How To Think About Education Technology
Ed-tech has come of age. Gone are those days of HTML scripted pages with two big Next and Back buttons, the databases merely reporting how many seconds someone looked at a page and document repositories to be downloaded and printed at convenience. But how this came about may be slightly more contested. One may think it was video, made possible by robust bandwidth and multimedia in everyday computers, that changed everything. Yet others will think, like everything else, it was mobility, the ability to hold in hand a powerful enough device with a screen that does not tire off the eyes, that facilitated a different level of engagement with all things electronic. Social is also a big thing, and its advocates will claim that connecting with others electronically is changing everything. And, yet others will point to the emergence of the cloud, or affirmation of what they used to say in older times, 'the Network is the Computer', that changed computer from a box on a desk to a space to meet and collaborate. And, in the end, perhaps it is all those and more, a perfect storm of technologies, attitudes and ideas that made Ed-tech come of age.
However, I would claim that this is about a change of approach - and attendant expectations - that has really changed Ed-Tech, rather than any underlying change of technology. Technologies have indeed emerged and this has allowed these approaches to become viable, but technologies itself are not the change.
First, the conversation about Education Technology has moved beyond Cost. The argument that Ed-Tech saves money (by replacing teachers, classrooms etc) has become stale. Rather the buzzword today is scalability, pinned on the idea that Ed-Tech may allow us to do things that was not otherwise possible. And, within this broad theme, the key is of course turning non-consumers to consumers, reaching out to those who could not have, or afford, education before. Informed by thinking on Disruptive Innovation, this has become one of the most potent strand in the conversation about Ed-Tech.
Second, the conversation has moved from Tech to Ed part of the equation. It is less about what technologies can do, and more about the education model itself. So, creating classroom-like environments are no longer the holy grail of Ed-Tech. It is rather about creating new models of Education, centred perhaps, if it could be represented by a single concept, around the phenomenon of Emergent Learning, as popularised by TED Fellow (and ex-NIITian) Dr Sugata Mitra. Dr Mitra long advocated the idea that learners can learn themselves as long as they are empowered to do so. Technologies of learning are ideally suited to create these new learning environments, and indeed, drawing upon the earlier point, even for those who did not have access to formal or good quality education.
Third, the conversation in Ed-Tech has moved beyond being a Content-Delivery mechanism to being an environment for learning engagement. Indeed, there are still those Learning Management System providers who brag about providing reports on content consumption, but they are rather hopelessly out of time. The focus has now shifted to granular levels of activity, not just who downloaded what, but who is engaging with what and what they are producing and how they are doing it. In a way, the personalisation of learning, long a buzzword, has eventually become the cornerstone of Ed-Tech. And, it is not just pretension of personalization, but a genuine effort to understand, with all the new technologies of Big Data, defines the frontier of Ed-Tech today.
Indeed, one turns up at myriad education conferences today to see stillborn initiatives centred around talking heads, content manipulation and better management of education systems, but these efforts are destined to fail [even if they are funded, because most investors still do not get Ed-Tech]. The ones that are destined to make the future answers at least one of the three questions, if not all three, as below
1. Can this turn non-users into users?
2. Can this enable the learners to discover ideas or build capabilities which was not possible using traditional modes?
3. Can this provide engagement through better understanding of the learning process of individual learners?
Ed-Tech (or e-Learning as it was called then) came into vogue approximately the time when people started talking about e-Commerce (late 90s), but while the latter has since found a footing and now finally revolutionising the world, Ed-Tech has languished because of both poverty of ideas and lack of aspiration. That finally seems to be changing, and this may be because we are more willing, at the societal level, to talk about education in general. This is good news for Ed-Tech, but not for those weak-hearted who see Ed-Tech as a way of delivering videos with tracking or running a forum.