EdTech and the Wider Higher Ed Conversation in 2016

3 arguments.

December 21, 2015

What should be the place of educational technology (edtech) in the wider higher ed conversation?

As we look to 2016, where should the edtech profession direct its focus?

I’d like to make 3 arguments for those of us working at the intersection of learning and technology to widen our perspectives, and to perhaps shift our focus to the bigger questions faced by the higher ed.

Argument 1 - Technology Is the Least Interesting Part of Higher Education:

We should always keep in mind that technology is only a tool - a means to an end. Technology is never the goal, and technology is never the destination. 

The temptation, however, is for those of us in edtech to focus most of our energies on the tools. Engaging in debates around costs, access, and quality is a messy proposition. How do we have any impact on the larger challenges in postsecondary education in an age of public funding cuts and the adjunctification of the professoriate? Where do we enter the debate around rising student debt and persistently low six-year graduation rates? Technology, with its ever improving costs/performance trajectory (Moore’s Law), seems to be a much happier place to occupy than the policy, governance, and resource debates that dominate so much of the higher ed discourse.

The answer, of course, is that technology alone will never address the fundamental challenges that we face in higher ed. Technology can wow, and technology can distract. Alternatively, technology can be an effective tool to reach our larger goals and to reflect our most important values. It all depends on how we go about using the technology. If we are to be effective in edtech, if we are to have a true positive impact, then we are going to have to become much more knowledgeable about the larger challenges facing higher ed. We will need to become as conversant in finance, marketing, and organizational change as we are in the latest educational technologies. We will need to take part in many more conversations.

Argument 2 - As EdTech Professionals, We Bring An Important Skills and Perspectives to the Larger Higher Ed Discussion:

Having said that technology is the least interesting part of higher education, I do want to argue that us technologists bring some important skills to the table. Mostly, we have the experience and the ability to create things. We will push for moving more quickly from talk to action than our colleagues may be comfortable with. We will want to develop minimally viable products (or services or programs), and then rapidly improve these initiatives as we learn from market feedback.  We will push for both a strong set of objectives, and data to guide rapid corrections. We will be comfortable with risk. This is not just empty techno speak, but rather a reflection of the core ethos of our technology (and innovation) culture.

For those of you like myself that came up in the online learning world we have lots of experience in building new programs. Online learning gets way too little credit for its role in driving organizational change. Creating a successful online program requires the development of new pedagogical, technological, and administrative capacities. The state of the art of online learning is evolving so rapidly that innovation is constant. If you are running an online degree program (or even a few online courses) you are always iterating, experimenting, and improving. Over the last decade or so I have watched how much of what we have learned in online education has filtered into traditional residential education. The hard distinction between a fully on-ground and fully online class is eroding, as every course (and in particular larger enrollment courses) transition to a blended mode of delivery. The same methods of backwards course design, formative assessment, and design for engagement and presence that characterize a good online course also describe a good residential course. 

When will we start to see those that have developed and run online learning programs gain greater influence throughout higher ed? Will we start to see provosts and presidents with backgrounds in online education?  

Argument 3 - The Postsecondary Status Quo Is Not Sustainable, and Technology (and Technologist) Must Play an Essential Role in Driving Innovation:

The best argument I think for why the edtech profession needs to engage with the bigger issue in higher ed is that status quo cannot be sustained. We can’t keep doing what we have been doing in higher education and expect that our sector will solve our challenges around access, costs, and quality. Unlike many who are reading this post, I believe that the future of the US higher education is positive. In my professional life I have watched as the quality of teaching and learning on our campuses has improved. No longer do we find it acceptable to construct an educational approach around the transmission of information. Active learning has become a widely accepted goal. I give much of the credit to this shift to online education, both traditional and open. Any school that does not offer a learning experience better than what can be had for free and online is in deep trouble. When it comes to teaching and learning, the floor (in certain respects) has been raised. 

This does nothing to diminish the counterproductive and ultimately self-defeating disinvestments in educators that we have also witnessed in the last few decades. The smartest policy that any institution could pursue would be to invest in the security, autonomy, and compensation of faculty. A race to the educational bottom is a losing game, as low-marginal cost online platforms (adaptive learning paired with open online courses) is poised to take over the low-end of the higher ed market.

How we will move make non-linear advances in improving access, reducing costs, and investing in quality are all open questions. I believe that the edtech community needs to be part of these discussions.  In taking a leadership role we will need to find a way to make common cause with faculty of every rank. The educational technology profession has too often been on the efficiency side of the postsecondary innovation argument. We have done a poor job in making the case that education is a relational activity, and technology is only as good as it supports the work of our educators. We need to make a strong case against scaling an endeavor that is best done at a human scale. 

We will see technology mediating more of the learning process, but we should never take the focus away from providing the resources and support to the skilled and experienced educators that create the real value in education. A focus on supporting our educators is, I think, the place that the edtech profession should start as we seek to lead change in higher education. My strong hope is that 2016 is the year that we earn the trust of our faculty colleagues.

How do you think that the edtech profession should engage in the wider higher ed conversation in 2016?



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