Edtech + Academia: Two Worlds Collide?

Edtech + Academia: Two Worlds Collide - photo of old building with columns

Eddie Maloney isn’t the kind of guy who actively seeks out controversy. Yet he recently found himself in the crosshairs of a public debate.

The topic: whether or not edtech deserved to be considered an academic discipline, or if it indeed has been for decades. Why? “The conversation itself arrived at a timely point for higher ed, and generated a lot of healthy discussion,” Maloney said, regardless of whether his statements were initially misunderstood.

As the Executive Director of the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS) and Professor of English at Georgetown University, Maloney is uniquely positioned to understand and advocate for both sides of the spectrum. “I believe we can find better ways to bridge the gap between the profession and academic space,” he said. He ought to know; Maloney has been involved in edtech since its nascent stages in the early 90s.

After sharing his thoughts with Bryan Alexander on the Future Trends Forum, Maloney admits he was initially surprised by a resulting article in Campus Technology declaring his ‘vision’ for a new academic discipline.

Then there were the comments. Professionals who specialize in academic technology understandably felt that their work was erroneously being called into question as a discipline. The issue wasn’t one of edtech existing as a profession, or not; it was of its legitimacy as an academic discipline in the eyes of universities globally.

Some felt that educational technology shouldn’t be thought of as a discipline or not; rather, that it needs to be disrupted and disruptive. Still others felt it wasn’t and definitely needed to be. More followed with equally insightful comments in separate discussion threads that explored broad-ranging disciplines as human-computer interaction, user experience, instructional technology and the digital humanities.

“I wrote a brief response to the Campus Tech piece,” Maloney explained. “And what I was trying to say was that whether we think about edtech as a discipline or not, it serves a particular function in the space many of us occupy. The context in which edtech is viewed is incredibly useful when trying to have it function as a profession within a complex higher ed ecosystem.”

Edtech Comes of Age

Instead, he is one among many making the case for a more academically-defined notion of an integration of learning, design, technology, analytics, policy, leadership in higher education. While this is often conflated with edtech, it’s much broader than that.

Is it a matter of theory, or solely one of practice?

“Yes, we have professional associations, but what we tend not to have is multiple theoretical foundations, a strong critical pedagogy or a space for critical reflection, disagreement, and a sense of the historical and ongoing dialogue in which we all engage…except, interestingly enough, in blogs,” Maloney noted. “Which is often a single person’s thinking. Peer-review only occurs in the comments as feedback.”

In these scenarios, Maloney says, the loudest or most popular blog is the voice that often carries. “The problem is that it’s not necessarily a diversity of thought. The most interesting thing about an academic discipline is that it’s not driven by a few. It has the potential to be much more egalitarian in nature, with alternative and indie approaches and mindsets welcome.”

It’s not the medium of blogging altogether, but rather, its impermanence that is less than ideal.

“Don’t get me wrong. Blogs and public scholarship are some of the most important work happening in this space, but it is often ephemeral and exchanged in brief moments rather than having a lasting impact. Thinking in terms of a discipline or an interdisciplinary field that embraces the work of public scholarship, of difference rather than sameness, also has the potential of valuing this work to a much greater extent."

Maloney believes this should be part of a much broader exchange.

“What we need to be having is an ongoing critical conversation about this work; its current role, the key players on campus and off, and how we believe it could be shaped to provide the best possible learning experience for students in the years to come.”

Maloney acknowledges that education schools which value edtech and instructional design as subdisciplines do exist; that a number of degrees that are focused on certain aspects of this work, but they are often coming from a K-12 perspective rather than postsecondary. Still, programs at Stanford and Harvard and others are doing some of this work now.

“I’m most interested in intentional thinking and design about the activity of learning in higher ed. We’ve been doing it in K-12 for decades,” he said.

Embracing an Interdisciplinary Approach

Maloney feels strongly about the balance between theory and practice, not to mention the importance of research and scholarship. While some journals exist, he argues that many lean more toward sharing best practices than research and scholarship. He asserts that the two needn’t be mutually exclusive.

“What does it mean to think about the role tech is playing in learning and design? How do we use edtech and associated analytics to challenge assumptions about learning and user experience? What aspects of the roles of professionals as change agents are worth trying to better understand? How do we integrate analytics into teaching and learning?”

If you pull all of those together, Maloney says, you might have the emerging contours of a new interdisciplinary field or a new discipline. He cites neuroscience as an example. Although it now occupies its own field of prominence, neuroscience previously was a mix of other sciences, including biology, chemistry, computer science, linguistics, physics, and psychology--all of which existed in their own right. Once researchers began focusing on a specific set of problems unique to neuroscience, there was recognition that they could start to ask questions and address problems, dealing with conflicting theoretical models.

“That allowed scholars in the emerging field to create new knowledge in important ways,” Maloney said. “A certain set of things that are happening now that bring together activities in a unique way in higher ed, which begs the same questions and analysis of educational technology.”

