Magical Thinking Watch: The Education-Industrial Complex Will Make Us Learned

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. 



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5 Responses to Magical Thinking Watch: The Education-Industrial Complex Will Make Us Learned

  1. MWStory says:

    For a glimpse at how educational tech has actually been introduced to the classroom, the New York Times has come good:

    “In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.”

  2. John says:

    “or a second-grade online math curriculum that automatically adapts to individual students’ levels of knowledge”

    When it turns out that some students are learning faster than others, expect howls of indignation that the computer programs discriminate against the disadvantaged.

  3. Tom M says:

    And we should make them write all their assignments with a stub of chalk on the slate back of a hornbook, because plenty of students the world over have learned without fancy “notebooks” and “pens” and “word processors”. Please. Technology *is* an important part of what our students need to learn. It’s a false dichotomy to say that technology isn’t a panacea for failed families. Sure it’s not, but neither are ballpoint pens, and neither are multiplication tables! But it *is* an important part of what I expect job applicants in my high-tech office to excel at, and it *is* an important part of how my high-tech office disseminates information, and come to think of it, it *is* how Ms MacDonald communicates her points to her readers.

    Let’s not even discuss whether we’ve “lost the will” to blather on about personal responsibility. I’ve never heard so much endless yammering about something that we’ve lost the will to speak about.

    All this aside, just calling a position “magical thinking” because we disagree with it, or because we believe it’s not well-supported by facts, doesn’t “magically” make it a topic germane to this blog’s mission statement. This topic really has nothing to do with secular issues, or with religious incursion into the conservative domain. It’s merely neoconservative talking points, posted on the nearest however-inappropriate stump available.

  4. Larry, San Francisco says:

    My 12 year old daughter does a lot of on-line studying (mainly through the Khan Academy). She really likes it and her math skills have really picked up. Using on-line technology for lectures (from instructors who are really good at lecturing) and then having teachers help students with problem solving (which can be online) would be an enormous improvement. The integration of this technology is not simple and our schools will probably screw it up.

  5. Heather, Arne Duncan’s stated intent is irrelevant. The US government will spend on educational technology to help the lowest performers. But the resulting technology will be used by the brightest and most motivated. So the most driven and brightest will soar even faster and higher.

    Educational technology will not be used so much to make the classroom more productive as it will be used to make the classroom more avoidable by self-starters and smarties. So it will become easier to escape the dysfunctional aspects of educational institutions today.

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