Edtech's Betty Crocker Moment

Betty Crocker introduced its cake mixes in the 1950s. The mixes made the process of baking cakes less prone to failure. Faster too. For many, especially over-burdened women working at home, this was a huge leap forward.

But the cake mixes didn't sell especially well. So, using market research and input from psychologists, the decision was made to design the baking process so that the customer would be required to add an egg or two to the recipe. Sales took off. Today, few people bake a cake "from scratch."

At its core, this anecdote speaks to the need to design technologies with a deep understanding of the context in which it will be used. Big increases in value depend on it.

More Ambitious Educational Software

Edtech is going through its' own Betty Crocker moment. For us, it’s a shift from instructionally agnostic software to instructionally intelligent software, and from incremental to substantial gains in efficiency.

The LMS has been the most significant educational technology in digital higher education to date. It serves many important roles in the institution, but it is, by design, instructionally agnostic. It goes out of its way to not encourage or require any particular instructional strategy. It’s designed as a blank canvas.

The agnostic approach maximizes the size of the potential market for the product, but as a result it doesn’t add much value for anyone. A blank canvas doesn't extend our capacity as educators, as many hoped it would.

We’ve entered a new stage, though. A new crop of educational software has emerged that seeks to do what software is meant to do: extend our capacity to meet our educational objectives. Adaptive software, for example, personalizes learning to serve each student’s unique needs. Applications that enable automated feedback ensure that students get immediate feedback on their efforts - not once they have moved on to other topics and challenges. In each case, the software captures and embodies our best understanding of what constitutes an effective learning experience, and puts this knowledge to use in a cost-effective way.

A New Mix

But these kinds of tools can’t simply be thrust on institutions of higher education and expected to add value. Unlike the less ambitious, agnostic technologies, the new educational technologies need to be built with a deep understanding of people, processes, and organizational designs for the institutions in which they are deployed because they will lead to changes in how these institutions operate. Faculty, institutional staff, software and instructional strategies all respond to changes made by the others. As faculty roles change, so must the technology. As instructional staff take on larger roles, new instructional strategies become possible, and so on.

Amazingly, many educational software projects are undertaken with minimal direct input from the college and university faculty and instructional staff. And it shows.

This is an important moment in digital higher education. We’re seeking to add far more value, to increase what institutions can achieve in the online environment. We hope to finally bend that iron triangle of cost, quality and access. But moving beyond relatively simple, agnostic software can’t be achieved in isolation; we can’t simply toss the software “over the wall” to our client institutions and hope that it works. We need to craft these software applications hand-in-hand with the people and the organizations that will ultimately put them to use.