Prologue and Introduction: Education Technology's Unrequited Introduction

Click reply to share your thoughts on the prologue and introduction. Some discussion questions are below, but feel free to respond with any thoughts you have.

  • What from the prologue and introduction resonates in the current pandemic?
  • What is your reaction to the argument that a close study of education technology history can help us make better choices in the present?
  • Are there bold predictions made by education technology advocates that you feel have proven to be true?
  • Would you consider yourself an edtech charismatic, tinkerer, or skeptic? Do these categories capture how different people approach online learning?
  • What do you make of the argument that schooling organizations are both complex and conservative–and therefore difficult to change?
  • The book focuses on “learning at scale,” defined as “learning environments with many, many learners and few experts to guide them.” How might these arguments be different if the author focused on a different segment of education technology?

Hi everyone, I hope it’s ok to start posting questions and thoughts. I’ve only read the introduction so far and my experience with thinking about education is pretty new so please take my two statements with a grain of salt!

Firstly, I suppose I’m more of a tinkerer. I make educational videos on control theory. They aren’t intended to be a complete source of learning, or provide assessment, or anything else associated with LMS’s. My hope for them is that they are used in two ways; as supplemental support for struggling, but motivated students looking for another explanation, and for educators who want to incorporate them into their existing curriculum. These videos are viewed 10’s-100’s of thousands of times, so they definitely have many learners, but the learners are guided by their local experts and not an algorithm or by the videos themselves. So, it’s a many to many relationship. I feel that they are still part of EdTech, but based on the requirement of “few experts”, I don’t think this type of resource is considered part of learning at scale ecosystem. Is that the correct way to view this?

Secondly, if I understand the prompt correctly, I think the complexity of schooling organizations is what makes it necessarily conservative. To the engineer in me, it feels like designing a successful educational system is an optimization problem. We’re trying to maximize some objective(s); where we can loosely think of objectives as the things that benefit the students, the families, and the educators. There is the obvious objective, prepare students for what comes next (like more schooling or to enter the workforce), but I imagine there are (possibly) hundreds of additional objectives beyond this. Things like providing a social experience, and keeping students physically active, and feeding them, and watching them during the day, and so on.

And just like a complex engineering project, these objectives can be in conflict with each other. So, rather than find the perfect optimal solution that maximizes each of these, the result is something that balances each of them as best we can. Which I imagine could be a different balance depending on location and culture and many other things. And the way we’ve arrived at this point (I believe), and the way we continue to make improvements is where small and manageable iterations slowly change the system over time. These small adjustments allow people to easily test a hypothesis (e.g. “my change is going to improve the balance of each of the objectives”) without much risk because not much is changed and would then have to be undone if the hypothesis was false. But this type of evolutionary design can end up with a system that has hidden benefits. It has evolved into something complex enough that we don’t have a good holistic view of everything that it is doing for the students, the families, and the educators.

Therefore, it is really hard to totally overhaul a complex system from scratch like this without really understanding and starting from the objectives of the original system. And if you try, you risk missing an objective that you didn’t realize was important or didn’t know about. And this has a lot of risks associated with it since it’s much harder to undo a large change if we find out that the solution isn’t as optimal across the board as what we had before. So, it’s probably better to stay conservative and make incremental changes if you don’t have a good set of objectives, rather than make a large change and risk the future of the unfortunate students that have to test it out!

Again, this is from my experience in engineering. I don’t really know the state of education. Maybe researchers know all of the benefits of the current schooling organizations and the EdTech that has failed in the past either didn’t start from those objectives or maybe they just tried to tackle a problem that can’t completely be met with technology.

Thanks for reading all of this and I’m looking forward to what others have to say about it and the rest of the prompts!

Thanks for kicking off the discussion Brian with these very thoughtful remarks! These ideas will be useful framing for our first discussion on Monday.

I am totally feeling for Justin having this book written and then the pandemic shutdowns happening! Nice job in the introduction making a frame of it.

