Back to teaching time no longer

This is only the second time in nearly 20 years that I have not been teaching classes at this point of the year. The last time was for a full-year sabbatical, something temporary but wholly part of the business of academia; this Fall absence is likely to be more permanent. Others have asked whether it is strange to come to this point in the year, where I am typically polishing up course sites or digging into assignment scheduling for the term. But it's not. The rhythm of the academic year is out of mind, and I feel free (free!) as I have not felt in years.

I left my academic position at the end of the past term and have put my money where my mouth is (more accurately, put my hours where my head and heart have been) to make educational technologies of the sort that I think are needed. It has been an exhilarating and illuminating transition these past months. Besides the day to day of product design and software development, it has been a pace of work that is so refreshingly fast and full that I find it difficult to remember that I was doing something different not too long ago. That is another life and another person. I don't know whether we'll be successful or not, but in the meantime, the move from full-time professor to entrepreneur has both sharpened my criticism of our current tools and practices while drawing such criticisms towards concrete ends. I also, I suppose, now have some skin in the game.

The questions that I started with were mostly about technology use. I have worked a lot on that over the years, in other capacities and not just in educational technologies. The shift to trying to build technologies in that space has reminded me most of all that a frequent problem is about the kinds of questions people ask about when it comes to educational technologies.

The most obvious question is usually the what. That's what is going on in this HolonIQ taxonomy of educational technology products.

This chart is completely wrong-headed. I see where it comes from and why it might seem useful. You can see all the different segments. Classification is always a great tool and all that. But what exactly is this chart showing? That there are different kinds of products out there? Anything can be categorized into Aristotelian categories or tagged in some quasi-organized fashion. That's trivial. The rub is always in how useful or meaningful those labels are. In this case, the atomic classification makes it seem like there are all these different types of edtech, lots of different “what”. But the what is often irrelevant. The how matters more. When we focus on the what, we assume the inevitability of technology. Focusing responsibly on the how, provided we leave open the possibility of low-tech or minimal tech, provided we guard against the constant threat of overengineering solutions, seems a better way to think.

I would propose then an alternative taxonomy, not of edtech categories, but tied to the how of teaching and learning. Conversation, lecture, activity, and their subdivisions and variants perhaps. Maybe a dimension of peer-to-peer, cohort, group, or some combination of participants. Add another dimension of “how”, ranging from digitized and computerized back to real-time, face-to-face, or other variants. Anything that fronts the how over the what might (possibly) help us think more clearly about the problems that need attention. What is out there is an imperfect map of that, a hodgepodge of the equilibrium among what's fundable, what's possible, and the legacy of what has existed (looking at you, LMS-es).

That is, I suppose, very much an issue that I have, in the past, faced at the beginning of an academic year. The 'what' of a class is usually pretty straightforward. Or at least, it's a map where you can place your markers and arrange them into straight lines. It's the how of a class that is more interesting, more pressing, and what defines the class.

Perhaps things are not quite so different as I thought.