What If Digital Is Antithetical to Learning?

Three indictments of the role of technology in higher ed instruction.

September 5, 2018
 

In 2018, the most important article for our “Inside Digital Learning” community to think about was not published here. It wasn’t even published in 2018.

It is the 2017 Educause Review piece "The Rise of Educational Technology as a Sociocultural and Ideological Phenomenon," by George Veletsianos and Rolin Moe.

Those of us who champion digital learning, and who participate in the “IDL” community, need to take Veletsianos and Moe’s thinking seriously. If nothing else, we should be aware of the possibility that “the rise of ed tech is underpinned by ideology.”

What is the underpinning ideology of “Inside Digital Learning”?

If asked, and I’m not sure that our community has grappled with the question, I’d wager that we’d come to some answer that included adjectives such “critical,” “skeptical” and “a bit wary.” This is not a community populated by unthinking digital learning evangelists.

At the same time, I’d say that much of our community -- and here I’d include myself -- is deeply invested in the idea that digital technologies have the potential to be a force for good in advancing learning.

We may be critical of how digital technologies are applied in specific cases, but we genuinely believe that, done right, technology can improve student learning within higher education.

But what if we are wrong?

What if digital technologies are inherently harmful to learning?

I don’t believe this to be the case. The evidence of how little technology seems to be doing to improve educational outcomes, however, is difficult to ignore. There are at least three cases against higher education investing resources in digital technologies to advance learning. These three indictments of digital learning are:

Indictment No. 1: Digital Concentrates Privilege

The integration of digital technologies into the operations of wealthy colleges and universities is likely to result in improvements in learning at these institutions. The reason is that at schools with more resources, technologies are introduced as complements rather than substitutes for educators. New technologies are adopted on top of existing pedagogical approaches and learning environments. Class sizes don’t increase. High-quality online programs that are created are characterized by a well-resourced instructional design infrastructure. The educational model remains relational.

The challenge is that digital technologies, when integrated into the postsecondary system, may be having the unintended effect of driving educational inequality. Colleges and universities with fewer resources -- the vast majority of all institutions -- are tempted to use technology to drive productivity. New technologies enable larger class sizes. Online programs are created without enough instructional design support for professors. Colleges push toward introducing adaptive learning platforms facilitated by course facilitators. The role of the full-time professor gets pushed aside for less expensive adjunct and contingent faculty.

Indictment No. 2: Digital Raises Costs

A second worry about digital learning that we should all be aware of is that of costs. The 20 or so years that I’ve been working at the intersection of technology and learning have also witnessed an unceasing escalation of postsecondary costs. Have quality and access risen commensurately with the growing cost of college? Have technologies been at all successful in simultaneously improving quality while lowering costs?

Once we understand that technology is never a substitute for educators when it comes to advancing student learning, we also have to come to grips with the reality that educational technologies are likely to drive up costs. How could it be any other way?

We need to continue to invest in educators if we want to maintain learning quality. On top of those educators we layer on ever more new technologies.

Indictment No. 3: Digital Distracts

The third charge against digital technologies is that they are driving our students (and professors) to distraction. Even those of us who tend to think it a bad idea to ban laptops from classroom have to admit that their presence can sometimes detract from student learning. The case that professors need to learn how to leverage laptops as learning tools may be justified, but it does impose yet another burden on the faculty.

Nor are students the only people on campuses likely to use technologies in a way that inhibits, rather than promotes, learning. PowerPoint has probably set back the art of teaching more than anything else in the past three decades.

How would our discussions on “Inside Digital Learning” be different if we started with the hypothesis that digital technologies are inherently destructive to the goal of advancing student learning?

Would this contrarian viewpoint to the basic assumptions of much of our professional practices change how we think about our higher ed jobs?

Might starting with a critical perspective about educational technologies make any efforts we make to introduce digital platforms to advance student learning more legitimate?

If our digital learning community learns to be more critical, might we develop great levels of empathy for the perspectives of many of our faculty colleagues who are skeptical of digital learning?

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