Thursday, July 4, 2019

Remarks on Progress in Educational Technology

Remarks on Progress in Educational Technology

J. Michael Spector

Some years ago I published an essay entitled “How Far We Have Not Come’ (Spector, 2000). The general argument of that piece was that educational technologists have been promising much more than they have delivered for years. The temptation with each new generation of digital technology was that education could be radically improved and would thereby be transformed into something significantly different from and better than previous forms of education. What came to mind then was a line from the comedian, Shelly Berman, in response to the claim that flying was the safest way to travel; his response was this: “I’m not sure how much consideration has been given to walking.”
Now, almost 20 years after that simple-minded essay, I am thinking along similar lines. My basic question is this: What has been learned from educational research and learning theory in the last 100 years? Assuming that some things have been learned, which ones have been implemented on a significant scale for a sustained period of time, and what impact, if any, have they had? Perhaps I will be chastised as a modern day luddite for saying the following: It is not clear to me that educational technologies have improved learning and instruction on a large scale for any sustained period of time; the nearly constant emergence of new technologies have only created the new problem of learning to use them effectively, to borrow a line from Dijkstra’s The Humble Programmer (1972). What progress are we making in terms of using technology to improve learning and instruction? Is it a lot? A little? In isolated cases? At great cost? At a disadvantage to some? What do you think?
Here is what I think. In the preface to How We Think, Dewey (1910) wrote this:

 Our schools are troubled with a multiplication of studies, each in turn having its own multiplication of materials and principles. Our teachers find their tasks made heavier in that they have come to deal with pupils individually and not merely in mass. This book represents the conviction that the needed steadying and centralizing factor is found in adopting as the end of endeavor that attitude of mind, that habit of thought, which we call scientific. This scientific attitude of mind might, conceivably, be quite irrelevant to teaching children and youth. But this book also represents the conviction that such is not the case; that the native and unspoiled attitude of childhood, marked by ardent curiosity, fertile imagination, and love of experimental inquiry, is near, very near, to the attitude of the scientific mind. (see for the entire book).

Dewey argues that the origin of thinking is in one way or another uncertainty, confusion, perplexity or doubt. If one believes that thinking (in Dewey’s sense of reflecting, connecting facts, and seeking for an explanation) is inherently good, then one is led to the conclusion that uncertainty, confusion, perplexity and doubt are in general good or desirable as they lead to something that is good. This simple and somewhat compelling formulation was made public more than 100 years ago, yet Dewey’s powerful argument has had little impact on schooling in the USA or elsewhere although many educators hold Dewey in very high regard.

In a sense, thinking is a natural and ongoing human activity. As Wittgenstein (1922) remarked in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “we picture facts to ourselves” (#2.1). We do this without effort and particularly when confronted with something novel or puzzling. These internal pictures are what Philip Johnson-Laird (1983) called mental models. Mental models are what comprises thinking and memory. Thinking can be trained to become more productive, more accurate and more insightful (Dewey, 1910). In principle the trainability of thinking seems to be a case now well established by cognitive scientists, learning psychologists and philosophers. Are educators systematically helping to train the thinking processes of students? In some cases, this surely happens. Does it happen regularly and with all students? Probably not. Are policy makers proposing and implementing policies to support the training of thinking processes? One might infer that this is the case when one examines the USA’s National Educational Technology Plan (see or examines the 21st century skills (see, for example, However, decreasing levels of funding for education and for education research, and the lack of significant improvement on the test scores of American students in comparison with those in other parts of the world, suggest that practice is neither informed by policy nor by research (see the Program for International Student Assessment at; see also Our World of Data at

After multiple visits to this line of reasoning and the associated evidence, one might become disenchanted or discouraged, or even decide to pursue a career in real estate or gambling casinos.  However, as one of my sons is wont to say, “no worries.” There is still tomorrow. There is still another group of bright young minds eager to learn coming soon. How shall we go about training those bright young minds?

