AI,  edtech

The inevitability, or otherwise, of ed tech

In Metaphors, I have a chapter about VAR (Video Assisted Refereeing) and Learning Analytics. In it I make the case that VAR got to the point where its implementation in football seemed inevitable. Everyone (fans, pundits, players, not sure about referees) wanted it – mistakes were made by refs, and then analysed in detail in the studio by pundits with access to multiple high definition camera angles. It seemed ludicrous that the ref, who was actually making the decisions, shouldn’t have the same access. I go into some of the problems with the actual implementation in the chapter, but I want to revisit that idea of ‘inevitability’ in this post.

The supposed inevitability of a particular educational technology is a tactic often deployed by those with a vested interest in its adoption. After all, what better marketing ploy than to have people believe that a particular product will be adopted regardless of what they do. It creates an urgency, not to say a panic, to adopt now, and invest heavily. “This stuff is happening whether you like it or not”, is the cry, “miss out and your competitors will be so far ahead of you, that you’ll never catch up.” If you get that belief circulating widely, then sit back and watch the bucks roll in.

Of course, nothing is inevitable – we could be hit by a meteor tomorrow, or collectively decide to revert to an agrarian existence. But some things are certainly more probable than others, and the inevitability argument can be made more strongly for them. Back in the 90s I made a version of the inevitability argument about the web in education. Not everyone agreed, but I think some form of online education adoption in education was pretty much guaranteed to occur at that stage.

Perhaps a way to think about inevitability, or likelihood, is to imagine five years hence from now. If you then rewind it to this point in time, in how many instances is that technology adopted widely in education? Sort of like Doctor Strange figuring out the probability of success for the Avengers in the multiverse. Discounting the more outlandish versions of the multiverse, where aliens land, or we get turned into mushroom infested zombies, play the mental game of how often that technology gets implemented. If it is the case in nearly every instance, without some major alteration to current society, then we can consider it largely inevitable. If a different set of pathways is easily imaginable, then less so. Note, this is different from saying whether you want it be inevitable or not, just how much likely it is to happen.

I think the web in 1995 comes out pretty consistent across these different futures, but other technologies I would say have a lower inevitability score, despite what their proponents claim. MOOCs for instance, weren’t really guaranteed to be adopted around 2008, they caught a particular wave of imagination. I wish OER had a higher inevitability score, and one can imagine alternatives where it is more universally adopted. Some form of mobile learning might also be argued to have a reasonable inevitability ranking. Blockchain? The Metaverse? I’ll let you decide.

My hunch is that inevitability is influenced by two main factors: how much the technology is developing regardless of adoption in education, and how much there is a demand for it by learners. Look at the web here, people were using it, many wanted to use it in education, and it was developing rapidly. All of this brings me onto the current inevitable ed tech du jour, generative AI. It scores high on both those factors: it is developing apace regardless of whether education gets involved or not. And students are using it widely, often despite barriers put in place by universities to stop them. So, yeah, whether we like it or not, I’d say it looks pretty inevitable for education in some form. In which case, better to be using it how we want, which I’ll come on to in the next post.

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