No More Teachers, No More Books?

Silicon Valley courted schools with visions of the digital future of education. Now students are pushing back. Is this EdTech’s moment of reckoning?

By Xische Editorial, May 8, 2019

Source: Unchalee Khun/ Shutterstock

Source: Unchalee Khun/Shutterstock

“Change rarely comes without some bumps in the road,” Gordon Mohn, the superintendent of schools in the small town of McPherson, Kanas, recently told The New York Times. “Students are becoming self-directed learners and are demonstrating greater ownership of their learning activities.” Mohn’s schools are a focal point in the contentious battle over technology in the American classroom.

For years, Silicon Valley has tried to enter the classroom by pushing self-directed online learning and virtually giving away free gadgets to get schools and students hooked. But now there is pushback and it belies a larger conversation about global education technology. This debate is about much more than technology but rather how we can adapt education standards to a changing global landscape, while ensuring a balance between emotional and intellectual education at all levels.  

Let’s start with the role of the curriculum in creating well-rounded pupils. In order to stay competitive in the marketplace, every society needs to educate its youth in the leading technologies of the day. That translates to extensive maths and sciences programmes designed to prepare children for jobs in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, and other data heavy fields. But, as we have seen in debates about AI ethics, if we fail to provide a solid foundation of humanities education, we can run the risk of an imbalanced education that can have impacts on the technologies younger generations produce in the future.

The decline of university-level liberal arts educational programmes is having a trickle down effect. Of course, it makes fiscal sense if you wouldn’t want to invest resources into a degree in English literature at a time when most available jobs are in technology, maths, and the sciences. But that means programmes are shrinking and there are fewer educators being trained in the liberal arts. Take away that stream of education and balancing younger students so that they develop emotional intelligence along with their IQ is much more of a challenge.

Then there is the issue of technology oversaturation. Too much tech can lead to a loss of serendipity in our lives and even a growing sense of isolation. Sometimes a trip to a traditional library filled with paper books can be the perfect antidote to our digitally-infused daily lives. This is all the more profound for children who are now growing up without ever experiencing the joy of a library or even the feeling of boredom. By injecting too much tech, too early into a child’s life, we run the risk of losing something tactile in the education space.

New studies are coming out at an alarming rate detailing the mental health implications of too much screen time for children. Not only does the blue light have possible neurological effects but too much screen time can lead to a decrease in physical activity, time outside, and time with peers. This deprivation can lead to a decline in creativity, joy, and happiness.

These are serious challenges that require frank discussions about how we balance technological innovation, smartphone usages, and the education of children. Current trends in educational technology, however, don’t address these issues head on and that is one reason for the pushback in some schools. The long arm of Silicon Valley can’t be ignored here. In the United States, major companies such as Google and Facebook have done this with little oversight or pushback from underfunded public schools across the country. For tech companies and their leadership, the edtech space, for all its trappings of social consciousness, is an area of immense revenue potential.  

For one, they are able to hook children as users early. When Google makes Chromebooks running its Chrome OS software nearly free for schools, it does so because Chrome OS requires a Google account to operate. That means that millions of children using Chromebooks are automatically users and Google can begin tracking their only behaviour from a very early age. Secondly, personal initiatives by Silicon Valley titans such as innovation grants and other scholarships can help locate talent early. By investing in children, major companies can have a better handle on where the best talent is in the next generation at a very early stage.

Despite concerns over Silicon Valley’s reach, which are not limited to the edtech space, our ability to educate our children in a holistic manner that prepares them for the reality of internet-centric lives is critical. This means we need to focus on teachers and providing them with the right digital solutions to enable the best curriculums and learning environments. As alluded to above, we need to ensure that children develop the right social and emotional skills needed to inform their decision making with regard to technology later in life. Being versed in the internet and using a Chromebook from an early age doesn’t necessarily equip a child with empathy. Find the right balance might just be the greatest challenge in edtech.   

Schools have always been incubators of interpersonal and emotional education. As technology moves into schools with the promise of self-directed learning, we need to ensure that the teamwork and social skills students learn is not replaced by the cold blue light of a computer screen. It is a giant challenge for our time but one that will pay ultimate rewards.