The Cheap Gimmicks Of EdTech

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gimmicks-of-edtechQuestioning Our Use Of Technology In The Classroom: The Cheap Gimmicks Of EdTech

by Tom Woodward

Editor’s Note: This post has been republished from a 2012 post.

This was an Ignite style session where I expressed my own personal frustration with educational technology at scale and attempted to then offer some redeeming alternatives actively being pursued by others. Below are a few of the slides and roughly what I tried to get across.


On the left is good education/learning etc. The middle is roughly what we have now, suffering from extensive damage and quite vulnerable to being completely destroyed. The far right is what a lot of technology integration does. It is covering up gaping holes and damage but at the same time utterly destroying what it purports to be protecting and conserving.


Not only do we do that but we hold up that distorted monstrosity as best practice. We put it on t-shirts and brag about what we’ve done.

We continue to create structures that pretend that a certain level of learning/teaching lives inside a technology without any regard to the instructional context. It depresses me this has been around since at least 2009 and is now migrating to peacocks and umbrellas.

Our society is so desperate for educational alternatives that we lionize a man who put video tutorials on the Internet as the second coming of Gutenberg. This Forbes story was shared 15,000 times when I last checked. Not that this is without value but we seem incapable of seeing it in a rational historical context or as one of many, many shades of gray.


cc licensed ( BY SD ) flickr photo shared by bionicteaching
Unfortunately, the opposite of the Khan position seems to be equally distorted and ill-conceived. Technology is, apparently, either our lord and savior or a pre-packaged drek that helps fill a stomach cheaply. For the record, the only lower food form lower than Hamburger Helper is Spam.

We seemed doomed to confuse cheap gimmicks and flash with real potential to help people learn and furthermore we document our complete inability to determine what might interest a student.

The sheer desperation for something positive seems to be driving more and more teachers to corporate driven star teacher awards. I talked about this at length in the past. By all means get anything you can for free. Use companies to help you build relationships with good people. Whatever. Just don’t forget that the company has profit driven reasons for whatever it invests in you. Don’t censor yourself because that company “certified” you.

I can no longer count the number of apps (paid and free) that are simply web pages with shiny new wrappers. Almost all of those websites are both free and hold little interest to teachers/students now. You’d also assume that astronomy plays a majority role in the content and curriculum of all grades by the prevalence of star gazing apps in any educational app discussion. For the record, unless your calculator/dictionary/thesaurus/note app also grants eternal life it does not deserve to be in any “top edu app” list.


Fluidity is something else entirely. It does something hard- makes equation writing easy on tablets and IWBs and does so in a way that actually matters. This video doesn’t even come close to showing you how intuitive the product is nor some of the more impressive elements (like being able to assign acceleration equations to drawings and then animate them on the fly). This is an app that takes advantage of the technology and helps make math something you can explore and interact with. The linking of changes between the graphs and the equation are also really interesting.

I wish they were better at marketing.

These two apps are more typical of what you find. I was searching the iTunes store for ways to help one my children with automaticity and these were two of the better options. Both are really just multiple choice flash cards with a narrative, graphic wrapper, and a few primitive game elements. They aren’t helping him understand anything and in both cases the math is integrated in extremely weak ways that really don’t make sense.

In Operation Math you simply answer the math problem to get through progressively more gates to allow access to different uniforms. Math Blaster Hyperblast 2 HD sounds like a joke name but is essentially a game where you fly down a tunnel shooting and dodging things until you reach a “boss” where you have to answer math problems to defeat them.

If you compare the apps above to the work Greg Tang is doing I think there is a considerable difference. These games are engaging (granted more puzzle than video game) but are doing fundamentally different work with math and helping to build understanding and automaticity as opposed to merely sugar coating flash cards. The potential to do things like this is there. We need to expect it.

I see similar ideas around engaging kids in ways that more than frosting and cartoons in the work done by Dan Meyer and others in graphing stories101qs.comthe 3 act stories, and most recently the dead simple but amazingly versatile red dot.

There are people like Shawn Cornally who are doing work that is just fundamentally impressive. What he’s doing impresses me so much I get clinically depressed with what I do with my time and energy.

So I ended on a somewhat sunny note. Education could be beautiful and is in some places. We need to raise the bar in terms of what we expect and not always in relation to what is good relative to the low bar set in education generally.

We need to think about grading in different ways and in totally restructuring the way school works to get at things that actually matter.

Questioning Our Use Of Technology In The Classroom first appeared (under a far more noble and poetic title) on bionicteaching.com

  • deserteacher

    Thank you for this article. I appreciate the perspective; we do indeed need to take a very deep breath and choose a meaningful, wholistic approach to educating the young. Let’s recognize the needs of child development and promote calm, systematic, thorough classroom process rather than a second rate carnival of activity.

  • Paul Clapton-Caputo

    I will be spending some time thinking about this, I am pleased I read it. Well written and useful provocation to consider within the context of my work.