What is the purpose of educational technology?

I am reading Larry Cuban’s book, Teachers and Machines from 1986.  In the book he calls instructional technology “any device available to teachers for use in instructing students in a more efficient and stimulating manner than the sole use of the teacher’s voice.” (p. 4).  Now, having read other works by Cuban, I believe he may be setting up a straw man argument – time will tell.  Yet, the definition got me thinking.

I like the definition because it expands our view of educational/instructional technology far beyond digital tools.  Knowing that technology expands beyond electronics is an important aspect of technological literacy.  However, I find the goal of efficiency problematic.  I am hard-pressed to think of a context in which I believe student learning should be efficient.  Let me rephrase: If students are actually learning, the process is not likely very efficient.  Learning is difficult, contextualized, and unpredictable.  These characteristics do not often come to mind when I think about efficiency.

Cuban also notes that the technology can aid in “stimulating” students.  I prefer the word “engaging”. We must ask ourselves “with what are students engaged?”

This morning, my science methods students were highly engaged in an activity in which they had to make a clay boat to float marbles.  They were using higher-orders of thinking, they were working collaboratively and being creative – all worthwhile goals.  However, when I asked them what they had learned about sinking and floating, they clearly saw they had learned nothing.  We referred to this as “activity-mania”.  While hands-on science activities are great, the teacher must take great steps to encourage students to mentally engage with the science principles.  Otherwise the kids have a lot of fun, but don’t actually learn anything about the science content.

In the above paragraph, my methods students were not engaged with science content, but they were engaged.  To identify this subtlety takes a very critical eye.  We must turn this eye on the engaging effects of technology.  We have to admit that students might be engaged with the technology without being engaged with the content we are attempting to teach.  If student engagement is with technology rather than content, we have likely undermined student learning rather than enhanced it.

If efficiency and engagement are both problematic uses of technology, what might the purpose be? Ira Socol has taught me about how technology can provide access where access was once limited or non-existant.  For example, a student who cannot read did not have access to certain kinds of information – but audiobooks and digital audio readers have opened many closed doors. Yet, what purpose might instructional technology carry for teachers?

I have found my favorite use of technology is to make students’ thinking more transparent.  That is, I can use technology to gain greater access to students’ ideas and interpretations.  When my students have a discussion on twitter, I can revisit the discussion later – giving myself time to reflect on what students might be missing or how I might help them make a missing connection. When my students blog, I can pour over their writing and examine the comments they leave for each other.  When they create concept maps using mindmiester.com, I can see how they connect disparate ideas.  Yet, I could do each of these things without the use of computer technology.  So what is the purpose?

I am left with making each of those things easier to document, access, and share.  The technology makes something easier, but it does not make them better.  None of the things mentioned above will help my students learn content better than a 20th century version of the same task (ex: making a concept map on paper is not less beneficial than making one on mindmiester).

So as far as student learning and thinking are concerned, it really isn’t about the technology. What an interesting conclusion.

This entry was posted in Critical Examination of Technology, Educ 107 - Learning & Assessment, Educ 109 - Educational Technology, Science Education, Technology in the Classroom and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to What is the purpose of educational technology?

  1. Can’t get past the assertion that your students did not learn anything by doing the clay boats. I suspect they simply didn’t see the relevance between what they did learn and how it applied to your lesson. A few pointed questions would no doubt have revealed more (but I suspect you know that ;)

    Isn’t it funny how we get stuck on the “hows” to the detriment of the “whys”?


    • jerridkruse says:

      Thanks for your comment, but my point (as i said on twitter) was that they notice how they didn’t learn anything about sinking and floating. Then ask them to reflect on why that was the case. I want them to avoid activity mania, but first they have to experience activity mania to understand why they should avoid it :) My “poor lesson” was very much on purpose.

      You are right, it is amazing how a few pointed questions make all the difference.


  2. Kelsey says:

    I appreciate your statement, “If students are actually learning, the process is not likely very efficient. Learning is difficult, contextualized, and unpredictable.” Last week when I was in one of my praticums, the teacher mentioned to me that she just needed to get through the math and that the class was behind. I wondered if she was pressured by administration or if she really just believes that teaching is “getting through the content.”


    • jerridkruse says:

      Unfortunately, the “standards” movement has only increased teachers’ view that “covering” content is what matters. However, if we consider what students actually learning, we know that we need to carefully organize our content around “big ideas” that we can continually come back too. Real learning takes time, while memorizing and then forgetting is very quick….but pointless.


