Why Tech Still Hasn't Solved Education's Problems

One researcher has a compelling hypothesis as to why the once-booming ed-tech sector has struggled. 
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Children at a school in Abuja, Nigeria, use prototypes from the 'One Laptop Per Child' program in 2007. (Afolabi Sotunde/Reuters)

Remember MOOCs?

Two years ago, massive open online courses seemed to be everywhere. The wave of Internet-enabled disruption that had swept through the post office and the book store had now arrived at the quad, threatening the existence of America’s higher education system. Two private startups—Udacity and Coursera—and non-profit EdX were going to disrupt education by letting students “take the world's best courses, online, for free.

Now, as another school year lurches into gear, those companies have a meek record. Udacity tried replacing intro courses at San Jose State; it ended in failure. Coursera has begun to focus more on international markets. Where they used to speak of tech’s potential to change the classroom, venture capitalists now laud tech’s altering of city life.

Why is that? Why has the promised boom in educational technology failed to appear—and why was the technology that did appear not very good? 

Paul Franz has a guess as to why. Franz taught in Hawaii before, in 2011, researching ed tech as a doctoral candidate at Stanford. He’s now a language arts teacher in California. On his Twitter feed Sunday, he gave some reasons why the ed tech buzz seems to have simply disappeared. They mirror my own sentiment, that education is a uniquely difficult challenge, both technically and socially, and that its difficulty confounds attempts to “disrupt” it.

Here are his thoughts: 

“I don't think that technology / software are irrelevant to the challenges in education, but I think by their very nature there are issues they can't address,” he added in an email response:

Thinking about software as the primary way of solving problems (in any field) forces us to frame problems in terms that software is capable of addressing. That's especially dangerous in education because solving educational problems involves leveraging knowledge and expertise from pretty much every other social science (anthropology, economics, psychology, political science, etc), not to mention knowledge from content areas. Software might be good at categorizing and organizing knowledge, but it's not so good at synthesizing and applying knowledge in the creative, and often highly contextualized and personalized, ways that educators and educational leaders have to employ every day.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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