Information Technology and Educational Amnesia

By: Langdon Winner

                          *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Abstract:  Waves of enthusiasm for technological innovations that promise to revitalize teaching and learning are at least a century old.  Unfortunately, the record of accomplishment for the many varieties of hardware and software introduced into the schools over the decades is remarkably thin.  Today’s promoters of technology in education tend to forget similar efforts in the past, launching forth with initiatives that use the latest hardware and software, as if such projects were unprecedented. While initiatives like the iClass network in Europe show considerable promise, their development would benefit from recalling the history of earlier attempts to develop and market sophisticated technical instruments for the schools.  Reflection up basic philosophical questions about teaching and learning can help us decide which technical devices are of genuine value and which are not.

Published in:  Policy Futures in Education Volume 7 Number 6 2009 587

                          *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

No one can say for certain when the modern enthusiasm for educational technology began.  But as good a date as any is 1909 when the public health commissioner of Queensland, Australia suggested to Thomas Edison that the inventor’s motion picture machine could be used to make educational films.  Edison immediately warmed to the idea.  “The introduction of kinetoscope pictures in the schools,” he exclaimed, “would be an epoch in the common school.... You couldn’t keep the children away even by the police.”   Edison went on to establish an educational film division in his company, experimenting with classes that used movies as the only learning materials.  “I am spending more than my income getting up a set of 6,000 films to teach 19 million children in the schools of the United States to do away with books,” he explained, not specifying how many police would be required for an orderly implementation of the plan.  [Conot, 1979: p. 503]

Over the decades since Edison’s flash of entrepreneurial insight there have been recurring attempts to revitalize education through infusions of hardware and software.  Computers and the internet are among the most recent candidates in a very long list of information technologies that includes movies, radio, film stips, tape recorders, language labs, broadcast television, programmed learning machines, cable television, portable video cameras, VCRs, multi-media electronics, CD-ROMs, laptops, and large screen “SMART” boards.  The iClass network, Intelligent Distributed Cognitive-based Open Learning System for Schools, now under development in several European countries is an ambitious attempt to realize this promise yet again. [iClass]   In its day, each of these technologies has been praised an essential tool for students and teachers.  Indeed, these technical systems have often been heralded as wellsprings of a marvelous “revolution” that would change the basic processes of education.

To a great extent, what we find in the schools today is the residue and an ongoing sequence of technological changes aimed at bringing quick and effective results.  But despite the intense promotional campaigns and billions of dollars invested in extensive re-tooling, there is scant evidence during the decades from Edison to the present day that any of the heavily touted varieties of equipment introduced into schools and colleges over the years has done much to improve education at all.  In today’s scholarly discussions and policy debates about the effects of recent infusions of information technology, there is often frank admission that little has actually been accomplished.  Thus, Lamont Johnson’s review article echoes many earlier surveys, noting “the lack of solid evidence to support claims that inserting information technology into education does improve learning.” [Johnson, 2008]   In a similar vein, Susan Patrick, director of the Office of Educational Technology of the U.S. Department of Education argued in 2004, "despite a decade of investment [in educational technology], most achievement indicators are flat.”  [Branigan: 2004]    Perhaps the best one can conclude about the seemingly endless stream of technological innovations in the schools is that each promising system has its has its day in the sun, that it is used for a while with a mixture of success and failure, and that eventually the “revolution” fades away as teachers, students and policy makers confront the next distressing “crisis” in education.

The history of disappointment about the application of specific educational technologies is reflected in the embarrassing fact no one looks back upon the past century of ongoing edu-tech innovations (including those of the past five to ten years) with any great sense of accomplishment.  Nobody says fondly, “Remember those wonderful educational films the 1950s that depicted modern history and the workings of government with such unfailing reliability?  And just think about those marvelous television programs that brought greatest teachers of chemistry and physics right into the classrooms of distant towns and cities.  And, ah, what golden days we had when the kids were learning so much from Math Blaster and Reader Rabbit!” 

In fact, the continuing waves of promotional zeal in educational technology are accompanied by a willingness to forget the results of earlier experiments and to forge ahead as if today’s innovations were totally unprecedented.  Perhaps that is why there is no Museum of the History of Educational Technology anywhere in the world.  In contrast, there are museums that celebrate just about every other area of technical advance -- mining, canals, dams, railroads, trolleys, automobiles, electricity, aerospace, beer brewing, and countless other fields.  But to this point no one has been intrepid enough to organize a museum of educational technology.   Perhaps the reason for this absence is that, unlike other fields of technological development, there are few if any notable breakthroughs or genuine improvements that anyone cares to remember.  Curators would go bald scratching their heads, asking: Which unforgettable successes and social benefits can we depict within this ongoing stream of technological initiatives?

