The Coin of the Realm

I’ve been working in the Educational Technology field for the last fifteen years or so. To me, the EdTech field is a pretty broad umbrella, encompassing online learning, classroom technologies, emergent areas of innovation and all sorts of cool devices. As someone who used to teach a subject (high school physics) that didn’t change substantively in 200 years, it’s wild to work in a field that is constantly undergoing change and development.

While the EdTech field is constantly changing, the primary voices and leaders also seems to change. Figures who seemed to play a critical role a decade ago now have been replaced by new voices with new ideas. As I’ve navigated the field, however, I’ve noticed some interesting (and concerning) aspects of these leading voices. Often they’re gifted writers and presenters who can inspire people to try new things. I won’t list specific people or anything, but if you’ve attended an EdTech conference and been inspired by the presenter, chances are, I’m talking about him or her. Or if you know some cool acronym or catchy term that some EdTech leader developed, I’m probably talking about that person, too.

To be clear, I’m not against the fact that these leaders inspire educators to try new things. As teachers, we should constantly examine our practices and look for new ways to reach our students and help them learn. My concern doesn’t come from the inspirations that these EdTech leaders offer, but the evidence (or lack of evidence) that they provide in support of their innovations. If you work in the EdTech field, go to your bookshelf and pull down one of the books written by those inspiring leaders. Check out the references and citations they provide. I know there are a number of these popular EdTech books that don’t offer a single citation or reference in support of the innovation they’re promoting. That’s the same for some well-known technology integration frameworks and some new pedagogical approaches. They’re promoting these new technologies and innovations without any solid supporting evidence. To me, that’s troubling.

When I point this out to some of my EdTech colleagues, their response is typically “But it makes sense.” While this may be true, whether an instructional technique or educational technology “makes sense” or not shouldn’t influence our decision making. Instead of looking for explanations and innovations that fit our worldview, we should look for evidence to inform our choices. I recognize that may be tough for some innovations since the technology typically outpaces the research by several years. That shouldn’t deter us from trying to make evidence-based instructional decisions, however. It should be our charge as educators and it should be the practice that we model to our students.

As educators, we argue for the importance for critical thinking skills and push our students to make evidence-based arguments. Evidence should be the coin of the realm in education, not just for our students but us as well. And that means challenging EdTech leaders to do a better job of providing it for the innovations they promote. To me, that just makes sense.

Surveying Faculty Perceptions

A few weeks ago, the Educause Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) released its annual report of faculty perceptions of information and instructional technology. For those of us who work with technology and professional development in higher education, the yearly release of the report is a little like Christmas. We get to examine research collected from thousands of faculty members across over a hundred US institutions. The report provides a holistic snapshot of what’s happening in our field and what areas need more attention. I know it may sound kind of nerdy, but to me, it’s interesting stuff.

While I’ve linked to the full report above, I thought I’d share a few of the big takeaways that I found interesting…

The majority of faculty prefer some level of face-to-face instruction.
While 51% of faculty who participated in the study prefer blended learning environments, 73% prefer a teaching environment that is either completely or mostly face-to-face. Only 9% of faculty prefer to teach mostly or completely online. Among instructors who have taught at least one online course in the past 12 months, nearly twice as many prefer a mostly or completely face-to-face environment, compared to those who prefer a mostly or completely online engagement with their class.

Technology bans persist.
Rather than just look at laptops, the report breaks down classroom technologies by categories (laptop, tablet, smartphone and wearable technologies) and examines faculty classroom policies of each. Not surprisingly, smartphones were the most banned technologies, with over 50% of faculty reporting that they banned use of smartphones in classroom environments.  Interestingly, almost 50% of faculty also encourage or require the use of laptops in their classes. Clearly, faculty see instructional benefits with some technology (laptops) and instructional distractions with others (smartphones).

Innovation is a complex process to engender.
Across the report, the complexity of higher education environments resonates. For example, older faculty (Baby Boomers and Gen Xers) are almost twice as likely as younger instructors to prefer teaching fully online. While this may be due to a variety of reasons, the authors write:

Older faculty may be tenured and also likely free of the tyranny of teaching evaluations that often stifle pedagogical experimentation and creative approaches to teaching. Compared with younger tenure-track faculty or adjunct instructors who have professional (and personal) incentives to curry the favor of students, tenured faculty can (and should) leverage their positions of authority to serve as catalysts of change for their departments, institutions, and higher education writ large.” (Galanek & Gierdowski, 2019, pg. 6)

Later, when they examine the data on technology bans, the authors report the impact of professional development on faculty technology policies. They write:

Among faculty who receive professional development regarding the use of technology in teaching and who rate that training as good or excellent, 47% ban smartphones. By contrast, 63% of faculty who did not receive this professional development ban those devices.” (Galanek & Gierdowski, 2019, pg. 15)

This is all to say that the factors that influence whether faculty adopt an innovation like online learning or support instructional technology use is based on a lot of factors. While those of us working with faculty professional development already recognize this, the latest ECAR report drives the point home.

