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Don’t Spend A Penny On Education Technology Until This Is Clear

by Terry Heick

More than five years ago in February of 2012, a local Swedish newspaper reported that the Stockholm suburb of Sollentuna planned to transition entirely away from textbooks to tablet PCs by 2013.

In a familiar argument, Sollentuna ed leaders argued that their schools should embrace technology–that they were in, in fact, in the ‘backwater’ compared to others. This ‘keeping up with the Jones” is a familiar practice, especially in anything related to technology.

That approach, though, can lead to imbalanced education policy, mediocre edtech programs, and a lot of wasted money. Integrating education technology is a complex thing that depends entirely on local and constantly changing factors.

How is it funded?

What is its purpose?

How well do the curriculum, assessment, instruction, and related local policies and infrastructure work together?

And so on.

So below, let’s look at two questions that often stand out when I see edtech integration. Don’t send that purchase order until at least this much is clear.

1. Who will make it work? Who will benefit?

The evolution of anything depends on (sometimes unequal parts) emotion and logic.

For many professionals, there is a constant insecurity that someone somewhere is doing it better–faster, smarter, for less money, with better results.

The trouble is that the data for these ‘other people’ that are undoubtedly ‘doing it better’ is usually scant: a compelling video, a bar graph reflecting test scores, a carefully-crafted blog post explaining their success in detail.

That this kind of insecurity is universal should be comforting, but it’s not.

Oftentimes with the pure-hearted desire to maintain, keep up, and ’embrace,’ it is possible to run roughshod over common sense and planning–and miss the why the technology does or does not workWithout this careful attention to the ins and outs of pedagogy and how people learn, such adoption becomes a me-too contest that works with the precision of a grenade.

“We know that not every student has computer access at home. These students who come from homes with tighter finances have worse grades. An even greater wedge will occur if they do not get the same digital competence as the others,” said Maria Stockhaus, chair of Sollentuna’s children and education board.

The story continues with a telling statement: “Tegelhagsskolan, another school nearby, already has had complete PC access for three years and its students have consistently excelled.”

2. What systems does the tech depend on & how? What systems will the tech affect & how?

It’s unclear exactly what the terms of their success have been, or how aggressive their adoption schedule was.

It is also unclear–from reading the story alone anyway–what kind of timeline the Sollentuna school district had developed for this seemingly hasty technology adoption.

But in either case, it is important to realize that for technology to be effective beyond cursory notions of ‘engagement’ or publicity, it must be holistically married to curriculum, instruction, and assessment. While this is not a new concept, it bears repeating in light of tech-as-spectaclemovement that often dominates these stories.

Very little coverage actually delves into the cognitive, emotional, or cultural mechanisms that are enacted by great technology. It may be a relative lack of pedagogical expertise, too little experience with instructional design, or that there is simply little perceived interest in how it all works.

But aggressive technology adoption is a recipe for waste.

Technology is expensive, ages fast, and can be irrationally frustrating when it doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. This can lead to disillusionment by users–learners and educators–a misplaced anger that can deter future adoption on shaky logical grounds.

Widespread implementation of anything that is hoped to literally transform learning needs to be done with a macro view of the entire learning ecology, not an insecure notion of keeping up with the Jones’.

Understanding why technology works also helps us understand its limits, not simply to inform future tech evolution, but to more accurately re-evaluate the role of teachers, curriculum experts, app developers, and most critically the communities that technology should ultimately serve.

*previously published at



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