The irony is, however, the very lack of demonstrated value in earlier generations of educational technology provides a wonderful opportunity for the newest generation of products.  Shrouded in a cloud of amnesia about similar initiatives launched over the years, developers and vendors can say (in effect): “Today’s instruments offer an astonishing breakthrough.  The machines are faster, the software more sophisticated, and the learning materials more vividly presented and interactive.  At long last the revolution in education is at hand!”  To paraphrase the dictum of George Santayana:  Those who cannot remember the past, should definitely consider the opportunities in educational technology.

The time, energy, and money invested in planning for and implementation of new media in the schools is often justified as a serious attempt to enrich the learning experience of students.  But in some ways these project are little more than a distraction.  As teachers, parents and policy makers focus primarily upon technological options, they are deflected from asking basic questions about the goals of education and how to realize them.  What do students need?  What kinds of knowledge and competence are truly essential?  What is known about the kinds of settings, human relationships, activities, and materials that foster genuine learning?  What counts as reliable evidence that the efforts of teachers are succeeding? 

Questions of this kind, debated from Socrates to Rousseau to Dewey and to thinkers of the present day, lead us to examine the underlying beliefs and theories that guide approaches to learning and teaching.  A persistent failure in contemporary discussions about computers and computer networks is an unwillingness to confront such questions squarely.  Indeed, today’s enthusiasts for computer networks and distance learning often lack any coherent philosophy of education, relying instead on the uncritical faith that delivering masses of information in electronic form will magically enhance what happens in the school, classroom and home study.   The unstated assumption is that the astonishing power of electronic technology and the sheer quantity of digital information will somehow generate wonderful results.  But the proponents of new educational equipment are reluctant to offer plausible arguments about why their proposals will be fruitful.  They expect that others will find it completely self-evident that, for example, all the nation’s classrooms ought to be wired to the internet or that every child have access to a laptop.  Teachers who may have qualms and questions about the efficacy of such policies are often greeted with the charge that they are simply “behind the times.” 

There can be no doubt that  a crucial dimension in any student’s education today is access to ample material resources – classrooms, books, scientific equipment, musical instruments, athletic gear, and the like.   Anything enlivens and enriches education is something to be applauded.  Certainly, that can include well designed, well implemented educational technologies.  The web site for the iClass, for example, displays a combination of hardware, software and pedagogical methods that could well produce positive outcomes. [iClass]   But faced with a proliferation of projects like these, it is important to ask: Why is it always digital technology that is so heavily emphasized these days rather other pedagogical approaches to and other material resources?

        A plausible answer comes from the social history of attempts to revolutionize education through the introduction of new technology.  In Teachers and Machines, Larry Cuban, professor of education at Stanford University, describes a pattern of events repeated over many decades.   At the beginning of each cycle there are businesses with new products to sell – motion pictures, tape recorders, television sets, computers, and the like. Corporate executives in charge of the product line notice that education is a potentially lucrative market.  They contact upper level educational administrators, promote their wares and convince key decision makers  there is a technological revolution coming and that the schools need to be a part to it.  Won over by the sales pitch, upper level administrators move on to persuade the boards of directors of local and regional schools, those who ultimately control the purse strings.  Next the packages of machines and software are purchased (often at great expense) and introduced into classrooms, often resisted by teachers who were typically not consulted while these grand plans were taking shape.  Cuban’s account makes clear that, very often, new educational technologies are promoted not because there is any well conceived idea about their value in teaching and learning, but because they offer a attractive market for vendors and because educators want to appear fully up to date. [Cuban, 1986]

The enthusiasm of those who are in involved in the development and testing of new information technologies in education may well be warranted.  To try out new approaches and new devices shows often demonstrates an honest desire to revitalize what have become dull, dreary classrooms.  But those involved in such efforts should also study the social histories of similar ambitious project and take note of some recurring patterns. 

First is the often dominant influence of commercial interests over other human concerns in education.  Those who market new products have a vested interest in framing choices about teaching and learning as if they were similar to choices about consumer goods; education can become just another commodity for sale.

A second very common pattern is the victory of means over ends, of excitement about new tools over any thoughtful grasp of the fundamental purposes of education.  The hardware and software are so intriguing in themselves that discussions about ends are shoved aside. 

Third is a very common tendency for educators to seek to advance their careers by promoting the new, technology-centered methods.   Rather than present themselves as a good teachers first and foremost, they emphasize their roles as technical innovators, expecting that this will make them appear far more important.

            As teachers and schools are swept up in sentiments of this kind – the lure of the vendors, the victory of means over ends and the promise of technological careerism – they encounter a serious ethical problem, one often overlooked in discussions about educational policy -- a problem of conflict of interest.  In a clear-eyed, honest manner one must ask:  Whose interests are actually being served?  Is it the interests of the children, our students?  Or have their needs been displaced by a number of other beguiling agendas?

