Improving information access or expanding students’ social capital?


Mar 7, 2014

Education technology stands to more efficiently expand not just what you know, but whom you know. Technology may be a tool to impart skills and content in a more personalized manner, but it can also connect students with mentors and peers to provide meaningful guidance and, in turn, expand the students’ pool of social capital that they can bank on years after they graduate. The edtech market is seeing both sustaining innovations that give students better information and disruptive ones that actually create relationships where they otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Social capital tends to take a back seat to more passionate discussions about the role of technology in instruction. Online learning is clearly on a disruptive trajectory to change the way we deliver content. Are technologies that could connect students to mentors and peers going to keep up?

Online learning and social capital may evolve in parallel, as some academic technology is positioned to expand the types and range of educators and peers to which students have access. For example, Socrademy, a competency-based learning platform being built in New Hampshire, aims to allow students to take online courses designed and taught by educators from schools throughout the state. Those enrollments could translate into expanding teacher-to-student relationships beyond the school building and growing the academic network to which students have access. Such tools can redefine schooling not just in terms of the academics, but in terms of how we imagine the social aspects of school as well.

Outside of the classroom, numerous tools are also being built to help students get connected to better information and guidance. There appears to be a tension in the goals of these technologies between the disparate needs they are attempting to fill. Some tools are leveraging technology to convey information more efficiently in an easy-to-access centralized location. Others are trying to use technology to build relationships among students, their peers, and adults.

In the first category, information is vital to charting a promising path to and through college and has been shown to shape student behaviors in a positive manner. These technologies tend to be sustaining innovations; they improve on existing tools (like searching the internet or using existing websites) to make gathering information easier and more efficient. For example, Ranku is a website that offers students cost-benefit analysis of online degrees based on students’ interest. Sites like this don’t necessarily convey new information, but they package it in such a way as to hopefully guide students to better decisions and investments of their time and money.

But focusing on information asymmetries risks taking for granted the relationships implicit in the old-fashioned information transfer from adults to students and students to one another. Just improving access to information is unlikely to disrupt the deeply entwined networks that often perpetuate opportunity gaps. We don’t want to always give in to short-circuiting this relationship-building effort by trying to give students better information to act on by themselves. Rather, technology tools can try to expand access to mentorship and guidance wherein information is transferred, but in the context of peer collaboration, ongoing support, expectations, and personalized advice.

In some ways, the nature of such tools will depend on the clients and value networks they are attempting to serve. The startup Project Lever demonstrates an interesting straddling of these two strands of using technology for information sharing versus forging human connections. Project Lever is a tool that’s gaining traction among numerous major universities who have heard for years how students struggle to find mentors and advisors for academic projects. The platform prompts students to define their interests and the subject on which they are hoping to focus (for a thesis or research project) and then provides a comprehensive list of resources—for example, faculty members, graduate students, and librarians—who hold expertise in that subject area. In a more nuanced sense than just listing resources, Project Lever is trying to debunk administrators’ and faculty members’ assumptions about how students look for advisors; administrators often think, “students should just come talk to me.” In fact, students may want to be armed with better information before broaching those office hours, and Project Lever can fill that need.

Because universities are their main customer, however, this component of Project Lever’s business remains beholden to the existing value network in major universities, rather than being in a position to disrupt the traditional means of connecting to advisors through e-mails, office hours, and courses, which remain the primary modes whereby students can actually interact with professors. Thus, Project Lever’s resource lists are a sustaining innovation that improve on the pre-existing outlets for finding an advisor for a research project—for example, university websites, word of mouth, sheer luck.

On the other hand, Project Lever’s newest project, a partnership with HarvardX, may be moving in a more disruptive direction. This spring, Harvard Business School Professor Regina Herzlinger is teaching an online course titled, “Innovating in Health Care.” To assign students a final group project in the course, the professors needed to place the tens of thousands of students who signed up into groups. Project Lever has stepped in to build out the functionality for matching students. On the platform, students articulate their interests and skills and express interest in working with one another. Much like a dating site, students then follow up with one another if both are interested in collaborating with each other.

This functionality is embedding itself into a new value network—HarvardX’s MOOC offerings—and as such may have greater leeway to experiment with new ways of forging connections beyond just the lists provided by Project Lever’s other service to traditional universities. This avenue seems to show greater potential to fundamentally change how students can find and connect to one another. It’s a promising starting place for rethinking connections in the academic space as a whole.

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.