Friday, September 11, 2009

Innovation in educational technology. Why not?

The size of the global education industry, defined as all the money spent by governments, individuals, and corporations on education and training, is almost three times the size of the global entertainment industry, and double the size of the global telecommunications industry.* Education is bigger, in fact, than entertainment and telecom combined.

So why do education's technical innovations feel like hand-me-downs? If a college professor uses some video clips and regularly podcasts, he's way up near the top of the technical scale. A new technology on the order of the iPod or Twitter? We don't expect that from education. What is it about education, or educators, that makes this industry so relatively sparse of innovation? There are obvious answers, like, it's hard to sell new technologies when they're being bought by non-profits and government entities. Or, educators' grip on traditional methods is too tight. Or, investors don't like the education market because they don't understand it. But I've never bought into those arguments. I think the answers lie elsewhere.

Like, here:

1. Innovative geeks are in the habit of avoiding education, not contributing to it. Shawn Fanning didn't build Napster as a class project at Northeastern University. He "rarely attended class... pushing himself to get the Napster system finished" (according to his authoritative bio on Wikipedia). It doesn't seem logical to expect innovators of his ilk to skip class in order to create cool ways to attend class.

2. Educators tend to focus on educational outcomes to the exclusion of customer satisfaction. Something about the master-apprentice relationship that implies, to a greater or lesser degree, that an instructor can order learning (use any definition of 'order' you choose) and all that matters is whether the apprentice obeyed. Why not order up the most comfortable approach for the master?

3. Historically slow adoption rates of new technologies in education discourage innovation. Even the early adopters are a ponderously thoughtful bunch. (Hey, I'm teaching my class with PowerPoint slides; I'm digital, leave me alone.) If it takes years to saturate a market with even a really obvious product, why waste your time on something exotic? Go somewhere people will be a little quicker on the uptake.

But I think the final, all-encompassing reason there's so little technical innovation in education is that education is more complex than either entertainment or communications. If you're educating well, you are both communicating and entertaining as you go. So it follows that education would borrow from those two heavily.

It also follows that new educational technologies would essentially be an integration of components that communicate and entertain. You can go back to the mid-90's and look at the original CourseInfo and Real Education software (which became Blackboard and eCollege, respectively). They were novel, exciting environments made up of what? Web pages, threaded discussion boards, and file transfer. Entertainment and communications technologies stitched together. That's still the approach for LMS companies: sew together as many other technologies as you can, and harness them for learning. The only really educationally-focused new software is the test engine. (Yeehah.)

And that leads to my final point. Even sewing together other technologies requires the seamstress (or seamster) to understand the learning process and the teaching process inside out. Why have Blackboard and eCollege and even Moodle done so little with web 2.0 tools like blogs, wikis, podcasts, social networking, micro-blogging, user-generated content, video, gaming, 3D virtual worlds? They're still stuck on 1990's technologies, relatively speaking.

I'll tell you why. Education as an industry is full of people who are content experts, and severely lacking people who are learning experts. Or more specifically, learner experts. I don't mean people who know and adhere to theories about learning. I mean people who really get the whole process, and are passionate about it, from the learner's perspective. People who love the thrill of learning, the way kids in kindergarten love it, and want everyone to have that sort of joy again. People who want to learn, and want others to learn, and want everyone to apply that learning, with the same exuberance that hobbyists do. What makes learning work and why? What makes learning exciting, interesting, rewarding? We need more people who are experts in those things, because whatever products they create will reflect it.

The sad thing is, the Shawn Fannings of the world are a whole lot like that. They do love learning. They love discovery. They love finding out about things they don't know, and putting that knowledge to use. They just don't like the education process. And you know what? That makes them the best people on earth to come up with cool stuff for teaching and learning.

But I think we may be on the verge now of a serious revolution. The set of technologies now available for stitching together is incredibly rich. The potential for truly jaw-dropping new learning experiences is here. It's at our fingertips. It's just awaiting the right seamstress. Or seamster.

* Sources: PriceWatershouse Coopers, Gartner Newsroom, UNESCO, World Bank Grp, European Training & Dev.


