Put Professors in the Driver’s Seat on Ed Tech

The next wave of educational technology innovation must get the faculty on board and make them central to institutions’ and companies’ strategies, Mike Silagadze argues.

October 11, 2017
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Google has taken over the nation’s classrooms -- that’s what a recent article in The New York Times proclaimed, about the Google Classroom app and the low-cost laptops the company distributes along with it. The article generated a great deal of reaction in university circles, including in Inside Higher Ed.

While Google Classroom may be ubiquitous on the K-12 circuit, it has yet to find its way into college lecture halls, and Google has yet to divulge its plans for expansion into higher education.

So, while the company mulls that over, let me make a suggestion: whatever you do, Google, get professors on board first. And don’t merely consult faculty members. Put them at the center of your expansion strategy, your product development and your training efforts.

That may seem like easy advice, but ed-tech innovators routinely fail to heed it. In fact, this simple oversight explains why many of the educational technology innovations of the last 20 years have failed dismally.

As the digital revolution has taken hold, investors and entrepreneurs have swarmed the educational technology space, promising a great leap forward from photocopiers and Scantrons, revolutionizing education just as they did in advertising and health care -- and looking for big returns. But earlier initiatives often put technology itself ahead of both students or teachers.

That’s what happened a few years back with the iPad fiasco at the Los Angeles Unified School District, in which tablets were distributed to kids with curriculum developed by Pearson, with little teacher buy-in or training. The same goes for adaptive courseware, in which algorithms track students’ navigation through online learning environments to determine their next learning activities. According to a 2016 report, adaptive courseware has had no impact upon either grades or completion.

Perhaps the most notable postsecondary ed-tech success -- if you can call it that -- has been the widespread adoption of learning management systems such as Blackboard and Canvas. Yet faculty dissatisfaction with LMS is an evergreen topic; no matter which system, most professors make use of only a small fraction of its functionality. Meanwhile, one of the unintended effects of LMS adoption has been to suffocate other innovation beneath their blanket implementation.

And as for course content, the original push to digital in earlier waves of ed tech lacked a high-quality user experience or intuitive design for both professors and students. Content was often gated behind a poor-quality Flash player that did not justify the price of the material. More recently, however, new technology and design have made the latest wave of digital content a cost-effective and better alternative to print. And this next wave of ed-tech innovation has the potential to put teachers in the driver’s seat, where they belong.

But for faculty to do so effectively, their institutions must let them take the wheel. The 2014 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology found that, on the whole, professors felt their institutions do not acknowledge or reward their efforts to teach with technology or their contributions to digital pedagogy. Many say they lack the time and training necessary to make the best use of new educational technology. Institutions will have to change the way they operate to give faculty more latitude and more support.

The reason institutions should do so is simple: faculty are the ones on the front lines of the classroom every day, adjusting their approaches to meet their students’ evolving needs and to curtail the problems of student distraction and disengagement. They are deeply invested in their students’ success and can recognize the value of new solutions. The tweed-jacket stereotypes no longer apply: professors are more plugged in to the state of higher education than anyone else. They are the great untapped resource of educational technology.

Peer-to-peer collaboration is now commonplace in other fields, most notably in open-source software development. But it remains lacking in most areas of higher education, which prioritizes solitary work such as research and publishing. Advancements in classroom technology and content will require a more collaborative approach. If faculty are going to lead in the adoption of new technologies, they’ll need to lead in large numbers at the development stages as well.

As the next wave of educational technology makes its way onto campus, the firms and institutions that will succeed are those that recognize the role professors can play and choose to work with them, including during early product development. Successful firms will help build networks of great teachers who are like-minded about using educational technology, in order to help them collaborate with one another, and get them involved in product development early. And the most successful universities and colleges will encourage the creation of those networks, and support the faculty who join them with adequate training and technical support.

Successful firms will also ensure that classroom content is easily customizable so teachers can swiftly adapt learning materials to suit the needs of their particular students, or seize timely opportunities to engage students on relevant current events. Traditional textbook publishing, with its five-year update cycles, can no longer keep pace with the very things it sells -- namely, information and knowledge. The task of keeping course materials fresh and up-to-date is increasingly pressing and burdensome for faculty members. The best way to solve that problem is to make digital classroom content easily adaptable.

Finally, it will be essential for firms and universities to collect data on their technologies -- on how they are put to use by teachers and students alike -- and make that data available to professors so they can adjust their classroom approaches for better learning results. Open data will help teachers optimize both their classroom content and their teaching methods, and help administrators make decisions for campuswide initiatives as well.

College teachers have a gift for observation and analysis. Ask any faculty member how technology is reshaping their classrooms, ask them what’s working and what’s not, ask them what’s missing -- no matter the question, in my experience, they will respond by painting a picture for you, in remarkable detail, of how technology and classroom behavior intersect. They can tell you how they are adapting their own approaches based upon those observations.

It’s time ed-tech firms put the knowledge and experience of educators at the forefront of their search for solutions.


Mike Silagadze is CEO of Top Hat, an all-in-one teaching platform for professors.


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