Is Technology Driving Educational Inequality?

How digital learning concentrates higher ed privilege.

October 10, 2018
 

Those of us who work in digital learning believe that our work serves a larger social purpose. Our belief system has at its core the idea of education as an engine of opportunity creation. We see digital technologies as a set of tools and methods that can, when properly utilized, be leveraged to expand educational access and increase quality.

Spend time in places where those who work in online learning and educational technology congregate, and you will find a shared commitment to opportunity creation. This belief that technology can be a fundamental force in support of progressive educational values is widely shared across the profession.

This commitment to social justice within the ed-tech and online learning community, however, just may be blinding many of us to the costs of digitization of higher education.

We may be in the situation where technology is driving, rather than ameliorating, educational stratification.

Educational technology and online learning as a cause of educational inequality are not part of our profession's collective sense of self. It is not supposed to work out this way. Blended and online learning methods, platforms and techniques are supposed to create opportunities for the many, not just the few.

How might digital learning be doing more to concentrate higher education privilege than delivering widespread educational benefits? Evidence for this disturbing conclusion may be found in how both blended and online education are operating across the postsecondary ecosystem.

With blended learning, the idea is to integrate residential teaching with the affordances of digital tools. Traditional courses built around professors teaching students in a room are augmented by the introduction of digital platforms and resources.

These digitally enabled enhancements may take the form of an inverted or flipped classroom, where the professor creates and curates learning materials that the students interact with before coming to the physical class. Professors can then use precious face-to-face time to highlight difficult concepts and to engage in personalized coaching.

The transition from residential-only to blended learning has many other potential benefits. Flipped classes, robust formative assessments and online discussion platforms can help professors create active learning environments. The availability of learning analytics should give faculty visibility into student learning prior to a high-stakes midterm or final, allowing targeted interventions. Simulations and adaptive learning platforms should complement the traditional teaching activities of the professor.

The challenge with introducing blended learning is that it is expensive. The development of blended learning materials and methods increases the number of inputs, mostly in the form of faculty time investment, of any given course.

For well-resourced institutions, the investment in blended learning is feasible. Faculty can be given release time to redevelop their courses. Instructional designers can partner with professors to design a blended course.

At schools with fewer resources, there are fewer supports and incentives to move to a blended instructional approach. Course releases to redesign courses are not available. Instructional designers are not present to collaborate with faculty.

In other cases, less well-resourced colleges and universities may use the availability of digital tools such as adaptive learning platforms and online videos to increase course enrollments. Professors with more students will have less time to provide individual attention. In some cases, the professors may be altogether replaced by technologies and tutors.

The result of all this is that at colleges and universities with more access to resources, teaching and learning are significantly improving. Wealthier schools can maintain small classes while introducing new pedagogical techniques and digital platforms.

The quality of education at institutions with relatively high levels of resources has never been better. Critics of higher education have largely missed this story of improvement in teaching and learning amid all the angst about lazy rivers and climbing walls.

At the same time, the digitally enabled improvements in student learning can get concentrated among the small proportion of institutions that can afford to make these investments. At these schools, digital technology is a complement rather than a substitute for educators.

Similar observations can be made about online education. Anyone who has ever developed or taught an online course knows that more resources, not less, go into creating a high-quality online learning experience. We are at a point where the most fortunate of schools and students can create and experience very high-quality online courses. These are courses filled with loads of faculty engagement, presence and mentoring.

On the other end of the scale, online learning can be a method to save costs by eliminating the most expensive aspect of any educational endeavor -- the educator. Professors are replaced by peer-graded discussion boards, computer-graded assessments and self-paced adaptive learning platforms. The quality divide in online education is growing wider by the year.

Those of us in the digital learning profession should grapple with the unintended consequences of our activities. If digital learning is a cause of widening levels of educational inequality, then we should address this challenge head-on.

The digital learning profession, and the associations that represent us, should be placing educational inequality at the top of their research and policy agendas. This may take the form of an elevated level of advocacy for public investment in postsecondary education. Issues of equity should be as present in our convenings and writing as those of progress.

Is it time for those of us in digital learning to discuss inequality?

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