This article is more than 4 years old

Ed Tech and students

This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

People who sell education technology really love students. At least, they love the idea of them – actual students are a different matter.

I worked in education technology for more than a decade. One common trope I kept hearing was that providers had to invest in technology because “it is what students now expect”. Any number of  utterly useless platforms and tools have been commissioned, developed, and deployed on this basis – mostly to the horror of students themselves, and the staff who have to make them work.


Do you have a learning environment? It’ll be called Blackboard, or Moodle, or something like that. Your lectures use it to store copies of their notes and slides, a task which would be more easily done using literally any other tool. The most common use of these notes and slides is for revision – and imaging your delight when you find out you can’t get notes from your first and second year because the system is reset every year.

Why is this even a thing? Well, back in the 2000s the idea of “blended learning” was hugely fashionable, and this was the idea that some of your teaching would be online and some would be in the traditional lecture hall or seminar room. People waxed lyrical about the idea that one day you may be learning on your mobile phone on the bus on the way in to campus. The “virtual learning environment” or “managed learning environment” was meant to be the online space where the online component of learning would happen.

You’ll never guess what happened next

Students, as it turns out, weren’t so keen on asking questions in chat rooms or on message boards that their lecturers could see. They could very rarely find the impetus to dig out whichever log in and password they had to use to get to the practice quizzes or lists of further reading. The only time they could be bothered was come revision time when they wanted the notes and slides. Though a few brave academic souls tried to use the advanced features – a quiz! a blog! a wiki! a chat room! – the default became the path of least resistance. They had to do something, of course, as every module being partially online lead to some particularly depressing boasting in prospectuses.

What students actually did was use emerging technology in their own way. They did ask questions about their course, but on class facebook groups, text messages, and instant messaging systems . They did look for information, but on google and wikipedia. They did collaborate with their coursemates, but on google docs. A lot of learning was happening online, just not on the shiny, institutionally managed, virtual learning environment. So it was obvious what your university needed to do. Spend more money on an even shinier virtual learning environment, with all the features you were already using elsewhere but somehow worse.

It’s all about you

Because nearly all learning technology starts with you signing in, another early promise was the idea of “personalised learning”. This meant – as you worked your way through a series of practice questions like you totally do – the computer would “learn” which aspects of the course you were struggling with, and offer you more reading and practice based on what you are getting wrong. These days this data might be shared with your tutor or other parts of the university, in order that they can offer you the support you need. This idea is called “learning analytics”, a shinier version of the idea that you might have teaching in classes small enough that your lecture might get to know you a bit.

Though, on the face of it, the idea that in the modern university that if information exists that could help you get the support you need is a reasonable one, there have been some outlandish promises about the power of this data. It could stop you dropping out of uni! It could help identify whether students from your background were disproportionally struggling with the course. It could literally save your life.

Well, of course it can’t. What your university actually does to support you makes the difference – just having the data is pretty much useless without action. And – it can be argued – much of this action is stuff that universities should be doing with all students anyway. Listening to them. Getting to know them. Helping them.

Money money money

There’s big, big, money in education technology. The Department for Education even have a strategy setting out how they intend to help people make money from it. A former minister ran an “app competition” to offer advice and guidance to students – for no other reason than someone at the DfE thinks that “apps” are what the kids love. But this is peanuts compared to education technology in the US – in 2014 this was a multi-billion dollar sector, and it felt like everyone wanted in.

You might have heard of MOOCs – massive open online courses. Invented in Canada as a way of supporting learners use mainstream collaborative tools like twitter and wordpress, it metastasised into the idea that we could educate the world. With videos and pop-quizzes. For free. One early “innovator”, Sebastian Thrun, once said that in fifty years there would only be ten universities in the whole world, and that his platform – udacity… no, me neither – had a shot at being one of them. Universities were impressed and scared in equal measure, and started literally paying to have an expensively designed online course on a plaform like Coursera, EdX, or FutureLearn. Some still do.

Harder than it looks (to make money)

But you don’t hear much of this MOOC-hype these days, for one reason. It turns out that teaching online is hard. These platforms had drop-out rates above 80%, even when courses were free to take. These “innovators” could have learned these lessons from a small number of places that do this kind of thing really well – the Open University in the UK, Athabasca or Thompson Rivers in Canada. But though the products didn’t live up to the hype, the hype itself lingers on. Many people in your university still seriously think, despite all the evidence, that online learning is the future.

So when university committees talk about education technology (or technology in general) please use your voice. They think you love this stuff, and the shinier the better. Ask questions about the evidence underpinning the claims, ask about the cost, ask about who owns the intellectual property. Make sure that money gets spent on things students actually use – better wireless, easier sign in. Because you have a lot of power in this debate.


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