Galanek, Joseph D., and Dana C. Gierdowski. ECAR Study of Faculty and Information Technology, 2019. Research report. Louisville, CO: ECAR, December 2019.

The Best Technology Tool

I met an educational technology expert recently who said that the industry was facing a challenging dilemma. With all of the new apps and websites and technologies available to students and teachers, he worried that we were now being bogged down by the “tyranny of choice.” I hadn’t heard the phrase “tyranny of choice” before so I googled it. That initial search led me to the Stanford Center on Longevity where they summarized the “tyranny of choice.”

We presume that more choices allow us to get exactly what we want, making us happier. While there is no doubt that some choice is better than none, more may quickly become too much. Drawbacks include regret, unattainable expectations and paralysis.

That’s right. Being offered too many choices can be a bad thing. Think about it. You probably know some restaurant that has an unwieldy menu that takes ten or fifteen minutes to digest. As you stare at the twenty seafood options and the fourteen chicken dishes, you’re facing the tyranny of choice. As you peruse the pages, you may feel some paralysis by the options. When you finally order, you may have such high expectations of what you’ve ordered that you’re bound to be let down. Which can ultimately lead to regret. Yes, you should have ordered the lobster ravioli.

That’s the tyranny of choice.

Bear with me as I stick with the restaurant theme just a little longer. This weekend, I came across an article written by Frank Bruni titled “The Best Restaurant if You’re Over 50!” Having recently hit the five decade milestone myself, I read Bruni’s work with anticipation. Which restaurant would be the best for my newfound demographic? I half-worried that I would now have to start eating at some national chain like Applebee’s or TGIFridays. Or maybe I’d have to start regularly eating at McDonald’s? The horror!

But that’s not what I found. Instead, Bruni wrote that, with age, he’s found comfort in consistency. Examining his evolution, he compared it to his cocktail choices.

When I was 34, I wanted bling, because it persuaded me that I was special. When I was 44, I wanted blinis, because they made me feel sophisticated. At 54, I just want martinis, because I’m certain of what’s in them and of what that potion can do.

Certainty and consistency. That’s what the best restaurant provides, according to Bruni. He’s willing to eat the same thing at the same restaurant over and over. There’s never any regret. There’s never any unattainable expectations or paralysis. There’s no tyranny of choice.

So, what does this have to do with educational technology? And what is the “best technology tool?”

With the explosion of educational technology, I think a lot of people are finding comfort in the certain and the consistent. Sure, new tools are introduced each day and they have different affordances (and constraints). As risk takers and innovators, we need to try them out and see how they impact student learning and engagement.

But those new tools don’t always work the way they’re intended. And they don’t always lead to the desired instructional results. Some aren’t consistently available. Others can be glitchy.

The best educational tool is the one that reliably and consistently does what we want it to do.

It’s not a flashy choice. Or a sophisticated one. But it’s the right one.

So, while I’ll continue to innovate and try out new technologies, I’ll return to those tools that are consistent and reliable.

They’re the best.

Navigating the Hype Cycle

A few weeks ago, a conference presenter shared Gartner’s Hype Cycle and discussed how the phases described the adoption and implementation of technologies in education. For those of you who may not be familiar, the Hype Cycle is broken down into five key phases:


Innovation Trigger: A new technology or idea is introduced. The technology is presented as the “next big thing” and is conceptualized as solving numerous problems. Significant publicity fuels awareness and the technology’s visibility.

Peak of Inflated Expectations: As awareness grows, success stories fuel increased publicity. Some schools choose to take action while others do not. Failed adoptions also begin to emerge.

Trough of Disillusionment: Interest begins to wane as adoptions and implementations fail to deliver. Some technology developers fail while others work to improve their product to deliver on early promises.

Slope of Enlightenment: The affordances of the technology begin to be better understood. Best practices and emerging research fuels new adoptions. Second- and third-generation products appear from technology providers.

Plateau of Productivity: More widespread and mainstream adoption starts to take off. Criteria for assessing provider viability are more clearly defined. The technology’s broad market applicability and relevance are clearly paying off.

If you’ve been working in education for some time, you can probably recognize this pattern for different instructional technologies and pedagogical practices over the years. Take gamification as an example. A few years ago, gamified learning environments were lauded as a major innovation in education. Gamified websites emerged that offered all sorts of educational benefits. Now, years later, those proposed benefited haven’t happened. At least not yet. Looking at the Education Hype Cycle Report produced by Gartner, they identify gamification as “climbing the slope.” Maybe research is starting to catch up to earlier promises.

