Why Education Technology Doesn't Exist

Opinion |

Why Education Technology Doesn't Exist

Build for the future of learning not for quick cash, urges Digital Harbor Foundation director

By Shelly Blake-Plock     Dec 4, 2012

Why Education Technology Doesn't Exist

EdTech doesn’t exist.

Not yet. Not really.

InstructionalTech exists. TrainingTech exists. AchievementMeasureTech exists. ClassroomManagementTech exists. TeachLectureTech and PeerCommentTech and GroupCollaborationTech and VideoChatWithClassroomFarAwayTech exists.

But EdTech doesn’t exist.

Not yet. Not really. Does it?

Over the last few years — seemingly bound up in the mix of post-Recession money flowing into new (and different) streams of the American economy, awareness of American students’ pitiful STEM preparedness, and a new breed of tech vision — updating legacy to digital on the one hand and the rise of educator/tech startup innovators on the other — this thing called EdTech (or edtech, or Edtech, or…) supposedly has come into its own with teachers, students, incubators, and investors.

Whatever’s in the water, EdTech companies — at least the most savvy? viral? hmm? of them — are growing very fast.

And surely lots of people have put and made lots of dough on/off the EdTech.

And this isn’t a sudden thing, really. Before Obama even took office (the first time) there was talk of edtech not just modernizing pedagogy, but being integral to economic growth. (Consider that — all of you district teachers who still can’t access YouTube and social media from your classroom: it’s integral to economic growth, but by and large we’re neither going to support nor allow your access to use it… unless it’s something your school district paid a lot of money for.)

But I digress. Because EdTech doesn’t exist.

Not yet. Not really. Really? Is this a game of semantics?

I’ve only been in this game for a short amount of time. I’m no Seymour Papert. But I was, what might be considered, an early adopter. I recall my first foray into programming coming in second-grade; that was back around 1982 and we spent a year learning BASIC. Years later I spent my downtime playing around with the backends of online library databases, and when I finally hit the classroom as a real teacher it was in a 1:1 program with tabletPCs. By 2008, we were running 100% paperless 1:1 mobile social tech integrated high school courses and testing the limits of “free” in the online EdTech space; I blogged about this for a few years before my life took a turn and I found myself in my current gig creating tech opportunity through civic web and maker programs at a community tech center for kids in Baltimore City.

I splurge on that last paragraph to give a modicum of bona fides to what I am about to say in the next paragraph.

Without a trace of sarcasm or cynicism, I tell you honestly that I don’t think we’ve even begun to scratch the surface when it comes to education in the era of the Internet. And for all the millions of teachers and students using amazing platforms for organizing classes, managing classrooms, connecting to resources, and delivering content, I really don’t think we’ve begun to even imagine what the future of learning looks like.

And at least one reason we can’t imagine the future of learning is because EdTech does exist.

Indulge me for a moment as I get all Ancient Greek on you (it’s a bad habit I picked up studying Classics in college). And, yes, I apologize in retrospect for the semantic semi-speciousness.

Techne is the old Greek word meaning craft, art, etc. Aristotle himself talks about techne — and art — as really being about the way we can bring something into existence that wasn’t there before. So for example, I’ve got a pile of lumber and nails, but until I bring my techne to it, I haven’t yet got a barn. So the “technology” side of EdTech is really about bringing education into existence.

Which is what teachers do.

And what we do when we teach ourselves something.

EdTech itself really isn’t so much about the product that we use to do the doing — it’s not so much about the lumber and nails — as it is about the doing itself. You can have the best looking lumber on the street and still wind up with a hideous barn. And you can have the most modest lumber on the street, and wind up with a work of art.

As we move forward, we’ve got to keep an eye on the art of education. Because art — as opposed to material product — is not something easily sold. People don’t like to spend the money on art. Unless they are going to secure big returns on their investments.

One word: Hollywood.

And likewise, most people don’t get to see the art that goes into education and the learning process. Because — as all good teachers know — we hide that process from you as a student and we get you to learn in spite of yourself.

I can hear some of you saying: “Yes. And EdTech fosters that independence! Take Khan Academy, for example! I know kids who were terrible in math who are now great at math — all because they spent six hours a day at home on Khan Academy!” (I apologize for any misconstrued tone here… I think).

