If EdTech is Dead, What Then?

Following my attendance at ISTE ‘18 recently, I wrote a blog post in which I suggested that EdTech is dead. This was the essence of my perspective:

“If education is to be the target of an industry that has grown increasingly obsessed with standardisation, control, automation, and delivery efficiencies, then we must opt out. This is not to say that we should abandon digital tools in the classroom. Far from it. … But learning needs to reside with the individual learner in mind, not with an industrial mindset that is driven by a desire to impose efficiency and control solutions on all.

My blog is intended as a series of provocations on education and this post seemed to resonate with a wide readership, prompting discussion, debate, and many thoughtful insights. The purpose of a provocation is not simply to provoke interest, but also to articulate questions that can hopefully provide pause for reflection and perhaps even lead to some action. When I say that EdTech is dead I am actively questioning a particular approach to learning that starts with the technology, rather than the learner in mind. Not a day goes by without further evidence of attempts to reduce learning to a tech-controlled process of benign efficiencies and impersonal calculations. This trend is far from dead, but the values and beliefs of those of us who believe in the transformative potential of computing in education have, I believe, been compromised. People like Gary Stager have been making this case with eloquence for a long time. We must put learners first. We need to get back to the promise of technology serving learning.

Some misinterpreted my post as a dismissal of the role of technology in learning. I am a staunch advocate for technology in education as a powerful tool to empower learners to take charge of and amplify the learning process. While major advances have been made over the years, there is also a legacy of schools getting this wrong. A classic example was the deployment of Technology Facilitators. Invariably, the trend was to find “tech people” and try to get them to fit their gadget knowledge into the classroom. The logical approach, of course, is to find a great teacher first and foremost, one who knows how to use technology with a deep understanding of both teaching and learning. In order to consider EdTech as being dead, one simply needs to reject the notion that the tech industry can continue to dictate how learning should work. No educator should accept this and we should be vigilant of the dubious narratives that we are being sold. We must always start with the learner. We must never lose sight of that starting place. We also have an obligation to take a stand on behalf of the profession of teaching.

Some will argue that Google, Microsoft, Apple, Pearson and others are committed to “personalising” learning. When the processes deployed to achieve this objective are often, by their very nature, egregiously impersonal, we should carefully question the merits of such attempts. How do we truly personalise learning? Is it not as simple as what Will Richardson recently suggested: “Maria Montessori knew it. John Dewey knew it. Seymour Papert knew it. Deb Meier has known in for half a century: Learning happens more deeply when kids are in charge, when they have choice, when they have freedom and agency.” I would strongly contend that we should actively challenge initiatives that reduce student and teacher choice, freedom, and agency. I am also reminded by George Couros that there needs to be a middle ground here – an open conversation around these issues – rather than a polarised set of positions. For instance, I use Google extensively in my personal and professional life. Many of these tools provide users with opportunities that enhance learning and collaboration. But Google Classroom, for instance, is essentially a teacher-centric content delivery system that is increasingly focused on the inertia of control. We must challenge such developments. I don’t think any of us want to find ourselves in an ecosystem that has morphed to facilitate all that is wrong about learning as delivery, lazy assessments, mechanistic regulation, and measurement tools. Educators and learners themselves should have a voice in this conversation.

It could be suggested that events such as ISTE are an honest attempt to have these conversations, but like the tech companies themselves that dominate such events, when these things become too unwieldy, it’s difficult to find an authentic voice, to hear a fresh perspective, to empower an unconventional mindset, to take informed action – to help shape the technologies that we want to use in schools with the learner, not the lowest common denominator or profit to scale in mind. We need to start with clearly established learning principles, then design the learning environment around these. Schools and school districts need to start having these critical conversations themselves as part of their routine professional dialogue. In the globally networked world that technology provides, we don’t need to rely on associations, societies or collaboratives in order to have these conversations. 

As part of our own effort, we began this conversation almost two years ago at The International School of Brussels at our first Learning by Design gathering. From the beginning, LbD aspires to be more a conversation than a one-off conference. It’s a conversation that includes students, parents, and all staff members that seeks to challenge assumptions about where schools are, where they are going, and how we can get there. Technology is a significant part of this exchange, but this is a conversation about learning, not technology. We have noted recently that more schools and organisations are joining this conversation and we welcome this. We’d love to have you join us and hear if you’d like to come and share your thoughts on learning by design with us. You can learn more about this opportunity here. You can also join the conversation without attending and – if you are interested – you can let us know if you would like to join us in person and we can consider supporting your attendance if you let us know how you would like to contribute to and help shape this ongoing discussion.

Let’s imagine what learning can be, not how we can run it to scale with organisational and industry needs driving the agenda.Learning should be by design, not product. Learners first.