Educational Technology: The Hype, the Reality, the Promise

Key Takeaways

  • Within universities, there's a growing tension between faculty, who typically focus on what is taught, and educationalists and technologists, who focus on how things are taught.
  • To realize the opportunities that technology offers, we must first reimagine higher education's long-standing learning model and ensure that all stakeholders make educational quality and critical thinking a priority.
  • Educational entrepreneurship can offer a way forward by offering incentives for educationalists, technologists, and faculty members to collaborate, experiment, and innovate.

At Texas A&M University Steven S. Shwiff is a professor, Economics and Finance; and Charlotte Larkin is assistant dean, College of Business and Entrepreneurship.

Much has and will continue to be written about educational technology, with a particular focus on online education. Technologists, educationalists, politicians, and pundits have all weighed in with their insights and projections. They see online education's benefits as ranging from its being "historically transformational" to its cutting the "bloated" budgets of our nation's universities and getting professors back in the (online) classroom teaching. Yet, these commentators only pay lip service to the real costs and benefits of online education — and the potential for catastrophic failure that lies ahead.

The Hype

We should never confuse education with training or the "tools" that educators use. Education is no more a computer or an online class than it is a chalkboard — those are simply tools. Additionally, precious few new and relevant findings have been added to our insights into the learning process; much of what many proclaim to be insightful turns out to be faddish and misguided. What we need for learning to occur are well-prepared and motivated teachers, students who are willing and able to learn, and a social system that values educational attainment. Many might take exception to these assertions, raising a host of ancillary social, economic, nutritional, and sociological issues. However, decades of data from failed public experiments aimed at mitigating these problems argue to the contrary.

Despite the hard sell from technologists and their allies in education and politics, the Internet is not education, nor is it learning. The hype that followed television's introduction in the 1950s heralding a new age in education did not come to pass. Likewise, much of what is being hailed as "transformational" about online education today also will not come pass — and if it does, it will not be in the ways now being hailed. However, the Internet and its application to education is different in that there are real opportunities for change — opportunities that are being corrupted and wasted. Politicians motivated by budget savings, educationalists motivated by job security and curriculum control, technologists caught up in hardware and software, and faculty unwilling to change how they do things are simply leading us down a path of missed or under-realized opportunities.

The Reality

How do we get beyond the hype and narrow agendas? We can do so only by going back to what has historically happened in America's effective classrooms. First and foremost, we must recognize the role of the classroom teacher or professor. There is simply no substitute for the role of a well-prepared and motivated teaching professional. Current attempts to substitute technology, videos, podcasts, interactive learning software, and tweets are at best limited in both application and scope. They seem most applicable in situations where rote memory — not education — is the goal. This is not to say that derivatives of such tools could not play a future role in the education experience. Only that, as now constituted and alone, they are not the way forward to an educated student.

Second, without motivated and prepared students, learning cannot occur. Granted, throughout history, not all students have been motivated and prepared. However, online education requires additional/new learning habits that today's millennial students simply do not have. Two problems are immediately recognizable. Young high school graduates simply do not have the work and study habits that online education demands. They are unable to put in the self-directed study time necessary to be effective in an online class setting. They are too easily distracted by the very technology they are trying to use to learn. Additionally, their constant need to be coaxed and encouraged defeats one of the major advantages of online learning.

Third, the educational preparation afforded most students in our nation's public schools is simply not good enough. We need not go over the volumes written regarding this national failure nor the countless studies showing how American high school graduates are no longer world class when it comes to reading, writing, and computation. What matters, however, is that effective learning in an online setting demands students be able to research, challenge, integrate, and synthesize information from a host of sources, often in a self-directed context. These are habits that the majority of millennials sadly lack.

Finally, we must consider what actually happens in either a face-to-face or online classroom. We divide the classroom experience into two broad categories: drill/practice and critical thinking/application. Most academic content areas contain subject matter ideally suited for a drill/practice context. Additionally, given millennial students' poor academic preparation, too much active class time is spent on remedial drill/practice activities. Innovations in online learning systems linked with electronic textbooks and their associated web pages can indeed relieve the classroom instructor of this type of activity. In the realm of drill/practice, online education and educational technology can be truly transformational.

What remains, then, is critical thinking/application as it occurs in the classroom. With the burden of drill/practice lifted from the instructor, a new learning paradigm can be implemented. The exact nature of it remains unclear, and it might not reduce the need for teaching faculty or lower the overall costs of education. However, such a new learning paradigm could reduce the time frame (i.e. the learning time and faculty instruction time).

