Educators are not risk averse and complacent


I know the article was clickbait, but this THE piece, entitled “Risk-averse academy needs to get on board with new tech” was a classic of a sub-genre that has been around for at least 30 years. It contained all the requisite elements of the “why are educators stuck in the past (unlike me)?” articles. These are:

  • Based entirely on a small set of anecdotes – this one is based on using VR for a small group of students. Issues of scalability, access, privacy, replicability are too uncool to bother with.
  • Uncritically embedded in start-up culture and language – the “cool factor was off the charts”, “Experimenting with truly immersive VR is mind-blowing”, “A company like the Glimpse Group can create just about any scenario we can imagine”, “Lyron Bentovim, CEO of the New York-based Glimpse Group, which is a king among start-ups in the realm of VR.”
  • Sweeping generalisation – “I’ve heard time and again how university IT departments invest in technology, from software and hardware to new apps, but then grow frustrated because faculty don’t use it”. Really? I’ve heard the opposite, that educators want to use new tech but are often blocked by IT or admin.
  • Ignorance of any history – “We can’t keep teaching the same things in the same ways.” I’d suggest taking a look at maybe a recent history of ed tech to see how educators have been innovating all this time. Even the example cited (VR and AR) is being widely deployed. For example, my colleague Fridolin Wild would be surprised to hear that no-one in HE is using these technologies.
  • Education hasn’t changed in X years – “the business model of higher education hasn’t changed much over the years, even though the wider world is changing at a rapid-fire pace”. This trope is as old as the number of years for which education is deemed not to have changed. As I’ve discussed before, this is only true if you don’t look very closely, and wilfully ignore all the change.
  • Insulting other educators – this article really goes for it on this one: “faculty and administrators alike are by and large risk-averse and generally complacent”; “dear professors, why are you so hesitant to learn something new? You are educators. Don’t you also love learning? Don’t you love challenging yourself to think in new and different ways?” This is certainly a bold approach by THE to insult their core readership, with an article that basically says “why are you so shit?” (and they must take the blame here, the article will have been through an editor who could have suggested tempering the language). As Benjamin Litherland commented on Twitter:
  • A focus on the elite – the author is from Fordham University, a prestigious, wealthy HEI in New York. As I’ve argued before, elitism is not innovation.
  • Over-simplification of context – the blame for a perceived lack of technology adoption is placed on the fuddy-duddy ways of educators. Apart from there being many educators who use all manner of tech in intriguing ways for the benefits of their students (maybe check out an ALT-C conference for example), there are even more who are hampered in doing so by institutional constraints. These can be excess workloads, tenure and reward structures, excessive administration, or barriers to innovation that make any attempt to play with new tech a distant dream glimpsed from under a mountain of quality assurance, business case and risk assessment forms.

I am being a bit unkind – I genuinely admire the enthusiasm of the author, and I bet the students really did enjoy it, so by all means others can learn from this experiment, I think VR has a lot to offer, even if it’s just making learning more playful and providing different experiences. And to be fair we all do know academics who don’t regard any of this digital stuff as worthwhile and can be very conservative. It is the conclusion that we should a) fully embrace start-up culture and b) that educators are incapable of innovation and using tech that grates.

[UPDATE – The Times Higher doubled down on this with a piece the next week which started with ““If you dropped a surgeon from the 16th century into a modern-day operating theatre, they would be astounded at how medicine had advanced,” a former vice-chancellor explained to me recently. “If you dropped a 16th-century academic into a modern-day university, they would wonder why so little had changed.”]

One Comment

  • Marko Teräs

    Nothing to add but well written Martin. Thumbs up. With a history also as a developer/interaction designer, I can only say that “the rumours of [the infinite possibilities of digitalization] have been greatly exaggerated”. The current discourse (or ‘discord’?) is beyond reality, which actually just points into its true nature.

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