So much education is about hands-on skills, from the skilled trades to health professions to the arts and beyond. Obviously, students learning these skills are given opportunities to learn by doing, but one key technology is now starting to be used so students learn their skills better, faster, and have more confidence. That technology isn’t fancy virtual reality or something powered by AI. It’s just video, but it’s video that’s recorded on students’ own phones. We used to think video in education was about watching how things are done. That’s 90's technology and pedagogy. Now, video for education has been flipped upside-down so its real power is students recording themselves to see how they’re doing and how they can do better. This isn’t catching on quickly, but eventually every skills learner will be self-recording for reflection and feedback.
This is all part of the skills revolution in pedagogy and getting past The Content Bias in Edtech, as we wrote in a recent post.
Here are seven reasons why EVERY skills program -- from nursing to welding to music to business presentations -- will be using student-recorded video in a few years.
But first, a question:
If you’re in hospital and a just-graduated nurse is operating a new pump to keep fluids or medication flowing into you at the right rate… Would you rather the new nurse had:
I know what my answer would be.
Evidence is now beginning to pile up in favor of students’ self-recording, watching, and reflecting, and getting feedback from their expert instructors. We see this in studies in Nursing and other health professions education (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). The results are similar in education for skilled trades (here), in teacher education and school leadership (here, and here), and in client relations and presentations (here, here, here. and here).
For one thing, we’re human and a lot of the time we don’t believe we’re doing something wrong until we see it. We heard from a young Dentistry professor, teaching Master’s-level dental students a specialty procedure, that her students regularly deny that they have made a little mistake operating on a plastic model. Then they see the video, swallow their pride (pun intended), and admit they need to practice it again to do it better.
Educational research shows that being a self-regulated learner, capable of honest reflection and taking feedback to heart, makes a big difference in skills learning. When video recording is done with buy-in from learners, not only does the performance of that particular skill improve, but they also learn how to self-regulate so that all of their learning becomes more effective.
Finally, there can be no doubt that practice makes perfect. But how much practice? Almost every skills educator will tell you that their students don’t practice enough. Why? Because there’s no teacher or trainer looming over them to watch them practice. But with phone video and cloud storage that just doesn’t apply any more. If you want students to practice, tell them to practice, self-record, and upload. Instructors don’t have to watch every minute; they just have to know that it’s being done. We even think this applies to youth sports – kids and parents are so competitive, why don’t they demand that the coach assigns homework?!?
Despite greater effectiveness… Unfortunately in education effectiveness doesn’t always drive curriculum and technology decisions. That’s because it’s so hard to measure effectiveness. So we need to look at other reasons why all skills learning will use student-recorded video in a few years’ time.
Students don’t have someone watching them practice in person enough. It simply costs too much. There isn’t time for teachers to be there. So self-recording while practicing or demonstrating skills is a huge cost-saver.
Part of this is that in-person assessment and feedback takes a lot more time than the actual performance of the skill. Probably double the time.
Take a nursing student doing a head-to-toe exam. Doing a role-play with another student, this takes about 10 minutes. But getting into the room, getting into position, starting and finishing takes about another 5. If the instructor has time to give feedback, it probably takes another 5, as the student takes notes.
If the students self-record and upload, the instructor doesn’t have to leave the office. The 10 minute video can be watched and feedback given in about 12 minutes, maybe even in less than 10 minutes, skipping forward or playing at a faster speed, with a few feedback points given at the exact moments in the video.
That’s a 40% savings in the instructor’s time. That time is a lot of money.
Skills programs are eventually going to recognize this because they’ll be able to properly teach more students with the same resources and produce better learning. The economics of not using video just don’t add up any more.
We know that video breaks barriers of time and space. In this case, it means that students and instructors don’t have to be in the same place at the same time. It isn’t just online programs that are wanting to make learning accessible to anyone, anywhere, anytime; even on-campus programs want to make learning more accessible for students, including those with work or family commitments, or cost barriers to travel and accomodation.
