Why Technology is No Quick “Fix” for Education

Flickr Image via frankieleon
Flickr Image via frankieleon

Many speak of technology’s potential to “fix” education. But if it can, the question is–why hasn’t it yet?

The tools for a digital revolution are there, and have been for quite some time. Twenty years ago, the possibility of a TV set in every classroom was supposed to utterly transform education, unite the world, and even replace teachers. (As children of the 90’s will attest, nothing made you happier than walking into the classroom and seeing that beautiful TV cart—Bill Nye and no homework!). And this was all before near-ubiquitous internet, Skype, and online courses put the world at our fingertips.

So why has there been so little, actual change? Last week, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Kentaro Toyama discussed what calls technology’s Law of Amplification: In his experience, technology’s impact has a built-in limit: how well a system functions already. According to Toyama, “While technology helps education where it’s already doing well, technology does little for mediocre educational systems; and in dysfunctional schools, it can cause outright harm.”

Take the example of open online courses, available free of charge to anyone with an internet connection. When Toyama asked his students how many had ever enrolled in such a course, the room filled with hands; when asked how many finished the course, the hands dropped. This confirms the general trend—despite being offered by some of the most renowned universities in the world—free online courses have an abysmal completion rate: Most studies put it around 6%. Other studies give higher numbers, but still top off around 22%.

For Toyama, The real obstacle in education remains student motivation. Especially in an age of informational abundance, getting access to knowledge isn’t the bottleneck, mustering the will to master it is. And there, for good or ill, the main carrot of a college education is the certified degree and transcript, and the main stick is social pressure. Most students are seeking credentials that graduate schools and employers will take seriously and an environment in which they’re prodded to do the work. But neither of these things is cheaply available online.”

So what happens when employers do start taking online credentialing seriously? Will we reach a tipping point where quality education will become freely and equitably accessible across the globe? Toyama doubts this, again, because of the Law of Amplification.

“The Law of Amplification’s least appreciated consequence… is that technology on its own amplifies underlying socioeconomic inequalities…. Students with poor high-school preparation will always find it hard to learn things their prep-school peers can ace. Low-income families will struggle to pay registration fees that wealthy households barely notice. Blue-collar workers doing hard manual labor may not have the energy to take evening courses that white-collar professionals think of as a hobby…. 

In fact, studies confirm exactly this: Well-educated men with office jobs disproportionately complete [open online] courses, while lower-income young adults barely enroll. The primary effect of free online courses is to further educate an already well-educated group who will pull away from less-educated others. The educational rich just get richer… More technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities.”

So what must be done? There are indeed solutions—but they probably won’t come in the form of technology-as-savior. Efforts to address the systemic inequities that already exist in education may be far more impactful than sitting back and expecting technology alone to do the trick. However, if Toyama’s Law of Amplification holds, technology can and will help us expedite this journey, it just may not be a quick fix.

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