Educational technologies have always been associated with a set of buzzwords like “revolution”, “ the next big thing” or “the most important invention of our age”. Meanwhile, all of us know that some promising technologies have failed while others have unexpectedly succeeded. In an economic world where it is crucial to gain competitive advantages, the capacity to predict the success or the failure of a technology seems be to be a major issue.

Last November 2016, the Belgian Open and Distance Learning Association organized a conference in order to raise this issue of successes and failures in educational technologies. This conference entitled “Digital trends, challenging learning and training in the workplace” was chaired by two outstanding speakers, Stephen Downes, the father of connectivism and MOOC’s and Wilfred Rubens, expert in technology enhanced learning.

This Be-ODL conference offered us two very different kinds of perspectives when it comes to the future of educational technologies. The first approach – the classical one – consists to analyse the main technological trends over a period of time and based on that predict their success. This is an approach which has the favour of organization like the Gartner Group.

This approach was also the one adopted by the first keynote speaker, Wilfred Rubens who was part of a team who wrote in 2016 a report on trends in educational technology. More precisely, this report identified several trends in learning technologies which foster customized or tailor-made education and training. These are flexibility which takes into account our learning preferences, adaptive learning e. g. though the use of learning analytics and enrichment of learning and teaching experiences by using e. g. virtual reality.

Stephen Downes’s approach was very different. Instead of trying to predict the successes of some educational technologies, his purpose was to predict their failures, which, he conceded, is more tricky. Were his predictions of failures based on hard data or evidences ? I am not so sure. Stephen dismissed some educational technologies based on his own conceptions about what education should be. In this regards, he used the metaphor of language learning and said: “you don’t learn a language, you discover it. To discover a language is to be immersed in it, to speak it and to listen to people speaking in it”. When using this metaphor, Stephen wanted to say that education is less about learning objectives, but more about connecting with other people. Based on this conviction, Stephen analysed the main trends in education trying to predict their failures. It is worth noting that the MOOC “revolution” is paradigmatic in his analyse. Stephen described MOOCs as a “successful failure”. On one side, MOOcs are successes because he said “more people took MOOCs in 2015 than in all previous years combined”. On the other side, MOOCs are failures because according to Stephen, most MOOCs presented on the market are courses based on contents. In other words, these MOOCs are not conform to what a MOOC should be that means “a network of participants who find and exchange resources with each other”.

To sum up his point, Stephen drew a difference between what he called “personalized learning” versus “ personal learning”. The first one is based on the idea that there is someone, somewhere – the Invisible Hand ? – who defines for you “an ideal state” you want to attain through education or training. In the second case, you define yourself “a desired state” to reach.

Definitely, this is a question of perspective !


Video and slides available