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Are eLearning ‘trends’ just growth forecasts for edtech entrepreneurs?

Are eLearning ‘trends’ just growth forecasts for edtech entrepreneurs?

Here’s a future scenario for online learning:

There are no or few institutions of higher education because there is no need to attend them. We build our own learning paths, our learning activities logged from multiple sources by something akin to xAPI and stored in a repository under our names.

When applying for jobs etc., our learning repositories are analysed by AIs / Machine Learning algorithms which compare our learning journeys to the job specs. Given enough data, machines become better at matching candidates to jobs than humans. A job interview now consists of a retinal scan, a brief wait, and a green or red light indicating success or failure.

Is this oversimplified, rather dystopian vignette the culmination of current trends?

Some would say that current ‘trends’ exist more in the hopes of edtech entrepreneurs and future-gazers than in reality. Reliably acerbic edtech blogger Audrey Watters certainly thinks so when she writes in this post,

“(Deliberate) Misinformation -- about what ed-tech can do, about the problems it will solve, about what sort of circumstances students and schools and society are now facing, about what sort of future new technologies will necessarily give us - is picked up and wielded by far too many education leaders and decision-makers. That's what a decade of ed-tech social media and PR have wrought: hashtag gurus and fake news.”

The desire to shape the future in terms of one’s own inventions is certainly nothing new. In 1930 after years of commercial failure with his invention the Automatic Testing Machine (see picture), Sidney Pressey still believed passionately in the future of machines in education: “Within the next twenty years, special mechanical aids will make mass psychological experimentation commonplace and bring about in education something analogous to the Industrial Revolution … in which educational science and the ingenuity of educational technology combine to modernize the grossly inefficient and clumsy procedures of conventional education.”

Pressey was a psychology professor driven by psychological theories, and created a learning product based on his own research. How true is that these days? Are some modern edtech entrepreneurs driven more by money than principles, with learners as ‘meat widgets’ in their systems?

Pressey didn’t know that electronic computers would come along accelerate everything, so current predictions tend to take the format ‘In the next five years’ rather than ‘In the next twenty years’. But the thinking is the same: a hopeful assertion that certain technologies close to the asserter’s hearts (and wallets) will catch on soon and revolutionise everything.

So without wishing to bite the hand that feeds us (edtech), we encourage a healthy skepticism when reading about ‘trends’ over the next few years, and to ask oneself whether the learning utopia being described springs from concern for improving the quality of education, or improving an edtech entrepreneur's bank account. A good balance can always be found somewhere between the two, but we should beware of any trends that are nothing more than the projections of a businessperson's fevered imagination. 

Related article: Students or Guinea Pigs: the Learning Analytics Debate