Evolution of EdTech: Three Examples

As the calendar year comes to a close, I have been reflecting back on some technologies that are critical in my life. As an educator, they are essential elements in what I need and use on a daily basis; as an administrator, these have been significant headaches.

The three I will focus on in this post are PowerPoint, course websites, and wireless.

PowerPoint did not exist in 1984; today, a lecture without PowerPoint is rare and unsettling. Course websites were novel and exciting in 1996; today, course websites are de rigeur and content is expected to be updated and relevant. Whereas we calculated wireless access on the basis of (less than) one device per person in 2006, most learners now carry three or more wireless devices on a regular basis.

Before PowerPoint, we had blackboards and overheads. I used both. Some of my lecture halls used lantern slides (large glass slides). However, most of the rooms had 2×2 slide projectors with the slides carefully placed into carousels (so they would not be inverted, upside down, or otherwise unreadable). (I still have nightmares about the first time I tried to process my own color slides.) I now use PowerPoint to project the images (and wonder whether the slide is meaningful or useful). The software and file were originally located on a computer deployed in the classroom; now I can use any device we can connect to a projector (physical or wireless) and, more often than not, the file is located somewhere in the cloud.

In the days of blackboards and overheads, we needed to make sure that the faculty member had access to the scribing instrument (chalk and/or markers of different colors) and perhaps the plastic overlays needed for the overhead projector. In those classrooms, no technical assistance was needed. As we have upgraded to contemporary classrooms, now we need to have a way for the faculty member to show their PowerPoint slides regardless of device and location of the files. The room and what we need in it have evolved into a complex system and require support capabilities that are different from having housekeeping staff clean the blackboards every so often.

For those who worked with lantern slides and then 2×2 slides, getting the slides into a carousel and onto the projector was difficult. In most cases, the complexity of making sure all the slides were handled correctly necessitated a technician being in the room the entire time of the lecture. Now, with the ability of individual faculty member to bring in a laptop with all their slides preloaded and ready-to-go, the need for a technician to stay in the room for the duration of a lecture is a luxury, not a necessity.

When I first created course websites, I programmed it in HTML 2.0 on a Sun SparcStation 1+ running SunOS 4.1.3 with Apache 1.0. Most of the behind-the-scenes scripting was done using Perl. We introduced a course website (in the late 1990s) that contained uploaded (and downloadable) course materials, resources, and syllabi, course grades, discussion boards, and interactive practice questions. Changes were not trivial and required significant time and energy. Subsequently, I migrated to Dreamweaver, but that was not exactly easy-to-use software and I still had to update customized software.

Actually, the term course website is an anachronism itself. My first course websites were self-built and maintained. Now, most course websites are incorporated into learning management systems. In the most primitive course websites, it was often enough to be able to post materials and have a discussion board. Now, the ability for students to post assignments and give/get feedback from faculty and peers, to have discussion boards, blogs, wikis, practice exam questions, quizzes and tests, and access to grades is a minimum. The emphasis really is not on what capability the course website has anymore, but on the content. It is expected that the quality of the content is high and that the materials are provided in a way that can meet the educational needs of the learner and the instructional objectives of the faculty member.

The need of someone who can manage a computer and program a home-grown website for each course has mostly disappeared. The technical requirements to run and maintain learning management systems are much more sophisticated – and arguably, mission-critical. The expectation now is that the students have a stable and consistent experience from the institution. The focus is on the instructional design of the on-line materials; on-line education is not the same as face-to-face education in a bricks-and-mortar environment. Even the combination of the two (hybrid model) requires significant rethinking of what we do.

The wireless example is an evolution of student expectations over time. In 2004, wireless devices operated on the slow IEEE standard 802.11b. We were lucky to plan implementation of a wireless system using 802.11a/b/g. Luckily, since we did most of our deployment closer to 2009, we were able to incorporate using the faster and more capable 802.11n standard. The concept of providing ubiquitous wireless access on campus was relatively new in 2009 and I certainly got a lot of push-back. However, the opportunity to access the wireless network is only one variable. Other variables we had to consider included density of users, how are they affiliated with the institution, and what devices can be used to access material on the local campus network and the greater Internet at-large.

This example is one that migrated from a relatively simple network nice-to-have option (since almost everything was hardwired) to a much wider operation that required consideration of engineering, networking, security, legal, and other issues. What is challenging is that students expect the type of service that they experience at home and in the public space. What is most critical is that wireless is now expected to be ubiquitous and operate flawlessly for faculty to deliver their instruction and learners to experience the educational activity.

Throughout these evolutions, in academia we followed and tried to adjust and meet the needs of the teachers and expectations of the learners.

In all three examples, there are some basic themes:

  1. The difficulty of using the technology has dramatically declined for the end user.
  2. The difficulty of managing the technology has grown exponentially for the provider.
  3. The allocation of resources needed to provide the technology shifted.

While we can talk about all three themes in great detail, I want to focus briefly on the issue of resource allocation.

Resources needed for the different technologies changed. Things that were relatively inexpensive are now very expensive. Software that was custom built and managed (thus relatively “cheap”) is now provided by vendors with a financial agenda. Personnel needs have simply shifted from easy-to-find and inexpensive to highly specialized professionals. Support needs have grown from a simple phone call to a colleague to massive help desk systems.

The cost of implementing technology is huge. This includes both direct costs of the technology (hardware, software, services, support) and indirect (personnel, facilities). Moreover, the more capabilities that exist with the technology, the more a faculty member can do with it. This means that we need more personnel to support the pedagogy as well as train the faculty in the use of the technology.

It is simple to conclude that technology is a giant black hole into which one throws resources. But that conclusion would be wrong.

In line with the concept of “evidence-based education,” we must look to the outcomes of implementing the technology to determine its worth.

The outcomes will differ for everyone – individually and institutionally. However, I would suggest that this is where the largest failure of technology implementation has occurred. All too many technology projects have been implemented without defined outcomes. We do the change or implement technology because we feel we need to, but do not define the parameters of what we want to do, why we want to do it, and how we know we have succeeded.

It is critical for the institution to understand the outcomes it needs to view and measure. Is the outcome student performance? If so, what criteria are used to measure student performance? Is the outcome student recruitment and retention? If so, what criteria are used to measure recruitment and retention? Is the outcome to increase revenue? If so, what criteria are used to define the sources of income and expense?

As technologists and educators, we often do not define the outcomes we want and, equally important, define the strategic and tactical plans by which those outcomes will be achieved. Without a clear strategic plan, we simply hope that what we are doing will not be deleterious. Without good tactics, the way is haphazard.

As we review the evolution of the three technologies described above, it is simple to say that we simply had to stay up with the times. My question is why? What did we achieve by doing so? Those of us who are educators, technologists, and administrators should be able to answer these questions. Without that effort, we cannot justify supporting expansion of technology at our institutions. And working on answering that challenge has been the cause of my headaches.

Happy New Year!

Note: The views in this commentary are my own and not necessarily those of my institution, employer, or colleagues.

(Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse on December 31, 2014 at https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/evolution-edtech-three-examples-terence-ma)

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