The Benefits of Technology (page 3)
The schools we described above, one in Oklahoma and two in Ohio, are unknown to most Americans. And as innovations, they barely make a ripple in the vast sea that is the nation's public school system. But they are harbingers of things to come.
Like so many other novelties that surround us these days, from iPods to YouTube to Wikipedia, they are expressions of a profound social force—the revolution in information technology—that while still in process, is fast generating one of the most important transformations in all of human history. Because we are all enmeshed in this revolution every day, most of us are naturally inclined to take it for granted as a normal part of our lives, and to have a difficult time appreciating the enormity of its longer-term implications. But the fact is, it is radically changing our world.
The information revolution has globalized the international economy, made communication and social networking—among anyone, anywhere—virtually instantaneous and costless, put vast storehouses of information and research within reach of everyone on the planet, dramatically boosted the prospects of cooperation and collective action, internationalized the cultures of previously insulated nations, and in countless other ways transformed the fundamentals of human society. The new schools in Oklahoma and Ohio are an integral part of all this. They are among the first stirrings of a revolution in how children can learn and be educated.
The possibilities are exciting—and astounding. Even today, with educational technology in its earliest stages:
- Curricula can be customized to meet the learning styles and life situations of individual students, giving them productive alternatives to the boring standardization of traditional schooling.
- Education can be freed from geographic constraint: students and teachers do not have to meet in a building within a school within a district, but can be anywhere, doing their work at any time.
- Students can have more interaction with their teachers and with one another, including teachers and students who may be thousands of miles away or from different nations or cultures.
- Parents can readily be included in the communications loop and involved more actively in the education of their kids.
- Teachers can be freed from their tradition-bound classroom roles, employed in more differentiated and productive ways, and offered new career paths.
- Sophisticated data systems can put the spotlight on performance, make progress (or the lack of it) transparent to all concerned, and sharpen accountability.
- Schools can be operated at lower cost, relying more on technology (which is relatively cheap) and less on labor (which is relatively expensive).
These advantages only begin to describe the educational promise of technology, and it is guaranteed to continue generating innovations at a breathtaking pace in the years ahead. The great power of technology is that no one really knows what it will produce or make possible in the future. Who would have thought, not so long ago, that such a thing as the Internet could even exist? Or that any child could use a laptop computer to gain access to massive compendiums of information on virtually any topic of interest? These are mind-blowing developments.
Although the advance of educational technology is still in its early stages, there can be little doubt that the information revolution has the capacity to revolutionize education. It could hardly be otherwise. Information and knowledge are absolutely fundamental to what education is all about—to what it means, in fact, for people to become educated—and it would be impossible for the information revolution to unfold and not have transformative implications for how children can be educated and how schools and teachers can more productively do their jobs.
But to say that technology is hugely beneficial and that it has the capacity to revolutionize American education does not mean that this revolution is actually going to happen.11 That is the question at hand, the question this book is written to address. Will the promise of technology be realized in practice—and transform and improve the nation's public schools?
The answer might seem obvious. Given the stagnation in performance that has long plagued American education, and given the long-standing inability of reform efforts to bring real improvement, the revolution in information technology clearly opens up exciting opportunities for revitalizing the education system and making it much more productive. Surely these opportunities will be greeted with open arms and put to creative use in promoting innovation, driving change, and doing what is best for kids. Surely technology will triumph—and transform the education system.
But this line of argument is too easy. It focuses on the force for change—the benefits of technology—and there is much more to the story than that. Consider the plight of the Wisconsin Virtual Academy (WVA), a charter school operated by Wisconsin's Northern Ozaukee school district in cooperation with K12 Inc., a for-profit company. This school is one of the pioneers in bringing distance-learning technologies to public education: providing a rigorous, customized curriculum to students who "attend" from locations all over the state of Wisconsin, and whose needs were not being met by their own districts. Exciting, right? But also threatening to the districts that are losing students and resources to this innovative school. And threatening to the state teachers union, which, among other things, wants to protect the jobs of teachers in those districts, and does not like WVA's ability (facilitated by technology) to operate at lower teacher-student ratios. So the teachers union went to court to have WVA—and implicitly, all schools like it in the state of Wisconsin—put out of business, claiming that the school's mode of operation violates existing state education laws (which were written without distance learning in mind).
