Jan 2021

Effort to Debunk Education Technology Falters by Overstating Its Own Case

Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education
by Justin Reich
Harvard University Press, 2020, $27.95, 336 pages.

As reviewed by Michael B. Horn

In Failure to Disrupt, Justin Reich aims to reset the hype around education technology and replace it with a more realistic set of expectations for what such technology can and cannot accomplish. Arriving amid the coronavirus pandemic, the book has heightened relevance, although it does not specifically focus on the abrupt transition to distance learning occasioned by the crisis.

At its core, the book offers a helpful framework for evaluating the likely impact of new edtech products. That framework entails asking four questions about any new education technology: 1) How will existing stakeholders use the technology, and will it help them extend their current practices? 2) What kinds of learning can and cannot be assessed with it? 3) How will learners from different backgrounds and circumstances access it? 4) How could research and experimentation improve the product?

Reich, who is director of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, evaluates a range of recent education technologies through this framework. He then concludes that the answers to his questions suggest four corresponding limitations on technology’s potential to bolster learning at scale: 1) Most educators use technology in familiar rather than innovative ways, a practice that replicates current outcomes rather than transforming them. 2) Routine assessment, which is all that machine-based learning systems can perform, measures only learners’ knowledge and their ability to complete rule-based tasks. Technology can’t measure more-complex types of learning at scale. 3) Those with greater resources benefit more from new products than those without such resources, who in turn fall further behind in their learning—a dynamic Reich calls the “EdTech Matthew Effect.” 4) Data and experimentation hold great potential to improve new technologies, but concerns about privacy and “experimenting” on children often keep this from happening.


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