EdTech: something so important nobody is talking about it. Yet.

A couple of years ago I suggested in an interview that university education had, in its basic methodology, hardly changed since the Middle Ages. I was of course being deliberately provocative and was exaggerating my argument, but nevertheless I did believe that I was making a valid point. Over the next few days I was met with howls of indignation, some of them in public and in print, from colleagues in other institutions who said my assertions were ludicrous; and who listed the zillions of things that had changed in universities since Thomas Aquinas had paced the lecture rooms of the University of Paris in 1250. Certainly he wasn’t holding an iPad as he paced, and he was never having to address the attentions of the Quality Assurance Agency. He might even have been quite unable to explain the nature and purpose of a MOOC. You get the idea.

None of that of course was my point, and me being me, I probably expressed myself badly. I certainly wasn’t out to insult anyone, as I have nothing but respect for those who labour in the vineyards of academia, and who do not get the recognition they deserve. What I was trying to convey was that we were using the same pedagogical understanding of our educational process as in the Middle Ages, and that while we may have adopted various new methods of communication and technology, these did not change our understanding of what was involved in teaching and learning. I don’t believe that even the adoption of ‘learning outcomes’ changes the game fundamentally.

So what we have, mostly, is a new technological portfolio sitting on top of traditional pedagogy. But because the technology is now so ground-breakingly different, it is becoming more and more important to have a proper insight into how disruptive this can be. The thinking that has emerged so far, usually contained under the heading of EdTech (which however covers education at all levels, not just higher education), has tended to be driven more by industry than by academia. More interestingly, it has become an increasingly fertile terrain for entrepreneurs and start-ups. Now interest by governments is emerging, and with it the potential for some funding; though it is not at all clear yet where that funding will actually go.

It has been a recurrent theme of this blog that we need much deeper thinking on pedagogy. This is as true in EdTech as anywhere else; but it should be a call to universities to take that on and accept the potential benefits of technology that may disrupt our traditional understanding of education; and to own the policy ideas that underpin it.

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14 Comments on “EdTech: something so important nobody is talking about it. Yet.”

  1. Vince Says:

    I believe I’ve been arguing this for quite some time, but you have countered that there is no business case. Indeed you argued it was akin to any other tech start-up that would probably slough off for want of an income.
    Me, I think an major error was made by the Uni’s about 2012 when it seemed the English speaking ones offered courses that amounted to a gigantic waste of time. They amounted to a strangling of the medium. Now I think to get into it they will have to spend huge amounts for platforms and licensing. When they could’ve done 15 min vids, put them on Youtube and got an income from the advertising.


    • Thanks, Vincent. I don’t think I'[ve ever argued the case against EdTech or technology more widely. What I have said (and still say) is that MOOCs will not become standard practice, or at least not the key basis for a university business model. Different thing!

      • Vince Says:

        My argument has been that MOOCs would form a part of the whole. One that would be supported by other endeavors and that they would provide a lead-in to a larger course. Or a top-up later on.
        At the moment we are trying to play the US game with education. And to some extent it suits politically to form semi plausible exclusions barriers fees generate.
        To my mind if education is treated as a fundamental to the survival of the State then it should be life-long. Such when a new Masters or whatever is required because the industry has shifted, it is paid by the State. But this would mean that all kids have all the chances, and all the way along. From the day they are born.
        So my question is, and always was, how do I get as many people into education as possible and in a way that gives them the greatest chance to fly. And how do I obliterate dams and nasty little leats that by-pass rough passages for a pampered cohort.

  2. Fiona Says:

    I totally agree. When you look at the massive changes in almost any other industry sector, major disruption to HE is long overdue. But who will be the first movers? I can’t see it happening in the UK.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    “The thinking that has emerged so far, usually contained under the heading of EdTech (which however covers education at all levels, not just higher education), has tended to be driven more by industry than by academia.”

    This is the key question for me, academia cannot be oblivious to EdTech innovations, rather it needs to fully understand its pedagogical implications by adding the kind of philosophical and ethical complexity which is often missing from such discussions where technologies are considered neutral tools and education is just a business like any other. Universities have a long tradition of asking ethical and political questions about changing technologies, this is exactly the time for such a tradition to get a revamp!

  4. Lesley Says:

    I think there is also an issue of facilitation and translation of educational pedagogy. Academics who teach are usually subject specific and have little knowledge of the new tools that could make a difference and be ‘disruptive’. The technology gurus know the technology and not the pedagogy. What is needed is the facilitator or the translator who is the lynchpin, the boundary spanner to join both together and to make it work. We have two sectors who work together on the periphery of each others’ disciplines but who need to collaborate better but need someone to make it work. I don’t think this is a task for either sector ….


  5. I think we need to think about this a little more before doing anything.

  6. James Fryar Says:

    I thought I might share a story … almost 20 years ago I found myself increasingly frustrated when trying to give physics lectures. The problem was that the theory and maths described dynamic systems – things that moved like waves and gases, planets and particles and yet there we were sticking up flat 2D diagrams and illustrations we’d scanned from text books. With the tech available, we could have been showing students 3D simulations and graphics. We could have improved their ability to visualise what the maths actually meant. And while everyone agreed this would be nice, there was no appetite to try and go about organising it. I suggested we could get a postgraduate to compile lists of visualisation aids for first year courses, work with me to develop those animations, and keep them all in a database to be used by staff. But there were questions over the pedagogical benefit … what source did I have that this would improve things? Well none, but surely we could evaluate that as part of a follow up study I argued. Then the questions started about whether such a project was academically weighty enough for postgraduate to obtain a Masters based on it.

    In the end, I gave up. And I guarantee that today that students are still seeing the same, static, 2D diagrams I saw despite 20 years of tech advancement. VR? Might get to teach students with that in 2100 …

    Although I did suggest this to a former student who is trying to set up a company to produce such ‘science animations’ and sell them off like stock photos!


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