A few weeks ago I was describing my work in academic technology to a good friend of mine. Our ensuing discussion was wide-ranging and enthusiastic, and we eventually made our way to the million-dollar question: how does educational technology improve student learning? This is a huge question, of course, and could not be fully answered in a long series of conversations or blog posts. We ended up discussing a smaller question: how could I justify working in educational technology in the university setting in light of how how expensive an undergraduate degree has become, especially at very good private institutions?
At first I was a little taken aback at the question. As a student loan-repaying person myself, I understand the enormous financial investment often required to obtain a degree. If I thought that my position was adding a superfluous expense to college education I would have to seriously reevaluate my chosen career field. Before I launch into the reasons that I think educational technology adds value to the university experience, let me first say that I am no expert on financial matters in higher education. I do not claim that educational technology merits preference over other university expenses, nor do I think that it is within the purview of this blog to comment on any of those other expenditures.
First, I think it is important to understand that the field called “educational technology” is about much more than just technology. As I have previously discussed here, I think conversations about pedagogy must take pride of place in any discussion about educational technology. Among my favorite parts of my position is getting to have these types of discussions with faculty members. I know from the experiences of others in my department and from faculty feedback that this time spent on pedagogy can be formative for instructors. By engaging faculty in this manner, educational technologists become something more like pedagogical consultants. These conversations may be happening in other settings, of course, but it stands to reason that faculty members who actively think about their teaching and work to improve it will deliver better instruction to students in their classes.
Second, and closely related, the technologies applied to enhance pedagogy themselves add value to undergraduate education. I won’t belabor this point, as it is one of the main themes of this blog, but suffice it to say that technologies like clickers that enhance the classroom experience and are now taken for granted by many students and faculty members were once technological innovations developed to meet specific pedagogical needs. This example, in fact, points to one way in which educational technology might lower costs for students: allowing a similar level of engagement in larger classes. If class sizes can be increased without compromising instruction quality, fewer sections of each class would be required, thus theoretically decreasing the number of faculty required to teach each course. This is a contested point, of course, and is open to counterarguments about the importance of faculty-student interaction for student formation. It seems clear, however, that educational technology improves the student experience, whether or not it actually reduces costs.
This leads one to wonder if applications of technology can substantially lower the cost of education for students. This has been the approach of many online-only universities and other blended learning contexts, though many of these schools seem to rely heavily on adjunct instructors to keep costs down. Whether blended learning approaches can be successfully adapted to residential institutions remains to be seen, but schools like Harvard and MIT seem to be at least exploring this possibility through the edX consortium. It is not totally clear whether the aims of these MOOCs include a long-term focus on reducing student costs, but it seems likely that the paradigm of open access to college-level content is here to stay (though the results of this access on course-credit mechanisms and the conferral of degrees is still up in the air).
What this last point in particular highlights for me is the way in which educational technologists continue to search for new ways to support and enhance pedagogy. While not all boundary-pushing ideas are necessarily beneficial for students, such ideas seem to have a mild interrogatory edge: are we teaching as effectively as we can? How might students benefit from increased faculty adoption of technologically-mediated pedagogical models? Can we do this better, and perhaps even at lower cost? Adding this to the other points addressed above makes me confident that educational technology truly adds value to the university experience for students and justifies positions like mine.