Everyone tries to predict the future.
We try to predict future weather when we pack for a week-long trip. We try to predict future markets when we invest in a retirement account. In my 25 years of working in educational technology, I have published the occasional prediction about where the field is headed. Today I want to check in on a prediction from 10 years ago and share a new prediction for the next decade of edtech.
The year 2012 was a turning point for open education in the United States. The decade before had been dominated by university open courseware (OCW) projects and organizations like OpenStax. OCW projects took materials that college faculty used in class – things like lecture notes and syllabi – and converted them into PDFs, applied a Creative Commons license, and made them available for free download. OpenStax created college textbooks, converted them into web pages and PDFs, applied for a Creative Commons license, and made them free to read online or download. These open educational resources (OER) initiatives made college-level educational content accessible to the public on a scale never seen before. They were also comprised primarily of static text and pictures.
The New York Times hailed 2012 as “the year of the MOOC,” as Coursera, Udacity, and edX brought millions of users into freely available online classes full of videos, automatically graded homework, and communities with whom learners could discuss course topics. Khan Academy’s collection of thousands of tutorial videos had expanded to include automatically graded math practice. This new cohort of organizations was investing heavily in multimedia and interactivity–and creating a noticeable gap between themselves and earlier entrants like MIT OCW and OpenStax. Open education purists were concerned that the MOOC providers weren’t using Creative Commons licenses, but the millions of learners who flocked to their sites apparently didn’t care.
Observing this trend toward more multimedia and greater interactivity in open education, and seeing the risk it created for traditional OER creators, I predicted in 2012 that organizations that created OER but did not explicitly embrace more multimedia and more interactive forms of learning would be gone by 2017. That prediction performed pretty well, as many OER creators from before 2012 have either ceased to exist (as many universities’ open courseware initiatives have) or pivoted away from creating OER (as Flat World Knowledge did). Only in a few cases did these first generation OER creators invest in developing more interactive learning technologies to complement their OER and manage to survive (as OpenStax has with its Tutor and Rover products). Second generation OER creators–those that entered the field after that 2012 prediction–have created OER with a focus on multimedia, interactivity, and analytics from their beginnings.
Over the last decade, increasing interest in multimedia, interactivity, and analytics across creators of both open and proprietary learning materials has grown to include interest in machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) applications in education. This has coincided with a resurgence of interest in automating more and more of what teachers have traditionally done. The logic seems compelling at first: Human teachers are the most expensive part of the education system. They also vary significantly in their levels of training, experience, and teaching effectiveness. If we could simultaneously reduce costs and reduce variability (i.e., improve quality) by replacing teachers with interactive multimedia, why wouldn’t we do that? By making education more affordable in this way, we would be able to expand access to education to more of those who stand to benefit from it the most!
At least, that’s how the logic goes.
The reality is that access to resources is only part of what our most in-need students require in order to succeed. Yes, those rare learners Tressie McMillan Cottom calls “roaming autodidacts” may be able to succeed with nothing more than access to video lectures, self-grading practice, and other interactive resources. But most students – and particularly those students our current approaches to education are most likely to fail – need more than resources. They need a mentor, a coach, a cheerleader, and a confidant. They need help navigating education, financial aid, and other systems. They need someone who can be flexible when life intervenes in their educational plans. Most of all, they need to know that someone cares whether or not they succeed and believes that they can. In other words, the thing our most in-need students are most in need of is an amazing teacher. And so, here is my prediction for the next 10 years. To the degree that educational technologies developed or deployed over the next decade attempt to “design out” the teacher by automating more and more of their role, the historic achievement gap between Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and low-income students and their peers will grow wider. Likewise, to the extent that educational technologies are designed to emphasize and strengthen the relationship between teacher and student, that pernicious, persistent gap will narrow.
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