The central problem of educational technology

Inspired by Donald Clark, here’s what I think is the central problem of educational technology:

As a teacher, I have written some text and I want my students to be able to see it


Blackboards were invented because they allow a teacher to write words that are big enough for students to see. Two drawbacks:

  • The student has to be in the room to read the text.
  • The teacher can’t save the text and show it again later.


A revolution in text-sharing technology. The teacher writes the text, photocopies it, and passes it out the students. Two drawbacks:

  • The photocopies cost money.
  • The paper comes from trees and we need trees.


The 1990s arrive. The teacher writes the text on one screen, and makes it appear on other screens, such as:

  • A big screen at the front of the room;
  • The students’ personal screens

Now we see why teachers like screens so much:

  • The students don’t have to be in the room to read the text.
  • Everyone can save the text and read it / show it again later.
  • Fewer photocopies = £££ saved!
  • No trees are cut down (although we end up using more electricity).

Combining Blackboards, Photocopies and Screens

Modern education uses all of the above in combination. I’m just going to talk about the screens, because I still don’t think we’ve got those figured out, and also because I like screens. Here’s what I think students want:

  • Text that is easy to read, ie. it responds to the screen it’s being displayed on and uses good typography.
  • Text that is easy to find, ie. students can find it in an obvious place.

And here’s what I think teachers want:

  • Text that is easy to write, upload, edit and delete.
  • Text that doesn’t suddenly disappear into the ether.
  • Sometimes, text that is visible to my students but not to the whole world.

How do teachers use screens to show text to students?

Mostly: PowerPoint, Word documents, PDFs, and HTML.

I’ve previously written about Powerpoints and PDFs. I’m coming to the opinion that HTML is the best out of these four options listed above.

If we take a bit of care over the CSS, HTML can look great.

If we put it on a website in a sensible place, it’s easy to find.

If we have a good CMS, it’s easy to write, upload, edit and delete.

A CMS can also help reduce the risk of our work suddenly going missing. And if the text is on a website that requires a login, we can (mostly) restrict who gets to see it.

Anyway, here’s how the VLE I use at work renders plain text:


And here’s how it renders a test piece of HTML that includes all the header tags, a blockquote, a table, and so on:


I think this is falling short of beautiful text. And what’s worse, this is fairly common for a VLE.

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