Digital technologies are ubiquitous in today’s higher education landscape.

They have changed, and continue to change, the ways in which students study and learn, and how academics teach and research. New ways of accessing higher education have emerged through MOOCs and other online courses. Data analytics have become central to administration and governance. Artificial intelligence is on the rise.

As a recent report by Stefan A D Popenici and Sharon Kerr puts it: “The future of higher education is intrinsically linked with developments of new technologies and computing capacities of the new intelligent machines”.

And it’s all happened in a remarkably short space of time – about 20 years or so.

We can see it all unfold in a fascinating short history of the application of new technologies in higher education by Martin Weller in a recent article for EDUCAUSE, the community platform for IT leaders and professionals.

Weller also runs a popular blog in which he expands on developments in IT and their meaning.

In his history, Weller selects a different educational technology, theory, or concept for each of the years from 1998 through 2018 with the aim of examining “what has changed, what remains the same, and what general patterns can be discerned from this history”.

Twenty years ago he says, the web – accessed through dial-up modems – “had reached a level of mainstream awareness”.

There was “a general sense of puzzlement about what it would mean” with some academics considering it all to be a fad.


A collaborative, shared enterprise

His history begins in 1998 with the advent of the wiki – a web page that could be jointly edited by anyone – and which he says embodied “the spirit of optimism and philosophy of the open web”.

The web, he says, democratised publishing, and the wiki “made the process a collaborative, shared enterprise”.

He charts the rise of e-learning in 1999, a development which “set the framework for the next decade in terms of technology, standards, and approaches – a period that represents, in some respects, the golden age of e-learning”.

He goes on to examine the advent of Learning Objects in 2000, E-learning Standards in 2001, Open Educational Resources in 2002, the rise of blogs in 2003 – “Blogs and RSS-type distribution were akin to giving everyone superhero powers … No other edtech has continued to develop and solidify and also remain so full of potential”; the learning management system (LMS) in 2004, video 2005, Web 2.0 in 2006, Twitter and social media in 2009; through to MOOCs in 2012, Open textbooks in 2013, Learning analytics in 2014, Digital badges 2015, the return of AI in 2016, to Blockchain – “perhaps the most perplexing, both in how it works and in why it is even in this list” – in 2017.

In 2018, says Weller, edtech stands on the brink of a new era – “one that has a substantial underpinning of technology but that needs to build on the ethical, practical, and conceptual frameworks that combat the nefarious applications of technology”.


A technology seeking an application

Weller acknowledges that “one or two paragraphs cannot do justice to technologies that require several books each” and that his list has “undoubtedly omitted several important developments” but contends that a number of themes can be extracted to help inform the next 20 years.

One of these, Weller argues, is that in edtech, the tech part of the phrase “walks taller” – most of the innovations are technologies “that sometimes come with strong accompanying educational frameworks, but other times they are a technology seeking an application”.

Education, Weller says, is “a complex, highly interdependent system”.

“It is not like the banking, record, or media industries. The simple transfer of technology from other sectors often fails to appreciate the sociocultural context in which education operates.”


Content, delivery and recognition

Generally, says Weller, only those technologies “that directly offer an improved, or alternative, means of addressing the core functions of education get adopted”.

“These core functions can be summarised as content, delivery and recognition.”

 Weller says that over the past 20 years “a rapid and fundamental shift in higher education practice has taken place, driven by technology adoption”.

“Yet at the same time, nothing much has changed, and many edtech developments have failed to have significant impact.

“Perhaps the overall conclusion, then, is that edtech is not a game for the impatient.”


Further reading

Martin Weller – Twenty years of Edtech

Weller – The Ed Techie blog

Eli Zimmerman – EDUCAUSE: Most significant Ed Tech of the past 20 years

Susan Grajek – Top 10 IT Issues, 2018: The Remaking of Higher Education

Stefan A D Popenici and Sharon Kerr – Exploring the impact of artificial intelligence on teaching and learning in higher education



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