Why Technology Will Never Fix Education

Kentaro Toyama:

Sadly, what we found was that even when technology tested well in experiments, the attempt to scale up its impact was limited by the availability of strong leadership, good teachers, and involved parents — all elements that are unfortunately in short supply in India’s vast but woefully underfunded government school system. In other words, the technology’s value was in direct proportion to the instructor’s capability.

Over time, I came to think of this as technology’s Law of Amplification: While technology helps education where it’s already doing well, technology does little for mediocre educational systems; and in dysfunctional schools, it can cause outright harm.

When I returned to the United States and took an academic post, I saw that the idea applies as much to higher education in America as it does to general education in India. This past semester, I taught an undergraduate course called “IT and Global Society.” The students read about high-profile projects like One Laptop Per Child and the TED-Prize-winning Hole-in-the-Wall program. Proponents argue that students can overcome educational hurdles with low-cost digital devices, but rigorous research fails to show much educational impact of technology in and of itself, even when offered free.