‘Untangling the knots’ of educational technology

Educators share ‘hacks’ to improving higher education, using technology to help students learn

technology-education-knotHal Plotkin, the senior policy adviser to the office of the undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Education, couldn’t write until he was in seventh grade.

Even when he finally could, Plotkin said Wednesday, it was not a teacher who taught him, but his girlfriend, who was embarrassed of his performance in their English class. “People can learn from teachers, but also each other,” he said.

Plotkin related this tale of peer learning during an event hosted by Future Tense, a partnership between Arizona State University, Slate, and the New America Foundation. The discussion, called “Hacking the University,” brought together several educators to share their solutions, or “hacks,” to some of the biggest problems facing higher education.

Some, like the ideas of Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University who proposed that the government completely stop funding higher education, were radical. Others were similar to Plotkin’s, a more gentle suggestion of a shift in the role of universities and their faculty.

All were connected one way or another to technology’s increasing role in educating students.

Adrian Sannier, the chief academic technology officer at Arizona State University Online, said he envisioned a future where a guild of educators helped spread the use of digital tutors powered by adaptive learning. He pointed to the Khan Academy in Idaho as an example, as well as to Khan’s new adaptive learning dashboard.

“It’s building the largest, most detailed database of how people learn ever assembled,” Sannier said.

But if the technology is already so impressive, why aren’t more people using it?

Sannier said widespread adoption of adaptive learning — quizzes, online courses, and textbooks that learn about the student as he or she learns the material — would require a change in the culture of teaching. A national guild like the one he hopes to see would be a part of that, helping educators learn that teaching doesn’t have to be just about knowledge transfer.

An instructor’s job could be guiding students to the right type of knowledge, “untangling the knots,” Sannier said.

“Explanations of complex concepts are no longer scarce,” he said. “They’re plentiful.”

Amy Laitinen, deputy director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation, also talked about a change in academic culture: “hacking and cracking the credit hour.”

When Andrew Carnegie created the concept of the credit hour at the turn of the 19th century, the measurement was strictly meant to apply to faculty so Carnegie could accurately provide retirement pensions. Over time, the credit hour became the main signifier of student learning, primarily because it seemed standardized, Laitinen said.

“But,” she said, “it only has the illusion of being standardized.”

Different universities and states don’t always easily accept credits from each other, she pointed out, meaning there’s very little agreement on what the standard is. Furthermore, she said, traditional credit hours can get in the way of innovation, like massive open online courses (MOOCs) or experimental online colleges.

“If higher education doesn’t appreciate its own credits, why should anyone else?” Laitinen said.

In the most controversial “hack” of the event, Caplan, the George Mason professor, also discussed credentials’ lack of respect, something he said is increasingly the result of more and more people earning degrees.

If a person stands up in a crowded room, that person has the advantage of seeing what’s happening at the front of the crwod, he said. But what happens if everyone stands up?

As more students can afford college, the same thing is happening in education and among employers, Caplan said. He proposed that the government stop funding higher education, and stop making college cheaper, therefore driving more students from pursuing degrees.

Heads shook around the room, and Caplan said that if his theory was correct, then it wouldn’t mean those less wealthy students couldn’t get jobs. Instead, the whole market, and employment requirements, would have to shift in response.

“I say to my students that ‘if everyone listened to me, then most of you wouldn’t be here,'” Caplan said. “‘But you wouldn’t have to be.'”

For more information on the day’s panels and commentary, read “What will change everything for higher education is nothing new.”

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