Five edtech pitfalls – and how to avoid them

Ahead of Jisc Digifest 2017, Geoff Mulgan has some words of advice for those involved in digital education

March 4, 2017
Banana skin, pitfall, risk
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The UK is a strong leader in digital technologies and in higher education, but we don’t do so well in combining the two. There are some dramatic exceptions, such as the creation of The Open University, but add-on innovation has been the norm.

Higher education has seen little of the more fundamental innovation that has transformed retail, travel and music. So, how could higher education make the most of new streams of digital innovation?

Communications technologies have always shaped education, from scrolls to printed books to television. And radio was used to broadcast lectures even before 1920. The Open University, launched in the late 1960s, and its emulators in countries such as India and China, have used these audiovisual and, more recently, digital tools to reach tens of millions of students.

In more recent decades, the internet has opened up many new ways to share content, to connect students and teachers, and to organise assessment. In the near future, we can expect a continuing flood of innovations making use not just of social media, but also of virtual and augmented reality, and machine learning.

But the novelty of these tools means that there are likely to be as many failures as successes. Here are my five common digital pitfalls – and suggestions on how they can be avoided.

Drawing on history 

The most surprising pitfall is our repeated failure to learn. Recent and very visible innovations in digital higher education have come mainly from the US, where large sums have been invested in edX, Coursera, Udacity and other massive open online course (Mooc) providers.

These are impressive in many ways, but much less impressive in their failure to take account of decades of experience with online learning. That led to poor levels of completion and engagement, and a failure to develop convincing revenue models. So although by some measures Moocs have been a great success – with tens of millions signed up – they have had much less impact than they could have had, with many acting as little more than marketing front ends for traditional universities.

Mobilising social and peer effects

A key lesson is that we don’t learn that well by just having content projected at us. Instead, we need feedback, and often we need peer encouragement and pressure. That was well understood years ago by the OU – which was why tutors and summer camps complemented the broadcast materials on offer.

It’s also been key to the success of the OU’s Mooc platform FutureLearn – now with some 5 million students – which has encouraged learners to link together horizontally as well as vertically. A related innovation has been crowdteaching: educators working together to create, share and adapt curricula and classroom activities online, using their peers’ work to serve the needs of students. Coventry University’s #Phonar course is a particularly good example of this, having drawn tens of thousands of people into contributing as well as learning.

Reviewing business models

A third consistent weakness of recent digital experiments has been insufficient attention to business models and revenues. Too often, the hope has been “if you build, it they will come”.

For some Moocs, like the Khan Academy, that benefit from large philanthropic grants, this doesn’t matter much. Others are having to cope with insufficient revenues by experimenting with charging for certificates, linking students with potential employers, and charging for supplementary services. Coursera, for example, has moved to work much more with employers.

But the risk here, as with so much internet-based provision, is that the employer – not the student – ends up not being viewed as the client.

Experimenting and testing

The fourth problem is one that afflicts all of edtech: a failure to systematically experiment. It is rare for ideas to work first time. That’s why vigorous experiment, ideally with control groups, is so vital.

There’s no shortage of ideas ready for larger-scale experiment. Take the new tools for assessment and feedback, like the intelligent assessment technology (IAT) engine created by the OU – designed to deliver instant feedback to help students monitor their progress and encourage communication with tutors. The feedback is tailored to allow each student to improve their responses.

Other interesting tools are the small private online courses (SPOCs), which allow professors to engage with a targeted group of learners, who gain from a thorough and intimate course environment. Uses of artificial intelligence – which can greatly enhance adaptive learning – are also ripe for experiment. But there is no systematic funding or orchestration of these opportunities at present.

Bringing together evidence

The fifth pitfall is particularly ironic for universities. Many other fields now have systematic repositories of evidence. These exist for primary and secondary schooling, and for early intervention. But there’s nothing comparable for higher education.

As a result, there is no systematic pooling of what’s known to work, for example, in the burgeoning field of adaptive learning tools. The result is a great deal of wasted effort.

There can be little doubt that digital technologies will continue to transform every aspect of higher education, from research and teaching to assessment. Predictions that the traditional university would be replaced wholesale have proved to be unfounded. But it would be surprising to me if much of the daily life of universities did not change profoundly.

Higher education is not an industry. But it is a major source of employment, earnings and opportunity. The lack of government support is a striking contrast with other industries, like aerospace, digital and genomics, which have had generous public subsidy; recognition that long-term investment pays off; and constant efforts to align law and regulation with innovation funding.

Part of the reason is that when higher education does have the chance to lobby ministers, universities generally argue for their own particular interests, or for greater freedoms in the present rather than seeking support for future innovation. If we’re to retain our position as a global leader of higher education, and one with digital innovation at its core, this will have to change.

Geoff Mulgan is chief executive of Nesta (the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts), and keynote speaker at Jisc’s Digifest 2017. Times Higher Education is a media sponsor for the event.

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