible and 2. Those who feel threatened by technology because of various fears. I think one key is for both times of educators to respect the other and work together, so they we do not have a great ‘digital divide’ in the schools.

  14. Thanks Scott for sharing your thoughts, as they are refreshing after this recent uninformed rant – – Loving the fact that she’s doing the scare tactic at the end – “Here is the conundrum: teachers see technology as a tool to inspire student learning; entrepreneurs see it as a way to standardize teaching, to replace teachers, to make money and to market new products. Which vision will prevail?”

    • Actually Kathryn, that is one of her better, more nuanced critiques of K-12 online learning. Unlike what Scott was complaining about where she takes shots at all K-12 online learning on her blog, in this article she is pretty specific in questioning the value of “for-profit online charter schools” – which I have to say I can’t disagree with her assessment based on the data that I have seen.

      I also don’t see the final question as a scare tactic. It is a reasonable question, particularly in the current US climate. Teachers do see lots of potential in using technology in student learning, but that is not what the corporate interests are focused on. Right now, at least based on current policy trends it is the economic interests and not the student learning that is winning!

      • I’m still not okay with her overgeneralization of the for-profits though. Not all for-profits are created equal.

        • Did she say anything that was not correct about that sector of the field of K-12 online learning? Her claims were:

          1) For profit cyber charters “recruit heavily and spend many millions of taxpayer dollars on advertising.”

          2) For profit cyber charters “typically collect state tuition for each student, which is removed from the local public schools’ budget.”

          3) For profit cyber charters “claim to offer customized, personalized education, but that’s just rhetoric.”

          4) For profit cyber charters “have high dropout rates, low test scores and low graduation rates.”

          5) Some for profit cyber charters “have annual attrition rates of 50 percent.”

          6) As long as for profit cyber charters “keep luring new students, they are very profitable for their owners and investors.”

          Those are her claims about for profit cyber charter schools in this article. Does not what we know about the field back up each claim? I can’t quibble with her about these points – and it is finally nice to see her specifically say “for-profit online charter schools” instead of simply “online schools”.

          • Here’s where the overgeneralization comes in:

            3) For profit cyber charters “claim to offer customized, personalized education, but that’s just rhetoric.”

            Some do actually customize and personalize education.

            4) For profit cyber charters “have high dropout rates, low test scores and low graduation rates.”

            Some do not have high dropout rates, low test scores and low graduation rates.

            It’s the overgeneralization that is the problem here. We can’t lump all cyber charters together. They are not created equal.

          • I always ask, and no cyber charter proponent has ever been able to give me a response that wasn’t just rhetoric and buzzwords, but if you are drawing the instruction from the same database and the only difference between Student A who does well on the standardized testing and only has to complete 60% of the database and Student B who does poorly on those tests and have to complete 85% of the database. How exactly is that personalized and customized? Is that just a fancy Skinner box?

            On point 4, as a field for profit cyber charters do “have high dropout rates, low test scores and low graduation rates.” Legislative audits have told us this, investigative journalists have told us this, even limited research has told us this. Are there gems out there? Sure. But that would be like saying that the US public education system is doing great based on the performance of Boston Latin School and Bronx High School of Science!

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