Inspiring entirely new ways of designing the educational process.

GUEST COLUMN | by Jeff Dunn

CREDIT DeVry Education GroupEdTech combines “education” and “technology.” Some of us occasionally forget about the education part, or underestimate the value of the technology. In either case, that’s a missed opportunity to drive big change. Although educators commonly view technology as a collection of tools wielded by professors and consumed by students in service of pedagogy to enhance the existing experience, it can be much more, and inspire entirely new ways of designing the educational process.

Educators have been incorporating new technologies into the educational process for centuries to improve the overall teaching and learning experience and operational efficiency.

Think about the fundamental question educators are trying to answer for their students: how to offer learners effective, affordable ways to acquire and demonstrate competencies that employers demand, so they can get new, better, or different careers? Now imagine that you’re charged with building an educational institution from scratch to solve these problems. Also imagine that you’re completely unencumbered with legacy models, systems, processes, and cultures, and that you’re empowered to fully leverage today’s technologies. (This sounds like a fantasy, but is exactly how startup companies innovate).

What would your new institution look like? It likely would look very different from many of today’s institutions of higher education. But despite rapidly advancing technology, many schools look virtually identical today as they did a century ago. Why? Because the current model worked very well for at least the last century. Why change?

It’s natural to focus on doing things better rather than on doing different things. But eventually, technology can enable different things that turn out to be better. For example, many of us prefer personalized streaming music over vinyl records that include songs we don’t enjoy, personalized news on an iPad over a cumbersome newspaper, and seam0less digital banking that meets us whenever and wherever over a visit to the local branch.

Even if you recognize that it’s time to do different things, actually doing them is hard. The reason is that we have lots of data about the past, but none about the future. And the longer we operate in an existing, historically successful model, the harder it is for us imagine something completely different. Innovators often quote Henry Ford to highlight this challenge: “If I would have asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’.”

Educators have been incorporating new technologies into the educational process for centuries to improve the overall teaching and learning experience and operational efficiency. That’s a good thing. However, these tend to supplement rather than transform current models into something dramatically better. In many cases, these teaching and learning tools are digital versions of analog products (e.g. eBooks, interactive whiteboards, lecture videos), not transformative products that fully leverage the latest technology. It’s been about doing current things better, not doing different things that could provide exponential, positive change.

The big opportunity for all of us is to reimagine education for a digital age, not separately as distinct educator and technology groups, but as a united team of experts working as one to solve educational challenges. It’s about educators inspiring technologists with the potential to transform student lives, and technologists inspiring educators with game-changing products that can impact each and every student in meaningful ways, all to create value that’s greater than the sum of these parts. These are the most important elements, regardless of any specific technology.

Some technologies, however, stand out as potential game-changers, and these include anything that helps deliver the right services, instruction, and experiences to the right student at the right time (i.e., meet them where they are).

Data is the biggest enabler, specifically, real-time analytics that that empirically show us what works to help students learn and succeed. This also can provide early predictive guidance that lets advisors, professors, and students know when and how they need to adjust behaviors to stay on track, like a medical scan that identifies potential problems before symptoms become obvious.

Data also enables adaptive learning platforms that continuously adjusts the level of instruction to meet students where they are, so they’re challenged, but not overwhelmed or bored. Educational games for adults show huge potential to keep students engaged, with opportunities to “level up” through a series of entertaining challenges. Technologies that enable student-to-student online learning communities, interactive videos, and automated formative and open response assessment also show promise.

These are just a few current examples. Alone, they’re not much. The magic happens when you combine Ed and Tech to do different things that lead to a better way.

Jeff Dunn is a product strategy and innovation leader with over 15 years of private sector education experience. He joined DeVry Education Group in 2010 to build an R&D function from ground up and to reimagine education for a digital age. His group (DV X) researches trends driving the future of education and runs experiments to learn what works (and what doesn’t) to deliver transformative learning outcomes and experiences. Prior to DeVry, Jeff served in product strategy and technology leadership roles at Apollo Group and Kaplan, and at the Texas legislature as a researcher, tax policy analyst, revenue forecaster, and computer programmer. He began his career as a rock/funk drummer and backing vocalist for bands in Detroit and Austin. Follow @jgdunn