How Education Fails Technology (And What to Do About It)

SHIFT PARADIGM | by Mark E. Weston

Education has failed technology. Yes, you read that correctly. Education has failed technology.

To understand why this is, not vice versa, requires understanding what the research literature makes clear: It is possible to get all children learning at levels beyond their respective aptitudes. The same literature, however, makes clear that such levels of learning rarely occur outside one-to-one tutoring settings. Let’s unpack these seemingly contradictory statements to shed light on why education has failed technology and what we can do about it.

Nearly three decades ago, Benjamin Bloom (author of Taxonomy of Educational Objectives) led a research effort to find methods of group instruction that were as effective as one-to-one tutoring through which students performed two standard deviations higher than their classroom educated peers. Bloom named the target of his search the 2-sigma problem. The research-based solution he found was simple, yet profound. If certain instructional practices are used and specific conditions met then one teacher, instructing a group of students in a classroom, could help the students attain 2-sigma. The practices he identified that make 2-sigma possible include reinforcement, cues and explanations, corrective feedback, and cooperative learning. The conditions include student classroom-participation, student time on task, and classroom morale.

Despite Bloom’s work and thousands of subsequent studies by other researchers (e.g., John Hattie, Robert Marzano) that demonstrate the positive effect that specific practices and conditions have on classroom learning, 2-sigma remains a rare attainment for teachers. This is largely because in the current educational paradigm individual teachers must shoulder a disproportionate share of the pedagogical load for making 2-sigma happen.

The teacher-load conundrum is exacerbated by the organizational and operational design of schools that make load-sharing nearly impossible for 2-sigma oriented teachers. In such schools, a teacher trying to take a classroom of 30 students to 2-sigma must make it happen alone. That is a lot for an already heavily-laden teacher to do; a load even heavier if that teacher lacks the emotional, intellectual, or pedagogical wherewithal for unilaterally taking on 2-sigma. That these circumstances exist at all is a failure of the field of education, not the teacher. This failure is quite ironic given the intense pressure placed on the education field to get teachers to produce ever-greater student learning and achievement, mostly in the form of improved test scores.

When viewed through a produce-greater-student learning lens, school-level support for all teachers, especially the 2-sigma seeking ones, may be the most pressing, yet least recognized educational challenge of our era. My colleague Alan Bain and I call that challenge 1:X.

Sadly, schools are not designed for 1:X.

What can be done? The answer to that question must involve technology, because without its powerful benefits teachers stay in the same predicament and the educational paradigm stays the same.

During the past two decades many technologies have entered our lives. They brought with them lofty expectations for transformation of classrooms and schools. Implicit in such expectations was a belief that teachers and students with access to and mastery of technology would transform education.

While some evidence suggests that the personal lives of teachers and students may have changed as a result of new technologies, little evidence shows that their education lives have changed much. Technology has exerted little overall effect on educational settings and the teaching and learning in them. Student achievement test scores remain flat, school completion rates have not declined, and instruction is still mostly teacher-led in classrooms with neat-rowed desks.

The minimal effect that technology has had on teaching and learning is a failure of the field of education not a failure of technology. Teachers who strive to take their classrooms of students to 2-sigma, but have no school-level supports know this well. Further, those teachers know that the technology available to them barely connects to the real work that they do every day and the extra work they must do to make 2-sigma happen. And they readily admit that in many instances the technology that they do have actually increases their load. Not surprisingly, data show teachers rarely using technology in their classroom instruction.

What most teachers do not realize is that the lack of support for their 2-sigma work and the ineffectual technology they are given are symptoms of a much more pervasive failure.  Both are a result of the field of education failing to acknowledge its own research about what works. And each is compounded by the field failing to investigate and build consensus about how to take what works to scale. This failure of scale limits the field’s ability to provide direction to the technology industry. It in turn limits the industry’s ability to help schools attain 1:X and teachers attain 2-sigma.

