Published: 2012-02-06

Technology is Not Always the Answer

Note: I originally posted this to my Tumblr blog on 6 Feb 2012.

I saw this yesterday and I think the author's overall point is spot-on.

I work in academic technology and I can't count the number of times I've sat in a meeting listening to someone talk about how some bit of technology will solve all our problems, forever. If we just captured and digitized our lectures, or put course materials online, or provided laptops or tablets to all the students, they would learn so much more and become better human beings.

It's like prescribing Tylenol to treat cancer. Sure, it may alleviate some of the symptoms, temporarily, and it might even be a small part of a real solution; but by itself it's totally worthless.

You can't just throw computers, or any other technology, at a problem and watch it disappear forever. That's not how the world works.

Computers augment, not replace, human abilities. For example, lecture capture systems can allow course delivery to anyone with an Internet connection, but the content itself must still be correct and presented in a way that stimulates learning.

Handing every kid an iPad won't suddenly make them understand mathematics. Putting lectures online won't miraculously help students understand the implications of the Civil War. Using e-textbooks won't make most students any more likely to actually read them. It is up to the teacher (and the textbook authors, perhaps) to make these things happen.

This always reminds me of the famous quote attributed to Charles Babbage, the inventor of the programmable computer (I don't know for certain if he ever actually said it):

On two occasions I have been asked, "Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?" I am not able rightly to apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.

It has been over 125 years since Babbage died and yet policy makers and those who are making decisions for our educational institutions still seem confused about this very point.