Brad Katz, Director, Teaching & Learning and Educational Technology, Illinois Institute of Technology
It is probably fair to say that most people working in the EdTech space come to it from either the education side or the technology side, and that kind of subject area genealogy is probably the case with any specialized discipline. Education is a special case, though, and it creates blind spots for the uninitiated, particularly when the talk of transformational change and disruption gets a little overheated.
Technology fuels many of the non-traditional educational models of the last few years, for example granular, competency-based programs or MOOCs. The boom in big data and analytics and AI inspire and allow otherwise inconceivable changes. However, for all of the eagerness and excitement, K12 and Higher Ed operate in a more traditional world. These are well-established models, warts and all, and they can be intransigent. Even with a desire to cultivate and foster change, they are based on and built around other deeply established, often compliance-related systems and processes. Undoubtedly change will come, at times seismically, and that disruption is something education is grappling with, but for the foreseeable future, they will continue to follow these familiar models.
One thing that gets lost about the education side is that change in education is slow at scale. Painfully. In K-12 and Higher Ed, there are different reasons, but the thing they share is the traditional academic calendar. I often tell people comparing businesses operating in the private sector to education is like comparing the metabolism of a hummingbird to that of an elephant. In flight, a hummingbird's average heart rate is 1200 bpm. An elephant's heart beat: about 30 times per minute. It doesn't matter how fast technology can accelerate; the traditional calendar provides one or two opportunities a year to make large, enterprise changes. On top of that, once you factor in faculty training and time for them, they can integrate changes meaningfully into their work; you are talking about massive cycle time.
The underlying technology is advancing radically, and for all of that structural lethargy, the student-user audience continuously replenishes itself with young, technology savvy users who reasonably expect to see technology meaningfully deployed in their academic experiences
None of this minimizes the time and resources that technology projects themselves require. Where a technology team tasked with an aggressive project plan and lucky enough to have scaled-up resources appropriately might be able to compress a timeline, there are very explicit windows to successfully execute and deploy EdTech projects at scale. That means the technology is up but also that it is being used in a meaningful way. The launch windows for projects like the ones I am talking about are very tight, and missing one means waiting for the next academic orbit, a semester, or an entire academic year away. The move away from self-hosted solutions with long, resource-intensive update processes to cloud-based centralized models definitely improves things, but major UX changes and feature roll-outs still require thoughtful communication and training that take time.
There is a breathlessness about EdTech at times. The underlying technology is advancing radically, and for all of that structural lethargy, the student-user audience continuously replenishes itself with young, technology savvy users who reasonably expect to see technology meaningfully deployed in their academic experiences. The "digital natives" label has become useless and outdated in thinking about these groups. It is who they are, and we are well past that inflection point of thinking about that as some different or new. Their world, our world, is an environment of acceleration.
That said, even with in situ expectations about real-time data; immediate communication; and online collaboration, what gets lost is that most users by-and-large still operate following the same overarching calendars and traditional expectations. College students start their semesters or quarters in the fall, reviewing their syllabi at the start of the term. K12 students work within marking periods and semesters, preparing to take tests or work on projects based on when they've been scheduled. As much as students want to see their non-educational technology experiences mirrored in their classrooms, there is a fundamental expectation of technological and experiential stability and consistency between those familiar milestones of start and end.
We are already in a period of educational change driven by technology, some of it radical and long overdue. But with all of the palpable excitement about remaking this space with amazing tools and platforms and applications, the most successful endeavors may actually be the ones that help navigate around the massive gravitational pull of familiar, well-established structures instead of simply pretending they don't exist or hyperbolically wishing them away. We all get excited about what is new. In real, practical terms, though, incremental technologies that start to move the needle but that demonstrate a deep understanding of the realities of institutions, teachers, students, and administrative staff might be far more valuable and transformative.