The Risks

Although the opportunities are real, the risks are manifold. Before effective change can occur, we must overcome two obstacles. The first obstacle is higher education's current learning model, which has changed little in the past 100 years or so. We still have 15-week semesters and a core curriculum for the first two years, followed by two years of undergraduate education focused on the student's chosen major. Required core courses such as those in history, political science, and the arts fill up the first two years before students can focus on any of a wide array of majors, from physics to gender studies to business administration to pottery. Courses of study are more often based on a university's faculty than on the best educational interests of its students.

Online courses and educational technology have simply been superimposed over this basic framework. As a result, there is a growing tension within our universities between those who care more about how things are taught (often educationalists and technologists) and those who care more about what is taught (discipline-specific faculty). This tension is a real threat and must be resolved. Both groups must work together to create effective applications of technology and lead the way to the promise that such technology represents. Further, they must devise and lead efforts into how educational technology and online learning can change the basic curriculum, the length of school, and how courses are taught.

The second obstacle is administrators, politicians, and accrediting agencies. Assuming the best of intentions, these players are the furthest removed from what goes on in the classroom and the least familiar with educational technology. Educational quality and critical thinking/application often are low on their priority lists. Politicians have recently inserted themselves into this dynamic debate by insisting that college graduates be able to get a "job" upon graduation, seemingly viewing universities more as job training centers than places of higher education. Accreditors demand compliance with increasingly meaningless and faddish course and program objectives. The result of these empty and costly compliance games is to reduce academic content and rigor to a few simplistic goals tested by true-or-false type questions. Although these three groups could play a meaningful role in this discussion, currently they offer no real value to the process. In fact, their narrow policy agendas hamper the true purpose of higher education and represent a major block to the successful use of educational technology and online education.

The Promise: Educational Entrepreneurship

What are we to do? Create a wave of educational entrepreneurship? Despite all of the hype and media attention, no one currently knows the best way forward. We must incentivize educationalists, technologists, and classroom teachers/professors to experiment and innovate. Such partnerships should freely explore alternatives as we seek to define the blended, face-to-face, and online classrooms of the future.

Some approaches will fail, but that is part of the change process. There will be no one-size-fits-all experience; success will vary by discipline and educational objectives. Unless everyone involved in this process is inspired to take risks, we will not enjoy the full potential these new approaches represent. Also, we should not forget the extent to which those who most benefit from the current system will attempt to hijack this change process for their own purposes.

With these issues in mind, consider the following vision of the change process to the classroom of tomorrow — a vision that leverages technology to create a more personalized learning experience.

Professor-Student Collaboration

The professor–student relationship will change. What is not likely to survive is the large class in which everyone progresses, over a 15-week semester, at the same pace. That paradigm will be replaced by a more customized and collaborative learning process. The reality of a technology-enabled personalized learning environment is still evolving. What seems clear is that at its heart is a more collaborative and partially student-mapped and -paced process. The function of the professor, aided by educationalists, will also change. Student–professor collaboration will now determine both what content can be assigned to drill/practice methods and how the student demonstrates mastery of that content. In such cases, timing issues will most likely be left entirely in the student's hands, while technology specialists recommend the best hardware and software solutions. Critical thinking/application ideas will involve more specialized, face-to-face, and interactive online approaches geared to the real-time needs and progress the student is making. Thus, the professor — with the student's help — will vigilantly mix and blend the learning ingredients to produce a new learning environment. How this process plays out in reality will be the result of educational entrepreneurship, but it will surely entail both successes and some failures.

Non-Teaching Stakeholder Roles

The administration and accreditation of education will also have to change. As more education occurs outside the bricks and mortar framework and is more centered on the student–professor interaction, the role of all non-teaching staff will need to be reassessed. As students and faculty increase their use of technology to personalize their formal and informal learning, educational technologists must be on hand to facilitate the effective use of that technology. Also, the current hierarchical and standardized outcomes formulas for administration and accreditation of our colleges and universities are no longer tenable. Realistically, they are an impediment to the change needed.

Online Integrity

Finally, we must address one of the most serious challenges facing online education — cheating. Simply put, cheating is rampant, and we are turning a blind eye to the problem. Presumably tuition revenues and the convenience of online classes are the primary reasons for inaction. Cheating threatens the integrity of the educational process, however, and the value-added of the degree. Solutions must be found and implemented — or all changes will be for naught.


An educational system built around a 15-week, standardized curriculum with all students moving in lockstep is likely a thing of the past. That model is being replaced with a new system in which learning is viewed as a stream, learning resources are widely available, opportunities for learning are plentiful, and learners can choose to drop in and out of continuous learning streams. A new relationship will be forged among students, faculty, and educational technologists to ensure that high-quality learning occurs. As stakeholders in this process, we must invigorate this relationship, not impede it.