The Binary Delusion


The Binary Delusion is the third and final article in a series on ‘Screens in Schools’. The other articles are available in Editions 83 and 84.

Technology in education is not binary; it is not black and white. While computers may operate on 0s and 1s, with no decimal values in between, education (and the world) is not really like that. It is a continuum.

Hans Rosling summarises this tendancy of humans to live in a binary delusion in his bestseller ‘Factfulness’.

“…human being have a strong dramatic instinct toward binary thinking, a basic urge to divide things into two distinct groups, with nothing but an empty gap in between. We love to dichotomize. Good versus bad. Heroes versus villains. My country versus the rest. Dividing the world into two distinct groups is simple and intuitive, and also dramatic because it implies conflict, and we do it without thinking all the time.

Journalists know this. They set up their narratives as conflicts between two opposing people, views or groups.”

Technology in education is the same, with the negative end of the continuum regularly emphasised. However, there are many examples of schools that are at the positive end of the continuum. They are there because they have put in the hard yards; the planning, the implementation, the training of staff, and so much more. Instead of focussing on the negative end of the continuum, we need to learn from the schools that have success in technology enhanced learning.

This article examines some of the statements that are raised by the press and the community.

Kids need books

This implies that schools that invest in technology to enhance education don’t use books, or use books rarely. However, why would reading or using books be excluded in a tech rich world? There are many ‘tech’ schools that also have a library full of books…and the books are used. They don’t just sit on dusty shelves. It is an important and well used part of the school, and books are a favoured medium.

If books have been eliminated, then it is the school with the problem, not the technology.

Young kids need to be active and they aren’t when computers are around

This implies that all students who use a computer are inactive. However, why should computers in school stop students being active? Some tech schools have adventure playgrounds that are used extensively. They have students running around, playing football and other games during breaks. The vast majority don’t sit around in front of screens. If students are stuck in front of screens during breaks, the school needs to take control and change their paradigm. After all, isn’t that what we do in schools? Don’t we ensure students develop good habits? We ensure they dress appropriately, behave courteously, respect their surroundings, respect others and so much more. Why would we abdicate responsibility just because technology is involved?

Kids need to be able to write with a pen. Kids can’t write any more.

This implies that use of computers excludes the use of a pen when appropriate. This doesn’t have to be the case. Students need to write by hand. Cognitive research shows that hand written notes lead to better outcomes than typed notes. Why should hand writing disappear because of laptop computers?

Some ‘tech’ schools have a Bring Your Own Laptop program where pen-based computers are the norm. The pen is used when it is appropriate, and the keyboard is used when it is appropriate. Technology has actually made handwriting more important. Digital paper also has many advantages over physical paper, but that could be an article of its own.

Digital pens have improved immensely over the past few years and the cost of pen-based computers has dropped considerably. In fact, some are much cheaper than a brand that produces only non-touchscreen computers with only a keyboard. They have also become much more robust than they were a few years ago.

Kids are distracted when computers are used

This isn’t true. Some students are distracted. Students have been distracted and off task in a traditional classroom since schools began. Many students aren’t distracted, or are distracted rarely. Should they have technology and the educational advantages removed because of a minority of students?

Schools and teachers need to be responsible for student behaviour. Schools need to filter Internet access and police hotspot use/tethering to mobile phones.

Teachers need to manage behaviour in class. This is not complex. Each teacher knows which students are likely to be distracted by technology. Sit them nearby and have their screen visible. Don’t let them sit in a back row or back corner where it is difficult to walk and see a screen. Watch for levels of engagement and eye contact. It is relatively easy to identify a student who is off task.

This isn’t theory. I am a teacher and I use these techniques…and they work. It isn’t impossible, and it isn’t time consuming. It is basic behaviour management.

If lots of students are distracted lots of the time, either the school needs to act or the teacher needs to act.

I tried it and it doesn’t work

So, does this mean nothing worked? It will work for you if you do it properly. Don’t just give students computers or tablets. They are the final step when working to enhance education with technology, not the first step. Also, don’t assume that if you are ‘good with technology’ that you are ‘good with technology enhanced learning’. They are two different things.

Being able to teach effectively using technology requires excellent online courses in a robust Online Learning Environment (e.g. an LMS), a good understanding of how to work in a ‘blended’ classroom, a good knowledge of how to ‘really’ undertake flipped learning, and so much more. For most teachers, online course materials take time and expertise to develop, and the knowledge and skills to teach effectively using technology also take time to develop.

Enhancing learning with technology requires much more than being able to use a computer. Any school or teacher who ‘dives in’ without a considerable amount of preparation and knowledge is doomed to failure. They may say it doesn’t work, but they haven’t really tried it!

A good place to start developing expertise in flipped and blended learning is the Flipped Learning Global Initiative ( Certificate 1 course. Complete this or a similar course and then you have a starting point that is worthwhile.


There are many more ‘statements’ that circulate at times. Each is part of a continuum. Moving to new paradigms and dismantling some old paradigms is complex and uncomfortable for many. Instead of pulling back and reverting to the old methods, and instead of complaining that the new approach doesn’t work, schools need to seek out those organisations that are achieving success in this area. They may not be the majority yet, but they are out there.

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Peter West
Peter West currently leads a Learning Technologies Team that explores new learning technologies for a leading VET organisation. Previously he was Director of eLearning at Saint Stephen’s College on the Gold Coast, Australia. He has been leading learning organisations in all aspects of technology-enhanced learning for over twenty years. He can be contacted at and

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