In 1961 the Harvard Educational Review published B. F. Skinner’s treatise “Why We Need Teaching Machines,” in which the father of behaviorism described a mechanical device that taught and reinforced specific learning practices ranging from rhythm to “verbal knowledge.” Skinner claimed that the machine could maintain students’ interest because it provided regular reinforcement and always presented novel material. It could, he claimed, teach what teachers teach in half the time and with half the effort. Skinner’s words are disconcertingly comparable to contemporary discourses concerning smartphones and other digital technologies in the classroom. The overreliance on android-based solutions to education (pun intended) often matches Skinner’s faith in machines and his underappreciation of the work of teachers and the complexity of interest and learning.
Smartphones and teaching machines exist in a long line of attempts to replace the teacher. As Cuban (2003) describes, phonographs, radios, film projectors, televisions, computers, and more have come and gone with promises of revolutionizing learning. In each case, their thoughtful and careful incorporation has enhanced instances of learning by prompting valuable texts, tools, and talk. More often, shortsighted appeals to relevance and engagement have disappointed, but only until the next gadget hits the market. We firmly believe in the importance of incorporating new technologies into the classroom and continually bridging classroom and social uses of technologies, but we also push for critically examining the affordances and constraints of technology in classrooms in ways that look past its immediate allure.
Inherent within technophilic ideologies are assumptions about teaching and the work of teachers. There is a naive belief that technology is capable
of compensating for poor teaching by making classrooms “teacher-proof.” Another frequent trope that emerges is that inserting technology into classrooms will facilitate good teaching practices. That is, through osmosis-like processes, teachers will suddenly and across the board become great teachers by relying on digital tools. Sidestepping what many might see as the pesky time spent building relationships with students or as the pointless efforts to support teachers in developing their craft, technology is seen as something that can be simply added into classrooms. The just-add-technology-and-stir fallacy is especially problematic in how it frames educational issues as needing a short-term investment in devices or curricula rather than a longer-term investment in teachers and teaching.
When teachers and administrators explore the use of technologies in the classroom, they must be doubly cautious that they are not assuming that student interest is inherent to a gadget like a smartphone or that the instrument will transform learning and schooling to more equitable ends, particularly for students in urban schools. Relevance and transformation emerge through the interaction of texts, tools, and talk. Supporting teachers in these interactions to enable rich learning is a difficult task, layered at the classroom, institutional, and societal levels. Perhaps it is the daunting nature of this undertaking that prompts an unrealistic faith and hope that technology will solve the problem. To surface the centrality of pedagogy in learning, we argue that technology should be considered within an array of educational tools and strategies and judged in light of its potential to introduce or reshape texts, tools, and talk.