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Laura Chapman on Federal Policy for Technology: A History of False Promises

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Laura Chapman, regular reader and commenter and expert on the arts, writes:



1. For people interested in the recent history of US technology policy for education see: “A Retrospective on Twenty Years of Education Technology Policy” (2003) prepared for the US Department of Education (USDE) by American Institutes for Research (Douglas Levin, Project Director).


This report shows the role of “blue ribbon reports,” from CEOs of tech and testing companies, McKinsey & Co., the US Chamber of Commerce and other groups in putting technology front and center in K-12 education and teacher education. The push is illustrated by the dates and titles of publications included in this “retrospective” report that begins in 1983 with “A Nation at Risk,” from the National Commission on Excellence in Education. (In the 1960s USDE thought 8mm closed loop videotapes were the hot new technology).


2. In one of the first of several USDE technology plans, issued during the tenure of Secretary of Education Rod Paige, we see one of the first claims that proper policies on technology will revolutionize education. Notice the long and grandiose title (caps in the original) “A New Golden Age In American Education HOW THE INTERNET, THE LAW AND TODAY’S STUDENTS ARE REVOLUTIONIZING EXPECTATIONS: National Education Technology Plan 2004.”


One of many predictions:


“With the benefits of technology, highly trained teachers, a motivated student body and the requirements of No Child Left Behind, the next 10 years could see a spectacular rise in achievement – and may usher in a new golden age for American education.” p. 46.


3. The follow-on technology plan from USDE, 2010, has the same theme: “Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology: National Education.“ This report calls for “revolutionary transformation rather than evolutionary tinkering.”(p.ix).“ Specifically, the integrated technology-powered learning system should be able to:


• “Discover appropriate learning resources;
• Configure the resources with forms of representation and expression that are appropriate for the learner’s age, language, reading ability, and prior knowledge; and
• Select appropriate paths and scaffolds for moving the learner through the learning resources with the ideal level of challenge and support.”


“As part of the validation of this system, we need to examine how much leverage is gained by giving learners control over the pace of their learning and whether certain knowledge domains or competencies require educators to retain that control.


We also need to better understand where and when we can substitute learner judgment, online peer interactivity and coaching, and technological advances, such as smart tutors and avatars for the educator-led classroom model. (p. 78).”


Part of the marketing pitch for this envisioned learning system, with a minor role (if any) for a human teachers, it a request for federal investment in a national “mission” comparable to that of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). DARPA is credited with “the birth of the Internet.”


The DARPA-like mission for education?


“Identify and validate design principles for efficient and effective online learning systems and combined online and offline learning systems that produce content expertise and competencies equal to or better than those produced by the best conventional instruction in half the time at half the cost (p. 80)


In other words, “conventional instruction” is inefficient, ineffective, amateurish, takes too much time, and it costs too much. “Learning systems” can produce more learning, in less time, at lower costs…and with more content “expertise” …and real-time sentiment analyses for a feed back loop to the recommendation system, for personalized praise, or admonishments, or “you can do this” cheerleading consistent with the Dweck theory of mindsets that favor “success.”


If this “mission” succeeds, face-to-face encounters with wise and caring human teachers are likely to become a luxury, a frill, a bonus, an enrichment.


For the masses, algorithms contrived and organized to function as depersonalized learning systems will do the job of transmitting knowledge, deciding what questions should be presented, what forms the answers may take, and whether particular responses are satisfactory.


Orwell smiles, along with Bill Gates and all of the CEOs who have marketed this vision, and cynically advertised such systems as “personalized.”


If you want to see USDE’s latest enthusiasms for technology, go to and look especially at page 9, a project to change student “mindsets” with the link to USDE funding of this “at scale” project.

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