Reflections on Education Technology in 2023
I make predictions each January about the future of learning technology and education. While some predictions come true; others do not (or do so at a much smaller scale than I had expected). Overall, I have been optimistic about how learning technology will benefit humanity.
In the mid-2010s, I stopped making annual predictions, discouraged by the institutional inertia in education. The failure to leverage readily available science and technology to benefit learners is more about organizational culture and human behavior than about the technology. Now that it is early 2023, I have reason to be optimistic again, but from a different perspective—lifelong learning.
I wasn’t the only one discouraged by the lack of EdTech progress. In 2020, Justin Reich’s book Failure to Disrupt lamented the failed promise of EdTech. It was a response to predictions in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (Christensen, et al.). In 2008, Christensen predicted a tipping point by 2019 with 50 percent of high school classrooms having a “significant digital component.” We now know that Christensen’s prediction was not fulfilled by 2019, but it was—temporarily—a few months into 2020 because of the pandemic. Disruption didn’t come from technological innovation but an international emergency. Much of the remote learning offered during the pandemic was less than innovative, and by 2022, while schools and colleges had new online capabilities they had mostly gone “back to normal.”
So why am I more optimistic about the promise of learning technology this year? For one thing, in recent years I’ve expanded my focus from K-12 education technology to include education from Pre-K to lifelong learning technologies.
My broader perspective is enhanced by work I am involved in to support the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s T3 Innovation Network and JEDx initiatives. This work includes using technology standards to empower adult learners with their own data and making competencies a currency for opportunity in the talent marketplace. Additionally, my volunteer work with the IEEE provides me insights into innovative tech-empowered learning in corporate and government contexts. This work lets me see and support a growing trend toward learning engineering.
Disrupting innovation already happened outside the mainstream of formal education. (This is in line with Christensen’s original thesis about disruptive innovation—an innovation first reaches critical mass on the fringes of the established industry. The new business model looks like foolishness to the mainstream business until the new model reaches a tipping point and becomes the mainstream.)
In 2010, I pondered a future model of education that flipped the ratio of one classroom teacher to many students, to a learner-centric model with one student surrounded by many teachers and supporting actors. Now if we look beyond formal education to informal and workplace learning, we can see this flipped ratio is already a reality. For example, my son uses StackOverflow to learn how to debug a coding project for school; in that situation, he is just one learner learning from many teachers.
For my children’s generation and beyond, normal classroom-based education will be a diminishing part of their overall lifelong learning experiences. Informal learning has been “invisible,” off the radar, considered not-a-threat by the education establishment. I suspect that in my daughter’s freshman year of college, her self-directed online learning will rival or exceed formal traditional learning in 2023 if measured by time spent, facts learned, or skills practiced.
That is not to downplay the value of her formal learning experience or value informal learning on the same level. Some informal learning is “serious,” and some is not. Some leads to an enriched life, safety, security, and/or employment prospects. Some offer only short-term amusement but no lasting value.
Value, of course, depends on context. I’d give high value to my daughter viewing YouTube videos (multiple teachers) to know how to replace a headlamp on her car before driving at night because I’m concerned about her safety. I would value her exploring her social network to learn who might connect her to job opportunities in the future because who you know is very often more valuable than what you know.
I’d give lower value to her memorizing the words to the latest Taylor Swift song or learning to play it on the ukulele, but I’m happy that learning technologies can make her less-serious learning more productive and enjoyable. All these examples of self-directed learning involve “significant digital components.” So perhaps Christensen and his co-authors got it right; disruptive innovation has changed the way the world learns. They were just overly optimistic about how fast innovation would disrupt the entrenched institution of classroom-based learning.
In the next installment of this series, I will present my 2023 predictions for learning technology.