Books,  edtech

40 years of ed tech at the OU

cover of the book Educational Visions

My colleagues in IET at the Open University have published an open access book with the lovely Ubiquity Press people. It is free to download in various formats here (or you can buy the hard copy, order it for your library etc). It celebrates the work of the CALRG research group.

I like a bit of ed tech history on this blog, which I think is interesting in its own right. But what I particularly like about this book is that they use this history to then consider future developments. So there are four themes, and each has two chapters: Foundations and Futures. As Ann Jones, Eileen Scanlon and Rebecca Ferguson say in the intro, the book:

informs future developments in educational technology, by reviewing the history of computers and education, covering themes including learning analytics and design, inquiry learning, accessibility and learning at scale. The lessons from these developments, which evolve, recur and adapt over time give an indication of the future in the field. The book informs readers about what is already known and demonstrates how they can use this work themselves.

The reason I think this is important is what also drove me to write my 25 years of ed tech book, namely that there is a wilful historical amnesia in much of ed tech. In the intro to 25 years, I pick on Clay Shirky’s quote about MOOCs in 2012: “higher education is now being disrupted; our MP3 is the massive open online course (or mooc), and our Napster is Udacity, the education startup”.

To be fair, I could have selected from any number of quotes from a range of ed tech futurologists particularly around MOOCs, but this one is telling and gets at why I think ed tech history is important. Firstly, it is (perhaps wilfully) ignorant of the long history of e-learning at universities and posits that MOOCs are the first flush of online learning. This in itself highlights the need for a broader recognition of the use of ed tech in higher education. Secondly, given this history of e-learning implementation, the quote is not so much about the technology of MOOCs, but rather the Silicon Valley-type business model being applied to higher education. It was the large-scale interest of venture capitalism and a seemingly palpable example of the much-loved disruption myth (although, as usual, these predictions proved to be false) that generated much of the media interest.

I think it is important to argue that while the start-up based culture is certainly one model of ed tech innovation, it is not the only model. By first ignoring its own history, and then allowing a dominant narrative to displace it, higher education fails to make the case that there is another model, which operates to different demands, timescales, and metrics. The CALRG book is a good example of this mode of operation.

Thirdly, this combination of historical ignorance and imposed narrative necessitates that much of the existing knowledge established over years of practice and research is ignored. In order for disruption to take place, and Udacity to be “our” Napster, it is a requirement that the incumbents in an industry (in this case, universities and colleges) are incapable of engaging with the new technology and unaware of its implications.

I would suggest that understanding the history of ed tech is a method to refute this narrative. So, grab yourself a free download and get refuting.


  • Gavin Moodie

    Indeed. I was provoked by edX’s Anant Agarwal’s claim in 2012 that ‘Online education for students around the world will be the next big thing in education. This is the single biggest change in education since the printing press’.

    This was a reprise, unacknowledged, natch, of management guru Peter Drucker’s claim in 1998 that ‘Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It is as large a change as when we first got the printed book’.

    So how much were universities changed by the printing revolution from 1450? Not much, it turns out. For example, lectures have (unfortunately) been as important in the five and a half centuries after the spread of printing throughout Europe as they presumably were for the three and a half centuries before the printing revolution.

    Moodie, Gavin (2016: 2) Universities, disruptive technologies, and continuity in higher education: the impact of information revolutions, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Dominic Newbould

    When was it that one or two prestigious US universities started filming their F2F lectures and announced that they had discovered free, online learning?
    It’s as if each new researcher in the field completely ignores the history of edtech and has to blurt out that they have invented the whole business.
    A historical account such as this is invaluable and should be required reading for anyone who feels inclined to reinvent the wheel…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *