Stagnation (a cranky post)

Not that long ago, there were exciting new things to try in ed tech. It was easy to get enthusiastic about not only new products but the way the web was going, and to encourage faculty to jump in.

But in the last few years, the web has gone stagnant. Certain models of development, and certain tools, have become dominant, and online teaching has become far less excitiing.

1. Education is seen as a market.

Education, as Apple has known since 1981, is a market. But instead of marketing products toward innovative faculty, now products become “enterprise” and are marketed to administrators. This is a larger version of the problem I wrote about six years ago. Then, the Learning Management System, particularly the dominance of Blackboard, stifled innovative pedagogy, especially for novices who just plugged things in to the system. Now we have that writ large. We limit what’s available because restriction is seen as the only way to offer “support” (which faculty now desperately need – see #7). Educators are no longer seen as having special standing as users, with full-featured accounts offered for fee — we are just a target market like every other “consumer”.


2. The web isn’t as friendly anymore.

A couple of years ago, I got a note from an irate blogger because I was using her education blog to try out a feed aggregation plugin for WordPress. She thought I was making money off her work. Last week, I received a notice from Zoho, because my last post linked specifically to their LiveDesk page. They asked me to change my link. The link in my post. In my blog. Apparently linking to anywhere in a website other than the main page adversely affects their Google SEO standings.

We have pulled people away from the idea of creating their own web spaces, because it’s so much more convenient to just use Facebook or Google. In addition to the stalkers and evil net users we’ve always been afraid of, commercial entities like Apple and Google now collect, use, and sell our personal information and web use habits. We are watched, tracked, bought, sold, folded, stapled and mutilated on the web. It’s gone from playground to panopticon.

3. Tentative faculty were right.

When faculty were afraid to work with web 2.0 tools, we used to talk about the possible creativity. When they worried that they might work hard on something only to have it disappear, we’d talk about the transience of everything on the web, or how much benefit their work would have for students. But they’ve been right. Even though I’ve preached for years not to keep your important stuff on the web (even this post is backed up in plain text), I have been affected by the loss of tools like Posterous and the audio feature in Slideshare. Colleagues have been impacted by price hikes for Ning. Things that we created learning objects in for free now charge $49/month.

4. Nothing new is out there.

This is true pedagogically and technologically. When the new exciting thing is Haiku Deck (yet another simple tool for making what is essentially PowerPoint slides online), we’re in trouble. Tools that really do something new, like Prezi and Blabberize, are becoming very rare. This is despite the institutionalization of open source as a viable alternative to proprietary development. Now the purpose of development is to Beta a product, then monetize as quickly as possible. Almost every tool I’ve used has either disappeared or gone “freemium”, with the free version (think Blogger) being almost useless for any sort of innovative teaching. The IPO for Twitter is more than economic news — it’s emblematic of the move to commercialism in a way that creates stagnation within the product. All development will now be aimed at monetization.

And the tools themselves just perpetuate the same ways of doing things. We have failed to move beyond PowerPoint. Although we are better at designing slides (huge slides of text are now the exception), it’s still the same idea. Slideshows with audio were not exactly innovative (they duplicated the teacher talking through a filmstrip, if you remember those), but they were at least useful until Slideshare did away with the soundtrack (my last post tried Thinglink and Soundcloud to do something similar). The emphasis, unless you are a professional web developer or video-maker buying big products, is on easy sharing. Pinterest, the most recent “new” way of doing things, is just an easier version of CoolIris, which is just an easier version of posting images on a web page. Blogging plugins are aimed at monetization and search standings. And none of it ever got easier – wikis are still as hard to use as they always were. Sure, we can shrink-a-dink stuff for mobile. But I see little that is new (my online colleagues tell me gaming has seen all the innovations).

5. Online teaching has institutionalized in the wrong direction.

There were initially two models for online teaching. One was the DIY, faculty-driven, creative, early adopter, free development model. The other was the enterprise system, LMS-for-sale, cookie-cutter classes model. The latter featured scalability via automated grading and servers that could handle hundreds of students. When MOOCs became popular about five years ago, both models were in use. In adopting the standardized model as an answer to high college expenses, and promoting it in the best universities, the standardized, commercial model has won. When big universities other than its originator (Stanford) become commercial partners in Coursera, for example, that’s pretty clear.

6. The field has professionalized, also in the wrong direction.

cc BK at Flickr
cc BK at Flickr

Instead of faculty becoming experts in educational technology as part of a creative process, and being supported by their employers to get certificates and degrees to teach others, educational technology and online course administration are now their own fields with their own PhDs. This means that individuals who have never been teachers and have very little experience create small-sample studies and get degrees that net them jobs administrating experiences for faculty. The entire process promotes the idea that ed tech is too complex for ordinary faculty, promoting dependence and lack of agency.

