Technology Is Not A Differentiator

Learning is a differentiator.

July 22, 2015
Technology in education gets way too much attention. There is a huge (and growing) gap between the hype of what technology can do for higher education, and the reality of what technology has actually accomplished. 
What impact exactly has all of the dollars and time that we have spent on technology had on improving postsecondary productivity? The last time I checked, higher ed costs are growing at rates faster than inflation, wages, and health care costs. 
Where has learning technology really had non-incremental impacts on access or quality? Moore’s Law has done nothing to alleviate student debt, persistently high dropout rates, and graduate underemployment.
Where we have gone wrong is in thinking that if we could just get the technology right, then all sorts of educational benefits would follow. The flaw in this thinking is that technology is never a goal. Rather, technology is always (and only) a means.  
In our goal is to improve learning then road to higher order advances flows through the educator. Improving student learning requires bolstering the ability of a skilled and experienced educator to build a relationship with the student. 
Foundational knowledge may be gained through self-study. The medium of self-study can vary on a continuum from the paper book to the fully online (or mobile) personalized adaptive learning system. For many students, however, self-paced study will never be enough. Some students require intensive coaching, guidance, and mentoring to progress through foundational subjects in numeracy, writing, and other basic skills. 
Efforts to utilize technology to scale foundational material will work well for some students, and poorly for others. Finding the resources to employ, support, and reward educators will be the key if we wish to improve postsecondary retention (lowering the dropout rate), and shorten time to graduation.
Higher levels of learning are particularly resistant to the substitution of technology for an educator. 
The development of critical thinking skills requires practice, feedback, and time. 
Tomorrow’s jobs will require the ability to continuously learn new things, exercise judgement, and communicate effectively. These are the skills best learned in a liberal arts context, where the focus is less on learning a specific job skill and more on learning how to learn.  Technology can be a resource and an aid for educators doing the hard work of teaching students how to think, argue, evaluate, and persuade. But technology will never replace the educator, and the relationship between the educator and the student, as the true catalyst and driver of learning.
Those of us working in educational technology should embrace the reality that technology is not a differentiator. The differentiator is learning quality. The differentiator is skilled, supported, and motivated educators working closely with students.  
Educational technology is not a differentiator because technology is becoming commoditized. Anyone can buy a learning management system (LMS). Anyone can use lecture capture tools. Anyone can make all of the curricular content available on mobile devices.  
What is hard is not using technology, but using technology well. Our history of effectively using our technology for learning is not a happy one. Very few LMS platforms actually improve student learning. Too many smart classrooms are overly complicated, fragile, and hence underutilized.  
The reason that technology in education so often disappoints is that too many colleges and universities assumed that investing in technology is synonymous with investing in progress. It is not. 
Using learning technology well requires the commitment of resources beyond the tools. Many campuses are starting to wake up to this reality, as evidenced by the hot job market for postsecondary instructional designers. 
Can those of us working at the intersection of education and technology lead the discussion about the limits of technology for education?


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