A Cautionary Note on Educational Technology

One of the biggest problems in modern education is the widespread belief that educational technology is going to solve all our problems. This is not a new phenomenon, with every new wave of technology (radio, television, video discs, personal computers, CD-ROMs, laptops, the web, and now smartphones and tablets) there has been hype about how everything in education will change.

This video illustrates the waves of technology change:

Please note the design of the classrooms in the pictures used in this video.

In fact, the predominant educational experience has not changed significantly with each wave. The lecture still dominates as the main educational method and the multiple-choice test as a main assessment method.

An excellent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education illustrates this point:
Lectures Still Dominate Science and Math Teaching, Sometimes Hampering Student Success

This quote illustrates the thrust of this article:

“Using a curve separates students’ performance from the grades they receive. It is part of a general pattern often seen in STEM courses, say several experts, in which rote tasks obscure the subject matter’s underlying concepts, and tests and laboratory activities are disconnected from authentic scientific practice.”

Technology does have the power to change, but only if we change our methods as well.
There is a famous Einstein quote “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. Educational insanity might be doing the same thing over and over again with a different technology and expecting different results.

There is a sense we are finally seeing a push to change methods of education and not just the technology. This may bring a new reality to the educational market. In the commercial world, companies that have not been able to adapt to new realities (e.g. Kodak, Circuit City, Borders) have fallen by the wayside. Educational institutions may not be immune to the same thing happening to them.

Reuse and Sharing – Open Learning Content

Thousands of professors in different colleges and universities each year sit down and create class notes, PowerPoints and all sorts of learning content for the same course. No one other than their students and occasionally a peer reviewer sees this content. Some of it will be excellent quality and some will contain errors or be unintelligible to the average student it is intended for. Educational institutions and professors often believe it is in their interest to restrict access to the content. Restricting access protects others from using good content without paying for it and avoids negative publicity from exposing deficient content.

This is not an optimal approach from a systems view of education in general (not the view of individual institutions). It results in duplication of effort and poor quality control. It also ignores the reality that professors are seldom masters of all the varied skills involved in creating an educational experience. They may be skilled in their discipline but may not have the skills needed to create high quality content in a variety of media.

It can be argued that the development of the Internet doomed any attempt to restrict access to digital content. This cartoon illustrates this in relation to the music industry.

There is now a well-developed model of shared open learning content that offers an alternative to traditional restricted access. Harvard and MIT launched edX in May 2012 to make all their educational content available for free on the Internet:

Many other institutions and professors are placing learning content online too. This has led to an open marketplace in free reusable content.

Instructors, even in locked-down institutions, no longer need to create all their own learning content. They can find high quality content ranging from basic building blocks (pictures and diagrams) to complete lessons if they know where to look. This enables them to divert their time from content creation and presentation toward more direct support for student learning (e.g. more interaction in a flipped classroom).

The world of open learning content is relatively new but fast evolving. One of the main difficulties is knowing where to look for open reusable content. A simple Google search may not be enough. One guide to the varied repositories of learning content can be found on WikiEducator.

Over time, finding the best content for a particular course should become as easy as finding the best restaurants and hotels in a certain location. User reviews are a great help. College librarians can have a role assisting instructors with cataloguing and finding material.