On passionate distance in EdTech

The EdTech field is full of passionate people – developers enthusiastically promoting their products, teachers and students demonstrating a driving curiosity for experimentation in the classroom, school leaders willing to take a risk on investing in emerging tech, and policy-makers tenaciously grappling with how to advise on the myriad technical, ethical, pedagogical and resource issues associated with technology.

And then there are academics (like me) who like to say (pesky) things such as: ‘Results from a rigorously designed mixed method, peer reviewed evaluation on the efficacy of the technology/product/application for learning are required’ – or simply, with a raised eyebrow, ‘Show me the evidence to back up claims that it’s effective for learning.’

I say pesky because as a researcher I sometimes feel like the Grinch who stole the buzz at EduTech.

This is because researchers are immersed in a tradition of critical thinking, question-raising, serious (sometimes heated) debate, and an imperative to always explain that there are limitations and gaps in the studies we do, no matter have well designed or implemented. We are trained to be tough enough to weather the robust critique of our research by colleagues.  These are the virtues of the research profession.

We are not here to ‘prove’ a technology works for learning. The best of us make no such assumption or promise. Instead we carefully, within our respective methodological and epistemological (knowledge production) traditions, seek to contribute new knowledge by systematically and ethically collecting information (data), analysing it and making the findings public – to deliberately subject what we have done to public scrutiny and dialogue. This is the definition of research – systematic inquiry made public (Stenhouse, 1981). It’s an old fashioned idea but one that has great value.

We test hypotheses, investigate phenomena, build and evaluate theory and explore different perspectives to account for trends and patterns as well as outliers or cases that disconfirm the usual.  We offer no assurances that we will find what industry wants or hope for their products. This is our job in the EdTech ecosystem.

We maintain a disposition of passionate distance. Passion drives our interest in the EdTech field (and we can take enormous pleasure from using the technology ourselves in our leisure and work lives) but we maintain our intellectual distance so that we can dispassionately evaluate and report on our research. This distance is not pessimism; it is a healthy caution in making claims coupled with a careful approach to checking claims made by others.

This is why some of the practices of the EdTech field leave me a little surprised – like the claims on a giant product poster that X technology can increase learning by X% with no proper reference to where the figure comes from or sense of the quality of its research claim. Or when companies post about their new platform or application which, on closer inspection, appear to be vapourware*. Or when I read that researchers from a big tech firm have ‘encouraging findings’ related to the effectiveness of a learning product but without any details about what these findings actually are or how the data was collected and analysed or where I might find the study reported. Or when I ask a developer, in good faith, for the learning science or pedagogical theory behind what they are selling only to be met with a resounding silence.

It’s a good thing that such practices surprise me. It reminds me that my worldview is not the worldview of others in the EdTech ecosystem – a term that has a little too much food chain connotation for my liking.

Respect for diverse worldviews, expertise and practical wisdom will make for a stronger and more honest sector. And I think the sector needs more voices, more dialogue, more civil debate.

So next time you see me raise an eyebrow or ask a pointy question about something EdTech, know that this is the disposition of a real live researcher and that something useful for everyone might just come out of it.

* The beautifully evocative term vapourware refers to a computing product that is advertised but is not actually available or has not even been made yet.

Stenhouse, L. (1981). What counts as research? British Journal of Educational Studies29(2), 103-114.

5 Comments

  1. Hi Erica,
    This is a welcome reminder not to get carried away with the excitement around VR. I am victim to this myself. I think I might run this as a topic on an upcoming Educators in VR event. Would you be interested?
    Best regards
    Daniel

    Like

  2. I’m not an academic and to be honest, I wouldn’t be able to fit serious research into my projects without academic collaboration (which is something I am looking into), but I have come across the concept of action research. Can you tell me a bit about how I could use this to contribute something to the field?

    Like

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