The education revolution – Part I: Learning and technology

This is the second in a series of posts about the pillars of the revolution in education.

The most critical pillar of our educational system is obviously learning. Education without learning is like a car without wheels: it’s not going to get you very far. So let’s pull apart this first pillar of education and see where new technologies and online opportunities are having an impact.

For this discussion, I’ll define learning as the process of knowledge acquisition for an individual, through whatever means available and independent of the benefits it provides (either to the individual, employers or society). In this definition, knowledge encompasses both abstract (a priori) knowledge and knowledge gained through experience or application; this applies to an individual in isolation or to knowledge that pertains to groups. The facets of learning can then be broken down using process as a lens:


So what’s happening with technology in the different facets of learning? A few generalizations seem clear at this point:

  • Technology is impacting almost every facet of the learning process in a fundamental way, and more deeply than technologies have in the past
  • Questions about scalability, student-teacher interaction and online assessment must be addressed; fierce debates rage on these topics and more regarding the best approaches
  • Effective integration of technology in the learning process will require training and support for educators, but it’s often missing due to time and budget constraints
  • The political and economic realities of educational institutions create inertia and foster an environment of antagonism between edtech entrepreneurs, educators and administrators; collaboration will be a key to success
  • Progress is being made in the realm of guiding principles (e.g., the Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age), but serious disagreements still need to be resolved, political and otherwise
  • Change may come slowly, but it is coming, and the pace of change has accelerated

Let’s dig a little deeper on technology and its impact on learning, using the facets above as a guide.

Access is exploding

Access is an absolute prerequisite for learning…If a student doesn’t have access to instructional materials, instructors, and hopefully the guidance and support that go with them, then learning simply isn’t possible. The promise of broad access is one of the greatest things people in the edtech revolution tout, and there’s a lot of truth in this promise. Educational technologies can help overcome an existing supply and demand problem (i.e., too many students, not enough qualified teachers and classrooms). Indeed, initial work by companies like Udacity show how MOOCs can easily provide hundreds of thousands of students access to high-quality educational content.

In the new world of the Web, all a student needs is a computer and a network connection, and the world of knowledge becomes available, or so the story goes when people talk about online learning. While on the face of things, this is true, some deep questions remain:

  • Availability: Do students have access to both devices and network connectivity? In the developing world, and indeed poor communities, this is far from clear. Also, many schools just can’t offer the resources. Over time, though, it’s likely that device costs will drop to the point where they are not a barrier to entry, and network access will eventually become ubiquitous. Also, the rise of mobile computing (via smartphones and tablets) will only increase availability.
  • Inequality: By providing open access to all students, regardless of their economic situation, will online learning amplify class inequality (i.e., only some students can afford face-to-face education)? It remains very unclear whether or not edtech will exacerbate a two-tier system of education, despite trying to eliminate it.
  • Technical Fluency: Are students, particularly younger ones, well-versed enough in technology and online tools to navigate the new online learning opportunities being created?
  • Dropouts: Easy access means lots of dropouts (or seems to, at the moment). It’s easier for students to drop out of free online courses than real-world classes, especially those students who are trying to juggle online learning and work. Is there a way to overcome these high dropout rates?
  • Scaling: Can online learning approaches truly scale to meet the needs of students? Instruction and access to materials and knowledge seems quite scalable, but the corresponding flood of students creates challenges when it comes to interaction, feedback, guidance, and support.

Instruction is evolving

Historically, and for most subjects considered core to an education, instruction has involved textbooks, teachers with the necessary subject matter expertise, and lectures in a face-to-face classroom. Technology is radically altering this simple model by creating broader possibilities than have existed in the past. First, the textbook itself is evolving, being replaced (either partially or completely) by things like interactive digital textbooks or learning applications on tablets and mobile devices. This step alone represents huge progress, because digital implies easily mutable, which means these resources will be kept up to date, as opposed to dead-tree textbooks that often fail to reflect changes in knowledge. Second, the sheer volume of knowledge available has undergone hockey-stick growth. Assuming a student has access, a whole world of instructional resources is now available, and synchronous, classroom-oriented lectures no longer seem to be a requirement. From MOOCs to online lectures a la Khan Academy to so-called Open Educational Resources, technologically enabled students now have a world of knowledge at their fingertips.

