What problems in education can technology help solve?

by Emrys Westacott
ScreenHunter_1303 Aug. 10 11.05The computer revolution has transformed education over the past quarter century. PowerPoint, greatly improved graphical and multi-media capabilities, e-books, Wikis, online student collaboration, flipped classrooms, clicker quizzes, open-access online courses (MOOCs), and the inexhaustible wealth of material available on the internet have opened up all sorts of interesting possibilities. (At the same time, discretely hidden smart phones, college-essay mills, and the inexhaustible wealth of material available on the internet have raised new challenges to teachers worried about academic dishonesty.)
The possibilities opened up by the revolution have educational administrators excited. But we need to separate two quite distinct grounds for excitement:
1. The new technology makes possible new pedagogical methods which it is hoped will lead to better educational outcomes (e.g. clicker quizzes may improve student retention of material).
2. The new technology offers opportunities to cut the cost of delivering education by increasing productivity (e.g. an online course can enable a single instructor to teach thousands–or even millions– of students).
It is the second of these that especially interests cost-conscious administrators and policy makers (and especially worries job-conscious teachers). But very often administrators wrap (2) inside (1), like a horseshoe in a glove. So there is a lot of talk from these quarters about how teachers need to get with the times, of how the old model of the professor prattling from the podium amidst a cloud of chalk dust must give way to new dynamic and technologically enhanced pedagogical strategies, but how, unfortunately, faculty are inherently conservative and/or lazy, how they resist change, and still teach the way they were taught back in the days before the internet, cell phones or the internal combustion engine……..etc. etc..
This picture of out-of-date teachers boring the socks of students by not embracing the new methods and technologies is, I suspect, largely baloney. Of course, some of that still goes on, probably most of all at big universities where some classes are taught in cavernous lecture halls to hundreds of students at a time. But few of the college lecturers I know, including myself, hardly ever give long lectures of the kind that I used to listen to (and often enjoy) when I was an undergraduate in the 1970s. Our typical classes involve a variety of activities such as Socratic questioning, quizzes, small-group discussions, lab work, short in-class writing assignments, peer-review of written work, student presentations (both individual and collaborative), debates, slide shows, videos followed by discussion.

So the chalky sage on stage is a bit of a myth, but the myth serves a purpose. By portraying faculty as old dogs who won't learn new tricks, administrators and policy makers can present their enthusiasm for the new technology as motivated by a concern for student learning, masking the fact that most of their interest is in using technology just as it is used in other industries, to “improve productivity”–that is, to produce more and/or better educated students at less cost.
But once the two motives for technological innovation have been separated out and the importance of the cost-cutting motive acknowledged, we should ask to what extent the technology is delivering on its promises.
One argument seems incontrovertible. Technology can increase access to college courses. This is most obvious in the case of MOOCs, which enable millions to take college courses taught by excellent teachers, but it is also a benefit of more modest online courses that many colleges now offer and which can be taken by students whose circumstances don't allow them to study full-time or to reside on campus. More subtly, if technology is used to reduce costs, and that leads to lower tuition fees, not only can more people afford to go to college, but those who attend will be able to devote themselves more fully to their studies; at present,over 20% of college students in the US, work over twenty hours a week to earn the money they need to keep down their eventual debt. [See Laura Perna, “Understanding the working college student,” AAUP, July-August, 2010]
Whether or not the new technologies are improving the quality of the product is, however, more debatable. One problem is that, in the US at least, college students form a very wide spectrum when assessed in terms of motivation, ability, preparedness, work ethic, cultural capital, and favourable domestic circumstances. The elite institutions have become increasingly selective; most of those they admit are ambitious, high achievers with stellar resumes, high school transcripts and SAT scores. The majority of the 3,000 plus four-year colleges and universities, on the other hand, practice more or less open admission, which means that while they have plenty of good students, many of those who enroll are poorly prepared for college-level work. We might therefore distinguish between two questions:
1. Do the new technologies benefit interested, motivated, well-prepared, students who exhibit high levels of ability in their chosen field?
2. Do the new technologies benefit students who are rather weak on one or more of these axes (viz. interest, motivation, preparedness, ability)?
I am inclined to think that in the first case the technology makes little difference. Good students have been learning effectively since the time of Plato and Aristotle, and in many fields it is obviously possible to be a superb teacher with no technology more sophisticated than some lecture notes and a stick of chalk. Where there is deep knowledge, enthusiasm, and a genuine concern for students on the side of the teacher, and a decent level of motivation and preparedness on the part of the student, methodology is usually a minor concern. In these circumstances, education will generally take care of itself.
The case for advocating novel technology-enhanced methods is more plausible in the second case. The idea here is that the bored students will be more engaged, the under-motivated students will work harder, and the struggling students will grasp ideas and master skills that would otherwise elude them. No doubt in some cases this happens to some degree. But I am skeptical about the potential of technology to make much of a difference in solving these problems.
Academic achievement of American school children is often compared unfavourably with that of their counterparts in other developed countries. We regularly hear, for instance, that South Koreans have better mastery of mathematics, Finns have superior language skills, and Germans have better general knowledge. But in none of these cases does the explanation have anything to do with technology. And usually the teaching methods in these other countries are fairly traditional, often with a greater emphasis on rote learning. No, the reason for the disappointing statistics lies elsewhere.
A good part of the explanation has to do with the fact that a statistic like the average score on a test of mathematical or verbal ability masks the huge differences between different groups (e.g. socio-economic, ethnic, geographic, parental education level). There is a strong correlation between poverty and poor academic performance in high school. Since the US has much more, and much more serious poverty than countries like Finland or Germany, it will inevitably have many more high school students who perform poorly. Poverty, compounded by other factors, produces depressing results: for instance, in 2012, only 37% of black and Hispanic male students in New York State graduated from high school. There is nothing comparable to that in Japan or Norway.
This obviously does not mean we should not bother looking for techniques and strategies to improve educational outcomes at all levels. One significant difference between Finland and the US, for instance, is that in Finland school teachers receive more extensive training, are better paid, and are drawn from the top third of college graduates. I suspect that the consequences of even this difference are likely to be exaggerated, though. Clearly, it would be a fine thing if teachers at every level were better trained and better paid, and if more of our best and brightest were drawn into the profession. But most teachers are sufficiently educated, work reasonably hard, and care about their students. They are just not miracle workers. The achievement of Jaime Escalante, the math teacher portrayed in the movie Stand and Deliver, who was able to help normally underachieving students to ace AP Calculus, is not easily emulated. Notice, though, that the key to his success was not technology, or a revolutionary approach to his subject: it lay primarily in his ability to motivate the students.
Which brings me back to the basic reason why, even though I, like others, experiment with using technology in my teaching, I am not very confident that it makes much difference. Motivated students, who are really interested in what they are learning and love to deepen their understanding and use what they have learnt, will do fine with or without it. The deep problem in the US educational system lies in the weak levels of interest, curiosity, and motivation towards their studies that is characteristic of so many students in high school and college. Technology is not the silver bullet that will solve that problem. Indeed, there is no silver bullet. What's needed is a fairly radical transformation of the surrounding economic, social and cultural conditions in which students grow up.