EdTech(nologists) and Pockets of Hope

Attempting to do something I haven’t done in quite some time… think out loud for a bit… Please bear with me as attempt to knock the rust off…

A few weeks ago, the largest public school district in the state of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City Public Schools, announced a permanent option for online enrollment. Online enrollment is seemingly neither no longer reserved for global pandemics nor solely outsourced to private charter schools. To the contrary, it is now core to the public mission of a major metropolitan area.

Sure, this is likely part of the strategy to slow the bleeding on a district that has seen rapid decline in which led to $131 million budget shortfall and the closing of 15 schools in 2019. But it’s also an admission that there is a space–a permanent space–for online education in the K12 sector, which is a conversation we were not having pre-COVID19. It could mean a more appropriate learning environment for somebody who deals with anxiety in classrooms, flexibility to dive deeper in community art class that isn’t available in evenings, pursue an education while also working part-time, participate in self-directed learning, or catch up on missed classes after a family tragedy.

And it will also mean that the district is going to need to consider how to resource those students to make sure that they have reliable connectivity, a space environment to learn, and access to community.

And that’s edtech. That’s, ya know, the kind of work we do in our space. La raison d’être.

This news made me think about the higher education needs of these students who, say in five years, have been in fully online public schools for half of their education. In an industry that is wrestling with how we balance the notion of school as a public good with the tension of market desires/needs, how will this change higher ed?

Much has been written about the demographic cliff in higher education, children born in the economic recession of 2008, a birth rate a.) far smaller than previous years which b.) never rebounded, which will inevitably lead towards a more competitive marketplace.

And yet now we must add a multiplier of the fact that every single one of them will have experienced some version, poor as it may have been, of online education since they were 12 years old.

I’m not here to make any ridiculous predictions about the consolidation of universities to only a few big players in online. But I question if average inflexible, four year, residential, 120 seat credit hour, undergraduate experience will continue to be the cornerstone offering of the industry.

Think this idea lacks top-level buy-in? These changes are already being recognized by campus leadership. In the 12th annual Inside Higher Ed: 2022 Survey of College and University Presidents, a research report from Inside Higher Ed and Hanover Research, leaders cited the biggest changes to be an increased offering of online learning options and flexibility to work remotely (side note: I recently wrote about how our office now offers flexible and fully remote options). Fourth was creating more stackable certificates and alternative credentials.

Inside Higher Ed: 2022 Survey of College and University Presidents

Recognizing the need to adapt gets me genuinely excited because these, including the need for additional investment in mental health services, are human needs. I’ve always been most excited about the human-centered position that online tends to take. It’s a space that often centers students–and thus learning–rather than instructors–and thus teaching. At it’s best, it’s peer-to-peer.

If I could refocus the conversation around EdTech, I would point it towards the EdTech(nologists); not the EdTech(nology).

Regardless of delivery method, education is inherently human. Good design for online–good design for any space for that matter–is inherently empathetic to the needs of the learner. In fact, it’s the first step in theories such as Design Thinking, which asks the designer to set aside your own assumptions and to listen–really!–to the learner/user/etc.

Once upon a time a few of us were noodling with this idea of Indie EdTech. At the time, we probably were focusing too heavily on the technology; the instruments rather than the music to keep with the analogy. In hindsight, I probably leaned too far into the independent technology aspect rather than the independent community piece, but I look back fondly on a couple of ways that it was framed:

Indie means we don’t need millions of dollars, but it does mean we need community. We need a space to be unpredictable, for knowledge to be emergent not algorithmically fed to us. We need intellectual curiosity and serendipity – we need it from scholars and from students. – Audrey Watters

I guess this is kind of my way of reaffirming my excitement for where online/edtech/digital/etc. etc. is (still) going. And I’m excited to continue to have hard conversations with smart people in my community about how to move forward in a way that serves students needs. Much like Jim Groom recently said, I, too, have not lost my joy in this space and don’t plan on going anywhere. The road is getting tougher, larger, and more congested, no doubt, but I’m continuing to find “pockets of hope,” as referred to by Myles Horton in his conversation with Paulo Freire in We Make the Road by Walking

Finding the pockets is not an intellectual process. It’s a process of being involved