Thinking about Edtech

In fact, I’m always thinking about edtech in some fashion, but these days I’m thinking about the term itself. There are more than a few reasons for this, not least of which Reclaim Hosting was essentially born as an edtech company, even if trailing edge. And over the last 6-8 months we’ve finally gotten to a point in our history where we can double-down on those roots in order to build a group that can work more closely with edtechs at various institutions, organizations, and beyond.

But one of the things about the term edtech, much like open, is that its meaning is elusive. More recently when folks talk about edtech it’s often associated with venture capital buy-outs, start-ups, and the broader LMS market. So much of the discussion around edtech is akin to a market-driven spectator sport. While that financial logic around the field has accelerated over the last decade, it’s always been there to some degree. Blackboard was the evil empire when I entered the field in the early 2000s, and while they seem almost quaint now, their financial reports were not the focus of the work of edtech, as I understood that term. They were very much outside that term altogether, they weren’t edtech they were the LMS. Edtech, on the other hand, was a brave new distributed community of bloggers that were narrating and sharing their practices for others to benefit from freely. The work was a demonstration of faith and hope in not only education, but the power of the web to augment that process. I understand that the results were uneven at best, at the same time that sense of possibility and hope is how I still understand the term edtech because that is the garden from which I was cultivated. What’s more, I would hate to suggest to a whole new generation of edtechs coming up that possibility and hope were a thing of the past. That very logic is why I hate the children of the 60s so much, they suggested their revolution was all that ever mattered. I guess Generation X emo dies hard.

In recent years I’ve become less enamored of the term open, which was an adjective/positionality many edtechs embraced for the past 20 years. But the term has become muddied, and the constant handwringing about licensing was a warning sign for me that it was, ironically, more about control and branding than anything resembling the liberating rhetoric of a movement it often championed. To see the avant garde of that movement so willingly consign themselves to venture capital and the inevitable professional perdition that follows is a shame, but it’s also a choice. There are a lot of edtechs, in the true sense of that word for me, that have willingly resisted the lure of exchanging cachet for cash. Folks who continue to good work, edtechs that I deeply respect who reside far from the maddening crowd of the financials of firms that have little to no interest in the transformative power of augmenting teaching and learning—despite the claims they make. Edtech as an approach that is exploratory, experimental, and creative, not to mention generous and unbolted to the logic of licensing and litigation. That’s my edtech, and I like it.

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22 Responses to Thinking about Edtech

  1. Alan Levine says:

    Now this is the voice of The Reverend. Amen. Amen, brother.

    I am not to sure what this EdTech is (capitalized) that people are bemoaning about. Its hardly represents the full range of experimentation, practice, exploration, that goes on outside the lights of Upside Higher Education, EDUBECAUSE, The Wankler of Higher Education, and Twatter.

    When you interact with colleagues like in your recent chat at the DoOO level, or spend some time trying the weird and crazy things people are producing in GitHub, Glitch, CodePen, it’s still amazing place.

    And nothing can be more edtech (lowercase, the good kind) than DS106. I am biased, but it is still vibrant, happening, alive , pretty much running on its own inertia (well with help from Reclaim Hosting to keep the engine running), now 11 years since it hatched. No highpower A Grade EdTech Guri or Academic Profundity Spinner even understands it much less takes it seriously. Those who know (lowercase, e.g. me) can trace that path to still being part of our every day creative neurology.

    What has enabled this slide from the original ethos, to me, is that most have given up with the effort or interest in having a basic foundation of how the web works, much less an ability or interest to View/Explore Source, or even how to read and control a URL. The hurdle of these concepts, cast off as “I am not a coder” (which you do not have to be) is the chute that leads to the chase of convenience, ease of use of the ad-powered data hoovering corporate beasts. A telling sign is many times seeing what people would have once done as web pages being “published” into Pressbooks or Googledocs, etc. Every day I am rewriting content people make in online tools as the do not grok the web.

    Those who have shrugged off the basic love/use of a hyperlink, or the creating of a system of tags, an operating awareness of the difference between being Of the Web rather than just On the Web.

    EdTech might be dead or dried up, but down in the long tail is a lot of groovy edtech people and ideas. And many of them know the power of being in charge of their own stuff.

    • Reverend says:

      One thing is for sure, you have not lost your commenting mojo, something I certainly need to be better at.

      But to your point, it is that laziness and jaded not caring that tips the scale in the direction of a monolithic web. I have intentionally pulled back from the various social media outlets these days, and my diet was already pretty lean. But I just think there will never be an ur-narrative of edtech. My experience has been particular, but as a young edtech you are one of the people I looked to, I read, and I learned from. It mattered, it all matters, and to suggest that there is not something real behind these connections hurts on a deep level.

      As I was saying to Antonella about ds106 the other day, it was an intentional shift away from the fanfare and inevitable hegemony of a quasi-meme like EDUPUNK—“Are you EDUPUNk enough?” That whole thing was meant in jest for fun, but once it becomes serious it loses it’s value. ds106 was a return to that fun, a move towards the light and and away from the marketing of self (at least in any serious way) in order to return to the distributed power of the community of online mutants.

