Why educational technologies haven't transformed the college experience

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Higher education officials are bombarded with pitches for how the latest emerging technologies are going to upend their students’ learning experiences and professors’ instructional methods. From online courses to learning management systems to autograders to AI-enabled “tutors,” schools have no shortage of products claiming to offer transformative change.

But a recent book by Justin Reich, an assistant professor of digital media and director of the Teaching Systems Lab at the Massachusetts Institutional Technology, argues that the professed technological revolution in education has largely fallen flat, as the aspirations of technology met the realities of how people learn. “Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education” makes the case that modernizing education is a more iterative, tinkering journey than any single product can fix overnight.

Justin Reich (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)

Reich spends much of his book revisiting massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which were once heralded by the likes of the New York Times as busting open the doors of higher education to anyone with an internet connection. But that hype never materialized, he claims. Rather than realizing a vision in which “students in the far reaches of the world without traditional higher education would join working professionals who were too busy to return to school full-time in creating a massive new population of online learners,” he writes, “MOOCs have been absorbed by the existing higher education system” as supplemental material, mostly to a professional degree and executive training programs.

In an interview, Reich, who himself has designed MOOCs for edX, the online-learning venture from MIT and Harvard University, said the lofty goals of transformative change are often sold by “charismatic technologists.” In fact, he said, education systems tend to “domesticate new technology.”

And as for the COVID-19 pandemic’s long-term impact on higher education, he said it may not be as dramatic as some originally predicted.

Reich spoke with EdScoop by phone on May 13. This interview has been condensed and edited.

We’ve heard for years that all these technologies are going to dramatically change the way we learn at every level. What’s actually happened?

For the last two decades, education technology evangelists have imagined that new technologies can sweep away the past and bring forth a dramatically different future. Those promises of education technology, I mean, they go back at least to Thomas Edison. If you were to have some sympathy for that perspective, one thing you might say is between 2005 and today, there were really dramatic changes in journalism and government and dating and lots of sectors of society. So, it wasn’t totally crazy to imagine that education might be one of those sectors to be transformed. My students at MIT, for years I’ve asked them, “Tell me a little bit about your edtech history.” We’re moving into the smart board generation, students who vividly recall smart boards being rolled into all their classrooms and then never used. Smart boards probably didn’t hurt anyone unless they fell on someone. They probably didn’t help very much.

I graduated college in 2006, so my edtech experience was limited to downloading reading materials and sometimes emailing in term papers. Have there been any major breakthroughs since then?

Education technologies absolutely can make a difference, but charismatic technologists tend to assume that new technologies will disrupt educational systems. The better mental model is that educational systems domesticate new technology. I give massive open online courses a hard time, but I built a whole bunch of them. The self-directed learning works pretty well for already educated, already affluent learners. I have colleagues at MIT who build programs around supply chain management, but I don’t think their programs are gonna create new pathways into higher education for first-generation college students. I think they’re going to help a lot of folks in the logistics industry do better, more profitable, more sustainable supply chains, and like, that’s a good thing to have in the world.

But isn’t your book about how for years we were pitched on this idea that these platforms could be a full replacement of traditional college education?

There was all this hype around MOOCs in the early days. I think we contributed to all of that. Then there are a ton of faculty who volunteered individual labor for these kinds of things and discovered they actually weren’t revolutionizing education. They were just building up marketing lists for Coursera. There are winners too. Georgia Tech put together an online master’s of computer science, which I think is financially doing well. There’s [Southern New Hampshire University] and Arizona State University and Western Governors. What I try to caution people against, though, is that Georgia Tech is not heralding having completely transformed future of online master’s degrees programs. There are early adopters who got a bunch of things right and seemed to have captured a pretty large share of the market, but they’re not forcing every other community and state college to pivot entirely online. A good thing about MOOCs and other things like that is universities should be involved in research design, research, innovation, experimentation around the future of teaching and learning.

Your book was mostly done before the pandemic. How do you think the last 14 months affected things?

I did, in a panic, go through the book with colleagues and editors being like, is there anything that’s going to be super-embarrassing in six months when the entire world has been turned upside down? And I decided no. In fact, I think I overestimated the system’s capacity for change. What they did though, is they adopted two of the various oldest education technologies that we have: learning management systems, which were theorized in the 70s, commercialized in the 90s, open-sourced in the 2000s, and they basically allowed people to pass documents back and forth. The second technology, when it was introduced in the 1930s was called video telephony, and we now call it video conferencing. Professors walked away from their lecterns and sat down in front of their home office webcams and kept teaching roughly the way they had been. Some of that is because educational systems are designed to balance an incredibly complex array of incentives and stakeholders. And if you try to change them too much, you pull too hard in one part of the system and other parts of the system kind of snap back.

Are college campuses going to go back to looking how they did in 2019, or is it going to become a hybrid experience the way everyone’s talking about work?

There’ll be differences. People are pretty excited to get back in rooms with other people and do teaching and learning that way. I think for most people, remote learning has been somewhere between disappointing and disastrous. There is a small group of folks for whom online learning has really worked well. I have a colleague who teaches at Northern Vermont University. She teaches Photoshop and she was forced to do this hybrid teaching where everyone, both in her classroom and at home, was logged on to Zoom. And she’s like, “I’m going to keep doing this when we get back, ‘cause it used to be that when people had difficulties, I would go to their machine and help them, or I’d go back to the board and turn on another computer. Now I can just have anyone screen share anytime I want to.” That is not transformative change in practice, but it’s going to help her.

But I’m sure you and colleagues are desperate to get back in front of students directly, especially anybody who’s in a real, hands-on laboratory environment.

The news today that we’re all supposed to take off our masks indoors is good news. There’ll be more interesting kinds of hybridization because we all have more experience, but certainly students want to get back in labs and sports fields and their clubs. Some of that is speaking to the experience of the very small number of U.S. college students who are in four-year colleges. For the many, many working-class folks who were doing online education, there were some important differences for this year because the rest of their lives became so much more challenging. It is really important that we have community college, and there are lots of learners who don’t do well in conditions that require huge amounts of self-regulation. And it really matters to be in a room, maybe not always, with other people. One of my colleagues has a class with a ton of Wellesley cross-registrants, and he proposed teaching Tuesday in person at MIT and Thursday remotely so more Wellesley students can join. Five years ago he would never have even proposed it. Things are different now.

So you think we’re in a period of more experimentation with edtech?

There’s going to be lots of local experiments, individual adoptions in different ways. I’m hopeful that people recognize that the argument from charismatic technologists before — that new technologies are going to be so transformative, they’re going to be better than the existing educational system — turns out that they weren’t better than, like, a broken, hobbled system. I think people will be somewhat more resistant to these kinds of arguments, disruptive transformation, because so many people had such a lousy experience with online and remote learning. But even for people who had overall pretty lousy experiences, just about everybody has something in which they say, “Oh, you know what? This piece actually was a little bit better.” I am excited to integrate that.

This story is part of EdScoop’s Special Report on Emerging Edtech.