Ed Tech

Educational technology is a big umbrella term that can shift in meaning depending on who you’re talking to. Wikipedia has a strong entry on educational technology, BUT it’s focus is (in theory) centered on the impact of technology on learning. The US government also has an Office of Educational Technology (https://tech.ed.gov). It’s slightly ironic that until I went to start on this blog, I hadn’t really thought of “educational technology” in terms of student learning. Of course, I get the use of technology. I’ve spent much of my career trying out technology, writing about it, and developing it all to the ultimate goal of improving student learning.

But, in my own mind, I’ve always kept the term “educational technology” or “edtech” specifically for the institutional technologies that faculty (staff and students) are forced to use. These technologies are often bought my those in administrative offices with an eye toward organizational efficiencies, but anyone who has ever used one knows that the user experience is so ridiculously bad that they are anything but efficient. I have logn said that higher education is the most inefficient (and in many ways least effective) organization. There is no denying that the universities and colleges are businesses in that they have to worry about the financial aspects of how to get the work done. When state budgets moved to diminish the support of higher education, the financial stakes increased, which meant an organization that was never meant to be efficient now has to pretend that it is.

So that means, faculty and staff and students are stuck with a whole lot of simply terrible edtech that infiltrates our daily lives. It doesn’t make our lives easier or better or more efficient. In most ways, they absolutely don’t help student learning. But here we are with more workplace tools being ported into educational settings where they simply never work as intended. The list is long. There are likely no higher education institutions that have not invested in some sort of learning management software. These tools trying to do all the things for all the people end up doing few things well.* To do this I still refuse to have learning “managed” and only use what I am contractually obligated to use. For example, the institution where I am employed for another 3 days has the grading system embedded in the LMS. I have to enter grades in it. We are mandated by institutional policy to post a syllabus in the LMS 7 days before the start of the term. I do both of those things. Otherwise, I do not use it.#

Decision making in higher education is a labyrinth of black boxes, and often decision makers don’t fully realize the faculty, staff, and student effects of their divisions because they do not think in those terms. They make decisions based on institutional goals. For example, many institutions use a system “catalog management” system which keeps track of degree programs and requirements.  One of the big edtech players in this almost monopoly market is Modern Campus who markets its catalog management system to folks who run big, essential departments on college campuses. And one of the big sells is that these systems can be integrated with student information systems and wither enterprise resource planning systems. All of these things are necessary to run a university or a college. But the user experience professional in me knows that decisions disconnected from the larger system are bound to fail or in the case of higher ed are bound to not meet the needs of key users such as faculty, staff, and students.

Catalogs and their “management” are directly connected to curriculum. Faculty create curricula and courses that aligns with general education and degree programs. That information is housed in catalogs. The catalog system in theory makes it easy to find options for study and know what the requirements are. Catalogs are connected student course registration systems in a variety of ways. The efficiency at the level of management does not trickle down to a good user experience for other key stakeholders such as faculty, staff, and students. Relatedly, what is meant to be student facing “find yoru program” pages are often

In a preach to the choir moment, let’s take a look at what I mean. You are student trying to find a degree program. Typically you’re gonna land on one of these pages to do an additional search:

Figure 1: A sample of textual search got a degree program.


Figure 2: A sample of a visual tile list for degree programs.