Being able to do a skill, get feedback, and get assessed on it, from a distance, makes skills learning far more accessible. Even when the skills need to be learned in a specific context with equipment or materials provided by the school, students may be able to access them at times when instructors aren’t there (evenings!) and use video to get feedback. And think of skills that need to be learned on-location, in the field, like fitting valves on a pipeline. Video can make this far more accessible and cost-effective.
We heard a student in a French class at UBC in Vancouver say that recording her own skill (a presentation) “allowed me to create a presentation that I did not have to present in front of an entire class. I could record it at home, which meant I did not have to find childcare for my son, which I would have if we had presented in office hours. I still got the practice and feedback from my prof.”
Every educator knows that students are less passive than they used to be. They are demanding that they graduate with competence and confidence in the skills they’re learning. At the same time, employers need specific, repeatable skills less than in the past. So employers and learners want programs to produce students with a great feel for the various skills in their professional domain. That means students are demanding more practice. They’re choosing programs based in Competency-based Learning.
Students and educators are also making learning more social than it ever has been. Group work, team-based learning, peer-review and peer-instruction are all finding their way into curriculum and classes. Students have more agency and more creativity in this context. Since video is now such a ubiquitous and cheap mode of documenting learning and communicating, it seems natural that students will want to have a video camera in their hands to show that they’ve learned and to make original contributions to knowledge and dialogue. Quite simply, the evolving expectations of learners over the next fifty years will mean that they will ask for ways to show what they can do and get feedback from their teachers.
Gradually, the cultures of teaching and course design are meeting students new expectations. Teachers, professors, instructors, trainers now want to see their students develop skills and confidence. Look at it this way: almost no new teachers, at any level, are content to do what was done to them and just talk at students and give papers and exams. They are now noticing all the educational research that shows learning involves deliberate practice with feedback, social support, agency, and modelling or mentorship from their teachers. Here’s the seminal article on deliberate practice by Anders Ericsson and colleagues.
Programs that are skills-heavy, especially the hands-on skills programs but also interpersonal skills programs, are noticing that their newer instructors are not afraid of students having a lot more control of their learning. Putting cameras in the hands of these learners makes sense to a new generation of teachers and course designers.
Skill programs, especially ones that involve the operation of technology, have to deal with the cost of that equipment. Think of a program in Automated Controls Installation and Maintenance. The technology they use must change all the time. Testing students using printed or even online materials would require a massive effort to keep up, year by year. But if students are simply operating the equipment and recording themselves, the assessment can be right to the point: Can the student do the job or do they need some coaching? The key here is that a student learns to operate equipment and solve problems in a given area, so it doesn’t even matter if the equipment is a bit out of date.
The student can then keep the video to show mastery of the skills to employers.
Which brings us to the final reason: Badging, Blockchain, Portfolios, AI and so on.
Resumes and interviews are dying out as employers look to hire hard-working, skilled, reliable people. In the software world most employers give extended problem-based tests to job-seekers. Other firms ask a candidate to come in for a day or a week and actually work. Instead of resumes and interviews, employers are looking at Badges earned on short courses; ePortfolios showing the actual work that the person has done, including reflection on it; and various forms of network recommendations like LinkedIn.
What better way to prove that you can do something than by pointing an employer to video – hosted on your ePortfolio. Even better is if the course instructor or another expert has left comments and the student herself has reflected on the demonstration of competency. That shows humility, the ability to learn from coaching, and hopefully, that the learner mastered the technique.
So how do you let students upload video assignments? Some of the big Learning Management Systems allow students to upload video, but they don’t really accommodate peer-learning or time-specific comments. For that you’ll need to go with these asychronous video tools:
Education doesn’t move very fast in taking advantage of technological change to reinvent programs and curriculum. So it’ll take a few more years before all skills programs let learners learn from video of the learners themselves. I guess it took a while after the availability of paper and writing instruments for educators to shift from oral exams to written output, but it happened. Students could show that they could make an argument and communicate in an extended written form. Centuries later, smartphone video cameras and the cloud do something similar, breaking barriers of time and space for skills learning.
