Educational Equality Online?

Have you ever taken a free course on the Internet? Perhaps through Coursera, Udacity, or Khan Academy? These avenues of education are referred to as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and have received increasing public attention. Join one of these online classes and you could learn about anything from machine learning in Python to photography basics. Could these “disruptive technologies” hold the key to equality in education? To begin to answer this question I’d like to reference an article by Dr. Kentaro Toyama, Why Technology Will Never Fix Education. As I began researching the topic, I realized the debate on MOOCs struck closer to home than I first realized. My first semester at UVA followed the dramatic ousting and then reinstating of President Sullivan. I didn’t comprehend at the time but the “philosophical differences” that arose between President Sullivan and Rector Dragas largely revolved around expanding online education. So what’s the big debate?

Before I get into more about MOOCs, I’d like to give a quick background of how I was introduced to Dr. Toyama’s thoughts on technology. I just returned from the Ubicomp/ISWC 2018 conference in Singapore focusing on ubiquitous, pervasive, and wearable computing and was enlightened by Dr. Toyama’s keynote address entitled Iniquitous Computing?. To be honest, I had to look up the word iniquitous. Here’s what I found. Iniquitous means grossly unfair and morally wrong. Wow! Imagine telling a room full of scientists and researchers interested in making computers ubiquitous (present, appearing, or found everywhere) that technology is not the answer. Or at least technology alone is not the answer. Dr. Toyama explains further in his 2015 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Just for example, how is it that during the last four decades we have seen an explosion of incredible technologies, but America’s poverty rate hasn’t decreased and inequality has skyrocketed? Any idea that more technology in and of itself cures social ills is obviously flawed. Yet without a good framework for thinking about technology and society, it’s easy to get caught up in hype about new gadgets.

He argues that the Law of Amplification applies and that “technological effects follow underlying social currents.” While it is difficult for a technologist like myself to accept at first, I strongly agree that technology is not a cure-all and that we must look towards social solutions for social problems. However, I believe that with the proper consideration and design, technology can assist social change. Of course, this training is not often included in an engineering education and the effects of science, technology, and society can easily be overlooked. In this way, Dr. Toyama’s words were a call to action for me, a challenge to find meaningful purpose in the technological work that I do.

This brings me back to MOOCs. Do they live up to their potential to “disrupt” education in a positive manner? In his previous article, MOOCs and Reforming Higher Education, Dr. Toyama details what he considers the 3 types of MOOCs and provides reasons for why he thinks they are over hyped. I’ll briefly summarize.

  • Type 1 MOOCs consist of content and technology only. Their impact is minimal as student motivation is a grander challenge than accessible educational content. Once again, demonstrating the idea that social currents are amplified by technology. The highly motivated student may benefit from MOOCs, but in general students are limited by their underlying intent and capacity.
  • Type 3 MOOCs are regular online courses that employ real educators but use virtual means to interact. The impact is “as good as the institutions behind them”. While MOOCs help with cost-cutting, Dr. Toyama argues that the online courses will never be better than the real thing with face-to-face interactions, feelings of responsibility, camaraderie, and networking. I agree here and have avoided taking online classes throughout my undergraduate and graduate career for these reasons.
  • Type 2 MOOCs are somewhere in between Type 1 and Type 3 with a little more than content and technology. Maybe an added component such as real-time online chat or proctored exams takes them a step above Type 1 but not quite Type 3. Dr. Toyama predicts these MOOCs will tend towards Type 1 or 3 over time, largely dependent on cost.

Using the amplification framework mentioned earlier, Dr. Toyama explains that intent and capacity are amplified by technology. “In education, human intent and capacity includes both pedagogical intent and capacity of teachers and administrators, and individual intent and capacity of students.” I strongly agree that the real investment in education is the people, both the students and the teachers. In order to see benefit from Type 1 MOOCs there must be serious consideration for the people using the technology. In reality, when it comes to MOOCs, student intent and capacity are complex and are influenced by social problems as Dr. Toyama details:

Students with poor high-school preparation will always find it hard to learn things their prep-school peers can ace. Low-income families will struggle to pay registration fees that wealthy households barely notice. Blue-collar workers doing hard manual labor may not have the energy to take evening courses that white-collar professionals think of as a hobby.

If we as scientists and researchers can carefully consider the intended audience and design our technology accordingly, then I believe technology in education could have a positive impact. This reminds me of one of the positive examples Dr. Toyama mentioned in his keynote talk. Digital Green uses technology to connect farmers and improve their practices using grassroots-level partnerships. To this point, technology in education is not a lost cause, but we must carefully consider the audience’s intent and capacity from a social perspective. How can we amplify positive social currents with technology in education? How can we increase enrollment in MOOCs for lower-income young adults? Considering these questions could set us on a path towards educational equality.


2 thoughts on “Educational Equality Online?”

  1. I do agree with the view you’ve presented here. Technology should not be a “solutionist” approach, a hammer to every problem it sees as a nail. While technology can be a great intervention and supplement in many fields including education, we do have to give a lot of thoughts to the problem it is tying to address, the design (who’s the user?), the cost and many other elements.


  2. Very good Gracie!
    We have been talking at work a lot lately about transformation and it touches on some of the same or related points.
    Technology is great but it takes more than sticking a fancy device with apps into somebody’s hand. You have to train the people how to use the device and the app, you have to make it easy and accessible for them to use the technology, and you have to motivate them that it has benefits to them and their efforts.
    Then you have to maintain and continue to train and work to get the entire workforce on the same page, young and old. Not easy or CHEAP tasks. Not a clear path to overall cost savings or increases in efficiency when you include all the “people/social” aspects that lie beyond the technology itself.

    Great post!


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