The Promise -- and Limits -- of Ed Tech

As we consider the use of technological tools in learning, let’s focus less on the what and more on the why and how, Jonathan Kaplan writes.

February 21, 2018
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As “Inside Digital Learning” pointed out last week, massive open online courses are thriving, even if they are not living up to the early hype that they would disrupt the college degree and all of higher education as we know it. Actual numbers of MOOC course takers continue to increase -- while not at the higher growth rate of the initial boom -- and paying models are on an upswing.

Beyond MOOCs, other new learning models such as adaptive learning and competency-based education are changing how students interact with content and instruction.

And educators are increasingly employing technology in more creative ways to increase access in rural America, around the world and across age and other demographic groups, particularly for working adults.

But for all of the hype associated with education innovations, there are two factors that can often make this discussion seem stale. One is that many breathlessly equate “innovative” with “better.” Things are certainly changing in education rapidly, but not everything is changing -- and for good reason -- and not every change is an improvement.

We need to be more discerning about the context underlying innovation, fully understanding the societal and economic factors driving those changes.

To that point, we tend to focus on the what in education instead of the why and the how, as Michelle Weise, formerly of the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, has said. We need to contextualize more. Why does this new model matter? How is it improving outcomes, and for which kinds of students?

A second factor is that we are increasingly preoccupied by technology in and of itself. That’s a sign of our times, both economic and social. Investors, millennials, the news media (and perhaps most of us) see innovative models as good and traditional approaches as tired.

We need a more vibrant paradigm -- at least in higher education -- that examines our changing educational ecosystem differently and focuses on the fact that learning and career outcomes matter most. Namely, more students must complete their degree programs, institutions must be able to demonstrate that those graduates have met their programs’ stated learning outcomes and those learning outcomes need to, in most cases, be tied closely to current and future work-force needs. And if all of that can occur without the latest whiz-bang innovations, so be it. The whys and hows matter more than the whats.

The fact is that postsecondary education in the United States has always adapted, as ecosystems are wont to do, as times changed and as needs dictated. But the rise of the new has not entirely replaced or disrupted the old.

Land-grant universities responded to the needs of our rapidly industrializing nation in the late 1800s by endowing new areas of study, such as agriculture and engineering. The GI Bill expanded access to higher education for many of those who served our country, and Pell Grants, beginning in the 1970s, created educational opportunities for those Americans wishing to pursue a degree who were most in need. Community colleges proliferated in the 1960s and ’70s, expanding access even more. And today, online programs are breaking the barriers of fixed class times and locations for students around the world.

None of these new approaches to higher education eliminated what came before, and students are all the better for it. Yes, these changes were disruptive, but not in a binary, zero-sum way. They challenged and prodded our conventional wisdom -- and enabled the ecosystem of higher education to adapt to societal shifts and economic demands.

And today, our higher education ecosystem continues to evolve. We need to embrace, as always, what has worked and, at the same time, ensure that we hold the next shiny new things to the standard of outcomes and results that define what matters most in education.


Jonathan A. Kaplan advises education companies and investors on market trends and strategy. He was formerly president of Walden University, CEO of Laureate Online Education and a White House economic policy adviser to President Bill Clinton.


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