The Nature of Education Innovation

I hope some people will agree with me if I say EdTech is over-rated. It's a nifty term, much broader than the older, nerdy, E-Learning; it is also a conscious claim to affinity with its famous and richer cousin, FinTech. What one gets to hear in the EdTech conference circuit is boasts about how many millions companies are raising, which is really meaningless in a world of loose monetary policy and inflated private valuations. The other most common refrain is how Educators don't get EdTech, which really means that this may be a set of characters in search of a play. Most of its boldest claims - Clouds of Schools, Self-directed Learners, Universal Access - remain forever in future, and only companies dealing with boring stuff - compliance training, video content, Learning Management System etc - make any money. 

However, the overselling of EdTech creates bigger problems than sub-prime investment and pointless conferences. It crowds out the conversation about Education Innovation. There are a lot of things that need to change in Education - Institutional Formats, Curriculum, Pedagogy, Credentials and Methods of Financing among them - and there are different things happening in each of these areas. But the noise surrounding EdTech drowns the other conversations. Besides, the other types of experimentation are often happening at the unsexy corners of the education ecosystem, in village schools, in university departments and education research institutions, in the works of offbeat educators, away from the conference circuit. These are being led by experienced educators - not the twenty-something types that venture world toasts - and are based on traditional methods of observation and data, rather than the bold and blundering method of spreadsheet assumptions and scatter-fire implementation (we have a name: Pivot). 

Moreover, this other innovation raises questions of the type that the EdTech entrepreneurs loath to face: What happens if the method is wrong and a person is wrongly educated? In the bite-size world of EdTech, the learner is a consumer, and learning is like a meal at a restaurant: If it's no good, you move on. The slowness of educators, who tend to treat the learners as human beings and education as a life-event never to be repeated, infuriates the EdTechers (the pun, if noticed, is intended). They see the learners as share-croppers and lab-rats, those who will try out untested methods and generate data, give out their time and perhaps their own chance of education, creating value in the digital and financial universe. The pesky ethics questions are distractions, to be steam-rolled by the boasts of disruption, justified by the inbred multiplication of valuation. No wonder that this creates little value in the real world and such little impact on the way education is done.

And, yet, education is changing. Government policy has finally caught up with the centrality of education in economic development, and huge money is being poured in. Bureaucrats in their own blundering way shaping a twenty-first century education that touches more people than ever before. Companies, forced by rapid technological change and ebbs and flows of globalisation, are leading the search for new methods, new medium and new credentials. Education entrepreneurs are pouring over ideas of education that stood the tests of time and building new institutions. Education researchers, not slavishly reverent of technology nor selfishly motivated by promises of 'exit', are questioning the use of technology, critically and constructively. Innovation is happening in education away from the hype and without the hyperbole.

And, this will continue even after the hype-cycle of EdTech has come to an end. The new, shorter credentials - microdegrees, nanodegrees, employer-led awards - that create a whole new educational model, will continue to change the world of awarding organisations and universities: One big, omnibus degrees will give away to portfolio of evidences. Examinations to demonstrate acquired knowledge would continue to give way of continuous and in-work assessments, demonstrating a wider range of skills and abilities, including behavioural ones. Newer designs of learning spaces would emerge, and devices would find their appropriate space in the quest for education. The teachers will find more ways to connect. Governments will find more ways to pay for education, harnessing all the innovations in Finance and Credit that changed our world in last 40 years. And, education will emerge beyond its nationally defined character, and embed greater global thinking and social connections going beyond the spatial limits.

This is, I shall argue, the right way to think about Education Innovation. It is not about making apps and selling the snake oil of prediction of success. It is at once more than that, and less. It is about making education relevant, not just to the emerging world of work but for the new ways to live. It is less, because many of those would happen in quieter corners of education, not disrupting but improving, in quantum leaps (remember quanta is small) rather than as a leap in the dark. And, this innovation would be about the learner as a whole person, not as an impersonal carrier of skills. And, this innovation will appear tentatively and happen continuously, rather than being one big bang event.


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