  3. Hello,
    After reading your post I had a smile on my face because you actually said the real truth. It’s true that we can use technology to make life easier, but you can also do it on paper. The students will learn and have the say knowledge afterwards.

    However, I think that after reading this passage; ” Ira Socol has taught me about how technology can provide access where access was once limited or non-existant. For example, a student who cannot read did not have access to certain kinds of information – but audiobooks and digital audio readers have opened many closed doors” I realized that technology does open a lot of doors, and I should be thankful for it.


  4. Tyler Rice says:

    One of the greatest benefits that I have found from having students work electronically is the willingness to revise. This is the same reason that I often have them use poster-sized whiteboards to create diagrams, concept maps, etc.

    When students do their work on paper, they consider it to be permanent. Revision of work done on paper means discarding the first draft and starting over. For many of my students, that is where they quit. The act of re-writing and entire paper, lab report, poster, etc. is too much for many of them.

    I give students feedback with the expectation that they “revise & redeem” based on that feedback. Students are infinitely more willing to do that when the work is electronic (or on a whiteboard).

    To capture their whiteboard work, I just have them snap a quick picture of it with a digital camera.


    • jerridkruse says:

      This is where I think the tech is actually more real world. Often the “real world” argument is nothing more than a straw man. However, having kids write a rough draft on paper is anti-real world. I have never written a draft of anything on paper since 1998. The only thing i really do on paper is quick notes. My point in my post is that the technology is not necessary, nor is it the tech that changes our focus. We the teachers must change the focus of schooling.

      You, tyler, already know that, but I wrote it anyway for other readers who might be wrestling with the issue.


  5. Jared Datema says:

    Although reading your blog was a requirement for my EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama, I have really enjoyed it and I plan to keep following it. Your comments on stimulating the students with technology without engaging them in the subject is something that I had not thought about. In our class, we often discuss the fact that students are so stimulated outside of the classroom, and we have to make sure that our lessons are interesting enough to keep their attention. However, we do not often discuss the fact that we could simply be stimulating them without engaging them in the topic. Thank you.


  6. Pingback: What is the purpose of educational technology? Interesting Blog » EDCI-55400

  7. Rachel says:

    Maybe the purpose of some of the technology can be just to engage the students. I have several disenfranchised students; school means nothing, it is not fun, so why bother? But when I bring some tech in, they get a little more interested, a little more engaged. Then I can bring in the skill work. I’ve got their attention. I agree that the learning isn’t from the tech, but I am glad to have and use the tech if it means they may learn now that I have them engaged.

    Rachel T.


  8. Rachel says:

    I agree with that too, and as I teach high school, that is what I try to do. They are old enough to see through tricks and old enough to see the relevance of the content. Some of them anyway.


  9. Haileyr says:

    Hi! My name is Hailey Rascoe. I am in Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama. I think if kids are engaged with technology, what would be a better way of teaching them? Engage them! Allow them to be interested in what they are doing. Technology is such a huge part of our society.I appreciate your statement, “If students are actually learning, the process is not likely very efficient. Learning is difficult, contextualized, and unpredictable.” This is so true! It is hard and it is different for each and every student. I appreciate everything you have written within this post! Well said. MY BLOG!!


    • jerridkruse says:

      Thanks for the comment. I’ll disagree that using technology is a good way to engage students. If students are engaged with the technology, they might not be engaged with the content to be learned – this is not necessarily the case, but something to think carefully about.


    • Naniinge says:

      i would like to share with anybody who is intersting in the educational technologist. via ma e-mail contact address. tmmtangy@gmail


  10. what are the purposes and goals of educational technology?


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  15. LONKYDORE says:

    i appreciate the above discussion which gives courage and experiance to most teachers and scholas of education.i’m in support of the above ideas which emphasises on student engagement with thwe content.In addition to the adove , to those students with better interest with new information and computers and techinology will beneffit moren through visualisation.


    • LONKYDORE says:

      I would likev to encourage all students who are trainning to become teachers as to like my only bevoled sister FLORENCE, not to only think that through the use of techinology the pass rate will accelarate.the use of visuals only aid to you learners the ideas you already feed them with inorder to understand the cdoncepts and content easily but not cheaply.to you” teachers in the air ” ilke GIDZA u should borne all these in mind


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