Technology and Education

by Ashish

What is education all about? It’s about learning, and it is usually involves a person delivering knowledge to another person.

What is the education industry all about? It’s about signaling to the world that a student was good enough to get into a particular college, that a person was good enough to graduate from said college, and is therefore (probably) good enough to do work in the real world.

Technology has changed both education and the education industry, but I’m going to try and argue in this piece that it hasn’t yet figured out how to do both at the same time. This might become clearer by the time I get done with this post, but here’s a one line summary: there’s LinkedIn, and there’s Coursera, but we don’t, just yet, have LinkSera.

It’ll take a while, but I’ll end up circling back to that point, because that’s the Holy Grail of tech in education, right there.

When I was finishing my Masters degree, OHP slides were still in vogue. We used to photocopy notes, textbooks and academic papers, and the internet was a way to use Orkut.

Today, I routinely get students who walk up to the lectern and place their phones there with the voice recorder on. I have students create Google Docs documents and work on collaborative note taking. Students are more than willing to look up stuff as I speak, and help the class along by supplying the latest, most up-to-date statistics in whatever subject is being discussed at the moment. I use free, online resources like Gapminder World to help students understand the beauty of data, or to help them uncover the mysteries of monetary policy. Collecting data and validating theories is increasingly easy, and not just for American data.

Simply put, used correctly, technology is a fantastic enabler of more relevant, more interesting methods of teaching. I can speak with authority about the fields in which I have taught, but I have no doubt that all fields of study are reaping the benefits of technology.

But technology isn’t just about an aid while delivering lectures in a physical classroom. It also allows you to conduct classes virtually (think Coursera, Udacity or Marginal Revolution University). It allows you to verify whether students have in fact learnt everything that is being discussed in class, and allows you to build basic CRM’s around an educational system.To cut a long story short, the delivery of, the validation of, and the data storage and retrieval associated with the academic process is now much easier because of technology. And over time, it will only get easier, better and quicker.

Technology has also made it easier to tell the world who you are. Your LinkedIn profile is your way of telling the world where you’re from, what you’ve been doing, and what reputed people from your sphere of influence have to say about what you’ve been doing. Your Facebook profile does much the same thing, though arguably in a non-corporate fashion. Your Twitter  account, your blog (cough, cough), indeed, your avatar online is your signaling device to potential recruiters: this is who I am. And for the most part, this happens whether you like it or not.

But, in my opinion at least, technology hasn’t yet married these two disparate aspects. It hasn’t yet come up with a unified, scalable model that applies technology to both education and the education industry at the same time. We trust Coursera et al to teach us stuff, although it doesn’t always pan out the way you might think – dropout rates for courses offered online are scarily high. We trust LinkedIn to act as a platform via which we tell the world how good we are – but we don’t have a service, just yet, that does both.

Well, we don’t have an online service that does both. We do have an offline service that does both – it’s called a college. A college offers an education, and a college works as a signaling device. And the reason Coursera isn’t likely to replace a college anytime soon is because while it may be solving at least part of the former problem, it is nowhere near cracking even a fraction of the latter problem.

A college offers an education, and works as a signaling device, and charges you a bomb because it is able to do both things at the same time. MOOC’s offer you education, LinkedIn et al offer you a signaling device, but neither can charge you a bomb because of the marginal cost argument, and because neither offer you both at the same time.

But in the future, one of two things will happen: either colleges will offer both but at a lower rate, or tech companies in education will offer both, and charge you marginally more than free.

And since my money is on the latter being far more likely, I’d be short colleges, and long tech in education.

Next post: the scam that is the textbook industry.