The 3 Things I’ll Say About EdTech In 2016

The value of the liberal arts, learning is a relationship, and learning as a competitive differentiator.

January 3, 2016

In 2016 I will say 3 things about the intersection of learning and technology. Call it message discipline. Call it a lack of imagination. Ask if I’m only saying 3 things why I can’t be replaced by a robot or a well-trained gorilla. Say what you want, but I will continue to say these 3 things:

1 - A Liberal Arts Education Is the Most Valuable Type of Postsecondary Education:

Where do college professors want their children to go to school? The answer - liberal arts colleges. A 2011 study found that the offspring of faculty were twice as likely to attend a liberal arts school than children of parents earning over $100,000 a year.  

People who work in higher education understand that the most important aspect of the undergraduate experience is learning how to learn. Tomorrow’s jobs will be different from today’s. Those able to succeed in the cognitive economy will have a strong foundation of analytical and social skills. The ability to gather and synthesize information, to make persuasive arguments using evidence, and to build strong relationships and coalitions across cultural, organizational and geographical barriers will determine success in the labor market.

If today’s liberal arts schools are so well matched to tomorrow’s labor market, why is it then that not everyone tries to attend a liberal arts college? My hypothesis is that those of us who work in liberal arts schools have not done enough to make our case. We have been too slow to connect the demands of a globalized and technologically driven economy with the classic education that one receives at a strong liberal arts institution. Thought leadership in educational technology (with some exceptions) has not traditionally come out of the liberal arts world. In 2016 I hope to push for a liberal arts orientation to educational technology.

2 - Learning Is a Relationship:

Why should the edtech profession adopt the mantra that learning is a relationship? Isn’t edtech all about scale? About efficiency and productivity? Unfortunately, our edtech profession has done far too little to build strong relationships with educators. We have too easily adopted the language and affectations of the tech culture (calling for disruption and pushing to scale), and done too little to listen to the needs and goals of the educators and learners that we should be serving.

If resources were limitless the first thing that I’d do is get rid of all the technology. If every class could meet around a seminar table then that would be ideal. Give me an oval table, an experienced and well-supported educator, and 12 curious students - and I’ll rip out every single piece of campus technology.

The reality, of course, is that we operate (and educate) under conditions of scarcity. Not every class can be a seminar, not every student can work and live full-time on our campuses. The promise of learning technologies, included blended learning and online learning, is to try to make as much learning as possible feel like a small seminar. We need to do everything we can so that faculty in larger and distant classes can build individual relationships with their students. We need to find ways to best use precious classroom time for interaction, collaboration, and coaching - while spending less time on one-way content delivery.

3 - Increased Competition Demands Greater Investment and Experimentation in Learning:

The most important higher ed story of the past 10 years (and the next 10 years) is the one that is almost never told. That is the story of how learning is improving across our postsecondary system. The education that my kids will receive when they go to college in 2016 and 2017 will be far superior to the one that I (and you) received. Our (justified) fixation on costs and student debt has blinded us to the parallel story of improvements in learning.

Why has learning improved so much across a wide-range of colleges and universities? And what does this sector-wide improvement in learning mean to your school and mine?

Two big trends have combined to push the quality of student learning. The first is competition. If you spend time visiting campuses with an 11th or 12th grader on college tours (as my family has spent the last couple of years doing) you will hear a great deal about the quality of teaching and learning. Schools are proud of the investments that they have made in recruiting high quality educators, in the improvements in their classrooms, and in the expansion of learning support services. In a competitive market for qualified students, learning is emerging as an important differentiator.

The second trend that is driving improvements in residential learning is the expansion of online learning. Traditional online programs (the ones with small classes and that lead to credits and degrees) brought with it new methods, thinking, and skills to our residential campuses. Prior to the rise of online learning we had few instructional designers and not much talk about Bloom’s Taxonomy on our campuses. The methods necessary to create a quality online program work just as well for quality residential programs. Backwards course design, an identification of learning objectives, and a focus on active learning techniques are as essential for a blended residential class as they are for a fully online program. Applying research (SOTL) on how people learn best is of equal value in residential as it is in online courses. Open online education (MOOCs) have accelerated the push to investment in residential teaching and learning, as free online classes have raised the bar for expensive residential offerings.

The improvements in learning are great for students, but they pose real challenges for our colleges and universities. We must find ways to increase our experimentation (research and development) and investments in teaching and learning. As learning becomes better understood as an opportunity for institutional differentiation the pressure to improve learning will only increase.  Improvements in learning almost always add costs, as learning is an activity that scales poorly. We will need to find opportunities to redirect dollars away from non-core activities and towards investments in learning. Improving student learning has become a necessity at every school that competes for students and status.

What do you see as the big themes and trends at the intersection of learning and technology as we start 2016?



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