The Historical Amnesia of Ed Tech
An opinion often proffered amongst educational technology (ed tech) professionals is that theirs is a fast-changing field. This statement is sometimes used as a motivation (or veiled threat) to senior managers to embrace ed tech because if they miss out now, it’ll be too late to catch up later, or more drastically, they will face extinction. For example, Rigg (2014) asked “can universities survive the digital age?” in an article that argues universities are too slow to be relevant to young people who are embedded in their fast-moving, digital age. Such accounts both underestimate the degree to which universities have changed and are capable of change while also overestimating the digital natives-type account that all students want a university to be the equivalent of Instagram. Fullick (2014) highlighted that this imperative to adopt all change unquestioningly, and adopt it now, has a distinctly Darwinian undertone: “Resistance to change is presented as resistance to what is natural and inevitable” (para. 3). An essential ingredient in this narrative is that higher education does not change, and is incapable of change, therefore change must be forced upon it. Ed tech is the means by which this change-or-die narrative is realized, with people often divided, or forced, into pro- or anti-camps regarding any technology-based adaptation in higher education. Ed tech, then, is not a peripheral interest in higher education but is increasingly framed as the manner in which the future of all higher education will be determined. One aim of this book, then, is to provide some antidote to the narrative of higher education’s inability to change by illustrating both the breadth of change and innovation that has occurred in higher education over the past 25 years, and also to draw attention to examples when the caution and desire to examine evidence has been correctly applied.
Amid this breathless attempt to keep abreast of new developments, the ed tech field is also remarkably poor at recording its own history and reflecting critically on its development, as if there is no time to look in the rear-view mirror in a field that is always interested in the future. When ed tech critic Audrey Watters (2018a) put out a request for recommended books on the history of educational technology, I couldn’t suggest any beyond the handful she already had listed. There are ed tech books that often start with a historical chapter to set the current work in context, and there are ed tech books that are now a part of history, but there are very few that deal specifically with the field’s history. Maybe this reflects a lack of interest, as there has always been something of a year-zero mentality in the field. Ed tech is also an area which people move into from other disciplines, so there is no shared set of concepts or history. This can be liberating but also infuriating; for instance, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in emitting the occasional sigh of exasperation when during the massive open online courses (MOOC) rush of 2012, so many “new” discoveries about online learning were reported — discoveries that were already tired concepts in the ed tech field. A second aim of this book, then, is to provide one contribution to a literature of educational technology history.
In 2018 the UK’s Association for Learning Technology (ALT) celebrated its 25th anniversary, and to commemorate this I undertook a blog series on 25 Years of Ed Tech. As well as providing a discussion point for many in the association and their experience with ed tech (e.g., Thomas, 2018), it was also a useful time frame to revisit. The period 1994–2018 (inclusive) represents what we may think of as the Internet years of ed tech. There were some applications of the Internet prior to this, with e-learning dating from the late 1980s, and there are many applications that can still be classified as ed tech that are not reliant on the Internet during this period, but the mid-1990s witnessed the shift to the Internet being the dominant technology shaping ed tech. Indeed, an alternative title for this book might be “Educational Technology: The Internet Years.”
There are many different ways to approach a recent history of ed tech; for instance, it could be based around themes, individuals, semantic analysis of conference papers, surveys, and so on. For this book and the blog series, I have taken the straightforward approach of selecting a different educational technology, theory, or concept for each of the years from 1994 through to, and including, 2018. This is not (just) an exercise in historical pedantry to combat the claims from the latest ed tech start-up to have “invented” a particular approach, but it allows us to examine what has changed, what remains the same, and what general patterns can be discerned from this history. It is also an attempt to give some shared historical basis to the field of ed tech. The final entry in this book focuses on what I have termed “ed tech’s dystopian turn,” as there has been a shift from often unquestioning advocacy of particular technologies to a more critical, theoretical understanding. This represents something of a maturing in the field, although many technology vendor conferences are still free of any such critique. Ed tech itself, then, is at an interesting point in its development, perhaps akin to that of the discipline of art history in the postwar years. The 1970s, in particular, saw the development of what became termed “New Art History,” which the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art Terms (Clark, 2010) defines as follows:
Something of an umbrella term, embracing elements of Marxism, semiotics, and deconstruction, it is generally used to describe the various approaches to art history as an intellectual discipline which developed after the Second World War. This occurred in reaction to the earlier, predominantly literary and Renaissance-based tradition of art-historical scholarship which was widely perceived to have dominated the subject and to have become increasingly irrelevant to the modern world. (para. 1)
Prior to this, art history had largely been concerned with the lives of individual artists, but critics such as Hadjinicolaou (1978) argued that this approach proved an obstacle to art history as a serious field of study, while others such as Pollock (1988) highlighted how such an approach necessarily privileged a male perspective. This reappraisal of what it meant to be engaged in art history led to an expansion in models applied to the field, such as those mentioned in the definition above. Art history essentially shifted from being the study of the history of artists to the study of the role of art itself.
