The Educational Software Paradox: Can We Learn To Unlearn?

New "educational" software and applications are usually not as educational as one might think. As a whole, applications developed in the name of learning have ended up favoring the institution and preserving the status quo. Given existing dynamics, it could not be otherwise.

The Paradox

True technology change is and should be disruptive of the core beliefs, assumptions, practices, and the knowledge-generation processes of higher education institutions and, indeed, of the whole culture of higher education. But, in any human population, only a small minority is comfortable with change and willing to take the risks that allow real changes to happen. Therefore, if applications are broadly accepted, they will almost certainly be of the kind that reinforces current higher education culture, and they will cause the least disruption possible.

We thought, for example (though it still could be true) that open source -- applications arising from inventive developers freer from economic constraints than those employed by more traditional companies -- would break the mold and present us with forward-looking educational software. Yet, we've seen that for open source applications beyond the gadget category to stay current and add features, some type of organization -- a company or a foundation, for example -- must become involved. And then many of the same dynamics as in traditional companies (with proprietary agendas) apply.

Numbers of users, in the end, becomes especially important. Who can justify a large effort aimed at 10 percent of the higher education population? The numbers (and economics) are just too small-scale. So, inevitably, the application will be aimed at the 90 percent mainstream, that very population which is risk-averse and largely committed to the status quo. Thus, we end up with the paradox that most educational software and applications do not serve the ends of education in the way we had hoped or imagined.

Is There a Way Out of the Paradox?

The most exciting and vibrant development surrounding educational applications is Web 2.0. In this broader market, ventures can aim at 10 percent of the market and still have a viable business plan. This is where higher education has to turn for the vital changes we've been expecting from information technology.

But, to do so means going against a very strong bias -- the ivory tower bias -- that learning must be controlled, monitored, and can't be fun. If we continue in the sway of this bias, we'll miss an obvious opportunity.

The Ivory Moat

Medieval towers, or castles, had moats. But, every moat had something like a drawbridge. How do we lower the drawbridge connecting the ivory tower and the Web 2.0 wilderness?

Let's imagine a universal learning portal between campus constituencies and the vast learning resources in Web 2.0. Not just a Netvibes single sign-on kind of model (www.netvibes.com) -- although Netvibes might like the concept of a universal learning portal -- but an experiential learning guide to field experience in the Webiverse. And this might not be the new desktop-on-the-Web that many envision. Instead, the portal, this learning guide, could be a combination of only a little technology and a lot of academic apparatus.

Our universal learning portal will be an alliance between higher ed and industry, including both those vendors dedicated to higher education and general market IT companies. The goal will be to define learning in the new Web world.

Requirements for the universal learning portal will include login for .edu addresses, links to a library of tested assignments in the Web world, and links from the assignments (from simple to full rubric-based) to an array of sites at which these assignments can be accomplished.

The universal learning portal will be a service for all of education and all of industry. The browser-based technology will be simple, as will be the interface, will not be advertising-driven nor constrained by the ivory tower bias, and will comply with standards.

The Universal Learning Portal as a Nudge to the Tipping Point

Many academics are already using Web 2.0 technologies. For most, however, a guide such as the universal learning portal just described may broaden their comfort zone. And technology companies, for their part, will welcome an organization that benefits the entire industry segment.

A good name for our universal learning portal might be The UnLearn Portal. Are you ready to unlearn your comfort zone?


[Editor's note: Trent Batson, an observer of Web 2.0 trends and editor of Campus Technology's Web 2.0 e-newsletter, will present a session at Campus Technology 2008 this coming July that takes attendees on a tour of the latest Web 2.0 tools and applications that will help bring about the kinds of changes he refers to in this article.]


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