A few points are worth making about lectures, since these seem to be such a central element to online learning. The first is that centralization of lectures online will probably mean that the best lecturers are the ones who get the widest audience; there won’t be 10,000 versions of Economics 101, there will only be a few, and the bad ones will die. This is good for students, because it means the average quality of educational content will increase. Sadly, there is a dark side behind this good:

  1. Some lecturers (particularly the bad ones) would probably lose their jobs or suffer pay losses, which has economic impact on learning institutions and society at large
  2. Anyone who might be negatively impacted in this way will actively oppose change

In addition to the availability of high-quality resources, ideas around instruction itself are changing; flipped classrooms and new models of teaching are gaining traction. The promise of highly individualized instruction seems closer at hand (e.g., by leveraging more data about individual student performance), but questions remain about whether this can scale. There are concerns that these "new" approaches ignore a huge body of knowledge about how people learn. There’s also concern that this is just the latest fad in applying technology to instruction, that we’ve been here before. Things might be different this time, though, when it comes to augmenting traditional methods of instruction with technology. The growing ubiquity of access, the incredible volume of materials now available online, and the real-time changes to instruction based on hard data are game changers.

One final area of significant evolution relates to learning by doing, as opposed to the traditionally passive approach of listening to a lecturer, rote memorization, repetition and abstract examination. Technology has the potential to radically alter the way students spend their time in the classroom. In the flipped classroom model, less time is spent lecturing, which then opens the door to more active pursuits. Students can spend more time applying their knowledge to problem solving, through games or task-oriented projects. The Khan Academy has already experimented with these ideas in a series of summer camps called Discovery Lab, designed to promote project-based learning through application. It’s counterintuitive that technology can promote less time spent in front of the computer when students are with teachers and in groups, but pilot programs are showing this is exactly what can happen.

Interaction presents opportunity, but here be monsters

For everyone other than the auto-didacts of the world, interaction is a key to learning, and it takes many forms. Technology is having an impact on all of them, but to varying degrees and with some huge questions:

  • Student – Teacher interaction: For many subjects, the interaction between a student and a teacher is absolutely essential. The didactic and opportunity for exchange makes for a richer learning experience. Online learning environments pose several significant challenges in this regard. The first is that a teacher who has a class with 100,000 students cannot possibly interact with all of their students; this kind of interaction doesn’t scale.The second problem is slightly fuzzier, and that’s the different between face-to-face and online interaction. Some argue that online interactions between students and teachers lack the power to create the same learning environment, but many students would argue otherwise. There are also some indications that teachers can actually provide better feedback because they know more about where their students are having problems (see Assessment below). The jury is still out on this question, but it will be critical in the success or failure of many online learning efforts where real-world student-teacher interaction is a key to learning. In particular, this is a big area of distinction between online learning efforts for K-12 and higher education.
  • Peer-to-peer interaction: Students often learn best from each other, and technology can offer a lot of things when it comes to fostering peer-to-peer interaction. MOOCs like Udacity eschew basic online lecture formats, and heavily promote the social components of the learning experience. Discussion forums, social networks and other ways of interacting online in groups are essential elements of the learning experiences here.
  • Student interactions with family and friends: This kind of interaction usually takes the form of basic support, and technology makes it easier (e.g., through email and social networks). Relatively speaking, though, technology’s impact here is more evolutionary change than revolutionary.

Assessment goes big with data, but might get cheated

Testing and assessment are huge components of learning, and there’s no doubt technology has had an impact in this realm. Online assessment has grown over time, and will probably continue to grow. The big changes lately, however, lie in the realm of big data. It’s now possible to collect a huge amount of information about how individual students are performing, and for teachers to then provide targeted feedback. The Khan Academy is the greatest example of this approach; they offer teachers dashboards through which they can view individual student’s progress, down to the time it takes them to solve problems. Coursera has also used large data sets to enhance and update their courses and testing approaches in near real-time. The promise here is great – it may be that we can finally start providing more personalized educations for students, breaking down the one-size-fits-all model of the past. The question is, can these approaches scale?

The second thread of questions on digital assessment revolves around validity, both in terms of cheating and in terms of students being able to game technology-oriented assessment systems (i.e., passing tests when they really haven’t achieved mastery). People at the Khan Academy have recognized the opportunity for pattern recognition as a problem in online learning, and there will no doubt continue to be work to solve this problem. Cheating is a deeper concern for many, but the reality is that students cheat in the real world, too…It will always happen, and there is no doubt that technology will evolve and adapt to discourage cheating, however imperfectly.

Recognition gets gamified

The traditional form of recognition in classroom-based education is the letter grade. Students take lots of courses, letter grades get aggregated into a grade-point average, and accolades follow based on where students land in the GPA hierarchy. This system of recognition is ripe for change, and some people have had ideas about how it might be changed. The first set of ideas comes from the entrepreneurs and others exploring gamification (e.g., badging systems like Foursquare that reward actions with tiny badges of merit). Indeed, efforts to gamify learning are already occurring, and there’s no doubt that people will keep exploring new ways to recognize achievement. There are no doubt significant challenges in this world, not the least of which is identity and the ability to unambiguously tie recognition with an individual in a way that cannot be forged or spoofed. At the end of the day, there will be changes here, but they’re pretty unclear at the moment.

