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Kate Ames, Director, Flexible Learning and Innovation Projects, CQUniversity
This is a question that I and my team have been mulling over at length. Every day, it seems, another email comes in trying to attract attention about a new ed tech product. It seems this point has been coming for a while. Anyone who follows education bloggers like Tony Bates, Michael Feldstein, and Stephen Downes, the question of ‘Peak Ed Tech’ has been raised for the best part of a decade.
As an educator and administrator involved in designing innovative education ‘products’ for university and vocational students, the central questions when considering the implementation of new ed tech tools are ‘why’ and ‘how will this enhance the learning or teaching experience of students and staff’? Aside from the standard aspects such as budget, integration, and implementation, I’m also thinking about adaptation, stability, data, accessibility, need and broader cost of implementation when I’m considering ed tech products.
Adaptability: Adaptability of a tool needs to be underpinned by the principles of collaboration and consistency, both of which are critical for social and productive learning. Micro-tools, which focus on one aspect of classroom engagement, might be useful, but only represent incremental adaptability. This is where platforms like Microsoft Teams are starting to make genuine headway, because they embed micro-tools to make the broader platform more adaptable. When we look at changing systems, we run the risk of spending big to make significant change, only to see the micro-tools that attracted us implemented in our original platform.
Stability: I’ve been an early adopter (and adapter) of technology throughout my two decades plus of teaching and developing online curriculum. I still mourn for great products like Wiggio and Storify. While Notion and Wakelet have somewhat filled the void in those particular cases, the disruption when a tool is discontinued or reoriented is substantial for those of us who have embedded those tools into online learning resources. This makes people like me cautious. We want to know about long term plans and sustainability.
Data: In an environment where there is an increasing interest in AI in education that addresses personalised learning, use of data and associated privacy remains a key concern.
The race to tech oligopoly is evident now, but at the other end of the spectrum, there remains potential for highly boutique customised solutions, not always online
This will be of no surprise to anyone reading this. I’ve learned that people get very excited about learning analytics - my question to anyone presenting the benefit of analytic data to me is ‘so what’? If someone suggests personalised learning as a benefit, I question what we do with our offline students, or those moving away from digital learning. I see this as an increasing trend, actually. As a former media practitioner, we’ve seen the social influence of the ‘unseen’ - those we can’t track for voting preference because they avoid digital engagement, as an example. Developing personalised learning support for students based on their digital engagement is awesome, but what about those students (and professionals engaging in workplace learning) who are working offline? My institution has a specific interest in social equity, and digital inequity is at forefront of mind. I’ve yet to hear a pitch for a digital tool that specifically addresses this.
Accessibility: We tend to hear the term ‘useability’ when assessing ed tech for application in the classroom, but in my view, accessibility is a better term because it implies usability, but goes further, because it also requires consideration at the design phase. For ed tech to be accessible to and for staff and students, there must be limited barriers for use. This goes beyond technology, and needs to consider context - cognitive load, classroom context, study or teaching experience. Accessibility is normally used with reference to disability; as happens with the best design for disability, accessible ed tech should be designed in partnership with those who will use it, not just tested prior to implementation.
Need and cost: Finally, the question arises as to the need for a new tool. There is a lot of shiny and new tech bling. Some of it is very compelling. When considering adoption of new ed tech, though, we have to weigh it against the cost of implementation that goes beyond initial purchase - what, for example, are the real costs of training, time lost for re-orientation to a new system, and overall benefit of change. Our best implementations have been through partnerships where we are able to co-design technology with vendors, as opposed to trying to retrofit process to, or adapt, vanilla products. It’s our experience that more companies are refining their ability to partner with organisations such as mine, but critical issues such as intellectual property can be problematic. Why are we paying for your product when we helped you design it?
I raise the question of ‘peak ed tech’ because while some organisations are new to online delivery, others have very sophisticated models of curriculum delivery and are genuinely ‘ed teched out’. For these latter organisations, more complex models are best supported by more simple concepts, and we are more likely to purchase experience or engage in longer-term exploratory relationships than a tool to solve one problem.
The future campus, at one extreme, might look like a cloud-based Microsoft Teams environment, where all education technology is embedded as a potential app, and all resources are accessed via subscription to a hub such as Amazon. In this version of the future, ed tech companies are pitching to ‘big tech’ and bypass people like me. The race to tech oligopoly is evident now, but at the other end of the spectrum, there remains potential for highly boutique customised solutions, not always online.
Ed tech vendors are dealing with organisations anywhere between these two extremes. The challenge is to get through the door of those more complex organisations. It is those that are feeling the ‘peak ed tech’ fatigue and looking for more relationship-focused solutions. It’s a challenge worth pursuing because under the right business model, the exploratory relationship will have many benefits for the right team.