Ambivalent on Ed Tech: The EDUCAUSE Re-write

Now that I’ve had time to digest the implications of EDUCAUSE 2011 – which were significant, but not as mind-blowing as the Reading Market experience – I keep going back to a post I wrote earlier this year (although not on e-Literate).  In that post contrasting a Gartner report on IT spending with an Ambient Insight report on ed tech and online spending, I argued that ambivalence was the key to understanding both reports in context.  Likewise, based on the hype and reality of ed tech at EDUCAUSE, ambivalence can help us understand future implications for education.

One of the benefits of blog posting is the ability to wholesale plagiarize yourself where needed (ed – I’ll see you in court, Mr. Hill).  Herewith is my rewrite of that post based on this year’s EDUCAUSE experience.

ambivalence or ambivalency  (æmˈbɪvələns)   — n

the simultaneous existence of two opposed and conflicting attitudes, emotions, etc

Note – I’m using the phrase “ed tech” to mean technology impacting teaching and learning, somewhat similar to the phrase “academic technology”.

On one hand, ed tech is generating new interest from investors and from large publisher and technology firms.   Arguably the biggest news at EDUCAUSE was the Pearson introduction of OpenClass (called a big deal by Michael Feldstein), along with the Blackboard counter-move to open up the internal content in their LMS.  Less public, but also significant, is the investment and development of MindTap by Cengage Learning.  Outside of the digital content and LMS space, more of the large technology firms were showcasing education-specific solutions rather than just laying out generic products.  Ed tech is no longer the weaker sibling of ERP / administrative technology, as described by the Chronicle before the conference.

All week long, the conference will offer sessions on campus technology trends—so many that printing out the program exhausted our printer’s paper tray. To get a sense of what all those panels are about, we decided to make a “tag cloud” of all the session titles from the conference . . .

“Learning” appeared most frequently (probably a good sign for an education conference). More specifically, officials I’ve talked to recently said they were eager to hear about the latest in the battle to provide course-management systems to campuses, ideas for using “the cloud” (or, Web-based services), and examples of interesting mobile applications for teaching (for smartphones or tablet computers).

On the other hand, there is a lot of skepticism about the claims coming from ed tech PR machines.  Since I always like Kate’s writing style at Music for Deckchairs, let’s go with her summary.

The problem is the tsunami of corporate PR from edtech large and small that goes well beyond spruiking individual products, and extends to a generalised Mexican wave of enthusiasm for the whole techno-enterprise, often couched in such evangelical terms that it’s hard to imagine an educational problem for which edtech doesn’t already have the answer, in triplicate.

To save you the time, I pulled out my Aussie-to-English dictionary to discover that “spruiking” roughly translates to “To promote a thing or idea to another person, in order that they buy the thing, or accept the idea”, although Bret and Jemaine might be offended.

What gives – should we view today’s ed tech market as the long-awaited investment in teaching and learning, or should we view ed tech as the over-hyped result of PR on steroids?  I think the key is to separate the reality from the marketing, as we have some bold corporate investments and strategy that is unfortunately supported by too much old-style marketing.  The engineers and strategists might have listened to Seth Godin, but the marketing groups and pundits could learn some lessons.  As Joshua Kim has suggested in the context of OpenClass:

The beauty of a free offering is that the traditional sales and marketing channels and practices should not apply. There is no need to “sell” the LMS, only a need to get as many people as possible in the EDU community full access to the platform, and to share every detail about the technical specifications, cloud infrastructure, and product roadmap.

In other words, both views are accurate in my opinion.  We are seeing potentially transformative ed tech offerings, but many of the skeptics are right to be distrustful of over-zealous traditional marketing.  However, it would be a mistake to throw out the ed tech baby with the marketing water.  To paraphrase Michael Feldstein’s excellent post on OpenClass, the hype will not matter too much in the long run, other than how it affects the issue of trust.

It is a good thing that ed tech is ascending at EDUCAUSE.  How is this interest in ed tech playing out in higher ed spending patterns?  Broadly speaking, there are three different trends in ed tech which may appear to conflict, one of which is trending down and two of which are trending up.

  • Spending on ongoing operations and maintenance of status quo is neutral or falling – Higher ed spending in particular is facing significant budget cuts, and the IT department has not been spared.  Which CIO has not been asked to cut budgets?  Despite growing demands on network bandwidth and security, schools are still insisting that IT makes do with less.
  • Investment by the publishing industry is needed to move an obsolete model into the digital world – The major educational publishers know that the model has to change, and they are furiously working and spending to transform their business models.
  • Investors see vulnerabilities by established market leaders, particularly in LMS – This is leading to new investment for higher ed LMS competitors, and a new mentality.

In my mind, money is entering the market where transformation is possible.  Transformation to online learning, transformation of the publishing model, transformation of the LMS space.  Where technology is merely preserving, or even strengthening, the status quo, budgets are down and money is leaving the market.

Technology for technology’s sake is a hard sell.  Technology to catalyze change is a much easier sell.

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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7 Responses to Ambivalent on Ed Tech: The EDUCAUSE Re-write

  1. Can I just ask a quick question, Phil: when you say that you see money entering the market, is this development funding? Because if you’re right — and I think you are — that education budgets are flatlining, where exactly does this leave edtech in terms of longer term market potential? Technology to catalyze change will only be easy to sell if the change in question delivers significant budgetary advantage back to the hard pressed CIO/CFO.

    And this is where ambivalence comes flying in. For example, the sell at the moment is leaning heavily on the benefit of analytics and workflow, but those who are ambivalent want to know how both of these can be sold on the dual benefit of enhanced education and lower operating costs. Those who fear that the former is the front for the latter are asking really serious questions about labor conditions in education, because the very obvious way to lower operating costs is to hire fewer teachers.

    My sense is that it would help if we could see clear modelling on exactly how operating costs will be lowered in a way that enhances educational experience.

    Thanks for the nice remark, by the way. MfD.

  2. Phil Hill says:

    Yes I believe this is development funding – at least the venture capital funding and internal investment by bigger companies. There are other sources such as foundation funding (e.g. Gates), etc.

    Given the flatlining educational budgets, this leaves several potential areas for longer term market potential.
    – Taking money away from other IT areas (zero sum game); by treating LMS as 4th element of ERP, or alternative approach to CRM or Portal
    – Being more efficient than capital spending, such as using blended courses to increase effective use of brick-and-mortar and reduce need for new buildings to handle growing enrollments
    – By helping publishers move to digital content, and potentially higher margins than dead trees
    – By online education, with its higher ed tech spending, replacing more (but not all) of the traditional educational spend
    – By increasing retention and student program success

    I share your concern about enhanced education being a front for lower operating costs. The questions you raise are not just for ed tech vendors, but really for institutional strategy and government spending, supported by or catalyzed by ed tech.

    The successful transformations will be led by educational leaders, enabled by ed tech, and supported by faculty. Ed tech can play a role in helping educational leaders envision the future. Alternatively, with more social capabilities in ed tech, the transformations will even be led by faculty, supported by institutional leaders, enabled by ed tech.

    Enough of my soapbox, however.

  3. The thing that worries the skeptics is that none of the market potential strategies that you sketch above deal either with the cost of faculty, or the cost to faculty. Whenever we talk about rebalancing capital works with cloud works, the labor cost of teaching quietly slips from the discussion.

    This is the trust problem that education itself needs to address: how does it propose to offer meaningful support to faculty to achieve strategic and effective use of edtech, if this shift isn’t to be simply a front for labor cost savings over the medium term? The second issue is running costs, because what actually happens when faculty work online is that operating costs don’t vanish, they just transfer out, often into the homes of students and educators. And a surprising number of educators, especially adjuncts, are already paying far more out of their personal budgets than they would have expected to twenty years ago just to continue working after they come home from work.

    Ambivalence seems like a sensible response under these circumstances, but it’s a tough one for educational technology to fix.

  4. Joshua Kim says:

    Phil…I learned a thing or 2 in this post.

    Mostly, your writing helps connect the excitement we feel on campus about blended learning, the stress we feel to do more with less dollars, and the investments being made by investors and companies in the ed tech space.

    Now I’m really curious about


  5. Neil Allison says:

    You’re always a good read, and this industry stays rewarding and interesting.
    Kiwis Brett and Jemaine wouldn’t like be labeled Aussies, though 🙂
    – Neil

  6. Phil Hill says:

    Neil, that’s why they’d be upset – with me giving too much respect to the Aussies :} I didn’t know I’d missed them on the Simpsons – time for Hulu. Thanks for note, and good to see that cultural references snuck in are noticed.

    Josh, thanks for the note. We should talk sometime, either by phone or at a conference.

  7. Neil Allison says:

    Exactly. Cocky Aussies getting all the attention, even in the blogosphere.
    As for the mis-quote: sorry – I wrongly assumed it was Michael without reading the byline; that’s certainly a compliment.
    – Neil

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