Could education technology plus student motivation yield game-changing results?

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If you’re looking for ideas about the future of the education system, there is no shortage on YouTube, where scholars and charlatans alike seek to redpill you with ideas of often dubious merit. Brilliant ones really do exist, though, and my personal favorite is by the former dean of the University of Oklahoma Honors College, David Ray. (Full disclosure: I attended the University of Oklahoma for a couple of years and had a class with Dr. Ray, although they would have never let me near the Honors College.)

Dr. Ray’s lecture raises important questions about the value of education, the structural changes happening in the economy, recent social and cultural trends, and how these all interact. His concluding thoughts are refreshingly unsatisfying, and at the beginning of the talk he warns the audience, “You will be annoyed.” Bare of the hubris of the typical self-proclaimed “thought leader,” Dr. Ray’s TedTalk offers a lot of wisdom, but it is what he says about education technology and student motivation that I keep going back to.

Dr. Ray reflects frankly on his nearly forty years of experience teaching undergraduates with a range of motivation, and his take on the importance of student motivation is a minor but consequential part of a talk. Citing the book Academically Adrift, he points out that students admit to studying much less than they did a few decades ago. This withering appetite for knowledge is reflected in Dr. Ray’s own syllabuses: Whereas in the past he would assign nine books for a course, today’s students expect a single textbook accompanied by lectures that “talk about the book,” as if there should be no expectation that students have done their readings prior to class. Though many students may be working hard at other things—taking multiple jobs to support families or to pay for ever higher tuition—Dr. Ray argues convincingly that students are working much less on their studies than in the past. Of course some students are highly motivated and still put in the academic work necessary for a real education. “These students are terrific,” Dr. Ray says, “but they are a minority.”

Dr. Ray points out that his university has “a required freshman comp sequence, an aggressive expository writing program, two different writing centers, and several professional colleges—architecture, management, and engineering—that have added a writing course,” yet many still graduate unable to write well. For many students, the problem is not lack of access, but lack of uptake.

Looming over Dr. Ray’s argument are the macroeconomic trends that he believes are shaping higher education and the job market students face after graduation. The figure reproduced below is, according to Dr. Ray, “the single most important graph I’ve ever seen.” It shows that more recent economic recoveries (represented by the black, brown, and red lines) have been very slow and largely “jobless.” When Dr. Ray’s gave his lecture in 2014, the U.S. still hadn’t recovered the jobs that were lost in the Great Recession, which began almost five and a half years earlier. Slower recoveries mean not only pain for workers—whether they have a credential or not—but also shrunken budgets for things like education.

In this bleak economic context, a college degree seems even more necessary to many families. But with fewer resources to devote to education, they are having a hard time paying tuition, and student debt has grown dramatically. “In the best American way,” Dr. Ray offers, “we look to technology as a way to be more efficient.” The catch, however, is that, without student motivation, technology helps only so much.

The incredible technologies of the twenty-first century have made humanity’s knowledge base available to almost everyone, and tools that have been created just in the past few years—massive open online courses (MOOCs), YouTube tutorials, online coding modules, and others—have made many aspects of an education free and accessible to anyone with a smartphone or a library card. Dr. Ray extols the promise of education platforms that can reach millions of students at zero cost to the student, such as Khan Academy and the MOOC. Yet, he admits that the latter “actually didn’t work very well. It worked fairly well for some students, the motivated students. But the unmotivated students didn’t finish.”

He suggests that, eventually, “market realities”—and here he points at the graph—“will motivate [students], usually after the fact and very harshly.” But will they? For a student, market realities can seem very far off, and this is especially true for middle school and high school students who must build the foundational skills that prepare them to be successful in college. Once these opportunities have been missed or someone is out of school, catching up can be costly and, for adults, disruptive to family and career. A reason our country continues to experience poor educational outcomes is precisely that distant market realities aren’t enough to motivate students, who may never acquire the skills and knowledge needed for a successful, independent adulthood.

Yet an implication of Dr. Ray’s observations about student motivation and the potential of ed tech is that more motivated students will take better advantage of new technologies and educational opportunities. Inspired by Dr. Ray’s lecture, I have been researching student motivation for the past few years, and in a recent article in Education Next, my colleague Mike Petrilli and I present some of our takeaways from this research. In the article, we argue that education policy must help bridge the gap between student effort and reward, motivating our young people to invest in themselves early on. And we present evidence that better educational policies can be used to spur student motivation, and get students to contribute more effort. More work on this issue needs to be done, but our hope is that, with the plentiful educational resources of our internet age, better motivated students will zoom ahead farther than we could have imagined.

Adam Tyner, Ph.D.
Adam Tyner, Ph.D. Adam Tyner - Associate Director of Research