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The heart and soul of the raging debate about online education is the fundamental question of its role and value. This boils down to whether technological innovation will ultimately displace traditional modes of teaching and learning or act as a supplement to it. And while some ardent enthusiasts may proclaim the former, just about everyone committed to a robust vision of higher education claims that technology is but a means to enhance the teaching and learning experience.

It is through this lens that we must understand the just-released report “Online Education: A Catalyst for Higher Education Reforms,” by MIT with funding from the Carnegie Corporation. MIT, like few other institutions, is not immediately or intuitively beholden to the standard institutional or isomorphic pressures – such as undergraduate enrollment cycles, Ivy League envy, insecurity of being left behind – that propel most institutional decision-making, which allows it (at least in theory) to tackle this question head-on. 

The way they answer it thus says volumes about the future of online education. For while the explicit verbiage of the report is all about online education as a “facilitator,” “catalyst,” and “enabler,” the foundational assumptions whisper something different. It is, I suggest, only by understanding this disconnect – between what the report says and the deep assumptions that guide its worldview – can we realize that what is to come will look much more like the assumptions of replacement rather than the rhetoric of facilitation. This realization, though, potentially creates a second chance: to better articulate the possibilities of how to turn technology into a true catalyst in higher education.

I say this (and here comes the full disclosure…) as a member of the external advisory board for this report, as someone whose work is cited in the report, and as someone who has consulted for and collaborated with MIT and Sanjay Sarma (one of the co-PIs of the report) over the last few years. I’d like to think that this allows me to be a “critical friend” who understands the internal dynamics and yet has an external vantage point by which to voice such a critique.

First and foremost, I want to say that it was a herculean and in many ways highly successful undertaking for Sanjay and Karen Wilcox (the other co-PI) to synthesize a vast amount of literature and issues in an educational landscape that was literally changing under their feet over the last two years. The key sections of the report that categorize, synthesize and analyze the research and issues of how to begin to rethink teaching and learning within and through online education are well worth reading for their own sake. Similarly, the recommendations are useful (even if somewhat tepid), as they call for stronger interdisciplinary collaborations, see online as an “important facilitator,” create “learning engineer” positions that integrate the learning sciences with instructional design and technology, and, finally, foster institutional and organizational change to make such reforms stick.

Yet it is the guiding assumptions that interest me, and I will tackle this (for the sake of brevity) by using just one example. You’ll have to trust me (until you read the report) that this disconnect is ubiquitous throughout; not only in the report, but across just about every discussion, article, and mindset out there regarding the role of online learning in higher education.

In the section which recommends making online a “facilitator,” the report makes use of a provocative example: the “challenge of piloting modern aircraft…[and how] fly-by-wire control systems, which bring together the best of modern sensors, digital control algorithms, and human pilots…[have created] a complex feedback and control system that achieves performance, robustness, and reliability levels well beyond what a human pilot could achieve alone, while at the same time retaining the judgment, situational awareness, and creativity of the human pilot.” The idea is that one can meld the best of technology and humanity to create a far superior product to anything either in isolation could do. I get it, I really do

The problem is that the comparison cannot hold to education. No matter the technical challenge of modern aircraft, teaching and learning is exponentially harder. This is because piloting an aircraft is ultimately a solvable technical challenge of moving a specific object from one predetermined location to another under the stable laws of physics. We know both the specific and singular goal and the technical means of achieving it. Teaching, though, is what is termed a “wicked problem” exactly because the goals are multiple and thus potentially in conflict with and in contradiction to each other; and the means of achieving such goals are varied and not beholden to absolutely direct, linear, or logical enumeration. “Drill and kill” test-prep may raise short-term standardized scores at the same time that it does substantial damage in fostering a thoughtful citizenry; but the seemingly opposite instructional methodology of “discovery learning” may not create a civic nirvana either. To use the “cynefin framework” terminology, piloting modern aircraft may be complicated, but educating youth is complex.

That is why something like voice recognition software, like Apple’s Siri, may be a much better example of what technology can truly offer us. When it was first introduced, voice recognition software was primarily good for late-night talk show jokes. But the singular goal of transforming human speech into written text has benefitted from exactly the same kind of technological advancements as the fly-by-wire example.

The difference is the realization that Siri is just a tool that enhances my day-to-day life by acting as a “force multiplier” for a very specific means of achieving a very prescribed goal. If my goal is to write something down – a shopping list, an email to my boss, a love ballad I make up on the spot – then Siri makes it so much easier, as voice recognition software is by now 2-3 times faster than your average typist and at least 4-5 times faster than I could peck on my smartphone. But it can’t help me with other goals, no matter how seemingly simple, much less with a complex goal such as making me a better citizen.

One can easily find examples of powerful pedagogical practices in online environments where the technology enhances and enables a professor to better support students’ learning through a broad range of tools, whether that includes an adaptive tutoring module, virtual labs, an entire online library of resources, enhanced opportunities for collaboration with peers and external experts, etc. But these are all one-off artisanal examples: faculty who have thoughtfully and deliberately refashioned their entire paradigm of teaching and learning.

That is a stunt pilot consciously pushing her aircraft to the extremes of performance through tinkering with specific components of the plane. It is not a systems approach that is scalable to move passengers from Boston to Detroit.

To speak in the language of a “complex feedback and control system” is to acknowledge that such systems must be really good at the singular thing that they do, much like Siri. And it is here that I would suggest that, in general, online education has demonstrated that it is really good at supporting specific kinds of teaching and learning that are transmissional in nature (what is usually called declarative and procedural knowledge). But any vision of a “robust” education must include some sense of transformation, of helping students see outside of their initial sense of the world. This is what we have traditionally termed the liberal arts or critical thinking or lifelong learners or being entrepreneurial or whatever educational jargon most appeals to you. 

And this is where the goals become wickedly complex and the means infuriatingly fuzzy. That in no way means we can’t do a good job of it. It just means that digital learning technologies must act as a supplement to rather than as a replacement for instructors’ domain knowledge expertise and pedagogical competence. Transferring information from professors to students is never enough, no matter how much better technological innovations driven by the learning sciences will enhance such transference.

What is thus missing from the MIT report and just about every discussion of the role and value of online education is exactly the role and value of the faculty in figuring out how to move beyond the transmission model of education. For if the only analogy we have is of piloting aircraft, we will continue to give up more and more of such transmission to the technology better able to do it. But if the analogy is more like Siri, then it is still incumbent on all of us to move forward with our lives: jotting down shopping lists, scrawling out love ballads, and rethinking how to transform our students’ education. That is when technology will truly act as a catalyst rather than an inhibitor to higher education.

Dan Butin, PhD, is a Full Professor in, and was Founding Dean of, the School of Education & Social Policy at Merrimack College and the Executive Director of the Center fro Engaged Democracy.

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