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Role of Educational Technology in Enabling Higher Ed Change

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

Over the weekend, and over the big pond, Music for Deckchairs had two interesting posts that called me out for perhaps being too optimistic on the transformation of LMS markets. The two posts referenced my recent posts on New Mentality Entering LMS Market and 3 Surprising LMS Market Observations, although I suspect they might indirectly reference Michael Feldstein’s posts support the same proposition – namely that the LMS market specifically, and ed tech market generally, is changing in significant ways that are going to have a big impact on higher education. Both posts from Music for Deckchairs are important reads.

The metaphor used in the first post is the benefits of having multiple lemonade vendors.

But I’m not so convinced that this argument scales up when the cup of lemonade is a campus LMS, as Phil Hill suggests on Michael Feldstein’s blog:

“However these battles shape up, higher education clients are going to be the richer for having true competition fueled by new investment – the Silicon Valley mentality, even if the geographic locations are not in Silicon Valley.”

The problem is that the virtues of competition imagined here are limited by the extent to which ‘higher education clients’ can match the volatility of innovation and investment conditions with some nimble contractual skipping of their own.

To be fair, I am not arguing that purely having additional competitors is the driving force of change. Technology should not be the point of change. My argument is that the nature of the new competitors is different and that the Silicon Valley mentality will lead to newer LMS approaches – this mentality is the driving force of change. Further, one of the characteristics of this mentality is that it is naively paying more attention to what faculty, instructional designers and students need in the learning process, rather than focusing mostly on institutional needs. I sense that people are starting to sell Gatorade based on what the passing parade has shown a need for, rather than just copying lemonade because that is what is for sale already. Additionally, several of the lemonade vendors are or will start offering Gatorade as well.

The argument goes further to show how higher educational decision-making is a laborious process, which results in an institution being taken off the market for several years.

And in practice, this means that they’re looking for single, campus-wide solutions locked in for several years to create the impression that online learning represents stability, durability and consistency with the traditional vision of higher education.

I agree that the process itself is problematic, as are contracts that lock in solutions for multiple years. However, I think that effectively done, LMS vendor selection can do a lot more than just create impressions and avoid real change. Real pedagogical changes may be more prevalent at for-profit institutions and online programs, but I believe there are beneficial changes coming to traditional brick-and-mortar universities as well.

Once we get to the conclusion of the first post, Music for Deckchairs states:

So the thing that needs to change if higher education is going to take advantage of the kinds of developments that the new cashed up, cloud-seeking LMS vendor culture can offer, is higher education. We’re going to need to become much more open to the idea of diverse solutions being in different stages of evaluation and use across the institution simultaneously. We’re going to have to incorporate multiple social media streams into the way we plan, research and teach, which will mean asking the marketing department to learn to share. And we’re going to have to stop saying that the generation that hops from Facebook to YouTube and Twitter can’t work across multiple systems at once.

I completely agree that higher education itself needs to change to take advantage of the ed tech developments. His or her point is well-stated. What I think is missing, however, is that if my analysis of the trends is accurate, the LMS technology is becoming less and less of a barrier to change, and in fact could spur some useful changes within higher education.

There is a symbiotic relationship between effective ed tech and higher ed in terms of changing the status quo. Higher ed need to be willing to change and willing to articulate academic and institutional needs, but ed tech vendors should not just react to these needs – in the same way that higher ed should not just react to the technology. Change is an interdependent process. Quite often technology can show what is possible, which will let the clients innovate, adopt, and occasionally have an ‘aha moment’  where they can apply the technology to real-world problems. My argument is that the second half of this relationship, the change in LMS market, is starting to happen much more so that in the past, and that higher ed is going to benefit.

In Music for Deckchair’s second post:

The realisation that this level of failure is so routine has added to my thinking yesterday about the lack of real competitive energy in the higher education technology market. The leaden nature of contract timing means, frankly, that vendors have become used to being able to disappoint us.  We’re locked in and they know it. So again, the significance of the recent wins that Phil Hill has tracked in the emerging LMS vendor market isn’t the size of the institution or the number of users, even though these are truly impressive: it’s the length of the contract, and the time it will take for that institution and its users to come back on the market. Until then, the vendor is more or less safe from the consequences of poor design, and incomplete or stalled development.

I think we’re in general agreement here, but I would add that the LMS market changes underway will mean that from a market perspective vendors will not “become used to being able to disappoint us”. Even if specific institutions are locked in, there is such churn in the market, and the people in higher ed talk to each other so freely, that a vendor that counts on being “safe from the consequences of poor design” will lose market share. The ed tech market is becoming more healthy, in terms of competition leading to academic benefits, than it has been in the past.

I want to avoid being an ed tech Pollyanna – I do not think all problems are being addressed in the LMS market, and not all vendors will change for the better. However, I do think the LMS market is becoming more competitive in a healthy manner, and the LMS designs and business models will be far less of a barrier, and more of an enabler, to these changes moving forward.