The Primary Problem with Educational Technology

There is much that’s wrong with the educational technology (“edtech”) market. However, the title of an essay I read last week sums up the biggest problem as succinctly as possible: Caring Doesn’t Scale.

This three-word sentence captures so much. First, it clearly communicates that “scale” has become a virtue. More importantly, it implies that old-fashioned virtues – things like caring about people – simply can’t compare in importance to modern values like scale. It would be an interesting thought exercise to re-examine the traditional seven virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and charity) and decide what each of their edtech replacements would be. However, I’m positive that in the updated version of the EdTech Bible, Corinthians 13:13 ends “the greatest of these is charity scale.”

Nobel-prize winning economist Thomas Schelling once made the distinction between an “identified life” and a “statistical life.” Identified lives belong to people we know and care about. Statistical lives belong to future imagined people who are nameless, faceless, and unknowable. Schelling argued that we think about – and even value – these two kinds of lives differently:

Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.

Edtech companies are primarily focused on what we might call “statistical students.” How could they not be? Their veneration of scale necessarily piles up students until they become tiny dots in a distribution, converts them into a billion small contributors to Big Data.

Why are we hell-bent on taking the greatest communications technology ever known and making sure that no one communicates with it? Why must we replace opportunities to interact with teachers and tutors with artificial intelligence and adaptive systems? Why are we so excited by the prospect of care, encouragement, and support giving way to a “Next” button that algorithmically chooses what a student should see next? The answer is that caring doesn’t scale – and given the choice between the two, mainstream edtech chooses to scale. (For sake of completeness, we should explicitly state the corollary to ‘caring doesn’t scale,’ which is ‘scaling doesn’t care.’)

If I could shout something from the rooftops, perhaps it would be this: edtech doesn’t have to be this way – there are other ways to imagine the use of technology in education.

In my talk at TEDxNYED in 2010, I argued that the proper role for technology in education is “to increase our capacity to be generous.” I still believe this is true. The affordances of digital, networked technologies make it incredibly easy – so easy almost as to create a moral imperative – to be generous with educational materials that cost almost nothing to duplicate and transmit around the globe. Open Educational Resources (OER) are one way in which technology allows us to be more generous.

Digital, networked technologies can also be leveraged to design tools and pedagogies that augment, extend, and improve a teacher or faculty’s capacity to care. That is, educational technology can help us be more generous with our care, encouragement, passion, and support. Educational technology can help us come to know, care about, and genuinely support a much larger number of “identified students” than we ever could without its help. But precious little of the activity in the edtech market is focused on achieving this goal.

The good news is that, like soylent green, the edtech market is made of people. We are the ones who design the tools and services that are available. But we must find the willpower to reject the “caring doesn’t scale” narrative and chart a better, more generous path forward.


The Practical Cost of Textbooks

There’s a great conversation – a debate, almost – occurring right now about two indisputable facts:

  1. The College Board recommends that students budget around $1200 per year for textbooks and supplies.
  2. Surveys of students indicate that they spend around $600 per year on textbooks.

How can there be a debate about facts which no one disputes? The debate is around which fact is appropriate to cite under which circumstances. See excellent contributions to the discussion by Phil Hill, Mike Caulfield, Bracken Mosbacker, Phil Hill (again), and Mike Caulfield (again).

When someone cites the College Board number, they often (but not always) do so in the process of trying to lead their listener to the conclusion that textbooks are too expensive. Not just really expensive. Too expensive. In the textbook context, too expensive means “so expensive as to be harmful to students.” The College Board number typically surfaces in an argument that runs along the lines of – textbooks are too expensive, thus harming students, and for the sake of students we should do something about the cost of textbooks.

When someone cites the student survey number, they often (but not always) do it in the process of reacting to the College Board number, as if to say “See? Textbooks aren’t nearly as expensive as some would lead you to believe. The situation isn’t that bad.” And, by implication, students are doing ok.

My question is this: if the issue we want to discuss is the impact of textbook costs on students, why don’t we just go straight to the data that deal directly with the impact of textbook costs on students? When we dip our toe in the $1200/$600 debate we’re likely to raise questions among listeners that will only distract them from the issue we’re actually trying to discuss.

Rather than using cost data as a proxy for impact on students, let’s talk about what the data say the actual impact of textbook costs is on students.

One of the best sources of data available on this subject are the Florida Virtual Campus surveys. The most recent, including over 18,000 students, asks students directly about the impact of textbook costs on their academic career:


What impact does the cost of textbooks have on students? Textbook costs cause students to occasionally or frequently take fewer courses (35% of students), to drop or withdraw from courses (24%), and to earn either poor or failing grades (26%). Regardless of whether you have historically preferred the College Board number or the student survey number, a third fact that is beyond dispute is that surveys of students indicate that the cost of textbooks negatively impacts their learning (grades) and negatively impacts their time to graduation (drops, withdraws, and credits).

And yes, we need to do something about it.

Thankfully, faculty are already well aware of the problem. According to a recent Inside Higher Ed / Gallup poll, more than 9 in 10 faculty agree that textbooks and other commercial course materials are too expensive:

According to the poll, faculty also overwhelmingly agree that OER are a viable solution to the problem of textbook costs: more than 9 in 10 faculty believe that they should be assigning more OER. Now we just need to help and support them as they make that change.

(Another very real impact of textbook costs on students is their contribution to student loan debt. That’s an important conversation, but one that I’ll save for later.)


Truth in Grading Disclosure

Steve Greenlaw published a brief meditation on grading today. This is a topic I’ve wrestled with ever since taking my courses on assessment design and psychometrics as a graduate student. Allow me to suggest, tongue in cheek, that perhaps our course syllabi are in need of a Truth in Grading Disclosure. It could come right after the section about grading, like this:


Your course grade will be determined as follows:

  • 10% Attendance
  • 10% Participation in Class Discussion
  • 20% In-Class Presentation
  • 30% Team Project
  • 30% Mid-term and Final Exam

Truth in Grading Disclosure

By means of this Truth in Grading Disclosure, I openly and honestly acknowledge that it is impossible to pass this course by mastering the course content.

  • 10% of your grade will be awarded based on your ability to show up at a certain place at a certain time.
  • 10% of your grade will be awarded based on your ability to get a word in edgewise amongst your very talkative peers.
  • 20% of your grade will be awarded based on your visual design skills in Powerpoint and your public speaking ability.
  • 30% of your grade will be awarded based on your ability to manage the time, efforts, and quality of contributions made by classmates over whom you have literally no control.
  • 30% of your grade will be awarded based on your understanding of economics, as determined using two multiple choice exams administered by the University Testing Center.