Technology often has “unintended consequences.”  The increased use of technology in higher education has, for example, increased the dependence of these institutions on the vendors that build and market educational technology. This wasn’t the intention, it just worked out that way.

The increased presence of technology products and services in higher education stems from the simple fact that for colleges it is less costly, quicker and less risky to purchase proven solutions than it is to produce the technology in-house.

This practice, in turn, allows the college to focus on those functions for which it is was originally designed and for which it is better suited.  The same logic was behind the emergence of the textbook industry in the mid-twentieth century: individual educators often didn’t have the range of skills, time, or funds required to produce comprehensive texts. Turning to publishers for the texts reduced costs and improved the level of quality, on average.

Today, vendors offer a wide range of technology products and services: LMS, SIS, CRM, enrolment management systems, retention software, document management, email systems, instructional content, and more – a long, long way from the days in which a few pieces of chalk and a lectern were all that was “sourced” for classroom education.

Nevertheless, there is a sense among many in higher education that the great promise of educational technology in higher education is stalled. Software companies complain that schools are rarely open to new technologies, that identifying decision-makers in colleges is difficult, and the sales cycle is terribly slow and cumbersome. Tech-savvy students complain that the technology used in higher education has changed little in a decade. And for their part, colleges suggest that vendors have little sense of what kinds of products and services truly fit the needs of educators and college operations. Too few promising pilot projects that employ innovative technologies are adopted at other colleges or, for that matter, at other parts of the same college.

The frustration of vendors is reflected in Michael Stanton’s recent rant (his term, not mine) on the HigherEdLive blog. The CEO of education start-up Inigral wonders what lies behind the limited interest in education software:

“So, why are we giving up on educational software and software that is focused on education?  I want your thoughts.  Is it because of budget cuts?  Is it because you can’t actually procure anything with advertising revenue models, so you can just use free platforms with no procurement process?  Is it because the big educational software companies all forgot how to innovate and mostly have terrible products, so you just don’t believe that good software can be made by companies that serve education exclusively?”

One part of the solution may be simply getting vendors and their clients in the same room; recognizing that – given the nature of digital education – we are going to be in this together for the long run. A few initiatives are trying to do just that:

The Education Innovation Summit at Arizona State University, has run two annual events thus far:

“The Education Innovation Network is designed to bring together, in one physical hub and virtual portal, the most innovative companies working on improving education, the intellectual assets of ASU, the greater Phoenix public and private educational K-20 systems and investors of all types – philanthropic, angel, venture capital and large-scale acquirers.”

More recently, Educause announced the introduction of “StartUp Alley”, which offers new education companies a chance to learn directly from decision-makers about their challenges. You can download the flyer for the 2011 Educause event (Philadelphia, October 18-21) here.

There are smaller events like these beginning to pop up, too. If you know of some of the better ones, please make sure we hear about it.

You may also be interested in . . .

Survey Shows Decline in U.S. Educational Technology Progress” from the Software and Information Industry Alliance (Trade Association).

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3 thoughts on “Vendors, Ed Tech, and Higher Ed: Becoming Better Friends

  1. Risk aversion on behalf of the institution is clearly a key issue which keeps established players in a very strong provision whilst discouraging too much innovation. I can’t see my university ever letting business for an important system go to a recent start-up. Institutions also tend to have very poor control over many of their processes which makes it excpetionally difficult to realise benefits from institution-sclae IT innovation.

    Both of these features seem to encourage a lot of uncordinated experimentation by individuals which is rarely rolled out across whole institutions.


  2. Pingback: education & design

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