This spring, amid shuttering classrooms and a widening pandemic, Michael Moe, the CEO of Global Silicon Valley, hosted a series with Arizona State University called “The Dawn of the Age of Digital Learning.” “The genie is not going back in the bottle,” he wrote with his colleague Vignesh Rajendran in an accompanying blog post: “Essentially 100 percent of students are now taking their courses online. Our expectation is that this shift is here to stay.”
For educational-tech proponents like Moe, we are trapped in a perpetual dawn. For them “dawn” is not a metaphor for a watershed moment, carrying us from past to future, but a cyclical event: regular, brief, and most often slept through.
Those of us who labored through the MOOC imbroglio earlier this decade thought these old arguments were safely buried. Yet in the wake of Covid-19, they have torn through their caskets and begun stumbling around again.
Moe and Rajendran write of a new age of “RoboED,” accompanied by the “advent of AI-based tutors.” A headline in Inc. magazine declares that “Google Has a Plan to Disrupt the College Degree,” and that plan turns out to be an IT-support certificate, with more than a passing resemblance to the “Microsoft Certified” programs of the ‘90s. In a webinar co-hosted by Bangladesh‘s Ministry of Education earlier this summer, I listened as a professor of economics at Yale asked, “Why does a class like organic chemistry, or a class like intermediate microeconomics, which every university teaches, why does every university separately need to teach that class?” As the kids say: 2012 called, and it wants its techno-utopianism back.
As universities face an extended pivot to online and hybrid learning this fall, there are three stances they can take toward the role of technology in teaching, according to Morgan Ames’s The Charisma Machine (MIT Press, 2019) — a charismatic stance, a skeptical one, and a practical, “tinkering” middle way. The first of these, the “charismatic” stance, ascribes tremendous power to new digital tools.
New York University’s Scott Galloway is perhaps the leading charismatic technologist of the pandemic. He has revived dated “End of College” arguments, predicting the collapse of “second tier” universities. To give the argument his own flavor, he claims that the mega universities of the future will not be Udacity or Coursera, but Ivy-plus universities that will, apparently, partner with big tech companies. In May, Galloway argued:
“Ultimately, universities are going to partner with companies to help them expand. I think that partnership will look something like MIT and Google partnering. Microsoft and Berkeley. … I just can’t imagine what the enrollments would be if Apple partnered with a school to offer programs in design and creativity.”
The following month Apple announced that it would discontinue one of its flagship higher-education products: iTunes U, presumably because of flagging enrollment in their partnerships with schools offering courses in topics such as design and creativity.
There are two major issues with the arguments of today’s charismatic technologists. The first is historical: Since the days of early radio and film, evangelists have been promising that new technologies will sweep away the sandy foundations of higher education, and yet here we are — starved and teetering from austerity, but at no real risk of wholesale disruption from technology.
This isn’t to deny growth and innovation in online learning. Online education has been steadily, incrementally expanding for decades, and there are a few places with concentrated growth. Southern New Hampshire University has grown from a small private liberal-arts college to an online behemoth. The Georgia Institute of Technology successfully launched a MOOC-based online master’s degree with 7,000 students enrolled in a single degree program. But there aren’t 20 small private colleges that have become online behemoths, just SNHU. There are many new MOOC-based master’s programs, but none have the reach of the original Georgia Tech program. Charismatic technologists point to first movers and see a new dawn. The rest of us see a few savvy first movers who captured a modestly large niche.
2012 called, and it wants its techno-utopianism back.
The second problem for today’s charismatic technologists is that the types of disruption they envisioned haven’t happened. MOOCs, adaptive tutors, chatbots, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, learning analytics, and other recent innovations have played very minor roles in higher ed’s crisis pivot to online learning. Instead, the pandemic has seen us embrace two dominant technologies. The first is the learning-management system — a place to distribute and collect resources online. Learning-management systems were theorized in the ‘60s and ‘70s, commercialized in the ‘90s, and made open source in the ‘00s.
The other major technology we’ve embraced is similarly old school: it was called “videotelephony” when it debuted in the 1930s, and it has gradually morphed into today’s videoconferencing. Faculty members have simply turned from the classroom lectern to their home-office webcam without the assistance of chatbots or AI tutors.
Even in the midst of a desperate, unplanned pivot to emergency remote learning, students just wanted something approximating a regular class with their regular professor. If the great disruption for which charismatic technologists have been praying did finally arrive this year, it turned out to be Zoom school. In our lifetime, we will never see a more powerful illustration of the conservatism of educational systems.