Fortunately, these circumstances can be changed significantly. The way forward starts with you, me, and other like-minded educators embracing Bloom’s and other researchers’ findings about the practices and conditions that have the most powerful effects on teaching and learning. Then, girded with these findings, we push, pull, and prod to secure school-level commitments that those practices and conditions become the basis for organizational and operational designs and decisions. The designs and decisions will in turn support putting technologies in place that enable teachers, students, and other educational stakeholders to generate emergent feedback about the school-level support they receive and guide further refinement of their efforts.

The shifts that we must seek in educational thought, theory, and action require education to demand technologies that extend, connect, and develop the capacities of teachers, students, and other educational stakeholders to benefit from the research of Bloom and others.

Sound preposterous? Perhaps it is. Anything less, however, reinforces past failures.


Mark Weston Ph.D., a co-author of The Learning Edge: What Technology Can Do to Educate All Children resides in Dunwoody, Georgia. He can be reached at

  • Jason West (@EnglishOutThere)


    I agree completely, and it is good to read someone who isn’t afraid to share these kinds of thoughts. The way technology has been used has been dumb, especially in ELT, which is where I come from. Why? In my opinion human nature (for that read hierarchical organisations such as publishers, universities, educational authorities) has dictated that the status quo, i.e. “instruction is still mostly teacher-led in classrooms with neat-rowed desks” remains. Writing those words doesn’t please or thrill me, it frustrates me and even makes me angry and then sad. Sad that we can’t see the wood for the trees. An example, all reports say there are 2bn English learners on the planet, about 4m private TEFL teachers and lots (although a long way from enough) English teachers in state schools. Scale, effectiveness and cost are the main problems. Using technology and different (and more effective) pedagogy they could be addressed now. But the global ELT industry is still wedded to selling one-to-one synchronous courses online, i.e. taking the age-old offline model online. It is inefficient, expensive, doesn’t scale and favours the native English speaker teachers and their employers. Why does it happen? Because the industry is controlled by organisations that have a vested interest in keeping things the same. Simple. What’s the solution? Change the way you teach, use social media to teach blended and distance courses that use the technology the way it was intended to be used, to socialise learning, make new far flung interpersonal connections that support the learning process (i.e.practice) and allow a teacher to use their time much more effectively and to produce compelling evidence of improved learning. It exists but at the moment a lot of heads are in the sand and hands are going numb from being sat on for so long.

  • harrykeller


    You’ve heard it before: “better, faster, cheaper.” NASA said that. Our schools should use technology that does that for education. Dr. Weston is right about the few teachers who strive mightily against heavy odds to create real learning in their classrooms. He’s also right about ineffectual technology. He does not mention inappropriate use of technology, but should add that into the mix.

    I’ll provide one example. Science laboratory simulations (you know, the animated kind) are becoming more widespread. Computer simulations of science provide a great way to allow students to see (visualize) processes that are complex and difficult to understand. They provide a rotten way to do science lab investigations.

    The new paper, “Student Learning in Science Simulations: Design Features That Promote Learning Gains” by Scalise et al., points this out through an extensive survey and ongoing study.

    Yet, perversely, science teachers continue to replace real labs with animated computer ones. Driven by the profit motive (for regular corporations) or fame and government grants (for non-profits), companies that make animated science simulations pitch their wares as lab substitutes. They’re egging the teachers on to use a good tool in a poor way. This is just one practice involving technology that should stop.

  • Educagtor, Professional Develoopment, Student


    But Dr. Weston does address inappropriate use in his book…it is Assumption 3…found on page 8 (The Learning Edge: What Technology Can Do To Educate All Children). Just because teachers attend professional development and may even report that they are adequately trained does not mean it translates into appropriate or transformative practice. It is the careful reflection of curriculum, pedagogy, and a clear understanding of what the technology can do that will move teachers in that direction and help them select the correct technology for the learning target they need to address. And I would also submit that sometimes “egging teachers on” allowing them to stumble, while supporting them in their growth would be a good thing. Isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing with our students? Why wouldn’t we do the same with our educators, if we really want them to be lifelong learners?

  • Kieran Mathieson


    “The minimal effect that technology has had on teaching and learning is a failure of the field of education not a failure of technology.”

    I’ve been doing IT since the 70s. Much has changed, but one thing has not: projects fail when developers don’t understand task requirements.

