Educational technology continues to evolve, but supporting content still lets us down

Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of the world’s biggest players in the education product space. Working with them on their products, and witnessing the teacher / learner adoption, you get to see the common patterns and problems they all face in different ways. Where do they all struggle? What is their biggest problem? Typically It’s content.

For all of my time spent in the classroom as a teacher and a learner, EdTech content usually only came in a few flavours; a direct e-book copy of the printed book, with some kind of “quiz” wrapped in a Flash component, buried deep inside of an LMS. For a lot of the teachers I graduated with, that was their only real exposure to EdTech and education resources.

Fortunately, since then EdTech has moved beyond that, but raw content is still seen as a blocker. Speaking to authors around the world, their view of content is similar.

  • It’s time consuming to design and create.
  • Becomes harder to update over time.
  • Lacks standardized, flexible change management and editing workflows.
  • Tooling for authors suck, both print editors and the majority of interactive web editors (I’ve actually worked with an author who had hand drawn (pencil / paper) manuscripts physically posted into the office).
  • Digital content very rarely supports disability standards for the web.
  • Digital content very rarely supports mobile design.
  • It’s overall expensive to create and manage.

The proof educational content has lagged behind technology is everywhere. In the last few weeks alone, I met with a company in the Middle East who were “just figuring out eBooks” and a publisher in Europe who were upset to learn that Flash is dead, and they’re going to have to (please don’t tell them otherwise…) re-build every asset they own for their next product.

Digital educational content has become ubiquitous. But that content is not always appropriate, in the right format, up to date, compliant to disability standards, or even efficacious.

When you see some of the emerging tech for education; IOT products such as Kano, patterns like Adaptive Learning and Augmented Reality devices similar to the HoloLens, you can be instantly blown away by the direct pedagogical application both in and out of the classroom. But let’s take a step back and look at it from a content perspective.

What do I mean by Content?

In this context, “content” for the learner is the material provided to enable their learning. And for the teacher, it’s the

material / tools provided to enable their learners to engage with the technology.

Content for IOT devices

IOT devices like Kano, the Raspberry Pi (by itself), Arduino, et al, started life as consumer facing products, before finding strong roots in education communities. But the gap between those phases is by no means small. Raspberry Pi was founded in 2009, and only started entering classrooms on mass around 2014. Kano, founded in 2013 hired their head of education in late 2015. These are products we clearly now see as predominantly educationally focused, operating for significant periods of time with minimal to no educational support.

Why? It’s easy to blame teachers for not wanting to explore new tech, it’s easy to blame the cost for keeping it out of the classroom, but a lot of the teachers I’ve spoken to directly talk about resources and lesson content. No lesson plans, no curriculum, no mapping to outcomes (i.e. how do I know this will help my learners achieve an outcome?). So how can I use it in my classroom? How can I recommend it to my learners parents?

These devices were simply thrust out into the world with no real strategy for engaging with the education market. There was lots of hype, individual adoption, i.e. teachers, parents, learners purchased or were gifted the device, but no bigger classroom play to begin with. Since then people like Kano have gone out of their way to make the education market a priority, creating great content

, but still all potentially behind where they could be with earlier educational content support.

Content for Adaptive Learning

Adaptive Learning is the principle of providing the right content at the right time to increase learner outcomes. Great, You might think, I’ve read Goosebumps, it’s a pick and choose your own adventure. But the reality is to provide an adaptive learning environment, content must be:

  • Small enough to ensure the algorithms know what it’s doing.

  • Discrete enough to make sure it’s only doing one thing.

  • Must not assume any specific order (because it will be the algorithm choosing, not you).

  • And you have to have enough of it to cater to different learner pathways.

Which part of a Textbook or Word Document in Moodle do you think that applies to? Hint: none.

Similar to the raspberry pi, adaptive learning has also been around for a while, but it’s only within the last few years do we see the response from the market and the true benefit to learners. Companies like Alinea in Denmark are now ahead of the market with products that work like CampMat.

 CampMat is successful because of the work they put into their product of course, but also the transformative work they put into the way they think about, design and publish content.

The finished product would not have been achievable without applying the properties of adaptive content to their editing workflow. Again, it was content that presented the original barrier to shipping an adaptive learning product as the adaptive learning technology has been around for many years.

Content for Virtual and Augmented Reality

The Microsoft Hololens

 looks to become on of the most interesting advancements in technology in recent times. Smaller scale devices like the Oculus, Vive, Gear et al are now becoming mainstream, and as expected teachers are exploring avenues for education.

Initially the easiest applications are in modeling and drawing within virtual environments, and virtual field trips, but that is just scratching the surface of the technology. It’s so new that the technology itself only really now “exists as a thing”, no one has truly figured out how to extract pedagogical value from it yet.

If you do a simple search of “Augmented Reality in the Classroom” you can find many think pieces about how you might be able to leverage it one day, but a fundamental lack of available content to support it now. It’s only been within the last few weeks that Microsoft has released an SDK for developers to create 3D content.

The true application of VR & AR in the classroom will probably still be years away because there’s no real educational content to support it.

N.B I’m calling it now, Minecraft will become (either organically or with mods) more of a platform to support other VR and AR products. Why? Because It will be the first AR compliant mainstream edu product with content to market.

So, more content?

Even now, a lot of education content is still a long way behind current web technology. Next time you look for a OER lesson or take a test online, take a minute to have a closer look.

  • Does that video you’re watching have captions to support the hearing impaired?
  • Is that image high enough quality and supply alternate text for the vision impaired or high resolution devices?
  • Is it a Flash component?
  • Do you know what outcome this is addressing?

We can start addressing the content gap in EdTech by working to create more standards around educational content specifications and workflows. But by also taking the time to explore the educational impact of “new”.

If you think something you’re building, or working on, or even know about, might have implications for education, why not start exploring that link now? Put it in front of a teacher and ask what curriculum standards this might help with.

Technology will always continue to evolve, and education will, for a little while longer have to still play catch up. But those who consider the education implication and support options will always be ahead of the market. Teachers are hungry for technology, and if you don’t provide them with content to support their learning journey, adoption will always be slower.

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