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December 4, 2013

Can technology cultivate social capital?

by Julia Freeland

When we talk about the disruptive potential of online learning, we usually describe new approaches to delivering academic content tailored to students’ individual interests and abilities. But with a laser-like focus on academic models, we risk losing sight of how technology can also enhance students’ relationships with adults and one another. In addition to altering instruction, technology stands to reshape how we guide and mentor students, and how we might expand their social and professional networks. True to a disruptive trajectory, collaborative technology may facilitate connections and strengthen networks where otherwise students’ associations to diverse and powerful groups are weak or nonexistent.

This has formidable implications for access and equity. For example, a recent study by John Jerrim at the Institute of Education at the University of London confirmed the role that family networks play in postsecondary success: at elite American private universities, students are six times more likely to come from a professional background than to be from families that are working-class or poor. A considerable gap in access to selective colleges and universities persists even after accounting for differences in academic performance as measured by grades or standardized tests. In other words, even a student who is on par with his peers academically is less likely to apply to or be accepted to an elite university if his parents are working- class.

Organizations leveraging collaborative technology in schools offer one method that might disrupt the stronghold of intergenerational wealth and opportunity. If technology platforms can efficiently expand students’ networks beyond only their immediate families and communities, perhaps the effects of nonacademic gaps stand to shrink.

Three organizations illustrate how technology tools can blaze a path to deeper relationships and broader horizons. Educurious combines project-based learning, technology, and connections with real-world experts. Expert professionals serve as mentors to help guide students through projects using video and other online collaboration tools. Global Nomads Group deploys interactive videoconferencing, webcasting, social networking, gaming, and participatory filmmaking to facilitate collaborative projects among classrooms in the U.S. and abroad. The organization designs semester and year-long virtual exchange programs between students in North America and their peers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South East Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa. In a similar vein, the International Education and Resource Network (iEARN) facilitates projects worldwide, enabling students and teachers to design and participate in global projects as part of their regular classroom and afterschool programs.

All three of these organizations stand to enhance students’ classroom learning with real-world examples and connections with adults and students they might otherwise never encounter. But equally important, these efforts might stand to disrupt the traditional coffers of social capital that appear to influence college and career success. How might this take root?

Educurious might disrupt more resource intensive face-to-face mentoring that would be needed to match the high-touch guidance that helicopter parents themselves tend to provide or the expert advice a professional parent can lend to his own children in their professional pursuits. It’s also worth noting that Educurious could disrupt features of the classroom experience. As the program integrates experts and projects into classroom teaching, online experts may not disrupt teachers per se; their guidance, however, could target topic areas where teachers lack in depth expertise in certain subject areas. Moreover, virtual mentorship may stand to become even more prevalent as online course delivery grows as a means for quality control and just-in-time personalized supports. As Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun proposed last week in a letter to the Financial Times, teaming up his company’s MOOCs with appropriate mentoring stands to produce dramatically better results for students in blended-learning environments. Down the line, as the technology improves, might such mentoring also take place online?

With a slightly different focus on global collaboration, virtual exchange programs like Global Nomads Group and iEARN are less geared to reshape students’ relationships with adults, but they do provide students with a platform to study alongside students from other countries. This could disrupt expensive language programs by offering conversation practice with native speakers abroad, such as iEARN’s Hindi program run in Edison, N.J.

Moreover, these exchange programs might disrupt the premium that colleges increasingly place on international experience among their applicants. Currently, study abroad comes at a high price tag, placing working-class students at a distinct disadvantage. As Chris Plutte, co-founder and executive director of Global Nomads Group, pointed out, “if you want to be career ready, you have to have engaged internationally. It’s a critical thing.… How are we going to do that? We can’t just move people on physical exchanges.” If Global Nomads Group or iEARN can offer a cheaper alternative, international experience may actually be within reach for those students who otherwise couldn’t afford to fly halfway across the world for cross-cultural experience to write about in their college essays.

If career and college success are the end goal of personalized educational programs, we can’t pretend that academic mastery is all it takes to succeed. As Michael Golden, CEO of Educurious, put it, “we are the product of our networks.” Disruptive technologies may play a part in expanding and deepening students’ networks where gaps in social capital are placing them at a disadvantage in college and beyond.

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