My Silver Bullet Failed Me!

“There is no silver bullet. There is always options, and the options have consequences.”
Ben Horowitz

I can’t count the number of times I’ve read an article or heard from a colleague about some new piece of technology that is going to change everything. This new technology was the “The silver bullet!” that was going to solve all our problems. Then I either never hear about it again or get told how it didn’t work. I’ve even had some people wonder why their silver bullet didn’t work while looking for something to blame.

To start with your silver bullet didn’t work because you are not Bass Reeves.

Bass Reeves first African-American Deputy US Marshal west of the Mississippi.
Bass Reeves first African-American Deputy US Marshal west of the Mississippi.

If you’ve never heard of him, Bass Reeves was born a slave and after the civil war became the first African-American Deputy US Marshal west of the Mississippi. He worked extensively in what was then called the Indian territories in Arkansas and the Oklahoma territories; he arrested more than 3000 felons. Lastly, he gave out silver dollars as his calling card; many people believe he is the real-life inspiration for the Lone Ranger. Look him up his life is a fascinating story.

Okay enough Lone Ranger references, why did so many technologies fail to fundamentally change education when so many, often talented and intelligent individuals thought they would. In 1922 Thomas Edison said, “The motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system, and in a few years, it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” Perhaps, we should start by looking at some of these technologies that were supposed to change education but didn’t.

  • The motion picture
    • How many of you fill every class period with movies and assign movies instead of textbooks?
  • Radio
    • I usually find myself asking students to take out their earphones and turn off the music.
  • Videodisc
    • Do any of you even remember this one?
  • MOOCs
    • When I first heard of MOOCs, they were going to replace everything and put schools out of business.
  • Pokémon Go
    • This bandwagon started even before the app came out. I read multiple articles about how Pokémon Go was the future of apps and technology in the classroom. Perhaps we’re still too early, and we should wait and see, but I’m thinking not.

As a comparison let’s look at some technologies that have worked and changed learning.

  • Textbooks
    • Before the internet, the book was the greatest democratization of knowledge the world had ever seen.
  • The Magic Lantern
    • The Magic Lantern and its descendants all the way to the modern Digital projector gave teachers the ability to show complex materials, notes, and images to whole classes. The information limit wasn’t the instructor’s ability to draw with chalk.
  • Student Response systems
    • Have allowed real-time feedback during lessons between instructors and their class. Giving the teacher the ability to adjust their teaching on the fly.
  • Learning Management Systems
    • Has created a simple single point of interaction for students and teachers to share information about all their classes.

There must be a difference between the technologies on these two lists.  What is that difference? The difference is the purpose, what purpose do these technologies serve. Look at laser disks finding individuals that have used these is a very difficult even in their prime they were costly. Yes, the image quality was superb especially in the days before HD, but that was all there was to them. If movies didn’t take over education why would movies with a better-quality image change everything? The real question to ask is, what was the problem laser disks solved or created? The answer, there wasn’t one they were just cool if you liked movies.

Now let’s look at one from the second list, the student response system (SRS). When you’re teaching a class one of the hardest things to do is figure out if your students are “getting it.” Asking the class “Was that clear?”, Or “Do you understand?” usually leads to a lot of head shaking when it’s time to grade the exams. Several faculty started adopting a practice where they would post multiple-choice questions during these lessons and have students raise their hands or colored cards to indicate their answer. However, since the students could see what response their fellows were giving the answers were often biased. The SRS gave the faculty the ability to ask these questions privately and then adjust their lectures based on what the student needs were.

We can tell similar stories about other items on the list. These items were adopted not because they were cool technologies but because they solved an educational problem. The technologies in the first list were technologies looking for a problem. That is why your silver bullet failed.

Don’t get me wrong I’m a tech geek I built my desktop computer, I travel with top-end phones, tablets, readers, and laptops. I have a smart house with phone controllable lights the whole 9 yards. While I deeply believe in the ability of technology to improve education, when dealing with the education I always start with the pedagogy. What are your educational goals? What are your learning outcomes? What are you trying to achieve? What problems are you having reaching your learning goals? Once the issues are known, do a little research and see if someone has already come up with an intervention for it. Is there a solution that already exists? Don’t reinvent the wheel; there’s plenty of other problems. Once you have finished all these steps, now it is time to consider what technology might do for you.

Think about some of the technologies that you know that have been successes and failures do they follow the pattern I listed above? What are the best Ed tech successes you know? Can these successes help you solve other problems?


Thanks for listening to my musings

The Teaching Cyborg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s