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Ambivalent on Ed Tech: The EDUCAUSE Re-write

The following was posted as a guest blog on Michael Feldstein’s eLiterate site

Now that I’ve had time to digest the implications of EDUCAUSE 2011 – which were significant, but not as mind-blowing as the Reading Market experience – I keep going back to a post I wrote earlier this year (although not on e-Literate). In that post contrasting a Gartner report on IT spending with an Ambient Insight report on ed tech and online spending, I argued that ambivalence was the key to understanding both reports in context. Likewise, based on the hype and reality of ed tech at EDUCAUSE, ambivalence can help us understand future implications for education.

One of the benefits of blog posting is the ability to wholesale plagiarize yourself where needed (ed – I’ll see you in court, Mr. Hill). Herewith is my rewrite of that post based on this year’s EDUCAUSE experience.

ambivalence or ambivalency  (æmˈbɪvələns)   — n
the simultaneous existence of two opposed and conflicting attitudes, emotions, etc

Note – I’m using the phrase “ed tech” to mean technology impacting teaching and learning, somewhat similar to the phrase “academic technology”.

On one hand, ed tech is generating new interest from investors and from large publisher and technology firms. Arguably the biggest news at EDUCAUSE was the Pearson introduction of OpenClass (called a big deal by Michael Feldstein), along with the Blackboard counter-move to open up the internal content in their LMS. Less public, but also significant, is the investment and development of MindTap by Cengage Learning. Outside of the digital content and LMS space, more of the large technology firms were showcasing education-specific solutions rather than just laying out generic products. Ed tech is no longer the weaker sibling of ERP / administrative technology, as described by the Chronicle before the conference.

All week long, the conference will offer sessions on campus technology trends—so many that printing out the program exhausted our printer’s paper tray. To get a sense of what all those panels are about, we decided to make a “tag cloud” of all the session titles from the conference . . .

“Learning” appeared most frequently (probably a good sign for an education conference). More specifically, officials I’ve talked to recently said they were eager to hear about the latest in the battle to provide course-management systems to campuses, ideas for using “the cloud” (or, Web-based services), and examples of interesting mobile applications for teaching (for smartphones or tablet computers).

On the other hand, there is a lot of skepticism about the claims coming from ed tech PR 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 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.

To save you the time, I pulled out my Aussie-to-English dictionary to discover that “spruiking” roughly translates to “To promote a thing or idea to another person, in order that they buy the thing, or accept the idea”, although Bret and Jemaine might be offended.

What gives – should we view today’s ed tech market as the long-awaited investment in teaching and learning, or should we view ed tech as the over-hyped result of PR on steroids? I think the key is to separate the reality from the marketing, as we have some bold corporate investments and strategy that is unfortunately supported by too much old-style marketing. The engineers and strategists might have listened to Seth Godin, but the marketing groups and pundits could learn some lessons. As Joshua Kim has suggested in the context of OpenClass:

The beauty of a free offering is that the traditional sales and marketing channels and practices should not apply. There is no need to “sell” the LMS, only a need to get as many people as possible in the EDU community full access to the platform, and to share every detail about the technical specifications, cloud infrastructure, and product roadmap.

In other words, both views are accurate in my opinion. We are seeing potentially transformative ed tech offerings, but many of the skeptics are right to be distrustful of over-zealous traditional marketing. However, it would be a mistake to throw out the ed tech baby with the marketing water. To paraphrase Michael Feldstein’s excellent post on OpenClass, the hype will not matter too much in the long run, other than how it affects the issue of trust.

It is a good thing that ed tech is ascending at EDUCAUSE. How is this interest in ed tech playing out in higher ed spending patterns? Broadly speaking, there are three different trends in ed tech which may appear to conflict, one of which is trending down and two of which are trending up.

  • Spending on ongoing operations and maintenance of status quo is neutral or falling – Higher ed spending in particular is facing significant budget cuts, and the IT department has not been spared. Which CIO has not been asked to cut budgets?  Despite growing demands on network bandwidth and security, schools are still insisting that IT makes do with less.
  • Investment by the publishing industry is needed to move an obsolete model into the digital world – The major educational publishers know that the model has to change, and they are furiously working and spending to transform their business models.
  • Investors see vulnerabilities by established market leaders, particularly in LMS – This is leading to new investment for higher ed LMS competitors, and a new mentality.

In my mind, money is entering the market where transformation is possible. Transformation to online learning, transformation of the publishing model, transformation of the LMS space. Where technology is merely preserving, or even strengthening, the status quo, budgets are down and money is leaving the market.

Technology for technology’s sake is a hard sell. Technology to catalyze change is a much easier sell.