An Approach for Ed Tech


I’ve been involved in a few projects recently that have made me consider what my approach actually is to ed tech. One way of thinking about this is to try the thought experiment of imagining you are in charge of a fund procuring ed tech (or if you prefer, responsible for an ed tech budget at your institution). What would be your principles or criteria be for determining which ones to fund?

Given developments over the past ten years I’ve mixed in a fair bit of criticism into my initial ed tech solutionism, but I think the resulting mix might be getting towards a pragmatic approach to what usefully works. So here’s an attempt at defining my approach:

Treat them like research – have definite research questions or hypotheses. Then you will know whether it has achieved it.

Consider social impacts – where does this tech come from? What will be the impact on students and educators? Technology does not exist in a social vacuum.

Track the data implications – who owns the data, what data does it generate?

Avoid hype – as soon as anyone mentions disruption, revolution, transformation, etc walk out the door. These terms are usually a disguise for not having a clear, testable (and therefore falsifiable) benefit.

Focus on achievable goals within a year – related to the above, if the tech is capable of an improvement then it should be demonstrable within a year. It may be modest at this stage.

Avoid inverse investment scrutiny – ed tech often suffers from an inverse scrutiny problem. If you want to do something small scale and experimental with one class you have to justify every aspect. If you want to invest millions then vague goals and rhetoric are sufficient. Flip this round – small scale experiment should be lightweight and without some of the constraints I’m listing here. Just see what happens. Large scale investment needs to be clear what it is doing and why.

Have a clear audience who will benefit – not some vague utopian dream, or a one off TEDX type anecdote about a whiz kid in a village in a developing country, but a clear benefit for a particular group. And then test whether it is true.

Give educators agency – generally educators like, you know, educating, and tools that help them do that and help their students will receive more enthusiasm. Indeed making educators enthusiastic (again) is often one of the biggest benefits of ed tech. So tech that reduces their role or makes teaching less worthwhile is losing from the start. And on a related note…

Talk in educational terms – students are not customers or data points. Learning is not a transaction. We are not Uberfying education. Ed tech projects should communicate in a language that is meaningful to students and educators.

Address scalability and reproducibility – with lots of investment and attention we can all get an improvement, or a shiny product. Will that effect still be there five years from now and across different students? Caveat to this – if you are targeting a very specific group then it doesn’t need to be applicable to all learners, just not a one off.

Appreciate student diversity – not all learners are the same. What works for some will be despised by others, what is easy for this student will be a barrier to one with a different set of needs, and what is helpful in one place is interfering in another. Which brings me onto the next point –

Avoid technological panacea – a range of tools and approaches will be required for different students, disciplines, functions, etc.

Don’t buy black boxes or alchemy – any solution that basically has a “magic happens here” box in it, means that either they are conning you or that there is stuff happening in there that you need to understand.

There is some overlap in these, and even a bit of contradiction – scalability matters for some projects but less so for small scale investments. But this list would give you a more realistic, impactful focus on ed tech that has tangible benefits I feel.


  • Sherri Spelic

    Over the last few years I, too, have read my share of ed tech advice, do’s and don’ts and also partaken in active criticism. This post is so very clear, practical and concise – I will definitely share this with the tech team at my institution, who can perhaps pass it along to their colleagues at other schools. I especially appreciate the idea about using small scale projects to test things without a deluge of constraints and on the other hand, carefully and critically examining objectives and processes for those big ticket commitments. Well done and thanks!

    • admin

      Thanks Sherri – I’d love to hear how others find it. I’m thinking of turning it into a simple tool, if I a) have time and b) have technical ability

  • Madeleine Brookes

    Your blog is a recommended source for us to explore in our last subject (#inf547) for the MEd Knowledge Networks and Digital Innovation at Charles Sturt University (CSU) – our lecturer is @julielindsay.

    This post is very pertinent and timely as we discuss some of the work of Neil Selwyn (2010) who reminds us of the ‘disparity between rhetoric and reality’ (p. 66) and the need for a critical study of educational technology. Your point about avoiding the hype certainly supports what Selwyn suggests that we focus on questions about the ‘state-of-the-actual’ rather than ‘state-of-the-art’ questions which focus on what could or should happen.

    Selwyn, N. (2010). Looking beyond learning: notes towards the critical study of educational technology. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(1), 65–73. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2009.00338.x.

    • admin

      Thanks for letting me know it’s a recommended source Madeleine, that’s always nice to find out. Neil’s writing is excellent in the area of critical ed tech, and I pretty much agree with most of his views.

  • Mark

    I’ve been thinking about this for a while in relation to open source technologies. As an extension to the magic “black box”, I think it’s important to place value in user experience. Commercial suppliers will fall over themselves to sell you a solution, but open source technologies often don’t have the aggressive marketing that their proprietary peers do. Also, leadership don’t always understand if the technology is ‘free’, so it’s ignored. If you’re looking at products,level the playing field for open source by considering case studies and get learners and teachers in to talk about their approaches w

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