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Education Nation

Commentary: How Higher Ed Can Improve Equity with Technology

The resonance of major issues in higher education, particularly concerns over cost and access, will not go away. Technology has been proposed, however inelegantly, as a means to provide a fresh response these concerns. And so -- as Willie Loman counseled --attention must be paid. As we move past the debate and toward innovation for the long term, there are four key issues must be addressed.

The first is quality. The new technologies are much more nimble, sophisticated, and responsive to student learning than previous iterations. But they still lack human connection, and research tells us that the single most important factor in determining student persistence in college is contact with an adult on campus. That is why Coursera, one of the leading MOOC providers, is now developing Learning Hubs for face-to-face interaction, and it is why my institution is leading a consortium of private liberal arts colleges to integrate the best on-campus practices and technology.

The second issue is equity and access. The ‘massive’ in massive open online courses has been heralded as a solution to access for our most underrepresented groups (groups whose college-going age population is projected to grow dramatically in the next two decades). But to date, online courses have worked most effectively for well- educated majority students with a strong affinity for STEM courses – effectively duplicating, even expanding, the educational equity gap that already exists. These concerns must be addressed if technology is truly going to increase access to higher education, rather than simply exacerbating an already troubling caste system.

The third issue is cost. The concerns about student debt and the total cost of higher education have been well documented; these concerns have driven some of the intense interest in online education. But to deliver on the promise of learning, and not just credentialing, online education must address the issues of quality and equity outlined above. Integrated models should ease course and student transfer across campuses, should focus on improving student success in introductory courses that are crucial to students’ long-term success, and should support greater student learning in K-12 systems and remedial courses. This is a different and more hopeful focus than predictions that we must completely destroy existing bricks-and-mortar institutions in the name of innovation – a move that would most likely occur at the expense of quality and equity, with no assurance of cost savings.

The final issue is faculty work. Although contemporary technology is dramatically more sophisticated than earlier iterations, a reliance exclusively on technology for course delivery displays predictable problems of student persistence, engagement, and educational integration. Many of these challenges can be mitigated through greater connection with faculty -- the leaders and mentors who not only convey information, but who introduce students to the arts of critical thinking, analysis, communication, and reflection. Suggesting that technology can simply supplant the faculty role is both unwise and too linear. The challenge is to use technology for what it promises to do extraordinarily well, which is content delivery, and use faculty for teaching in the truest sense: to challenge, engage, nurture, and conduct research with students.

The pace of technological innovation is affecting nearly every organization in the world. Unfortunately, hyperbole in the higher education technology debate has distracted from a more nuanced discussion about the range of possible innovations, which are more easily understood as a continuum rather than a silver bullet.

Indeed, the heat generated by the hype has made it difficult to shed light on the essential issues, including whether technology will help chart a new course for addressing access and cost, whether sophisticated learning systems can enhance or detract from student learning, and whether the more general adoption of technology in and out of the classroom will fundamentally alter the shape of our institutions.

The sophistication of academic technology is rapidly increasing at the same time that the basic cost and workload structure for higher education is undergoing enormous strain. We must move beyond the hype and backlash, and experiment with technology to reduce cost while improving access, learning, and faculty work, ensuring that the promise of higher education endures for a new generation of students.