A simple feedback loop, applied in school zones in a small Californian suburb, “cut fatal injuries by about half.” (WIRED) By revealing speeding drivers’ speed to them via a giant on-street speedometer, “drivers slowed an average of 14 percent.” This effectively unraveled decades of law-enforcement dogma by proving the superior efficacy of feedback loops over punitive police surveillance, the traditional approach. Modern education has been moving slowly in this direction, but perhaps it lacks some of the tools that would enable this kind of feedback.
So what are feedback loops, what makes them so powerful, and how can they be applied to what’s going on in education thesedays?
40 years ago, Stanford professor Albert Bandura demonstrated that giving individuals clear goals and, more importantly, a means to evaluate their progress in real time, hugely boosted the likelihood that they would complete their given task. Bandura’s work has been confirmed and extended across psychology, epidemiology, military strategy, environmental studies, corporate training, engineering, and economics. The science behind the self-correcting magic of feedback loops can be broken down to four steps:
To use a very simple example , think about a tennis or volleyball player making a serve. If she observes the ball plow into the net, her brain instantaneously:
Enough serves and the player will be a top-level server due to the countless calibrations and recalibrations in this feedback loop. Ten thousand hours and all that…
But how can this be applied to a clinical context? Feedback is key in two growing areas in the health professions. One involves better feedback on the effects of medications and the other is in clinical skills education and training.
Consider the medical innovation Vitality GlowCaps – ‘smart’ pill caps that glow brightly and begin to play melodies as the patient’s time to take their medication gets nearer. Research has revealed the frightening fact that only about half of patients follow their pill consumption instructions exactly, leading to countless unnecessary deaths, particularly for those with heart issues. GlowCaps found a spectacular way to solve this issue. As Wired Magazine puts it,
“After three months, adherence in the control group had declined to less than 50 percent, the same dismal rate observed in countless other studies. But patients using GlowCaps did remarkably better: More than 80 percent of them took their pills, a rate that lasted for the duration of the six-month study.”
Harnessing the most fundamental element in the psychology of learning, this simple feedback loop has implications that could save countless lives.
What about feedback in educational programs – what problems can it solve? Consider the growing shortage of health professionals in countries like Canada. This excerpt from a 2016 Globe and Mail article sums it up best:
“The sum of all the numbers is a tightening nursing labour market,” says Karima Velji, president of the Canadian Nurses Association (CNA), said in a statement. “Immediate action is needed to stave off the potentially long-lasting trend of a shrinking [registered nurse] work force and its consequences for population health.”
What’s causing the shortage in labor supply? One theory is that numerous adult learners are unable to commit enough time to traditional face-to-face classes due to economic and family pressures. To some extent, online courses can help, but these courses don’t give the student the practice they need to perform clinical skills.
Basically, online learners need feedback and even on-campus students could use a lot more practice and feedback. The main roadblock to more and better feedback loops in clinical programs has historically been data collection. Clinical educators have had to be present to see students performing skills and to give them the briefest of verbal feedback. Now that we’re in an age of video anywhere, anytime with smartphones and YouTube, surely there’s a way to use video for practice and feedback in clinical education. WeVu.video is betting that asynchronous video for practice and feedback at precise moments on student videos will become indispensable for skills training at scale. Using learner-recorded video uploaded to the WeVu platform, face to face student-to-teacher time can decrease considerably, lowering costs, time commitments, and even the program’s environmental footprint. But students will get more practice and more feedback that sticks with the learner. Online education with this kind of video-for-skills-learning may mobilize thousands of mature students unable to commit to a traditional schooling hours.
Feedback is really the central element of any skills learning program across many disciplines and professions. If technology can help us get more and better feedback, it will make a huge positive impact in our education systems. Fortunately, educators are now starting to see that video technology can contribute to the active, doing, part of education, not just the watching and listening part.
Educators from theatre to architecture to food science have discovered the big gains in student engagement and learning when students make videos and podcasts or just film themselves practicing the skills they’re learning.