Yes. Khan Academy improved your student’s math scores. And that is awesome. Seriously. And I’m not trying to be snide. My own children are on Khan Academy (when I can convince them to do it) because I have seen them get across certain hurdles they’ve had in school that I, as more an aficionado of art history than quadratic equations, can’t help them with so much myself.

But Khan Academy isn’t the barn.

It’s the stuff with which to make the barn.

It’s not techne, it’s the lumber.

Any critic of Khan Academy who doesn’t get that is missing the point — no matter what you think of the pedagogical-style / the tier-quality of the lumber.

There’s another Greek word related here.


And that word gets more towards what the critics justifiably complain about in general with regards to the automation movement present in much of EdTech — Khan included.

Because poiesis has to do with another kind of art. The art of creating that which is deathless.

We’re not talking about barns here. We’re talking about the deepest layers of human experience and the nature of fear, self-critical doubt, and willing artistic destruction (see Picasso, et al.) fundamental to the creation of something that lives and breathes on its own and is animated with soul.

I don’t see much poiesis in what we call EdTech. I don’t see it in what that stuff does.

But we will.

Very soon.

Because in the same way that the lumber and nails lead to the barn which leads to someone coming down the lane and saying to themselves, “I could build a better barn”, to the development of a new vocabulary of architecture at the uppermost end of which is a design art of immeasurable beauty, likewise I see the current EdTech moment being a “better barn” moment that could — will — result in a new vocabulary of EduPoetics that will result in a new form and design of learning itself that will usher in a new era of mind.

Yes. Big talk. I know. Sue me.

Where does it start? It starts with recognizing that the current/burgeoning manifestation of teacher-driven EdTech in-and-of-itself is a new industry-culture iteration within the field — a shift from prior Web 2.0 moves by techies on their own or from previous attempts by Big This-or-That in the education industry to corner, rebrand, and sell “technology.” This shift is happening concurrently with the shift towards a semantic Web, an augmented and smart aspect of all tech, and a merging of the digital and physical worlds. This is the moment, then, for a unique line of inquiry for the development of new generation EduPoetic applications based on new forms of interaction between the Internet and humans, between manufactured products (from cars to buildings to power grids to scientific labs to anything plugged in), between “traditional” bio forms of intelligence and built forms of intelligence and the merging of the two and the creation of digital mind.

But that’s not what’s happening now. What’s happening now is often blind investors pouring money into “EdTech” things they don’t understand and plenty of ninjas smoke-testing their way to the bank while it lasts. I’ve spoken with representatives of each camp and they seem strangely perfectly fine with this relationship.

Because every now and then you hit it big.

And it’s not like you invest money you don’t have.

Nor is it as if you can’t pivot functional failure into economic opportunity.

Go big, exit quick. Viral is more important than effective.

No one knows how to measure “effective” anyway.

How many current EdTech companies do you think will be around in 40 years?

How many of ‘em would you want to be around in 40 years?

To be sure: we need EdTech. We need great EdTech. We need inspired EdTech. Technologies built from the raw stuff of student and teacher experience. Technologies built from the raw stuff of serious experimental testing, observation, and evaluation. Technologies built with the intention of building towards that higher language of architecture — that place where the EdTech discussion itself shifts into position on a higher tectonic plane.

We need great education technologists. We need real and effective education technologies that produce effective learning outcomes.

But our educational technologies themselves — even the most effective among them — pale in comparison to the imagination and creativity that they may inspire.

And it is that thrust of imagination and creativity that will push us to produce ways and means of learning and experiencing learning that encompass what we mean when we say the word “learning” in the future.

And it will be something different.

I’m looking towards to the next thing. I’m not interested in arguing over who has the better platform for managing courses or selling edtech apps. I’m pushing forward. I’m working on the future. Working on the poetry of education in a connected world. Working on bringing EdTech into the EduPoetic moment.

About Me

Shelly Blake-Plock is interested in all aspects of participatory learning, networked design, and inspired creativity; fully engaged in the discussion at the intersection of social technology, learning, and new media. Currently co-directing the Digital Harbor Foundation in Baltimore and working on the development of urban community technology centers to spread digital literacy and to build innovation capacity among K-12 public school students.

This article also appeared on the Digital Harbor Foundation's blog.

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