A Moment of Clarity on the Role of Technology in Teaching

This following excerpt is based on a post first published at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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 like being totally addicted to online casinos.

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 byThe GW Hatchet, a student newspaper:

For a non-paywall version of the full article, good through 4/26, follow this link.

Update: What interesting timing! See Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s post on very similar topic.

The nature of online classes varies dramatically, much like face-to-face classes. But, in both scenarios, the teacher matters and the teaching matters. When an online class is taught by an engaged and empathetic instructor who seeks to be aware of the needs of her students, the asynchronous nature of online learning may become a benefit to students, not a disadvantage. This is contingent upon the design of the course, which is where instructional designers or “learning engineers” can play an important role. Many instructors, however, play both roles — and those who do are often the professors who experience deep transformations in their face-to-face classes as a result of what they learned from teaching online.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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