Why I Dislike Educational Technology, But Love Online Learning

Squaring a contradiction.

January 23, 2017

How can one dislike educational technology but also love online learning?

Simple. Technology has - at least until now - been more of a force for ill than for good in higher education. 

Our edtech tribe has consistently over-promised and under-delivered on the potential and benefits of technology. 

We have done too little to put the educator at the center of our efforts.  

My edtech community has not done what we should to fight for the rights of contingent faculty. We have failed to challenge the higher education productivity narrative, in which it is assumed that technology at scale can substitute for and replace (expensive) educators.  

And for all the hype surrounding edtech, our work has failed to make meaningful improvements on measures postsecondary costs, access or quality.

(For the record, every instructional designer that I know - even if they don't work on online courses - always puts the learning before the technology. They all see technology as a tool, and are the most skeptical people in higher ed about the over-promising of the edtech industrial complex). 

As a card carrying member of the edtech establishment, I’m as guilty of these edtech sins as anyone else.  

While I'm pessimistic about the potential of technology to be a force of good in higher education, I am enthusiastic about online learning. 

I am an evangelist for blended, low-residency, and fully online courses. Degree or non-degree, traditional or open, intimate or at scale - I love online learning.

How to square this seeming contradiction?

The reason that I’m a fan is that I’ve yet to witness a more powerful catalyst for advancing residential teaching than online learning.  

The online learning programs that I’ve watched develop have consistently brought with them benefits to the core teaching and learning missions of those institutions. These benefits have included the building of capacity in learning science, instructional design, and program evaluation. Online learning program represent an opportunity to rethink long-held assumptions and practices about teaching.  

The non-faculty educators who partner with faculty to create online courses are able to bring the research on teaching and learning in to their conversations with faculty.  Online learning helps institutions move toward evidence-based and research-informed methods for course development, delivery, evaluation, and continuous improvement.

I’ve witnessed the power of online education to provide much needed resources for investing in teaching and learning. Online programs, when managed prudently and with a focus on quality, have the potential to generate dollars that can be re-invested in core educational efforts. 

The fact that so many of our campuses have so many wonderful instructional designers running around today, working on residential courses and other "traditional" educational offerings, is a result (at least in part) of the new thinking about teaching and learning that came about with the growth of online education.

The other reason that I love online learning - from blended to low-residency to fully online courses and programs - is that online learning does address our higher ed challenges around access, costs, and quality.

Online learning enables students to participate in postsecondary education who would normally be shut-out from opportunities to improve their lives through learning and the earning of credentials. 

What percentage of students enrolled in online and low-residency programs are also juggling work and family responsibilities?  Only a very small percentage of students are able to devote their full-time and attention to the singular task of getting a degree - and an even smaller number can afford to spend years living and learning on a residential campus.  

Quality online and low-residency learning programs have the potential to bring many of the benefits of a high-touch education, one built on a relationship with a highly skilled and well-supported educator, to many more students.

The educational technology and the online learning world’s often get conflated. They shouldn’t be.  

The educators involved in online learning utilize the tools of educational technology. Unlike the edtech boosters and evangelists, however, the online learning community is not out to “disrupt” higher education. We are here to improve higher education. We want to find ways to invest in teaching and learning across our campuses. We want to increase access to degree programs, job training opportunities, and lifelong learning opportunities. We are interested in applying what we are learning from the learning and brain science research to our courses and programs. We want to find ways to support the security, autonomy, and status of our educators.  

Can we move the discussion around educational technology to a place that is both more critical, and more educator (as well as learner) centric?

Can we find a way to push back on the hype surround educational technology - hype that often obscures public disinvestment in higher education and the loss of educator autonomy and security - while also working to build more opportunities for online learning program?

What has been your experience in teaching low-residency and online courses?

Have you also witnessed the impact that online education can have on organizational development and institutional cultural change?



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