The Paradox of Digital Learning Innovation

Why we see postsecondary digital learning innovation everywhere but the statistics on costs, access, and quality.

October 26, 2016

"You see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics."

Robert Solow, 1987

In higher education, we could re-write this quote to say that:

“You see digital learning innovation everywhere in higher education but in the statistics on costs, access, and quality."

Why is it that after decades of sustained investment and excitement in educational technology that we have trouble locating the benefits?

Immediately you will object to this statement.  You will point to all the advances in online learning (traditional and open), in digital curricular materials, in flipped classes, and in mobile learning.  You will talk about adaptive learning platforms and predictive analytics.

And everything you say will be correct.

But none of our work in digital learning seems to have been able to accomplish the basic goals of bending the postsecondary cost curve, of increasing access to degrees (if not educational content), or of reducing student debt.

Are we really confident that today’s postsecondary education is an engine of opportunity, as opposed to a platform for the conservation of privilege?

All of these questions are on my mind this week as I think about all the conversations that I’m missing at the big EDUCAUSE Conference in Anaheim.  I’m wondering if during all the presentations and demonstrations if anyone is able to step back and ask the really big questions.

Is our field (or discipline - if we are that) of digital learning having a positive impact on macro measures of student postsecondary well-being?

Has all the time, energy, money, and attention that we have invested resulted in a higher quality education available to more people at a lower cost than would have occurred if had not made these investments?

Can we quantify - in big rough terms - the bang for the buck in terms of costs (and student debt), time to graduation (or persistence), and the quality of graduate skills (if not employability) of digital learning innovation?

What is even the proper unit of analysis - the student or the institution?

Can we show that colleges and universities with higher levels of digital learning innovation have better outcomes?

Quantifying digital learning innovation - finding a scale to describe and a method to measure this idea - will certainly be difficult.  How can something as squishy and buzzy as “innovation” ever be measured?

None of these questions are easy.  But there very difficulty makes them both more interesting, and perhaps more consequential.

We need to develop the ambition - and then the skills - to do the equivalent of macroeconomic research on our digital learning ecosystem.

Are you discussing these big questions at EDUCAUSE?


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