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When Futuristic EdTech Inventions Don’t Improve Learning

The Gizmodo article, 15 Technologies That Were Supposed to Change Education Forever is a collection of revealing and humorous inventions that people imagined could or would impact learning in “the future.” Given that we’re in a time of rapid technological development and access, it’s not surprising that there is renewed hype as EdTech hardware, software, and apps often claim to “revolutionize” education with promises similar to those predicted in the article. What I don’t see as much of, though, is a critical analysis of why those technologies—and many of the new ones today—can’t, don’t, and won’t live up to their hype for changing learning.

It’s not a difficult analysis, and the answer is pretty clear when you look at the pedagogical similarities between these inventions. You only have to consider each image and ask, “What are the students doing in these pictures?” In just about every image, students are passively receiving information. In some of the images, students are listening to text that has been converted to audio, in other images students are viewing a pre-recorded or live video on a screen, and other times a robot is delivering the information (although ironically, the robots always seem to be in front of a chalkboard). One picture even labels the image “Students receiving studies,” as if that’s all that is required to develop understanding and empower independent transfer in new situations. In a few of the instances, students are taking action, but they appear to be simply pushing buttons to regurgitate the information they just received.

Some of the technologies shared on this list have changed global communication, connection, and collaboration in profound ways. However, with regard to their use for learning and cognitive development, these inventions and many other education technologies like them make the incorrect pedagogical assumption that learning requires little more than accessing and receiving information in a timely manner and following a defined sequence. Access to information is important and helpful for learning, but it is far from sufficient. Just as personal fitness and weight training rely on independent muscle activity, learning relies on independent cognitive activity. Passively receiving and repeating information is simply not enough to result in sense-making and empower transfer.

And in the end, these technologies didn’t change education because they suffer from a key pedagogical design flaw. In short, learning is not accomplished by putting thoughts into a mind, but rather by empowering a mind to generate thoughts. Any technology advancement that hopes to have a meaningful impact on student understanding and performance will require students to interact with ideas and content in more dynamic and imaginative ways than we see on this list of 15 inventions. To improve learning, students need to do far more than simply push buttons to respond to problems that can be solved using Wolfram|Alpha and questions that can be answered with a quick Internet search.