Bob Spielvogel says he’s always been interested in education, but admits, “I got into technology by fluke.”
After starting out as a teacher and principal, Spielvogel entered a graduate program to become a school psychologist, envisioning that role, he says, as “a real change agent.” Instead, he began to work toward change and progress by expanding and increasing technology’s impact on schools and learning. Following his graduate studies, Spielvogel held a variety of positions, always engaged in educating with tools other than books and printed materials, for example, designing and delivering cable-based education for Time, Inc., or content for PBS.
His EDC work runs the gamut from evaluating technology projects and assisting international efforts to developing ICT-based policies and innovations in education and overseeing EDC’s IT Department—something he considers “a big project to improve the work and communication experience of the people who work here.”
As EDC’s chief technology officer, Spielvogel directs the Division of Applied Research and Innovation, home to three major research and technology centers. Like many technology-focused educators, Spielvogel concentrates on applying technology to improving the quality of learning and teaching, expanding online educational content, and providing access to education in the world’s remote areas.
How can technology improve learning?
The greatest promise of technology in education is its ability to bring together people who address common problems and examine solutions. We’ve moved beyond simply distributing curricula and putting resources into schools. Technology greatly expands the circle and the ability to share.
What is the biggest misconception you encounter?
People may want a computer lab or new software without considering their ultimate goal, whether it’s increasing girls’ enrollment in primary education or reaching remote populations not currently in school. Our consistent message to educators who want to invest in technology is “Don’t treat it as a separate strategy. Look at your education goals, and then figure out how technology can serve them.”
Tell us about some exciting new trends you are seeing.
There is a lot of synergy between projects serving very different audiences. For instance, EDC has created online professional courses in our international, domestic education, and health work, and we’re consistently pushing the envelope of best practice. Some projects are looking at games and interactive environments, not just because they’re cool but because they fit our definition of engaged learning: people constructing knowledge in a multisensory way.
There’s a growing recognition in our overseas projects that the mobile phone is the most influential technology, far exceeding the computer as the preferred method for accessing the Internet. From an educational perspective, we recognize that phones will be a platform for learning in the future, and so we’re beginning to figure out how to do that.
What about other new opportunities to expand education with technology?
EDC recently formed a partnership with Curriki, a fascinating not-for-profit that noted the trend to create open education repositories—open textbooks or university courses. We’ve started by putting a math curriculum online with Curriki.
“Curriki” is a combination of curriculum and the interactive community input of a wiki, where people take something, adapt it, and offer it up to the community. This allows materials to be distributed more widely and to be adapted and improved.
How does the One Laptop Per Child initiative fit in?
I think it’s a really interesting model—the machine technically is fascinating and a really nice design. It’s also interesting to see what can happen when every child has a laptop. We’ve received a small seed grant from the Hewlett Foundation to examine what occurs in that kind of ubiquitous computing environment—how teachers and students actually use online and digital resources, becoming more than just consumers of them, but actually contributing to customizing them.
The issue for us is that there’s a tendency to focus on the ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new computer lab. We’ve been a strong voice that “equipment dumps” will not only be unsuccessful, but can be detrimental. Machines get wasted and cynics can point to lost opportunity. In some countries, the position has been “let’s get the machines out there and then we’ll figure out how to solve problems,” such as how to provide technical support or filter out porn. For us, that’s not sufficient.
Education is about hope, and if you raise people’s hopes, there’s an obligation to deliver on that by taking your best shot at ensuring success. In many countries, there’s so much hope for this initiative that, unless you think carefully about how to make it work, it could lead to backlash and disappointment.
What is the greatest challenge in your field?
It takes a lot of hard work to get it right, to provide infrastructure for things to work smoothly. People who haven’t used technology extensively have a fairly low threshold for things not working. Because we’re an education company, we have to ensure the technology works for people. It always takes longer to get to that, and that’s a hard lesson to learn.
Originally published on October 24, 2008