Last week we heard from my new hero Steve, an electrical engineer turned high school math teacher, with his reservations about technology as a motivator for student success. Notice this week I can use Steve’s first name, though not his last name or the name of the school where he teaches. This alone says volumes about the prickly state of teaching today where saying the truth out loud can hurt a career. And I understand why Steve might be concerned, because this time he’s talking not about how technology doesn’t often enable better learning, but how it actually gets in the way.

“Now, consider what happens if you inject into this scenario an iPad into the hands of every student in the classroom,” Steve continued.  “Certainly, for some students who are intrinsically motivated, this will unlock great learning options and it may, due to its more engaging nature, bring in some students who weren’t very interested and help them become more interested in learning.  But many students will not use the technology this way.  Many will choose to use the iPad as just another distraction (and a very compelling one) instead of focusing on learning the class content.  

“I witnessed this myself the last time I took a summer course at my local community college.  I was in a classroom paying attention to the professor, taking notes (on paper no less) and learning, while around me all my peers had their laptops open.  Were they taking notes electronically?  No, every screen was either open to Facebook or to some online game.  These students were convinced that they could effectively multitask and learn while being distracted by the technology, but in the end, of the people around me, I was the only one who got an A on the final exam in that class.”

Steve’s solution for these technical distractions is institutional control of Internet access in the classroom. Limit surfing and apps the way I try to keep my kids doing constructive things with their computers at home. But as we all know, that doesn’t really work. The tools are too crude, the kids are too clever, and who are we to say, really, what’s learning and what’s messing around?

Still, I wish parental controls were better. Understand my control efforts go deeper than most since I have placed limitations on the individual workstations as well as global limitations on the network through my ClearOS (formerly Clark Connect) gateway, which has powerful content filtering capabilities. Kids can’t go to a web page, for example, that my DNS server deliberately knows nothing about. Our gateway is of course named Sergeant Schultz.

Forget the software for a moment, though, and let’s consider what’s at work here with all this goofing off, which is the simple avoidance of academic effort. It takes place at all levels.

From my first job at Triway High School where I taught biology, chemistry, physics, and vocational agriculture to my six years at Stanford I was continually amazed at how grateful students were for any class disruption, with a class cancellation being the best news of all.  It’s like they wanted less for their parents’ money. Some (like John McEnroe, who dropped my class after the second week) would have been happiest with nothing for their money at all.

Education is a peculiar labor market.  As a teacher I managed my students and required output from them (their product) which was paid for with grades from me. But if they didn’t do the work and their product sucked as a result, there was little effect on me as a teacher because their product never truly entered commerce. It was all just a game.

A reader from Sweden, reacting by e-mail to last week’s column, cited Victor Vroom’s Expectancy Theory as governing student behavior. Expectancy Theory (I hadn’t heard of it, either) says behaviors arise from motivations and motivations are based on expected outcomes. This makes sense, I guess, if McEnroe’s expected outcome was an NCAA tennis singles title, not passing my class. The experience wasn’t real for any of us but only McEnroe acted on that knowledge.

I think this goes a long way toward explaining what some folks like Peter Thiel are calling a bubble market for education, where grades are inflated, tuition continually rises, and the real world relevance of any of it is as subjective as the value of 16th century tulip bulbs.

Like all bubbles, this one is aspirational — driven by those who aspire to acquire something in limited supply that they perceive to be of value whether it actually is valuable or not. Being glad that class was cancelled just defines the underlying values more clearly. The term will still end whether class is held today or not, a grade (and ultimately a degree) will still be earned, so let’s all head to the O for a beer.

Where does technology come into this? It doesn’t. I think Peter Thiel is wrong, by the way, as I’ll explain in our third and final section to come tomorrow. Technology is essential, yet so far inconsequential in the calculus of education.

I guess that explains why all these computers haven’t made us particularly smarter.