I have been straddling the worlds of research and attempts to scale ed tech since 2004 and have always felt huge tension there. My attempts to scale are with relatively simple technology (digital homework systems with traditional question types) while my research is in game-based learning and assessment. One thing I learned is that when you are on the research side, there is a group of innovative teachers eager to adopt these cool new tools. They will give your early feedback that the thing you are making is amazing and will change what they do in the classroom. They will give you great quotes to use in talking about what you’re making. They will push you to make even more complex features in the thing you’re making. But these teachers are at the far end of the bell curve of a lot of characteristics: time spent, technology comfort, etc. And we have so many teachers that it can even seem like you have a good number of teachers engaged. But you have probably not reached that big middle of the curve. True scale is about reaching that middle. And they have little time, little patience for tinkering themselves, and many constraints in their systems. And most of those great new well-researched tools will not make it to scale.

This seems to imply that those doing the design of educational technology need to understand how those teachers in the middle of the curve see problems and what they prioritize. But this is against the very notion of those who think they can come in and disrupt. They point to the Henry Ford quote about if he asked people what they wanted, they’d say a faster horse. They point to all the other places where ultimately something has come in to completely disrupted how we do things.

I like the framing of tinkering introduced here. I think the skeptics, the tinkerers, and the charismatics actually see different problems to be solved. That is one area I’d love to discuss more.

I’m also looking forward to talking about is why education seems not to be a place where disruption
like the automobile, iphone, etc. can/will happen.

(And just a note, I do now report to Sal Khan and yes I was hired to bring my knowledge of learning science and schools into the company as we make a serious attempt to integrate with schools. Is he the charismatic and I the tinkerer? Stay tuned!)

I appreciated the liminality of the moment as you expressed it. I am not sure how I might have begun an argument about the glacial change in education’s relationship to on-line learning at that moment. I am a classroom teacher. The description resonated for me. I am a tinkerer - but I have my days…

I think that Kristen spoke well to “the rabbits and the snails” who populate our classrooms. I agree that much of what makes schools’ relationships to technology complicated is the wide range of ability and comfort levels with technology generally and ed tech specifically. My own experience with my colleagues is that they are conservative in their adaptation because they are fearful that they will loose control or loose face. When those fears are addressed, they will make incremental changes. For a long time there have been two problems: inadequate time and inadequate tools to get the middle of the curve past their anxiety. For a long time minutes learning how to use the rubric features of an LMS are minutes not discussing DEI, dates for testing or any of the other issues teachers feel pressing. At my school those minutes came at the beginning of the year and among competing priority. I can go on and on about the sociology change management at schools. Suffice to say, beyond understanding the politics and the constituencies outlined on page 9, much change has languished because we underestimate the nuances of teaching teachers.

Still, I want to highlight the Rainbow Bracelets, gardening teachers and other ways in which learning on line has become synonymous with life-long learning: intellectual, practical and socio-emotional. I agree wholeheartedly that on-line learning is a beautiful (and possibly life-changing) thing when it happens. These examples raise for me questions about the nature of school and expertise.

As you talked today, I also thought about the 1619 Project, the wide range of organizations like the First Amendment Center and SHEG that have produced and distributed curriculum on-line. To some extent these are examples of the philanthropic by-pass that through small but ubiquitous offerings has shaped education. But the far more powerful agent of change is Google’s suite for educators. I would be really interested to hear you talk about the history of Google’s relationship to educational products and to schools. Are Chris and Audrey cynical about the roots and results of the ubiquity of google docs and slides?

I am really interested to read more about MOOCS and the degree to which they have provided workable alternatives to brick-and-mortar schools. I would also to hear some thoughts about the power that colleges and universities have to solidify social capital. We concluded the conversation with a comment about the history of education. Can we talk about the ways in which maintaining brand, means maintaining the traditional faculty-student relationships?

