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As If Technology Makes No Difference: Bain Report and POD Response

Posted By Administration, Thursday, July 26, 2012
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2013

July 26th, 2012

Nick Carbone at Bedford St. Martin's responded to a query on the POD list at Notre Dame by pointing to this article:

No, not THAT Bain. The article is intense, portraying a cost scenario for higher education showing that, outside of elite colleges and universities and/or those with huge endowments, higher education institutions in the U. S. in general are reaching an unsustainable imbalance of increasing costs and decreasing revenue.

The only role that this Bain report mentioned for technology is online learning. A couple of comments made on the list in response demonstrated an equal unawareness that technology would play any role in addressing the financil imbalance described in the report.

One responder said that as we move away from lecture as the singular model of learning, we only add to the cost because high-impact practices actually are more labor intensive.

A relevant personal note about my own high-impact practice: in 1985, I moved my first-year composition class to a computer lab in which the computers were wired together in a LAN (local area network), a brand new technology at that time. We found a primitive chat system and we all began writing together in a writing studio approach: students writing (writing!) to each other and me in authentic communication with a real live interlocutor for a real purpose. We had found a way to do pre-writing in a social setting. Large grants followed to expand this early high-impact practice and multiple assessments showed that my students, using this networked classroom approach, improved in their writing much quicker and more deeply than the traditional classroom approach.

I worked less, the students worked more and learned more. A classic example of active learning and deep learning.

Technology, in this case, allowed me to do what I could not do otherwise -- hand off the work to the students and guide them to engage in their own learning.

Many others at the time adopted this approach – it was, in fact, an early high-impact practice. It might now fit under the rubric "writing intensive courses."

This is just one example of how technology can alter the learning equation between teachers and learners. You who are reading this blog almost certainly know of how eportfolios can alter the equation as well.

In the news we hear of MOOCs (massive online open courses) and of open educational resources (OERs) provided by the top universities in the U. S. We hear of these same universities offering full courses online; of MITx offering a version of an MIT degree online. For a time, badges were in the news, and the badge movement is still alive and well. Entire new learning institutions are being formed that are structured to challenge enrolled students to accept much greater responsibility for their own learning.

But the point is not that any one model of learning will sweep the field. Instead what we are seeing is a multiplicity of learning models and designs and opportunities. And behind all of this is the very basic fact that information technology allows us to manage complexity.

The time when teaching and learning certified as important followed only one model (with slight variations) is over. We defined and accredited the method of teaching and not the results. That method is shattering but the tendency among educators is still to accredit the method (time spent engaged in that method) and not the learning. We move to high-impact practices and we change our terminology from "teaching" to "mentoring" and nothing has really changed. We still assume the "treatment" or the "intervention" or the "behavior" is important and all that we can value or count.

We still, in other words, deeply believe that the time spent undergoing an observed treatment measures learning. It seems hard for many of us who have served as faculty (and perhaps as faculty promoted to administration) to believe that learners can learn on their own. It seems hard to trust students: we created a learning paradigm -- the traditional classroom -- that was individualistic, competitive, and behavioristic (far from how researchers understand how students learn) -- and saw how students increasingly chafed under this learning paradigm by disengaging and cheating in many cases, and then concluded that students can't be trusted.

It is not as if learners need no structure: just the opposite is true. But the structure should be the outcome, the goal, the solution, not constant scaffolding. And it is not that they need no foundational knowledge at the beginning or that they do not need light mentoring during the process of working on the problem or the case or the question. But, even so, the "labor-intensive" is on the part of students, not faculty.

As we in this community know, learners now can create a body of evidence, managed in an eportfolio, that becomes the basis for assessment or evaluation. This obviates the need for constant observation or supervision.

Whether learning entirely on your own with MOOCs or online degrees or choosing from OER's or whether you are at an institution that is organized to create learning communities and to support undergraduate research and other HIPs; or learning by reading books and online journals; or any other learning method, an eportfolio can capture your evidence of learning. The "labor intensive" is your own.

As long as higher education institutions continue to believe learners must be guided and observed at all times -- a pedagogical in loco parentis approach -- cost issues will find no relief in the area of "instruction," the term Bain uses.

In the end, the Bain study is very useful by making so clear that the current model of learning in US higher education is unsustainable for all institutions except the elites and the wealthy. But the report reveals not the slightest awareness of how information technology can alter the entire picture. The writers of the report assume the current culture of behavioristic learning models will not change; they assume the "cost of instruction" will and should go up.

Therefore, the report describes a problem but fails utterly to understand this basic fact: information technology, because it manages complexity that we cannot do without information technology, gives us the ability to move to a higher sphere of learning multiplicity. We can operate "above ourselves." We can try teaching-learning paradigms that result in deeper learning by using the resources we already have. Higher education now has options; it has the power to re-engineer as never before. Go beyond the essential pessimism of Bain; design learning experiences based not on what we've always done but based on current learning research in cognitive psychology, anthropology, social sciences, linguistics, educational psychology and other fields.

We can do it.

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