opinion

Beware Edtech’s Equivalent of the Flashlight App

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This article is written as a response to this commentary by Matthew Rascoff...who never asked for this. In the interest of full disclosure: I’m a co-founder of Acadly.

Last week I overheard my 8-year-old nephew protest: “A FLASHLIGHT APP?!” he asked his mom, incredulous and confused. “Why do you have this?”

And with the sort of clarity that makes one feel a little dumb, it struck me: the great technology trend reversal of our times is hurtling at us.

In June 2010, the iPhone 4—the first ever iPhone to have an LED flash—was released. In September 2013, iOS 7 was released, with a flashlight button in the Control Center. For the 39 months in between, we lived in the era of flashlight apps, an industry worth billions of dollars.

Do you remember your flashlight app? The one that cost 99 cents, then the one with ads, or the one that really was miraculously free? The one with the strobe feature or the one with a built-in timer? The one that turned out to be a security threat and the one which didn’t work despite being rated 4 stars? And of course, the one that was rated 2 and made you wonder how on earth one could go that wrong with a flashlight app.

These questions are largely irrelevant today. A simple OS improvement killed an entire category of apps. Because while unbundling brings valuable flexibility, it also creates seams. And the first signs of cracks and chasms look an awful lot like seams.

This insight has inspired the trend reversal that we’re now witnessing. From an era of fragmentation, there’s an unmistakable shift to one where integration, convergence and cohesion are the holy grail. An ecosystem that provides more value to the user is the one with fewer flashlight apps, because that’s the hallmark of a job well done.

This shift is happening in education technology as well, notably with the learning management system (LMS). Almost every college uses an LMS for core tasks such as class announcements, file-sharing, assignments and grading. The five most popular LMSs (Moodle, Blackboard, Canvas, D2L and Sakai), which account for more than 90 percent of the market share in higher education, are all designed based on a 10-year-old standard called the Learning Tools Interoperability (or LTI) standard.

Edtech products designed on the LTI standard can serve as “plugins” to these LMSs. And that’s what many products have started doing, including in-class live response tools, Q&A tools, assignment and grading tools. So, think of the LMS as an OS and these tools as the apps. Surely, to most it must sound like the industry has it figured out. But edtech has yet to convince most professors that there’s any real value for them and their students in “going digital” beyond better administration.

In his article, Matthew summed up everything wrong with the state of affairs with a simple observation: “What I’ve observed at UNC is that the most innovative instructors use the learning management systems provided by the college the least.”

As an example of what Matthew observes, here’s a snapshot from the CS 106B course at Stanford where professors use edtech tools extensively to enhance learning for more than 300 students.

Not extravagance, but necessity

Assignments, attendance, content, polling, Q&A and discussion forums—these have become the flashlight apps of learning tools. They are often offered as “unbundled” features, yet they are the basic building blocks relevant for any classroom and discipline, regardless of geography.

By following the unbundling approach, we relegate these essentials to the ‘esoteric’ category. If the LMS makes up the majority of the edtech experience for professors and students, then it is also one of the most critical channel for an institute to either embrace—or sideline—teaching innovation. It is both impractical and unfair to expect every professor to invest their time in figuring the world of unbundled edtech out.

Part of the reason that LMS innovation has stagnated is the rigidity of the LTI standard, which has influenced how the industry thinks and designs such systems. There are ways to break the LTI shackles without sacrificing the good bits—to build an “anti-LMS” if you may—but that’s for another day.

For now, the crux of what I’m advocating is that we revisit the assumptions around how the core of the unbundling—the LMS—must work. Till such a time comes, unbundling will add only incremental value and edtech will be headed for another decade without the sort of path-breaking impact that many would love the industry to have.

You know what? My nephew uninstalled that torch app and his mom’s happier for it.

Vaibhav Vashisht is co-founder of Acadly

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