Book Review: 25 Years of Ed Tech, by Martin Weller

A new book from Martin Weller offers education technology what it often lacks - a history. David Kernohan has a read for Wonkhe.

Education technology (I still can’t quite bring myself to use the chummier “ed tech”) is a field with much to offer to the casual observer.

It’s the promotional equivalent of a Michael Bay movie – full of spectacle and raised stakes, world changing interventions and dynamic heroes. But, let us be frank here, perhaps a little light on actual substance or tangible change.

If you’ve worked in, or around higher education in the UK you’ll be aware that, despite the many promises of novelty, there is very little that is new in ed tech. It’s a concern that is so concerned with the future – as shiny and blockchain-based as it may be – that it has little opportunity to learn from the past. Most of the amazing new ideas you hear have been tried before, have failed before, and been evaluated before. Usually several times. But you’d never know.

Blogging is the first draft of history

What’s been missing is a readable history of ed tech. Martin Weller is well-qualified to write such a history – he’s worked in and around all of the key developments, and represents one of the later wave of early adopters for most of the technology that is now commonplace on campus.

He’s also a committed blogger – you’ll find the germs of many of the ideas in this book first expressed in the back-pages of “The Edtechie”, his long running personal blog that combines academic research, perfectly sarcastic technology and cultural commentary, and meanderings on other topics.

The premise is that mass-market education technology was twenty-five years old in 2018, give or take. This is an arguable point. Weller focuses on UK aspects web-based, connection-driven, end of the spectrum, for the early days of mechanical and electronic learning aids we must wait for Audrey Watters’ long awaited “Teaching Machines”. Each year is assigned a particular topic, more by a sense of aptness than chronological accuracy – “The Web” crops up in 1995, “E-Learning” in 1999. As Weller notes:

The result of this approach is that inevitably you will find yourself disagreeing with my selection at some point,”

Which, to me, is half the fun of a format that is essentially a long-form listicle.

Searching for the grand narrative

This approach has many advantages – the writing is lively and informed, the detail present without being overwhelming. One could imagine dipping in and out of the book, or reading a chapter during a quiet moment every day (two chapters if you’ve had a large breakfast).

But there are important links between these ideas that are difficult to identify here. For example, the chapters on “Learning Objects” and “E-Learning Standards” come directly before the introduction of the idea of “The Learning Management System,” but it was from the (IMS) standards agreement process that one of the more dominant LMSs of the past 20 years – BlackBoard – was developed. My point here is that these are not separate stories, and presenting them as such weakens one of the books central arguments – that history and connections matter.

Similarly – a strength of the book is the writing on various aspects of open education (“MOOCs”, the “Personal Learning Environment”, “Social Media”, “Connectivism”, “Open Textbooks”), as would be expected given Weller’s research interests. These chapters could be seen as an update of 2014’s “The Battle for Open” – but though each is excellent and informative, the wider course of the open education movement (or movements – there are many strands) is lost.

A learning design for life

Influential developments that fit in more than one category do not easily fit this format. Digital storytelling course of legend DS106 turns up in, of all things, a chapter on “Video” chronologically set six years before it started, despite illustrating perfectly the connectivist theory of learning that merits an entire chapter of well-founded debate and providing an important counterbalance to some of 2012s “MOOC” trends.

Perhaps more importantly for a UK-slanted history, the large part played by Jisc is almost completely obscured. I situate this in a sense of healthy rivalry between the Open University (which has always sought a national technology role) and Jisc (which has had one for – yes – twenty-five years). The funding and leadership shown by Jisc in many of the fields discussed has clearly shaped and continues to shape the sector relationship with technology. The use of terminology (and underlying assumptions) like LMS, rather than the more British Managed Learning Environment (MLE) and Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) rankles a little too.

I’d query also the novelty of “Ed Tech’s Dystopian Turn” – the undercurrents of critical perspectives on the more deterministic or disruptive elements of technology in education have been there for many years, and although the latter focus on social justice is new the growth of education technology as an academic field of enquiry is littered with theoretically informed critiques.

Indeed, some of the highlights of this volume for me were the sections specifically dealing with key theories – constructivism and the later connectivist offshoot are both covered with clarity and authority. Likewise Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruption, now mostly debunked in education, merits a delightfully robust pasting in the “MOOC” chapter.

Reclaiming history

The conclusion turns to the wider dissonance between technology and society, urging emphasis on the educational rather than technology. With the confidence to clearly assert that “technology is not ethically or politically neutral”, Weller’s thinking here represents the collision of a well-founded passion for the benefits technology can bring with our growing realisation that there are almost always significant issues of equity and transparency baked in to the design of technology and the way in which it is primarily used.

He doesn’t here go as far as more radical voices like Watters, McMillan Cottom, Bowles, Stewart and many others – all of which are cited as influential and important contributors to the field in the acknowledgements – but his separation of human and technological aspects of learning online, and a pointed section on the repetition and stasis that characterises the influence of disruption on education, are well judged.

This is a readable and solid introduction to education technology and the debates and research that surround it. It should be required reading for education technologists, planners, and curious academics, everywhere. But there is a nagging feeling that we have only scratched the surface, and education technology deserves far more historical analysis.

“25 Years of Ed Tech” by Martin Weller will be published on 28 February by the University of Athabasca Press priced at $21.99. It is also available under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 international license – an open access version will be published on the same day.

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