    Much ed tech work is about tech, not learning. I’ve read funding proposals detail the tech-to-be, then add: “Oh, and we’ll throw in an education graduate student, so the learning stuff is OK.”

    That won’t work. Learning is VERY complex. The psychology of learning is complex, with parameters (like motivation) varying across students. The psychology of teaching is complex. The content is complex and varying – math, science, literature, language… Administration is complex, and constrained.

    When ed tech succeeds, it’s often a matter of luck, rather than good planning.

    My story: I’m a prof teaching tech. Programming, database, Web tech, etc. In 2005, I decided to improve my teaching. I’ve been studying learning science since then. Learning science is about cognition, emotion, social interaction, and other messy human things affecting learning.

    In 2007, I started writing textbooks and designing tech, to support learning/teaching processes based in learning science. This was AFTER I had studied the task of learning.

    In 2008, I began using the online textbooks in courses. You can see them at Spoiler alert: formative feedback is key to skill learning.

    Education is not failing tech. That’s too simplistic. I come across teachers using DIY tech. I rarely find a developer learning about learning. The discussion in places like EdSurge is about money, tech, and entrepreneurship, not about learning.

    Bottom line: if you want to build good ed tech, understand learning first.

    This isn’t news. Or shouldn’t be.


    • harrykeller

      You make a great point. Before designing Smart Science® education, I spent many long hours studying science education. As a scientist (Caltech and Columbia University-educated chemist), I know that you cannot just use your gut.

      Building good ed tech is very hard. Begin with as much research as you can find. Note that some will be contradictory, and don’t swallow it all whole. Build a prototype and test it on students. Refine. Repeat cycle forever.

  • Ann Ware


    Dr. Weston and Dr. Bain reflect on evidence-based instructional practices that produce positive student outcomes. As professional development for teachers is developed, their understanding of those practices and how those proven practices influence their day-to-day work with students is critical. The technology must support those practices and through those practices, a common language is developed between students and teachers. The technology works to synchronize the work allowing teachers to, as seamless as possible, work collaboratively with students. The conversation and professional development is focused on the proven practices and less on where to click.

  • Mark Gura


    That’s a very astute article, Mark. While in large measure I agree, for me there’s another take on the situation that I think is important to point out.

    If I’m getting the gist of your piece, you are saying that schools haven’t really given technology a chance because the types of pedagogy they engage in aren’t truly compatible with the use of technology. I do think we are seeing more and more tech being used (How could we not? Despite the Education Institution’s heavy resistance, technology Is a force of nature that even a risk averse, married to the status quo, institution can’t hold back forever) – However, for the most part, I agree; technology has not been taken out for the test drive it deserves – not by a long shot!

    But I also think that a dimension of this that you don’t really get into in the piece is the type of assessment schools are now living and dying by. As we learned years and years ago, instruction that has among its important goals the ‘learning’ (read that memorizing) of bodies of factual knowledge and basic skills routines (to be regurgitated and simplistically demonstrated in the type of format used for standardized tests) is NOT the true promise of technology. Solving authentic, worthwhile problems, fostering creativity, thinking, reflecting, communicating effectively and with style… these are the sorts of things that technology can bring into the lives of student intellects and spirits – the sorts of things that are the stuff of Project-Based Learning (which, by the way, really requires technology support to do it right) – things that motivate and engage students. So, in a sense, it’s not just that schools haven’t given technology a chance, they haven’t given 21st Century Learning a chance… haven’t gotten around to it yet. 21st Century Learning isn’t technology learning, but technology use is an essential condition for it to happen.

