How Not to Do Educational Technology

At the start of each academic year, my university hires a speaker to address the full faculty, presumably to inspire us to take on new challenges. Like most universities, mine is interested in new and exciting uses of technology in instruction. This year, our speaker was Dr. Curtis Bonk, from Indiana University’s Instructional Technology Department and who, according to his web page, “firmly believes in distance learning since he is a product of it.” His web page also tells us that he “is listed in the Who’s Who in Instructional Technology.” So he should know.

The problem I had with his talk was that it was focused on the “technology” part of “educational technology” and not the “education.” Dr. Bonk seems to believe that technology will solve all problems. That if we simply use technology, all that is wrong with the world of education will be fixed. For example, he started his talk with many stories about his own boring accounting education. Toward the end of the talk, he showed us how exciting accounting education is now–professors are using PODCASTS! But the clip he showed us was a podcast of a boring lecture about accounting. He seems to think that simply using the latest, greatest technology will automatically make students want to learn. And that somehow the technology itself will HELP them learn. But his lack of focus on pedagogy was problematic.

The ironic thing to me about this idea is that Bonk himself comes out of a program that thought that using TV for educational purposes would revolutionize education. We all know that it hasn’t. And yet, Bonk has not learned from the failures of educational TV that technology in and of itself is not the answer. Why should we believe that using Web 2.0 technology–podcasts and Youtube and Twitter and Second Life–will somehow be different than all the other technologies that came before them? Bonk seems to think that Web 2.0 is somehow different than all the technology that came before it.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do believe that there are some interesting uses of technology that can truly help us to increase student learning. My problem is with those who think that using the latest, greatest technology will automatically increase student learning, that somehow the technology itself is a pedagogical tool. Bonk showed himself to be one of the people who believes in the power of the latest, greatest technology when he gave us a short discussion period and timed it using a freely downloadable PC-based timer. When he stopped our discussion, he said something like, “There. Use this timer and you’ve put technology into your class.” My questions were, “How is this different than an egg timer?” and “Will using this PC-based timer increase student learning compared to using an egg timer?” Bonk never addressed either question.

Bonk’s fascination with technology for the sake of technology was very clear when he discussed the capacity of flash memory drives. He showed us his latest thumb drive which holds 32 gigabytes of memory. He told us that soon such drives will hold a terabyte of memory and then, he asked dramatically, “What will knowledge be?” As though knowledge is about the number of facts that can be carried with you! Knowledge is about more than just facts. It is about being able to synthesize facts, being able to make connections between facts and being able to analyze those connections, being able to apply what you know in one context to a completely new context to reveal something about the world that no one has ever thought about before. More memory on a flash drive will not help students do this.

Technology in any context should be used only if it supports the goals of what you’re trying to do. As educators, we should not be advocating the use of technology for the sake of technology. We should be asking, “Which uses of technology increase our students’ learning?” That’s where we should be focusing our attention. Unfortunately, too many people think the latest, greatest technology in and of itself will solve all of our problems. And even more unfortunately, Curtis Bonk seems to think that technology is a panacea. A look at our long history of technologies that have failed to live up to their initial hype should remind us that there is no panacea.

4 Comments

  1. I found your post via a Google Alert, not for “Curtis Bonk” but for “education” and “technology.” Good on you for being appropriately skeptical. Every voice of sanity counts. : )

  2. When I went to the Redesign Alliance conference last Spring, I was surrounded with hundreds of TRUE BELIEVERS in the benefits of online teaching. When you asked them how they managed to create an open and effective learning community in an online course, they just blinked and then said “You do the same things you do in a bricks and mortar classroom!” Whatever those are. Could it be as simple as that? Good pedagogy translates seamlessly to the web?

    I think part of the problem is that most people teaching in Higher Ed. have never been extensively trained (or trained at all) as teachers anyway. Most of us learned by attempting to mimic our best teachers and our colleagues… and by trial and error. Aside from Reflective Practice groups, we STILL spend very little time talking about pedagogy. It’s almost like our discipline-expertise comes from our frontal lobes and our teaching comes from the brain stem. So asking about online pedagogy is like asking how someone regulates their pancreas differently while traveling in the air.

    I think we need to sic our RP group on this. We could spend part of the Spring discovering, listing and describing what makes our traditional classes open and effective learning communities. Then, in the Fall, we all teach an online course. That semester, we meet regularly to talk about how those best practices do or not translate to our online classrooms…and what new practices are effective.

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