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“Labs test artificial intelligence, virtual reality and other innovations that could improve learning and lower costs for Generation Z and beyond.”
-- The New York Times, "How Technology Is Changing the Future of Higher Education," Jon Marcus, Feb. 20, 2020

We should celebrate the efforts of colleges and universities to experiment with new technologies to drive down costs and advance learning.

From the perspective of recognizing the role that universities play in driving educational technologies, The New York Times article "How Technology Is Changing the Future of Higher Education" is a welcome development.

It is fun to read about technology advances in higher education. As original members of the HAIL Storm -- Harvesting Academic Innovation for Learners -- it is particularly gratifying to see this work called out in The New York Times. And many of the educators profiled in the piece are our friends and colleagues.

There is only one problem.

Technology, on its own, does not drive higher education change.

We are excited, like many, about AI, VR, AR and all the other emerging technologies that colleges and universities are experimenting with. In our roles on campus, we participate in and support this experimentation.

We invest in AI, AR, VR and other technologies with the understanding, however, that their development will not solve the pressing issues facing our sector. On their own, new technologies will not drive down costs, increase access or advance the quality of learning.

Instead, advances in technology need to be considered within the context of an interlocking web of trends and forces, from demographic drivers (not good) to levels of public funding (even worse). Demographic headwinds and funding shortfalls will swamp any impact of new technologies.

What also matters more than technology is ideas (and people to support them). The permanent scarcity that is now endemic to the postsecondary system has caused many to look to technology for economic answers. The vision of “your teacher is a robot” as the solution to higher ed’s cost disease is alive in those who wish to disrupt the postsecondary ecosystem.

This vision of lowering instructional costs with AI, however, only appeals if you think of learning as a transaction. In this model of learning, there are inputs (instruction) and outputs (assessments), all of which can be measured and tracked.

This conception of the learning process, however, is in reality deeply impoverished. Learning as a transaction takes the least impactful practices of higher education and elevates them to the primary goal of our colleges and universities.

An alternative view is that learning is relational, iterative, recursive and constructed. This nuanced, complicated and human-centric conception of learning requires the active participation of educators.

We can look forward to a time when well-supported (and economically secure) faculty (including adjuncts) are given new AI and AR tools to aid in their teaching. These tools, however, will complement, not substitute for, the professors.

The narrative that technology drives higher education change, and that if we just get the technology right that we will finally fix what is wrong in higher ed, is a story with widespread appeal. We want to believe this story. Each article in publications like The New York Times adds to this belief of how higher education changes.

The question is, how can we shift this technology-first narrative of higher ed change while simultaneously making investments in educational technology research and development?

How do we celebrate technological experimentation in higher ed without succumbing to the belief that the solutions to our challenges will be found in technology?

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