The Gap Between Liberal Arts Values and EdTech Practices

How could edtech be different?

March 29, 2016

Why is educational technology so problematic for so many educators?

How is it that edtech companies, companies that are mostly staffed by people who are dedicated to advancing learning, are so often viewed with mixed feelings by so many faculty?

My hope is that these are the right questions - and that by asking these questions we will get our challenges out in the open.

Perhaps the gap between the promise and the reality of educational technology has less to do with the specific technologies, and more to do with a failure to talk first about values.

Should edtech companies, campus units, and professionals lead with values? And if so, what would be the values that would resonate with faculty?

Learning Is A Relationship:

This is a value that starts with a belief in the centrality of the educator / learner relationship. This is a value that puts a premium on the expertise, autonomy, and status of the educator.

The idea is that authentic learning occurs at human, not digital, scale. And that deep learning requires both social connections and the guidance of a skilled educator.

The implications for edtech are that any product, service, or initiative provided by an edtech campus unit or company must be about improving that educator / learner relationship. The educator, and the educator / student relationship, are understood as the most important element of the learning process. Every technology, service, and initiative should support the educator,  and the educator's relationship with the learner.

Taking an educator-first / relationship-centric approach to edtech may change the way that technologies are provisioned and evaluated. The salient issues become less about efficiency, productivity, and potential of the technology to bring about scale. Rather, technology is evaluated on its impact on the educator / learner relationship.  

Education Is About Learning to Learn:

People at liberal arts institutions, and at schools with a liberal arts approach, believe that the best career preparation is the ability to constantly learn. Every good job will require the ability to continuously learn. 

The job that our graduates will be doing tomorrow most likely does not exist today.  Only those with the ability (and curiosity) to constantly learn new skills and new perspectives will prosper in the 21st century labor market.

Where does educational technology fit into an educational approach that prioritizes the development of lifelong learning skills?

Our digital platforms can be very good at assisting in, and even scaling, the acquisition of foundational knowledge. Personalized and adaptive learning platforms work well for allowing students to gain mastery of basic concepts and facts. Pairing an educator and adaptive/personalized learning platforms offers the most efficient path to mastery of foundational concepts. Techniques such as formative assessment (with instant feedback), peer review, and simulations, and gamification can support foundational learning.

What digital platforms don’t do very well is advance higher order thinking. Nor are digital platforms much help in the acquisition or practicing of social, emotional, and leadership skills - the skills that will be the most important for the future success of today’s students. 

Digital platforms can’t teach a student to think like a scientist, a health care professional, a caregiver, a teacher, or a social media marketer. (To pull some random examples). All of these higher order skills require the mentoring and coaching of a dedicated (and well-supported) educator.

We seem to both ask too little and too much of our educational technologies. We ask too little - in that we don’t leverage the power of digital platforms (alone or paired with an educator) nearly enough at the foundational learning level. And we ask too much - in that we don’t own up to the fact that digital platforms are not good at teaching people how to learn.

What other liberal arts values would you highlight?

How does a belief in the value of independent thought and a culture of collaboration relate to, or inform, our educational technology choices?

How does a commitment to diversity and an open and respectful exchange of ideas relate to the strategy, products, or services that an edtech company or an edtech unit might pursue?

Are there dangers in taking a liberal values approach in design the products and services of an edtech provider?

What are the competing value orientations to a liberal arts approach to education?



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