Unbundling Higher-Ed Tech: “The Place We Will Go” in 2017

Higher Education

Unbundling Higher-Ed Tech: “The Place We Will Go” in 2017

By Matthew Rascoff     Dec 28, 2016

Unbundling Higher-Ed Tech: “The Place We Will Go” in 2017

This article is part of the collection: EdSurge 2017 Personal Statements.

“Oh, The Places You'll Go” is one of the most popular books by Dr. Seuss. Where do you hope education technology will go in 2017? What aspects of curriculum or community might get us there? (Dartmouth College)

Dr. Seuss’s final published work is a story about the ups and downs of life. It’s a perfect encapsulation of education technology, which modulates between extremes of pollyannaish optimism and bitter despondency. Before there was a Gartner hype cycle, there was “Oh, The Places You'll Go.”

Technology in higher education on the eve of 2017 is at a crossroads. Colleges are trying to figure out how to serve the new mainstream—first generation students, adult students, working students, students with children, students studying online. Edtech has responded with offers of personalized learning and predictive analytics but has produced spotty evidence of impact. Most of the big publishers seem determined to shake every last penny from their legacy business and to use the digital transition and digital rights management to crush the used book market. The goal, too often, is to increase margins, not learning. Too many products are built with little regard for the critical issues American higher education needs to address: enabling student success, raising graduation rates, reducing costs and helping graduates find meaningful career and life opportunities.

At the same time, educators are held back by increasingly obsolete technology infrastructure. Apps and the mobile web, which dominate outside school, are at the periphery at most colleges. Each upgrade to learning management systems brings more management, not more learning. What I’ve observed at UNC is that the most innovative instructors use the learning management systems provided by the college the least.

If 2016 was the year of “unbundling” college, my hope is the “the place we will go” in 2017 will be the unbundling of higher-ed tech. We need a more pluralistic ecosystem in which learning is at the center, students and their instructors use tech to support creativity and community, and evidence drives decisions. A glimpse of what that might mean:

1) Brigham Young’s API project brings learning to the center by unlocking data held in proprietary student information systems and empowering students and educators with control over how their data are disseminated and used. In K-12, it took a startup, Clever, to demonstrate the value of opening up data from these systems, and making them usable for app developers and educators. Clever is “free” for schools but expensive for edtech companies that want to use its APIs, which means the costs get baked into products and passed along to schools. In higher ed, institutions have a shot at building and owning those APIs and using them to enhance learning and reduce costs. The engineering team at UNC General Administration (our system office) has built an internal API infrastructure to support multi-campus cross-registration in our online courses that we have started sharing with partners and vendors and hope to do more of in 2017.

2) Tech tools at their best help learners realize their creative potential, not more efficiently absorb some piece of content or atom of information. This is the promise of the Domain of One’s Own movement, which originated at the University of Mary Washington and has spread to dozens of schools. (UMW recently codified and open sourced its documentation for Domain of One’s Own.) Here in North Carolina, Davidson College is a leader with Davidson Domains and UNC Asheville is launching a Domain of One’s Own project after its success with student-created websites for a history course with the Century America collaborative. 2017 should be the year Domain of One’s Own moves into the mainstream.

3) With the first-ever Ed Tech Efficacy Symposium, and the rollout of the Courseware in Context quality framework, 2017 is shaping up to be a big year for for evidence-based decision-making in edtech.

There are some emerging patterns that are indicative of where the emerging efficacy movement will take us. The UNC Learning Technology Commons is UNC’s system-wide app store that gives better learning tools to our 225,000 students and 20,000 instructors. Dozens of companies have been accepted in the Commons (and we have recently re-opened the competition). The products we’ve accepted so far generally have a couple of things in common:

They’re discipline-specific. Unlike the LMS, which tries to support learning across all fields (and as a result doesn’t do well by any of them), the best apps do one thing well. EdThena has figured out how to let teacher trainees record themselves in the classroom and gather feedback on their practice from instructional coaches or peers. WriteLab helps students become better writers. GradeScope makes it easier for instructors to grade student work. MobLab builds learning simulations for the social sciences and management. These are narrow, discipline-specific use cases that are manageable for a small product team to take on. Each, if solved, would have a meaningful impact on learning and productivity.

The learning apps I’m excited about foster community. That’s a very different theory of change than algorithm-driven personalized learning. The crucial distinction is about the role of the instructor: are you trying to disintermediate them, or to give them deeper insights into their students to enable more learning? Does your product allow them to pursue evidence-based pedagogical practice? Or does it reinforce misguided notions of how students learn that have been debunked by science? I’d love to see more efficacy data on personalized learning (beyond the lone randomized controlled trial of OLI Statistics), but my bet for 2017 is we’ll see more benefits from enhanced interactions among learners rather than from machines that better understand learners.

“I’m sorry to say so, but, sadly, it’s true,” warns Doctor Seuss, “that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you.” Yet “Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where the Boom Bands are playing. With banner flip-flapping, once more you’ll ride high! Ready for anything under the sky.”

The highs and lows are inevitable. It helps just to know, for individuals or for a sector, that they are natural. We are definitely ready for the Boom Bands to start playing in 2017.

Matthew Rascoff is Vice Provost for Digital Education and Innovation at Duke University.

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