In my studies and professional experience, I frequently come across the idea that education has been slower to adopt new technology than other fields of activity, such as medicine or commerce. For example, in a debate on the Economist website in 2007 Sir John Daniel expounded this view:
“Technology has transformed everyday life in much of the world. Goods that were once the preserve of the rich are now household items. Food is abundant and varied. Travel has been transformed. News and entertainment come to us instantly from around the world. Technology and the media have transformed all aspects of human life – except education!”
By and large, I agree with this analysis, and, as we shall see, you could argue that reality is finally catching up with Sir John’s vision. However, we should also note another frequent observation – in their rush to adopt new technology, organisations sometimes make blunders that damage their relationships with customers. Exhibit number one here is perhaps the overseas call centre, enabled by cheaper telecoms, which promised vast cost savings in the 1990s. The call centres are in the front line of dealing with customers, but companies rushed to cut costs in this area nonetheless, without perhaps thinking through the consequences.
Eventually, there was a powerful backlash. In 2007, the BBC reported that just 4% of people had a good experience dealing with a call centre and companies were starting to bring their operations back home. “Cheat sheets” appeared in the media, allowing customers to get through to real people, and it seems that the trend to repatriation is still continuing. There is a moral here – because technology enables reduced costs does not necessarily mean it is a good idea.
But that has not stopped others making the same mistake. The latest stampede is, of course, retailers installing automated tills. A recent Which? survey showed that 62% of us hate using them, but this does not seem to have slowed their adoption. I was startled to see these machines installed in our local M&S Food store recently, giving rise to the spectacle of long queues for customers to go through the manned checkouts while staff plead with them to use the machines. The facts are that a) the customer base at this store has a large proportion of older people, who are likely to be less comfortable using the scanning technology and b) customers of M&S Food are, by definition, willing to pay a premium price for a premium service, which probably includes a person to handle their checkout. However, these points seem to be lost on the relevant management team.
I would emphasise that I am an enthusiast for new technology and strongly believe in its power to transform education, but I also think we need to be careful that it does not become dehumanised in the process, and alienate those it is designed to help. This is relevant when we consider the impact, which is now becoming obvious, of the large, automated education providers (often referred to as Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs). The rise is currently led by Khan Academy, Udacity, Coursera and edX, but no doubt others will follow. The simple idea behind these organisations is that of recording educational material and then making it available to a wide audience. This is not a new concept of course – the Open University were doing this with video tapes in the 1970s. However, using the internet to distribute this material makes it far more widely and conveniently available, and it can also be supplemented by multiple-choice quizzes, to provide some testing and interactivity, as well as valuable data to the providers. Students are encouraged to form “study groups”, either meeting face-to-face or via Skype and similar technologies.
Is this a good thing? Of course it cannot do any harm to make good quality material available for free, for anyone who wishes to use them (there are some interesting questions to ask about these organisations’ business models, but maybe that is for another blog post). Feedback suggests that many people find them invaluable, and as they are free at point of use, they certainly open up materials to those who otherwise could not afford them. But the claims made by these organisations are quite extravagant – “Higher Education For Free” (Udacity), “The Future of Online Education” (edX). Can good education consist of recorded material, multiple choice questions and student-lead discussion groups?
I would suggest not. Useful as the MOOCs are, they do not deliver at least three aspects of quality education:
- Expert feedback. As highlighted by a recent NUS campaign in the UK, feedback is critical to improvement. This is not just about solutions to a multiple-choice quiz, but specific guidance, delivered by experts, tailored to your level of competence and achievement, detailing how to improve.
- Rigorous assessment. The MOOCs are struggling to scale any assessment that goes beyond multiple-choice. Coursera in particular is experimenting with peer marking, but this brings many problems, as recently dissected in an excellent blog post by Audrey Watters. Barring some extraordinary advances in artificial intelligence, it seems that assessments, whether exams or assignments, need to be set and marked by properly trained people, which will be a limit on scaleability.
- Coaching and support. Online studying requires discipline and motivation – I am currently an online student so I know this from experience. If you are not living on a campus, or attending classes, it becomes harder to keep going. Some of the MOOCs have spawned live or virtual study groups, which can be great but is hit-and-miss. Pastoral support and coaching from trained staff is invaluable here.
Some would argue that traditional higher education providers are not delivering these three things particularly well either. Perhaps that has added to the opportunity for the MOOCs to step in. But that is a different issue – institutions staffed by people at least have the capability to deliver these things. A highly automated institution with a handful of staff and thousands of students does not, at least without some serious changes.
Of course, all this very much leaves open the possibility of combining the content provided by the MOOCs with the support and assessment provided by professional educators. Some of the most interesting experiments to date involve collaboration between Khan Academy and schools. This opens up some exciting possibilities. Higher education is undoubtedly changing and providers will have to adapt. In particular, they need to ensure they are delivering the support and services that differentiate them. But we should not let the hype tempt us to believe that higher education can or should be automated.