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As I reflect on the excitement of South By Southwest Education conference last week, a fundamental question keeps coming up: What proportion of the challenges facing the education system can actually be addressed with technology and innovation?

Let’s quickly stipulate the issues here. Stop me if you’ve heard this all before.

  1. Many schools face serious resource constraints. But America already spends quite a bit of money on education and large increases in funding are not likely over the next generation.
  2. We have disappointing results given the money we’re spending, both in college attainment and in performance on international tests.
  3. We have an achievement gap for minority and low-income students, meaning the path to raising our educational status requires raising up the students who have been the most challenging to reach thus far.
  4. Our schools are not preparing kids for the workforce and society of tomorrow, whether that means STEM disciplines in particular or the always-on, mobile, connected, collaborative, cross-disciplinary society that we are all a part of. This is a catch-all concern, with many different definitions of the problem and paths to solutions.

Now, of those top four concerns, what exactly can technology do to help? #4 is the strongest argument for “wiring” our classrooms, and ironically, it’s a qualitative, not quantitative, argument. I spoke with Diane Tavenner, CEO of the Summit Public Schools charter chain, who argued “My computer is part of who I am. It’s an imperative tool in my life.” Professionals in this day and age work using always-on laptops and mobile devices, managing their own workflow with the help of various applications and productivity tools, and collaborating as needed. Students need to practice doing more or less the same thing. Her high schools are phasing in one-to-one laptop programs.

#2 and #3 are arguments for the use of multimedia teaching aids, particularly adaptive learning and tutoring programs. One review of the literature shows positive results for these programs in raising performance, although of differing levels of significance, particularly by giving underperforming students the extra help they need to succeed. But as the technology is constantly evolving it is very difficult to design rigorous studies that keep up with the state of the art. Every startup out there has its own “independent” studies showing increases in test performance. Then there is the question of the quality of the tests themselves and the relationship they bear to what kids are actually learning.

#1 is the diciest. In order to save money in education–or dramatically improve performance with stagnant budgets, which amounts to the same thing–you have to cut labor costs. This means fewer teachers and administrators, or less generous benefits packages, or both. The pitch here is that integrated uses of data, combined with personalized learning and tutoring programs, will somehow make teachers so much more effective that they can improve results even with larger classes. But it will be tough to prove this, and even tougher to get teachers on board en masse with “innovations” designed to eliminate their positions.

In his speech last Thursday Bill Gates pointed out that currently, only 1 percent of private R&D investment goes into education innovation. He argued that it should be much more, given the importance of our education system to our future economic competitiveness. But in the absence of a more fruitful and honest dialogue about the goals and outcomes of such investment, as outlined above, and careful documentation of what works, a more likely outcome is another turn of the hype cycle that leaves schools more or less unchanged.

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