Like Jonathan Rees, I’m really trying not to arc up in response to each inflated claim about technology’s power to save education from its own dismal, maladjusted, unimaginative future. Maybe it’s the EDUCAUSE effect, but it’s a whole keg party of edtech Kool Aid out there at the moment, and I’m feeling like someone’s disapproving mother.

The problem is the tsunami of corporate PR from edtech large and small that goes well beyond spruiking individual products, and extends to a generalised Mexican wave of enthusiasm for the whole techno-enterprise, often couched in such evangelical terms that it’s hard to imagine an educational problem for which edtech doesn’t already have the answer, in triplicate.

Take, for example, the startling announcement that “The future of education lies in technology”, that was dropped into the conversation this week by none other than Adrian Sannier. Compelled by this understated claim I wandered off to have a look, and found this article by Drew Olanoff, that introduced me to the now familiar figure of “a for-profit enterprise looking to invest time, experience, energy and resources in entrepreneurs who have a passion for education and the technical know-how to create their vision. Over a three-month period, we will draw on our extensive entrepreneurial experience, understanding of the Silicon Valley ecosystem, and knowledge of the education industry to help bring your idea to life, get your company funded, and to get your company on the road to success.”

Thrilling stuff, unless of course you’re a micro-entrepreneur who’s already been bruised by goldfield promises.  Jarrod Drysdale’s latest post on what’s wrong with “simple-minded, one-sided business advice” is really terrific, and Philippe Monnet in the comments introduced me to the lovely term “entreporn”.  I think Jarrod’s exactly right to argue to his fellow developers that they should start to work together to resist the sale of cheap prospecting maps and kits, particularly when so much of the terrain is in reality fenced in by large corporate interests.

But the second problem isn’t to do with the power of the big tech competition, so much as the problems that are internal to education. Joanna de Franco in Campus Technology makes the point clearly: too many large institutions are carrying around three-year old be-all LMS solutions for which there is insufficient, and insufficiently effective, take-up by their staff.  To this I’d add that their design doesn’t naturally build demand among students raised on very sticky social media.  So it’s hard to persuade CFOs to spend on really imaginative new technology when the old technology is still underutilised, or is even the subject of substantial internal backlash.

Low internal take-up is a problem edtech can’t solve on its own, because it relates to the ways in which education is itself subject to resourcing constraint and political pressure. Across traditional higher education institutions, for example, increasing student enrolments mean less and less time that can be spent by individual teachers in learning thoroughly how to use a new LMS, or on the front-loading required to curate or develop high quality resources for online teaching.  Skilled and forward-looking institutions will find ways of planning to support teacher innovation, but many won’t have the luxury of doing this, as more time and resources are diverted to the endless raking of the parade ground of our research.

Low take-up is also the reason why the core promise at the heart of the “technology will save us all” claim is still a hollow one:

Educational institutions have a huge flow of data, some not even digitized, and have no way to pour through it to make smart decisions for their schools or more importantly for their students. Some of the companies have come up with ways to use data to incentive students with behavioral issues, make better use of a Principal’s time by giving them a dashboard of student and financial data in real-time, as well as share lesson plans all over the world.

As ever, we’re back to analytics. As ever, the capacity of schools, colleges and universities to make use of the additional data generated by online learning practices, as well as the rest of the huge flow of data they’re already trying to manage—some of which is indeed not even digitized—is going to be limited by the extent to which individual educators are able to use new learning tools easily, quickly and thoroughly, particularly assessment tools.

But at the moment, I suspect many institutions aren’t sure what kinds of learning practices we want to analyse, and some of us are starting to wonder about the risks of imposing further data-driven behavioural stereotypes on our students as the consequence of our new fascination with countable things.


One of the reasons I’ve been trying to take a more positive approach is Kim Thanos’ beautiful post on open education at e-Literate.  Kim makes this very important point:

When we choose not to engage with the commercial players, we lose the chance to shape their investments and contributions. We also lose access to great minds and genuinely good people who choose to contribute to improved education through a .com rather than a .edu affiliation.

I think she’s right, but I think this also means being really clear with commercial players about why we’re not engaged by their claims of overestimated uniqueness.  That’s not the conversation we’re trying to have, at all.

And this is what matters about the impression that had been created that Pearson entered into an exclusive embrace with Google in developing OpenClass, a scenario that has been adjusted by Google (and several other commentators) this week.  As someone from CourseDirector whispered among the deckchairs a few days ago, they are also “an existing LMS in the Google Apps Marketplace”.  Google is certainly the bride here, but there’s more than one bachelor.  And we’re not going to improve education by being casual with details like this.

UPDATE: I can’t recommend too highly Michael Feldstein’s excellent just-minted post on OpenClass.  It seems we’re all trying to figure out how to solve the “open, free, amazing” puzzle, but this post helped me understand how and we should all be invested in working constructively with commercial developers to ensure that education doesn’t inadvertently become the hapless mark to an irreversible (even if well-intentioned) long con.  As Michael writes, the issue continues to be one of “general trust”.

3 Responses

  • You know, I am always struck by the grandiose promises for any particular LMS, mainly because they seem to echo the claims about robotics in the domestic (as opposed to industrial) space many years ago. According to the promises and blue sky claims of the 1970s, my home would have no dust bunnies because the personal vacuuming robot would take care of them. The dust bunnies are alive at my place and are collected only when a member of the household pulls the modern vacuum cleaner out of the cupboard, plugs it in and pushes it around.

    I begin this way, because it is a reminder of how the LMS actually works, whatever whizz-bang bits of software are included, it depends on folks like me – teacher/researchers with full days to fill it with ‘content’, work out which bits are best for this particular material, these specific students and my teaching style. It’s the many steps in how this happens that concerns me because my experience with an LMS or two over the past decade has been more like getting the vacuum cleaner out than turning on the robot cleaner.

    I am wondering if any of the musicians out there among the deckchairs have found accounts of the what the commercial providers think the HOW is going to work. How will students and teachers learn to use the system and how will the tools work for the different needs of the various disciplinary teaching traditions? How will educational institutions be encouraged to provide adequate support for teachers and students trying to learn with those tools? I gave up going to workshops with promoters of the particular LMS I was using when one of the visiting experts admitted the at the you beaut ways I could use to promote conversation among class members on line would not work if there were more than one discussion group in class – so great for graduate seminars, but no go for big undergraduate classes. A bit like the little robots that are advertised today that don’t go into corners where the dust bunnies breed.

    In the humanities, at least, an LMS that doesn’t promote and support real conversation (as opposed to chat) is still like a notice board that is open to all posters and in which the act of posting itself is not very intellectually rewarding. So what are they saying about what’s out there that goes beyond analytics, just in time information and an online form of in class quizzes?

    Retired and loving it!

  • The current emphasis on analytics, workflow and automated assessment is so strong that the learning-by-conversation dimension has probably been overlooked even in the flurry of attention to “social learning”. The analogy with labour saving domestic technologies is one that has preoccupied quite a few historians who are sceptical about all this, because in many ways we’ve seen these claims before — and as you say, the self-propelled cleaner that won’t go where the dirt is is a painful analogy.

    Welcome to the deckchairs, Rebecca!

  1. Ambivalent on Ed Tech: The EDUCAUSE Re-write  October 25, 2011

    […] machines.  Since I always like Kate’s writing style at Music for Deckchairs, let’s go withher summary.The problem is the tsunami of corporate PR from edtech large and small that goes well beyond […]

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