The Jonathans' Rules for Evaluating Education Technology

To coincide with the release of their latest book Education is Not an App: The future of university teaching in the Internet age, authors Jonathan A. Poritz and Jonathan Rees discuss the influence of technology on higher education and the growing fear of its negative effects both on faculty and on teaching standards.

"Your university is not broke: The root causes of IT decisions are ideological and political, not economic."

“The digital revolution in higher education has happened,” wrote the author and technology commentator Clay Shirky late last year. Did you miss it? That’s not surprising because, as Shirky points out, that revolution hasn’t happened everywhere yet. The many students who are making the most use of online education are mostly nontraditional, and they tend to be taking such courses at colleges and universities where those students form the greatest segment of the student body. As online classes have become more popular, they have become increasingly available at universities where you might not expect to find them. Our sister institution, Colorado State University - Fort Collins has many of them. Another arm of our state system, CSU-Global, is an entirely online institution.

While some faculty have embraced online education, many others have continued teaching their own courses in much the same way they always have. Perhaps some of those professors were turned off by the poor reputation that online education once had (and to a certain extent still does). Perhaps learning all you need to know to teach even part of your course using online tools is simply too much work when you have so much else to do. After all, it’s not like all those online courses affect you and your traditional face-to-face classroom, right?

Actually, they do. The standards, practices, technologies, costs and enrollment of online higher education affect the day-to-day operation of every class in any university that offers such courses, and, to a lesser extent, what goes on in universities everywhere. It is not in the last bit of an exaggeration to suggest that these kinds of classes will determine the future of your face-to-face classroom – including whether you will even have a physical classroom to teach in – whether you like it or not. That’s why we wrote our book Education Is Not an App: The Future of University Teaching in the Internet Age.

It’s not an edtech book, although some aspect of that subject is at the center of every chapter. It’s really a book about the political economy of online education – the cultural, economic, social and, yes, flat-out political factors that have already changed the way your students and your administrators look at how you do your job. These factors will only grow stronger as the technology that universities depend upon changes even more as the digital revolution reaches every corner of higher education around the world.

We are not anti-education technology. Right now, both of us work at the Center for Teaching and Learning at CSU-Pueblo. Part of our jobs is to help our colleagues find the best technological tools to help them in their online and face-to-face classrooms alike. Along those lines, we wanted to write a guidebook for faculty who haven’t been paying attention to these technological developments so that they can both consider their own place in the fast-changing higher education landscape and distinguish the good changes from the bad ones.

To help guide our mission we conclude the book with a few rules. You’ll have to read it yourself to see the full explanations for how we arrived at these rules, but we can at least offer you a few short explanations here.

It shouldn’t surprise you that a couple of college professors think that what we do matters. Notice though how this rule doesn’t play favorites between online and face-to-face classes? A gigantic lecture class where you can barely see the professor at the front of the room and he or she is never there during office hours is just as bad as an online class with 400 or 500 students in it. We aren’t anti-online or pro-face-to-face as much as we just want to encourage more good pedagogy and less mindless memorization.

Of course, that phrase usually connotes adjunct faculty exploitation, but we intend it more broadly here. People off the tenure track certainly have no autonomy or academic freedom, but so do instructors on the tenure track who can’t control their own technology. Learning Management Systems (like BlackBoard or Canvas) are the most obvious manifestation of this. Why administrators and IT people get so much power to decide something that is fundamentally an educational decision just mystifies us.

The first part of this rule is a common saying in the American Association of University Professors, an organization to which we both belong. The second part is a sign of our emphasis on political economy in this book. You can’t understand edtech unless you try to understand the new austerity regime at universities around the world, as well as the common tendency of administrators to keep spending freely on edtech (despite their alleged austerity) in the hopes that it will eventually save them a fortune labor costs.

The freedom to do the best thing for our students and for our scholarship – academic freedom – underpins and buttresses all that faculty do, and educational technology must not be allowed to become an instrument to end that freedom. Indeed, the old slogan “Information Wants to Be Free”, which actually means that the public wants free access to information, sounds suspiciously like the free exchange of ideas so fundamental to the success of the academic project. Fortunately, proponents of IT freedom have built a lot of wonderful software which supports and enforces the openness, interoperability, and ease of customization that is academic freedom in the edtech context. Often called free software (“free as in speech, not as in beer,” they say), it is probably less confusingly called Free/Libre, Open-Source Software [FLOSS], and is widely but quiety used all over the Internet, such as to serve most web pages, to maintain Wikipedia and Wordpress. On campuses, FLOSS can embody academic freedom and act as a bulwark against surveillance, control, or simply the subjugation of academic goals to business ones, by putting the ultimate power over edtech into the hands of scholars and students rather than administrators.

We know you’re busy, but how would you feel if your job gets automated right out from under your nose and you didn’t even see it coming? Yes, education technology can’t do what professors do, but what happens if what you do gets redefined so that they can? You know that education is not the same as content transmission, but unless you stay engaged with all the two-bit hucksters who think it is they will win the battle of public opinion, you won’t have a class left to teach because your students will all be taking cheaper, easier online classes to get their degrees.

That’s why you can’t laugh off the technological changes that have already hit, let alone the ones that are still coming as computers get both cheaper and more powerful. That’s why you can’t ignore the advent of online education no matter how well paid you are or how good your students happen to be. That’s why you need to read the education press. Another way to keep up on such things is to buy our book.

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About the Authors

Jonathan A. Poritz is Associate Professor of Mathematics at Colorado State University-Pueblo, USA.

Jonathan Rees is Professor of History at Colorado State University-Pueblo, USA.