The Future of Educational Technology

It’s my job to stay on top of educational technology. In the last two months alone, I’ve attended huge ed tech conferences like and ASU+GSV, each with hundreds of well-funded new ed tech ventures. But I’ve been constantly disappointed, because almost none of this ed tech innovation is grounded in the science of how people learn. Of the 2,500 people at ASU+GSV, less than ten of them were learning scientists, and only two of the speakers on the program had any claim to such expertise. (Less than 50 people showed up to hear what they had to say.)

Just a few days ago, Bror Saxberg, the Chief Learning Officer at Kaplan, published an important article noting this same problem, and making a strong claim: technology will not help people learn, until ed tech developers start to work closely with learning scientists.

This is a key problem: Almost no one who is involved in creating learning materials or large-scale educational experiences relies on the evidence from learning science.

Saxberg says what we need are learning engineers–professionals who can apply learning sciences research. And ed tech companies don’t have them; instead, ed tech developers “are essentially using their intuition and personal experience with learning rather than apply existing science.”

I agree with Saxberg, and that’s why I’m creating a new master’s degree program, at the University of North Carolina, in educational innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship–to create this new generation of “learning engineers”.

This morning, Daphne Koller, the President of Coursera, published an article in the Wall Street Journal that makes an important point:

The “sage on the stage” at a university will no longer be a common mode of delivery. In the classroom–whether physical or virtual–we will see more attention given to group projects, conversations and applied learning, with lecture content going the way of textbooks as something experienced in preparing for class. At the same time, universities will devote considerably more effort to activities that occur outside the classroom, be it research, individual mentoring by faculty or senior students, team activities, volunteering, internships, study abroad…

I predict that in two decades, lecture halls will no longer be used. Not because of cost, or technology, or student preference, or high professor salaries, or because “they don’t scale”–but because the science of learning shows that lecture is an ineffective pedagogical technique. But this doesn’t mean the future of college is online, because the same learning sciences research shows that MOOCs are ineffective. Let’s hope that ed tech innovators increasingly work with learning sciences researchers: that’s the future of educational technology.

6 thoughts on “The Future of Educational Technology

  1. I absolutely agree that lectures are used mostly because “that’s the way I learned” or “that’s the way it’s always been done.” I’ve engaged in a few MOOCs – to learn of course but also to get experience with the approach to learning. At this point, I’m thinking the MOOCs would improve drastically from local discussion communities. While those would be in-person discussions led by a good facilitator somewhat familiar with the topic, these facilators need not be experts; that’s where interactions with the MOOC leaders come in.

    I believe there may be ways to do this with online technology. But the informal opportunities built into the MOOC framework didn’t get widespread participant buy-in (have to say though that the few that did participate are part of my PLC still). As with in-class discussions and this local community MOOC discussion, my experience has been the same dissapointing small numbers of participants. As I and others seek to improve our efforts here, I’m hoping / expecting those efforts will inform my and others’ efforts of using technology more effectively.

    1. That’s a great degree you’re adding by the way. Forgot to mention it in my comment above. And I need to mention that buying in to joining discussions is really about structuring the course such that students want to learn, want to participate. Or at least that’s my starting hypothesis.

    2. It is disappointing that the head of Coursera does not know, or does not acknowledge, that what happens in the best university classrooms bears little resemblance to his description.

      My university (Colorado) has invested $15M in rather remarkable research on the improvement of science teaching that offers science and engineering students much more learning than they can get elsewhere. Fortunately for faculty, almost all these science teaching advances have turned out to need in-person work: peer instruction and tutorials done in groups. They produce twice the learning anyone has achieved on line, and they develop group-work skills that employers value. However, despite the success of our research on university (not K-12) teaching, despite the fact that our online applets, a small part of what we’ve created, have been used 110 million times (110 million!, despite one of our Nobel Prize Winners thinking this is so important that he gave up his Nobel Prize research to devote himself fully to research on university science teaching ( ) – despite all of this, teaching is still discounted in promotion and tenure where I am. As far as I can see most departments have as much vision about the future as newspapers of 15 years ago. But most tech developers offer no more, because they have little understanding of how people learn.

      Ten years ago I wrote the first book on “Clickers” -wireless student response systems. It focused on the pedagogy and how people learn. Now we find that we can raise all students grades half a GPA by using good peer discussion and clickers. But we get similar raises if we use colored cards. If the peer discussion questions are rote we get no learning gains. Learning is rarely about the technology, it’s all about how people learn!

      Dr. Doug Duncan

      1. Colorado is a leader is college science teaching. Thank you! There are proven and effective efforts in science and engineering departments around the country, many funded by the NSF. None of them show that videos or lectures, of any sort (in person or online), enhance learning.

  2. Lots of experts have been saying things like “The whole MOOC thing is mass psychosis” (Peter J. Stokes) or even visionary Alan Kay saying 30 years of technology in schools has failed (Cult of Mac, 2010). See my book chapter “The future of learning” in the second edition of the learning sciences handbook…

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