Between enhancement and efficiency – edtech at a crossroads

edtechIt seemed broadly accepted amongst industry players at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN that the last 20 years have been characterised by disruption in the form of new technology. From the data revolution to advances in personalised online learning, new technologies have altered workplace learning and higher education irrevocably. Much of the discussion at OEB involved attempting to grapple with these changes, bringing together expertise to understand, analyse and predict them, and to share solutions to these new-found realities.


By George Bodie


It follows from this recognition that, if the last couple of decades saw drastic changes to the realities of everyday education brought about by new technologies, it is likely that history will repeat itself. That the next 20 years will be defined by similar processes of dramatic shifts in technology is generally accepted across the spectrum of education and training.


Predicting this change was a key talking point, typified by the lively contributions of ‘futurologist’ Mark Stevenson, who set out the stall of the conference with his opening keynote on ‘The future: and what to do about it’.


This was a theme that would reverberate throughout the following days. The general acceptance of the inevitability of change meant that change itself was not in question – what became perhaps the key question was what exactly would be the qualitative effect of these changes on education. If the general consensus was that this form of change is unpredictable and that we cannot predict exactly what new forms of technology will emerge in the coming years, this leaves us to ask the broader question of what we want technology to do for education.


Central to this question was the dichotomy between enhancement and efficiency, or, in other words, whether technology will change the very tenets of education, or simply make it cheaper, easier, and bigger. As an overarching theme, it united a variety of fields – in higher education, where sessions such as ‘Higher Tech, Higher Ed’ brought together administrators, from universities which have outgrown their campus buildings and thus offer blended learning as a necessity, with online course designers convinced that the same courses were superior to traditional learning environments, and in MOOC design, where a similar conflict can be seen between simply ‘massifying’ and moving beyond traditional models of teaching.


Behind this apparent conflict, the elephant in the room was that worldwide, education funding has shrunk following cuts to government spending brought about by fiscal crises. This has not, however, coincided with a decrease in demand, which continues to grow at an exponential rate, particularly in the developing world. Technology is increasingly being used to fill this apparently growing chasm. A clear example of this is the growth in online examinations, to which a stimulating session was dedicated on Friday. Here it is clear that the massive capacity increasing potential of online examinations was leading to increasing calls for its implementation – Denmark has already passed a law that will see online examinations as a legal requirement in the coming years – with high potential for saving on costs and time. During the session, Alexander Schulz of the Free University Berlin claimed that with certain forms of examination, using digitised, online exams could save up to 1,400% per student. It isn’t difficult to see why the pressure is mounting to implement such methods.


Yet at OEB, we also saw the reverse of the argument. For many during the session, online examinations were not simply a useful tool for saving time and money – many teachers felt that bridging the growing gap between largely digitised learning and pen-and-paper examinations was of vital importance for the quality and reliability of exams themselves. Furthermore, the data produced by online examinations can be used effectively with analytics to identify risk and weak spots in students learning, preventing underachievement. Reducing this new technology to simply one of efficiency savings would waste a golden opportunity for the development of learning as a whole, many argued.


This call to action, to attempt to use technology in order to change learning, not simply expand it, was to be heard many times around the conference. Whether or not this will be heard over the demands for greater capacity at less cost, in the midst of a global downturn that shows little sign of abating, is a question that remains open.

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