Even literacy organizations formerly concerned exclusively with text, such as the International Reading Association (IRA) and the National Council of Teachers of English, have added standards emphasizing the need to foster creativity by going beyond text to have students us alternative media as a form of student production (Morgan, 2012). As the technology gets more accessible and easier to use, more and more instructors have been turning toward student video projects as rich new form of evaluation and some are event favoring it over more traditional written assignments.
But now, with the combination of high-quality video cameras on smartphones and cloud video sharing, we’re set to see an explosion of video and audio assignments in every discipline. It’s that much more practical for students to make video and audio, and a whole lot easier for teachers to give feedback and grades. Students, too, are usually prouder of what they’ve accomplished and say their learning experience was deeper.
Kirkland (2006) offers a diverse list of video-making projects, including:
Take this example of a video project assignment from a course at the University of British Columbia taught in the School of Population and Public Health.
Do younger Canadians need a movement to promote their social determinants of health? Design a short creative video to answer this question
In contrast to a typical in-class presentation that vanishes into thin air with little feedback, video assignments can be powerful learning tools for students as a persuasive visual argument requires deep, iterative conceptual and rhetorical thinking. Not only is it necessary for the student to synthesize various sources on the subject content, but she must also write it down as a script, read it, decide who to interview or record, and then create a video, requiring hours of filming and subsequent editing. Each of these steps repeatedly exposes and reinforces the subject content. Additionally, student created videos place students on display, and as such, students make a greater effort to master the subject content so as to avoid embarrassment in front of their peers. So students get to practice and demonstrate their grasp of key course concepts, but student-made video also promotes creativity and individuality, basically eliminating concerns about plagiarism.
A great deal of research reveals students themselves find video projects to be more beneficial to their own understanding and mastery of subject material. Consider a study conducted by Greene and Crespi (2012) on the perceived value of college student created videos as a tool for enhancing the student learning experience. They looked at two different business courses in a state university. One of the courses was an undergraduate accounting course and the other is an undergraduate marketing course, both in a school of business.
Each course assigned its students a video project to test their mastery of the material. The survey data gathered from the students who created the videos revealed that students found such projects “creative, unique and educational.” Moreover, the students who watched the creative projects found that the “the videos were extremely helpful, put a fun twist on learning experiences, a very good way to review material while helping others to understand the material, interesting to see the material learned in a video format, were a good learning experience, and a simple way to remember/learn the material.”
However, while these assignments are fun and provide academic benefits, they can also be frustrating for both students and instructors if students plan poorly, are not trained and supported with technology, or are confused about the purpose of the assignment. As noted by Kearney and Shuck (2006), a gap exists in assessing learning outcomes for student created videos. This often results in assignments which are subpar and or irrelevant to the class. This new form of learning activity brings with it challenges for teachers: What sort of guidelines should you set for video assignments? How do you make sure they are implemented effectively?
One of the most challenging aspects of assigning student made video assignments is designing a fair grading rubric. Unlike multiple choice or essay based exams, video presentations are by their nature individually unique which often makes the grading of each assignment quite arbitrary. Often times a student will believe that they are meeting the standards for the creative assignment during the filming process but will receive a grade much lower than expected. For this reason, it is critical for instructors to set proper expectations for students and so that they have sufficient understanding of the key items to focus on. To be able to accomplish this, it is essential that instructors keep in touch with their students throughout the whole time that they’re supposed to be working on their video assignments. Rather than leave them to fend for themselves, check in from time to time and give concrete advice towards their video content, and how they can improve their projects to more closely meet the learning objectives.
The Open Thinking blog has a good set of ideas for educators wanting to start using video assignments. And here’s a simple example of one from a Cognitive Psychology class:
Teachers face another learning curve as they try to provide effective feedback that students really learn from. One problem is that the videos usually sit outside their online learning platform or the feedback is given as a separate text commentary, just like students get on the papers they hand in. The technology is just starting to catch up to what educators are doing — platforms like WeVu.video give students and teachers a place to share video without making it public, get peer feedback if desired, and get all the feedback on the timeline of the video, just like we’ve always done with comments in the margins of what we write.
