Technology and Educational Salvation

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As a beginning PhD student in Instructional Technology and the Learning Sciences, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about the role of technology in education. Recently, I’ve coalesced some of my thoughts into a little rant. The following is not really thought out or heavily edited. It’s basically a brain-dump based on my readings in the history of instructional technology.

It seems that people have been bemoaning the failures of the nation’s schools since the turn of the 20th century. Always, people have felt that the education received in schools was inadequate. That students weren’t learning what they needed to learn. That the problem was getting worse over time. 

This is a historically documented sentiment that has persisted for over a hundred years. “Schools are failing us” has been the constant cry of the average parent and professional. This was the outcry in the 1920’s and 30’s. This was the outcry in the 50’s and the 60’s. This was the outcry in the 90’s and the turn of the century.

“Technology” has always been the perceived solution. Technology has created new cures for old diseases, faster means of travel, mass produced food to help eliminate starvation, etc. It’s clear that technology holds the secrets to curing our ailing schools. We can master the art of teaching through technology.

One author wrote about the beginnings of instructional technology in the 1920’s: “Well somewhere or another I got the concept there was a lot of rich knowledge available, and we ought to have some techniques for moving that rich knowledge into the minds and hearts of people. … Here’s all this information the librarians want to share; the teachers want to share, but it isn’t available; it isn’t packaged right; it isn’t written right; it isn’t pictured right, and so on.” The idea is that we need to communicate this information better—through a better medium, with better writing, with better visualization, and by so doing make it more accessible to the general public and to students.

Another author wrote about the 30’s: “One other thing that we also believed to be true was that if the moving image was indeed accessible to everybody—child, teacher, housewife, anybody—that it would then come closer to the role that the book has played.” And, also, that it would be the secret to restoring American education to greatness. That information could be synthesized and presented via video, and that students would learn at a pace and depth they’ve never learned before.

Another author wrote about the 50’s: “Public criticism and Soviet scientific success combined to put pressure on the schools to improve instructional effectiveness and academic standards. We in instructional technology knew we had methods and techniques needed to do the job. The ’50s saw the teaching of entire courses by television and then by film. The emergence of the programed instruction movement gave us great confidence in our ability to design effective and replicable instruction—and isn’t that what America needed even more than a good 5-cent cigar? Extensive national curriculum projects were mounted resulting in courses with appropriate academic rigor and backed up by well-developed packages of materials.”

According to one source, here’s the moral of the story: “If there was an underlying assumption that coalesces these early voices it is that technology is progress; technology is an ameliorative force in society.” That is, education is worsening—there is more and more information and fewer and fewer educated people. That more and more, the average American knows less and does less with the more and more knowledge available to him. And technology has always promised the answers.

That’s the thing—people have felt that the problem was getting worse over time. Which means that they have felt that, at one time, things were better. That’s the irony—things were once better, at least in many ways. Education was more robust at one point. At least, I believe so. And technology isn’t what made it better—technology’s new, remember?

We can’t attribute the cause of new problems to a lack of new technology. If the problem didn’t exist before (at least to the degree it exists now), then the problem has been worsened by something other than the lack of technology. Which means that throwing technology at the problem isn’t going to solve it—it’s only going to patch it, until the original cause is traced out and addressed.

I think that the soteriology of contemporary education is flawed: educational salvation isn’t going to be found in technology. Technology may indeed improve instruction—but improved instruction isn’t going to save education. We’ve been studying ways to improve instruction for a century, and education has still gotten worse (at least in our perceptions). This means that something else is the problem.

My experiences as a Latter-day Saint teach me that salvation is always found in Christ, and any attempt to solve social ills without turning to Christ and His spokesmen for the solution will eventually fail. And we have an entire century of education reform that has turned to technology for redemption, and the promised redemption has yet to find fruition. We have an entire century of turning to improved instruction for redemption, with the same results.

So what message have God’s spokesmen conveyed? I’ve yet to hear the prophets warn about the need for better teachers in our public schools. I’ve yet to hear the prophets warn about the need for more technology in our classrooms, or for higher expenditures in education. In fact, I rarely hear much from them on that particular subject in any way—except in early years, where they explicitly warned the Saints not to embrace government funded education at all (interesting!).

Rather, the prophets talk about the importance of family. Prophets talk about the importance of the spirit, and of sturdy moral character. Prophets talk about the need for parents to invest themselves in the lives of their children, to be involved in teaching their children the gospel, how to live life, and how to succeed in the world at large. Prophets talk about the importance of parents sacrificing their time, talents, hobbies, etc. in order to be present in the education of their children.

In short, the solution may not be to tweak, repair, or reform the existing system, but to change our entire paradigm of how education is to be handled in the first place. That is, we need to question the existence of institutions that transfer the responsibility of education from parents to bureaucracies. This is something that technology can’t do. Technology won’t enact that change. This is something only moral suasion can do. But how?

One comment

  1. Excellent observations. Thank you for sharing these thoughts. It is my prayer and desire that all parents might catch the vision of their calling and responsibilities. Indeed, the church even teaches that the primary place of learning about the gospel is in the home by parents. The church is a supplement to those efforts.

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