As Dewey (1910) argued, the emphasis should not be on what to think but how to think. The job of the teacher is to get students to think, and that means getting students to doubt, to be uncertain, to be perplexed or even to be confused. It is in such moments when learning (stable and persistent changes in what a person or group of people know and can do) can occur. The job of the teacher is to get students to have questions – to admit that they do not know or understand, to commit time and effort to gain better understanding, to consider alternative perspectives, and to reflect on their progress (Spector, 2018).
Going forward, the focus should be on learning rather than on technology. What educational technology researchers should be doing is not inventing clever ways to use a new technology or clever terms for things other scholars thought of decades earlier. We need to do what Robert Gagné (1985) argued was the task of educators and educational researchers – namely and simply, to help people learn.
Some years ago I wondered what funded educational research projects in the USA had survived the test of time and had developed a body of evidence of positive impact. I arrived at two examples that stood out from all others: Head Start (started in 1964 and still exists; see and Sesame Street (started in 1969 and still exists; see I encourage readers to look at the empirical evidence showing the impact of those two examples. While there are many outstanding and innovative examples of technology applications in education (see Merrill, 2002, 2013), few have had such a large scale and sustained impact as those two examples.

Some have argued that the printing press transformed education as it brought learning texts and information to the masses. Some argue that the Internet and the many associated digital devices that make use of the Internet are transforming education just as the printing press did centuries ago. One can argue that the court is still out with regard to the Internet transformation of education; perhaps it is a split decision 5 to 4, as is becoming all too common in other contexts.

Regardless of which side one takes on the debate about the positive impact of educational technologies on learning and instruction, most will agree that we can do better. After all, that is our job as human beings – namely, to bring out the best in others by whatever means we can manage to do so, with new technology, with old technology, with a new pair of walking boots, or with a map of middle earth. We can do better as educators and educational technology researchers. We can forego the impulse to invent new words for old ideas. We can forego the impulse to use a technology just because it is new. We can forego the impulse to become advocates rather than evidence seekers. We can focus on helping students learn – all students … not just the gifted or those we like or who like us.

I just realized how preachy this essay has become. My apologies. If you managed to read this far, you might be inclined to agree with the reasoning and sentiment being expressed in this non-empirical short piece. In closing, I recall a remark made by one of my philosophy professors, Oets Kolk Bouswma,  in an unpublished journal entry: “I am a short thought thinker” (see Craft & Hustwit, 1984; see also the second order learning stories from 2002 at the Learning Development Institute’s website located at My advice to graduate students and potential authors has been to keep it short; keep it focused; and try to start doing something to help people learn. Be the voice that encourages, the ear that listens, the eye that reflects, the hand that guides, the face that does not turn away (my father’s advice to me many moons ago).

Craft, J. L., & Hustwit, R. E. (1984). Without proof or evidence. Essays of O, K.Bouwsma. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
Dewey, J. (1910). How we think. Boston, MA: D. C. Heath & Co. Rerieved from
Dijkstra, E. W. (1972). The humble programmer. Communications of the ACM, 15, 859-866.
Gagné, R. M. (1985). The conditions of learning and theory of instruction (4th ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Johnson-Laird, P. (1983). Mental models: Toward a cognitive science of language,  inference and consciousness. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
Merrill, M. D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research & Development, 50(3), 43-59.
Merrill, M. D. (2013). First principles of instruction: Identifying and designing effective, efficient and engaging instruction. San Francisco: CA: Pfeiffer.
Spector, J. M. (2000, Fall). Trends and issues in educational technology: How far we have not come. Update Semiannual Bulletin 21(2). Syracuse, NY: The ERIC Clearinghouse on Information Technology.
\Spector, J. M. (2018, July). Thinking and learning in the Anthropocene: The new three Rs. Presented at the2018 International Big History Conference, Villanova University, Villanova, PA, 26-29 July 2019. Retrieved from
Wittgenstein, L. (1922). Tractatus logico-philosophicus. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench & Treubner Co. Retrieved from