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Friday, August 11, 2017

The Origins of Innovation in the Edtech Ecosystem | EDUCAUSE Review

The learning management system as we have known it is fading in its importance. Supplanting it are hundreds of tools and innovations, created by a plethora of vendors, institutions, students, and instructors in a frothy, bubbling world known as the edtech ecosystem.

Photo: Vince Kellen
"The learning management system (LMS) as we have known it is fading in its importance" notes Vince Kellen, Chief Information Officer at the University of California, San Diego 

Supplanting it are hundreds of tools and innovations, created by a plethora of vendors, institutions, students, and instructors in a frothy, bubbling world known as the edtech ecosystem. If the pace of innovation and experimentation persists, this could change instruction for the better. However, this transformation will not come about in the manner that many experts and pundits have predicted. Furthermore, IT leaders and chief information officers (CIOs) will need to dig in now and start contributing.

The word ecosystem, borrowed from its ecological and biological roots, here refers to the educational technology (edtech) market. This market is now sufficiently complex, with dynamic and constantly evolving interconnections between all participants: the edtech vendors themselves; their customers (educational institutions and students); investors in the market; industry trade groups; analysts; local, state and federal governments; think tanks; and vendor suppliers, including companies — like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google — that offer cloud infrastructure and software development tools. This market is diverse with participants big and small, players who have been deeply embedded in higher education for a long time as well as recent interlopers who are feeling their way. The relationships between the various players change over time and are often murky. For example, the largest edtech vendor today may be Amazon. So many edtech vendors have created their solutions in the Amazon environment that it is likely students, faculty, and staff find their digital interactions flowing through the Amazon platforms more often than in any other platform.

Unfortunately, the market and many IT leaders have mischaracterized IT tools, causing them to underestimate the importance of an ecosystem approach. In addition, external conditions, most noticeably the calls for improvements in teaching from our citizen stakeholders and now from many edtech vendors, continue to influence the ecosystem. In both cases, action from CIOs and IT leaders can help.

The Deeper Nature of IT Tools 
Unlike all the tools that have come before, IT tools are much more malleable, almost obscenely so. Timeless tools like the hammer and the saw are made for a specific purpose and require just a bit of practice to master. The capabilities of other tools like the bow and arrow, the atlatl, and the sword become greatly enhanced with advanced skill, requiring dedicated and effortful practice. While designed to work with the human body, these tools still require that people change their behavior and their physical skill to adapt to the tool.

IT tools are quite different. They usually require little to no physical practice to master. While we spend a modicum of physical effort to learn how to hold, type, or otherwise physically handle these tools, we spend much more time in mental effort. We must learn what each tool, each component, each icon, each link, and each button does. We have to learn how very different parts of the software relate to each other. And we need to practice the mental routines needed in order to make good use of these software tools. Over time, this mental rehearsal, just like the physical one, improves our skill.

Unlike conventional tools, IT tools are not delivered in a fully completed form. All of them require some level of modification, configuration, or customization. The inherent pliability of software almost begs for this. In today's software tools we have all sorts of customization capabilities ranging from simple to elaborate settings; we can even go as far as writing code ourselves or mashing up a collection of smaller software tools.

Since the worlds we build as educators are mental worlds with tremendous complexity, diversity, and range of ideas, our relationship with the tool is even more fascinating than the usual business functions to which software is applied. Instructors have to master this complexity in such a way as to effectively share these different worlds of ideas with learners. This complex process of matching content to learners through either automated methods or good old-fashioned face-to-face instruction beckons instructors and their attendant IT helpers to highly customize learning tools. For some difficult teaching situations, the demands that the learning task places on instructors and learners can require a great deal of tailoring. Right now and for the foreseeable future, this tailoring process is necessary for both instructors and learners. The EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) research into the next generation digital learning environment (NGDLE) identified this need as a critical one that the market needs to address.1

Customizable and configurable IT tools give learners the opportunity to organize their own content and manage their own knowledge. Learners frequently invest their time into their mental scaffolding. Their tool use becomes connected to their learning and to course outcomes. This can be beneficial. When both students and instructors become facile co-creators or, at the least, co-tailors of their own tools, attachment both to the tools and to the knowledge delivered grows, building a cycle of engagement and mastery.

The richness of this emerging edtech ecosystem is spawning many thousands of micro-experiments in classrooms across the globe. While some critics may discount this seemingly endless faculty tinkering with tools as indulgent frivolity, I disagree. Instructors are learners too. They are performance artists and have to contend with all the pressures of being on the physical or the online stage. Adopting new teaching and learning tools requires dedicated practice and tool tailoring before stepping onstage.

This tailoring yields other significant benefits. While it can facilitate learning and mastery for all involved, the configuration of these tools is enabling better data integration of learner activities or clickstreams. This in turn catalyzes rapid experimentation with learning analytics. Many vendors and leading instructional researchers are instrumenting classrooms and capturing digital footprint data for the purposes of finding ways to improve instruction. As the technology continues to evolve and undergo speciation, these instructional research insights are likely to get deeper, more focused, and highly varied across disciplines, institutional contexts, and learners. These insights will lead to the further evolution of software tools. The emerging edtech ecosystem looks poised to enable this virtuous cycle of adaption, experimentation, insights, and community sharing. 

Source: EDUCAUSE Review