Is the Learning Tech Industry Failing Us or Are We Failing Ourselves?

learning tech questionLately things seem to be coming to me in bunches – ideas that appear at first to be distinctly different subjects are starting to merge inside my brain. The last time this happened I tried to make sense of machine learning, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. This week I’m thinking about the history and future of learning technologies. I attend a live Twitter chat most Thursday nights at #LrnChat. Every week, a group of learning professionals get together to focus on a single topic. This week the official topic was learner-generated content, but we spent a lot more time tweeting about the underlying technology that we use – or hope to use – to disseminate this content. This reminded me of a Brandon Hall study on learning technologies that appeared in my inbox this morning. When asked to score their current technology, 302 respondents rated their satisfaction just barely above 50 on a 100-point scale. These same respondents also expressed a high degree of interest (about 48%) in purchasing new technology in the coming year.

Is the Learning Tech Industry Failing UsThere seems to be a disconnect here, as many of the people who are looking for new technologies are planning to purchase the same solutions that others have already found disappointing. We could probably all save each other a lot of money by getting together and comparing notes. It might sound something like this:

  • We’re planning to introduce video to capture learner-generated content. Does anyone out there use a private video channel for learning?
  • We do.
  • How’s it going?
  • Only so-so. We think a collaboration platform is the way to go.
  • We’ve got one of those.
  • What do you think?
  • Pretty mediocre performance and results. That’s why we’re looking into video.

If you don’t have it yet, every great new thing sounds like the solution you’ve been looking for. “If only we could have that shiny new technology, our training program would be so much more effective.” It’s possible that all the latest gadgets with all the sexy bells and whistles have fallen victim to the Hype Cycle, a pattern I’ve written about in a different context previously. It’s also possible that the next great thing is just around the corner and we haven’t discovered it yet. But I suspect that something else is taking place. Before I get to that, humor me with a little step back in time.

Educators have been talking about technology almost as long as we’ve been teaching.

  • Students today can’t prepare bark to calculate their problems. They depend on their slates … What will they do when their slate is dropped and it breaks? They will be unable to write! – Teachers’ Conference, 1703
  • Students today depend too much upon ink. They don’t know how to use a pen knife to sharpen a pencil. Pen and ink will never replace the pencil. – National Association of Teachers, 1907
  • Students today depend upon store-bought ink. They don’t know how to make their own. When they run out of ink they will be unable to write words or ciphers until their next trip to the settlement. –Rural American Teacher, 1929
  • Students today depend upon these expensive fountain pens. They can no longer write with a straight pen and nib (not to mention sharpening their own quills). – PTA Gazette, 1941
  • Ball point pens will be the ruin of education in our country. — Federal Teacher, 1950
  • There are still many … who worry that calculator use will impair student’s mathematical ability and result in mathematical illiteracy. – School Superintendents’ Forum, 1997

I see an underlying assumption in all these reactions to learning technologies. We tend to assume that the technology itself is responsible for learning, perhaps losing site of the fact that meaning is actually constructed in the brain of each individual learner. We can teach calculus, music, marketing, French, or anything else using any type of technology. We could even just talk about the subject. Marshall McLuhan is famous for saying that “the medium is the message,”in reference to the new entertainment medium of television. But when I try to extrapolate that concept to today’s breathless excitement about learning technologies, it feels empty. Is Twitter the message? Facebook? YouTube? If we’re able to do anything at all, we learning professionals can help an individual find his or her own way towards meaning. We don’t need the latest and greatest of anything to make that happen. The key is to start by using the tools at hand. And when better tools become available, use those too.

No shiny new tool is going to do the hard work for us. Maybe that is why so many of us are disappointed today with the learning technology we just bought yesterday. Going out and buying a new shiny thing won’t absolve us of that responsibility.

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