My Turn: Technology is a means, not an end

Last modified: Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Last month President Obama laid out an ambitious plan to transform the federal government’s relationship with higher education. The president proposes to change how federal student aid is allocated in order to encourage colleges and universities to innovate in reducing student costs while improving quality. One method the White House proposes is increased investment in learning technologies, with online learning and blended learning specifically mentioned as techniques that can “help students master the same material in less time and often at lower cost.”

A White House fact sheet on the president’s plan goes even further in offering specific ideas for how technology can support this higher ed productivity agenda. It suggests that “redesigned courses that integrate online platforms (like MOOCs, massive open online courses) or blend in-person and online experiences can accelerate the pace of student learning.” And, it argues, “Online learning communities and e-advising tools encourage persistence and alert instructors when additional help is needed. Technology is enabling students from across campuses and across the world to collaborate through online study groups and in-person meet-ups.”

My work over the past decade and a half in educational technology makes me both enthusiastic about the president’s higher education initiatives and wary of some of the paths where these initiatives could lead.

Here’s my advice to leaders who will need to respond to and help shape federal polices around higher education and innovation and technology:

1. Technology is a means, not an end.

Technology in education is always tactical, never strategic. Technology can provide a bridge to help us get to our educational goals, but technology should never be the destination.

Any college or university looking to invest in technology should first ask itself what it is trying to achieve. Is the goal to improve learning outcomes in courses? How will these outcomes be measured? Or is the goal to reach learners outside of the existing geography, student age or life circumstances of current students? Maybe the institution wants to build up areas of research and teaching excellence and strive toward national and international recognition around specific areas and disciplines.

Being clear on goals, and being willing to do the work to focus on specific and measurable objectives, will enable colleges and universities to make effective investments in technology. A focus on long-term strategic educational and institutional goals will also illuminate those areas in which colleges and universities should not invest. A MOOC (massive open online courses) may not be the appropriate strategy for every institution. Some colleges should focus on enhancing the face-to-face residential classroom with a blended learning approach, where other institutions would be wise to invest in fully online degree programs.

2. Authentic learning does not scale.

Much of the higher ed community, the press and apparently the government has been swept up into the promise of MOOCs. The promise of MOOCs has been to make the world’s “best professors” available to everyone on the internet. Why should faculty re-create lectures and redesign courses if instead we can find the best examples of both and make them available for everyone free online?

The problem with this approach is that the best courses, and the best higher education experiences, are not about content but about relationships. Becoming educated is not simply a matter of transmitting information from one brain to another, but about how learners build and apply knowledge. Effective and authentic learning happens best when professors know their students as individuals, and are able to provide personal guidance, challenges, mentoring and coaching.

Learning technologies, therefore, are best used when they increase opportunities for communication and collaboration between people – particularly between faculty and students. Blended learning, where lecture and other curricular materials are delivered outside of the classroom, enables more time in the classroom to be devoted to hands-on teaching and active learning.

Online learning, if done right, can increase the feeling of intimacy between students and faculty, as online learning removes time constraints in how often learners and teachers can communicate. (As faculty who teach online can attest, online learning means that teaching happens at all hours of the day.)

3. Educational technology initiatives must address both quality and cost challenges.

We have no shortage of ideas and opinions about how higher education should change. The challenge going forward will be to come up with plans that simultaneously increase quality while reducing costs. Any higher education plan for change that does not address both quality and cost issues will be incomplete, irrelevant and ultimately destined for failure.

The reason that quality and costs need to be bundled is that any new higher education reform must be sustainable over the long-term. Creating new programs, processes or procedures that do not either deliver new revenues or new savings will be abandoned when new priorities emerge.

What this means in practice is that any higher education program that has a technology component should come with its own business model. Fortunately, we have some low-hanging fruit in higher ed – and with some focus on execution we should be able to achieve educational gains that are measurable and sustainable.

The place to start, I think, is our traditional residential classes. The state of the art of both learning technology has improved to the point that we can combine the intimacy of face-to-face instruction with robust online learning environments. We can use blended teaching (on-ground and online) not only to improve the quality of learning, but to lower the cost-per-student. Higher education is a high fixed cost business (classrooms, labs, campuses, etc.), and blended learning enables us to educate more students without building more physical infrastructure. Moving from an average of three face-to-face classes a week to two classes, and then supplementing those classes with rich online interactions and pre-recorded lectures and web-based online assessments means that more classes (and more students) can use the existing classroom space.

For some campuses, fully online programs should be considered to supplement existing degrees. A fully online program may allow a small program, or a field with a narrow but deep pool of potential students, to work with an institution’s professors wherever these learners may happen to live. Fully online degree programs, particularly master’s levels programs, do not need to be very large to be economically viable and self-sufficient. A program with 100 students worldwide can pay for itself, while providing both visibility into areas of excellence at the institution and a fertile learning opportunity for faculty that teach in the program. When it comes to online learning, colleges and universities would be wise to think small.

Over the next few years, we will see the federal government become a much more active player in seeking to shape what happens on our campuses. Higher education leaders should seize this opportunity to engage in a dialogue with the government (at all levels), students, parents and future employers about how higher education should change. We should guard against any attempts to push technology for its own sake, and remain firm in our belief that the best technologies are those that remove barriers to our faculty and students learning together.

(Joshua Kim is director of learning and technology for Dartmouth College’s Masters in Health Care Delivery Science program.)