It’s time for edtech to step up and make good

1. What’s wrong? There’s an irreversible revolution going on in education and change-makers don’t know how to capitalise on it – yet! 

Traditional education is over. Everything has changed. 

Don’t believe me? Google it.

Education technology and technology education have taken the world by storm.

The one has pushed and pulled the other to a point of no return.

Traditional education institutions have opened the gates and companies and organisations are streaming through and knocking down the fortress walls, gaining direct access to the potential billions who are hungry to learn and advance themselves. Meanwhile, they are tracking what students want to know, so the lines of supply and demand are set to converge.

All change

Only a decade ago governments had a monopoly on what their citizens could learn. Top institutions only allowed their friends and the rich into their hermetically sealed mono-culture environments. The speed of change was slow. It took hundreds of years till they let women graduate from Oxford (1920), Cambridge (1948), Harvard (1955). OMG what weren’t they thinking! Now we are seeing through the classroom walls as they gradually become more porous.

As the barriers come down, education opportunities are undeniably increasingly accessible across borders; universities and schools are letting their best educators loose on the internet, apps and social media; and national curricula are going to have to step up or disappear.

Industries who have long criticised the lack of training for professionally-relevant skills are jumping in and filling the gaps themselves. Critical thinking, innovation, leadership and creativity are top of the list for untaught and in-demand skills. 

The future looks rocky for those who depend on the docile ignorance of their subjects. The future looks pretty neat for those who believe education should be free and open to all and indiscriminately.

Dinosaurs are dying out

The technology revolution has permanently changed the lives of everyone on the planet. There’s no-one left untouched. The global economy is turning around a technology axis and those left behind are experiencing reverse time-travel. The differences in lifestyle, professional growth and brain power between those with no access to technology, consumers, power users and creators has led to the development of a new ‘class’ system at a shocking speed. 

‘Non-technology people’, those who don’t or won’t get it, are so far behind I don’t think they are aware how difficult it is for ‘technology people’ to live alongside them with their clumsy, lumbering ways. I wonder even if we will notice an evolutionary break like that between the Neanderthals and the Modern Human, if there’s no way for the ‘dinosaurs’ to catch up. 

As for the technology-empowered, even if a sun-flare was to knock out the entire infrastructure, you cannot undo the changes to the human brain, imagination, and capacity for problem-solving at global scale that has been advanced by those at Google, Facebook, Airbnb, Citymapper, Uber, and the like. They are the new global elite. For them, there’s no looking back.

I was a bit late to the smartphone but as soon as I landed in London and picked up my Samsung Note, I physically felt the growing pains of new neurons sprouting, forging new connections and exponentially increasing my intellectual capacity.  It was like a rebirth, I felt like a toddler exploring a whole new world for the first time, my brain a hungry sponge absorbing more and more, until click, I could see the matrix.

The matrix transported me to a landscape as deep and beautiful as the one you see when you look up at the universe from an island on the Great Barrier Reef.

Stars, planets, constellations sparkling in the silent black void. At first your untrained ear tunes into the rhythm of the waves at your feet, but the longer you look up, the more you focus, the more lights and clusters you see, the more beats and melodies you make out, developing into a symphony of sound and light drawing together in a dramatic, growing crescendo.

This feeling only swells when you look down again and see the phosphorescence pulsing at the shore. Your senses and capacities are altered forever. There’s a before and after. It’s like the experiences described by those who have taken LSD. You’ve taken the red pill, and it’s rushing through your veins.

Yes, at first it seems like chaos, but it’s not. If you put aside your fears, you see that it’s all structured. I’m sure everyone who opens their eyes wide enough is able to see different networks. For my part, in the last five years or so, I’ve seen the two clusters of ed-tech and tech-ed dancing an aggressive flamenco with each other

Tech-ed vs ed-tech

The failure of traditional education to adequately provide computer science and technology education to a generation that would be defined by their technology skills led to the explosion of technology-enhanced education we see today.

The advantage of tech-ed is that logic, formulas and 1+1 = 2 quizzes with only one correct answer lend themselves to learning on a massive scale with automated assessment, and less dependency on debate and teacher-student interaction.

Simultaneously, the opening up of social spaces has enabled questioning and contact between students who can’t find the right answer on their own and the generous knowledge-sharing of so-called ‘geeks’ and ’nerds’ whose open-source mentality has set the foundation for our new world of sharing. Technology education has taken learning to new places that all subject areas can now build on. 

Education technology for more complex, open-answer, creative and explorative subjects like the arts and humanities can now build on the new possibilities for community learning, cultural exchange and functionalities that capitalise on being able to break down and connect the high numbers of participants joining from all over the world, without drowning people out. 

