Reclaim Your Buzzwords

Rather than shun technologies hyped by companies with grand promises, faculty members should force vendors to explain how the tools will help professors teach and students learn, Michael Feldstein argues.

September 15, 2016

Coursera’s recent pivot, following the departure of its founders, from saving the world to providing corporate training might tempt us to indulge in MOOC schadenfreude. That would be unfortunate. After all, MOOCs weren’t invented by Silicon Valley start-ups. They were invented by teaching faculty and co-opted by vendors.

Most of the time, ed-tech tools and services are rooted in innovations in teaching practices that were conceived, tested and refined by educators. But in the process of promoting technology, the pedagogy often gets lost. What we are left with is some product for sale attached to some (usually inflated) claim of benefit without the connective tissue of the teaching idea that makes it all work.

Companies like Coursera and Udacity co-opted MOOCs without crediting the original pedagogical innovations and aspirations behind the concept. Silicon Valley turned the concept it into a buzzword and then, having wrung all the meaning out of it, abandoned the field. You can blame the companies for glorifying products over practice. Or the media for indulging in the fantasy (yet again) that somehow software will fix everything. Or politicians and administrators who wanted to believe in silver bullets.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter who is to blame. An idea with the potential to improve and transform teaching practice was obscured and devalued through a process that might have explained it, promoted it and made it easier to adopt.

As someone who has spent much of my career in education technology, I’m generally an optimist. Technology, when used well, can empower educators to create effective learning experiences and scale powerful teaching. But faculty must play a role in ed-tech development and implementation if we’re see to those effective innovations come to light.

This is the lesson from Coursera’s story that we should care about. As MOOCs move through the Gartner hype cycle from the “trough of disillusionment” up the “slope of enlightenment,” educators and institutions that do not abandon the form may very well retain, rediscover and recontextualize the original educational ideas that underpinned the potential of the massive open online course. Perhaps this period would be better named the “slope of rediscovery,” which all too often follows a massive waste of time and resources.

Those of us who care about quality education can do better. We can insist that tool makers and promoters maintain their focus on the core teaching insights that enable their offerings to provide value. And in doing so, we might mitigate the loss of purpose that seems to happen with every ed-tech hype cycle. How can we reclaim buzzwords and imbue them with meaning?

Consider the case of the buzz phrase du jour, “personalized learning.” Anyone who has taught knows that some students are easier to reach than others. Anyone who has taught regularly knows that there are structural reasons -- institutional, personal or other -- that can make reaching some students harder than it otherwise would be. Instead of allowing another meaningless buzz phrase to come and go, leaving chaos in its wake, why don’t we insist that conversations about personalized learning be about approaches and tools for reaching those students?

At e-Literate, we are creating a series of short explainer videos that we hope will change the conversation around the term and make it useful to anyone who cares about teaching quality. They are meant to feel like commercials -- in a good way -- and act like public service announcements.

The first video associates the term with a concrete teaching need.

Notice that we focus on goals and techniques, rather than features and products. We describe personalized learning as a collection of technology-supported teaching techniques for reaching hard-to-reach students.

The second video frames three buzz phrases -- flipped classroom, learning analytics and adaptive learning -- as ways to support three possible methods for achieving that goal.

To be clear, our purpose for producing these videos is not to persuade you to adopt any of these approaches. Rather, we want to reframe conversations between you and your vendors to make the outcomes more useful to you and your students. Could you improve your teaching if you had the right learning analytics at your disposal? Maybe. You are the person who is in the best position to answer that question.

When a vendor or provost or department head comes to you with a learning analytics product for your consideration, at least part of the discussion should be about whether and how the product’s capabilities might help you to reach your hard-to-reach students. The best way to ensure these conversations produce value is to come prepared with your own ideas and questions about how such tools could be useful to you in your context. The people presenting these products should come prepared to address your ideas and questions -- and maybe suggest some approaches you hadn’t thought of but that colleagues elsewhere have tried with some success.

Many vendors want to have this conversation and would benefit from it. The best way to sell a product is to convince the buyer that it will satisfy a specific need. The clearer you are in your own mind about your teaching goals and the kinds of tools that would help you reach them, the more specific the vendors can be in designing and promoting products that meet your needs. I believe that many people who work for these vendors genuinely want to help. Both Coursera and Udacity were started by educators who were inspired by their own experiences teaching MOOCs.

But it is easy for even well-intentioned companies to lose their way. They need educators to be clear and insistent regarding the kinds of help that would best serve them and their students. Faculty have an opportunity to influence ed-tech development and implementation. Reclaim the buzzwords and participate in the process. Your students will thank you.


Michael Feldstein is a partner at MindWires Consulting, copublisher of the e-Literate blog and coproducer of e-Literate TV.


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