Less is more in technology and in education

Teaching computers without computers

This 2017 piece about teaching computing to students in Finland without the use of ipads and other tech toys came to me from Pocket's algorithms today (they know me too well...)[^1]. The subtitle (“Students can learn the basics with a set of knitting needles”) is evocative, but the whole article is worth a read because it highlights an important principle in education and technology: “knowing how to use something isn’t the same as understanding how it works.” And, more pragmatically:

The Finns are pretty bemused by Americans’ preoccupation with whether to put iPads in every classroom. If a tablet would enhance learning, great. If it wouldn’t, skip it. Move on. The whole thing is a little tilting-at-windmills, anyway.

What's strikes me about this example is that these teachers are not opting for simple technologies out of deprivation or lack of access to tools. Though not having tools due to need can spur innovation that deserves much praise (e.g. teaching computing without computers in Ghana), the problem with American edtech seems more often a glut of products and services and, what is even more pernicious, the cycle of consumption and imaginary demand. The kids need the stuff! Not only does focusing on the stuff foster dividing lines around who can afford technology and who can't, reinforcing social, economic, racial, and gendered divisions as digital ones, but even for those schools awash in technological goodies, it is not necessarily a good thing. How often does the presence of all that stuff compel teachers to focus on teaching the stuff more than the underlying principles? How much do students learn how to use something in lieu of learning the deeper mysteries of understanding how that something works? This is not to criticize teachers; rather, focusing on the stuff means we have our priorities backwards from the first day.

I see this all the time with my students. They know a few features of how to get their device to do something but have no understanding of how computers work. Technology is a black box, utterly mysterious and impenetrable. Change the physical stuff and they are helpless.

The consequences of this approach to technology by students are extreme. It means taking for granted the algorithms that increasingly regulate our daily lives. It means feeling always at a loss in the face of technological trouble. It means not understanding the basic digital and technological make-up of the modern world.

A critic might note at this point that there are all sorts of technologies which people generally don't understand. What's the big deal?

I agree that there are plenty of technologies, simple and complex, whose inner workings one doesn't need to know to proceed about one's day. We don't all need to be airline mechanics or even auto mechanics in order to fly on planes and drive our cars. But at some level most people do understand the basic principles of how these machines work. They are not magic and they are not completely opaque. One may not know the technical vocabulary or have the detailed engineering understanding, but it is not complicated to know the basic function of these devices and how they achieve these functions. Computing often seems different than this, where students are ok with being in a state of learned helplessness.

But the article isn't really about students. The article is about teachers and that, I think, is the more important lesson. This kind of thinking through the technology, the choice not to adopt ipads and the technology du jour, the focus on teaching principles of computing rather than how to use a particular piece of software, all seems connected to the (often lauded) Finnish system of professionalization in education. Teachers have autonomy, training, and investment to pursue the hard work required for this sort of holistic approach.

That is all to say that issues of edtech are not just about technology. We think sometimes of technology as something imported into a classroom. But this is mistaken. How educators handle technology mirrors the way that education and teachers are valued in general. If we want better edtech — whether that's edtech in droves or, as I tend to advocate, less technology but used for more focused ends — we need to empower teachers, both ideologically and financially.

Or, to put it very simply, an ipad for every student is money that could be paid to teachers. That's money that could be put to teacher training. That's money that should pay for people, not Silicon Valley's distraction gizmos.

[1] Between pocket's habit of unearthing old articles I find interesting and Google pushing “on this day last year” pictures to my phone, I sometimes find myself thinking that algorithms are not all that bad. Rarely, but sometimes.