That description of being fooled by the early adopters into thinking you have great engagement makes so much sense! I see that with students as well because most of the students that seek out and watch my videos are the ones motivated enough to do so. So when I see the engagement and comments on what I create it is easy to assume that this style of video works universally, but more than likely it’s just biased by the upper bell curve. I’ll have to keep that in mind.

Thanks for posting your thoughts, @Kristen!

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Thank you for providing this opportunity for discussion. I have been working in curriculum development and online course delivery for higher education institutions going on 11 years now. My first reaction when the pandemic hit and all colleges announced their quick “switch to online” was, this is not going to work. As may of us already know, building meaningful learning experiences in an online environment takes time and expertise, and in my opinion, excellent faculty to facilitate the content.

I consider myself a tinkerer and derive a lot of enjoyment from the challenges and questions our faculty bring up on a regular basis. I like to experiment with different tools and software and I am always on the lookout for new ways to make content delivery more efficient and accessible to our students.

About 50% of my work time is dedicated to course design and delivery and supporting faculty. The other 50% of the time is spent on regulatory compliance - both for accrediting bodies and state DOHE entities. It isn’t only that schooling organizations are complex and conservative, it is also the regulatory process and requirements that make change incredibly difficult at any level. Of course I recognize that proper oversight by these entities is paramount to ensuring the quality of the programs; however, the way these systems operate is still quite antiquated and they are slow to implement any type of meaningful change.

I am looking forward to diving deeper into these conversations as I progress through the book. Thank you for providing this opportunity to engage in conversation, particularly for those of us who do not have the ability to “geek-out” with other edtech folks.

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What intrigues me about this prologue video ( is that “institutions” still set curriculum - set by the same people who were schooled by them, schooled to think in a specific way, in a culture that demands to uphold a specific process to maintain an archaic methodology.

How can there then be change? - let alone what is tech’s role?

This is fairly crazy, in my perspective. We appear to be measuring success by what happens “IN” the institution, which, is apparently preparing the student for what happens after they LEAVE the institution. And here is a disconnect, and why i believe that the disruption is not really disruptive - because the curriculum deos nto prepare the student for business/workplace. (funny video to help illustrate my thinking

So if the success of the student is what happens after their time in the institution, maybe the institutions have to change the rules of the educational system - to enable the business success drivers?

All Tech in every industry is just the enabler, and illuminates the process/system - if that is failing then tech will just illuminate that.

“Education is a place to be watched by your teachers”… INside of schools/institutions and again - this is convergent thinking to watching IN the institution - rather than learning to watch OUTside of the institution.

Yeah this super true, that the 50% of your time spent on regularity compliance is exactly what disruptive industries, areas, people etc ignore. That is the reason of failure of disruption. But we seems to continue to listen to the same researched voices (professors who aim to maintain the education system status quo -)

Like the panel said in the video, it is often not educationalists that create the edTech. Bang on!
This could be the reason that that the tech has slow adoption, (not the students but the educators) because disruptive technology is forced into a non-disruptive, forced compliance regulation space, that just hinders the disruption.

Thank you @Kristenfor your great comment. You have triggered my mind to this thought…

Learning at scale (as a thought) does not make sense - it seems that this is about forcing more content into the brain - probably to write an end of semester exam - to measure the success of the educator by the number of students that pass…

… and as you articulated so well (in the context of teachers - but i believe is the same context in business), there is “little time, little patience for tinkering themselves, and many constraints in their systems” to explore out of curriculum content… (won’t be tested, lets not waste our time)
And then as you said about design… I believe that the disruptive learning technology should be the bridge over the gap that the end user can access in the form of MOOC/short course/discussions etc… for short instruction, but solid assessment for the reason of their business need at that moment, with immediate results.
I am not sure that the education systemic model has a grid for this (the current grid is quite sage on the stage, credits, semesters, qualifications etc…). This tech is bringing “uneducated geniuses”, kids, strangers, explorers to the fore - and then they are gone.

I wonder if the “middle curve” shifts away from within the ed system to a world that is evolving before our eyes?