A Moment of Clarity on the Role of Technology in Teaching (CHE)

APRIL 25, 2016

[full post here.]

With all of the discussion around the role of online education for traditional colleges and universities, over the past month we have seen reminders that key concerns are about people and pedagogy, not technology. And we can thank two elite universities that don’t have large online populations — MIT and George Washington University — for this clarity.

On April 1, the MIT Online Education Policy Initiative released its report, “Online Education: A Catalyst for Higher Education Reforms.” The Carnegie Corporation-funded group was created in mid-2014, immediately after an earlier initiative looked at the future of online education at MIT. The group’s charter emphasized a broader policy perspective, however, exploring “teaching pedagogy and efficacy, institutional business models, and global educational engagement strategies.”

While it would be easy to lament that this report comes from a university with few online students and yet dives into how online learning fits in higher education, it would be a mistake to dismiss the report itself. This lack of “in the trenches” experience with for-credit online education helps explain the report’s overemphasis on MOOCs and its underemphasis on access and nontraditional learner support. Still, the MIT group did an excellent job of getting to some critical questions that higher-education institutions need to address. Chief among them is the opportunity to use online tools and approaches to instrument and enable enhanced teaching approaches that aren’t usually possible in traditional classrooms.

The core of the report, in fact, is based on the premise that online education and online tools can enable advances in effective pedagogical approaches, including constructivism, active learning, flipped classrooms, problem-based learning, and student-centered education. It argues that the right way to use technology is to help professors teach more effectively:

“Technology can support teachers in the application of the relevant principles across a group of students with high variability. In fact, technology can help tailor lessons to the situation in extremely powerful ways.
The instrumentation of the online learning environment to sense the student experience and the ability to customize content on a student-by-student basis may be the key to enabling teachers to provide differentiated instruction, informed by a solid foundation in cognitive science. Modern online courses and delivery platforms already implement some of these concepts, and provide a framework for others.”
But there is value in seeing what happens when that advice is ignored. And that’s where an incident at George Washington University comes in. If technology is just thrown at the problem with no consideration of helping educators to adopt sound pedagogical design, then we can see disasters.

On April 7, four students who took an online program for a master’s degree in security and safety leadership from George Washington’s College of Professional Studies filed a class-action lawsuit against the university for negligence and misleading claims. As reported by The GW Hatchet, a student newspaper:

“The complaint alleges that the students took classes without instruction from professors assigned to the class. It also alleges that their materials included ‘often nonsensical PowerPoint slides pilfered from other instructors’ in-class lessons’ for the 12 online courses.
‘There remains one crucial difference between the two programs: the in-class program actually provides instruction, while the online version does not,’ according to the complaint.
Students in the program were promised professors who ‘specialized in distance learning,’ but the complaint alleges that instructors were not qualified to teach online courses.”
If these claims are mostly true — and I should note that George Washington officials have stated through the media that they disagree with the charges but have not yet responded in court — then we have a case study in how not to design an academic program. There appears to be little to no real consideration of educators supporting students, or of sound pedagogical design.

NBC Washington’s story describes a course based on PowerPoint slides without an accompanying lecture or context, with students complaining that they had great difficulty getting instructors to respond to complaints or requests for help.

The students who filed the lawsuit have said that while they did get a degree, they didn’t get an education.

The GW lawsuit is not a story about online education. This is a story about a lack of sound pedagogical design and a lack of faculty involvement in the courses that just happened to occur in an online program.

The MIT report provides a description of the best that online education can be — and that goes beyond just trying to duplicate current face-to-face practices in an online environment. It involves advances in teaching design based on learning sciences, with deep involvement from educators and course designers.

And this gets to perhaps the most significant aspect of the MIT report — the fourth recommendation, to “foster institutional and organizational change in higher education to implement these reforms.” As described in the executive summary:

“In particular, we recommend the creation of thinking communities to continuously evaluate the kinds of education reforms proposed here, and the identification and development of change agents and role models in implementing these reforms. Here, we refer to change agents as groups of experts collaborating toward a common end, rather than just individual visionaries, and role models as successful groups and institutions that are willing to pilot new, thoughtfully designed approaches.”
This recommendation goes well beyond distance education, and I think it describes the central challenge for educational technology in general. The challenge is not how to create new tools and new companies trying to “disrupt.” We have plenty of both. The challenge is not even to discover new pedagogical designs enabled by technology. We have plenty of those. The challenge is how to get the organization — at the institutional level or at the program level — to identify and expand ideas that work based on sound learning design and real evaluation of what works and what doesn’t.

The MIT recommendation describes the academy actively being the change agent — not having change done to it.

Phil Hill is a partner at MindWires Consulting, co-publisher of the e-Literate blog, and co-producer of e-Literate TV.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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