In his recent EmergingEdTech blog post “When It Comes to Education Technology, Video Won’t Kill the Radio Star,” Andrew Clark* paints a compelling picture of emerging education technologies being used by teachers in boldly innovative ways, empowering them with new tools and techniques to improve learning outcomes. Like many that have presented the potential for positive disruption, he begins with an exciting illustration:
“Imagine a class of 50 students preparing for a biology exam on a digital learning platform. Patterns emerge from the students’ annotations in the cloud: perhaps more students are highlighting and discussing sections in the book related to Mendel’s Model of Inheritance than any other topic. From course analytics, the instructor can see which discussions are more likely to lead to an improvement on the exam, and which ones are correlated with discussions and exam outcomes in other subject matter. The result: the instructor can tailor his or her course curricula, and student understanding of Mendelian inheritance improves.”
How likely is such a scenario, given what we know of the prevalent culture within higher education? Do our colleges and universities have the resources and infrastructure in place that are required for this kind of forward movement? Walsh provides examples to make his point regarding the kinds of initiatives and benefits that are being realized; for example, the measurement of online activity to predict student performance with a relatively high degree of accuracy. However, as practicing educators, we all know the more common situations and stories: the struggles of moving course content into a learning management system (and when it gets there, it looks like a text-heavy website from 1998); the lack of an institutional strategy to develop online courses other than to hire a couple of instructional designers who are then tasked with running Blackboard or Moodle workshops for faculty; the institutional purchase of hardware and software without a clear vision of how or why the tools should be implemented in the teaching and learning environment. While there are some pockets of exemplary work being done at a relatively few number of institutions, the broader landscape reality is much more chaotic and confused, with significant progress coming almost accidentally and certainly much more slowly.
So while I agree with Clark’s overall premise, let me mention three institutional characteristics that tend to get in the way of any real, systematic progress regarding the use of emerging tech in education.
- Lack of incentive – What are the incentives for faculty to develop more interactive online environments for their students? Whether there are contractual performance clauses or professional development opportunities that provide clear benefits (along with institutional commitment for that support), there is little reason for faculty at most institutions to do much more than place syllabi online (if teaching residential courses) or to do more than place a lot of course notes in the LMS shell and respond to some discussion posts (if teaching online).
- Lack of support – If the incentive piece is addressed (or an institution is fortunate enough to have innovative and enthusiastic faculty), how will the use of emergent technologies be facilitated and ultimately supported? So much of online instruction at institutions has relied on having faculty with technology outside of their areas of subject matter expertise. But for those faculty that are willing to incorporate serious gaming techniques into their courses, there is little, if any, support to make it happen. And even at institutions that have instructional designers available for course development, the majority of those instructional designers may be familiar with navigating through the complexities of a learning management system, but they are not prepared to develop interactive software that leverages social media, video games, and other robust methods of engagement.
- Overabundance of inertia – Finally, even if the first two characteristics are adequately addressed, there is still inertia across an entire institution that can restrict the process of innovation before any changes are made. This type of inertia is comprised of several factors including inconsistent communications between academic and technology constituents on a campus, fear of negative budget impact, weak academic leadership, poorly framed and articulated mission regarding the role of academic technology, and an ambiguous governance structure when it comes to making technology decisions that will have an impact within the teaching and learning environment.
Where does all of this leave the future of education technologies? Clearly people outside of the institutional environment are greatly enamored by the promise of what the future might hold in education. But this is the deception of that compelling attraction to emergent education technologies–this group of people is unaware of the challenging realities. Still, there are people inside the institutional environment as well, and they are aware that such potential exists. However, because of the characteristics listed above, it is much easier to maintain the status quo or move forward taking tiny steps, while letting the innovators elsewhere take the giant-leap risks. Is this mechanism that we as educators can accept? Perhaps a good way to answer that question is to take a look at how the state of education technology has changed over the past 50 years or so, and consider whether or not the transformation that was promised was the transformation that was realized.
*This updated post corrects the cited author of “When It Comes to Education Technology, Video Won’t Kill the Radio Star” as being Andrew Clark, and not Kelly Walsh as originally named.