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Technology Can Be Transformative - But Only in the Right Hands

New tools can help overcome unequal access, poor quality and inefficiency in education Matthew Pittinsky tells an Academic Festival audience.
Matthew Pittinsky believes the new tools can help overcome unequal access, poor quality and inefficiency in education

Digital and online technology can solve some of the most pressing problems in education today, but only if teachers and school leaders develop the know-how to apply them in the classroom. Seated in an armchair on the Milbank Chapel stage opposite TC Provost Tom James, Matthew Pittinsky (Ph.D. ’08) delivered that and other pronouncements in a freewheeling exchange with his Academic Festival audience that ranged from some of the geekier aspects of technology and entrepreneurship to broader prognostication about the future of education. 

“Not that technology is the universal solvent,” said the youthful-looking Pittinsky, who at 40 is already enshrined in technology lore as co-creator of the pioneering Blackboard online course management system, “but we have transformative technologies – the network, multimedia and data – to address the three most important problems in education: unequal access, poor quality and inefficiency.”

Wired and wireless networks “break down barriers of time and place,” said Pittinsky, who recently became chief executive of Arizona-based Parchment, Inc., which markets software that enables academic institutions to more productively plumb the credentials of prospective faculty members and students. This so-called “asynchronous” delivery of educational content helps broaden educational access and can improve not only the quality but also the cost efficiency of instruction, a major selling point for policymakers, politicians and investors. (Witness Benchmark Capital’s recent decision to sink $25 million into Minerva, a new for-profit, online-only college that hopes to compete with Ivy League universities).

Still, Pittinsky, who also teaches at the University of Arizona, lamented a failure by educators to take advantage of multimedia technologies that can bring learning to life by enable users to explore history -- or the galaxy.

“We have an ability to teach concepts in a fundamentally different way,” Pittinsky said, “and it’s almost criminal to think that the majority of educational experiences are still based on textbooks and live lectures in classrooms, when there is such an ability to immerse people and engage them and track student learning in a way we never could before.”

Pittinsky is most excited about technology’s ability to capture what he calls “big data.” Before the emergence of current tools, students might have a great learning experiencefor 45 minutes or an hour, but then that experience fades. Now, with new intelligent tutoring systems capturing every keystroke that teachers and students make, “all of that data stays,” memorializing what was understood, what wasn’t, and what kinds of teaching and learning decisions were made. Students can continue a debate after a class ends, instructors can use the insights they’ve gained to personalize future instruction, and institutions and entire districts can get valuable big-picture information about the performance of different demographic groups, the effectiveness of curricula, and whether they’re allocating resources productively. 

But with all the new technology, one audience member asked, will there still be schools 20 years from now?  “I hope you don’t think I actually have the answer to all these questions,” Pittinsky joked, adding that “Einstein once said that only five people in the world understood his theory of relativity … and he wasn’t one of them! I feel a little like that right now.”

Taking a stab at the question, he described education as, fundamentally, “a social process, requiring personal interaction between a student and an expert in a given field.

 “There are elements of the educational experience that are uniquely suited to being in a place together, interacting a live classroom session, with the benefit of presence,” Pittinsky said. Still, education in the future will likely be “highly augmented” by technology. “I would be highly frustrated and disappointed if my children didn’t go to a college where … a big part of their college experience wasn’t online.”   

Published Wednesday, Apr. 25, 2012