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Editorial: Lines of Sight

This post by Jeff Grabill (@grabill), co-inventor of Eli Review, was originally published by the Hub for Innovation in Learning and Technology at Michigan State University, reprinted here with permission. It is the first in a three-part series on educational technology.


I occupy an interesting position. The conflict of interest officials at my university describe it as “conflicted,” which is true. During the time that I have been part of an educational technology company that we spun out of MSU, I have been a faculty member, a department chair, and now an associate provost for teaching, learning, and (learning) technology.

My positions afford sight lines not available to most faculty, administrators, and educational technology providers. Unlike most faculty, I get what educational technology companies are up to, both those I respect and those I don’t. I’m sympathetic. I take their phone calls. I want them to pitch me their services. I learn a great deal from those interactions. What I learn is in the best interests of my university. I learn similar lessons when I work with schools with regard to our company’s services.

I see schools and universities for the impenetrable, slow, complex, and remarkable institutions that they are. Unlike most educational technology providers, I also get how faculty think and schools operate.

The educational technology marketplace is broken.

Commonplace at educational technology meetings, particularly in the last three years, has been the observation that the educational technology marketplace is broken. Stories vary, but an oft-cited tension is that schools need transparency and proof of efficacy that companies can’t or won’t provide, and companies need clear, reasonable processes for selling and building partnerships with schools.

I have my own ideas about issues of technology efficacy studies, which I will shorten to something like “every technology is a pedagogy,” and given that, most studies of technology efficacy that “the market” seems to want aren’t very smart. The separation of a technology from its contexts of use is extremely difficult. If one entertains the claim that an educational technology is an articulation of pedagogical practices (among other things), then it is conceptually impossible to separate them.

Implementation of a learning technology is also the implementation of new pedagogical practices.

Having said this, the market *is* broken. Communication between and among people who might very well find some productive common ground is nearly impossible. Schools are opaque. Faculty are hostile. And companies have a poor understanding of learning and teaching and of the business of education. All this is prior to the fact that the implementation of a learning technology is also the implementation of new pedagogical practices. And that entails perhaps the most challenging thing of all in education—teaching differently.

No wonder the educational technology bubble burst.

There was lots of magic on offer.

But the relationship building necessary to sustain meaningful work didn’t—or couldn’t—happen.

From where I sit, however, the fact that relationships are fragile and partnerships rare is a problem. Let me locate that problem in something like Michigan State University’s student success initiative. That program touches (or soon will touch) nearly every aspect of how the university functions, from how we think about the built environment to how we advise students to how we learn and teach. The core needles we are trying to move concern opportunity gaps in order to make good on our belief that all admitted undergraduate students have the ability to learn, persist, and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a timely fashion.

All students. Each and every Spartan.

In order to move those needles, some extremely difficult work must happen. In the domain of teaching and learning, we have to get smarter about who our students are and what they need from us in a timely and actionable way. We also need to teach differently. We know this. We know that there are times and places in the student experience that are not working well, not utilizing evidence-based practices, or simply producing poor outcomes.

Where the pedagogy has been practiced, students and teachers are having success.

Michigan State, like nearly all institutions, has tremendous capacity to adapt and meet our commitments with and for students. However, we also need help. The company that I helped found has a pedagogy/technology called Eli that facilitates best practices in writing instruction and will provide teachers, students, and schools with the formative data they need to make good learning decisions. Where the pedagogy has been practiced, students and teachers are having success.

Just as I know this from my view “as a company,” I know of times and places at Michigan State where this is happening with other pedagogies/technologies. Each moment is an example of partnerships between teachers, technologies, companies, and others focused on moving needles.

The ethical imperative to move heaven and earth to facilitate student success means that I want to meet, listen to, and work with the smartest and most mission-driven people I can find. If they are faculty, students, or staff on this campus, all the better. If they are from a company that has a pedagogy/technology that can help, no worries. Can you help us think about how to support teacher learning? I’m all ears. Essential, however, is that these external partners need to understand the business of higher education and have the intelligence and experience to know how learning can best be facilitated. Essential as well is that we as faculty have the humility and mindset necessary to listen with care and intelligence to ideas that are not our own and to be open to partnerships that make us better.

Cover photo credit: Marco

Editorial: Lines of Sight was published to the Eli Review Blog in the categories Editorial, Pedagogy.

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