Can technology be used to create a ‘Golden Age of Education?’

March 13, 2023 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

Many industries have been reshaped as the world has become more reliant on digital technology.

The failure of many businesses or industries can be traced to their inflexibility. Companies like Blockbuster, RadioShack, and Kodak are endangered or extinct because they failed to adapt to the changing landscape of the digital world.

So far, higher education has been largely unaffected. However, universities may need to start thinking about their mission and how to utilize technology to offer more inclusive educational opportunities in order to maintain relevancy in an ever-changing digital ecosystem.

This subject was discussed during a recent Merage School event organized by the Center for Digital Transformation (CDT) featuring Michael Smith, Professor of Information Systems and Marketing and Co-Director of the Initiative for Digital Entertainment Analytics at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College and moderated by CDT Director and Merage School Professor Vijay Gurbaxani.

During the hourlong discussion, “The Abundant University: Remaking Higher Education for a Digital World,” Smith delved into how higher education has been able to resist the forces of digital transformation and why current market forces make higher education ripe for disruption, among other topics.

Smith began his presentation by contending that higher education is vulnerable to technology.

“I think technology poses a much bigger threat to our continued power in the industry than a lot of us would like to believe,” Smith said.

Smith argued that much of the value of higher education is hinged on its monopoly power over who gets credentialed for the professional workplace. Yet, he believes this is going to change and the major powers in the industry will need to accept this and adapt if they want to remain significant.

Smith believes that the higher education industry can learn from the evolution of the entertainment industry over the last decade. With the advent of Netflix and other streaming services, many in the industry started improving their product when they accepted that technology was a threat to the way they were conducting their craft, yet it could also further enable their mission.

“Their mission was not selling shiny plastic discs for 15 bucks a pop,” Smith said. “It’s creating great entertainment and getting that entertainment in front of an audience. They realized that if technology can help fulfill that mission, then they’re willing to blow up their business model and create all these wonderful platforms.”

While Smith recognized that these are two very different industries, he argued that many in higher education still need to accept that technology is something that can better enable the mission of educators.

Yet, Smith pointed out that even if members of higher education believe that technology doesn’t pose a threat of disrupting the industry, then educators and scholars should still want to change on a moral basis.

“If we care about social justice anywhere near as much as we say we do, I think we should be very, very embarrassed about the current state of social justice in higher education, and we should want to look for better outcomes,” Smith said.

Citing the research of Harvard Professor Raj Chetty, Smith said that if somebody is born into the top 1% of income in the United States, they have a one in four chance of attending an elite college. Yet, somebody born into the bottom 20% of income has a one in three hundred chance of attending an elite college.

“If we genuinely believe that rich kids are 77 times more capable of an elite education than poor kids are, then we're doing great and we don't need to change,” Smith said “But if we don't believe that, and I don't know anyone who does, this is a terrible way to allocate access to the scarce resource of higher education, and we ought to want to change.”

Smith’s final point was that members of higher education need to shift their focus from protecting the current model in favor of better fulfilling the mission of educators.

“We're fighting tooth and nail to keep technology from changing us,” Smith said. “I would much rather see us take a step back and say what's our mission as educators and determine whether it’s possible to use technology to better fulfill our mission as educators in a somewhat similar way to the way the entertainment industry used technology to create a golden age of entertainment. I wonder whether we in higher education could use technology to make a golden age of education.”