U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan provides an almost parodistic version of the “technology will solve our education problems” meme today that is at once hilarious, depressing, and terrifying—the latter, because it heralds the arrival of another hugely expensive and wasteful taxpayer-funded boondoggle, in this case, the education-industrial complex.
If we can just pump enough high-tech products into the classroom, America’s students will suddenly become learned, Duncan and co-author Reed Hastings, founder of Netflix, write in the Wall Street Journal:
We are optimistic that with the right ideas the U.S. can become a leader in leveraging the power of technology to promote learning. . . . Imagine . . . an online high-school physics course that uses videogame graphics power to teach atomic interactions, or a second-grade online math curriculum that automatically adapts to individual students’ levels of knowledge.
Reality check: Students the world over have mastered atomic interactions without “videogame graphics” by hard mental work; if they are not willing to make an effort, no amount of scintillating “videogame graphics” will magically put that knowledge into their head while they are otherwise engaged in Facebook exchanges. Likewise, if a second-grade student is not paying attention in class or is showing up tired because his parent(s) is loudly partying all night, an individually-tailored math curriculum is not going to overcome those deficits.
Duncan shows the same boundless faith in technology to overcome student apathy and educational mediocrity as conservatives put into free market panaceas like vouchers. A government initiative created by Bush II, Digital Promise, is going to feed government contracts to the growing body of ed. tech. suppliers, explain Duncan and Hastings:
Digital Promise can show leadership in areas such as helping build a more efficient market for education technology . . . Digital Promise will also support new investments in research and development . . . To spur more R&D, Digital Promise can promote the rapid testing of new products modeled after Internet companies such as Netflix, which use low-cost experimentation to improve their products.
Education is not like the market for home entertainment systems, however. It is not a market in any sense of the word. It is a moral enterprise. It requires discipline on the part of students and parents, and on the part of teachers, a belief in their own educational and moral authority. We have lost the will, however, to speak about the need for individual effort and deferred gratification as the most important aspect of success.