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.

Consider the LMS our starting point; it’s the environment in which the vast majority of online courses are built. The LMS is a relatively straightforward product. It is designed for use by lone instructors with little to no knowledge of programming, graphic design and, too often, instructional principles. It places (again, by design) no restrictions on what the end-user does with it. It’s an empty vessel to be filled. This aligns the product with traditions of faculty autonomy while also maximising the size of the market for the vendors.

Now, though, things are getting more interesting – but also more complex. There’s a growing recognition that LMS-based courses are inherently limited. There’s only so much a lone instructor can accomplish, given their limited skills, time, and funds. And, we want to start to take fuller advantage of software. We want to use software for what it does best – extend our human capacities; so we can do more given our available resources. Adaptive software, for example, personalises 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

Like the LMS, these relatively new, more ambitious educational technologies need to be built so as to fit neatly into higher education. They need to align with the talent mix, budgets, timelines, and other organisational factors.

This was relatively easy with the LMS. We knew “who would be doing what, when and how” because it was (and remains at most schools) based on the classroom model of education: one course, one instructor, limited resources.

But these new types of applications don’t have a ready-made organisational scenario with which to work. We don’t know, for example, how many people will be working on these courses; one, two, ten?. Will they be using all of their own content, or are they planning to lean heavily on publisher content, as some of the faster growing online institutions do now? What level of skills should we assume for the course developers in the client institutions? Do we need to train them? How much time are they willing to put into the course development process?

Whatever scenario we concoct, it’s likely to change quickly. And the division of roles and responsibilities are dynamic: as one changes, so will 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.

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. Like the good people at Betty Crocker, we need to craft these software applications with a good understanding of the people and the organisations that will ultimately put them to use.


Keith Hampson, Ph.D. is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximising value. 

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