Covid-era Education Tech Narrowed College Learning Gap for Poor, Minorities

As laptop screens have taken the place of university lecture halls a $200 billion education technology boom has sparked a tug-of-war, with professors and union leaders opposing software entrepreneurs and budget-conscious lawmakers. And data shows that when the techies win, America's college learning gap narrows for poor and minority students.

Education technology, also known as edtech, delivers lessons less expensively than in-person instruction, amounting to a roughly 80 percent decline in per-student cost, according to a study published in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed journal. Adult students, military personnel, foreign students stranded by the pandemic have also found new learning opportunities.

The research firm Insight Partners projects that the edtech industry will grow to $234 billion by 2027, a 15.3 percent increase compared with 2020. But as the market grows, so does the controversy.

Online learning UNLV
University of Nevada, Las Vegas junior student Kristina Eichblatt works on a laptop in a courtyard on campus before attending a class at UNLV amid the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) on September 9, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Getty Images/Ethan Miller

A key criticism from teachers unions and higher education analysts is that edtech platforms have historically given wealthy and high-performing students an edge. Online learning only worsens inequality, say critics who prefer social and political changes to technological ones.

"Flexibility from online learning is good, but it hasn't been nearly up to the task of addressing the terrible upheaval in our society," said Professor Justin Reich at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Teaching Systems Lab. "Greater equality in education will come from social movements, from politics, from organizing that provides greater public support for building human capacity, especially among marginalized students," Reich said.

But new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is challenging assumptions about what kind of changes help students more. The study concluded that the COVID-19 online learning boom led to registration and engagement increases in both high- and low- income ZIP codes.

That suggests the expansion of edtech services has a democratizing effect that benefits minority students, who are far more likely to come from less-wealthy households. The silver lining shows up especially in the market for programming and data science skills.

College enrollments sank by 16 percent and community college enrollments fell by 9.5 percent in the fall of 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse's data. New international student enrollments declined even more steeply — by 43 percent, according to data from the Institute of International Education.

Online learning Cambridge
Lucas Strange, 22, continues to study for his degree in physics via online learning sessions from his room in Gonville and Caius College at the University of Cambridge, on January 29, 2021 in Cambridge, England. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Meanwhile edtech learning services are skyrocketing, according to data gathered by Class Central, a search engine and review site for a market segment known as Massive Open Online Courses,

Coursera, the nation's largest online learning platform, was founded by two Stanford University computer science professors in 2012. It added 9.2 million new registered users in 2019. Then came the pandemic. Coursera added 30.6 million more in 2020. EdX, another large platform, saw a 161 percent growth in registered users. It now has 35 million.

Some of the most effective edtech platforms focus on teaching technical skills that modern businesses need. The demand for artificial intelligence and machine-learning skills, for example, is expected to grow by 71 percent per year through 2025, according to a recent study by the business analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies.

And online education tends to work better for four-year college students than for trade school, community college or for-profit school students, according to a report co-authored by Di Xu, a professor at University of California–Irvine. "The relative effectiveness of online learning varies substantially by college setting and by subgroups of students," Xu said.

And the sharp climb in online learning shows edtech is increasingly attractive to nontraditional, younger and minority students, making it fairer than anyone knew.

This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.