The Business of Learning Technology: Meditations on My Career In Higher Ed IT

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I used to think the value of learning technology was self-evident and obvious, but I realize that we all view the world through the lens that is most familiar to us. My lens has been colored by 10 years of pursuing both a career and an advanced education in learning technology, or educational technology, or whatever you want to call it.

I prefer the term learning technology, because “instructional technology” sounds too teacher-centric. It implies a model of education where there are discrete facts to be learned, and the role of the educator is to simply transmit those facts from one source (a textbook, a professor’s brain, etc.) into the student. The student should remember said facts for a certain amount of time. Perhaps long enough to reproduce the facts on a test.

“Educational technology” is very broad- to me it connotes all the technologies and systems required by an institution to function and operate.

Learning technology puts the focus on learning.

I often hear about how education, and how IT in particular, is a business. It’s true. We have business processes and business needs. We are a business. Until we become more like Finland or Germany and can call education a public service or a right, we must acknowledge the fact that there are financial transactions conducted in exchange for products and services.

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But what is the business that we’re in? What is the product or service that we deliver? Is it an efficient financial aid request process? Is it a cohesive web portal? Is it computer virus removal? Password reset? Wi-fi?

The reason a student attends an educational institution, one presumes, is to learn.

So what is learning technology? When I was an academic applications administrator and support specialist, I thought I knew what learning technology was. Professors would ask me for help; I would walk them through some steps; I would find efficient ways to map rosters from the SIS to the LMS. I would write documentation, and I could pronounce the word pedagogy.

When I was an instructional designer/technologist, I thought I knew what learning technology was. I managed some open source systems; I evaluated clickers and lecture capture solutions; I had an advanced knowledge of the LMS; I could regurgitate things that I had read about constructivism. I began to teach.

When I earned my master’s degree in Educational Technology, I thought I knew what learning technology was. I could wax intellectual about cognitivism and connectivism. I became an evangelist for tech because I knew the “best practices.” I was cocky about the fact that PhD’s never had any teacher training, and I could tell them what good instruction was really about (“It’s the guide on the side; not the sage on the stage,” I would say).  I was managing people and platforms. I was making friends in the industry.

Eventually, I began reading the critics, the anarchists, and the humanists. Learning should be an act of rebellion against the status quo, they claimed. Education was a system of indoctrination, they believed.

I re-read the classics: Vygoskty, Dewey, Gagne, and Bloom. I researched the history of the world and the strange tapestry that education wove across time and space.  I read the brain scientists and the social scientists. I drew connections between biology and art.

I know now that there are many approaches to learning. I know that social interactions are often mediated by technology. I know that knowledge and meaning are nebulous terms. I know that transformations can be behavioral or spiritual. I know that technology can be wonderful or frustrating, boring or magical, tedious or seducing.  I know that the interplays between people and things, people and information, and people and people have limitless variables.

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It took me ten years of a career and an education in learning technology to begin to realize that I will never really know what learning technology is (or should be). But I will continue to learn and practice.

I still love reading the critics and the anarchists. I love reading the classics. I love reading about the early behaviorists and smirking at their modern recapitulations.  I get excited when I learn about a new learning theory that changes my perspective. I feel like I’m meeting a movie star when I have dinner or drinks with an author or a thought leader. I gush with joy when my friends receive grants, get published, or are honored with awards.

I speculate about the future. Some days I worry that higher education is in its death throes; or that the sexy new startups will swindle the taxpayers with promises of “better student engagement!” “retention!” and “wait, there’s more!”

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Some days I beam in my daydream of flexible, personalized systems that also promote creativity and agency– technologies that spark the imagination, trigger aha! moments after aha! moments, challenge learners to strive for excellence and engage with knowledge and each other in new and deeper ways they never thought possible.

I dream of a world where students control the technology. They create with the technology and learn how to plan, produce, and fail. I dream of a world where students learn how to solve the world’s most complex and dire problems. I dream of a world where students form strong relationships, and they develop a deep and rich appreciation for all the diverse facets of culture and nature. I dream of a world where, empowered, students learn how to learn, mediated by technology or not, and they do it well, and they love it.  After all, isn’t that the business we’re in?

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