            It inevitably happens, of course, that in the fullness of time, the basic questions about education and issues about how well the needs of students are being served will resurface as familiar indicators of success or failure – test scores, graduation rates, etc. – rise again for public debate.  Alas, by the time that happens, millions of dollars have been spent on information technologies in the hope that they will provide the magic needed to move the schools in more positive directions.  Accountability for the decisions that led to support of any particular technical initiative are, at best, very limited.  [McGrail 2006]

An accomplice for the continuing amnesia about the history of education is, surprisingly enough, educational research itself.  Instead of asking --  What do children need?   What are our responsibilities to the students we serve? – educational technology advocates prefer to ask:  How well does the current, fashionable ensemble of computers and electronic systems work?  Answering that question becomes the challengeat hand and the focus on of an ongoing ritual.  A research protocol is developed and the research is conducted.   Perhaps there are interviews.  Perhaps there are tests to measure achievement.  Or perhaps some other research method is developed to gauge the effectiveness of the technological ensemble in question.  Eventually, the results are tabulated and presented at scholarly conferences and published in reports and journals.  In a typical conference presentation, for example, a teacher or administrator might describe an educational project that involves cell phones and internet with special software and instructional plans.  The questions become:  What happened in the pilot study?   How much time did students spend using the new system?  Did students’ academic achievement improve?  What will the next stage be?  Almost invariably, the conclusion of the “innovate and measure” ritual is that the initial outcomes were very promising, enough to merit additional research and, of course, additional funding.  This practice can be seen, for example, in the conferences and workshops where proponents display the apparatus and methods of the iClass system and where educational researchers present the results of studies that attempt to measure the system’s effectiveness. The underlying assumption is that by repeating the exercise over and over again, the education of the students affected will surely be enhanced.  From a historical perspective on many similar attempts in both distant and more recent experience, this assumption is highly problematic. 

There is, however, another well known ritual in educational institutions that might provide might provide better guidance for schools as they struggle with basic policy issues.  At year’s end, as graduation and “moving up” ceremonies are held, schools ask their alumni from years back to offer testimonials about the education they received.  The old timers stand up and share their memories, often of the following kind. 

 “The thing that impressed me most during my time at Icabod Crane elementary School was the class with Mrs. McCready.  She used to take us on nature walks and show us the caterpillars spinning their cocoons.”

“I’ll always cherish the time I spent with Mr. Murray who taught us that math was not only useful but also a lot of fun.”

In contrast, what a shock it would be to hear tributes of the following sort: 

“My enduring love of geography I owe to that mysterious character in the computer game, Carmine San Diego.” 

“The experience that inspired me most deeply were the wonderful hours I spent pushing the Logo turtle around the screen.”

In fact, we don’t hear testimonials to packages of hardware and software, but we often hear them about that special teacher who changed a person’s life.  In that light, the shabby little secret about computers and electronic media in the education of children is that they are often a substitute for the one element long understood to be the key to any good education, namely, the presence of devoted, knowledgeable, inspiring teachers able to recognize who a particular student is and what she/he needs.   Today, many highly skilled young people fresh out of college go into the teaching profession because they expect it will be meaningful and enjoyable.  But studies in the United States indicate that after five years about half of them quit this career seek other employment. [Lambert 2006]  They find the salaries too low.  And they complain that the schools are too crowded, chaotic, bureaucratized, regimented, and heavily burdened by regimes of “teach to the test” – conditions that stifle the creativity of both students and teachers.  The lack of good teachers is an urgent problem in many fields of study, in mathematics, for example, where even those once strongly committed to entering the classroom are lured away better opportunities.

Elaborate theories of educational methodology and costly infusions of sophisticated equipment will do little to change the widely regretted flight of young teachers and continuing enervation of the schools.  The failures here arise in the domain of human relationships and lack of support for a vital human presence that can engage students in the love of learning.  As we reach the hundredth anniversary of Thomas Edison’s bold idea for a classroom tech fix, teachers and school administrators would do well to ask: Are we devoted educators or technology promoters on the make?  At the very least it would be good to gain some clarity on that point.



Branigan, L. (2004) ED gives preview of new ed-tech plan, eSchool News, Aug. 24, 2004.

Cuban, L.  (1986)  Teachers and Machines:The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Conot, R. (1979) A Streak of Luck. New York: Bantam Books.

iClass.  Intelligent Distributed Cognitive-based Open Learning System for Schools.

Lambert, L.  Half of Teachers Quit in 5 Years: Working Conditions, Low Salaries Cited, Washington Post, May 9, 2006, A7

Lamont, L. (2008) Introduction: Effectiveness of Information Technology, Computers in the Schools, 24 (3/4), 1-6.

McGrail, E. (2006)  "It's a Double-Edged Sword, This Technology Business": Secondary English Teachers' Perspectives on a Schoolwide Laptop Technology Initiative, Teachers College Record, 108 (6), 1055-1079.