Can technology change education for the better, or just make it worse?

Compiled by Martin Towar

"Technology does not mean that we don't need great teachers, it's just the opposite.   - Howard Fuller

It's safe to say MOOCs - and by extent, educational technology - are in the hot seat. Between the decision to postpone Udacity's MOOC partnership with San Jose State University over low student pass rates, the Chronicle of Higher Education's scathing exposé of the technology promoting Gates Foundation, and the fact that in an April 10 survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities employers reportedly prefer college graduates who have skills learned in non-MOOC courses, MOOCs have justifiably come under scrutiny.

But are these criticisms endemic of MOOCs or just the results of poor implementation? According to Howard Fuller of Marquette University, it might be the implementation.

"There are people out there who are making great use of the technologies, and there are people out there who are abusing the technologies in ways that are not necessarily the best for students," he said. "I think that, like any effort to change education, some of it is good and some of it is bad."

Howard Fuller has been a leader in education since 1979 and has served as a dean, director and superintendent of several schools, colleges and learning institutes. He earned his Ph.D. in the sociological foundations of education from Marquette University, where he currently serves as a distinguished professor of education and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning.

"In every period of history the question becomes how do we take advantage of existing technologies to increase the capacity of our students' learning to meet the challenges of the historical period that they live in," Fuller said. "I think we have to be careful in assuming that there is no longer a need for great teachers."

"We need great teachers who can take advantage of the technology that is there and use it to reach students," he continued, "Technology does not mean that we don't need great teachers, it's just the opposite."

Teachers needed but not wanted

Yet as we've seen, many institutions, administrators and policy makers are not prioritizing updating teaching methods to new educational technologies.

Only 22-44 percent of students passed their fully online remedial mathematics classes. A sharp disparity compared to the 75 percent pass rate for traditional remedial classes.

The decision to pause the fall enrollment in San Jose State University's online mathematics courses comes on the heels of a scathing letter from the university's own philosophy department about the partnership.

"We regard such courses as a serious compromise of quality of education and, ironically for a social justice course, a case of social injustice," the letter read. "In a high quality course, the professor teaching it must be able both to design the course and to choose its materials, and to interact closely with the students."

In fact, many professors who have created their own MOOCs or online course offerings have found that most "traditional" teaching methods don't work in the online environment or the modern, technological world.

"What we call a 'test' or 'quiz' is not being viewed so much as an assessment of what the student knows as an opportunity for further teaching," said Craig Wright, the Henry L. & Lucy G. Moses Professor of Music at Yale University, and who currently serves as Yale's director of online education. "Say, five minutes of presentation [followed by a] five minute recapitulation quiz that can shore up that little bit of learning. Then perhaps you go on to the next point and you demonstrate with online materials drawn from other resources, whether it is from Flickr, YouTube or iTunes, so the material stays continually interesting and challenging to the student that is asked to remain engaged."

"You have to think about smaller units, keep your points focused, [and] back them up in a regular fashion with assessment," Wright noted.

Despite what educators from Yale and other universities have learned, MOOC providers and universities are sticking to the old methods, and by neglecting to adapt their teaching techniques, several educational institutions have found lower than expected engagement and performance among their students. For example, Coursera found that most of the students taking their Stanford MOOCs were not engaged in the courses - less than 20 percent of the students did not post in the class' forums, the only metric used to measure engagement - and subsequently did not score well. Even those students who did score well were not engaged on the classes' forums.

In addition, San Jose State University in California recently paused its collaboration with Udacity after only 22-44 percent of students passed their fully online remedial mathematics classes. A sharp disparity compared to the 75 percent pass rate for traditional remedial classes. One of the many reasons cited for the lower completion numbers was instructors' failure to properly explain what students should expect from an online course.

"We learned that we could have prepared them better about what it means to take an online course and that this is a university course with real faculty teaching for university credit," San Jose State Provost Ellen Junn told the Los Angeles Times.

According to Fuller, to utilize new technology effectively, teachers and educators need to be willing to experiment, try new approaches and challenge traditional thinking.

"We have technologies today that allow us to bring much more to individualized instruction and to open up the world in ways that we could not before," Fuller said. "It also allows us to move away from the thought that the only way we will be successful is with smaller class sizes."

"I think that larger classes will actually help teachers use some of the existing technologies, like blended learning, to split classrooms up in ways we never previously thought of," he added.

Is bigger better?

"I think the biggest effect of this new technology is to individualize instruction in a way that we can accelerate the learning of the kids who find themselves behind their classmates   - Howard Fuller

Despite the implementation challenges that many online courses face, Fuller said he believes that new technology, blended learning and online courses could - if used properly - help level the educational playing field.

"If [online] schools are able to become successful with those programs then that will positively impact people who right now are not able to enter higher education because of cost." said Fuller. "If they can develop a model, or several models, that allow people to get a quality education at a much lower cost, that will have a positive impact for low income communities."

"I think the biggest effect of this new technology is to individualize instruction in a way that we can accelerate the learning of the kids who find themselves behind their classmates," he said.

"A teacher, for example, will learn how to teach to the middle, because in most classrooms, if you have 20-25 kids, you have outliers on both ends of the spectrum, and so teachers will focus on one end or the other. Technologies can help by reaching the outliers so that teachers can focus more energies on the students in the middle."

"The issue will be whether or not people will know about these programs, and be able to take advantage of them," he added.

Described as a tectonic shift in education by Wright, the possibilities presented by online education and MOOCs is a "radical" change. However, he isn't waiting for the rumbling to stop before asking questions, and trying to see where the next horizon may lay.

"The question is, are we going to move away from traditional education into something that is more competency-based?" he asks. "And then, will that change what it takes to get a degree? Will people begin to look at degrees differently? There are a number of things out there that could impact the way we currently think about attaining a degree or getting an education."

Interview with Howard Fuller of Marquette University, Jamar Ramos, June 2013, OnlineColleges.com
Interview with Craig Wright of Yale University, Jamar Ramos, June 2013, OnlineColleges.com
"Low marks for MOOCs: Few students post, Stanford study says, and their grades show it", San Francisco Business Times, Ron Leuty - July 2013, http://www.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/blog/2013/07/coursera-stanford-udacity-mooc-grades.html?page=all
"San Jose State suspends collaboration with online provider", Los Angeles Times, Carla Rivera - July 2013, http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-0719-san-jose-online-20130719,0,4160941.story#axzz2il7pXoAy
"The Gates Effect", The Chronicle of Higher Education, Marc Parry, Kelly Field, and Beckie Supiano - July 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/The-Gates-Effect/140323/