  1. Good thoughts.

    Also wonder if there are negative impacts on the rate of uptake by educators who have been burned by technologies false promises in the past? Can imagine how often they have been asked to adopt terrible technology solutions in the last 10 years that didn't pan out.

    Blackboard is a good example to look at. It may have been a good idea and great at first but it is still a sad dinosaur when it comes to really fluid web 2.0 type solutions. There are too many professors who find it confusing and too many students who think it has a terrible user experience because of the more consumer focused solutions that they use on a daily basis.


  2. Thanks, Brian - this is great.
    I agree that one of the issues is that higher education is made up of subject matter experts. Let me add another potential factor: the lack of impact that great teaching has on either the academic's career or the success of the institution, as a whole. Teaching - whether in the classroom or online - is not how academics or universities "move-up" in the world. (And, strangely, rewards for teaching are decreasing - relative to research - not increasing, despite the mass (undergraduate) higher education model we now operate.) Consequently, there is little incentive in place to invest time and resources in new, innovative uses of technology.
    Also . . . the "seamstress" you refer to is not likely going to be the subject matter expert. So, we have then a need to introduce a fundamentally different division of labour into the institution; one that decreases the jurisdiction and authority of the lone academic (SME). While that doesn't sound all that difficult, academics (like anyone else) are not likely to give up any territory without a fight.

  3. Chris, I agree completely with the "forced march" efforts of the past. Again, I think this happened because those in education, in this case perhaps IT leaders, tended to think about moving content or communicating, not about learning. Learning in a group environment is complex and exciting, and takes thought and planning and understanding to do it well. I remember CTOs thinking iTunes University was all anyone needed for online learning... because it suited their own learning styles.

    Keith, I think you put your finger on a key issue. In business, people who figure out ways to delight customers get promoted to top jobs. In higher education, they get marginalized. We need to find way to reward teaching/learning excellence.

    Great comments! Thanks.

  4. Brian, I know this is belated, but I truly found this to be an enlightening post. I guess I'd never thought of it, but in spite of all that we attempt to do to focus on better learning outcomes, many of us teachers do still see ourselves more as content area experts, and at times this is at the sacrifice of becoming experts in learning (particularly in the post-secondary realm).
    Education, in practice, is loathe to practice anything outside of the status quo. Part of it is due to the aforementioned reason, and part of it is the apathy toward anything new. Every new proposition is met with staunch resistance. Every time a new best practice is proposed teachers have the immediate response that they have already seen it and that they need not change because the pendulum will swing the opposite way again soon. If I had a penny for every time I've heard that over the years I certainly wouldn't need to be a teacher any longer and could retire to somewhere warmer than Michigan! As you mentioned though, the failure on the part of many new propositions plays into this pendulum effect and the overall aversion to anything new.
    Another part I feel plays into the slow uptake of anything new in education, particularly when it comes to technology, is the continued existence of the old guard. I suspect that in the coming years with the baby boomers increasingly going into retirement that we will see a pretty significant change in educational practices. I cannot say whether this will be for the better or not, but I do imagine that the face of our schools will be quite different. That said, unlike in any other field, we teachers have spent our entire lives indoctrinated into this system, and the teaching methods our own teachers have provided a latent model for us that is hard to overcome and will continue to lend to the relatively slow change.
    Lastly, I wanted to comment on educational technology as a whole. After having spoken to the slow uptake of technology in the classroom, I must admit that I am not all to certain that this is a bad thing. In my experience, many teachers who use technology do so incorrectly. It is oftentimes viewed as a replacement for good instruction and at best a crutch. In practice, I feel it rarely does anything to bolster the students' learning. Certainly, they may be more interested in what is going on so by proxy they may learn more, but the activities themselves rarely are of true value. One of my colleagues once said that if you can't teach when the power goes out then you're not really teaching. I try to keep this in mind each and every time I bring technology into the classroom. I do think, though, that with the changing of the times we will quickly see more beneficial usage of ed tech in the classroom.

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