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.

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