Marhoff’s Blog

Top Five Innovations In Educational Technology

Posted on: 09/13/2010

Dear Colleague:

Since you asked I’m going to try and provide you with the top five technological innovations that will impact higher education within the next few years. Although asking me to predict how technology will impact education is like asking the Wright brothers how frequent flyer miles will impact commercial air travel, I believe that the most important technological advances are not ‘things’, they are usage improvements based on what already exists. True innovation will arise out of the concepts of convergence, integration, decoupling, social networks and predictive analytics.

There are two different types of innovation – disruptive innovation, which cannot truly be predicted (because if disruptive innovations could be predicted they wouldn’t be disruptive, now would they?) and incremental innovation. I will focus on the technologies which will impact education through incremental innovation.

I no longer wear a watch. Other than for aesthetic purposes I doubt I ever will again. Within a few feet of me are at least five timekeeping devices more accurate and easier to read than anything our ancestors could have predicted. And four of the five are convergent devices, coupling timekeeping with calendaring, and/or telecommunications.

I have two computers both of which have clocks and calendars on them and both of which also provide access to a network of timekeeping and calendaring devices. I have a cellular telephone – same thing but infinitely smaller and more mobile. I have a VoIP telephone (which is in fact a small computer) and it displays the current time. All of these devices can update their clocks via their networks so that other users on the network have the same exact time reference as I do. And I have a traditional, old-fashioned battery powered analog clock hanging on my wall just in case the networks or AC powered devices go down.

A simple example of true innovation is the convergence of multiple devices or systems into one small unit. Think about all of the different pieces of equipment we used to need to accomplish scheduling an appointment. Most people wore watches, carried Daytimers™ or other similar calendar-like devices and had to use a hard-wired telephone to make appointments or paid actual human beings to handle their calendar, timekeeping and scheduling for them.

Also think about the purpose of having a watch, a clock, a calendar or any other time keeping device in the twentieth century. Chronographs were really invented to assist sailors in determining their latitude mid-ocean so that they didn’t get lost and die. Today, however, a clock is basically a device that we use for social interaction – because other people expect us to be somewhere at a given time. We need to show up for work, or meetings, or to catch an airplane, bus or train which is leaving as scheduled. Timekeeping today is not about navigation but social interaction. Therefore networked timekeeping is more important in many ways than accurate time keeping. It doesn’t really matter if your watch and my watch are both wrong, as long as they are wrong in a similar and consistent fashion, so we can both be on time for each other.

So in the simple example of a cell phone, we can see an example of the convergence trend that I think will impact education. It is a watch, a calendar, a telephone, a global positioning system (GPS) and a camera, a “record player”, “record keeper” and probably a few other things as well. That’s convergence. I’ll never be surprised by additional convergence. What devices will be included in my next phone upgrade?

Integration is a little harder to manage. If I schedule an appointment with you and record it in my phone, indicating a time, date and location, my phone will alert me to the meeting. But my phone is also a GPS. If I’m nowhere near our meeting place, my phone should probably “know” this and offer to call you so I can let you know I’ll be late. After all, the phone combines all of those devices. But it does not integrate the features. Why isn’t the GPS function on my phone integrated with the calendar function? I believe that the integration of systems will be the next BIG thing in education. For instance, why are Blackboard and Colleague two different systems? Why do faculty have to copy grades manually from one system into the other? Why did we just invest in SoftTime, and how does that integrate with our payroll system?

Which brings me to decoupling. Actually, I have the ability to integrate Blackboard and Colleague tighter than I do. I could “automatically” import grades from our course management system (CMS) into our student information system (SIS) if I opted to do so, but I, along with many others, have decided that this is not a good thing, and so I don’t! To use the cell phone example some more, an iPod Touch is simply an iPhone without the phone, or conversely, an iPhone is simply an iPod Touch converged with a telephone. Why does Apple sell both products? Convergence and integration are not the be-all and end-all of innovation. Sometimes the true innovation comes from knowing when to say when! Just as we decided not to use Datatel to record employee leave time, I think we will see some innovative schools decoupling services.