There are huge challenges to overcome, don’t get me wrong, but they do seem inevitably resolvable. Especially when you talk to school students who’ve never completed a piece of ‘homework’ alone because they’ve always done it while connected to their friends over skype or the like.

Students who are demanding, please – put our lessons on Minecraft where it all makes more sense, is fun and we learn useful stuff! People who are stuck saying social media addiction is making the young less sociable obviously never experienced lonely, introverted rural life before internet and smartphones (I did!).

Social learning is just getting started

MOOCs (massive open online courses), SPOCs (small private online courses), GROOCs (MOOCs for groups), and more, provided by new education companies and projects like Khan Academy, Minecraft Education, Google Virtual Reality Expeditions, Classera, Lynda.com, Coursera and edX, to mention just the tip of the iceberg, are making the decades-old field of e-learning and distance-learning look restrained and quaint, and yet they are now quietly looking back at these practices to see which tools and pedagogies can be pulled into the new world of massive scale social learning.

As an alumni of correspondence course school exams in Classics and French, and an Open University course in Creative Writing, I’m grateful for the advancement they provided me, but I literally used to write my essays by pen, stuff my papers in an A4 envelope and wait weeks for them to return by snail mail with just one professor’s red-ink scribbles on the side. The Open University gave me much-needed contact with some peers, but it was highly restricted, and expensive. You gotta laugh at how medieval that all sounds today – but that was only 15 years ago. 

Moving forwards

We know what a difference education makes to any society. What is going to happen in Saudi Arabia now that women are signing up in droves to easy-access advanced education online? What is going to happen as new groups login, connect, and share their ideas and experiences? I don’t think people really know. But I find it hard to believe that antiquated power structures and work practices in backward states, institutions, companies or organisations will be able to resist for very long the surge of problem-solving attitudes and critical and diverse perspectives that follow in the wake of access to information, skills, knowledge and other smart people. 

Don’t believe the hype?

Sure, there’s a lot of hype but so far I think it’s justified. There are people taking giant missteps and that’s why it’s so exciting; because any direction could work, why not make the leap? The world is beset by global crises, what is the alternative but to set people at them to solve them together, globally?

This is an opportunity for education, which has barely changed in hundreds of years, to shoot off new ideas, fail fast and change at speed, without detrimentally affecting the chances of students. Now that learners have choice, they will only follow the paths that work for them anyway, the more options we try, the more chances of success.

Things will level out, the cream will rise to the top, but right now we can all throw ourselves into the mix and add to the richness.

2. What’s the big idea? Connect those doing education technology for good

It’s a pretty simple big idea, but it is time to create a specialisation in education technology that capitalises on the opportunities for education for social good on a massive globally-connected scale. 

This is a new field, and while all the different options and directions are exciting, they can also be overwhelming and risk causing information-overload induced paralysis. There are those who are unused to start-up mentalities, or are afraid to ‘over-invest’ in new ideas, while others are pushing to throw their all at anything labelled as ‘innovation’.

Those committed to social good rightly have a responsibility to their members, donors and supporters of all kind to avoid waste and missteps. We also have to respond to the demand of new generations to connect and engage people on a level that is deeper and more rewarding than ‘clictivism’ or donating blindly in an environment of decreasing trust.

People want to be involved and act together. People are prepared to connect, learn and problem-solve on a global scale when they are convinced they can make a difference.

Somehow we need to find a way through the constant buffeting of risk-aversion; under-ambition and short-sightedness to make best use of expanding global connectivity to scale ideas that work.

It’s not something you can do on your own, so we need to make together, share together and iterate to improve together.

Why make?

  • This is an open field for innovation, the time is ripe to go for it. Together we can make more and better education technology experiences and advance the field. We cannot waste time, leave this to others or observe on the sidelines, as we will be left behind. Instead we can benefit from the pace of change and contribute to constantly raising standards.

Why share?

  • By committing to an open mentality; connecting with other education technology makers and sharing learnings we can all use failures as opportunities and replicate successes.

Why iterate?

  • Nothing is ever perfect. Learner-centred and user-centred designing always provides feedback that can improve an experience, process or product. Listen, collect and act on advice by iterating and building on the best. This will reduce the likelihood and size of missteps while nurturing innovation and benefiting from quick fixes to ‘fail-fast’ processes.

3. How can others help? Join in!

If you are committed to making best use of education technology to solve global problems by connecting and engaging those determined to make a difference, and will always respect the rights of learners to the highest standards, please join Edtech for Good, connecting makers, sharers and iteraters of education technology for good.

People are ready to learn globally, we must step up and meet each other – converge the supply and demand. Change the world.

You can do this by:

1. Joining the Edtech for Good group on LinkedIn 

2. Set up meet-ups online, in your groups, towns and cities and share your discussions and ideas

3. Make, share and iterate and let others know all about it!

Any other ideas? Let me know, let’s work together!

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