Followers of Audrey Watters and her essays on the History of the Future of Education will know that there has been a tendency to over-hype what technology can deliver, with 20th century notions of the future closer to science fiction than present day reality.
So why did the education futurists of the 20th century get it so wrong?
First of all, there has been such a focus on technology, that people forgot about education; the thing that technology was supposed to enhance. As a result, much of the predicted future has revolved around teaching machines rather than technology that helps people learn.
In short, insufficient attention has been given to the affordances of improved technology and the prospects for pedagogical innovation. Instead, the application of new technology has been viewed largely in terms of how it can make the existing, teacher-centric paradigm work more efficiently.
Second, few 20th century education futurists appear to have anticipated Moore’s Law; the observation (not really a law) that the number of components per integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years, increasing processor speeds and overall processing power by a similar magnitude.
As a result, the miniaturisation of computers was largely unanticipated, where hand-held computers (formerly known as mobile telephones) would become so widely available and so easy to operate.
But wait, shouldn’t this mean that it is easier to roll out educational technologies that have a truly transformational impact on learning?
Intuitively, one would think so, but this brings us to the third and arguably most important reason why 20th century education futurists got it so wrong; namely, resistance to change on the part of the education establishment.
The biggest culprits in this regard are universities where over-investment in sprawling campuses and steeply tiered lecture theatres, lock-in to anachronistic learning management systems, and a culture that favours published research over learning and teaching have created a number of obstacles to educational innovation.
The great irony of all this is that the most popular meme right now in just about every university marcom department is ‘innovation’. The university is an engine of innovation, it produces innovative graduates who, in turn, help drive an innovative economy.
The reality is somewhat different. University academics are very good at recommending innovation so long as it is taking place somewhere else. Of course, there will always be a few bright lights who attempt to make a difference, and they will receive accolades at the annual learning and teaching awards evening. Indeed, some of their experiments may even make it into mainstream practice, but only to a point.
New ideas certainly cannot disrupt the mode of delivery that has served universities well for time immemorial. The semester system (a relic dating back to the agrarian era when studies went on hold during harvest time) is strictly off limits. So, too, is any faintly entrepreneurial venture that involves a corporate partner or an overseas institution requiring a quick turnaround.
Sadly, the managerialism that pervades so many universities these days is such that even the most enthusiastic of innovators may find themselves beaten into submission by a conservative, risk-averse, and sometimes suffocating university bureaucracy that seems to have a life of its own.
Why it’s time to get serious about educational technology …
If the huge advances in information and communication technologies (ICTs) had impacted upon the education sector in the way they have on other service industries (e.g. banking and finance, media), access to an affordable, quality education would be available to many more millions of people than it is today.
First of all, the focus needs to be on humans not machines. Technology is a means and not an end in itself. The conversation needs to be about how technology can enhance pedagogy, to engage students more effectively and achieve better learning outcomes.
A parallel conversation needs to focus on how technology can expand access to a quality education at an affordable price for populations that are currently poorly served or not served at all.
Parts of the developed world appear to be going backwards in this regard as public finance of education has declined in the wake of rising government budget deficits.
Many higher education students have taken on large student loans as a consequence. It is now a $1.2 trillion problem in the United States. Students in the United Kingdom and Australia face similar challenges (albeit of a smaller magnitude), causing many to rethink their investment in higher education, in the context of stagnant labour markets with salaries that could leave them saddled with debt for much of their adult lives.
How can this be so, when technological innovation is usually associated with bringing costs down, not raising them?
The answer to this question lies in theory of the economics of information.
One of the best books written on this subject is Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the Network Economy by Carl Shapiro and Hal Varian, published in 1999. Inexplicably — given its impact — the book has never been updated, so the examples are a little outdated now, but this aside, the economic logic employed is still as applicable today as it was then. As the authors put it so eloquently (Shapiro and Varian 1999, p. 3):
Economists say that production of an information good involves high fixed costs but low marginal costs. The cost of producing the first copy of
an information good may be substantial, but the cost of producing (or
reproducing) additional copies is negligible. This sort of cost structure
has many important implications. For example, cost-based pricing just
doesn’t work: a 10 or 20 percent markup on unit cost makes no sense
when unit cost is zero. You must price your information goods according
to consumer value, not according to your production cost [emphasis added].
In making this statement, however, Shapiro and Varian are assuming that the information good in question is a private good rather than a public good. In the case of higher education, is it appropriate to price information according to its market value rather than its cost?
Strictly speaking, higher education is not a pure private good, because while there are benefits that accrue directly to the individual, there are positive externalities arising from consumption in that society at large benefits from having an educated population. By the same logic, education is not a pure public good either, and it is really down to the political economy within a society that will determine the relative share of the cost of the education borne by the student and the taxpayer.
What’s interesting about the debate surrounding the funding of higher education in the developed world is that rarely is there any mention of the high cost structures of universities that are essentially a product of their physicality; the lecture theatres, the student residences, the sports facilities, administration buildings, and so on. It is simply accepted that a university education — by definition — must be an expensive business, and unit costs are high because of the physical constraints of the campus; i.e. it is only possible to get so many chairs and tables in a room and so there have to be limits on student enrolments.
Somehow or another, the existence and wide availability of low-cost educational technology has not changed this equation in higher education. Instead, it’s ‘back to the future’ with Blackboard and its ilk, with all the support costs and stodgy legacy design.
Can higher education institutions be positive deviants for change?
Instead of competing for the same narrow demographic of wealthy, geographically-mobile students able to afford the exorbitant tuition fees, what if a university were to target a different type of international student — those able to pay $500 per year in fees instead of $15,000?
If an institution is brave enough to be the ‘outlier’ it must first figure out what price the unserved (or under-served) market can bear. Thereafter, it would need to gather together some clever people — which, theoretically, should not be hard in a university) — to address the question: ‘What kind of programme can we provide for $500, and not lose money?’
Take teacher education, for example, one of the Global Goals for sustainable development aims at ensuring every child has access to a quality education by 2030. UN data indicates that to achieve this, nearly 26 million new teachers will need to be recruited.
What a great market opportunity for a higher education institution with some entrepreneurial academics, some low-cost technology, and an innovative pedagogical model.