      That’s intentional, what I often see these days is the opposite, the celebration of the one becomes the reason for everything else and that runs counter to the most exciting principles of the web. I mean remix kinda suggested that idea, and once you saw everyone in ds106 riffing off each other as if part of a distributed band the real power of ds106 and by extension the web was tangible. I think these choices are not happenstance, they are commitments to finding another way, and I love that. I don;t want to stop trying to make music.

  2. JR Dingwall says:

    For some reason, the song Circumstances by Rush is playing in my head now, “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” (forgive I didn’t update my keyboard to get the accents right). Perhaps it is in my mind because I still see colleagues and friends from all around working on solutions without the big EdTech players, as much as I also see plenty going for the big outsources solutions. I see hope in the community boards, and through initiatives like ETC over at BCCampus. I see hope in initiatives like Reclaim actively pouring time and energy into a community of practice and professional development instead of just selling a tool. That is definitely something that stands out and, to me, is a throw back to the team’s experience supporting education from within institutions.

    I have to say, I was one of those bright eyed edtechs who was definitely all in on Open and making that known. I probably got a lot of my initial exposure to broader edtech and adjacent communities through that. But for me following the last OpenEd conf I attended something didn’t feel right and so I started backing off from putting that so forward. And you know what, just because I don’t trumpet Open doesn’t mean I can’t do good work, and that realization took time to come to.

    If the last year has taught me much, it’s that we don’t need heroes, but we need community, and dare I say, MORE BLOGS.

    This has been a bit rambling, but thank you for getting your thoughts on the Bava, and connecting those who share the passion of little e edtech.

    • Reverend says:


      Big fan, and I do think the work OpenETC is doing is amazing, not to mention the Open resources more generally the BC Campus has doubled down on, there is still good work in open for sure, but maybe lowercase, less-litigious open 🙂 In fact, the whole idea of lowercase edtech that you and Alan are riffing on here is awesome, it brought a real smile to my face. And the fact that this post might be a space of connection and you took the time to tell me as much in 500+ characters is everything. I don’t think the road back to fun is that long and arduous, we’re on it!

  3. Eric Likness says:

    Ditto! Mega-dittoes! In fact I’m going to link to this from my blog and comment further. Because it’s all a series of links (not tubes).

  4. Alan Levine says:

    The thing about blog commenting is that usually it is something you are saying to another person, first the post author, but maybe, as things unfold, another commenter.

    That is different than social media as more often you see people saying things to be heard by others and the EdTech space there and academia as a whole seems to be a lot of posturing. I’m still finding a way to dial back, because there is still good amounts of web serendipity there, but the blog is always the thing to center on.

    Reclaim or ________

  5. A dear friend said to me yesterday that I should ‘tell those who know or stay silent’ (apologies to Rilke if misquoting) when I complained that Academia (capitalised) is ‘so bolted to the logic of licensing and litigation’ that the possibility of ‘an approach that is exploratory, experimental, and creative’ is just unseen in the process of using technology for education in some intitutions. They tell me that my ‘lips move but I can’t hear what you’re saying’ when I speak of links and augmentation rather than automation and data analytics or the need to teach students how to be of the web and not imprisoned by the LMS.

    I say we need to teach them that ‘resources are out there’ beyond the dreary screencasts, with bad music from staff members who can only read a script and click mindlessly (latest I watched was 5 minutes on ‘the best way to submit an assignment on LMS1’ and thankful I did not kill my dog in frustration). The saddest quote from someone who wanted to experiment and I tried to help: Mandatory Institution Licensed Tech means that ‘technology is dictating the pedagogy and not the other way round as it should be. Depressing.’

    I can see value, and am grateful for all of you teaching me via DS106 and beyond the possibilities of ed tech (lower case) but it makes me sad that, in my little world at least, it is impossible to take even a tiny risk ‘out there’ without pilot studies and extensive data collection and that everything we do ‘must be stored in the LMS’.

    I joined and was hired to support a change (they were particularly interested in DS106) and yet the infrastructure is such that it is a huge battle each day with only tiny wins. The reality is that the ‘system’ just wants dreary screencasts nobody watches, as they have no idea how to teach students about something that is beyond mastering keystrokes.

    To help me explain to them I found myself researching this term digital literacy and went back to 1997: “Acquiring the tools, which are first and foremost conceptual and issue-oriented, will help you cope with the network in as fully or lightly engaged a way as you choose. The tools are intellectual and attainable, for digital literacy is about mastering ideas, not keystrokes.” (Gilster 1997). I love that and am adopting it.

    I am also working outside the system quietly. Just starting a DS106 style assignment bank, which is hard to do BTW but persevering with the help of the theme maker 🙂 and a Medium Publication where I answer ed tech questions beyond the mandatory narrative. But Todd Conway has warned me that I have to be prepared to be brought into the metaphorical headmaster for a telling off, if I will subvert the mainstream narrative.

