Following the Data: A Day in the Life of an Ed-Tech worker

It is not everyday that a publishing company moves from New York to Baltimore. New York, and especially 5th Avenue, has arguably more publishing houses than Maine does seaside cafes. But we are not talking about just any publishing company. We are talking about ed-tech. Chances are you’ve never heard of it, and it’s just as likely that the average American undergraduate who is midway through their freshman year has never heard of it either, though they are already quite familiar with it.

Ed-tech is redefining the educational landscape of just about every sector of education, beginning with kindergarten. Yes, kindergarten. Ed-tech is not just about a classroom receiving a shipment of the latest iPads, nor of kids in Malaysia having a video chat with a screen crowd of gawking faces in Idaho. Without question, ed-tech is erasing distances, shrinking time zones and rendering international collaboration a must for any young tech savvy teacher.

Though it is a lot of things, ed-tech is a new breed of industry that has found itself spanning two historically disparate worlds–education and technology. This industry produces many commodities and services–online courses, e-books, instructional design research, digital learning theory, educational apps, lessons specifically catered to student’s learning styles, more sophisticated assessment tools and distance (and free) learning. This is only to name a few. Suffice it to say this industry is young and brazen in its vision for digital learning. Unsurprisingly, ed-tech is a product of globalization.

HiEd_Twitter_picWhile most Baltimoreans are well aware of our standard-setting biotech work done in the life sciences–Johns Hopkins should come to mind–we are also home to a ballooning ed-tech corridor. Citelighter is one such company who has moved to the area from…you guessed it, New York. In fact, the CEO of Citelighter, Saad Alam, said Baltimore has the potential to become the “Edtech capital of the United States.” And to think we were hanging our hat on crabs and Old Bay Seasoning for so long.

But why Baltimore?

Tim Conneally, a contributor at Forbes, recently argued that Baltimore’s history could be a major factor in its ed-tech gravity. Conneally noted Johns Hopkins’ no. 2 rating for education grad school, and UMBC’s no. 6 ranking as the best national undergraduate program, a slot behind Yale. Factor in, says Conneally, that Charm City is the home of 118 Teach for America schools, the Success For All Foundation, Laureate Education, and the Center for Talented Youth, and, well, he’s got a point.

Baltimore is also host to StraighterLine, Moodlerooms, Allovue, Words & Numbers, Connections Academy and Common Curriculum, with new start-ups being added yearly. There are incubator initiatives at Hopkins and Towson University, whose goal is to construct the ed-tech companies of the future.

Follow the Data

If you want to learn anything about a technology company, follow the data. For instance, yours truly works at a Baltimore ed-tech company, one which creates educational apps, interactive textbooks and virtual courses for a variety of clients–universities, organizations and publishers. But I have also taught at the university level in Baltimore (and will continue to do so), which means I have been on both sides of the equation. I am helping design what ed-tech looks like in the classroom, and I have seen how technology is changing the classroom.

So, about the data. For starters, take the example of an online course, which is one of the commodities ed-techers are producing. The data of an online course can visit upwards of four to five different countries within its project lifetime. It may begin in the U.S. as content created by an expert, but it quickly becomes the property of the policies and guidelines of numerous international tech companies with names such as Contek Soft, ASI, Excell Soft, DiacriTech, Lapiz, Heuron, Arcadia and Belvolex.

EdTech_600X600You know how film adaptations of books always makes the writer angry, mainly because the format of film puts different needs on the content than does a book. The same is the case here. Online courses, for example, require lots of “chunking” and “modularization.” Often designed by a subject matter expert, or “SME”–we sound it out so it rhymes with “she”–the text must jump through various hurdles. It must fit into templates designed abroad, conform to pre-determined tables and meet word count requirements for its eventual home: the digital page. Sentences are slashed, burned and put into various screens. Each instructional design module has its own idiosyncrasies.

Within all this process are numerous quality control checks. One of those checks that nearly all ed-tech workers are familiar with is called cognitive overload. Behind the theory of cognitive overload–a theory hatched within “information processing theory”–is the idea that humans can only process limited amounts of information at a time. The jury is still out as to what the human brain can comfortably process at one time, but the assumption behind presenting educational information is that too much information causes “cognitive overload.” When we are assessing as to whether there is too much content on a digital screen or tab, one thing we are always aware of is overload, which is, obviously enough, often associated with scrolling. Too much scrolling is an indicator that there is too much information on the digital page.

The deep-seated bias against this is what drives the modularization of much of the educational information online. By modularization I mean a process akin to putting water into different sized buckets. Yes, it is still water. But that water has different properties in different sizes. One way modularization and standardization mitigates the problem of cognitive overload is through consistency of format. When material is presented in a uniform matter, the student can devote more cognitive resources to the material at hand, rather than trying to figure out how its presentation informs its meaning.

