Answering Rogoff’s Question of “When Will Technology Disrupt Higher Education?”

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“In the early 1990s, at the dawn of the Internet era, an explosion in academic productivity seemed to be around the corner. But the corner never appeared. Instead, teaching techniques at colleges and universities, which pride themselves on spewing out creative ideas that disrupt the rest of society, have continued to evolve at a glacial pace.”

“One can understand why change is slow to take root at the primary and secondary school level, where the social and political obstacles are massive. But colleges and universities have far more capacity to experiment; indeed, in many ways, that is their raison d’être.”

Kenneth Rogoff, former chief economist of the IMF, professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University.

Boston Globe, 2/9/18

One might think that our cadre of learning technology fellow travelers would love both Rogoff’s question, and the answers that he proposes. Aren’t we all about the power of technology to drive non-incremental improvements in learning? The reality, however, is that Rogoff is asking the wrong question.

The real question should not be about disruption, but about equity.

The real problem is higher education is not our slow pace of change.  It is much better, after all, to change slowly in the right direction – then quickly and off a cliff. The history of higher education is in fact one of constant evolution. Anyone who has worked in postsecondary education over a 30 or 40 year career knows how much has changed, both at our individual schools and across our sector.

Rather, the real problem (or challenge) of higher education is inequality.

Does higher education mirror, and perhaps even contribute, to rising levels of stratification and inequality in our society?

Has higher education become, or become even more, a platform that enables to rich to get richer?

Teaching and learning at our nation’s wealthiest institutions is currently undergoing a renaissance.   Nowhere in the history of higher education has the quality of faculty teaching and student learning ever been so high.  At a large and growing number of schools, the art of teaching is being complemented by the knowledge gained from learning science and the affordances of technology. Faculty are collaborating with instructional designers to redesign courses based on pedagogical best practices and learner analytics.

The problem is that these advances are not evenly distributed.

Students at wealthy schools, and in particular smaller liberal arts focussed colleges with resources, are not sitting in lecture halls of 500 students.

Rather, resources and educational quality are correlated, as it is extremely difficult to scale authentic learning.  The best education involves relationships between educators and learners, faculty and students. The best strategy to ensure educational quality is not to throw lots of technology at the problem, but to recruit and promote high quality educators.

State level disinvestment from public institutions is exacerbating the growth of educational inequality. So is the rising competition for students, as many schools are figuring out that investing in learning is an efficient way to increase the quality and attractiveness of their institutions.  It is good that learning is becoming strategic, but the price we pay may be to reinforce societal inequalities. (After all, wealthy institutions – and in particular smaller liberal arts colleges – educate only a tiny proportion of all college students).

When it comes to learning, higher education may be embodying a the Matthew Effect.  The rich are getting richer.  At the best colleges and universities, technology is used as a complement – rather than a substitute – for professors.

Schools with less resources are at risk of trying to use technology to lower instructional costs.  It is cheap to replace a professor with a web-based adaptive learning program like ALEKS. (Which is excellent, by the way).  It is expensive to pair ALEKS with a professor who is both creating new knowledge and dedicated to teaching, and an instructional designer who can translate the latest research in learning science.  Increasingly, wealthy schools are taking that latter route – integrating investments in people (professors) with investments in both new technologies and non-faculty educators.

If I were able to spend time with Kenneth Rogoff, I’d try to make the case that he should switch his concern from disruption to inequality.

How would you answer Rogoff’s question?



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