President’s Council of Advisors Releases Reports on Education Information Technology

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The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) submitted a recent 9-page letter report to the President addressing the development of massive open online courses (MOOC) and the role of technology in education.   The development of information technology for use in higher education is of particular interest to PCAST and to the Administration as they seek to address the rise in higher education costs.

MOOCs are open access online courses which typically include the use of traditional course materials such as lectures, problem sets and readings as well as interactive learning tools.  They are aimed at large audiences.  MOOCs also provide interactive user interfaces and are becoming.  An FYI on a previous PCAST discussion about MOOCs is available here.   

Novel uses of information technology, according to the letter report, offer the possibility of:

  • “Decreasing educational costs”
  • “Increasing overall educational quality”
  • “Adapting the educational experience to individual students’ learning styles”
  • “Enhancing workforce preparation and lifelong learning”

Information technology has increasingly played a role in distance learning and improvements in bandwidth and software have positively affected communication between students and educators.  “New MOOC technologies should allow teachers to measure student comprehension in real time and adjust the material presented to students to achieve higher levels of competency,” noted the letter report.   Other benefits of the increased use of information technology include that “new technologies permit improvements in quality such as the development of more specific measures of student comprehension and competency, which are likely to improve upon traditional mid-term and final examinations.  And teacher effectiveness could potentially be judged on these measures of student comprehension and competency rather than test scores or student satisfaction.”

The report also includes concerns from the education community regarding the use of MOOCs and informational technology.  Some of these issues include the displacement of academic labor, such as teaching assistant and instructors, has led to some obstacles for the adoption of MOOC technology.  Members of the education community are, in some cases, apprehensive to the use of MOOCs due to the possible loss or attenuation of “the capacity of a teacher to inspire and motivate students.”  How MOOCs will address the development of students’ intuition has led to some skepticism about the adoption of new course technology.  

PCAST offered three specific recommendations to consider how the Federal Government could foster the development of MOOCs and how the United States could benefit from the development of new educational technologies:

  • “Let market forces decide which innovations in online teaching and learning are best.” 
  • “Encourage accrediting bodies to be flexible in response to educational innovation.”
  • “Support research and the sharing of results on effective teaching and learning.” 


PCAST intends to continue to explore the potential of information technology and the scalability of interactive platforms developed as a result of the implementation of MOOCs.  The capacity to capture large amounts of education data will remain of interest to the broad education community and PCAST will continue to discuss innovation in education sector in future reports.

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