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Content is Ubiquitous – Connection is Not

Content is Ubiquitous – Connection is Not

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The daily barrage of emails and tweets forces me to skim headlines quickly until I find something of interest. A clever headline or title can make a difference. Last week, one such headline attracted my attention: Connection Over Content: A New Era for Education Technology.

Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute, writes that “the pandemic cast education technology (edtech) into a starring –- and some might argue above-its-paygrade – role in education.” She further elaborates that the virtual learning conducted through Zoom and other online platforms were no substitute for the connections that occur in face-to-face classes.

Ms. Fisher argues that it’s unfair to hold the edtech companies responsible for the isolation created when virtually all classes moved online. The edtech industry has been working for decades to add enhancements to its products that will personalize learning for many. The fact that edtech and its users were unprepared for the sudden shift during the pandemic is more of a wakeup call to refocus its purpose on providing connection.

The software portion of the edtech market, according to Ms. Fisher, consists of tools “aimed at organizing and delivering academic content to students and employees.” The fact that content dominates the market is not surprising given that acquiring knowledge is the underpinning of education. The good news is that there are some companies in the edtech sector that offer students deeper connections and new social networks.

The Christensen Institute has categorized these newer edtech software tools as Edtech that Connects, and the Institute offers a handy directory listing the various categories under which these tools operate. Included in these categories or focus areas are academic supports, college access and/or success, project-based learning, STEM, career coaching and/or networking, language learning, and real-world relevance.

Building edtech tools that connect while delivering content could go a long way toward keeping students engaged while online notes Ms. Fisher. Ms. Fisher writes that online courses have struggled with high attrition rates yet the 85 percent dropout rate that she cites relates to MOOCs, a form of self-paced, online education without a live instructor in the class. Based on my experience, the reasons that students drop online classes has less to do with engagement than other reasons mostly centered around the theme of “life got in the way.”

I agree that engagement influences the long-term success and reenrollment of students in online programs. Fortunately, some edtech entrepreneurs are building tools to improve the connections between students and faculty. Ms. Fisher cites Engageli as a tool built to address the inadequacies of tools like Zoom and Google Meet for teaching and learning. Engageli allows students to sit at virtual “tables” where they can talk with each other during an online lecture. Students can also trade notes with fellow classmates inside the application. Engageli co-founder Daphne Koller was a co-founder of Coursera, an online platform that focuses on courses and credentials. According to Andreina Paris-Amon, Engageli’s VP of Learning and Teaching, Engageli picks up where Coursera leaves off by building a community of learners. Engageli’s goal is to bridge the gap between synchronous, asynchronous, and mixed space.

Another tool cited by Ms. Fisher is Along. Along focuses on providing teachers with video, audio, and text messaging tools that allow them to send prompts and questions to students who can reply directly with a brief video recording, audio recording, or text message. The tool provides tips to teachers on how they can build developmental relationships with students that have been shown to improve attendance and grades.

Ms. Fisher notes that the Christensen Institute’s research finds that edtech’s greatest potential will be expanding students’ access to people that they don’t already know. Connecting students with mentors, peers, and industry experts who are out of reach due to geography, time, or money can bolster their success and access to opportunities over the long term.

Beyond 12 is an organization that provides virtual coaches to low income and historically underrepresented students to mentor them through college. These mentors are recent first-generation college graduates. Analytical tools in the app help predict which students need support and when they need it.

Nepris provides a virtual platform for teachers to connect their students with industry experts. Naturally, the company touts the skills-based volunteering platform as a means by which organizations can extend education outreach and build their brand among future workers. Nepris provides a means by which outside experts can visit the virtual classroom far more frequently than once a year career fairs. As I read about Nepris, I wondered why it shouldn’t be included in high school classes so that our future college students have a better idea what majors might be best suited for their future careers. Riipen is another tool that helps college professors connect students with short-term projects and internships from more than 4,000 companies.

According to Ms. Fisher, these emerging edtech tools are simple applications targeting simple problems. The online interactions they facilitate are brief by standard measures of relationship quality. At the same time, they may be as long, if not longer, than the often-cited value of chats in the classroom or hallway. Over time, Ms. Fisher believes that tools like Beyond 12, Nepris, and Riipen and others will expand the ways students access and capitalize on meaningful relationships that help them get by and get ahead.

The many social connections of affluent students have provided them with access to many more jobs than students from lower income families. Ms. Fisher writes that it’s estimated that half of jobs come through personal connections, a fact that I would back up through anecdotal conversations over the years with friends and family. College-educated parents have broad professional networks that they can use to plug their children into the knowledge economy. Edtech tools can provide the engines to ensure that students of all backgrounds can access learning, mentoring, and career networks that they need to get jobs.

Lest you think that Ms. Fisher is an edtech enthusiast, she warns that edtech companies need to provide metrics that demonstrate the efficacy of the tools that they offer to colleges and high schools. According to her, many school districts and colleges often buy technology hoping that it will produce better outcomes but have no idea whether the tools are producing positive results or if they are being used.

Edtech tools that foster connections will be able to scale contact but scaling authentic connection will be more difficult. Measuring that connection, writes Ms. Fisher, will not be a simple undertaking. Research has shown that a bad mentor-mentee relationship is worse than none at all.

Ms. Fisher ends her article with the following sentence: “Edtech that connects offers a chance to double down on investing in building students’ human capital and social capital at once, as mutually reinforcing engines for progress and prosperity.” I could not agree with her more wholeheartedly. The time commitments required by teachers, and for that matter all professionals, minimize the time that they have to build and nurture social connections between their students and outside professionals. Understanding how to utilize edtech tools like these mentioned will take time as well. Institutions that choose to implement some of these tools need to work with the provider to ensure adequate training and metrics that reinforce the benefit of utilizing the tools. There’s no doubt that over the long run, enhancing social connections will provide all students with better outcomes. Waiting for the perfect technology doesn’t help students.

Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and as a member and chair of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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