Though the major educational companies are adamant that content drives design, they forget how limited the design really is. Most of the time, on any given project there are only a handful of design options, since the creation of new online templates can cost some serious r&d. New templates have to be learning tested, with mock trials and everything. Usually, we are given a few design templates. The content, regardless of whether it is psychology or math, must fit into one of those options. The venue changes the content–that much can’t be denied.

edtech501bumperstickerMy fears for ed-tech are quite the opposite as those of some in the industry. Rather than avoiding cognitive overload, I say bring it on. In small doses, of course, and depending on the age. “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star,” Nietzsche quipped. Now, for the record, I taught in the humanities, and my comments should be received with that in mind. As far as I am concerned, being able to interpret the environment in which information appears is just as important as the information itself. A student ought to struggle on two levels, how to interpret the structure of information as well as the content of that information. Education should not cater itself to trends in media reception–short attention spans and our habit of not spending four seconds on something online if it looks too difficult.

On the other hand, modularization is being used in creative ways. For instance, ed-tech company Edmentum is now allowing teachers to customize mini courses based on student’s needs. For example, it will soon be possible to fill in a few drop down boxes and within seconds have a customized course perfectly tailored to meet a student’s problem areas. Your child struggling on the SAT’s trigonometry section? Fill in a few words on a website, and you’ll have yourself a custom course to meet your student’s needs.

In the Classroom

Ed-tech changed how I grade papers, how assignments were announced, grades posted and turned in. Students can now rent textbooks online, which unfortunately they mostly read on their iPhones, which in turn cultivates a reading habit that is linear, not circular. In other words, when a student is stuck on a concept and needs to refer to something previous in the text, they are more likely to do so when it is a physical book. It’s just easier. When they read on their phones, they are less willing to scroll back ten or so pages to find it, then scroll around the document to find the keyword. As you might expect, software designers are trying to solve this dilemma.

But ed-tech is affecting teachers as well. Factor in the professor’s new-found anxiety that students on their phone in class are not looking at the text but at something else. Yes, students not paying attention is nothing new in history, but now we face the problem of using a device for education that can also be used to post to social media accounts. For professors who are reading this, the rule of thumb is–if they are smiling, they are not looking at the book. They are on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter or something else I don’t know about yet.

girl-with-smart-phoneWhy not just ban the use of using their phones, or laptops, to read books in class? I did, and do. “But I can’t afford the textbook,” some students say as they hold their iPhone in their hand. It’s a valid point. Not all students can shell out $900 for new books each semester. I want to say, “then sell your phone.” So, I tell them, “Print it out!” Which causes me to ask–wasn’t one of the purposes of books online to use less paper?

As to how ed-tech is altering the adjunct/tenure track debate in higher academics, I shall not delve into here, but what can be said is that you will find established professors grabbing much of the new online courses for themselves, all the while leaving the brick and mortar courses for the part-time workers. Furthermore, universities and colleges around the nation are scrambling to update to today’s smart classrooms, which pale in comparison the smart classrooms of a decade ago.

Money is getting spent to meet the expectations of a media-saturated population, in which, according to a recent New York Times article, teenagers between the ages 8-18 spend double the amount of time on screens as they spend in school (1). Yes, it’s a shocking statistic. Do we really want to add to that statistic with more screen time?

The debate surrounding ed-tech is more than about cognitive overload, or modularization, but about what constitutes a classroom. Is heated debate where you can take the pulse of a class an integral part of learning? Yes. Should a classroom be a place where students grow up, learn to speak their minds, listen to others they may not like, and disagree politely. Yup. An internal debate within museum studies at the cusp of the media revolution proves instructive here. At the time, museums were debating their role in a society of constantly streaming media and images.

The question was—should museums, especially contemporary ones, be places where the best high-tech products should be presented, or should museums be new forms of silence, places where people can go to get away from the noise and, do something revolutionary, contemplate? That was the question then. We are at a similar crossroads now.

The debate is also about what constitutes a teacher. Ed-tech has a place in education, and it has earned it, but ed-tech’s most important contribution may be in the arena of improving the classroom experience, not substituting it. Last semester, a young freshman came to my office after class. He was visibly distraught, some trouble at home, with the girlfriend, etc. Didn’t feel like talking to anyone else. I didn’t fix his problems, nor had presumptions that I could. But we got to know each after that, and it proved to be a good semester. He got it all back together, and we talked regularly. An online teacher can’t do that. Most teachers will agree that disseminating knowledge and/or making a space so learning can happen is only a small part of their job.

(1) Lewin, Tamar. “If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online.” New York Times. Accessed on February 10, 2014 at