wasting bandwidth since 1999

A Pretty Poor Investment

In the current issue of Washington Monthly, Kevin Carey looks at why the price of higher education is rising much faster than inflation despite the fact that many schools are using technology to reduce costs, sometimes dramatically.

Colleges are perfectly capable of becoming more efficient and productive, in the same way that countless other industries have: through technology. And increasingly, they are. One of the untold stories in higher education is that the cost of teaching is starting to decline, but virtually none of those savings are being passed along to students and parents in the form of lower prices. Instead, colleges are pocketing the difference, even as they continue to jack up tuition bills.

It’s tempting to see the automation of college teaching as educational malpractice, a ploy to water down instruction and put professors out of work just to save a few bucks. But there’s persuasive evidence that the opposite is true–properly used, technology can make higher education better, not worse.

So, at the K12 level, we’ve also been pouring large amounts of money into technology over the past decade or more.

Is the “cost of teaching” also dropping for us? Is technology making teaching and learning in our classrooms better.


The reason is that we buy lots of equipment and software, put it in the classroom, connect it all together, and then don’t use it.

At least we don’t use it in any transformative way. Certainly nothing like the Math Emporium project featured in this story.

We still approach teaching as a process that almost exclusively involves the transmission of knowledge from one expert to a group of non-experts massed together in a single room, with the assumption that those non-experts have little or no capability to learn on their own.

Let’s face it. In almost any class we teach, college or not, there is an “information delivery” component and an interactive component, the one that helps students understand and use the data they’ve acquired.

For many students (I’d argue most at the high school level) the information delivery part doesn’t need to be done in a formal class setting or even in a building we call “school”. It’s one job at which technology excels.

On the other hand, that interactivity, which adds context and meaning to learning and is the most important part of the education process, requires human beings connected, communicating, and exchanging thoughts.

Some of that could also be done online, of course, but it depends largely on the needs and abilities of the students.

Which leads to another way we’ve failed to use technology to make education better.

Over the years, one selling point for using computers in the classroom was their ability to help personalize the learning process for each student. We would use the devices to “differentiate instruction”.

That largely doesn’t happen. Even with all the technology, we still expect, actually demand, that most students process at the same pace as all their peers at the same chronological age.

In fact, come the spring, the greatest use of computers in most of the high schools in our overly-large district will be for the standardized testing of all those peer groups.

The bottom line to this rant is that the huge amounts of money we’ve spent on K12 instructional technology over the years has resulted in little or no change to the process of educating kids.

And that’s a pretty poor investment.

1 Comment

  1. teacherninja

    Hear, hear!

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