When it comes to Education and Technology, “Efficiency” is not the point

One of my goals (one of many, far too many, goals) during the sabbatical is to post more here– probably still mostly about higher ed and MOOCs, but hopefully other stuff too. I think it would be a good idea to shift back away from Facebook and Twitter. Don’t ask me why I think that’s a good idea right now; it just seems like it is.

This seems a good place to start: from U.S. News and World Report (which I think is just a web site nowadays) comes “Professors Grow Weary of Idea That Technology Can Save Higher Ed,” with the subheadline “Some say bringing high technology to higher ed makes it less, not more, efficient.”  As a slight tangent: the author of this article is something called “The Hechinger Report,” which “is an independent nonprofit, nonpartisan organization based at Teachers CollegeColumbia University” that apparently generates a lot of articles about education that get poured right into a lot of mainstream publications.

Anyway, a quote:

Universities and colleges are marketing themselves to tech-savvy teenagers while promising higher productivity and financial savings. They will pour $10.4 billion into education technology this year, according to the Center for Digital Education, from computers to in-class gadgets such as digital projectors and wireless “clickers” that let students answer questions electronically.

But professors say they don’t have enough help to use this technology effectively, haven’t seen results from it, and fear that the cost savings administrators keep insisting that technology will bring could mean their own careers are on the line.

The assumed purpose of technology (e.g., computer stuff, basically) in this article is efficiency, and some version of that word/theme appears at least a dozen times in this 1,000 or word so piece. And– surprise, surprise!– it turns out that computer stuff doesn’t make education more efficient.

First off, duh.

Second, (to expand a bit on that first point), one of the main problems I always have with these kinds of articles is the assumed definition of technology. Instead of defining technology as any sort of tool like pens or paper or chalkboards or even literacy itself (Ong), technology is “anything that doesn’t seem normal to us, particularly computers stuff:” that is, “clickers,” “gadgets,” “digital projectors,” etc. Things that were recently “technology” often become quickly naturalized so they no longer qualify as “gadget” or “new-fangled”– email and cell phones, for example. Maybe it’s unfair of me to expect any definition of technology to be any more nuanced than that, but it’s still frustrating.

Third, (also expanding on my “duh”), efficiency is not the point. Modern computer technologies allow teachers and students to do things differently now than they did things five or ten or twenty or however many years ago, but that doesn’t necessarily (or even usually) make things more efficient. Take online courses in the broadest sense. Anyone who has taught or taken an online class knows that the advantage of the technology is it alters the time and space of a traditional “classroom:” you can be in class from wherever you can get a decent internet connection and you can engage in the class on your own schedule (more or less, and assuming the class is asynchronous). But online courses are a fairly inefficient way to convey information and to interact with each other. In a face to face class, we can all discuss a reading or an assignment in one time and place; in an online class, not so much. Often, this inefficiency shifts to the instructor– that is, it takes a lot more time to teach an online class than it does to teach a face to face one– and that’s one of the reasons why a lot of faculty have no interest in teaching online.

This ongoing quest for efficiency and cost savings (generally by employing fewer teachers and/or by having bigger classes) drives MOOCs and other online experiments, just as it was the motivation behind correspondence schools in the late 19th/early 20th centuries and the first wave of online courses a decade or so ago. For students (and parents of students), seeking efficiency makes sense. Over Christmas at my parents in Iowa, the conversation with the brothers-in-laws turned to the cost of higher education (one of them is preparing to send a kid to college next year), and this desire for efficiency came up. It wasn’t the right place or time to explain what I see as the actual reasons for the costs of higher ed (administrative costs, assessment, athletics, student amenities, and a sharp decline in state subsidies), but I did try to point out that education is an inherently inefficient enterprise, sort of like a string quartet (e.g., Baumol’s cost disease).  Education generally– teaching in particular– doesn’t scale the same way that content does. Efficiency is not the point.

I’m not sure I was very persuasive, and as a parent who is also looking down the barrel of paying tuition for our son next year, I share a lot of my brother-my-law’s feelings on this.

20 thoughts on “When it comes to Education and Technology, “Efficiency” is not the point”

  1. I’m glad you mentioned content at the end. I think content delivery has definitely become more efficient, though it has taken a lot of investment to get us to that point. Any parent sending their kid to college these days has to wonder about value for money. I think you have to make the case that whatever we do to the kid in college will make him or her better equipped for the realities of modern life.

    1. I think it’s awfully hard to predict five or ten or twenty or more years down the line about the value of college for the money, about equipping today’s 18 year old for the realities of “modern” life in the coming years. As Yoda says, difficult to see, the future– always moving.

      That said, there are at least two things about higher ed that are true now and that will likely remain true for some time to come. First, people (in the U.S. at least) who have college degrees and/or post-high school education tend to have higher incomes and higher qualities of life than people who don’t, and there are lots of studies that have more or less made that claim. A closely related point: I think it is probably true that people who have college degrees from “traditional” universities (the UMs, EMUs of the world) tend to do better than people with college degrees from non-traditional universities (the U of Phoenix and SNHUs of the world). Second, every article I’ve ever read that questioned the value of a college degree in the mainstream media was written by someone who has a college degree.

      BTW, I posted on EMUTalk back in October an article from the Washington Monthly called “America’s Worst Colleges,” where the author basically ranks the “badness” of colleges based on the price, student debt, and graduation rate. Almost all of the “worst values” in this case were at private for-profit places, with the various versions of the “Art Institute” showing up quite a bit.

  2. Steve;
    I disagree, efficiency should be the point of technology (but not necessarily education), although I do concede that few current applications are efficient. Language processing apps should be able to help monitor student development and interaction with content. The nature of mooc participation (to include many professional and diverse learners) may provide higher level discussions although it may also require professors to enter into open source philosophy. I’m not sure why online should be more difficult overall (different but not difficult) unless your dealing with poorly structured applications. Should this be laid at the feet of technologists? Maybe there are too many technologist that are overly focused on making an easy billion or two rather than developing tech in general.

    1. Education could be seen as wings for the progress of the human being. It helps the individual to attain intellectual, physical and spiritual or emotional progress. In some ways, it helps the individual to live a happier life. For people without education, living comfortably turns difficult, especially in the modern world where specific skills are often needed to work. Besides, education is real wealth. Understanding how the world around us functions produces happiness, a kind of happiness that does not disappear. True education dignifies the individual.

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