Video assignments are increasingly common and pedagogically powerful, but they need preparation and technology to succeed.
Here’s a nice short guide from Wired on how to make a film with a phone.
Video for Self-reflection and Self-critique
Recording yourself allows you to listen to your performance from the impartial perspective or standpoint of an audience member, critic or teacher. Whether you record a single phrase in a practice room or a full-length concert performance, recording allows you to stand back and listen as if it were somebody else’s performance, gaining insights you never could otherwise. As musicians we can then refine and improve our sound to align with our gathered insights. You listen to how musical your playing is – are you being as dynamic and tasteful as you could be? Is your approach appropriate for the genre or style? Recording sharpens your musicianship so that you can gauge every facet of your playing or singing with an impartial ear.
Just as anyone who has recorded themselves on video before has noticed, the actual tone of voice or instrument that others hear is very different than what you hear in your own head. This is especially important for vocalists as their self-perceived tone differs more dramatically from what their audiences hear. Recording yourself allows you to understand how you actually sound to listeners which is essential for delivering a excellent performance! Greg Foot explains this in a great video.
In addition to listening to the recording, seeing yourself on camera is great for performance practice as it is very important to see what you look like while singing or playing your instrument. Do you sit properly? Is your back straight? How is your bowing technique? Are there any bad habits you should be working on? During playback, you can then make those critical judgment calls, hear weaknesses, and more clearly hear how close your actual playing is compared to where you think you should be. Fixing these small technical imperfections will work wonders for improving your tone, confidence, and stamina.
All in all, the ability to reflect on one’s own playing and take action based on reviewing playback is a huge leap in a musician’s development. The more we can do to foster clarity of musical concepts within ourselves, the more consistent musicians we become, and the more joy we can produce when we play.
Video recording becomes all the more useful for a student when the players and teachers can have a dialogue around the recording even when they’re not in the same place at the same time. Web applications for audio and video sharing like WeVu.video, made for private sharing and pinpoint feedback, make this possible. As a student of music, you need someone at a higher level to push you past your current abilities; a teacher or mentor who listens and identifies what you can do to improve. Moreover, as many academic studies have suggested, instrumental music teachers should not only concentrate on instruction, but also give appropriately weighted and timed criticism and praise. Teacher approval and disapproval have a considerable effect on students’ motivation to study music, especially if given consistently. If a low-cost, private, efficient video web application can supplement face-to-face instruction, musicians can make progress faster and more effectively. They’ll know exactly the things they need to work on without having to wait for the next in-person session with an instructor. Thesedays, with this kind of web software for sharing and feedback, all the student needs to record herself is a phone!
Drs. Robert Taylor and Jonathan Girard, Professors and Band/Orchestra Directors at the prestigious UBC School of Music, have been leaders in using video software like WeVu to great success. As Dr. Taylor emphasized, these video tools are timely and ensure that none of the advice students receive are forgotten. When asked whether he had any advice for instructors hoping to implement this in their course, Taylor is very enthusiastic: “Jump right into it! This tool had an incredibly positive effect on my classes and it’s revolutionized the School of Music admission process. There isn’t a lot to worry about in terms of student reception, because they actually find it way more intuitive than we do thanks to all the different technologies they use on an everyday basis. This kind of tool is very powerful and will deliver.”
But what about community organizations that are operating in a place with no WiFi and don’t have a phone with a data plan for their organization. Lots of them think they can’t take mobile payments. But they can, for around $10 a month.
That’s the situation that Jericho Little League in Vancouver was facing. It had operated a little concession for years out of a public park building, with customers paying cash, just like the old days. But JLL thought it was missing out on some revenue to support their programs because people carry cash so much less than they used to. They wanted people to be able to use cards for chips (pun intended) and hotdogs, but they also wanted to sell some bigger-ticket clothing and equipment in the park.
One option would have been to use the data plan from a club official or board member, but then that person would have to be around all the time and it might accidentally use up their data.
