The Content Bias in Edtech

By Fred Cutler, Associate Professor of Political Science, UBC-Vancouver; and Director, UBC Faculty of Arts Instructional Support and IT. ( )

Is EdTech really innovative? We can’t assume that technology applied to education equals educational innovation.  Edtech might even reinforce outdated, ineffective pedagogies that are being debunked by research on learning.

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.

But 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,, and are using the fact that video recording is now accessible to anyone to build tools for practice and feedback over time and space.  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.