Learning Labs

by Nicole Barbaro, PhD, Sr. Communications Content Manager, WGU Labs


As education has transitioned from in-person to online as a result of the pandemic, institutions have had to work to modify their teaching and learning environments at a rapid pace. The proliferation of education technology (EdTech) has provided educators with a plethora of options for their new online courses. But to what extent has EdTech really changed higher education?

To find out, we talked with Dr. Justin Reich of MIT about the promise and perils of EdTech and explored the ways in which EdTech can be a positive change in the education ecosystem. Reich, who recently published the book Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education, directs the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT and is an expert in the role of EdTech in education.

EdTech has allowed education to continue throughout the pandemic, but it’s worth pondering which EdTech solutions were most used during the pandemic. As Reich points out, the most common technologies used by professors weren’t innovative new products, but mundane old-school technologies: Learning management systems (LMS) and video conferencing tools, like Zoom.

Why, despite the billions of dollars invested in new EdTech each year, haven’t EdTech innovations completely revolutionized our education system, especially given the recent shift to online teaching and learning? Reich argues that higher education institutions are “structurally conservative” meaning that they are resistant to drastic change; they tend to “domesticate” innovative EdTech, conforming innovation to fit within existing systems.

The goal of pandemic era-online teaching has been largely to reenact classic educational settings — hence the use of video conferencing to create a “normal” classroom experience. As Reich points out, the pandemic-era of education has revealed a seemingly paradoxical duality: significant change to educational operations, while maintaining conservative pedagogical strategies. This is in part because faculty tend to replicate the pedagogical practices that they already use, even when equipped with novel EdTech solutions.

With all the innovative and new EdTech available on the market today, what are ways in which educators can use EdTech in innovative ways? And, what types of change should we expect when implementing EdTech? Throughout our conversation, Reich hits on four strategies to drive positive change with EdTech. 

  1. Take a “tinkering” mindset

New and innovative educational offerings often promise dramatic change, but because educational institutions are structurally conservative the reality is that new EdTech initiatives result in smaller changes. EdTech products are designed to solve very specific problems, meaning that although an EdTech product has the ability to solve the problem it was designed to, that product is unlikely to solve all the other problems that remain. Big sweeping changes are therefore unlikely.

Instead, Reich suggests that institutions and educators think about cumulative, iterative change as opposed to sweeping change. Suites of EdTech products crafted to serve a holistic set of needs can be implemented and tinkered with to drive impact. Small changes can be big wins — celebrate progress!

  1. Think creatively about online settings

There is a tendency to use EdTech to reenact in-class pedagogical practices, but online settings are different than in-person settings. Online settings create problems that in-class settings don’t, and these unique problems require unique EdTech solutions.

For example, students working together in groups is a classic pedagogical strategy, but one that requires different solutions for in-class versus online settings. In the classroom, students can easily move themselves into groups, collaborate in their notebooks and show their texts, and the professor can easily move about the room to assist groups. Working in groups — a process intuitive and easy in the classroom — presents a suite of unique problems in online settings  that need to be solved by EdTech. Creative thinking about the operations of online learning present opportunities for new and innovative pedagogy.

  1. Ask your students what works for them

Students are the university’s most important stakeholders and the most valuable source of information about what kinds of EdTech would work for them. Rather than aiming to reenact traditional learning structures, explore if something new might work better — it may be the case that online lectures are less effective than in-person lectures, or that shorter semesters are preferred for asynchronous courses, or even that class time needs to be used completely differently when EdTech is involved!

As Reich points out, this generation of students — from K12 to higher ed — have the unique experience of having a full year of remote learning under their belts. Don’t miss this opportunity to learn from students and generate new ideas to combat the structural conservatism of our institutions. Now is the time to try new things that wouldn’t seem possible before.

  1. Create dedicated communities of faculty

In both his book and in our conversation, Justin argues that “technologies are only as powerful as the communities that use them.” Educators — not only new tech — drive positive change. Although higher education knows the importance of creating a strong sense of community for students, we must not forget to create strong communities of educators as well! 

Adopting new EdTech and innovating on pedagogy aren’t easy. But new EdTech can be impactful when implemented in the context of communities of educators who are dedicated to using EdTech to innovate and make our educational systems more equitable. Those that are on the front-lines of student success — our faculty — are the starting point of implementing impactful EdTech within our institutions.

If you’re interested in learning more about Justin Reich’s work on EdTech, be sure to listen to our conversation with him and pick up a copy of his book today!  

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