Why Technology Always Increases Costs for (Quality) Education

Why we need to change the edtech conversation.

August 9, 2016

I’m beginning to wonder if my edtech community is making a fundamental error when it comes to our work at the intersection of learning and technology.

This error is to believe that technology will make education more productive.

The idea that technology can lower the cost of education while improving quality - or improve quality while keeping costs steady, or lower costs while keeping quality steady - is anchored in basic misconception about how technology behaves.

This misconception is that new technologies substitute for existing actions, or for existing technologies. The reality is that new technologies most often end up complementing existing practices and technologies. New and old technologies exist side-by-side.

This is one of the insights that Kevin Kelly drives home in his excellent book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.  One example Kelly uses is digital books, pointing out that the sale of paper books remains strong alongside the growth of e-books and audiobooks.

When it comes to education, the introduction of new technologies can have great benefits. I’ve worked for the past 20 years in and around online learning. I believe in the power of digital platforms to extend and improve teaching and learning.

What I have never witnessed technology doing, however, is lowering the cost of education.

This is because what lies at the heart of education is not content or testing (or even competencies), but relationships.

This is the relationship between a skilled and experience educator, and a curious and motivated student.

Yes, I’m talking about quality education. The sort of education that occurs at my school - the sort of postsecondary education that I have been lucky enough to experience - and the sort of higher education that I want for my kids.

In this relationship based model of education the role of technology is to help the educator reach her goals.

Technology can amplify and extend the powers of an educator.

Technology can bridge distance and shift time.

Technology can reduce scarcities in time and attention.

What technology can’t do now - and will never be able to do - is to substitute for and educator.

If you lower your investment in educators to pay for technology, then you will lower the quality of the education.

If you want technology to improve the quality of education, you need to invest both in the educator and the technology.

Can technology ever be a lever for improving productivity in education? Sure. We should be looking to utilize technology to lower the costs for everything in the postsecondary world that does not involve teaching and learning.

Our edtech community should be working hard to squeeze efficiencies out of every non-core (non-teaching and non-research) activity that we can find. We should be looking for opportunities for technologies to lower transaction, overhead, and administrative costs.

We can also use technology to create opportunities for the better use of existing scarce resources - for instance the introduction of online and blended courses to increase the utilization (throughput) of classroom and lab space.

The only place that technology has a place in postsecondary education beyond complementing and supplementing educators occurs in cases of exclusion - where there is no access. Access to an open online course, or an adaptive learning platform offered at scale, is better than no educational opportunity.

How might we change the conversation if we start with the shared understanding that technology will (inevitably) drive up the costs of quality education?

Will this understanding cause us to (appropriately) raise the bar on any technologies that we introduce?

In recognizing that the job of technology in education to support the relationship between educators and students, will we shift our emphasis on what technologies we champion?

Should our edtech motto should be something like “raising the cost of quality education each and every day"?   

Or maybe “when it comes to the use of technology in education, you get what you pay for.”

Not very catchy, and maybe not likely to endear our edtech community in a time of permanent postsecondary resource scarcity. 

How have you used technology to drive up the costs (and the quality) of education?


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Joshua Kim

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