But that’s the larger take away from the Hype Cycle. Early phases of the Hype Cycle are fueled mostly by techno-optimism and rhetoric promoting the technology. People see a shiny new object or instructional strategy and only see the promise and possibility. Authors and theorists write books that trumpet all sorts of benefits and opportunities. Technology companies set up stands at conferences and create ambassadors to advocate all of the (perceived) benefits.  The hype fuels more adoption.

And then the crash happens. The technology enters the Trough of Disillusionment and early adopters start to question the cost of their efforts. They may question the huge financial investment or the impact on student learning or the lost professional development. The trough is real.

But it’s during this phase that research starts to catch up. The techno-optimism is replaced by techno-pragmatism. An evidence base emerges that informs design and implementation. As more evidence and research emerges, we reach the Plateau of Productivity and can use the instructional practice or technology with efficacy.

As I think about the Hype Cycle, I’m left wondering which phase is the best time for a school to adopt a technology or an innovation. While I want schools to take risks and innovate, I also recognize that many “next big things” have disappeared after falling off of the Peak of Inflated Expectations. If you’ve worked in schools for any significant length of time, you have a story of some initiative that failed. Many of those initiatives failed because they were poorly implemented. Others should have never been considered because of the lack of evidence to support their implementation. Their adoption happened way too early in the Hype Cycle.

So, how do we better navigate the Hype Cycle? One solution is to develop a healthy skepticism of new initiatives that are proposed. I’m not advocating for anyone to avoid change or innovation but we have to be cautious when advocating for widespread adoption of technologies or initiatives whose hype is largely built upon unsubstantiated claims. Rather than just being skeptical, however, it’s also important for us to take small-scale risks and create pilot studies that can help to inform the knowledge base. It’s through our contributions that new technologies and innovations develop an evidence base to help it move beyond the hype.

My Rules of Tech

When I was in high school, Mr. Haser was one of my favorite teachers. Mixed between his lessons on chemical bonding and electron configuration, Mr. Haser would blend in lessons about life. Through the course of the academic year, he introduced three self-proclaimed Haser’s laws. While it’s been over thirty years since I sat in Mr. Haser’s chemistry class, I can still recall each of his “laws.”

Haser’s first law: Hot glass looks like cold glass.
Haser’s second law: Your neighbor is dumber than you.
Haser’s third law: When in doubt, tell the truth.

While Haser’s first law is definitely subject specific, his other laws focus more on navigating the world honestly and with purpose.

In the spirit of Haser’s laws, I offer my Rules of Technology. While I’ve shared all of these in a class or presentation at some point, they’re not meant to solve all of your technological ills.  Instead, they offer some lighthearted advice for navigating your digital life. If you have a technological rule to share, feel free to write a comment below.

Technology Rule #1: Technology will break your heart. If not today, someday soon. You know the scenario. You have a major assignment due or you’re finishing some big project. And then… your computer crashes and you lose everything. When we least expect it or need it, our hard drives fail and our Internet goes down. Rule #1 communicates the personal toll that technology can play on our lives and echoes that age-old adage: Save and save often.

Technology Rule #2: Focus on being effective. You can work on perfection after that. This is my take on “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Don’t stress over selecting the best PowerPoint slide color or the best font. Craft an effective message that clearly articulates your objectives. If you’re creating some instructional materials, make sure it effectively supports student learning. You can work on perfection after that.

Technology Rule #3: Almost everybody hates the sound of their recorded voice. This is actually somewhat research-based. Because of the structure of our inner ear, we hear our voices differently live than when we hear it through a recording. I offer this for all of those instructors who record screencasts for their students. Unless you’re William Shatner or Alex Trebek, you’re probably going to cringe when you hear your voice. It’s okay. You’re just like the rest of us.

Technology Rule #4: Wait to send that email! You know EXACTLY what I’m talking about. You’ve just received some snarky email from a student or a colleague and you’ve spent fifteen emotionally charged minutes crafting the perfect response. Wait. Just wait. Save the email to draft and review it tomorrow. With some time, you can evaluate whether you still feel the same way.

Technology Rule #5: Shut it off. Take a few minutes and shut off your phone and power down your laptop. Go take a walk or ride your bike. Our lives have become so digitally complex that we’re almost always connected. Shut it off. Some readers are probably worried that they’ll miss something important. Others are probably thinking how boring life would be without all of these devices. But research is emerging that shows that boredom can foster creativity and innovation, which is never a bad thing.