Brookings: Academia Bullish on Tech, Short on Concrete Ideas

A new report explains a widespread expectation in the academic sphere that technology will have a positive impact on higher education, but few offer specifics.

The Brookings Institution earlier this week released a paper assessing the impact of Internet-based collaborative tools on academic outcomes. The report contends that tools like blogs, wikis, video games and social media have reduced the value of slower-moving authoritative material, not only by allowing sharing of information in real time, but by setting up a kind of amateur peer-review system for judging and weighing it. According to Stanford University communication professor Howard Rheingold, this spells the death of the traditional information dissemination paradigm of authority lecturing from on high, which will have a particularly dramatic effect on classroom discussions.

“Up until now, ‘technology’ has been an authority delivering the lecture which [students] memorized. If there is discussion, it’s mostly about performing for the teacher. Is it possible to make that more of a peer-to-peer activity? Blogs and forums and wikis enable that. So a lot of this is not new, but it’s easier to do [and] the barriers to participation are lower now.”

University of California at San Diego’s Alan Daly calls this the process of extraction of “expertise that resides in the system,” saying that developing a more efficient way of doing so will go a long way in helping universities dig themselves out of their current financial difficulties.

 Daly believes education “is moving away from large-scale prescriptive approaches to more individualized, tailored, differentiated approaches.”

Still, while many are convinced that these new communication technologies will have a huge impact on the education in the future, no one is quite clear on how exactly that will come to pass. The effect of blogs, social networking and other distributed knowledge tools on students, professors and academic experts is uncertain, and while predictions of the cataclysmic changes are universal, there is a severe shortage of concrete ideas of how to use these new approaches to increase knowledge absorption and retention in the classroom.

Do they enable new approaches to learning and help students master substantive information? In what ways have schools incorporated electronic communications in the learning process and messages to external audiences?

As a matter of fact, the greater access to these tools has had no effect on the quality of educational materials available in class, which is contrary to the expectations that technology will be a panacea to these kinds of academic problems. An earlier Brookings report showed that the quality of instructional materials is on the decline nationwide, and, furthermore, no one seems inclined to take advantage of technology to implement a systematic approach to study this problem and remedy it in the future.

Brookings Institution has found that the quality of instructional materials available to students has a big impact on their academic achievement. In light of that, the scant attention being paid to the study and systematic analysis of such materials is alarming, and in a new Brown Center Report “Choosing Blindly: Instructional Materials, Teacher Effectiveness and the Common Core,” Russ Whitehurst and Fellow Matthew Chingos lay out easy and straight-forward steps states can take to correct the oversight.

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