2014: Ed Tech debate opens up

2013 was a dizzying year for Ed Tech.  It was the year of the tablet, the app, the MOOC and gamification.  We learned that you can quantify yourself, augment reality and wear technology.  We found out that data can be big and live in a cloud.  And of course there was the inevitable chorus of voices heralding in each new tool or trend as THE definitive game-changer. Things, we were often told, would simply never be the same again.

But much like the glittery promise of beautifully-wrapped gifts under the Christmas tree, once opened and inspected the inevitable consumer malaise sets in.  Things do return to normal (with a vengeance!) and the holiday splurge gives way to a nagging sense of remorse and the obligatory resolutions that next year will be different: simpler, more frugal, truer to our principles.

We all know this drill (all too well I would guess) and so any hope that 2014 is likely to ring in even a momentary lull in Ed Tech investment will probably sound naïve in the extreme.  In fact if 2013 is anything to go by we’re going to be seeing at least as much splurge, start-ups and shiny cool stuff (much of which will still be a flash in the pan) over the coming year.

But I have reason to believe (OK, not too many reasons actually, more of a gut feeling) that this year is shaping up to be a little bit different in other respects.  Particularly in terms of the kind of conversations we are having around the technology.

A case in point is the 2014 Horizon Report Higher Education Preview which strikes me as differing in some interesting ways from the 2012 and 2013 versions.  The report continues to focus on key Ed Tech developments, trends and challenges.  But whereas the versions from previous years focused first on the developments (think of these as the shiny new stuff) and left the trends and challenges towards the end (almost as afterthoughts) this year they’ve flipped it on its head giving the trends and challenges prominence.

The language of the report has a marked shift in tone as well.  For example “fast moving trends” are not only put forth as “likely to contribute to substantive change in one or two years”, but there is also an admission that they might “burn out” in the same time frame.  The toughest challenges facing us are termed “wicked” and described elusively as “those that are complex to even define, much less address”. And among the “slow moving trends” is the matter-of-fact observation that “making online learning natural” (no technical language obfuscation there) is a key priority.

The take-away for me is that we have reached a key moment of maturity in the Ed Tech debate which owes itself to a number of factors.

One is that the conversation is much more inclusive, particularly with respect to more critical voices wary of the direction and effects of change.  As with other historical moments of extremely rapid technological innovation, there is often a lag before arguments questioning its use are formed.  But the concerns now being heard are going to have an important impact on the conversation because they raise the fundamental questions as to WHY we will choose to implement certain technical solutions in education, HOW that is best accomplished and WHO the key stakeholders are.

Another is undoubtedly the hangover produced from the excesses of the start-up boom.  Personally I think that excess at times is inevitable and even necessary.  In times of intense disruption you’ve sometimes got to throw a lot of stuff at the wall before you can see what sticks.  This has been going on for years now and the result is that what is sticking is starting to clump together around some key areas.  Things haven’t yet gelled completely around concepts that are always obvious or meaty enough for teachers to sink their teeth into on a practical day-to-day basis, but general trends are more discernible all the time and, as a result, much easier for everyone to talk about.

In my next post I’d like to take a look at what I think some of those trends are, and where they might be taking us.