Technology, OpenCourseWare and Equal Education

In an interview with Udemy, Professor Allan Collins stated that “the biggest obstacle is for society to recognize that technology is going to have its major impact on education outside of school.” Technology, he noted, often exacerbates already existing inequality in society.  Thus, society, in our rush to incorporate technology to revolutionize the educational system, must be careful not to neglect those that lack access to it.  This is a valid concern, but efforts to make education accessible online, especially through OpenCourseWare initiatives show the way.

Professor Collins’s fears are well founded.  Because technology is so cool and opens up so many worlds, we often forget that it takes time to make its benefits accessible to all.  The Professor’s concern centered on the ability of technology to exacerbate existing social inequalities.  Namely, even though the price of many technological tools has dropped, “elites in society are buying themselves and their children all sorts of educational advantages, through technological resources such as sophisticated games and computer-based courses.”

To some extent, there is nothing that can be done about this.  Elites have always had access to greater resources.  That said, the beauty of advances in technology is that it eventually forces costs down, enabling those without equal resources to have access to some of the same tools as elites.  Although it’s true that it takes time for those costs to drop, the key point is that the costs do in fact drop.  For example, private tutoring is often very expensive.  But new online tutorial services provide tutoring to a larger number of students at a cost much more affordable.

This isn’t to say Professor Collins is wrong.  Rather, the Professor touches upon a salient point that should be included in any discussion about leveraging technology in education: how to ensure that as many students as possible have sustained access to the technology.  The only way technology can truly revolutionize education is by being accessible to everyone, all the time.

With the education system facing such great challenges these days (schools falling apart, budgets shrinking and the new challenges of a 21st economy) technology can appear to be the panacea.  But excitement should not overcome common sense and realistic plans.  While technology can be used in a variety of areas to improve education, one key strategy is simply to focus on dropping the costs of education.  Put another way, all else being equal, how can advances in technology provide the most bang for the buck?

For example, Professor Collins advocates that the “government should provide every 3 year old with a handheld device that would support them in learning to read and count.”  On its face, this type of approach sounds great, but a more impactful approach might be to create open standards that allow multiple companies to provide resources in a competitive environment.  Essentially, a focus on driving costs down.

By contrast, a focus on providing technology in the way Professor Collins advocates, may actually re-introduce much of the issues he’s concerned about.  For instance, the purchase of new equipment raises questions about what schools can afford -it’s pretty clear that only the most affluent school districts will be able to afford the best equipment; or, only those districts that receive some type of special funding.  And, school districts must ask whether they want to be locked into into one platform.

In any case, if Professor Collins is correct, technology has greater socio-economic effects, as opposed to introducing new teaching methods and tools. That remains to be seen, but if so, then projects such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare point the way by eliminating the technological divide faster.  By setting information free in the economic ($) sense, everyone has access to the same information.  At Udemy, we love the OpenCourseWare movement and are committed to making education accessible to all.