TechWatch: Technology in Education: Asking the Right Questions

By Albert M. Erisman

Schools from the kindergarten level through the university level are rushing to embrace technology in their educational programs. Businesses are aggressively seeking to use technology effectively in educational programs for employee training (see Conversation with Richard Osgood).

It’s not hard to understand the reasons for this enthusiasm. Information technology has recently become the largest single industry segment in the U.S. Technology seems to be the key to good jobs. Technology also seems to open up worlds for learning. Some science projects, and some foreign experiences which are out of reach (because of danger or cost) for the educational experience, are made possible, at least through simulation, by technology. Further, the continued decline in cost of technology makes these tools more broadly available.

Since it seems obvious that technology enriches the learning experience, it is no wonder careful analysis is seldom done. What is the question for which technology is the answer? Sometimes it is simply assumed that more technology will assure an improved educational result.

Recently I had the opportunity to participate in developing a technology strategy for a K-12 school district. We identified some key questions for consideration. Interestingly, these questions are not much different than those appropriate to any business adopting technology.

The key questions are not how much RAM to buy on the next PC, or which operating system to get for the networked PCs on campus. Ultimately such details need to be addressed, but they come much further down the line. The high priority questions are:

  • How will the technology help to achieve the educational mission?
  • What will be the cost of implementing the technology plan?
  • How will success be defined and measured?

The answers often given to these questions are surprisingly naive. Computers will aid students in writing reports, including the use of word processors and the Web for research. Students will get better jobs because they will be technologically literate. Cost is simply the cost of the computers. Some consider the cost to get on-line as well. Very few raise the question of measuring success. It is assumed. But let’s look a bit deeper at these questions.

Mission and Use Questions

Information technology is a part of education for several quite different reasons. We can learn about technology, through technology, and because of technology. In addition, technology can provide an infrastructure which supports education, including both educational and administrative functions.

Learning about technology is a tricky one, because of the obsolescence factor. It used to be that students were taught BASIC programming because this was thought to be a valuable skill. In fact those who learned BASIC in elementary school probably never had a chance to use it when they left school because of the changing computing environment. The same may well be true of learning DOS, or even Windows today. On the other hand, learning these things gave students a certain comfort with how computers worked, and may have been very valuable indirectly.

Learning through technology includes anything from basic word processing for writing reports, to using the Web for research, to computer simulations in science classes, to the computational capability in math. While these can support learning, they can also work against learning if the student doesn’t learn to spell, merely downloads a term paper from the Web, fails to understand the limitations of a computer simulation, or doesn’t learn to add.

These examples suggest there is some different learning required because of technology. A spell checker can certainly validate spelling for individual words, but doesn’t guarantee the right word or sense. This requires a different type of proofreading skill. The Web can provide lots of information, but much of it is not reviewed so a different skill is needed to validate material. Computer simulations can give very reasonable but wrong answers, and so require a level of insight to understand reasonableness and to validate answers. Finally, mathematics is much more than the manipulation, but is also about insight. Here again a skill of estimating reasonableness is vital.

These are only simple examples, but they underscore how the educational objectives, or mission, of the school may be changed by incorporating technology.

Other uses of computing can provide an infrastructure for education. Networked computers can link students with students, teachers with parents and students, etc. enhancing communication. The technology can support administrative tasks such as grading, scheduling, attendance, and the like. Without carefully thinking through how these are done, however, they can add a great deal of work and expense to fairly simple tasks. Using the computer may end up eliminating face to face discussion, which is rarely a good idea.

The Cost and Trade-off Questions

In cost as in use, the challenge is to understand not just the obvious costs but the hidden ones as well. Pricing computers is just the beginning.  Software adds cost.  Networks enabling communications between users and with data sources add cost. Maintenance and support of the whole system add both real and hidden costs. Real costs include training, assisting users, fixing problems, maintaining security and reliability, etc. Hidden costs involve the time taken from other tasks, or troubleshooting things that “ought” to work. A side benefit from this, however, is the students end up working together to solve the technology problems. Traditional education is often primarily individual work, and working together is a vital skill.

Finally, but not exhaustively, there is the cost from the pace of changing technology. Almost certainly, the computer purchased this year will be obsolete and require replacement in three Years, if not for today’s task, then for tomorrow’s task. Don’t think of a lap top purchase for a student as a one time event!

Assessment and Success Questions

For all of the reasons discussed above, achieving an appropriate use of technology that supports real learning is remarkably difficult to define and measure. Todd Openheimer, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, July 1997, says “There is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve teaching or learning.”

Professor John Hayes, the Director of the Carnegie Mellon University Center for Innovation in Learning told me of an educational computing system developed for classroom experimentation in the early 90s. Teachers, students and parents were enthusiastic about the system, even though it was very costly. In the end, however, no measurable change in learning was found, and the experiment was abandoned.

These results may be due to poor implementations in the classroom. They may be due to measuring the wrong things. There may be failure because technology simply added no value. On the other hand, there are significant successes in the use of technology in learning. (See Computers Not Used Property, In the News.)

Success with technology can be significant, but achieving it is neither guaranteed nor obvious.


“Wiring the schools is expected to cost more than $47 billion by 2007,” according to the USA Today, October 7, 1997, p. 13A. This spending should be tempered by careful thoughts on use, hidden costs, and measures of benefit. In the words of a notable software advertisement, “Where do you want to go today?” If you are an educator, it may be back to the mission statement for a hard look at how and in what way technology will enhance learning.


Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology.
He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990,
and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.

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