I still vividly remember when my A-level maths teacher – in 2002 – announced to our class that she would be using the latest educational technological innovation for our class. The innovation in question? The interactive whiteboard.
After a few lessons accustoming ourselves to this new revolutionary way of doing things, and a few clunky lessons in which we did some activities that allowed us to use the interactive whiteboard too, she, in an off-the-cuff manner, asked us what our thoughts were about the interactive whiteboard.
“Well Miss, it seems to do pretty much exactly what the whiteboard does, except your handwriting isn’t as legible, there is less space to write things, and it takes several minutes to start-up and log-in at the beginning of the lesson only to then sometimes crash. Can we go back to using the whiteboard please?”
We didn’t use the interactive whiteboard much after that initial trial run. But when I started teaching, I was surprised to learn that many teachers still do not use interactive whiteboards very much; given an interactive whiteboard and a board stood side-by-side, many would rather reach for the board pen. Certainly, there are few classrooms that only have interactive whiteboards and that are not augmented with a traditional whiteboard.
Proponents of the forthcoming EdTech revolution (that’s been perpetually on its way for the past 100 or so years, by the way) are quick to call such teachers paleo-mats or luddites: the technology is fantastic, they say, and it will revolutionise learning in the 21st century, we just need the dinosaurs to get on board. But maybe those who shun EdTech are on to something. Could there be legitimate reasons for the failed adoption of EdTech?
Technology needs to solve a problem for it be useful
The less-than-enthusiastic uptake of the interactive whiteboard is a good case-study for why EdTech innovations fail to live up to their hype. The interactive whiteboard hasn’t replaced the traditional whiteboard because it’s a classic example of what engineers call “feature-creep”.
Yes, interactive whiteboards allow you to write in any colour you want, to draw all manner of shapes, and to save your writing. But these are merely “nice to have” features that didn’t solve any pressing needs of classroom teaching.
Teaching in a room without a whiteboard of any kind can feel debilitating: having a blank canvas on which to write notes, draw diagrams, and to share ideas is hugely important. But the traditional whiteboard already did that. The interactive whiteboard didn’t solve any real problems, and that’s why many still choose to avoid using it.
Here’s the acid test: if you had to setup a minimal classroom, a “desert-island” classroom in which only the bare essentials were available for use, but that would still allow you to be a decent teacher, what would you choose? A traditional whiteboard, a pen, some desks, and some chairs would be mine; the interactive whiteboard is a nice-to-have, but not a deal breaker.
The downsides of EdTech are always overlooked
The less legible writing, the smaller screen space, the unreliability and the start-up time are a few things that can make using an interactive whiteboard less than seamless. But the impact of these small downsides are often underestimated. Good technological innovation almost always involves removing barriers to use, or at least mitigating their impact.
In the best, truly visionary cases, it involves removing barriers that people didn’t even realise were there: the iPhone is a case in point.
The accumulation of these niggling annoyances quickly mean that in a time constrained world, people stop using the technology altogether: if your web connection is so slow that it takes 10 seconds to load a web page, you stop looking at webpages and do other things. Those amongst us who remember the days of 56k modems will remember making a cup of tea while waiting for a website to load.
These examples are trivial, but illustrate that even minor annoyances can inhibit the adoption of a particular technology.
There are more severe problems with EdTech that – to my mind – could be fatal for its ultimate ubiquity. For example, we know that learning things using pen and paper leads to better retention of the material than doing the equivalent learning on a screen or tablet. We also know that large amounts of screen time is worse for your eyes and concentration than experiencing the same material on pen and paper. Yet the impact of this is frequently downplayed or ignored entirely by those insistent on the benefits of EdTech.
Finally, I have yet to see a proper attempt at reconciling the realities of becoming an expert with the realities of having one of the world’s most accomplished procrastination devices at one’s fingertips. When I study, I work hard to create an environment free from distractions: I go to libraries and leave my devices at home; when I worked as a professional physicist, I rarely saw people using tablets or screens to learn material, only to do work. I fondly remember a colleague who used to print off entire wikipedia articles and take them to a cubicle in the silent section of the library.
Expecting people to excel in an environment full of distractions is a bit like expecting somebody to lose weight while putting a cookie jar next to their desk: possible, but more difficult.
The EdTech heuristic
I am no luddite: I wrote my first website when I was 12, I studied computational physics at university, and I published a peer-reviewed article on using an iPad app to do physics experiments. I genuinely believe there is an important role for EdTech to play in education, but at the moment, few EdTech innovations are fulfilling their promises.
When evaluating the merits of a particular EdTech innovation, I use the following heuristic: what problem does it solve? What are the downsides that nobody is talking about?
Asking those two questions is enough to understand why most EdTech innovations fail to live up to their hype, and similarly, enough to help evaluate whether a particular EdTech innovation might be the game changer it promises to be.