Do We Really Need Dedicated Edtech?

A different view on making and buying technology for student learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Marc Prensky

Do we really need to continue to create, sell, and buy dedicated “educational” hardware and software”?  Venture capitalists think so—I just saw an investment figure of over $9 billion per year. But I believe this is a huge waste, both for investors and for students.

Our kids live in a world where almost any technology they could possibly need is available in a general-purpose, easily-configurable-to-whatever-the-need form—often free. It lets them do much more than just academic work—it empowers them to accomplish real things.

“We should be thinking about what role the new technologies can play in a world of post-academic, empowerment, accomplishment-oriented education—the education of the future, now emerging around the world.”

General-purpose technology (e.g. writing tools, communication tools, video tools, analytical tools, databases, Google docs, programming and app-building tools and much more), as it quickly evolves—when used well—works fine for this, and is the bulk of what today’s kids will be using for the rest of their lives.

So What Do We Need?

Our kids—and their educators—need to be finding, creating and inventing ways to use these new general-purpose communication tools, collaboration tools, programming languages, big-data and other analysis tools, simulation engines, robotics tools, AI, AR, VR and more, in ways that will empower them to achieve their dreams and become good, effective world-improving people.

Today’s dedicated “edtech” is almost entirely about supporting our old, “academic” paradigm of education. It is dedicated almost entirely to doing things we could do before—e.g. delivering and receiving content, doing research, or keeping records—in faster, and sometimes marginally better ways.

In the age of iPhones, academic education doesn’t need dedicated technology—a lesson Rupert Murdoch learned painfully with his Amplify tablets.

In the age of You Tube, highly funded startups making “content” are finding that, no matter how good or beautiful that content may be, no one will buy it.

The Real Question for Education 

Our kids, with their extended minds all networked together, need little more than powerful devices and a really fast connection to the web. Once we forget about “edtech” we can deal with the real educational question—how to use the powerful technology we already have—and will have—to achieve our kids’ and our goals.

We should be thinking about what role the new technologies can play in a world of post-academic, empowerment, accomplishment-oriented education—the education of the future, now emerging around the world.

The Real Potential of Technology

Although creating dedicated “edtech” may make economic sense in the short-term, it is disastrous in the longer-term—it holds us back from moving to a new educational vision.

Creating new and expensive technology just to do the “same old education” in different ways is almost certainly the most wasteful use of our resources for educating our kids there is.

Using technology in this way both trivializes technology’s real potential, and fails to empower our kids further to do anything new that they need.

Compared to how technology could be helping our kids become educated for the future, using edtech only—or mainly—to do “old things better” is trivial—no matter what the complexity and sophistication level of the products themselves.

The Best Role for Startups and Researchers

The best role for those technology start-ups and researchers interested in our kids’ future is to begin thinking about using technology to replace the academic K-12 education system we have today with an empowering, real-world project-based education, in which kids—of all ages—do work that makes a measurable positive impact on the world.

That kind of education requires inventing more innovative and imaginative ways for us to use the powerful tools that we already have—and that will continue to emerge.  It means more free, general-purpose tools like Google docs and fewer products “dedicated” to learning STEM or anything else.

The main arguments I hear in favor of dedicated edtech are

(1) that kids need “better” content and “interactivity,” and that

(2) that we need such dedicated tools to maintain our kids’ “privacy.”

I believe both justifications are going away.

A More Important Task At Hand

Almost all “content” is already on the Internet for free, and is daily improving. (In fact, the kids who care about each kind of content can be, and should be, improving it as part of their education.)

Expectations of “privacy” are also fast changing in the digital age, as young people’s attitudes towards a great many things morph to fit their new times.

As they do, there will certainly be issues to deal with, but anyone who thinks their salary, health records, or their kids’ school records will not be findable by anyone online in the near future is kidding him or herself.

We live in a new world, and preparing our kids for it involves a lot more important tasks than making new products for the education of the past.

Marc Prensky is founder and Executive Director of The Global Future Education Foundation and Institute and author of Education to Better Their World: Unleashing the Power of 21st Century Kids (Columbia TC Press, 2016), which won the FOREWORD INDIES 2016 Book of the Year Awards in Education. He has spoken in 40+ countries and promotes civilization-level change in education, empowering students to better their world. Write to:

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