Technology as ‘Hamburger Helper’



By 11/29/2012

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Just recently, Forbes magazine engaged in another bit of embarrassing hyperbole, titling a cover story on the Khan Academy, “One Man, One Computer, 10 Million Students: How Khan Academy Is Reinventing Education.” Sigh… It reminded me of so much overzealous commentary on ed tech.

Technology has long been offered as the miraculous balm that will transform and improve teaching and learning. Enthusiasts have said this about iPads, laptops, the Internet, desktop computers, televisions, videotapes, well . . . you get the idea. And, in most sectors, technology has indeed yielded huge savings and delivered massive increases in productivity. In education, though, it’s been a different story. With each new advance, districts spend heavily on nifty new gizmos, make grand promises, and get lots of enthusiastic press. And then, each time, nothing much changes. If anything, technology always seems to make schooling more costly. Here’s the thing: technology is a powerful tool for driving productivity and quality, in schooling as elsewhere; the problem is not with the technology, but with how we’ve used it.

As I argue in Cage-Busting Leadership, due out early next year (you can check out the book pagehere), it’s more useful to think of technology not as a solution but as “Hamburger Helper.” Except for the occasional cash-strapped graduate student, Hamburger Helper isn’t an alternative to ground beef; it’s something that you stir into the pan so that the beef goes further. The key is to regard technology as the means to the end you’d like to achieve, rather than an end in itself.

Enthusiasm for “disruptive innovation” has sometimes blinded us to the fact that, 99 percent of the time, the biggest impact of technology is optimizing familiar tasks and routines–freeing up talent, time, and dollars for better uses. If teachers with one-to-one devices can, each day, spend ten minutes fewer entering data and grading quizzes, ten minutes fewer passing and collecting texts and papers, and ten minutes fewer walking students to the library or accessing student data, they will save eighty or ninety hours a year. That’s like another 15 instructional days that they can devote to instruction, mentoring, or lesson design.

Too often, rather than using new tools to free up time or make better use of talent or money, we’ve ladled them over what’s already in place. Steve Hockett, principal of Colvin Run Elementary in Fairfax County, Virginia, and former principal in residence at the US Department of Education, says, “People want the fastest, the best, the newest. I’ve gone into schools where they say, ‘We have smart, interactive whiteboards in every classroom.’ And then I’ll go visit classrooms and they’re basically using the whiteboard as an overhead projector where the print can’t even be seen in the back of the room. So it’s not interactive and it’s not even a very good overhead projector, yet it costs $2,500.”

Hockett explains, “School technology is really a vehicle and a tool. People are basically spending lots of money to own a Ferrari to drive a block to the store and back every day . . . They just felt that they had to jump and buy the next best iteration, but yet aren’t even utilizing what they have.” Ann Bonitatibus, associate superintendent of Maryland’s Frederick County Public Schools, sounds a lot like Hockett, noting that principals will “spend a couple thousand dollars on SMART Boards and then there won’t be a teacher in the building trained to use one. The high-tech board becomes nothing more than a glorified whiteboard, which is a waste of a resource and taxpayer money.”

Technology can be a powerful lever for rethinking schools and systems. But it’s the rethinking that matters, not the technology. Technology provides tools to help solve problems smarter, deliver knowledge, support students, extend and deepen instruction, and refashion cost structures. Unfortunately, too many educators, industry shills, and technology enthusiasts seem to imagine that the technology itself will be a difference maker.

-Rick Hess

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.




Comment on this article
  • Polish translator Warsaw says:

    Technology does not change a lot. “A foll with a tool sttill is a fool”.

  • Edward Foster says:

    Dr. Hess simply fails to realize that teachers are really not prepared in advance for how to most effectively use the new technologies to make their contact time with students more meaningful. They have not been given proper instruction in advance of how these tools can make classrooms more than an opportunity for teachers to act as oracles. Sudents can gain more INFORMATION from data bases than from teachers. The teachers role should become more the mentor and guide than information spewing humans. You’re absolutely correct, school systems invest heavily in technology before staff development. I was a change agent in my district and found most staff hesitant to accept anything new. The administration would not give them released time to learn how to best utilize the new devices. There was no question about buying stuff, but training got short shrift. The iPad could be a wonderful, interactive textbook, allowing students to carry all the text material in one small package. Each chapter could include questions, testing comprehension and providing feedback to the classroom teacher. It could also include film clips where appropriate. All that is needed is the proper allocation and planning in advance to make that tool a great addition to the classroom environment.
    I read about a school district on Long Island that provided iPads to each student, but dropped their music and art programs to pay for it. What a pity.

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