Virtually everywhere you turn, somebody is promoting the idea that technology is a – if not the -- solution to educational completion. Panelists at conferences, politicians, foundation officials and journalists/bloggers promote the view. It is also being supported loudly by the checkbooks of the venture capitalist community. College completion is, without a doubt, a serious problem. In fact, for the first time, the current generation of Americans entering the work force is less educated than the generation that is now retiring.
I run an educational technology company, and I read the articles, sit on the panels, and see the venture money flowing. But I have to admit, my first thought is: “Might technology be the problem rather than the solution?”
College retention and completion is a growing and serious problem in the U.S. However, understanding how technology helps in education, particularly higher education, can be very difficult to identify and measure. When searching for technology solutions, we should consider the concept of appropriate technology -- using the right amount of technology to solve a core problem.
- Does it address the core problem?
- Is it scalable?
- Is it maintainable?
- Is it affordable?
We already know several non-technology solutions that are working. Most administrators will agree that good teachers, engaging instruction, individual mentoring and personal advising can directly affect retention and student performance. The problem with these known solutions is cost, time and measurability. Faculty and staff are often burdened with administrative and mundane tasks that infringe upon effective student engagement.
This presents a real opportunity for technology. However, it must be put to work in the right way.
Rather than looking for technology to replace or augment the teacher/student relationship, we can look for ways technology can eliminate everything that is NOT the teacher/student relationship – reducing time spent on administrative tasks and increasing the information available about the individual students and their needs. I call this the "other ed tech."
If technology can free up time for teachers by helping to find open educational resources, streamlining grading, simplifying student/parent communication, and eliminating HR tasks, it will create more time for student interaction. If technology can automate student advising communication and help to identify students at risk it will create more targeted opportunities for effective intervention. If technology can eliminate administrative and institutional overhead it will help to create more effective time and funds for student-facing services. (Disclosure: My company, IData, Inc., helps colleges with some of these things.)
To understand my reaction to the push for technology as a panacea in education, I reflect nearly 20 years ago to when I volunteered as a teacher at St. Cecilia Mautuma Secondary , a small, rural school in the highlands of Kenya. It was a new, four-room, secondary boarding school for girls. This school had almost nothing in terms of technology – a handful of textbooks shared between classes of 25 students, chalkboards that never seemed to have chalk and an hour of electricity from a car battery to run lights so students could study at night. A number of my friends in the U.S. suggested computers or software to help the girls of Mautuma. The reality was that they needed more textbooks, more teachers and possibly … more chalk.
My time in Kenya introduced me to many Peace Corps volunteers. The Peace Corps operates under the principle of appropriate technology – loosely defined as technology that is locally affordable with locally made/maintained tools that greatly reduce labor requirements and provide new opportunities for productivity.
In essence, if I had dropped a laptop in the middle of Kenya in 1993, it would not have solved anything for those students. There was no electricity, no Internet, no way to fix it and no way to share the resource. Internet technology would not have helped learning in rural Kenya in 1993 because it was not scalable, it was not locally maintainable, it was too expensive and it did not solve the core problems of not enough teachers, not enough books, not enough light to study at night and not enough parents that could afford the modest annual school fees.
Twenty years later, is there a correlation between my experience in Kenya and the current trends in educational technology? Clearly, 21st-century U.S. higher education is different, but we should still consider scalability, maintainability, affordability and whether the solution is solving the core problem.
As education technology remains a hot topic with conversations surrounding MOOCs, big data, mobile apps and open educational resources, we should ask ourselves the following questions:
- Are we throwing the right solutions at the problems of higher education?
- Do we even understand the problems?
- Is there a plan?
- Does it help to fulfill the goals of the strategic plan?
As schools look for a technology plan, they should focus on the goals outlined in their strategic plan and look for innovation on processes that free up resources that we can use for things we know work.
As active participants in the education world, we should always be looking for ways to appropriately apply technology. There are real problems, and a good start would be to focus on saving time and money. Budget is one of the biggest barriers to giving teachers and staff the one-on-one time needed to keep students on track. There are a large number of tasks that are done by individual schools that could benefit from cost-sharing with peer institutions. Projects like the Predictive Analytics in Retention (PAR) Framework  are a great example of multiple schools collaborating together to build a single (and better) retention analytics platform.
Ed tech projects can be time and money losers for a school. The guiding principal should be to look carefully at every dollar or hour spent NOT focused on working with students or advancing your strategic plan. If any of those hours or dollars can be eliminated with technology, that seems appropriate.
Brian S. Parish is owner and president of IData, Inc., which helps colleges manage administrative data.