For those of you who refuse to read anything produced by the Clayton Christensen on principle (and I have some sympathy for that position these days), let may save you a click. The author, Julia Freeland Fisher, uses research on comparative appliance adoption rates by her colleague, Horace Dediu, to argue that:
[I]t’s becoming increasingly acknowledged that we need to pair investments in edtech tools with investments in professional development. But for the tools and models that least conform to traditional school structures, we’re also likely to need investments in fundamental reengineering—that is, not just developing teachers’ proficiency in using tools but rethinking processes like schedules, evaluations and staffing throughout an entire school building or district.
What do refrigerators have to do with restructuring schools? In order to use a new refrigerator, consumers only had to plug them in. In order to use washing machines, on the other hand, consumers needed plumbers to help them and maybe a whole new set of pipes in their houses. That’s why refrigerators became much more popular, much faster than washing machines and that’s why you need to change the way schools are structured so that they can best take advantage of all the wonderful new education technology that EdSurge must cover every day.
The first thing that jumped out at me about this article was Fisher’s basic dates in the history of the refrigerator. She says the refrigerator debuted in the 1930s. The first electric household refrigerators appeared during the 1910s. They were already being mass-produced by the late-1920s. “Refrigerators quickly took hold,” she writes “gaining over 90 percent adoption by the late 1950s.” I actually used the exact same statistic in my book Refrigeration Nation (p. 179, for all my fellow refrigerator aficionados who want to consult your own copies), but I used it to make the exact opposite point about refrigerators. In 1957, when over 90% of American households had refrigerators, only 12% of French households had refrigerators and less than 10% of English households did. If refrigerators were really that great, why didn’t they too just plug them in and enjoy the bounty?
As a historian, this is where I became really curious about where Fisher got her statistics. While she namechecks her colleague Dediu, there’s no link in the piece to any published study about refrigerators and washing machines. Indeed, the only link in the entire essay is to a general study about technological diffusion. There’s a chart in Fisher’s essay about comparative adoption curves, but there’s no source listed for that either. Other than completely leaving out the bottom left, the curve for refrigerators looks OK to me, but how can I trust her point about washing machines if I don’t anything about the source? How can I be sure that this isn’t the edtech equivalent of fake news?
That’s why I opened a book. Ruth Schwartz Cowan’s More Work for Mother is a classic in the history of technology and pretty close to the only scholarly work that tackled the history of refrigerators at any length before I did. Since it is a general history of appliances, I figured it might have a little bit about washing machine adoption rates in one of the sections I had forgotten about. So I pulled it down off my shelf, turned to the index and quickly hit the jackpot; “washing machines…diffusion, 195-96.” Here’s the quote:
“[I]n 1941–roughly thirty years after they came on the market, and twenty years after the prices had fallen to more or less reasonable levels as a result of mass production–only 52 percent of the families in the United States owned or had “interior access” to a washing machine. Thus, just under half the families in the land were either still hand rubbing or hand cranking their laundry or using commercial services.”
If you’re wondering, the Fisher/Dediu number is about 10 percentage points lower than the one that Cowan used. Perhaps this can be explained by the difference between owning a washing machine and “accessing” a washing machine in the basement of your apartment building or taking your dirty laundry down the street to a laundromat. But for purposes of Fisher’s overall point about edtech, this distinction means everything.
Can you live without a refrigerator? Most Americans can’t. [Indeed, the refrigerator adoption rate in the modern US is actually 99.5%.] However, French or English people in 1957 still had easy access to fresh meat and produce at large markets. Many still choose to live that way today because fresh perishable food tastes better. Americans, on the other hand, tend to preference convenience over taste. That’s why the refrigerator industry was one of only three in the whole United States to grow during the Great Depression. Anyone who had any money to spend at that time greatly valued the added convenience of electric refrigerators over ice. By 1960, the old ice industry basically disappeared because it ran out of customers.
Can you live without a washing machine? Of course you can. That’s why there are still coin-operated washing machines and laundromats. Keeping your food in other people’s refrigerators isn’t an option in the United States, but you don’t need constant access to a washing machine in order to get your clothes washed by machine when needed. In other words, owning your own refrigerator is close to the only way to have access to refrigeration, but dragging your dirty clothes to any laundromat is a reasonable way to get access to a washing machine even if there is none in your home or apartment. There’s only one way to keep your perishable food fresh, but there are plenty of ways to get your clothes washed whether you own a washing machine or not. In short, refrigerators are close to a necessity. Washing machines are just really, really convenient.
Can you live without edtech? [You just knew I had to get around to edtech here eventually, right?] Shockingly enough, there were actually good schools in the United States long before Bill Clinton and Al Gore decided to put a computer in every classroom. Plenty of teachers and professors offer great classes of all kinds without anything more sophisticated than their voices and a chalkboard. Weirdly enough, just this morning, right after I read that article, I was pitching our dean on starting a digital humanities program in our college. “What about the professors who don’t want to use technology?,” he asked me. I said I would never in a million years force any teacher to use technology if they don’t want to, but it’s a actually a good thing if students have a wide range of classes in which they can enroll, some of which use educational technology and some of which don’t.
Which brings me to the fundamental problem with the Clayton Christensen Institute for Cheerleading Disruption of All Kinds. The whole assumption behind that article is that one technology will always inevitably drive another technology to extinction: Refrigerators will completely replace ice, washing machines will completely replace washboards and edtech will completely replace conventional teaching. That is only true for the first of those examples (and even then, only really in the United States). Whether teachers want to teach with or without edtech is a cultural decision, not some hard and fast rule determined by the universal laws of technology.
Unless, of course, you have some other axe to grind…