Technology for Technology's Sake is Meaningless

CEO, One-to-One Institute

It has been a century since John Dewey began influencing education transformation. His philosophies, beliefs and teachings are widely echoed today. Are they also widely practiced? Dewey said learning must be a holistic experience.  His emphasis was always on what the learner is ‘doing’ not ‘regurgitating’.  Dewey noted the failure of traditional school methods to capture the totality or holistic system of the learning experience.

Wisdom From John Dewey - Quotes

“There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract. The notion that some subjects and methods and that acquaintance with certain facts and truths possess educational value in and of themselves is the reason why traditional education reduced the material of education so largely to a diet of predigested materials.” – John Dewey, 1938

“Simply giving the student “logically formulated material” to read and lectures to listen to would, Dewey believed, always be an inferior way of teaching if it was not accompanied by real tasks for students to do, individually and together, that engaged the emotions and body as well as the mind.”  - Clifford Mayes, 2010

Applying John Dewey's Ideas in the Digital Age

I am often asked about the efficacy of today’s education and, specific to our organization, the success and failure of 1:1 programs.  The response to both has Dewey’s ed evangelism as foundation.

First, the pre-packaged, factory line, traditional system prevents personalization of learning. This includes static texts, ancient pedagogies and regurgitation, adult direction/voice/choice at the expense of the learner’s.  This ‘predigested diet’ approach is the antithesis of what we know to be best practice around learning and the brain/body connection.

Some educators think that by providing learners with personal technologies that magical education potential will be achieved. Some also seek pre-packaged digital resources/texts/materials, aligned with state standards, as a precursor to increased student achievement.  Neither result in real learning and mastery.  Technology for technology sake is meaningless.  No one is able to ‘pre-package’ for the learning process.  Meaningful use of technology to power up personal learning is the key.  Acquiring and curating a diverse set of dynamic, relevant digital and/or static resources to support each learner’s growth is the way to go.  In addition, there must be a focus on learner’s style, voice and choice in partnership with the teacher.

Second, ‘sit and git’ methods disenfranchise the learner.  Much research demonstrates the importance of experiential teaching and learning.  Learners must be ‘doing’ not regurgitating/reciting.  This is the day of ‘creating and producing’.  Building those activities into the learner’s repertoire is imperative.  Technology affords learners and teachers opportunities to create content in an efficient and expeditious fashion.  The Maker Movement provides solid practice examples to fuel today’s classroom experiences.

Telling Research

I’m going back to the ‘magic’ of including technology in schools. While technology can be enchanting, that means zilch to the learning process without effective implementation.  Research supports that. The most current meta-analysis of those studies is, “Learning in One-to-One Laptop Environments:  A Meta-Analysis and Research Synthesis”; 2016, Zheng, Warschauer, Lin, and Chang.

"Just putting a laptop before a student doesn't really help them with anything," Zheng, the lead researcher, told Science Daily in April. "Technology should not be implemented for technology's sake."

In that same interview, Zheng noted, “In the past couple decades, one-to-one laptop programs have spread widely, but so has debate about whether they are cost-effective and beneficial to educational outcomes," said Zheng, assistant professor of educational technology and lead author on the paper. "I believe this technology, if implemented correctly, is worth the cost and effort because it lifts student achievement, enhances engagement and enthusiasm among students, improves teacher-student relationships and promotes 21st century skills such as technological proficiency and problem solving."

The Path Forward

It is heartening that more and more study results are validating the significance of well implemented technologies in schools.  Perhaps more districts will seek the successful pathway forward when implementing robust ed tech.  Perhaps we’ll re-read, discuss and incorporate the wisdom of John Dewey 100 years ago.


Leslie Wilson, founder and CEO of One-to-One Institute, has served education for 38+ years  in top level, key decision-making roles at state and local levels. Recognized as an international expert in education technology, Wilson is a frequent writer, presenter and interviewee. Among her many publications, she co-authored, “Project RED-The Technology Factor, Nine Keys to Student Achievement and Cost Effectiveness” which is the most broadly used research around successful implementation of 1:1 technologies in schools.

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