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A final word on MOOCs & EdTech for 2013

After a big year and some recent revelations about MOOCs I think that Michael Feldstein sums it all up perfectly in this post – Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina

He unpacks the year in MOOCs and then discusses some of the reasons why things have failed. I found this passage particularly insightful and resonates with my views on the situation.

Silicon Valley can’t disrupt education because, for the most part, education is not a product category. “Education” is the term we apply to a loosely defined and poorly differentiated set of public and private goods (where “goods” is meant in the broadest sense, and not just something you can put into your Amazon shopping cart). Consider the fact that John Adams included the right to an education in the constitution for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The shallow lesson to be learned from this is that education is something so integral to the idea of democracy that it never will and never should be treated exclusively as a product to be sold on the private markets. The deeper lesson is that the idea of education—its value, even its very definition—is inextricably tangled up in deeper cultural notions and values that will be impossible to tease out with A/B testing and other engineering tools. This is why education systems in different countries are so different from each other. “Oh yes,” you may reply, “Of course I’m aware that education in India and China are very different from how it is here.” But I’m not talking about India and China. I’m talking about Germany. I’m talking about Italy. I’m talking about the UK. All these countries have educational systems that are very substantially different from the U.S., and different from each other as well. These are often not differences that a product team can get around through “localization.” They are fundamental differences that require substantially different solutions. There is no “education.” There are only educations.

He then moves on to EdTech and I love in this quote so much:

If you want to help improve education as an entrepreneur, then start with that nugget of wisdom. Start by assuming that you don’t yet understand the problem, and that educators and students know more about the problems that need solving than you do. Use your skills to help them illuminate and elucidate the problems that they are trying to solve, and then work on your solution—not to “education”, but to a specific educational problem for specific actual humans. This is not to say that you can’t have a big impact. Education is in desperate need of help to untangle the mess of needs, goals, approaches, and institutional structures so that we can do a better job of helping more people. There are big challenges. But note the plural. There is not one hard problem. This a complex of many intertwined and poorly defined hard problems. Improving education isn’t like designing a better way to order a taxi, or building a better smart phone, or even inventing a self-driving car. It’s harder than any of those, because it is far messier than any of those. This makes it an incredibly gratifying space to work in as long as you don’t do so out of a fantasy that you and your entrepreneur peers are the heroes who are going to “save” it, after which you will be greeted as liberators. That way lies madness. And failure.

Looking forward to 2014, as this is my last day in the office, THIS is the space I want to work in. I want to focus on the “problems” in education and how technology can help solve them. After some fantastic discussions at Ascilite I’m even more aware that there are plenty, enough to keep a whole industry occupied, paid, fed and watered. But it is focussing on the problems not the solutions that is the way to move ourselves as a collective forward. It also opens up opportunities for collaboration – as many of the problems we faced are shared, and therefore deserve shared solutions.

I had a great discussion with our new Pro Vice Chancellor yesterday about some of the plans for the future. There was discussion around the assertions about what “innovation” and “disruption” actually are – I’m coming to the point where they are labels that can only be applied post-hoc to the processes of experimentation, problem solving, mashups, new ideas, old research and new ways to apply theory to practice.

If we want to innovate then we have to concentrate on the problems – the gaps, the cracks, the spaces in between – because that’s where the exciting change can occur. That’s where you find eager and keen participants, problems that really need to be addressed and where investment options are available. It’s also where you’ll find the opportunity and problems that demand creativity and engagement. It’s where good work comes from.

At the end of next year I’d like to look back at a year of good work. Not easy or even entirely enjoyable, in fact if it lacks challenge I wouldn’t even class it as good, but stuff that matters, that has impact and that can be labelled post-hoc innovative and disruptive!

I do plan on writing a couple more posts this year – wrapping up what’s been happening and a bit ideating around whats coming for 2014. But as it’s coming up to Christmas break and I have Daddy duties beckoning I might not get around to posting anything – best intentions and all that! So if I don’t get a chance have a great holiday and new year! Remember to make the most of the opportunity and time to spend with your family and friends – not on the shitty bits of plastic we waste so much money on!

UPDATE – I should add this post from Martin Weller if we are trying to do a comprehensive wrap up of EdTech! Probably been the most shared sentiment in my travels and twitter timeline!


By Tim Klapdor

Passionate about good design, motivated by the power of media and enchanted by the opportunities of technology.

3 replies on “A final word on MOOCs & EdTech for 2013”

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