The Future of Educational Technology

It’s my job to stay on top of educational technology. In the last two months alone, I’ve attended huge ed tech conferences like and ASU+GSV, each with hundreds of well-funded new ed tech ventures. But I’ve been constantly disappointed, because almost none of this ed tech innovation is grounded in the science of how people learn. Of the 2,500 people at ASU+GSV, less than ten of them were learning scientists, and only two of the speakers on the program had any claim to such expertise. (Less than 50 people showed up to hear what they had to say.)

Just a few days ago, Bror Saxberg, the Chief Learning Officer at Kaplan, published an important article noting this same problem, and making a strong claim: technology will not help people learn, until ed tech developers start to work closely with learning scientists.

This is a key problem: Almost no one who is involved in creating learning materials or large-scale educational experiences relies on the evidence from learning science.

Saxberg says what we need are learning engineers–professionals who can apply learning sciences research. And ed tech companies don’t have them; instead, ed tech developers “are essentially using their intuition and personal experience with learning rather than apply existing science.”

I agree with Saxberg, and that’s why I’m creating a new master’s degree program, at the University of North Carolina, in educational innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship–to create this new generation of “learning engineers”.

This morning, Daphne Koller, the President of Coursera, published an article in the Wall Street Journal that makes an important point:

The “sage on the stage” at a university will no longer be a common mode of delivery. In the classroom–whether physical or virtual–we will see more attention given to group projects, conversations and applied learning, with lecture content going the way of textbooks as something experienced in preparing for class. At the same time, universities will devote considerably more effort to activities that occur outside the classroom, be it research, individual mentoring by faculty or senior students, team activities, volunteering, internships, study abroad…

I predict that in two decades, lecture halls will no longer be used. Not because of cost, or technology, or student preference, or high professor salaries, or because “they don’t scale”–but because the science of learning shows that lecture is an ineffective pedagogical technique. But this doesn’t mean the future of college is online, because the same learning sciences research shows that MOOCs are ineffective. Let’s hope that ed tech innovators increasingly work with learning sciences researchers: that’s the future of educational technology.

For MOOCs to Work, We Need to Talk

Online courses have proven they can attract thousands of students, but then almost all of them drop out before finishing the course. Well, guess what? Sitting at home alone and staring at a pre-recording lecture is just about the most boring thing ever, as Geoffrey Fowler writes in a Wall Street Journal article published on October 9, 2013. Learning scientists have known this for years: we have decades of research showing that engagement and social interaction result in more effective learning.* Fowler reports that MOOC developers are re-discovering the same thing:

“The most important thing that helps students succeed in an online course is
interpersonal interaction and support,” says Shanna Smith Jaggars, the assistant
director of Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. She has
compared online-only and face-to-face learning in studies of community-college
students and faculty in Virginia and Washington state. Among her findings: In
Virginia, 32% of students failed or withdrew from for-credit online courses,
compared with 19% for equivalent in-person courses.

Learning scientists have also known for decades that getting students to talk to each other, while they are learning, results in better learning.* MOOC developers are re-discovering this solid finding, as well:

One way to provide personal interaction at mass scale is to get students talking to each other. Several studies suggest that many students who spend more time contributing to course discussion forums end up performing better. More than answering specific questions, the boards send a message, says Mr. Ng [a co-founder of Coursera]: “You are not alone.”

A study of the online-only version of edX’s course Circuits and Electronics offered in the spring and summer of 2012 found a mild correlation between the number of posts people made in the discussion forum and their final grades. Some 52% of the students who earned a certificate for the course were active in discussion forums, according to the study by the Teaching and Learning Laboratory at MIT and Andrew Ho, an associate professor at Harvard.

I’ve been arguing that educational technology developers need to work more closely with learning scientists, so they don’t keep reinventing the wheel. (And even worse, reinventing the wheel after they spend millions of dollars first trying ineffective shapes like squares and triangles.) In the new master’s degree program I’m creating at the University of North Carolina–in educational innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship–we’re going to make sure students get a solid grounding in the learning sciences. That way, ed tech innovations will be much more likely to result in solid learning outcomes.

*Sawyer, R. K. (2006). The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. Cambridge University Press.

The Future of College

I just watched this fascinating 30-minute interview from June 2012, discussing potentially dramatic innovations in higher education. The on-stage interview was part of the Wall Street Journal’s “D: All Things Digital” series, and the host was the Journal’s legendary technology columnist, Walt Mossberg. The two guests were knowledgeable, brilliant, and well-spoken:

  • Salman Khan, creator of the Khan Academy web site (with its instructional videos)
  • John Hennessey, President of Stanford University

There’s a lot of serious change on the horizon. MIT and Harvard have teamed up to offer many of their courses online, for free, through EdX. Stanford has its own consortium of universities, also offering free courses online, called Coursera. These initiatives are called “Massively Open Online Courses” or MOOC for short. My employer, Washington University, just announced a partnership with ten top universities to offer online courses–but not for free, and only for students who meet admissions criteria.

Khan and Hennessey describe several potential futures. For example, maybe some students could get a college degree without ever setting foot on a campus. Maybe others would do a hybrid degree, with some courses on campus and others over the Internet. Khan proposed the most radical change: maybe employers will stop treating elite college degrees as a certification of your ability to do a job. Instead, your abilities would be certified by an entity that is unattached to any college, and anyone can take any test to demonstrate mastery of a specific ability or topic. It doesn’t matter how you learn it–on a campus, at home, in an informal study group with a few friends. If you  pass, you would get a certificate that today’s digerati refer to as a “badge” (by analogy with boy scout merit badges). Khan talks about “separating out the teaching part of college from the certification part.”

Also see my post “Will the Internet Transform College?” from May 31, 2012.

What do you think the future will be?