MIT Professor’s New Book Details Technology's Limitations in Education

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(Image credit: Justin Reich)

Justin Reich, director of the MIT Teaching Systems Lab, says he’s heard a lot of talk about how now that COVID-19 has forced universities online, higher ed will never be the same. 

Reich isn’t convinced. 

“There’s a faculty, which is much more proficient with online tools, and the Canvas site for your seminar is going to be a lot better than it was last year,” Reich admits. “But overwhelmingly, the system is going to snap back to what it was before. They’ll still be more online learning five years from now than there was in January of 2020, but it’s not going to be this massive step change. Most of the people who went online will be like, ‘That was terrible. I’d like to go back now.’”

Drilling down into edtech’s impact 

Reich expands on the reasons behind this preference for more traditional classroom settings and other themes in his book Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education, which came out earlier this month. In it, Reich looks at where technology has failed and suggests ways it could be better utilized. Though mostly written before the pandemic hit, it’s relevant in an educational world increasingly dominated by Zoom meetings and online or hybrid classes. 

Reich started his career as a high school history teacher in the early 2000s and became fascinated by technology’s potential and limitations in the classroom. He liked that he could put the emphasis for learning on students themselves and connect them with resources around the world, but he worried that access to technology would be limited to those who went to schools with the resources to afford it. While getting his Ph. D from Harvard, he further explored the evolving role technology plays in education, and his research resulted in being hired by Harvard X, the institution’s free online education program, and then MIT. 

In the early part of the previous decade, many in higher ed believed that massive open online courses (MOOCs), such as those offered at Harvard X, were going to revolutionize education. In the 2008 book Disrupting Class, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, with colleagues Michael Horn and Curtis Johnson, argued that half of all middle and high school courses would be replaced by online options. 

But by 2013 Reich was publishing research that seemed to suggest otherwise. Now, Reich says it’s clear that MOOCs and other tech learning tools have not fundamentally changed education as some proponents hoped they would. 

The reasons for this failure are manyfold, he says. 

“The interaction between technology and learning environments is characterized by complexity and unevenness and inequality,” Reich says. “Schools and curriculum are just almost unfathomably complex.”

More than 200 million people access higher ed each year, and they so with a dizzying amount of backgrounds. “When they work, learning technologies work typically for some students in some circumstances and not others,” Reich says. “We have pretty decent adoptive tutors for certain parts of the math curriculum. We don’t really have anything for helping people understand English language arts. We have pretty good assessments of whether or not you’ve written a computer program that does what it’s supposed to do. We don’t have good assessments that evaluate if you wrote an essay that made an argument in a compelling way.” 

Edtech as an agent for change 


Justin Reich (Image credit: Justin Reich)

Despite his criticisms, Reich is not a Luddite. He wants technology to succeed and points to the tech tools available to higher ed that are not utilized. 

One current example is the preference students have for live lectures over Zoom rather than recorded ones. “I’ve been really surprised by how much what teachers want to produce, and what students seem to want, is a facsimile of their typical routines including lots of synchronous lectures,” Reich says. “[When students are asked] ‘Would you rather have a video that you can watch on your own time whenever you want at 1.5 speed that’s been produced and edited, and sounds good, or do you want to see someone say the same thing on Zoom?’ For a lot of folks, the answer is Zoom.” 

Even so, Reich believes in the potential of technology in teaching. “When online learning works well, it is beautiful,” he writes in the book. “I love meeting students who found a new path in life after taking a MOOC or discovering an online community. I love meeting educators whose ideas about learning and instructional design were challenged and reshaped by encounters with online tools.” 

He says that even though technology alone will not disrupt systems, technology can abet system change. 

“Emerging technologies help learners, educators, and other stakeholders encounter new possibilities, and they loosen the grip of education’s conservatism,” Reich says. “They invite questions about what might be possible if we rearranged curricula, schedules, goals, assessments, and other key features of educational systems to allow emerging technologies to provide more utility and opportunity. Technology will not dissolve the stubborn challenges of education, but designed thoughtfully and implemented reflectively, learning-at-scale technologies can help.”

Reich has started a book club for educators that will be held weekly on Mondays at 3 p.m. ET on Zoom through November 23. Reich will discuss one chapter per week with a guest speaker. 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.