Earlier this spring, 800 or so people converged on the Skysong campus of Arizona State University to discuss education. However, the majority of the speakers were not educators, but entrepreneurs, technology company executives and investors. The Education Innovation Summit, now in its third year, has quickly become a key event for vendors to network, generate interest, and raise funds.

Also not surprising is that the reception within higher education to private investment ranges from indifference to outright hostility. Higher ed has a long history of managing its needs internally, and is especially resistant to commercial interventions – due to the ideal of free inquiry and the political sensibilities of faculty, among other factors. This perspective tends to flavour all discussions of commerce’s role in higher education.

The tension between commerce and higher education isn’t likely to get less provocative over the next few years. While campuses have become accustomed to having vendors assume responsibility for functions like bookstore management, catering and building maintenance, the current focus of education investors is on creating technologies that serve instructional functions – matters that were once seen as the exclusive territory of academics.

But higher education may need to get over its discomfort with vendors if it wishes to continue its migration toward technology-enabled education. There are very real limits to how effectively higher ed can meet it own needs for technology. Much like end-users in other sectors, universities are very good at the early stage work of identifying needs and crafting initial product designs. Many of the LMS in use today started in universities, for instance. But universities are less equipped to take these products to market, scale-up production/service, and drive down costs. It simply isn’t what the institutions were designed to do.

If we are going to have educational technology available that is as good as those in the consumer markets, we will need considerable involvement of the private sector. It’s not logical to put up with a clunky LMS in our schools, but expect to have the latest iPhone at home.

Educators have started voting with their feet. More and more are integrating tools like Youtube, Facebook, WordPress and Twitter into their teaching and course management practices. Vendors, too, have moved away from building their own applications to using popular ones from the consumer market. See, for example, Inigral and Facebook, Google and Pearson, Instructure/Canvas and Twitter.

Educational technologies need to be just as good and just as inexpensive as technology in the consumer market. We are moving in this direction – not because we are being forced by evil vendors – but because these tools are familiar, simple to use, and inexpensive.

Thanks to Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates for his comments on this post. 

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