Not mere tools – A Response to Leon Botstein on Educational Technologies

Two weeks ago, Dr. Leon Botstein (current president of Bard College and education reformer) gave an interesting and witty talk at UVa on the future of higher education. Much to my delight, he opened the speech with some candid opinions of the role of “technology” in higher education. There were a few points that I completely agreed with Botstein, but I was troubled by his underlying conception of technology and change.

While I’m always puzzled when people frame their opinions on the spread of massively open online courses (MOOCs), the “flipped classroom” model, and the general move away from an era of information scarcity into an age of information glut, as being about “technology” in general*, I’ll put aside this academic distinction and to my more general point…


Botstein advised that it was a waste of time and effort on the part of faculty to be against the above developments in teaching technologies and instead we should welcome their tendency to “put bad teaching out of business.” The “destructive competition” that MOOCS have thrown up to university faculty is our own fault. I agree! If educators can be scared by technologies that allow for video-taping and making those videos widely available, then we should re-consider the value of our professional contributions.

However, as much as much I agree with the need for educators to take responsibility for the changing demands of our profession, I felt like the underlying conception of technology that Botstein used to explain his position was lacking.  He put forward a layman’s theory of technological progress and social change stating that from a historical perspective “there’s no reason to be anxious about [technology]” because it’s a “net good, but one cannot make it a causal factor.” He likened the role of technology in learning to the role of technology in sex – it’s “enhancing, amusing, diversifying, but at the end of the day its not a replacement.”  In other words, tech might spice things up a bit, but it will never supplant the real deal.

This perspective, that technologies are tools for accomplishing our goals, is one that historians of technology are familiar with and have roundly de-bunked. Technologies are more than mere tools for accomplishing the things we’ve always done. Technology also shapes experience, and oftentimes encourages us to rethink previously settled questions.

Emerging educational technologies are interesting and exciting precisely because they’re encouraging educators at all stages of their careers, from the most staid lecturers to the newly minted Phd, to reconsider the learning experiences of their students. If something like electronic communications with students via e-mail and discussion boards were a mere tool, then faculty would be able to ignore them at will, without much consideration of their value.

Is the incredible diversity of information available to students online merely an amusing and diversifying side-bar to their educations? Absolutely not. It changes the way we’re (faculty and students) thinking about learning, the value of a college degree, and our role as facilitators of what’s supposed to be a transformative period in our students’ lives.

Botstein’s comments also seemed to minimize some very legitimate concerns about the free dissemination of lectures and course materials. Jaron Lanier, an early web evangelist turned web 2.0 skeptic, has critiqued the tendency of this kind of free dissemination to undercut the possibility of an intellectual middle-class. He points out that content-creators, whether they’re journalists, professors, or musicians, often get short-changed with innovations like MOOCs, while the companies proffering the software, or aggregating the search results, reap the benefits. The technology itself did not do this…we did, but it’s impossible to reduce tech’s effects to those of a mere “tool” in the face of such massive reorganizations of power and profit.

* when I hear people preface their opinions this way, a part of me hopes that they’ll start talking about how overhead projectors have ruined our ability to write on chalkboards, or how electric lights in large lecture halls impose impossible standards for beauty on faculty.


3 thoughts on “Not mere tools – A Response to Leon Botstein on Educational Technologies

  1. I was recently having an argument with a friend about MOOCs, he thinks they are the way of the future but I don’t think they will ever replace the classroom because a large part of the college education takes place outside of the classroom in the form of socialization. For this reason, I don’t see MOOCs making a lot of inroads at traditional residential colleges even if they adopt the technology in other ways. But I prefer to teach by candlelight….

  2. This topic is so interesting and relevant! I recently found out about the “Minerva Project” which aims to be an elite online university. The idea, I think, is to make a rigorous (and potentially prestigious) degree possible for more people with less debt. Like Anne, I think it doesn’t account for the networking, mentoring, and other learning opportunities that exist outside of the curriculum itself. Also, I’m unclear on the admission standards, which claim to be based on “exceptional intellectual standards” alone. While I think the idea is to eliminate advantage based on one’s contacts or social status, I am curious about what these standards are. If they are numbers alone (i.e. test scores), there is obviously built-in inequality in those numbers with just one example being students who come from lower-resource high schools that do not necessarily prepare them for such tests. If one of the goals is to level the playing field for higher education, I’m not convinced the online format alone accomplishes this–although it does make education cheaper. That being said, I’m interested in seeing how the project progresses and if/how it challenges our thinking about certain credentials.

    • I worry about who’s bearing the costs of these supposedly “reduced cost” higher education opportunities. I already feel the creep of rising expectations on how many sources/outside knowledge students are expected to have coming into classrooms, as well as their ability to be capable online info knowledge seekers in the first place! I feel like there are always hidden costs behind “reduced cost” revolutions, and we just haven’t quite figured out where they’re going to settle in this case yet.

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