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Matthew Effect

Education & Technology in an Age of Pandemics (revisited)

Michael Trucano's picture
consider this picture
MOOCs -- massively open online courses of the sort that can simultaneously enroll thousands, even tens of thousands, of learners simultaneously -- have been a hot topic of discussion for a few years now in both the worlds of education and 'international development' (and, for what it's worth, the subject of numerous related posts here on the World Bank's EduTech blog). Recent news that edX, one of the prominent MOOC platforms, is to start offering courses aimed at high school students suggests that the potential usefulness and impact of things like MOOCs may soon extend beyond the realm of higher education, out of which MOOCs originally emerged and where most related activity has occurred to date.
 
There is much (potentially) to be excited about here. Few would argue against having greater access to more learning opportunities, especially when those opportunities are offered for 'free', where there is latent unmet demand, and where the opportunities themselves are well constructed and offer real value for learners. As with MOOCs at the level of higher education, however, we perhaps shouldn't be too surprised if these new opportunities at the high school level are first seized upon *not* by some of the groups with the greatest learning needs -- for example, students in overcrowded, poorly resourced secondary schools in developing countries, or even students who would like a secondary education, but for a variety of reasons aren't able to receive one -- but rather by those best placed to take advantage of them. This has been largely been the case for initial adopters of MOOCs. (One of the first studies of this aspect of the 'MOOC Phenomenon', which looked at MOOCs from the University of Pennsylvania, found that students tended to be "young, well educated, and employed, with a majority from developed countries.")
 
As a practical matter, some of the first types of beneficiaries may, for example (and I am just speculating here), be homeschooling families in North America (while not necessarily comparatively 'rich' by local standards, such families need to be affluent enough to be able to afford to have one parent stay at home with the kids, and generally have pretty good Internet connectivity); international schools around the world (which can offer a broader range of courses to students interested in an 'American' education); and the families of 'foreign' students looking to apply to college in the United States (the edX course “COL101x: The Road to Selective College Admissions” looks, at least to my eyes, tailor made for certain segments of the population of learners in places like China, Korea, Hong Kong, etc.). In other words, at least in the near term, a Matthew Effect in Educational Technology may be apparent, where those who are best placed to benefit from the introduction of a new technology tool or innovation are the ones who indeed benefit from it the most.
 
Longer term, though, it is possible to view this news about movement of a major MOOC platform into the area of secondary education as one further indication that we are getting further along from the 'front end of the e-learning wave' (of which MOOCs are but one part) to something that will eventually have a greater mass impact beyond what is happening now in the 'rich' countries of North America and the OECD.
 
Learning with new technologies has of course been around for many decades but, broadly speaking, has not (yet) had the 'transformational' impact that has long been promised. "Gradually, then suddenly" is how one of Ernest Hemingway's characters famously describes how he went bankrupt. Might this be how the large scale adoption of educational technologies will eventually happen as well in much of the world?
 
I
black swan
black swan
f so, one credible potential tipping point may be a 'black swan' event that could push all of this stuff into the mainstream, especially in places where it to date has been largely peripheral: some sort of major health-related scare. (For those unfamiliar with the term, which was popularized by Nicholas Taleb, a 'black swan' is a rare event that people don't anticipate but which has profound consequences). One of the first ever posts on the EduTech blog, Education & Technology in an Age of Pandemics, looked at some of what had been learned about how teachers and learners use new technologies to adapt when schools were closed in response to outbreaks involving the H1N1 influenza virus: the 'swine flu' that afflicted many in Mexico about six years ago; and an earlier outbreak of 'bird flu' in China. I have recently been fielding many calls as a result of the current outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa asking essentially, 'Can we do anything with technology to help our students while our schools are closed?', and so I thought it might be useful to revisit, and update, that earlier post, in case doing so might be a useful contribution to a number of related discussions are occurring.
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The Matthew Effect in Educational Technology

Michael Trucano's picture
advantage to the ladies at the top
advantage to the ladies at the top

While I have no data to cite here (perhaps this is an idea that could be explored by an enterprising PhD student?), it is my strong suspicion, based on years of observation and work with groups introducing new technologies into education systems and communities in poor and middle income countries, that a 'Matthew Effect in Educational Technology' is observable -- and worth considering.

Just what is a 'Matthew Effect' -- and why should we care about it?

Almost a half-century ago, the sociologist Robert Merton observed (here's the original paper [pdf]) that famous scientists often get more credit for a research finding than a lesser (or un)known scientist does, even where the work of both scientists is very similar. He labeled this phenomenon the 'Matthew Effect', after a verse in the Bible (Book of Matthew 25:29) which roughly translates as 'the rich get richer'. In the words of the sociologist Daniel Rigbey, who wrote a book on the subject:

"Matthew effects tend to confer further advantages on the already-advantaged, other things equal. Of course, other things are never entirely equal. Multiple interacting factors are at play in a complex and connected world.  Nonetheless, more than forty years of research findings suggest that Matthew effects are real and potentially powerful determinants of social outcomes in their own right, and especially when they are not countervailed. We simply cannot understand the dynamics of social inequalities in the world today without taking Matthew effects seriously into account."

Following Merton, Keith Stanovich spoke about a Matthew Effect in an educational context, noting that early successes in developing reading skills usually lead to greater successes with reading -- and thus with learning other new skills that build on the existence of good reading skills going forward.

How does this relate to ICT use in education?