So here’s what Jericho Little League did to allow card payments at the park. It took in $8500 in card payments in just a couple of months of the season. That’s lots of hoodies and hot dogs!
Jericho’s All-star teams also used WeVu for slow-mo swing analysis so they could share phone-recorded video among the coaches and players and make comments on the videos.
Once you’ve got the setup working, you’ll want to add your items to Square so that your staff and volunteers can easily tap on squares on a grid to choose the items the customer is buying. It’s cool – you can add pictures and sort items into categories like clothing or food. You can do that in the app or on a computer. Again, it’s best to do this at home or in an office using real Wi-Fi so you don’t use up your phone data plan. But Jericho did a little bit on the fly during the season and it didn’t use much data.
Here is a Word doc with instructions you can give to the people who’ll be setting up and making sales. You can edit it a bit to fit your context.
Some organizations use Square for both card and cash transactions so they can track revenue and inventory. You should consider whether you do it for cash as well or just card transactions.
You might want to examine some of the alternatives to Square.
You’ll have to figure out the best setup for charging to keep the equipment secure. It may be that someone has to take them home at night and return them or pass them on to the next people working.
The power of simulation for learning has been clear for centuries. Even the mighty Roman military did simulations to make sure their armies were ready for battle. They also used simulation for soft skills so they could convince people in their conquered territories to be loyal citizens. (You’d never know this from Asterix, though.)
But the Romans didn’t have video to make debriefing happen powerfully anywhere across time and space. Now it’s so easy to record video, but the challenge is how to use it for simulation without breaking the bank — and how to break free of the constraints of using video recorded only on fixed cameras in a fancy simulation lab.
Finally, simulation in health professions is becoming mainstream. INACSL, the International Nursing Association for Clinical Simulation Learning has thousands of members and a big conference every year where simulation educators share knowledge and experiences. While simulation educators like high-fidelity, carefully scripted and organized simulations, there is a move to incorporate much more flexible, low-cost simulation and skills learning more frequently in nursing programs. This approach goes by a few names including “the frugal sim”, “low cost simulation”, “low-fidelity simulation”. There’s even a site called lowcostsim.wordpress.com with plenty of advice for “Medical Simulation on a Shoestring.” The problem is that in places that need low cost simulation, video debriefing has been out of reach.
Simulation educators feel a tension between, on one hand, the high cost and logistical challenges of recording video, and on the other, the limited value of the video in a traditional debriefing where the participants gather immediately following the simulation. But this tension can be overcome with a slight change to how educators conceive of debriefing.
Instead of a debriefing event, held in-person at one time, educators might think of a debreifing process that occurs as a dialogue over time and space. It includes not only facilitated debriefing, but “self-debriefing” reflection, which is just as effective. When debriefing is a process rather than an event, not only will it be more flexible, convenient and cheaper, but it will probably have a greater impact on learning. The Cloud has made this possible and now you could even say it’s easy. For quite a few years we’ve all been having discussions that are not in real time, using our devices: text messaging, Facebook, Slack, and even comments on Word or Google Docs. That approach will work for simulation debriefing if we can just combine it with a video of the simulation. But can it be done in a low-cost simulation context?
Some of the simulation-specific video solutions, like EMS SimulationIQ, bundled with or an add-on to simulation equipment, are fairly expensive. Instead, low-cost sim educators should consider WeVu, a lightweight, inexpensive video system for education. WeVu allows recording with any camera, including webcams or phones, and then lets you share, make comments, and have a dialogue right along the timeline of the video. With low-cost recording and an affordable video platform, debriefing happens over time and space. It’s more convenient and less taxing for educators and it has a bigger impact on learners, since they can take the time to consider how they’ve performed, get feedback, and ask questions about how to improve.
You would define the simulation or skills practice activity. Record with a laptop and webcam or an old smartphone on a little phone tripod (from Amazon). Make sure your audio is adequate – iphones are pretty good, some android phones are not bad, and a webcam with a speakerphone as the mic is probably best.
Tell your learners to use the top half of one page in Word and type their name in a bold, 48-point font, along with any other details like a student number. Then at the very start of each recording, your learners should hold up that half-page in front of the camera when the recording starts.
