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.


Tim Byrd replied on

I agree.

Leslie Wilson replied on

Thanks, Tim. Comments always welcomed!

Derek Bailey replied on

Absolute resonates for me and succinctly and easily understood puts into perspective that so many educational establishments at all levels and many business and industry organizations should not pin all their faith (and substantial resources) on providing a digital link as a cure all panacea.
The best e learning is in the milatry streams of many countries but no one knows the cost of them!!!!

Leslie Wilson replied on

Derek, Thanks for your comments. It is disheartening when we go into a district that has spent substantial resources, as you say, without a vision, plan or proper strategies for successful implementation of technologies. The latter is no cure-all for increasing students' achievement without focus, professional learning and purposeful use of these digital resources.

phil blacklock replied on

I totally disagree. We definitely should be spending huge amounts of money to inflict an unproven resource on thousands of children using the justification of more engagement and with the only guarantee that already rich corporations become even richer.

Leslie Wilson replied on

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I have experienced, first hand, rich corporations becoming richer at the expense of learners and their families. It is just wrong.

Student engagement is important for improving learning. Technology is proven to help with that engagement. But it is definitely not the be all end all. Meaningful uses of technology with a guaranteed curriculum and quality teaching and learning activities matter much more.

Nancy Caramanico replied on

When incorporating technology for learning, stakeholders and leaders must be strong proponents of responsible planning and management of resources. This kind of planning can well support a school's successful pathway forward.

Ann Flynn replied on

Based on my experience hosting site visits for NSBA to some of the leading 1:1 programs, I must respectfully disagree with Phil's assessment that these devices are unproven and only a tool for engagement. We have seen students empowered to create projects and engage in far deeper learning than my own school experiences. The key, as Leslie identified is the vision and implementation. The teachers and students we have visited - when asked - could not imagine nor want to go back to teaching without the tools of the 21st century. I base my support of 1:1 on their comments....and worry far less about a company "getting richer". Education has paid for appropriate tools from chalkboards and books to food services and buses; tech should not be viewed differently.

Leslie Wilson replied on

Ann, your first hand knowledge and leadership in this area is widely recognized and appreciated. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

John Rudkin replied on

My background is Design Education - and principals of Dewey felt like a foundation as we learned about education. Computers came later, and whatever the technology, while it can enhance and expand on the possible ways of manipulating things it is not about a formula to save time. It can, however, be used to interpret, model, calculate and manage, visualise, build and develop ideas - but not to the exception of other means. The principles of learning need to be holistic. Learning experiences need to be relevant and congruous, they need to retain perspective. In Design Education we talked and practiced the need to understand the real world, and experience how to shape it. Only through that experience can a developing individual really comprehend the impact they can have. Yes, I agree.

Leslie Wilson replied on

John, Thanks very much for your thoughtful commentary. You are spot on regarding technology. Efficiency is one thing - but the power of digital tools to facilitate the teaching and learning activities you outline are what is most powerful. Real world relevance and application through the learning process is totally necessary. I agree with the imperative for a holistic approach.

Judy Griffin replied on

Agreeing with this assessment of technology for technology sake, a logical pathway is to help teachers create real world, experiential, digital lessons. Most experienced teachers have a toolbox of resources that have been successful over the years, but may lack the know how to transfer these to a digital format. More professional development in this area makes sense in order to capitalize on the technology investments already made.

Leslie Wilson replied on

Thanks for your comments!! Yes, professional learning opportunities for teachers to experience, explore and create relevance for using technology is essential. Transforming the 'toolbox' to a digital approach takes time, trial and error, and working within a learning community to reflect and share new practices.

Nancy Caramanico replied on

I agree that meaningful professional learning opportunities make a profound difference towards fostering effective uses of technology for learning. School leaders who enthusiastically allocate time and resources for teacher 'creating and producing' are the ones who lead the way.

Leatha Williams replied on

As I read through the comments, I started to reflect on technology usage in my district. This article is very accurate regarding technology integration. I have found that there are four management components that must be in place to move technology from an add on to an integrated approach that truly enhance learning in terms of student ability to create, communicate, collaborate, and analyze information. In order for that to happen in public education there must be an alignment between the required and taught curriculum, a scope and sequence must be in place, collaborative time must be build into the structure of the day for teachers to plan, and teacher must find natural fits for technology rather than using it for the sake of meeting some requirement. Additionally, training and support must be in place for trouble shooting when problems occur during the learning process. Technology must be utilized for students to create a product and apply their skills for it to truly improve student engagement. Often, technology is define in terms of software purchasing...where the computer essentially controls the student, but real technology integration occurs when the students are the controllers of the technology. Ponder this thought, students are put on programs for drill and skills vs. students completing a web quest on a topic related to the content they are studying in social studies, science, music or art; they write a research paper and converting the research paper into a multimedia presentation for their electronic portfolio. This is meaningful and allows them to develop and enhance college and career readiness skills. Just some food for thought, it truly is based only on my own meandering experiences in public education.

Leslie Wilson replied on

Leitha, The four management components are crucial as is the importance of 'meaningful' integration. Students' voice and choice in use of technology to power up learning and advancement is an important goal. Thanks so much for this thoughtful commentary.

Maria Molestina replied on

Dear Leslie, I found your article very precise and interesting! I believe that teachers and students should start their way together to acquire the 21st century skills and to improve students achievement using the technology tools that are available now in the Web 2.0 I live in Ecuador where it is more difficult to find the resources to implement large computer labs or smartboards in each class, but now with concepts like BYOD and Flipped classes, it is a lot easier and inexpensive to work efficiently starting with well planned and controlled assignments. I use Google Apps for Education and believe me that it has been a great way to improve the quality of my classwork using technology, the thing is that in my country, teachers will have to find the way to study and decide to give the students the opportunity to "Meaningful use of technology to power up personal learning is the key".

See more at:

Leslie Wilson replied on

Yes, if teachers can band together in a learning community to share strategies, develop meaningful technology uses for personalizing learning they will have build robust internal capacity for growing best practices. Thanks much for reading and commenting.

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