25 Years of Ed Tech

When I signed up to curate the Open Scotland blog, I hadn’t thought of the possible perks but getting a sneaky peek of Martin Weller’s forthcoming book 25 Years of Ed Tech has definitely made it all worthwhile. It’s a look back over a quarter century of educational technology and is also very much in keeping with this month’s reflective theme.

While Martin and I both work for the OU, it is a very big university and we don’t actually work together. I managed to blag it the old fashioned way – by asking nicely on Twitter. You won’t have to wait very long for your own copy as it is due out in February, published by Athabasca University Press, and will be made available with a CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence (of course).

Weller, M (2020). 25 Years of Ed Tech. Athabasca University Press. Alberta

TLDR: 25 Years of Ed Tech is a must read for educators and prospective open practitioners. I found myself wishing I’d had it as a source during my MA in Online and Distance Education studies so I can see it becoming a core (open) textbook. It will also help prepare us for a more critical relationship with educational technology.

Any summary of 25 years is bound to be subjective and you may find yourself quibbling with some of the dates he has assigned to each technology or trend. Weller has chosen the years based on when they became significant for him or when they reached a tipping point of adoption within higher education. The 25 years cover 1994 – 2018 and some of the later entries may sound familiar from his EdTechie blog posts. Aiming for one technology per year (though some years have many sub-headings!) this is a wonderfully succinct yet wide-ranging back story to the canon of Ed Tech – a counter to the sector’s tendency towards ‘historical amnesia’. There is a focus on higher education but even if you work in a different educational context, or have not embraced online education, you will find this an accessible and interesting read.

It begins with the nascent forums of online bulletin boards, moving on to the uptake of the internet and how its design as an open system enabled all that subsequently evolved. In that sense, much of the history of ed tech intersects with that of open education. It’s not surprising that the OU was an early adopter of the possibilities for ‘e-learning’ and Weller was part of the team that created the very first fully online undergraduate module (in 1999). Early predictions were that this way of teaching would spell the end of teachers but the larger scale of the course meant that more tutors and facilitators were needed. What changed was the pedagogical approach, from a ‘sage on the stage’ to a ‘guide on the side’ (King 1993).

In some cases, the technology has matured and been mainstreamed while others have come and gone – either morphing into a different technology or failing because the world wasn’t ready for it yet. What’s interesting is the interconnectedness of many technological innovations and the discussions within the EdTech community which led to their evolution. Learning objects (2000) required content but not context which made it difficult for educators to share and reuse them. The discussions on LOs led to the development of open educational resources (2004) – with their own rules for sharing and platforms to enable that – but there was a lag before the technology caught up. The ideas behind constructivist (1997) and later connectivist (2010) learning needed Web 2.0’s social networks (2006). In the meantime, the sector was building a shared vocabulary and standards for ‘open’.

For all its relative successes – the OU’s open platform OpenLearn had 8.9 million visitors last year – Weller argues that OER still haven’t gone mainstream, with levels of awareness among educators in the UK sitting at 10-20%. While it may not have been transformative in the way it was predicted in 2004, OER can be seen as a gentle shift in the tectonics of education that has moved gradually but consistently so that the old arguments that kept knowledge behind the gates of the academy and publishers’ paywalls no longer hold. This is particularly evident in the US, where the Open Textbooks movement (2013) is a direct challenge to the end-stage capitalism hegemony that encourages students to donate their blood in order to pay for textbooks in the hundreds of dollars.

In 2012, the so-called ‘Year of the MOOC’, it was predicted that MOOCs would disrupt higher education in the way Napster did the music industry. [As an aside, music artists whose songs are downloaded from sites like Napster and iTunes get less than 10% of the cost, with record companies receiving more than 50% and Apple the remainder. Plus ça change.] MOOCs are free and accessible with the potential to democratise education, but they remain plagued by low completion rates (<10%), are accessed predominantly by learners with high prior educational attainment, and have been accused of replicating old-school ‘sage on the stage’ pedagogies to achieve scale. It can be argued that they are in the post-hype maturity stage and the model is still evolving. If you’ve never done a MOOC, or are interested in one that explores online and open education, Weller is behind The Online Educator course which is running on FutureLearn in February.

Along the way, Weller acknowledges when he has called it wrong (announcing “the VLE is dead” in 1997 was premature) but he was an enthusiastic adopter of blogging (2003) which he suggests has developed in a way no other technology has. It is now an almost obligatory open practice, allowing academics and practitioners to share ideas, connect with a wider audience and evolve the concept of a learning community. Twitter and social media (2009) have amplified this but not without exposing us to the uglier side of our connected world. Weller recalls a brief, utopian time before the online environment became so toxic and acknowledges the risks of harassment, misogyny and racism. As these risks fall disproportionately on women, people from minority communities and indeed the majority world (aka the Global South), I feel he could have cited some of the voices with lived experience of this. I’m put in mind of sava saheli singh’s Fallacy of Open.

Digital badges make an appearance in 2015. I’ll be blogging about these later in the month so don’t want to say too much but suffice to say they are another example of an idea that promised much but has yet to be widely adopted in the UK. They’re also another example of how ed tech evolves “when other technologies make the environment favourable for their implementation”.

The book rounds off with a “dystopian turn” and Weller sounds a note of caution against the dark side of edtech – uncritical adoption of technology that puts our students’ data and privacy at risk – and reminds us of our duty of care. He also offers educators some rules for engaging with technology. I’m not going to tell you what they are – you’ll just have to download the book! While you’re waiting, Weller acknowledges some of the non-male voices that often get missed in ed tech creation stories so take the time to explore some of them: Maha Bali, Catherine Cronin, Robin de Rosa, Audrey Watters and Open Scotland’s own Sheila McNeill. I’d also recommend Donna Lanclos’ work on strategic refusal of ed tech.

Gill Ryan