  • Sam Lim


    I enjoyed your article in EdTechdigest. I certainly concur that often technology is pushed into the class room before the instructional value is understood or before the teacher in the classroom is trained to use it. I hosted a job shadow for STEM teachers sponsored by the GA DOEs STEM initiative program. The idea was to expose K-12 Science and Math teachers to potential career pathways that STEM education could lead to by having the teachers shadow engineers and scientists in real businesses. The goal was to give the teachers a feel of what a real working engineer does every day in his/her job, so that the teacher could share this with students in the classroom in a more realistic way. Indeed many of the middle school teachers did not have much of an idea of what a real software engineer did or what a mechanical designer did.
    We also did a segment where we did a live TelePresence with Dr. Lance Ford who shared with the teachers his experiences in adopting technology for his class room in Oklahoma and where they as teachers could find resources and help. What was interesting about this segment was that Dr. Ford who teaches music was able to share with them things that worked and were effective that the technology was a means of instruction but that it did not replace the essential elements of effective instruction. In other words a instructional unit that does not incorporate instruction plus student feedback is ineffective no matter how good the technology is.
    Finally during the final Q&A with the teachers I struck a nerve when I discussed their frustration with using technology in the classroom. There seems to be a willingness to throw technology at education but no willingness tofirst instruct the teachers how to use the technology and then allow the teachers to test drive the technology BEFORE sending it into the classrooms. One teacher told us of the 8 minute rule, if I cant make a technology work for me within 8 minutes of starting the class then it goes into the closet to never be used again. Other teachers in the room nodded in agreement to that.

  • C.S. Smith


    It is over-simplifying to say so, but the issues Dr. Weston calls out are not unique to the education establishment. We’ve been dealing with the misguided belief that technology could be a silver-bullet in the commercial sector for a long time. The difference in the commercial sector is that companies who can’t understand the importance of “process” get weeded out in Darwinian fashion. In the education sector there are still too many in leadership positions who fixate on the latest “bright shiny object” as a panacea. Buying every teacher in the district a laptop is easy – figuring out how to ensure pedagogical “best practices” are employed consistently in the classroom is another thing entirely (and beyond the capacity of current systems). Only when this realization is prevalent in the public sector, as it is in the commercial sector, will progress be possible. Let’s hope Dr. Weston’s viewpoint takes hold in a meaningful way.

  • Plane (@planejourney)


    Excellent article!

    I would add that an additional challenge for teachers is that the “education” sector isn’t one entity but rather made up of what could be considered millions of small businesses that each in themselves:
    a) are not necessarily in agreement with one another on what is ‘best practice’ (and not all the research agrees with each other either!);
    b) often don’t have the resources to implement best practices,
    c) must work within the confines placed by different divisions/counties/governments so that even two schools within the same country may have different limitations due to differences in opinion.

    Technology censorship would be one example of how complex the issue is. Censorship can be applied at a desktop level, an individual school level, a school division level, a state-wide level, or a national level. If an individual teacher wants to use a particular website or tech tool they may find it blocked for unknown reasons and not even know who to ask to get it unblocked. There are wide ranging differences in opinion on what should and shouldn’t be censored in the general public, even more so in a ‘safe school’ environment.

    Regardless of these challenges, I agree that there is clear evidence that the education system needs to make better use of research findings, and for this to happen it will be educators who lead the way – via any means necessary – leading by example in their own classrooms.

    At PLANE we’re developing a Professional Development World for Australian educators with a primary goal of supporting and empowering teachers to make effective use of technology in the classroom for improved learning outcomes. And yes, underscore “effective use of” technology because we agree with the comments above that there is no value in “technology for technology’s sake.” As Karen points out good edtech (and professional development) needs to be firmly grounded in solid education principles, with an understanding of meeting teacher and student needs rather than simply throwing together something shiny and new. There are a lot of great educators who understand this and are doing their best.

    • HarryKeller

      The problems related to the Balkanization of our schools (aka independence) are real. This is why I reluctantly support the NGSS here in the US. They were created by a committee and have the problems that result from that approach. However, they are a first step to delivering a consistent curriculum (not identical, though) across the country. From this approach comes many benefits. Curricular support material costs go down because vendors only have to do the work once. Students moving from one school to another find they understand what’s going on in classrooms. Adjusting socially is hard enough; why subject them to adjusting academically?

      The real cost savings for schools will come when districts can make purchases of materials for all of their school instead of the schools each making their own purchasing decisions and purchases. Sales costs form a major portion of the edtech company’s expenses. If a district has ten schools, then visiting just the district costs one-tenth as much as visiting every single school.

      It’s worse in colleges and university where you must visit each professor individually.

  • studentforce


    Reblogged this on hireED4HigherEd.

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