Educational Technology as Precursor to the Digital Humanities

In the News Opinion Technology
 Posted by jeremy on September 7th, 2011

My good friend Margaret Merrill sent this article from the New York Times, which, once again, calls into question the value of integrating technology into education.

In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements.

This should come as no surprise to researchers in educational technology, a field that has never felt the need to justify itself through, say, quantitative data.

“The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an investor in educational technology companies. When it comes to showing results, he said, “We better put up or shut up.”

I don’t hope that they suddenly find the data because that data should have been there all along. It would take a decade’s worth of research to justify the last decade of investment in educational technology. I only hope the pendulum doesn’t swing back with too much force.

I also hope other fields are watching this tragedy play out. I can’t help thinking of the emerging subfield of “Digital Humanities,” which is essentially the integration of technology into the traditional aspects of humanist inquiry (another field that has never seen the need to justify itself). The digital humanities is the spitting image of educational technology circa 1995. Though the technology they employ is more sophisticated than what was (and is) used in education, digital humanists are battling the same cultural issues that educational technologists thought they defeated more than a decade ago.

Digital humanists are making the same mistakes as well.

If the digital humanities continues to exist mainly in an echo chamber, you can bet that they will be rejected by their own. And even if they somehow gain entrance into the humanist canon of research methods (e.g., via administrative fiat), within ten years they will see the same counter-technology movement going on in education today. That is, unless they move forward deliberately and document the benefits of their methods.

But the price of this documentation and the motivation for this deliberation is the confession that technology may not be the solution or that its benefits may not outweigh its costs. Digital humanists would have to be suspicious of their methods – of their field – and that is difficult for any academic. On the other hand, such sincere research ought to be the hallmark of academics.

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