7. Creativity is being outsourced.

A correlary to this trend is that the fun part (or second most fun part, depending on how much you like students) is being done by others. Creativity in teaching online comes in three places: course design, course materials development, and interactions with students. Most online teachers have great potential for developing good techniques for the latter, especially if they have teaching experience in other settings. But the creative fire, and the development of ones own online pedagogy, is being outsourced to “course developers” and “teams” who take the “burden” of creating courses off overworked faculty.

What seems to be advancement, then, has stifled online teaching.

Lessons of technology

I am a historian of technology – it’s what I do. In discussing some of the above disillusionment with my colleague Scott Johnson, he mentioned how prepping an online course is seen like housework – an ongoing process that people need relief from. Back in the 1980s, historian Ruth Schwartz Cohen wrote a book called More Work for Mother. It was about the changes in domestic technology at the turn of the last century (washing machines, vaccuum cleaners) and the way they were supposed to save labor. But instead, they caused a change in standards for cleanliness that increased their necessity. In addition, they put more of the burden on women, since they no longer needed help beating rugs and hauling laundry tubs.

The promise of technology for improving learning has been realized to a certain extent on the learner end – it is now much easier for the self-motivated, research-oriented students of information and perspectives to save, share and innovate within their own learning experience. But for teachers it’s “more work for mother”, as technologies, instead of relieving a burden, place too many demands on our time for too little return. That not only leaves teachers tired and willing to give up their pedagogical freedom to the nearest ed tech PhD, it leaves the students who need a lot of guidance out in the cold.

A silver lining

There are a number of ways to deal with all this. Most involve some pruning, and even a return to previous ways of thinking.

Select the right tools
When we create something on the web, we should only do so in places where we can download a copy in a typical format, like mp4. Otherwise, we should avoid the product.

Focus on one technology that works
Online courses could be simplified. Select one technology (video, audio, slides) and make that your own. And by “own” I mean created in a way where you can save a copy before uploading to YouTube.

Return to basics
If the technology is turning into a time-suck, return to the more personal way of doing things, like assignments and feedback by email.

Use the technology when it truly saves labor
An automated gradebook where students can log in and see their grades saves labor. Automated grading for multiple-choice or formative assessment saves labor. Other aspects of technology (internal messaging systems, clunky captioning tools, things you have to spend 15 hours learning) may not be good time investments.

Outsource the things you hate
Take advantage of whatever systems or people are provided to you for free, and learn the features or tasks they provide that make these tasks easier. But prioritize first based on what you like – if you love course design, keep it for yourself.

Play with a purpose
It used to be we’d play with the newest gadgets and apps so that we could build permanent things, but this doesn’t work. So play with the intention of learning about technologies in general. All the skills can be transferred to other web technologies.

Go to where you are
If you love your LMS, stay there and learn to use it well. If you prefer WordPress, learn all about it. If you’re a Google fan, become proficient. Don’t worry about going to where other people are (Facebook or mobile apps) if that’s not your thing.

When technology causes loss, or bad changes, instead of improving our lives, we should evolve. I got rid of my dishwasher because it was a continual source of disappointment – it didn’t get dishes very clean, and it got to the point where I was pretty much washing them by hand anyway. So I bought a bigger dish drainer, removed the dishwasher, and gained some badly needed kitchen space. But before that happened I wasted a lot of time and effort working with the machine’s inadequacies, because after all it was supposed to save me time and trouble.

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize when technology is controlling us instead of the other way around. If the web isn’t providing exciting options anymore, it’s time to adapt and get some of our space back.

14 thoughts to “Stagnation (a cranky post)”

  1. Thanks Lisa – succinct, wise and very timely. I will be circulating this as widely as I can. And I am wondering, not just what it means to tech and educators, but also what does it mean to students?

    1. That’s an interesting question. At first I thought, of course if it impacts us it impacts students. But it also impacts all students, including life-long learners, and will limit their models, information, course designs, options, assignments, and discovery options.

  2. Thank you. Absolutely spot on. In fact, I’m jealous. A similar post has been bouncing around my head lately but I haven’t done it. As faculty, we can no longer afford to be passive consumers of Edtech simply using what VC’s or administrators choose to make available to us. We must take over the tech ourselves.

  3. Great post. See much of this happening at numerous institutions. From my perspective it is the industralisation/institutionalisation of online learning within the institution that has had the biggest impact. It only tends to place additional chains on the technology that is controlling “us”.