There are drawbacks and advantages to thinking in terms of a discipline or interdisciplinary field. “Much of the concern about identifying the work emerging from this conversation can be justifiable; it often involves the constraining, dogmatic potential to, in fact, discipline and therefore constrain our thinking.

“I think that one of the potential values of thinking about this work in disciplinary terms, though, is that it gives us a foundation from which to create new knowledge, to challenge each other, to proffer constructive critique, to change the conversation, to build on the history of thinking that has emerged from the work of public scholars, and to make sure this work becomes a lasting part of the discourse of this community.”

Convergence, Maloney believes, defines how we should think about this work in the context of academics.

“While I do not feel anyone can just create or pronounce a discipline into being, I find it fascinating to ask the question: does it now start to form the contours of an academic discipline?”

Developing Academic Credibility

Do information technology leaders deserve tenure? Maloney cites a recent article hypothesizing why this might be a good idea. IT staff in higher ed deserve the ability to be critical and challenge dogma without fear of losing their jobs. This piece argues that having that freedom is the only way to be successful in this area.

He’s been fortunate in that he’s ‘always been able’ to be critical of edtech.

“I think there is great value in being critically reflective about our work,” he said. “Unfortunately, most of our IT departments do not often engage in active research, at least as much as they would like to. Of course, they research products and services, but they tend not to research what IT needs to be in higher education: a study of what our challenges are and where our history lies.”

This moment also gives us an opportunity to reflect on the shared work of both faculty and administrators have in the success of higher education. Take instructional designers, for example. Maloney points out that they’re more often than not seen only as administrators, yet the work they do has a pretty deep academic impact. For some, academic identity is critical to how they think about their work.

“If you think about this group in particular, so much of the work is about solving a problem, addressing something practical that needs to be accomplished within a support role,” Maloney explained. “To push boundaries and create new knowledge takes time, and those things aren’t always valued as much. If however there was a recognition of the scholarly import of their work as well, it would both create a safe environment for research and an incentive to do so.”

Can greater intellectual and material equity among academic and administrative staff be productive? It most certainly could cause tension, Maloney believes. But can that tension serve the benefit of students?

“It’s a given in my mind--although not often articulated--that administrators as well as faculty have an incredibly important role in the experience students have at colleges and universities, including what, how, and where they learn; I think we’d benefit greatly by seeing ourselves as collaborators, not bifurcated groups.”

In Maloney’s opinion, this divide is a huge problem, and is often part of the discussion about the cost and value of higher education. However, he suggests that the disruption narrative of tearing models down isn’t the solution. “Maybe the only way for higher ed institutions to move forward is to build on the greatest strengths that exist in our communities rather than tearing down the foundations of our institutions.”

Evolution of a Discipline

Another critical question at hand, Maloney says, is whether an academic discipline emerges organically, or through a small set of a voices--the latter of which he finds the least interesting. “This is the moment of tension I see us trying to nurture,” Maloney said.

The moment he’s referring to is Georgetown University’s launch of a new master’s degree program in learning and design, which combines edtech, instructional design and learning analytics. With four tracks--learning design, technology and innovation, learning analytics, and higher ed leadership and policy--the program ambitiously aims to cover a broader landscape known as academic transformation. Students will have foundation spanning all tracks, but will focus on one. “The tracks aren’t necessarily completely unique,” Maloney adds, “But we are creating this program outside the traditional structures in which these often exist.”

Absent from the program is a focus on K-12 learning; these master’s candidates will be zeroing in on higher ed. Also notable is the fact that the program is not housed within a college of education.

His challenge: creating a program in a traditional structure while doing work that borders on innovation. Meeting requirements and standards, while simultaneously pushing on them necessitates an unusual measure of flexibility.

How do you create from within academia and encourage new thinking? Maloney’s team is trying to build in administrative connections to the program. These individuals may not be lead faculty, but edtech or IT professionals who are coming in to run modules and bridge the gap between academia and administration.

Looking Ahead

“If we want to think where the work we do now will be in 15 years, we must be preparing ourselves and the university for the future now,” Maloney advises. “We know we need to be adaptable, flexible, responsive to challenges and trends...but we also have to know how we arrived at this point, from our history.”

Georgetown is one node in a network, but it has to be much broader than one school or consortium. Most certainly, he notes, this will require a collective, and not any single person.

We return full circle to where this story began: the channel that kicked off the conversation.

“If I were an influencer in the educational technology space, I would want to know how much my work is going to live beyond me. Blogs and other public scholarship have an immediate value, an audience, a platform. All of that is helpful to sparking a dialogue, but how do those efforts lay a foundation or inroad that moves the work forward into the future, particularly for the students we teach?”


Kristi DePaul is CEO of Founders Marketing, a firm that helps start-ups create effective messaging to grow global audiences.