After all the simulations are done, you’ll just go to WeVu and upload them. You can then assign them to each learner’s own account and to an assignment (the names they held up on that sheet are on the thumbnail of the video in WeVu). Then you’re ready to ask them to self-debrief, reflecting on their performance in the simulation, which has been shown to really improve learning (here too). Instructors or coaches can go on and provide pointed feedback. Learners can then even ask questions along the video about how they can do better.
This even works for assigning students some skills practice. Tell them to record themselves or each other and then upload to the assignment you’ve defined in WeVu. It’s that easy. You’ll get all the submissions organized in one place and can watch some of it and give feedback. That will surely save time, as compared to waiting for students to file in and do the skills over and over in person. Learners will get feedback they can reflect on after the fact, rather than in the immediate aftermath of the simulation or skill exercise, when their hearts are still thumping too hard to benefit from the debrief.
At a recent Edtech event in London, startups were asked where they sit on a continuum from innovation to revenue. Most resisted the idea that revenue and innovation were at odds. They seemed to be thinking mostly about technological innovation. And it’s true that in the long-run, tech innovation and revenue in edtech go hand in hand. But what about pedagogical innovation? Or, at least, making edtech products that are in keeping with, and keep up with, modern pedagogy.
This is where there IS a painful innovation-revenue trade-off. It’s pretty clear that most edtech is on the revenue side, and you can hardly blame the founders of startups – it’s hard to swim against the current in education, especially when educators’ (slow!) adoption of technology is the only path to startup survival. But if tech innovation isn’t based on learning research and the wave of change it’s generating, our success in edtech, educational and commercial, will be short-lived.
The clearest symptom of this is all the talk – and big business – of content in edtech. Just look at GSV’s 2017 Acceleration Report identifying 16 companies that are “Weapons of Mass Instruction”. Their Edtech products, with the exception of IXL, almost totally replicate a traditional model of, yes, “Instruction”. We’ve added multimedia content and some gamification, but the pedagogical model is still impoverished. It’s mostly about getting content in front of learners rather than having them repeatedly practice and progressively develop skills.
The digitization of educational content is important, but there’s little that’s pedagogically innovative here. Digitization really just changes the knowledge delivery channel. Don’t get me wrong: this is transformational and liberating for populations that found traditional materials inaccessible, as the tremendous success of the Rumie project demonstrates. But with a focus on content, our industry misses a tremendous opportunity to swim with the tide of research in education that has completely upended the knowledge-focussed paradigm of the last thousand years. The revolution that Ryan Craig is talking about in College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education and the teaching that Cathy Davidson champions in The New Education is fundamentally about the triumph of skills – hard, soft, all kinds of skills – over knowledge.
Even Virtual Reality and Artifical Intelligence, front and center recently at @EdtechXEurope, @ReimagineEducation, @SXSWedu, and @GSV, is only pedagogically innovative to the extent that it’s built for personalized- and competency-based learning. Most applications of VR and AI remain grounded in a pedagogy that emphasizes mastery of bodies of knowledge. Some are explicitly marketed as technology that promotes better scores on traditional knowledge-oriented exams. By their very nature, VR and AI in education are directed to learning or doing things that are well-defined by educational content creators. To be sure, they may be very effective tools to speed up the acquisition of knowledge, but they do little to contribute to an education that gets students to know when and how to use the knowledge and then actually do the things they are learning to do.
Look at the Tyton Partners Time for Class 2017 report. It’s an industry-leading report on the state of technology in higher education. Or that’s what it’s supposed to be. But it turns out to be a report on “use and perceptions of”… wait for it… “digital courseware”. The first bullet point in the report mentions “expanding options for “digital learning delivery”. Delivery. The rest of the report is heavily focussed on content delivery; the word “skills” doesn’t appear once. It’s important to understand the pace of adoption and satisfaction with digital courseware, but it’s only a preliminary part of what we now think of as a total learning experience.
