EdTech is booming and promises to shake up the future of education on a global scale, but what is it?
EdTech is technology used for educational purposes, which can mean hardware such as laptops and electronic whiteboards. It also includes software like apps, videos and databases. EdTech is a global phenomenon, however, it is sometimes defined more or less narrowly depending on country, language or field of interest. In Australia, the term is often understood in reference to software that supports K12 and higher education. In Europe, there is a huge emphasis on EdTech for career pathways and professional training.
Education and technology certainly have a long historical partnership. Despite this, education around the world can sometimes be stubborn in resisting change, with valid obstacles in its path to embracing technological opportunities, as we will see below. Despite this hesitancy, innovations in EdTech have simmered away over recent decades, with broader technological advances clearing the way to the tech revolution we are experiencing today. Even before COVID moved us online during lockdowns, EdTech had already begun gaining huge global traction. It is now a massive and fast-moving industry worldwide with the power to transform learning and teaching.
The wide world of EdTech can be grouped into various categories. One of these breakdowns is based on educational sectors or institution types. These include early childhood, primary, secondary, tertiary, distance learning, and corporate training.
Another way of categorising EdTech is according to function. Tools can be grouped as systems for learning management, student information, classroom management, assessment, and more. The scope of EdTech is sometimes very broad, including peripheral tasks and activities. This might extend to databases that help graduating students find work or apps giving teachers real-time health advice for sick students.
How does EdTech support learning?
These various categorisations show that that EdTech performs many functions in educational environments. We know technology has already automated and digitised many aspects of our daily lives, sometimes with a profound impact on related jobs and degrees of user autonomy. We might wonder how EdTech will shape the context of education. For example, what does EdTech mean for the future of teachers and other related jobs? Will we lose our physical learning spaces and materials through transitions online? Additionally, how will learners negotiate the increased power and responsibility that come with EdTech?
Interestingly, EdTech is generally defined as technology to support and enhance the work of teachers and trainers. Where applicable, this means that teachers and trainers are still needed to steer the ship, while using EdTech tools to assist with and simplify their many functions. Not only does this preserve the role of teachers and trainers, but it gives them more freedom to focus on the tasks that require their expertise and involvement.
Besides helping teachers, many EdTech products specifically aim to support students and trainees as individuals on their learning journey. This could mean bringing more visibility to hidden learning obstacles that are difficult to pick up in a large classroom. It might be about more accurately collecting and processing assessments. It also includes the opportunities for the student or trainee to move at the pace that works for them. This individualisation goes against the majority-focus of traditional classrooms and schools that so often have stretched resources. As global application of EdTech improves, this should provide significant support and new avenues for students who would previously have fallen through the cracks.
EdTech and the independent learner
EdTech truly has great potential, but our expectations as tech users may not always align with intent. The tech world develops fast, and uninformed users can be left behind in understanding its role. Some programs are clearly defined and easy to place, such as Moodle and ActiveGrade. These tools assist with sharing content and managing learning goals, respectively. They are very functional and perform clear roles in schools and trainer-led contexts. Other examples of EdTech may be more versatile, not having such clearly applications in a wider learning context, and sometimes implicate a student-led experience.
One great example of this is Duolingo, the autonomous language learning app that teaches vocabulary and basic sentence structures. As the learner completes stages, they move on to higher levels and new categories of vocabulary. The program appears fully contained within the app as dependent on the scope of the learner’s own motivation. Duolingo sends its users reminders to encourage learner autonomy through daily engagement.
This great app is widely used for first access to a foreign language, but can its system help learners achieve higher competency in the language? The company website indicates that a learner can use the app to reach intermediate level fluency through diligence and by engaging in varied types of practice to achieve these goals. This recommendation is barely elaborated on and easy to miss, which might leave users guessing as to whether the app on its own could be enough to reach an intermediate level. If we focus in on this semi-fine print, we might summise that varied practice means using the target language in various contexts outside of the app. This fact could come as a surprise to an inexperienced language learner.
Arguably, the learner does not always know the most effective types of practice to advance their progress. The ambiguity here demonstrates the best and the worst of EdTech. At its most flexible, similar technology could leave the user at the mercy of their own knowledge and motivation. It is worth noting that only eight percent of Duolingo users are active on a monthly basis. There could be many reasons for this, but one possibility is the inconsistencies in user expectations versus their own limitations in using the app. Every EdTech product offers varying degrees of user training and support alongside differing potential for autonomy. Our example here shows the value in being informed users of individual products within a rapidly evolving sphere. Even though technology is taking the reins in many areas of life, we cannot be hasty to erase educational experts, i.e., teachers and trainers, from the picture.
Fully digital versus blended learning
Besides teacher involvement with EdTech,we may have expectations for how technology will transform the way we learn. Are all physical components of learning likely to become digitised over time? For many of us, particularly those who are more resistant to technology, it can be scary to imagine a fully digital world.
Digital-only learning has already existed functionally, and in various forms, over the years. Australia is renowned for exporting quality higher education courses to overseas students. Over several decades, Australian universities have exploited new technologies to improve their delivery of courses and maintain a world-class standing. This approach evidently works and has facilitated internationally recognised forms of distance higher ed courses.
If digital learning works well for higher education, what role does EdTech play in K12 classrooms? An interesting example can be found in Coburg High School, Melbourne. In former times when technology was more of a novelty, the school had a reputation as a “tech school” and was keen to explore the potential of EdTech. Assistant Principal Gary Vella has explained that the school went through a period of total reliance on technology, including the closure of the physical school library. The school ultimately transitioned back from this total digitisation to a blended-learning model. It now incorporates teaching handwriting and requires that each student bring a pen and notebook to class. For Coburg High School, technology appears to have its place with very clear limitations. This example shows us that EdTech can be applied to different extents, and there may be no easy answer as to the perfect balance.
As EdTech develops, it is carving out a place in established systems as well as creating new educational pathways. While the field of EdTech marches forward, the world is faced with ever more creative innovations, countless opportunities, and surprising new challenges. Now is the time to get on board. Let me help you learn more about EdTech and prepare for the exciting future of education.