What’s THE BIG PROBLEM in Edtech? Depends how you define it.

An example of simulated data modelled for the ...
A big explosion of data, signifying… what, exactly? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One thing I notice after following several edtech theorists for years is that we’re all creating solutions to different problems, calling that THE BIG PROBLEM in edtech, and talking too little about the different contexts we’re in and unique challenges we are attempting to address. Michael Feldstein calls for A Theory of Change, and I think to get there, we need to be more explicit about what specific problems our edtech is designed to solve.

Jim Groom defines THE BIG PROBLEM that commercial edtech too often disempowers individuals. The solutions he creates are optimized to help individuals learn about their tech tools while they complete coursework, and to empower individuals to own and control their technology. He talks little about other considerations that, at least at SMU where I worked for the last four years, are also important– getting coherent institutional data about achievement, preserving and reusing learning materials, and streamlining the user experience for students and faculty who don’t want to commit any cognitive overhead to understanding how their tools work. These are problems that the central LMS does well, and that networked blogs do poorly. That’s OK– it is what it is– but it means that what works well one place isn’t necessarily the right solution somewhere else.

Stephen Downes defines THE BIG PROBLEM as learners not developing lifelong learning skills and needing to know how to independently research, network, and create. The solutions he creates are optimized for self-guided, open ended learning. That approach is incompatible with standards-based or competency-based learning, in which all students are required to show mastery of specific skills and knowledge. His approach is great for highly educated professionals who already have “learned how to learn”, and who are learning for professional enrichment. It doesn’t make sense for struggling high school students who need to develop basic literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, and social skills so they can progress beyond secondary education and into higher ed.

Audrey Watters defines THE BIG PROBLEM as technology that standardizes and automates educational tasks, to the point where they diminish individual rights and freedoms. The solutions she creates calls for are optimized to counteract against centralized surveillance, cultural hegemony, and technological control. She tends not to discuss the fact that the shortcomings of these edtech “monsters” can easily be overcome by intelligent instructional design, and that they baby does not need to be thrown out with the bathwater.

I define THE BIG PROBLEM as being that students are too seldom required to demonstrate mastery of content and critical thinking skills, taught these skills explicitly, and fully supported to reach mastery. Teachers’ time is used inefficiently, filled with lecturing, classroom management administrivia, and having to build their own curriculum (when existing curriculum could be built upon). My solution is to automate everything that doesn’t promote interaction between teacher/student, student/student, and student/content, freeing faculty to spend more time and attention on questioning and revising student work to mastery. I also believe that students should have access to more support staff to provide a higher level of interaction and support than is currently the norm in higher ed. This is the approach that makes sense with learners who are less well-prepared for college, who require clear expectations, interpersonal attention, and support to reach mastery. It probably doesn’t work in every context, but it’s been the magic bullet in the places I’ve worked.


That’s why I am so passionate about promoting Competency-Based Ed, because it solves these problems by design– even while contradicting some of the wisdom of the theorists I so admire above. That’s why I’m willing to use a centralized LMS — because I think that generating data on student progress can actually empower institutions to develop proactive strategies for catching learners when they struggle, leading to improved student achievement. That’s why I am OK with repurposing Open Ed Resources (or even licensing content from publishers like Pearson, where I work) — because I think that the time faculty put into developing original content takes away from time interacting with students deeply to support mastering content.

I think that everyone brings valuable insights, and that we’re all masters of a variety of tools. Unfortunately, few of us are free from the human bias that “when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. We tend to define the problems against the tools we have, rather than identifying THE BIG PROBLEMS (using data) and then developing tools to address those.  It may very well be that what we end up with is a set of best practices for each unique context that looks very different from place to place.



This post has provoked a rollicking discussion on Google+. I’m embedding Laura Gibbs reshare of it (and the resulting conversation) so you can see where we’ve gone. I plan to work some of these comments into a new post, so stay tuned.


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