  4. “Sometimes it’s hard to recognize when technology is controlling us instead of the other way around.”

    I have been talking about this on #rhizo14 and this post is so very timely. Here is a link to our G+ space and the post that started me talking about this:

    I also see you are a fellow DS106 – tried your link but it did not work for me. Mine is on Tumblr and when it dies, I will not have copies of it all…

    Thanks for this, look forward to reading more of your musings.

  5. As always, you have my mind churning… I am trying to reconcile your post with the “open” movement – whatever that means. Of course, those in the open are not mainstream faculty. But there are examples of innovation still occurring – ds106 as one such example.

    I love your comparison between More Work For Mother and More Work For Faculty. You are spot on. Learning affordances seem to take a back seat to ease of use and standardization.

    1. Hi Britt! Yes, it’s true that most faculty aren’t in the “open”, but I’m thinking of David Wiley’s concern that many people make open resources, but few use the open resources of others. That is, perhaps, how it should be. If “open” is about saving time and money looking for the creations of others, there’s a place for that in both the open ed and commercial venues. But what I’m concerned about hampers us “uncoding creators”, those who use tools, but not materials, created by others to try to move our own pedagogies forward. “Open” may be what we do with those creations, but if things are so closed it isn’t useful to create things in the first place, then what?

  6. Hi Lisa, useful grumble. Do you thing technology is better suited to adapting for educational use over this rush to make it FOR education? The spirit found in making something do something else is a principal of teaching and design that’s lost in making something for a particular use.

    Last time I was at a staff “visioning” get-together the only department not there was IT. It wasn’t considered relevant to them. Considering they have the department of “we can’t do that” at most schools they had nothing to offer anyway.

    What does history about change being smothered by self-interest and lack of imagination?

    1. I hadn’t thought of that, but certainly part of the fun was taking something designed for something else, and adapting it. Or rethinking what we were doing based on something never intended for educational use.

  7. Thanks Lisa for replying to my comment. I have had a fun and busy time doing rhizo14 but that’s OK because I am retired and have more time. It has been a great experience making new connections, exploring ideas old and new but has been quite unsettling sometimes. It’s the first time I have used a FB group for learning. In my professional life I would have felt uncomfortable requiring students to acquire a login to do work. We talked a lot about Facebook as it provided rich fodder for explorations of privacy, why they would spend so much money acquiring a particular service. In any small group there were always at least 2 students already on Facebook. On rhizo14 there was a lot of emphasis on using ‘rhizomatic learning’ and/or shiny web services for creative learning experiences. I heard about great things teachers were doing with disaffected students, flying under the radar of the constraining regimes of fixed knowledge, testing, etc.
    The possibility of using rhizomatic thinking to explore radical change in education or to resist unwelcome change was little mentioned but that is not very surprising.
    What did surprise me was the lack of connection of those creative experiences in the classroom to what students may be experiencing elsewhere — learning and unlearning. The orthogonal perspective to this is the one you mentioned of lifelong learning. What critical digital literacies can students acquire that help them make active informed choices about their lived online? And to go from being passive consumers of the digital candy of services (whilst being active in a way that generates more digital candy and revenue/value for service provider) to being active digital citizens who can play a part in shaping the world around them.
    So thanks again for your post.

    1. That’s true, Frances, but I also worry that when we focus on digital citizenship, we lose what our classes (at least in the liberal arts) are also supposed to be doing. Did we spend much time in a history class learning how to balance our checkbooks? Has “lifelong learning” become a euphemism for learning how to live in the real world, instead of extending academic learning beyond university? Perhaps the result we want (active online people who know what their doing) could come from larger learning experiences conducted within the space, rather than focusing on the online nature of the interactions and materials.

  8. Whenever something becomes labelled it takes on a life of its own and lifelong learning is no exception. I guess that I am interested in how learners connect what they are doing in formal classes with what they are doing and learning elsewhere in the present (and you are right – no need to privilege the online unduly), and how they can adapt in future. My experience in the last four years before I left work (a year ago) was to embed the technology stuff within the context of students’ degrees, and to foster a critical approach. We explored online spaces as a topic but most of the interaction was face to face. This might map on to your point about larger learning experiences. An advantage of an embedding approach (as opposed to – go the library to learn about info literacies) is that students are more likely to engage and take it seriously. Point 1 in your post is increasingly important. I’d love to think that young people were leaving Facebook because they were concerned about the use of the data they supply but apparently it has more to do with avoiding Mum and Dad.

  9. Well, Lisa. This is a great post. Thanks for thoroughly digesting and organizing a lot of the ideas that have been banging around in my head. I especially appreciate what you advise in the “silver lining” section. Gracias.

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