Ed Tech’s Failure During The Pandemic, And What Comes After


Why didn’t the shift to remote learning bring about significant transformations in teaching and learning?


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In this Kappan article, Justin Reich (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) says that for more than a century, evangelists of educational technology have been promising game-changing breakthroughs. In 1913, Thomas Edison predicted that within ten years, all instruction would be conducted by motion picture and books would be “obsolete in the public schools.” In 2008, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen said that by 2019, all secondary-school courses would be replaced by adaptive online learning at one-third the cost. Others have predicted that students would soon be learning independently on the Internet, making schools obsolete.

Then, in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic blighted the world, and more than 1.6 billion learners had their schooling interrupted. While a small group of students have thrived under the independence of remote learning (Gilman, 2020), for most students and families the results have ranged from disappointing to disastrous. It’s not just that technology failed to transform educational systems; when the world needed it most, the latest and greatest education technologies haven’t done much to invigorate emergency remote learning.


As schools have transitioned to remote and hybrid learning, they have made only sparing use of emerging technologies like adaptative tutors, open online courses, virtual reality, or artificial intelligence. Mostly, schools have adopted two of our oldest digital education technologies: learning management systems and video conferencing.

Learning management systems — like Google Classroom, Canvas, Moodle, and others — were theorized in the 1960s and 1970s, commercialized in the 1990s, and made open source in the 2000s (Reich, 2020). Although they have all kinds of features, such as calendars, quizzes, and forums, they basically just let teachers and students pass documents back and forth, making them the digital equivalent of the

folder with one side labeled “bring home” and the other side labeled “send to school” that elementary school students are supposed to keep in their backpacks.

Video conferencing, which was called video telephony when it was introduced in the 1930s, allows people at a distance to talk in turns with the speaker and other listeners appearing onscreen. This may sound an awful lot like the basic conditions of an in- person conversation, but as just about everyone in the networked world now knows, video communication does not allow for seamless group interaction. Teaching through Zoom is like teaching through a keyhole: With some awkward straining, you can sort of see and hear what’s happening on the other side, but it’s not really conducive to meaningful conversation.

During the pandemic, the primary virtue of these two technologies has been that they allow teachers to partially replicate the typical routines of in-person classrooms. Teachers can shout lectures through the video keyhole, respond to student questions in the Zoom chat, and collect worksheets through the learning management system, and thus create a Kabuki theatre version of a school day. However, for the vast majority of teachers, students, and families, this digital facsimile of school is woefully inadequate. For most students, it’s boring and uninspiring, and for most teachers, it’s frustrating and unrewarding. But in spite of these faults, the appeal of conducting class in a reasonably familiar way has won out over bold visions to reimagine online teaching and learning. School reformers like to say that we should never let a crisis go to waste, but a global pandemic turns out to a tough time to reinvent education.

Evangelists for education technology tend to describe their inventions as akin to Swiss army knives, capable of serving numerous functions and solving a myriad of problems. But, in truth, they more closely resemble a scattered pile of mismatched tools. Many are useful for specific tasks, but the whole collection adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Experienced instructional designers can create powerful experiences using these tools, but remote classrooms relying primarily on a learning management system and video conferencing cannot support the range of interactions that are possible in a classroom with a human teacher who has access to chairs, desks, paper, blackboards, and a cart of laptops.

Of course, it is possible to add more apps to a suite of remote learning tools to allow them to serve more purposes and support a greater variety of teacher-student interactions — and most schools have done so. Many, for example, have adopted some kind of gamified adaptive math tutor, like DreamBox, STMath, ASSISTments, or Khan Academy, which researchers have found to be helpful for many students (Steenbergen-Hu & Cooper, 2013). However, even these tools for mathematics learning, which stand out among learning apps for their relatively strong evidence of effectiveness, don’t work equally well for everybody, in every situation.

It takes time, even for master teachers, to get to be good at teaching with technology. At first, teachers tend to use new technologies to extend existing practices. Only with time, practice, experimentation, and support do they move on to more novel applications.

Thus, every technology solution is also a human capital problem: New education technology tools are only as powerful as the communities that support their use.
The Charisma Machine, her wonderful study of the One Laptop Per Child Program, the anthropologist Morgan Ames (2019) coins the term charismatic technology to describe the breathless promises that have often been made about the disruptive power of new tools to sweep away the past and usher in a radically different and dramatically better future. Let’s hope that the pandemic has soured people on such charismatic salesmanship, and that vendors will find it much more difficult to persuade educators of the transformative potential of the latest digital device.

As an alternative to the charismatic approach, Ames offers the metaphor of “tinkering,” drawn from the title of David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s (1995) book Tinkering Toward Utopia. Advocates of tinkering recognize that improving teaching and learning is a long, arduous process that requires not a single big leap forward but, rather, the making of a great many small steps.

If today’s ed tech amounts to a hodgepodge of tools, rather than an all-purpose Swiss army knife, that’s no reason for despair. If technology isn’t transformative, that doesn’t mean it can’t be useful. If we adopt a tinkerer’s mindset, then we can learn important lessons from the pandemic.

First, the pandemic should remind us that to use technology effectively, teachers need intensive support and extensive practice. They cannot take advantage of new tools and platforms without meaningful opportunities for professional development and coaching. For that matter, they may not be able to use those tools well unless school leaders also tinker with the curriculum, schedules, assessments, and every other part of the system. Technology won’t improve our schools, but improving our schools may pave the way for powerful uses of technology.

The second lesson is darker: This may not be the only global pandemic that today’s children have to endure. As humans reengineer the geochemistry of the planet to be inhospitable to human civilization, climate scientists predict that there will be more disease outbreaks, more floods, more fires, more unbreathable air, and more extreme weather events (U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2018). We have no choice but to become better prepared for events that require a sudden shift to remote schooling.

The good news is that millions of teachers have come up with new teaching tricks and classroom routines, and tens of millions of students have deepened their skills in technology-mediated communication and self-regulated learning. These are valuable assets, and our schools can and should build on them, continuing the process of learning how to teach, learn, and use our digital tools more effectively.

Author: Justin Reich
For the entire article, go to:

“Ed Tech’s Failure During the Pandemic, and What Comes After” by Justin Reich in Phi Delta Kappan, March 2021 (Vol.102, #6, pp. 20-24); Reich can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..