Cover of BYTE Magazine, January 1986 (Vol. 11, No. 1). Art by Robert Tinney.Image: Cover of BYTE Magazine, January 1986 (Vol. 11, No. 1). Art by Robert Tinney.

Learning technologists are obsolete

Reda SadkiThinking aloud

These are some notes on one of several blog posts that are churning in my head about what digital transformation means for learning and leadership. Warning: these are the kinds of wild, roughshod, low-brow, unrefined contentions that might just make the reasonable and respectable Mister S. choke on his Chivito.

Many of the pionneers of “e-learning” fought long and hard to have the value of technology for learning recognized and new tools put to use by educators. Their achievements are significant. Today, for example, many universities now have teams that support teaching staff in the effective use of learning technologies. (Ironically, the former may provide one of the rare occasions for the latter  to examine their teaching practice, but that is a different topic…). However, when I speak to young professors from fields outside of education, they describe such services as peripheral or marginal. At best, the learning technologies people help them set up a WordPress site to host their course content, or maybe transfer their syllabus into Moodle. That is not insignificant, but it is unlikely to be transformative.

Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg pointed out almost a decade ago in The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age that “modes of learning have changed dramatically over the past two decades — our sources of information, the ways we exchange and interact with information, how information informs and shapes us. But our schools — how we teach, where we teach, who we teach, who teaches, who administers, and who services—have changed mostly around the edges.” Institutions of higher education, if only by virtue of their financial position (think Harvard’s endowment) are built to endure change, unlike the newsroom or the record industry. “It seems as though online learning” wrote Burck Smith three years later, “is simply a ‘feature enhancement’ that allows colleges to make their offerings attractive to more people.”

Admittedly, interesting things can and do happen in the margins. In fact, the modesty and constance of learning technologists who actually deliver new ways of doing new things are two characteristics that stand at stark odds with the snake oil that characterizes a Silicon Valley flavor of edtech littered by empty boasts of technological solutionism.

Furthermore, this change around the edges is no failing of the often talented, dedicated, and passionate individuals who have advocated for more effective use of learning technologies inside their institutions.

It is, rather, that the rate of change they produced turned out to be far slower than that of the tidal wave of Digital Transformation that is spilling over our societies.

Our lives are now permeated by digital. It is embedded into everything we do, not just the tools we use but our way of life and culture. That impacts education, of course. In fact, it does so in ways that are more significant, far-reaching, and profound than anyone explicitly advocating the use of technology for learning. Explicit advocacy is, in a way, an admission that you are trying to effect change from the margins. The more deeply technology embeds itself into the fabric of our lives, the less such a position is likely to be tenable.

How could the role of education be limited to providing better tools, in the midst of a Fourth Industrial Revolution or Second Machine Age, in which a range of new technologies are fusing the physical, digital and biological worlds?

As a geeky teenager  learning to program in BASIC in the 1980s, I was an avid reader of BYTE Magazine, an amazingly thick (with ads), monthly compendium of the best technology journalism of the pre-Internet nascent personal computer industry. Technology was covered as an industry, mostly through the lens of markets, products, and specifications, by tech journalists whose names and personalities I began to recognize, from Mister Congeniality Leo Laporte to professional curmudgeon John C. Dvorak.  It wasn’t until 2011 that Nilay Patel and the rest of the crew at The Verge emerged as a new breed of fully-digital journalism at the intersection of technology and culture:

“The Verge is an ambitious multimedia effort founded in 2011 to examine how technology will change life in the future for a massive mainstream audience. Our original editorial insight was that technology had migrated from the far fringes of the culture to the absolute center as mobile technology created a new generation of digital consumers. Now, we live in a dazzling world of screens that has ushered in revolutions in media, transportation, and science. The future is arriving faster than ever.”

That kind of insight is what is missing from the “learning technologist” standpoint. It highlights both the centrality of technology in our culture and the increasing velocity of change.

In the Digital Transformation, if culture does not swallow up technology at breakfast, it will do so by dinner time. To be a learning technologist today – what may have been forward-looking or even courageous in the past – is to be on the wrong end of history.

Image: Cover of BYTE Magazine, January 1986 (Vol. 11, No. 1).