The Current State: Educational Technology

2012 was a pretty big year in the EdTech world with MOOCs, mobile and HTML5 dominating most of the word count. While most of those words have been about the technology itself I’ve been really pleased to see a lot of discussion on the deeper issues at play – looking beyond the technology, towards its impact and usage. I’ve been pleased to voice my opinions and have been really astonished at some of the interactions they have spurned. My number one blog post, Sit down, we need to talk about the LMS, stirred a few comments but a much larger conversation across multiple blogs, twitter and yammer. I have really appreciated and got a lot out of these conversations and they’ve all helped inform these views. So what follows are my opinions of the current state of EdTech.

Beyond Enhancement & Hype

There is a lot of hot air around education and technology at the moment- and the reality is thats all it is, hot air. The SAMR model provides a perfect lens for looking at the implementation of technology. After spending some time with the model and reflecting on the current raft of technologies – I have to say we have barely moved past the enhancement stage. Most MOOCs rarely go beyond substitution and roll out the traditional lecture and multiple choice assessment model. Most mobile solutions just substitute a desktop eLearning program for one that runs on a mobile with little thought put to the potential affordances of the device. Despite HTML5 being so highly lauded it rarely brings with it anything not possible beyond the XHTML specification except the video tag. It’s kind of sad. For all this bright and shiny new technology all we’ve really managed to achieve is… replication of the current model with a tiny amount of augmentation. So if we want to move this area forward we have to start pushing the technology towards it’s potential. We have to start actually using technology to transform and create opportunities and meaningful changes to practice and methodology.

Combination of the SAMR model with the Gartner Hype Cycle

Combining the SAMR model with the Gartner Hype Cycle as suggested by @FrancisKneebone

You’re all probably familiar with the Gartner hype cycle – “the graphic representation of the maturity, adoption and social application of specific technologies”. If I was to put EdTech on the graph somewhere right now in February 2013 it would be at the very pit of the “trough of disillusionment”. In the diagram above I’ve tried to to illustrate the my view of the current state by combining the SAMR and Hype Cycle. The technological solutions that we put our faith in have failed to meet expectations and have quickly become unfashionable. The LMS has dropped off the page despite it underwriting most institutions online presense and being the foundation of technological progress so far. While we can wallow in the downturn the fact is that the next phase – the Slope of Enlightenment – is just around the corner. The climate is right to move forward, beyond the hype and beyond simple enhancement. Its time for transformation.

To move forward this is my recipe:

Shiny, Shiny

We need to move away from this obsession with the new. For those in the EdTech field this is increasingly important because there is a complete loss of credibility for our profession if every time the next bit of tech comes out that it’s lauded as the solution to all of our problems. It’s not, and it never will be. This way of thinking just perpetuates an unsustainable and wasteful process that only rewards vendors and half baked products. If everytime the Horizon report comes out and we race to follow what’s laid out in its hallowed pages we become trend followers not trend setters. We buy into the vapid nature of fashion rather than substance. As institutions we should be pushing beyond the shiny new toys and start setting the trends that vendors follow, not sheepishly bowing to whatever half baked feature they’ll add to their product. Yes it ticks the box for those who religiously follow the trends, but the reality is they add little to the user experience. In fact more often than not vendors whittle away at whatever good there was in the product as it gets more and more bloated, more and more locked down and less and less useful and easy to use.

Technology Beyond the Tool

I am a big proponent of the thinking that “technology as just a tool”, but I’ve been forced to rethink that a assumption. I still think at it’s heart technology is a tool – but it is not a static object – it has a direct relationship and influence on the user and vice versa. The relationship between User and Technology is permeable and porous, both influence and accentuate the other. The digital technology we use today lacks the physical or a haptic feedback mechanism of an analogue tool, so a hammer can provide immediate physical feedback but a Facebook like cannot. Technology also provides feedback and influence in a psychological sense – the feeling if pride in our work, or connection. We have to understand this relationship and the fact that the user influences the technology just as much as the technology influences the user.

Start with People

From which ever side of the profession you come – education or technology – you have to start thinking in a people first way. We have to start thinking about the User/Learner/Student/Teacher Experience and it needs to be put at the heart of every decision. We need to think about their feelings, skills, knowledge and actions rather than specifications, features and products. We should start with verbs – because the success of any technology depends completely on the verbage and how we choose to use it.

Reuse & Recycle

Do not buy into the vendor push to re-do all your content. In fact don’t talk to a vendor that has no ability to import, repurpose, copy or transform your existing content into something new. For too long we’ve put content into silos – databases, file formats and hardware – where we can no longer access, edit or reshape it. In an age where content is digital this is bullshit – it’s zeros and ones, not iron and stone. We have to stop this cycle of new tech = all new content because it’s stupid. We have to make it stop. We need to build upon the shoulder of giants and advance our content strategy rather than rewrite it. We have to make our content flow like water and take the shape of whatever container we choose. If we continue to lock everything down and silo it off we’ve lost one of the most important assets we have as institutions.

Shared Problems Need Shared Solutions

The big issue with EdTech at the moment is the lack of real solutions. The vendors and the products they are peddling are carry overs and do little more that enhance and keep the status quo. They don’t move very far down the SAMR line, and they barely get close to the real transformation that is possible (and needed). The fact is that there is no solution on the market that can provide the technical transformation required in the education sector. And it’s a shared problem across sectors and industries – from news, to broadcast and publishing. So lets work this out together rather than paying someone else to silo off yet another years content.

