Education technology is more than content delivery

Audrey Watters posts on her Hack Education blog:

Khan Academy proudly states on its website “168,382,612 lessons delivered,” something that always reminds me of the slogan that used to accompany McDonalds’ golden arches: “over 200 billion served.” (I hope) We know better than to equate the billions of Big Macs sold with billions of healthy bodies or a well-fed world. Yet we still often equate “lessons delivered” with “learning,” as though their delivery necessarily offers a substantive intellectual nutrition.

Education as a “content delivery system” is a formulation that fits nicely into Silicon Valley’s larger vision about what Internet technologies offers the world—the tubes are designed for delivery after all. And it dovetails too with the all the recent claims that technology is poised to “disrupt education” just as it did other content industries.”

I don’t agree with this assessment at all (and neither do most of the commenters on the original blog post). Firstly, Khan Academy is a valuable store of information that is available for free, while McDonalds makes money serving unhealthy food that’s addictive. But even this is besides the point, which is that the technologies being developed by the new crop of online learning initiatives go so much beyond just content delivery. As I’ve mentioned before, they incorporate:

  • High-quality, interactive content delivered with the help of equally polished web user interfaces.
  • Avenues for student-student and student-professor interaction.
  • Scaleable grading systems which work even with hundreds of thousands of students. This includes both automatic grading systems for objective questions and peer-based grading for open-ended questions.
  • Collection of a lot of granular data on usage patterns, and plans to systematically analyze all this data to improve the learning experience.

and much more. So I think there’s a lot more to education technology than cheap fast food analogies.