I’ll admit it: while I’ve been working on “edtech” the past few years, I’m growing less and less interested in the narrative around it. Don’t get me wrong, I love working in this area, and especially love designing interactive technology that allows groups to connect and learn in ways they couldn’t before. But the whole edtech narrative bugs me, and after our first class, I struggled to figure out why that has become the case (it wasn’t always).
And I think I finally did. The modern edtech narrative has been around for roughly five years now, and pretty much hasn’t changed (just many more people are beating at its drum): a bunch of smart, highly motivated (and well-intentioned) people recasting an “ideal” modernized education system in their own image. We’ll put it all online (with occasional meet-ups)! We’ll get the best teachers and make them rockstars! We’ll even give out badges! People will learn at their own pace, from the best instructors, and will create meaningful outcomes outside the traditional system.
I agree in principle, and have been enthusiastically working on trying to make this happen over the past few years, but it’s only part of the story. I’ve seen firsthand how this new narrative just doesn’t work for many (most?) people. There’s a few reasons for this that I’ve seen over and over:
- Poorly planned online systems that lack any sort of effective pedagogy. While traditional schools have lots of problems, the pedagogy they’ve developed over hundreds of years is still much more effective than the nacent online alternatives. I actually haven’t yet come across an online platform/service that is doing pedagogy all that well (my company included).
- Piecemeal online approaches that do one thing well, but aren’t cohesive enough to lead to truly effective learning outcomes for most people.
- Unstructured systems that put the onus of organization on the learner (and require a huge amount of motivation to see courses through).
- A digital divide where many people lack the requisite technology (and even more importantly, the cultural context of how and why to use the technology).
The promise of a new era of learning is certainly there, but my issue is that the modern narrative makes too many general assumptions, most of which center on a certain type of highly motivated, tech-enabled learner that already buys into a culture of modern technology taking over the world.
But after realizing this, I also remembered a side project I worked on a couple years back that is just waiting to be revisited. The project was called Learn It Live Connects, and it provided free online English language classes to students in India. The instructors were volunteers from the US and Canada, most of whom were earning internship credit for college in exchange for teaching the classes.
Here is a screen grab from one of the live classes:
The program lasted for only about half a year, before losing enthusiasm, mainly because our NGO partners were under-staffed and had difficulties organizing the technology and logistics on their end. What I loved about the project was that we were truly reaching the bottom of the digital pyramid. None of the students owned computers or had access to local English classes. They would come into the NGO center at a given time to log on and attend class (and as you can see in the screen grab, often there would be only 1 computer for multiple students!).
With this in mind, for my final project, I’d like to re-imagine an online education system designed for the bottom of the digital pyramid. Taking my previous learning, I want to explore the following:
- What type of format and media will work in this context? Do we need to scale down the tech? What technologies will work and what should we avoid?
- Who do we need to partner with to create effective buy-in and management on the learners’ end? Local companies? Internet cafes? How can these students consistently access the technology needed to attend class?
- How can we teach people via computers when many of them have very little experience? What training components would have to come into play?
There are many more issues to look at, but this is a project I know is worthwhile and very important in the narrative of modernized education. It’s time to imagine a new system for everyone, not just those that are already doing OK in the current one. If it works for the bottom of the pyramid, my hypothesis is that it will probably work for most people.