Then turn to the Unizin consortium, linking the leading public higher education insitutions of the US Midwest. Unizin is supposedly pushing an ambitious agenda to “improve the learning experience with technology”. Yet its website’s “Solutions” area consists of “Content”, “Data Management”, and “For the Learning Environment”. I imagined that the latter would be about technology built to facilitate learning how to think and do, rather than learning as knowledge. But disappointingly, the link there is to “Course Material Delivery” and the words “Content” and “Deliver” appear twelve times in that short webpage.
And then consider TopHat’s attempt to ‘disrupt’ the publishing industry and Perusall’s platform that allows annotation of textbooks. Rather than innovating and leaving the 20th century world of textbooks behind, these platforms buy into that out-of-date pedagogical model.
The examples are too numerous to catalog. Delivery of content still dominates the mainstream understanding of higher education.
We can look at Finland’s transformation of the pedagogy in its education system, in step with current research, and now being copied in China, to see where education is really heading. The Finnish system’s focus on phenomena-based learning, co-creation, and multidisciplinary problem-solving is where education is heading, there can be no doubt. This means that edtech must innovate to produce tools that facilitate this kind of learning.
Certainly, any tool that enables social and peer learning is going in the right direction. Eric Mazur, the Harvard Physicist who famously gave up on lectures, turned to peer instruction, and built the Learning Catalytics application to make it happen in traditional classrooms, is an example of someone whose pedagogy drove the creation of educational technology.
It might be surprising that putting technology to the service of deep learning of skills and competencies is natural in some of the most traditional subjects – Philosophy and English Literature. You would think that content would be king here, but in these subjects teachers have for a long time used techniques to develop students’ analytic, argumentation, and writing skills. That’s cleary demonstrated in the best book on teaching in higher ed, James Lang’s, Small Teaching; Lang is an English Professor. And the UBC Centre for Teaching and Learning partnered with faculty from these departments to develop COMPair and Studiorium, tech tools that have nothing to do with ingesting content and everything to do with active learning of skills for persuasive, effective writing.
Counter-examples of this progress abound, unfortunately. The gamification of learning, with technology like Gradecraft, is mostly designed for content ingestion so that students perform better on traditional assessments – exams. To be sure, deep gamification can lead to deep competency learning, as in this gamification of learning ultrasound techniques. But at present most of it is like the profusion of digital flashcards, built to help students succeed in the current, traditional pedagogical environment. And who can blame those who build these tools and the parents and students who use them. Tools for the gamification of fact-learning are squarely at the revenue end of the revenue-innovation trade-off.
One area that’s clearly underserved by edtech is the learning of hard and soft skills, both individual and interpersonal. For skills learning, we’re not even talking about innovative pedagogy. There’s no doubt that the only way to learn skills is to do them, over and over, reflecting each time, modifying techniques along the way, getting better along the way and learning what you’re capabable of doing. We still have a system of apprenticeship for skilled trades that dates back thousands of years and relies on repeated practice and coaching. The pedagogy of apprenticeship is in fact more relevant in higher education than many realize, in fields from the creative and performing arts to health professions to business and law. So why aren’t we seeing edtech building more tools for learning of hands-on skills or skills that involve some kind of interpersonal interaction?
There are a few such tools. Learning technologies used for simulation-based education in the health professions and public safety are important, but they are very expensive and involve an on-site hardware installation, like the products offered by CAE Healthcare. Startups like GoReact, Practice.xyz, and WeVu.video are using the fact that video recording is now accessible to anyone to build tools for practice and feedback over time and space, including for the skilled trades. We need more and better tools for collaborative, discovery-based skills learning, for educators to more easily put design thinking into practice at scale, and for real reflection and integration of learning like ePortfolios promised.
An educational model dominated by content delivery was a function of pre-digital, print technology. Technological innovation has given us a world where anything and everything can be digital, shared, and collaborative. How frustrating it will be if those building, buying, and using educational technology remain stuck in a pre-digital, pre-internet pedagogy and their technological innovation actually deepens the bias to a content-focussed model of education.