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Unpacking vendor speak

Posted on: May 23, 2017

Some self-serving proclamations from “edtech” vendors make me do my version of gymnastics — my eyes roll and my stomach turns.

Recently I read how one claimed that it could “make learning more engaging, personalised and accessible”. I did my flips and then I felt nauseous.
 

 
Why should something that seems positive be so repulsive to me? Let’s break the claim down element by element.

First, the rhetoric of engagement. The premise for this rhetoric might read: I need to stimulate you, and if I do not, you do not learn. There is some merit to this based on what we know about cognition. If you do not get first attention, then subsequent stimuli are not likely to register.

However, the assumption here is that the stimulus is external. Students are taught to expect to be entertained or switched on instead of nurtured to be independent and self-driving.

Leaders in education and edtech have already started writing and speaking about learner agency and empowerment. This means that learners should not be treated only as consumers, but also as creators of content.

“Engaging” learners with extrinsic motivations is old school and futile in the long run. Empowering them to make, teach, and share is the new order of the day.

Vendors know that policymakers and teachers like to hear about engagement. It feels powerful to be able to engage. However, this does not guarantee students learn powerfully and meaningfully.

Vendors also know that the students must remain consumers and teachers or policymakers must remain buyers. If students and teachers learn to DIY and share openly, then vendors go out of business.

Second, personalised learning is not when it focuses on instruction. Teaching is not the same act as learning. Teaching does not guarantee learning in the same way that talking is not the same as listening.

Let’s assume that the personalisation of learning has three main requirements:

  1. Meeting students where they are.
  2. Letting students progress at their own rate.
  3. Offering students rich and relevant learning experiences.

The reality of “personalised learning” by vendors is often the opposite. Students to go where the vendor is (platforms, logins, access policies, etc.) Students may also need to meet prerequisites to earn the right to “personalise” their learning the vendor’s way.

Resources expire or are locked away if someone else decides the learners do not need them or should not see them. The same entity also dictates an access duration and period.

Sometimes what vendors actually mean by “rich and relevant learning” is actually individualised or customised instruction. They would like you to believe that they can provide choices for your students. For reasons pragmatic and financial, these choices are finite, predetermined, and locked behind a paywall.

Meanwhile learners young and old are already “personalising their learning” by a) not calling it that, b) Googling, c) using YouTube, and d) relying on social connections.

In other words, learners of today are already taking agency and empowering themselves to make their own decisions.

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

Teaching is neat while learning is messy. Personalisation is also messy, and no vendor can or should promise neat packages.

Third, “accessible” is not as broad as it should be. The vendor might mean online and reachable 24×7 (barring maintenance, which coincidentally, will always mess with your schedule). It could also refer to online resources being available on desktop, laptop, slate, or phone.

Such a claim of being accessible is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. Consider if the resource is available if the learner is at level 5 but needs to access level 4 or 6 work. In most cases, the learner will not have such access.

Now consider if the learners are disabled is some way (mentally, physically, socially) or disenfranchised (financially, culturally). How more broadly accessible are the resources to these learners?

The vendors might call me fussy. I might call them dishonest. You decide whose interests I have in mind and heart.

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