    Thank you all for still being here. It helps me remember I made the move into what we in the UK call learning technology out a desire to support students beyond the LMS prison to develop digital identities they can use in life. I once wrestled Blackboard to enablbe me to offer a course on interpersonal meditation based only on collaborative non-disposable assignments and process work…so may be I will find a way in this new environment. Best to you all.

    • Reverend says:

      The inevitable “talking to” is almost a right of passage. I remember after Tim Owens and I ran a Kickstarter to offset costs for the ds106 server costs as that class started to scale beyond shared hosting and it got picked up by a US college-focused publication and our Assistant Provost heard about it. The question we were asked is why are you raising money for a course you are already paid to teach, with the provost having little understanding of what we we were doing to build out this open, online experience. The nice thing that emerged from that conversation was that there are two separate realities, the course taught at UMW (which he defined as Computer Science 106) and the open, online community known as ds106—which was enough to make everyone happy. The Kickstarter was not for CPSC 106, but rather for ds106. And seemingly arbitrary, but important distinction, for the powers that be and the larger state system given the way the machine works.

      I say this to suggest that sometimes you have to start outside the machine/course and bring that into the course. Sometimes poking small holes in the self-contained apparatus for teaching and learning to let the light of the web in is enough to start a small revolution of one or two students. And small is often all we will every get in ds106-land, and I also think small is beautiful and sometimes just enough. So no dog sacrifices, because they know better than any of us humans about the power of small joys to change our outlook on the world.

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  7. Thank you many times over for this Jim. I’ve had cause in the last 2.5 years to lose my love of edtech and I know it’s because the joy and creativity that you describe has been sucked right out of it for me. The things I’ve found most energising have regularly been the side gigs and pro-bono stuff (Apereo, OpenETC etc) and I realise it’s because these projects attract the people I feel most aligned too in terms of what excites me and the work I want to do.

    As for open, i always found the social justice interpretations of open education more compelling – open access, equity, inclusion, open practices that allow a diverse group of people to participate and for diverse knowledge to be valued. Openly licensed content seemed like a small part of that, and the maybe least interesting. People first, stuff second.

    I don’t really know where I’m going with this except to say that I have an emotional reaction to this post that’s half jealously and half hope.

    • Reverend says:


      Wow, to think you should be thanking me for a post like this is funny given the work you have championed around open source, community-focused edtech has been a life raft these past years. Between your leadership at Apero and your work with OpenETC, I think you are one of the edtechs that represent this alternative narrative that I truly take hope and inspiration from. So let me turn the tables here for a second and say thank you for helping me write this post. I am surprised it resonated as it did for a few folks, but it just tells me we still got something worth working towards, and that’s enough for thos old edtech.

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  9. Lisa M. Lane says:

    At my college, over the years, I encountered so much resistance to tech outside the LMS that the ed part was being overlooked entirely. As I got older, I switched from opposition to subversion, finding ways to do things that were technically inside the LMS but were designed to subvert its pedagogy. As with everything, this has had its advantages and disadvantages.

    But one of the reasons I did it was that the web was no longer the Wild West where I had freedom, hunted, and built things among the prairie grasses. It was being fenced in and commodified, changed from the World Wide Web to the World of Apps, and “free” came to mean the sale of ones information to large corporations in return for access that might be closed at any moment. It was no longer a place where I felt comfortable having students play in the grasses, where I could enthusiastically recommend immersion. And using their favorite places (Facebook, then later Instagram and TikTok) took the Creepy Treehouse Effect to horrific places. Once startup LMSs took advantage of Creative Commons to sell a superstructure built around the labor of MIT and Yale professors, and Alamy and Getty began charging for public domain images, the irony became painful.

    The values of ds106 were to me more important than its infrastructure (which I only barely understood then and have no chance of doing so now): the creativity, joy, community, openness, and inclusion mentioned in other comments above. The hope is in going forward to places where those values can continue to manifest themselves.

    • Reverend says:

      If I recall correctly, you rolled your own aggregated community experience for POT Cert, which is something Todd Conaway mentiond recently in conversation. I think the community can make the infrastructure possible, because I do believe they can go hand-in-hand. I am biased given I spend a lot of time thinking through infrastructure, but I also think content is not infrastructure, but rather engagement and a sense of connection, and like you say above that is impossible to will. I think your comment here goes a long way towards explaining that a community manifested around ds106: creativity, joy, openness, and inclusion. I really love the way you spelled this out, and I want to think hard about it going forward cause it is very much what I would like to see as the pillars of reclaim edtech.

      Thanks for the comment here, it is really special to hear from folks you have worked through these questions with for more than a decade still chiming in and sharing their wisdom!

      • Lisa M. Lane says:

        Yes, I did POTCert for several iterations, and used several different platforms, including Google Sites. The community was indeed the most important thing, and its voluntary nature meant that the platform wasn’t important. I ended it because powers-that-be wanted to make it a requirement, so non-voluntary participants who lacked self-direction and/or were reliant on a particular platform began to dominate. Perhaps platform/infrastructure doesn’t matter as much when you have an enthusiastic group that wants to experience the fun, inclusiveness, and creativity.

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