Online pivot – the Past


I thought I’d do a series of posts on thinking about the past, present and future of our current situation. I don’t want to go the full Downes, and say “what this pandemic is really about is me”, but in terms of thinking about the past, I thought I’d riff off my 25 Years of Ed Tech book.

What the pandemic has revealed is the role of ed tech not as a funky, disruptive side hustle, but as boring, mainstream provision. In physical architecture terms it is less the cool, digital drop-in space with bean bags but more akin to the standard lecture halls and old refectory. It’s been around for ages and just kinda works, but you can’t quite remember why it was designed that way.

There is now a shift to outsourcing to OPMs for content, and senior management in universities have to decide how to negotiate an online shift for September and possibly beyond (and whatever you may think about some senior management, this is an impossibly difficult path to plot with so many unknowns). One aspect that hinders them, and which has been ongoing probably before the current people were in their positions, so it’s not really their fault, is the Year Zero mentality of ed tech. The approach of much of commercial ed tech, is (as a subset of tech generally) to sell the idea that the past is quaint, error ridden and largely irrelevant. When people talk of “future facing” as a virtue, they usually mean _exclusively_ future facing.

The problem this generates is that when the pandemic shit hits the fundamental business plan fan then we are building on foundations of sand. I don’t mean to bemoan “why doesn’t everyone have a detailed knowledge of ed tech?”, I know there are lots of competing interests for people’s time. But when the sector itself actively works against any historical legacy by always declaring the latest thing the very first instantiation then a bit of appreciation of its history goes a long way.

So, if for example, someone had written a book on recent history of ed tech, or someone else a review of the ed tech failures over the past decade, then it at least helps provide a basis for considering what to implement and some of the issues that have arisen before. What has surprised me about the pivot online is the way we have found ourselves revisiting the same sort of questions we thought we answered in 1999. Can you teach effectively online? (yes). Is it good quality? (yes). Is it cheaper? (no). Can we do widening participation this way? (yes). Is it easy? (no), etc, et bloody cetera.

This is partly because large numbers of people have suddenly been forced to engage with distance/online ed who didn’t have to previously, and the same presumptions exist. It’s like a mass emergency migration. But it’s a migration to a neighbouring country and if your current country hadn’t been denying the existence of the neighbour for so long, then it’d be an easier shift.

Even without going off and learning a history of ed tech then there is a benefit of understanding an institutional perspective about what has been tried, why things didn’t work, where the pockets of good practice are, etc. Audrey Watters also makes a convincing argument for thinking about the future as historians: “I think it’s interesting to consider this history because we can see in it what people in the past hoped that the future might be. Their imaginings and predictions were (are) never disinterested”. An understanding of the past helps inform the decisions of the present, even in unprecedented times.


  1. ‘Year Zero mentality of ed tech’ – what a great expression for the wilful ignorance if not erasure of experience.

    I wonder whether this is distinctive of the technology. I recall that when Deakin University developed its ‘distance education’ program from the late 1970s it carefully schooled itself in ‘external studies’, ‘correspondence education’, and ‘university of the air’ both at home and abroad.

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