Bottom line: Technology is driving the sea change, but it’s not enough

Clayton Christensen has written eloquently and at length about the forces that drive innovation, and in recent years, his focus has turned to changes in our educational systems. He argues quite convincingly that online learning is the engine that will drive innovation in our post-secondary educational systems. At the same time, there are clearly those who believe that technology as a disruptive force is insufficient. Others also point out problems with the fact that there is a gap between edtech entrepreneurs and educators, and that technology alone is insufficient to overcome this gap. There is truth in all of these arguments, but whatever side of the fence you live on, one thing seems very clear: technology will change the way people learn, fundamentally, and we are at the beginning of the revolution.

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  • elaine

    Awesome, content-rich post Ryan! This should be required reading for anyone interesting in thinking deeply about the intersection of technology and education.

  • Prof Hsieh (Betina)

    I really love this post, Ryan.  I think you are right on in several of the issues that you bring up in relation to education and technology.  One of the things that I’m finding so interesting in my increased use and integration of technology with my pre-service teachers is the resistance I have faced by many students who may well use technology outside of the academic setting but are unconvinced of its promise/ potential for them as educators (professionals) and for their students in the classroom.  I also think that when you bring up issues of access and equity, you are right on, however there are also deeply embedded socio-cultural issues in schooling including the use of schooling as an exclusionary gatekeeper and the incredibly slow evolution of schooling such that in a clearly post-industrial society, we are still in a late 19th century industrial format of schooling that doesn’t prepare students for the world we live in, and carries little relevance for them.  As a teacher (and professor), I think the need for continued face-to-face human interaction and collaboration is essential and should be supplemented by interaction done online.  I think that one of the things we must be extremely careful of is producing a generation of learners who is divorced from the impact of their actions on their fellow human beings and the most powerful way to experience that is by actually having to negotiate relationships in real time with a live individual. 

    Just my very long 2 cents.  Thank you so much for this.  I’m looking forward to reading more and will definitely read your previous post once my brain refuels on sleep! 

    • Prof Hsieh (Betina)

      PS. Sorry that my thoughts were so jumbled and disorganized.  It’s late. 

    • bitstrategist

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments Betina!

      You make very good points about school being an exclusionary gatekeeper, its incredibly slow evolution, and the questions about relevance of education for students. I’ll actually be discussing the last issue in an upcoming post!

      I also agree that continued face-to-face human interaction is critical for some aspects of the learning process. Ultimately, I believe we’ll evolve towards a hybrid model, where some learning is done online, and some is done via face-to-face lectures and discussions. I guess the only thing I would add here is that I think it’s interaction that is the key element, not HOW that interaction happens. Social networks have shown that people can have very rich interactions without ever meeting. These interactions are different from meeting face-to-face, there is no doubt, but they still have value.

      I look forward to hearing what you think about the previous post and about the two posts that are forthcoming on Validation and Value. 

  • John R. Harris


    I think your definition of learning iss too narrow. It’s more than just the acquisition of knowledge, or maybe their are different kinds of knowledge. for example individual skills and team skills. Knowing the rules of a highway is one thing, knowing how to drive a car is another. knowing how to drive in a convoy through a busy city is yet another. The concept, skill, and contextual application are three different things. These can be assessed separately but usually by different means.

    The problem with recognition is it is often based on assessment without appropriate normalization. There are three types of assessment: Formative, where the “quiz” helps the learner fix the knowledge in their mind. Summative, Where the learner is given a score A,B or 50% and finally Normative where the learner’s competency is compared to an objective measure – beginner, intermediate, expert.

    The problem is that normative assessment is hard to do properly and therefor summative assessment is used to assign recognition, but getting 80% on an easy test is not the same as getting 20% on a hard test. The student with 20% may have a higher competency. So this is unfair. Also recognition is given only at the end not in small chunks along the way. I think the essential part of the badge idea is the incremental encouragement that it can provide

    • bitstrategist

      Thanks for the comments John.

      You’re absolutely right that the definition of learning should be clearer…In my mind, knowledge can be both abstract and experiential. I think one can build up individual and team skills in either domain, and application is really just a manifestation of experiential learning. I’ve tweaked my post a bit to clarify.

      Assessment is definitely a huge question. Sal Khan has a nice analysis of the shortcomings of test-based (normative) assessment in his recent book. He asks the deceptively simple question: what are we testing when we test? Unfortunately, we extrapolate from current testing methods and make huge (often erroneous) assumptions about what test results mean. I think this is definitely going to evolve, and pose big challenges in the digital world.