Single Most Important Development in Edtech in Last 2 Years…

….has nothing to do with “innovation.”

Scott Leslie was prompting a bit of discussion on Twitter yesterday:

I couldn’t resist jumping in because I think about this very thing a lot.

I’ve been pushing small, easy tools (what folks refer to as SPLOTs) like Timeline JS a lot these days because they use popular services like Google spreadsheets, are dead simple, and are collaborative. With Timeline JS an entire class could work together to create an dynamic, attractive  timeline. That said, Timeline JS  isn’t all that new either, it’s been around a couple of years as well. Nonetheless, I really like the possibilities of using small, focused and really simple tools for getting faculty and students excited about digital projects.  I then soon followed up with my own fascination these days, namely higher ed finally digging into how virtual infrastructure, APIs, and even containerized applications might impact the field in the near future:

You see, I remain a believer. I think we’re always on the verge of realizing the next stage of augmenting human intellect. What else is there? Also, I refuse to let the perceived setbacks of the last few years throw me off the path to enlightenment. For all the turmoil, co-option, and hyperbolic virtual-ink spilt on MOOCs, I remain amazed by the fact that Siemens, Downes and Cormier were able to make such a colossal impact on higher ed as representatives of this rag-tag field of edtech. It remains a source of inspiration for me. But that by no means erases the constant struggle against the mindless MOOC-hype, nefarious narratives of labor efficiency, reification of Silicon Valley, corporatization of edtech, etc. Given how powerful some of the ideas born out of this ed-tech network have been, I can’t see the value of despair. 

Higher Ed has been playing catch-up for the last ten years when it comes to social media, and I have no problem serving as an ambassador to new applications for infrastructure, integrations, etc. It’s the job, in my mind. If we were on the edge, they wouldn’t need me. Also, I’m not so sure most other industries are all that better off in the end, and a bit of distance may have some value. 

The other issue that came up over a slice of pizza with Tim Owens, was that chasing the latest innovation could be its own trap. Frankly, Domain of One’s Own is trailing edge technology, and you could argue some of the most interesting stuff being done is dependent on that washed-up application WordPress 🙂

But my responses reflect my own blinders in the field of edtech. Thinking more about my answers, the truly important shifts have been around assumptions surrounding gender, race, and class. Arguably the most important voice in edtech the last few years, Audrey Watters, has been on a tireless intellectual campaign to challenge many of the most nefarious narratives as well as interrogate both the future past of the field. I would argue the true shift in edtech we’ve been experiencing has less to do with any particularly innovative technology, and everything to do with the recognition, interrogation, and challenging of pre-defined identities and nodes of power. This has been both both a difficult and hopeful shift because we might begin to apply this critical discourse around identities across a range of disciplines to a rich field of cutting-edge praxis. So thinking more about Scott’s original call, I think the most important development in the field has also been the most difficult: coming to terms with some of the deep assumptions of privilege and power, and figuring out how we integrate that conversation into the field of edtech purposefully.

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7 Responses to Single Most Important Development in Edtech in Last 2 Years…

  1. dkernohan says:

    Keeping this cos I want to refer to it in something. That Scott Leslie is *good*, isn’t he?

  2. Scott Leslie says:

    Sigh, I should know better than to tweet something like this and then think I can just walk away. Were I still blogging this would deserve a longer response, not just your post but other’s responses too. But alas, I cannot bring myself back to it, and least not in its current form, so a comment will have to do.

    The irony too is eliciting the most responses from the few people I really didn’t mean to tar with that brush.

    Thanks for pushing back. My despair does indeed not have value; the field as a whole absolutely does need time to consolidate and implement many of the innovations that have percolated for years; and the broadening & deepening of the discourse that Audrey and others have undertaken can only be a good thing.

    There’s lots I could say but I think you and I have been here before. I appreciate the love, brother, and I’ll try to stay out of the criticism business, the world (and myself in it) are a happier place when I do.

    • Reverend says:


      I appreciated you making me take a look at the field a bit more closely, and I have missed your voice for years now. I’ll do anything I can to feature it. Stay golden Ponyboy!

  3. Mike C. says:

    I’ll just add here that “new” is a really hard term anyway.

    This year, for those living under a rock, is the Year of Annotation. Annotation is the hippest thing going, it’s where the money is headed, and it’s where the coolest projects are. Genius, Hypothesis,, etc.

    It’d be super-easy to hate annotation for its mindshare, except goshdarnit it turns out annotation has a history that pre-dates the web. It turns out that Netscape initially wanted to run annotation servers. It turns out you and I and everyone else was using annotation via delicious in the classroom until blogs took off in the classroom as the hip new thing THAT year.

    So is annotation cutting edge or trailing edge? Do we care?

    I do think the major new thing — on a ten or twenty year scale — that we’re seeing now is Git culture. That’s fundamental because it’s not a progression so much as a complete inversion of how we think about digital online. Instead of centralization, propagation. Instead of pass by reference, pass by copy. But just as it took people time to wrap their head around blogging and wiki (“But ANYBODY could write ANYTHING so how can you trust it?”) it’s going to take people some time to wrap their head around the idea that there can be 1,000 copies of something and we can let analytics sort it out.

    But those turns are rare. I’d say on the web you probably have three so far — the invention of wiki, which valued incompleteness over completeness, the invention of blogging/the stream which valued chronology and conversation over structure, and the invention now of git which values propagation over consensus.

    • Kind of eerie how all three are favorites of Mr Caulfield!


      Good call on the rise of interest in annotation, an older idea for sure. I vaguely remember and google search confirmed that annotation was built into the early Mosaic browser; but it called for server-side managing the data, so it fell over

      Now Andreeson is plopping his money on RapGenius for this.

      The big trick is what Mike hints out with git, how can people appreciate a way of thinking about information that makes it more unorganized according to normal mindsets of files/folders

      • Mike Caulfield says:

        Oh, you don’t have to duck. I think those things are favorites because they are interesting, not the other way around. Come on, it’d be weird for me to say “The biggest revolutions today are X, Y, and Z which is why I focus on Area Q” right?

        The Git thing is partially to get over the idea of things as “locations” and think of things as IDs that exist as named but distributed thing. Torrents were a great example of this before Git — a torrent file is is a map of something composed of pieces all over the place in ways constantly shifting. Git is a different thing, but again embraces the idea that the codebase is brought together not by where it lives, but through a combination of shared IDs and history.

        There’s a way in which annotation — as done by Hypothesis — fits that mold too — a document is not a location but is the some of all annotations that seemingly point to the same document, all living under different logins on many different servers. We should be pretty receptive to that idea in the edublogosphere, because there’s a way that tag-based hubs serve a similar function (through aggregation not federation).

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