Jewish Ed Tech Macher Says Tech Is Not – NOT – the Answer to Affordability

Technology should be a method of enhancement, never a cost-efficient replacement for face-to-face learning experiences, or a smokescreen to distract from other cost-efficiencies.

by Russel Neiss

“There must be a revolution in education in which educational science and the ingenuity of educational technology combine to modernize the grossly inefficient and clumsy procedures of conventional education.”
Sidney Pressey, 1924

As the creator of several Jewish educational apps, as a former day school administrator responsible for integrating technology in a pedagogically sound way, and as someone who has articulated a vision for Jewish education that heavily relies on the use of technology, I recently have been asked about my opinions on blended learning, and other attempts to use technology to help make Jewish education more affordable.

In short, I think it’s a bad idea.

Since this is [initially written] for the PEJE blog, let’s ignore the question as to whether or not technology actually helps student achievement (bottom line, it might, but there’s no real evidence yet to prove that it does), and instead focus on whether or not these allegedly new pedagogical approaches cut the cost of education.

To date, there has not been one single large scale study showing any significant cost savings of blended learning. The closest we have is a single report by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute that suggests given the right circumstances, blended learning can lower the cost of instruction per pupil by an average of around $1,000 annually. The real cost savings of using technology for instruction comes only with a fully virtual school model, which drives the cost down about $4,000 per pupil on average.

For those who deal with school budgets, this shouldn’t be much of a surprise. The National Association of Independent Schools suggests that salaries and benefits of faculty and staff should make up something like 75% of a school’s budget, with another 5% for marketing/development, 5% for financial aid, and 10% for everything else. So for technology to make any significant impact on the affordability of a school, it means that somehow the technology needs to replace a beloved member of the faculty or staff. Compared to a fully virtual environment, blended learning only lets you get rid of a couple of teachers (usually by increasing class sizes), and so the savings remain limited.

In case it’s not clear already, I just want to emphasize this point one more time. What people are really talking about when they discuss the massive cost savings associated with using technology in education is about replacing teachers with technology. And while I know I promised to focus on only the affordability question, can we stop pretending that displacing teachers is going to have a “quality neutral (or better)” effect on pedagogy?

I don’t blame those who think that technology is the answer to our affordability and quality issues in education, it’s been a common trope for over a century. In 1913 Thomas Edison predicted that books would become obsolete and that the “school system will be completely changed inside of ten years” because motion pictures could be more cost efficient as a form of direct instruction. The same promises were made with radio, television, CD-ROMS, laserdisks, the Internet, 1:1 laptop programs, and continues today unabated.

But my favorite historical example that most closely corresponds to recent attempts to address the affordability of education through technological is B.F. Skinner’s Teaching Machine. Here’s the promo for it in all its 1954 filmstrip glory:

Take five minutes to watch it, and then ask yourself why we start every educational technology discussion today as if Dewey, Skinner, Bruner, Bloom, et al. (and their critics) never existed.

We’ve been down this road before. Harnessing technology to create efficiencies and revolutionize education hasn’t had the intended impacts in the past. In part that’s because we ascribe a magical quality to it and try to force it into paradigms that it was never designed to do. Technology should be a method of enhancement, never a cost-efficient replacement for face-to-face learning experiences, or a smokescreen to distract from other cost-efficiencies.

No amount of artificial intelligence or blended learning or Smart-this or i-that is going to be able to replace the pedagogical benefits of a highly trained educator who can help students gain and apply knowledge (Judaic or otherwise) to help them make sense of the world in which they live. Trying to harness technology to supplant these professionals in search of some perceived vast savings that has yet to be realized is a fool’s errand.

Russel Neiss is a Jewish educator, technologist, activist, and the coding monkey behind PocketTorah, the AlephBet App, and a myriad of other Jewish educational technology initiatives. He currently serves as the Director of Educational Technology for G-dcast.

cross-posted with PEJE blog