And I don’t mean just technology. We will see schools decoupling courses from textbooks (the SIRIUS project, for example) decoupling classes from times and locations (Distance Education) and even decoupling content from classes. One of our faculty members pointed out to me that ACC 112 doesn’t actually end when ACC 113 begins, or at least it shouldn’t! But in the world of Higher Ed, it does, to the detriment of many students. This makes no sense, and I believe that a truly innovative institution will move toward the elimination of the one-section-one-instructor model, the one-course-one-semester model and even the Degree/Program/Course/Section model. We will move toward mastery learning where a student, much like in England, will “read maths” until he or she has mastered maths, then move on, and may take 2-3 “semesters” to finish MTH 118 but might complete LIT 203, LIT 204 and LIT 115 in just a few weeks. (That would have been me, given the chance, but the “traditional” college system didn’t allow for such decoupling of courses from semesters.)

Because of the decoupling of content from the institutions that traditionally provided content, newspapers are dying, and the Academy isn’t going to be too far behind. For the last 100 years or more, newspapers did not sell news, they sold advertising. They gave away news for free to get readers so that advertisers would pay them for access to those readers. Now ask yourself, what does Higher Ed sell? Is it education? I mean, really? Anyone can read, discuss, think about and write about Shakespeare, or Calculus. No one has to take a LIT course or a Math course to learn these things. What we sell is a structure for learning, access to others who are engaged in similar pursuits, an environment which is conducive to learning and credible documentation to show that the content has been learned. MIT realized this years ago and led the way with their Open CourseWare (OCW) project.

Theoretically, except for the credibility of the documentation and the college “experience”, everything else a school provides is available free of charge. Why didn’t I just buy a calculus book and teach myself back in 1992? Because if I didn’t understand something, who would have explained it to me. Today, there are 1000 people on Facebook who would be happy to do just that. There’s e-how and and Wikipedia and Google. All give me access to real people, many of whom are experts in their fields, who would be happy to help. So why bother paying for college in 2010? Credibility. And where does that credibility come from? Our own social network. We are credible because Middle States says we are. And Middle States is credible because we (and Princeton, and Penn and so on) say they are. Just like on Facebook, where you “friend” people who are friends of friends, our credibility comes from our memberships, our graduates and our connections.

Therefore another BIG INNOVATION in higher education will be tracking up-and-coming potential students, recruiting the best and hanging our reputation on theirs once they graduate. Schools have been doing this for centuries, the hard way. Although we now have technology tools to make it easier, and possible to do on a global scale, we’re not doing it. We need advanced customer relationship management (CRM) software like the big businesses have. We should start tracking students far earlier than their PSAT’s and continue tracking them far after their grad school graduation. Our social network must include middle schoolers and retirees. Just like a Facebooker with 400 “friends” we will need to associate with anyone and everyone who can do us some good.

Which leads me to the fifth innovation, predictive analytics. As defined by Wikipedia:

“Predictive analytics encompasses a variety of techniques from statistics, data mining and game theory that analyze current and historical facts to make predictions about future events.
In business, predictive models exploit patterns found in historical and transactional data to identify risks and opportunities. Models capture relationships among many factors to allow assessment of risk or potential associated with a particular set of conditions, guiding decision making for candidate transactions.
Predictive analytics is used in actuarial science, financial services, insurance, telecommunications, retail, travel, healthcare, pharmaceuticals and other fields.”

Note that “education” is not one of the fields listed, but should be. We need to know who our students should be, we must analyze data trends to help our students succeed once they get here and we should forecast where there are, or at least should be, heading when they leave. If a credit card company can detect fraud by analyzing usage patterns, why can’t we anticipate the need to tutor a specific student in a specific subject based on test scores? Which leads me back full-circle to integration and decoupling. Until our systems are integrated to the point that we can mine useful data from the lowest level to the highest, and decouple success from traditional and outdated course delivery modalities, we will not see true innovation in education.

So the top five innovative technologies are really just ways of using what we have now, in novel and truly creative ways.

I assume you were looking for a list of things like this: but quite frankly, in the words of Lao Tzu: “Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.”

I hope this information helps.



3 Responses to "Top Five Innovations In Educational Technology"

[…] within the next few years. My first reaction was annoyance. After all, as I paraphrased in a blog post from 2010, asking me to predict how technology will impact education is like asking the Wright […]

[…] within the next few years. My first reaction was annoyance. After all, as I paraphrased in a blog post from 2010, asking me to predict how technology will impact education is like asking the Wright […]

[…] several years. My initially reaction was annoyance. Soon after all, as I paraphrased in a website write-up from 2010, inquiring me to forecast how engineering will impression schooling is like inquiring the […]

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