The natural alternative to the charismatic stance is skepticism. Over decades technology critics have objected to the dehumanizing of the learning enterprise and the creeping role business and marketing rhetoric plays in such changes. Audrey Watters and Torn Halves argue in favor of a “Luddite pedagogy” that demands we consider not just how technology affects the acquisition of new knowledge but the social order of our institutions and the socialization of our students. Neil Selwyn proposed that education technology should be distrusted and that emerging adaptations like datafication and learning analytics deserve the same critical evaluation.
Most recently, skeptics have turned a wary eye toward education’s fascination with data collection and the cultures of surveillance. State-level student-privacy groups are springing up across the country. The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood posted a “Statement on EdTech and Education Policy During the Pandemic,” with a broad group of signatories from K-12 and higher education, demanding that privacy remain a key consideration in new technology adoptions.
If there is a third-place “winner” for fastest-growing pandemic ed tech, it might very well be exam-proctoring software, a truly insidious development. Remote-proctoring software has dark origins in the development of malware to secretly control computers remotely. Forcing students to install such malware — connecting their bedrooms to the panopticon — is too high a price to pay for exam security in Psychology 101.
Bad ideas need to be questioned and challenged, but a broad skepticism for online learning cannot be sustained during the pandemic as it might in more typical times. For the students heading back home from their Covid-infested dorms for another remote semester, online is the only game in town.
There’s a middle path between charismatic boosterism and skepticism. In The Charisma Machine, Ames calls it “tinkering.” Drawn from David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s history of K-12 education in the United States, Tinkering Towards Utopia (Harvard University Press, 1995), “tinkerers” see schools and colleges as complex systems that can be improved but believe that major improvement is the product of years of incremental changes, not the result of one grand stroke. Tinkerers study past efforts at educational reform to avoid replicating past mistakes. Tinkerers harbor an optimism that technology can be used to improve teaching and learning, but they embrace research and critique as a crucial check against utopian thinking. While charismatic technologists orchestrate boom-and-bust hype cycles, cajoling local systems into making major changes and then moving on when transformation proves elusive, tinkerers persist with their designs, their partners, and their communities.
In the ed-tech space, Carnegie Mellon University is the intellectual heart of the tinkerer movement. Programs like the Open Learning Initiative are research based, devoted to continuous improvement, motivated by bold dreams, and grounded in the reality that change is hard. In the first MOOC wave, the quintessential tinkerer president was Teresa Sullivan at the University of Virginia. Temporarily fired for not moving fast enough, she argued for an extensive portfolio of online-learning initiatives — and against investing too extensively in any one new trend. As some university-based MOOC programs shrink and wither to nothing, her view has been vindicated. Most faculty members are natural tinkerers, disinclined to believe that a new technology will enable the transformation of everything, but willing to explore new tools and approaches, especially with institutional support.
If you see the pandemic as a moment for a disjunctive break with the past, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
At the dawn of the personal-computing age, researchers partnered with Apple to launch the Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow project, which in the 1980s provided cutting-edge personal computers to some of the world’s first networked K-12 classrooms. Researchers lead by Judith Haymore Sandholtz observed that when given access to new technologies, most teachers used them to extend existing practices. Just as most faculty members created Zoom clones of their classes during the pandemic (and just as MOOCs initially filmed classroom lectures), these 1980s teachers used some of the first personal computers to do the kinds of things that they were doing before with a little bit more efficiency.
Sandholtz and her colleagues saw a gradual embrace of the technology, defined by a series of phases: entry, adoption, adaptation, appropriation, and invention. Most teachers in the program made some progress along this trajectory. Teachers sought to preserve the best features of their traditional classrooms, and then some of them moved along the developmental continuum, finding opportunities to modestly expand their teaching repertoire. Today, this developmental process of professional learning is happening with faculty members all over the world. Faculty members are converting their classes to online and hybrid forms, starting with practices very close to their usual routines and selectively adopting new approaches as they prove useful to colleagues, are surfaced by students, or are discovered by the most entrepreneurial instructors.
In short, we are not at a new dawn. When the vaccines arrive, most students will return to campus and most teaching will return to classrooms, hopefully a little better for having experimented with new technology. Some colleges and universities will close in the crisis, but many will spring back to their pre-pandemic status quo. Higher education will continue to face familiar headwinds: austerity, adjunctification, and the gradual, steady growth of online learning. Academe will adapt, but there will be no profound realignment.