The speed with which innovations in technology move from inception to adoption by individuals continues to pick-up; it takes years rather than decades. Although the television was invented in the 1920s, it wasn’t until the 1950s that it became a common feature in Western living rooms. Fast forward to 2015 and of the 220,000 drones expected to be sold this year, 70% are for home use. (In case you missed it, “National Drone Day” was this past Saturday, March 14.)
At the same time, new technologies are more frequently taking hold first in consumer markets, rather than among enterprises (hospitals, government, corporations, military), which was once the norm. As the size of the consumer market for technology swells, investment and talent follow. (For more information, see the “Consumerization of IT“.)
In the midst of these changes, it’s useful to take a moment to consider how consumer technologies interact with education technology.
First, it is common for educators and even institutions to adopt technologies that were designed for consumer markets. Youtube, Twitter, WordPress, Google+, Facebook and others are deployed by individual academics to facilitate parts of courses. (It’s worth noting these technologies likely start as personal applications for educators in their role as consumers.) Similarly, institutions turn to Google and Microsoft for email and other enterprise technologies.
The benefits of adopting widely-used consumer applications for educational purposes is plain: the majority are free, and students are already familiar with them – thereby reducing complexity.
However, many institutions struggle with security and privacy concerns, as a result. If an academic chooses to use a WordPress site for part or all of a course, the students’ work may be exposed to the general public or to servers that don’t meet institutional standards. University requirements for data security tend to be more stringent than those of external, commercial providers – many of which pay their bills by sharing data with advertisers.
Equally important is the degree to which these external applications are suited to the goals of teaching and learning. Certain types of social media, for example, have proven to be an awkward fit. While social media is well-suited to facilitating open-ended exchanges between people – with no clear or prescribed beginning and end – higher education has clear boundaries (e.g. course duration) and largely predetermined objectives (e.g. a fixed and standard set of assessments). Social media is user-generated and leaderless; that’s what makes it so compelling. On the other hand, higher education is top-down and instructor-directed. Social media thrives when there are thousands, if not millions, of users within a single, overarching community. A high volume of users provides online communities with enough activity and content to ensure that each user finds what and who they want with sufficient frequency. Twitter and Linked In have well over 100 million users. Higher education instruction typically restricts participation to a single class (e.g. average of 40 students per course).
This is not to say that social media can’t be used in higher education; they can, and they are. But their use will be limited given that they are not designed for teaching and learning in our institution’s unique constraints.
Higher education interacts with consumer technology in a second, possibly more productive, way. It involves mimicry. Technologies are built specifically for online education, but they draw on the best of consumer technologies. They identify what works well in consumer technologies that can be used to support educational objectives, rather than, for example, maximizing exposure of user demographics to advertisers. Second, these educational technologies are designed with a recognition that many of the preferences and behaviors of students are being established in the consumer environment. At this point in history, the consumer technology market is the dominant, defining force in technology use. Education should seek out ways to leverage this fact in order to meet its own objectives.
The interplay between consumer and educational technologies, specifically in terms of online education, will continue to evolve. And I anticipate that we will continue to see both education and consumer-born technologies being used to create and support online learning. But it is also the case that the education technology sector is beginning to find its feet. Investment is up and just as importantly, more talented people are applying themselves to crafting new and better education-specific technologies.