The next Edtech
There is a certain presumption that after the pandemic, edtech is the future of education.
Which edtech, I ask. If that's puzzling, that would be ironic. There is a disconnect if we assume that after the pandemic, there will be no business-as-usual, but at the same time, expect the edtech to be business-as-usual.
The pandemic has normalised edtech but also exposed it. The lame excuses about its limitations have been forcefully discounted but its true limitations have been seen and felt. Therefore, as the societies emerge from the pandemic and settle into new ways of doing things, edtech, like everything else, has to change itself.
I have followed the chatter about what comes after, and picked up three key shifts in the conversation:
1. Pedagogy-market fit: The most interesting speculation I came across is that this is time for edtech entrepreneurs to look for 'pedagogy market fit' (See here). Indeed, this is old hat, what went on in the guises of instructional design and development. But the idea is interesting as presented: That we have created the edtech infrastructure and built the education applications, and now it's time to be serious about how one really teaches and whether this fits the requirement of the learners. Thus far, the pedagogy is usually treated as a detail - and often an analog detail - in edtech. This has now been given some of its due after the pandemic has tested edtech at scale and opened up discussions about how much learning (as opposed to content delivery) is actually happening.
2. Cohort-based learning: The pandemic was a lonely experience for many and it's not surprising that, in its wake, 'cohort-based learning' has become a buzzword in edtech (See here). Of course, this is recycled stuff too - groups learnt together from antiquity - and the ugly and somewhat awkward 'cohort' word only marks the tech world's penchant for using strange words to invoke novelty. But this is still a shift in edtech: After years of fetishising about learner as the lone-wolf, suddenly there is a lot of tech being built around how learners can come together.
3. Hybridity: The pandemic has also made 'hybrid' cool, though the word represents different thing for different people. For some, this is a combination of face-to-face learning and online teaching (See here). Indeed, this used to be 'blended' before the pandemic, but 'blend' was too much about the delivery of content and hybrid refers more to the flexible experience (See here). But hybrid could also mean that robots in the classroom and networked teachers and any combination thereof. It may also mean - or, at least some are hoping that it will be so after the pandemic - a combination of study, work and travel, and indeed other experiences.
4. Virtual & mixed reality: Still only in limited use in learning because of the cost of production and the requirement of special gear for delivery, virtual reality learning applications achieved scale in some sectors (See here) where the opportunity is clear and pay-offs are significant. This should drive down the costs by creating incentives for companies to focus on this and faster proliferation and growth of VR platforms. Perhaps even greater possibilities exist in mixed-reality applications that can help across different disciplines, though this would still in the new and nascent category of edtech.
Further, it is also useful to see what is losing favour and entering the trough of disillusionment. Chatbots top the list; not so long ago, this was - with its various avatars - riding high on edtech hype cycle. But the limited, mostly structured, scope of the chatbots have now convinced people that these need to remain confined to clearly defined administrative tasks and may not play any important role in learning. Its capacity to do anything more complex is at least two or three fundamental technological breakthroughs away, says Bill Gates.
MOOCs have gone this way too. What was once the future of higher education has now been subsumed in more traditional models of online learning. In this case, not technological constraints but social norms around higher ed came in the way.
There is also some cooling of expectation around mobile learning too. Just when apps like Duolingo is completely transforming language learning, the pandemic has highlighted what difference a bigger screen really makes. Enthusiasm about mobile learning is crucial in sustaining the pace of edtech investment in some markets, such as India and Africa, where fixed-line broadband penetration is very low and most families don't own desktops, laptops and printers. This changes the conversation and shifts the focus of edtech ambitions back to the United States and China, where technology access is better than these emerging markets.
Finally, a new conversation is emerging in edtech about 'effortful practice'. This is no longer about making it 'easy' for people to learn, but rather creating deliberate challenges that supports learning. This is an useful point of departure from other online sectors (such as retail) where the mantra of user experience is delivering 'one-click' experience. This is indeed a sign of maturity in edtech that some - usually those who are bring back the quaint conversations about learning design and learning communities - are now speaking about how to design a meaningful, rather than seamless, experience for the learners. Without the seriousness imposed by the pandemic, this divergence from the consumer experience mantra would not have occured.
Therefore, the pandemic has changed edtech and what comes after will not be what edtech was before 2020. For all those trying to herald the future of education, a clarion call: The future has just been changed.