25 Years of Ed Tech

I’ve enjoyed the journey through Martin Weller’s “25 Years of Ed Tech” this spring. Martin worked with Athabasca University Press to publish the book with a Creative Commons license. This allowed Clint Lalonde to produce a community-sourced audio book, with chapters read by folks from all over the English-speaking world. Laura Pasquini coupled the audio book with a weekly podcast, in which she discussed each chapter with experts in the field to delve deeper into each topic and its implications for education. And while the podcast has ended, all of the audio is still available. So you can go back and listen to it now, or use it as the basis for a book study. Or a MOOC on the impact of technology on education. Or, really, just a converation starter about edtech.

Conveniently, the timespan of this book mirrors my own career. On my first day using the Internet (back in 1989), I discovered the CoSy bulletin board system, which Martin references in chapter one. In the mid-90s, I was teaching middle schoolers to create web sites. I discovered personal learning networks around 2006, right in the middle of the “let’s use technology to connect with one another” movement. I lived through portfolios and digital badges and open resources and learning mangement systems, and I have the scars to prove it. Working in K-12, we also edured personal response systems (“clickers”), embraced Smart Boards, and sailed through Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies before realizing that it was easier and more equitable to put Chromebooks or iPads into the hands of every learner through 1:1 programs.

Every technology has been heraleded as revolutionary. Every innovation has been promoted as a way to reinvent education. And yet, when the dust settles, we’re still here. We spend a lot of money, we invest a lot of time, and almost everything is still the same as it was before.

Weller describes this as a strength. Education and technology operate on completely different time scales. Institutions of higher learning are centuries old. Even the most successful technology companies are babies by comparison, and most of the tech leaders don’t stay on top for very long. When was the last time you used Yahoo! to search for something? When I was regularly webcasting ten years ago, we couldn’t live without Delicious or Skype. Remember Ning and Elgg and even Moodle? Being first to market and quick to innovate is the mantra of the tech world. But the shooting stars burn out fast, and they leave schools having to constantly “innovate” to the next new thing just to keep up.

I’ve recognized this friction between the slow change in education and the fast pace of technology for my whole career. I’ve seen edtech leaders become laser focused on their goals, and work tirelessly for years to achieve them, not realizing along the way that they’d become irrelevant. The constant cycle of “shiny and new” is also exhausting. This new app / device / strategy / metaphor is going to change the way learning happens in our schools. Uh huh. Tell me more. There’s a reason I’ve been referred to as the “curmudgeon in residence,” and that title is not entirely unwarranted. As someone who has championed, purchased, implemented, supported, upgraded, deprecated, and recycled millions of dollars’ worth of educational technology, I’m skeptical about the promises of the latest innovative technology. That skepticism makes us stronger.

Weller is also the first person I’ve seen describe the cyclical nature of educational technology. This is something that has shown up in my Think Book a few times, but I’ve never managed to get those ideas developed enough to warrant a blog post. I first noticed it looking at the Horizon Report years ago. A new technology would show up one year with tremendous fanfare, but with no real instructional application. Then, it would disappear for a few years before coming back rebranded as an educational application. Still, it’s often, in this second iteration, a solution looking for a problem. It’s not until the third time it comes around that is has a meaningful impact as a component of a more systemic application that addresses an actual need.

Artificial intelligence is one example. The first time we saw it, everyone was talking about Turing tests and revolutionary technology with no real application in schools. The second time, it came back as adaptive skills practice. Give students multiplication facts to practice on the computer. Adjust the questions to better meet the students’ needs. They already know their 2’s and 5’s. Focus more on the 7’s and 8’s. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t really address the fact that we should be spending less time memorizing multiplication facts and more time developing an understanding for what multiplcation is, and how it’s used. The next time AI comes around, it’ll be much more useful. Gamification, virtual worlds, cloud computing, and learning analytics are technologies that have made similar spirals. Of these, cloud computing is really the only one to have a transformative effect on how schools operate, at least at the K-12 level.

All of this inevitably leads back to the fundamental question of my career: is educational technology really worth the effort? There’s not a clear answer. Technology adoption is never as easy or transformative as we want it to be. It’s messy. There are challenges and setbacks. When positive effects are seen, they’re incremental rather than transformational. I’m often challenging my teachers — and myself — to articulate how a technology helps us do things that we can’t do without it, and why those things are worth doing.

Schools need to evolve. Our students need more than content. They have to know what to do with knowledge. They must become learners and leaders and collaborators and innovators. Technology will help us get there. But as we’ve learned over the last 25 years, it’s a long road, and we need to travel it with purpose and patience.

2 Comments

  1. Schools aren’t the only areas of society that need to evolve and it’s not just students who need to become learners and leaders and collaborators and innovators. I see close parallels in the business world to what you observe in the educational world.

    The term “paperless office” was first used in 1978, but how many truly paperless offices do you know? I encountered a fair dose of skepticism in 2018 when assuring my main client that I could convert them to a fully paperless environment, especially since the artistic director proudly self-identified as a Luddite. But when COVID hit in March of 2020, that small arts organization didn’t miss one beat and easily, effortlessly pivoted to work-from-home for all because they were truly, fully, paperless. What’s more, I accomplished the transition using completely free open-source tools. So while the transition required the implementation of new business processes and ways of thinking, it didn’t cost the organization one cent and demonstrably saved both time and money.

    In this example, the technology implementation was still messy through the transition because humans usually approach change with fear, trepidation, and unhealthy skepticism, but it was absolutely transformative. And what’s more, what I implemented is completely scalable to larger organizations – if they have the courage to believe it can be done and to leave the known, familiar, and comfortable for the improvements that could be theirs. The best organizations – and people – find the courage to joyfully embrace change for the improvements it can bring – and thrive in times like we are experiencing now.

  2. Love this, John! My students were linked to this as a recommended resource – not only because it’s an excellent walk down memory lane, but because some weren’t born 25 years ago or are only familiar with technology integration due to the pandemic. In my parting email this week, I’ll share your post with them as additional fodder. Thanks (as always) for sharing!

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