Can HE solve edtech?

What’s really holding back technology adoption in higher education? Charges are normally levelled at technophobia or cost but, as Paddy Smith discovers at Bett 2019, it might just be lack of content

Wear trainers or your feet will hurt. Don’t pick up too many leaflets or your shoulder will hurt. Make a plan or your head will hurt. With advice like this, you can’t blame first-time attendees to the year’s first UK edtech show for feeling a bit nervous. And that’s before they’ve even thought about handing over the next three years’ budget on new data architecture. If you’d wanted to visit every company exhibiting at this year’s event, you would have had to visit 212 companies per day, ranging from Silicon Valley behemoths to start-up minnows.

For those working in the higher education sector the footwork is likely to have been considerably lighter. The lion’s share of Bett exhibitors aim their products squarely at the schools market. Educational robots and toys abound. Fun, but perhaps not a requisition priority for our bastions of further learning.

Lack of appetite?

The trouble is that, beyond campus infrastructure, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about what technologies universities need, nor how to implement them or how to use them. Everybody agrees that higher education could be run more efficiently if it was greased with smoothly installed, intuitive technology. Yet the murmur on the show floor at Bett suggests few HE institutions have much appetite to explore the options available.

Take two examples: learning management systems and virtual reality – one old, one new. Computerised learning management systems (LMS) have been around at least since Norway’s Ekko in 1991, the same year the Linux operating system was introduced. Virtual reality (VR), by contrast, is barely a decade old in its current form and has yet to break into the mainstream – even in entertainment, which is so often the icebreaker for wider adoption.

Yet the opportunities these two technologies represent to universities are virtually untapped. Forget building a new campus in Beijing – the first institution to crack the combination of streamlined learning management and VR remote teaching possibilities (essentially virtual teleporting twinned with time travel) can potentially open a campus on every one of the 3.2 billion connected devices on the planet and teach 24/7 without (much) further resource. 

Tech barriers

There’s definitely greater potential for edtech in UK universities – Chris Rothwell, UK director of education, Microsoft

So what’s stopping them? Price is usually cited as the barrier to entry, but an open source LMS such as Moodle is free, and a respectable VR headset now costs around £200.

Fear of adopting the wrong technology is also blamed for reluctance to invest in edtech, but it’s not a view shared by Microsoft’s UK director of education, Chris Rothwell. “Universities are large enough institutions to have resources to help them think about what technology can do,” he says. 

“I certainly don’t think of them as ‘technology reticent’. I definitely think of them as a sector where there’s greater potential for technology, no question of that. Like a lot of industries there will be pockets where some are amazing; others definitely not.”

Other industries, it turns out, are under pressure to follow schools’ lead. Google’s Jamboard, a 55-inch 4K Ultra HD whiteboard that can convert handwriting and doodles into type and graphics and works with Google’s G Suite (again, free to educators), was developed for the boardroom as a substitute for flip charts and mood boards. The product is displayed prominently on Google’s Bett stand, as it is on the stand of hardware partner BenQ.

Lisa Yates, a senior sales manager at BenQ, tells UB that while education is not the target market for Jamboard, its potential applications in learning environments such as seminar groups are virtually limitless. More interestingly still, she says that the demand for display and presentation tech in work environments is being driven by employees who have grown up with edtech in their schools. Surely that demand extends to universities, especially at a time when the imposition of fees is fostering a student-as-client culture.

There are various sticking points: “reluctance from teachers” is raised by one edtech company; “a generational problem” offers another. One VR company admits to UB off the record that “some institutions are waiting for early adopter feedback” but concedes this is a minor setback against the larger problem that “they want ready-to-go content they can take off the shelf”.

That final observation is widespread. Educators are keen to use technology, and technologists are desperate to get their wares into new institutions. But the putty between educators and technologists – content creation – is missing.

Untapping the potential

Institutions would like to buy technology – VR, say – with educational products available (or included) to run on top of it. Technologists think the best people to create those products are teachers. The tools are there; the will is not. There is potential for technically savvy educators to work up an agency that might become the digital age’s Pearson. Provided VR lives up to its educational potential, it’s a money spinner. But without a critical mass of resources, and created with no guarantee of the technology maturing in a predictable fashion, it’s a gigantic risk.

Dr Jan Müller is chief operating officer at Open Campus, an ‘open adoption’ LMS that provides traditional functions such as course and exam management alongside admissions, resource and process support, governance and payments.

“To be honest, I don’t know how many institutions really seriously use an LMS,” he confesses. “I mean, LMS classically is the Moodle learning management system. Many have it but they don’t use it. They maybe use 10% of the functionality and they just use it to put in information and to upload PDFs. But they don’t look at the whole functionality. The problem is effort for the teacher.

“I worked at a university for a long time. We had Moodle at the University of Munich but the functionality was just to upload documents. It’s the same as buying smartbots and putting them in the classroom, but if you don’t use them the functionality is complete nonsense.

“In Germany there is no real plan for how to use these digital instruments for education. They provide the infrastructure or the hardware but to seriously use computer technologies or blended learning, there is no overall concept. There are pretty good teachers; they are well educated. It’s a form of education – educating the people in how to use it.”

Alina Toderaşcu, marketing director at Cypher Learning, which creates the Neo LMS, also concedes that there is more opportunity in the European market and elsewhere. “In the United States, most schools are already using an LMS. A lot of schools also have their own systems that they have built and they are not that great and they are trying to move away from them. In Europe, there is still opportunity to grow. It’s not a saturated market yet. More and more universities are starting to adopt LMS so that is the trend now.”

In the future, there won’t be any classrooms

Scandinavian countries lead the European field in LMS adoption, according to Toderaşcu, while Italy and France still have a long way to go. Cypher Learning is pinning its hopes on aggressive development. “In recent years the user experience has got a lot better,” says Toderaşcu. “They used to be very clunky and very hard to navigate. Students didn’t like them. Neo was launched in 2009. We like to call ourselves the Apple of LMS. It makes learning more enjoyable. We also have some very cool features such as adaptive learning, automation, gamification, micro-learning. So we are always trying to innovate and bring new things into our platform that students and teachers need.

“We have a lot of features for personalisation. We want teachers to be able to make content as customisable as possible for their students, to adapt to the needs of each individual student. A few features for that are competency-based learning, adaptive learning. For example, if a student is doing very well, the teacher can decide to show them additional lessons automatically, but if the student is doing badly, the teacher can set a rule to trigger an automatic message that is sent with recommendations on how to improve.

“Even in the next year we are trying to integrate with machine learning and augmented reality, so that’s definitely the future.”

Toderaşcu’s parting comment is a believable notion: “In the future, there won’t be any classrooms and everyone will have an LMS.”

It’s a concept that has been touted in the corporate world for decades. If we can create tools that work well enough, and use them to their full potential, then who needs an office? It’s telling that LMS companies are pivoting their products towards corporations for use as training and assessment tools at the same time that boardroom gadgetry like Jamboard is being marketed to educators.

You get the sense that it will be left to the corporate world, with its competitive need to innovate, to invest in the long process of trial, error and adaptation that drives content improvement. And that may not be a bad thing: private companies can make rapid decisions, unencumbered by bureaucratic machinations.

Perhaps, like Jamboard, edtech’s missing content will be developed in the boardroom, and filter into education later. It’s hard to imagine content crossing the tramlines as smoothly as display hardware, though, and for that strategic partnerships between business and education will be needed. 

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