We'll continue this story in a later chapter. But what it represents is something quite fundamental. The force of technology is up against a counterforce: resistance by groups that do not want the traditional education system to change. Precisely because technology promises to transform the core components of schooling, it is inevitably disruptive to the jobs, routines, and resources of the people whose livelihoods derive from the existing system—and these people are represented by organizations that are extraordinarily powerful in politics. They are trying to use that power to prevent technology from transforming American education. And they will continue to do so in the future.
This mobilization of power to block change is not unique to technology. It is, in microcosm, the saga of American education reform. America has been dissatisfied with the performance of its public schools for decades now, and has persistently tried to reform and improve them, but with disappointing results. A prime reason for all the disappointment is that reforms that really promise to change things are also threatening to groups with material stakes in the existing system—and throughout the reformist era, they have used their political power to prevent major change and preserve the status quo. This being so, the American education system faces much more than a performance problem. It also faces a political problem that, in the grander scheme of things, is more fundamental than the performance problem itself—because it prevents the performance problem from being seriously addressed and resolved.
The political problem that hamstrings American education is in fact a common problem throughout American government, and deeply rooted in the nature of things. For there are vested interests—groups with a material stake in the status quo—in every area of public policy, and they tend to be organized, powerful, and quite successful at using the political process to prevent reform within their own policy domains. Why is it so difficult for the United States to move toward a more rational and comprehensive health care system, and thus to resolve what most experts regard as a very serious performance problem? A prime reason is that insurance companies, pharmaceutical companies, and other businesses with a vested interest in the current health care system are threatened by any major overhaul, and they use their considerable power in the political process to block. Why does the nation continue to subsidize cotton, soybeans, and other crops—including tobacco, one of the most harmful substances in American society—when most experts agree that the subsidies make no good sense and the system should be radically changed? Here too, the main reason this problem can't be resolved is that farmers, tobacco companies, and related businesses with a vested interest in the system are politically powerful, and they use their power to block any shift to a new policy.
To say that the deck is stacked against change in public education, then, is simply to recognize a basic reality of government and politics. A stacked deck is normal. And so is the expectation that, as technology generates new ideas and possibilities with great promise for American education, political power will be wielded to put a lid on what technology can really do—and to ensure that the revolution in information technology does not transform the traditional education system.
The nation's schools will only be transformed if this political resistance can somehow be overcome. This is a tall order, to say the least, for it reflects the very same political problem that education reforms of all types have been up against—and largely defeated by—for decades. Why should technology be any different? When all is said and done, this is the pivotal issue.
The central claim of our book is that technology is different. It is different, of course, because of its sheer enormity as a historic social force, and because of the great benefits it promises for learning and education. But these drivers of change are not enough to overcome the inevitable resistance. What sets technology apart from other sources of reform is that, as we will discuss in our final chapter, it also has a far-reaching capacity to change politics—and to eat away, relentlessly and effectively, at the political barriers that have long prevented reform. Technology, then, is a double-barreled agent of change. It generates the innovations that make change attractive, and at the same time it undermines the political resistance that would normally prevent change from happening. It pushes for change—and opens the political gates.
This is not to say that the triumph of technology will come easily, because it won't. There will be struggles and setbacks, and the process will take decades. But the forces of resistance will ultimately be overcome, leading to a transformation of the American school system. This will mean real improvement, and real benefits for the nation and its children. It will also mean something still more profound: the dawning of a new era in which politics is more open, productive ideas are more likely to flourish—and learning is liberated from the dead hand of the past.
11 In fact, computers and instructional software have been in schools for a generation without making much of a dent in education. Some observers believe this imerviousness of the school system to technology is detined to contintue into the future. See, especially, Larry Cuban, Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).