Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Digital Transformation of Education


On SSRN, I've posted a draft of an article written with Julia Sonnevend, a professor of Communications at Michigan, on the digital transformation of education. It will appear in a volume of essays on Education and Social Media published later this year by MIT Press. Here is the abstract:

This essay explains how digital networks and digital media will affect education. The digitally networked environment frees education from traditional spatial and temporal limitations. In the process, however, new constraints and limitations emerge that were always present in the traditional model but now become newly salient.

Digital media enable a "superbroadcasting" model of education, but this model is only appropriate for some kinds of learning. The remaining aspects of education do not scale well and remain labor and time-intensive. We have already seen hybrid models of education that attempt to combine scalable aspects of education with labor-intensive practices. Some of these hybrid models will improve the educational experience for many students and expand educational access for those who would not otherwise afford an education. But hybrid models may also produce winner-take-all effects and disrupt labor markets for new educators.

While transcending older limitations, digital education faces new limitations -- because of limited Internet access, language barriers, disputes over standards and interoperability, fights over intellectual property, and, ironically, the very scalability that makes digital education so promising and attractive. The growth of digital educational enterprises will depend on the degree to which they can lower the cost of the labor-intensive elements of education that do not scale well or shift the cost or the responsibility for providing them to other actors.

Digital education models threaten both traditional incumbents and professional educational norms. They blur distinctions between education and community service; between professionals and amateurs; between education and entertainment; between teaching and curation; between hierarchical and peer-based methods of learning; and between instructing specific students and speaking to the world at large.

Digital networks disaggregate educational practices into multiple tasks that might be performed by many different actors, and, in the process, alter the tasks, norms, and identity of professional educators. Digital networks disrupt the traditional organization of education and make informal education increasingly salient. And just as digital networks challenge professional norms of education, they also challenge professional control over archives, and thus control over cultural memory itself. Digital networks, in short, cause us to rethink what education is, how we perform it, who participates in it, and what we want from it.

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