The history of ed tech can also be said to be focused on inventors, as Kernohan (2014) puts it, “Birth myths . . . are ahistorical. They tie in with a phallogocentrism of the concept of creation as a single act by a single person (generally a man . . .) rather than a whole set of pre-existing conditions and preoccupations” (para. 4). This is the grounding of the year-zero mentality, where any recognition of prior work undermines the myth of the individual genius creator. In a modest way, then, I hope this book provides one tool for allowing a similar critical turn in ed tech, by highlighting the long history and repeated attempts that underlie many technologies.
Looking back 25 years starts in 1994, when the web was just about to garner mainstream attention. It was accessed through dial-up modems, and there was a general sense of puzzlement about what it would mean, both for society more generally and for higher education in particular. Some academics considered it to be a fad. One colleague dismissed my idea of a fully online course by declaring, “No one wants to study like that.” But the potential of the web for higher education was clear, even if the direction this would take over the next 25 years was unpredictable.
Although the selection in this book is largely a personal and subjective one, it should resonate in some places with most practitioners in the field. I am guilty of also being rather arbitrary in allocating a specific year to any given technology: the selected year is not when a particular technology was invented but, rather, when it became — in my view — significant. The result of this approach is that inevitably you will find yourself disagreeing with my selection at some point on three grounds. The first point of disagreement is the exclusion of technologies that should have been included. By only allowing myself one ed tech development per year, the range is limited, and it is also, admittedly, biased by my own experience. I acknowledge that mobile learning, game-based learning, and learning design all merit entries in here, but are absent. As with lists such as “Best 100 films” or similar, they are as much characterized by what they leave out as what they include. In addition, there are limitations in the “one technology a year” method; it tends to prioritize technology, for example, as these are easier elements to hook onto, and it is also not very suitable for longer, horizontal themes, such as accessibility. This could run through many of the applications, so the web, associated e-learning standards, open educational resources (OER), Second Life, massive open online courses (MOOC), and so on, all have an accessibility strand. This, and other broader issues, such as academic labour, the concept of identity, and the role of the university can be glimpsed in places in this book, but probably merit a “25 Years of . . .” account of their own.
The second point of disagreement will likely be which particular year I have chosen to allocate to any specific technology. You will undoubtedly feel that some should have come earlier or later. This is partly an issue of logistics, in that some years saw several technologies vie for inclusion and so they had to be spread across two or more. It is also a result of perception, because I have opted for “significance” as my criterion rather than year of invention, and this is a subjective interpretation, and one that may also be influenced by geographical location — I am based in the UK and some technologies will be deemed significant later or earlier in that context than elsewhere. The third point of disagreement may come in the form of the treatment given to any specific entry. For this, I plead brevity of entry, as any one of these topics warrants, and indeed has, several volumes dedicated to them. The aim of each short chapter is to provide an overview, to supply some relevant research, and to draw out general themes that can be synthesized in the final chapter. I hope that even with these three disagreements likely to arise there is nevertheless something useful in the book for most readers.
One small example of the aim of this book can be represented by analysis of a single quote from Internet expert Clay Shirky (2012). Talking about MOOC (the subject of chapter 19 in this book) during their peak in 2012, he predicted that “higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or mooc), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup” (para. 8).
Napster was the file-sharing service that started the online music revolution and Udacity was the first MOOC company. I could have selected from any number of quotes from a range of ed tech futurologists, but this one is telling and gets at the motivations for writing this book. Firstly, it is (perhaps wilfully) ignorant of the long history of e-learning at universities and posits that MOOC are the first flush of online learning. This in itself highlights the need for a broader recognition of the use of ed tech in higher education. Secondly, given this history of e-learning implementation, the quote is not so much about the technology of MOOC, but rather the Silicon Valley-type business model being applied to higher education. It was the large-scale interest of venture capitalists and a seemingly palpable example of the much-loved disruption myth (although, as usual, these predictions proved to be false) that generated much of the media interest. What this book hopes to set forth is that, while the start-up-based culture is certainly one model of ed tech innovation, it is not the only model. By first ignoring its own history, and then allowing a dominant narrative to displace it, higher education fails to make the case that there is another model, which operates to different demands, timescales, and metrics. Thirdly, this combination of historical ignorance and imposed narrative necessitates that much of the existing knowledge established over years of practice and research is ignored. In order for disruption to take place, and Udacity to be “our” Napster, it is a requirement that the incumbents in an industry (in this case, universities and colleges) are incapable of engaging with the new technology and unaware of its implications. The history of ed tech set out in this book refutes this narrative.
These will be themes that will recur throughout the book and be explored in greater detail, but this one typical quote in itself demonstrates the purpose, and I would suggest, need, for books such as this. In conclusion, then, the aims of this book are fivefold:
- To provide a (but definitely not the) basis for shared understanding and common knowledge between practitioners who enter into the ed tech field.
- To demonstrate a history of innovation and effective implementation of ed tech in higher education.
- o draw out themes and lessons from the application of different educational technologies over an extended time period that can helpfully shape future implementation.
- To highlight the necessity of a critical approach in ed tech.
- To provide an alternative historical narrative for ed tech to counteract the year zero, disruption based one.
Whether it is successful in meeting these, I will leave you to judge. If it is not, then simply being an exercise in historical pedantry is an acceptable outcome for the author.