You may get the sense that all these points are connected – and you’re right they are. At its heart EdTech needs to address all these points and allow them to feed and play off each other. They are not a simple cause and effect process – they are about changing the environment we work and operate in. To achieve this we need to converse, share and discuss where we’re going and how we think we should get there. This is my view – share yours!  Start by commenting on this poste 🙂 I don’t prescribe to having all the answers – in fact I don’t think I’ve offered any – rather I’ve chosen to define what I see as the problem. Lets foster a discussion to work through what the answers (emphasis on the plurality) might be!

I do want to expand on why this transformation is important to me a little more – in general it’s about the education sectors response to the revolution.  I feel like I have a couple more of these posts to get off my chest so I want to cover that in a post all on its own and go into a bit more depth about the education sector and my opinion on the “revolution” – not the revolution everyone keeps saying we’re going through right now, I’m talking about the one thats already happened.

Create enough suspense to stay tuned? Does it work as a cliffhanger….? Anyway another post coming up soon!

NB: I want to give credit to Francis Kneebone for putting forward the idea of combining the SAMR and Hype cycle diagrams that ive included in this post. I had a go at spiffing up the diagram (which you can share) but that idea is all his and you should direct all praise or criticism to him 🙂 Personally I think there is a kernel of genius in there that really sparked this post, so I want to give him kudos for that alone!

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7 thoughts on “The Current State: Educational Technology

  1. I wonder if one of the major problems is that vendors and the people that run organisations (and hence make decisions about educational technology) are best served by the substitution and augmentation phases of SAMR.

    For a vendor, they are likely to find it very difficult to find a market for a product that requires an organisation to modify or redefine how learning occurs. For an organisational manager modification and redefinition take too long to show outcomes and hence limits their ability to demonstrate progress by the 3rd year of their contract.

    It’s easier for vendors to sell and a manager to progress their career by engaging in replacement and augmentation.

    On another note, one of the problems I have with the Gartner hype cycle is that it assumes there will be a slope of enlightenment. I tend to think that for many educational technologies that never comes. Which is why I prefer van Dam’s 1999 never ending loop (because there’s always a new technology) or Birnbaum’s life cycle of fads.

    This would suggest a slightly different diagram with some sort of circular flow within the substitution and augmentation sections of SAMR and nothing in the modification and replacement sections.

  2. Tim, our little Twitter exchange prompted this additional comment.

    It’s also related to potential reasons for the problem you identify

    The big issue with EdTech at the moment is the lack of real solutions. The vendors and the products they are peddling are carry overs and do little more that enhance and keep the status quo. They don’t move very far down the SAMR line, and they barely get close to the real transformation that is possible (and needed).

    In short, I tend to belief that the modification and redefinition ends of SAMR require that the teacher/organisation that is organising the learning has to themselves engage in learning. It requires exploration, experimentation and learning to come up with something new that works within a specific context (this might be stretching things a bit).

    The trouble is most organisations adopt a process that is focused more on efficiency and consistency than it is on learning, innovation and diversity.

    Of course, that’s a hobby horse I’ve been riding for sometime.

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  4. Reblogged this on Mirrors Into Windows and commented:
    A great examination of EdTech. I am certainly looking forward to the reinvention of educational model! I think teachers will be empowered if given the opportunity and freedom to expand their classroom beyond it’s doors and use technology to enhance authentic learning.

  5. Thanks David. As always you pick up on some key points and I agree with your sentiments. There is a lack of disruption (hate to use such an over used word but it is the most appropriate) because for most involved their is no incentive. Managers won’t get promoted and vendors won’t make profit, and this mindset is driven I think because the main measure of success is dollars – not the student experience or even learning itself.

    The problem is the traditional thinking isn’t actually proven – particularly in the long term. I am going to throw Apple into the mix here – and maybe IKEA too – as companies that operate in a fundamentally different way, and as a result are hugely successful and profitable. And I think this is because they do a number of key things differently.

    1. They create markets. Rather than find markets they create them by going to the other end of the SAMR scale. They modify and redefine to such an extent that they create something entirely new, and entice with it a whole new market.

    2. People are Included in the Business. The reason why people return and keep spending money with IKEA and Apple is because they are treated as part of the business. Products are sold with the user embedded in the process. You put it together, you customise it, you do things with this product – it’s yours! We are yours! The product fits you rather than you fitting the product. Again their retail stores reflect the need to modify and redefine the typical customer experience.

    3. Failure and Meritocracy. Both business have failure built into their process. IKEA rotate products, test them in different markets and the ones that don’t work fade away. Apple does this too – products inevitably fail. What happens (as your second comments covers) is that they learn from this – come back with something modify and redefined.

    To me Apple & IKEA are important because they don’t operate in the traditional “safe” way ie they dont just substitute or augment. They take risks, and as the years have gone by they have gotten better at it. The iPad is the perfect example of all this thinking coming together into a product line. Comparing it to Microsofts ‘traditional’ approach, sticking to the lower end of SAMR, you can see why they have failed to bring to market anything of any substance. I guess if there are managers or vendors out there reading this – my advice is that the biggest gains aren’t in the S&A loop you suggest David, but in the MR end.

    Thanks for pointing to those other models – I did relate – maybe too much! I suppose my way of thinking in regards to the “slope of enlightenment” is that at some point the technology becomes so sustainable and integrated that it tend to disappear. It becomes so engrained in our lives, like electricity and the car, that it’s no longer treated as technology, but simply it becomes just the way it’s done.

    I think I’ll jump on the hobby horse too as I think this is really key for institutions to understand. I presented at Ascilite on how I’ve tried to incorporate aspects of the Agile and Lean Startup approach to my work. The lean startups cyclical BUILD, MEASURE, LEARN process should be one that is at the heart of every institution. A culture of continuous improvement needs to become part of the way that institutions adapt to change, but also how we can create change of our own. It is interesting that we often neglect to let ourselves learn as institutions not just individuals, so its important in moving ahead that we create spaces and funding available for that process.

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