The difference between IT and Ed Tech

In a recent interview with John Jantsch for the Duct Tape Marketing podcast, Danny Iny argued that the difference between information and education essentially comes down to responsibility. Information is simply about presentation. Here are some things you might want to know. Whether and the extent to which you come to know them is entirely up to you.

In contrast, education implies that the one presenting information also takes on a degree of responsibility for ensuring that it is learned. Education is a relationship in which teachers and learners agree to share in the responsibility for the success of the learning experience.

This distinction, argues Iny, accounts for why books are so cheep and university is so expensive. Books merely present information, while universities take on an non-trivial amount of responsibility for what is learned, and how well.

(It is a shame that many teachers don’t appreciate this distinction, and their role as educators. I will admit that, when I was teaching, I didn’t fully grasp the extent of my responsibility for the success of my students. I wish I could go back and reteach those courses as an educator instead of as a mere informer.)

If we accept Iny’s distinction between information and education, what are the implications for what we today call educational technologies, or ‘Ed Tech’? As we look to the future of technology designed to meet specific needs of teachers and learners, is educational technology something that we wish to aspire to, or avoid?

Accepting Iny’s definition, I would contend that what we call educational technologies today are not really educational technologies at all. The reason is that neither they nor the vendors that maintain them take specific responsibility for the success or failure of the individual students they touch. Although vendors are quick to take credit for increased rates of student success, taking credit is not the same as taking responsibility. In higher education, the contract is between the student and the institution. If the student does not succeed, responsibility is shared between the two. No technology or ed tech vendor wants to be held accountable for the success of an individual student. In the absence of such a willingness or desire to accept a significant degree of responsibility for the success of particular individuals, what we have are not educational technologies, but rather information technologies designed for use in educational contexts. Like books…but more expensive.

With the advent of AI, however, we are beginning to see an increasing shift as technologies appear to take more and more responsibility for the learning process itself. Adaptive tutoring. Automated nudging. These approaches are designed to do more than present information. Instead, they are designed to promote learning itself. Should we consider these educational technologies? I think so. And yet they are not treated as such, because vendors in these areas are still unwilling (accountability is tricky) or unable (because of resistance from government and institutions) to accept responsibility for individual student outcomes. There is no culpability. That’s what teachers are for. In the absence of a willingness to carry the burden of responsibility for a student’s success, even these sophisticated approaches are still treated as information technologies, when they should actually be considered far more seriously.

As we look to the future, it does seem possible that the information technology platforms deployed in the context of education will, indeed, increasingly become and be considered full educational technologies. But this can only happen if vendors are willing to accept the kind of responsibility that comes with such a designation, and teachers are willing to share responsibility with technologies capable of automating them out of a job. This possible future state of educational technology may or may not be inevitable. It also may or may not be desirable.


Your stuff doesn’t have value anymore

It has recently become very apparent to me that the value of the things that I own is increasingly elsewhere.

Let me provide two examples.

Basis Watch

Several months ago, Intel announced that it was shutting down all support and service for its Basis line of watches. The announcement came in light of a safety recall of the Basis Peak. Shutting down its data service for Peak watches was meant to mitigate safety concerns, since the watch only really ‘works’ if accompanied by its cloud-based service. Intel also offered a full refund on the watches. This was absolutely the best thing that Intel could have done. By withdrawing all features from the watch itself, and offering a financial reward for its return, Intel made it so that the watch’s sole use value was as a thing to be returned.


The announcement was sad for me. I was an early adopter of the original Basis B1 watch. I have had mine since before the acquisition of Basis by Intel in 2014. When other wearables from Fitbit and Jawbone (I have these first generation products in a drawer somewhere) were nothing more than step counters, the B1 also tracked heart rate and moisture levels. It was also a watch.

My B1 still ‘works.’ It is a reliable product, and I don’t worry about it exploding on my wrist. But in discontinuing service for the Peak, Intel discontinued serviced for Basis period. In other words, as of December 31, my Basis BI will lose all value. The watch itself will continue to function exactly as designed, but it will no longer ‘work.’ Sad though I may have been to hear that Basis was shutting down, my disappointment was eased when Intel offered me a full refund in exchange for my non-exploding watch.

Automatic Adapter

I really like my (first generation) Automatic adapter. I like the accuracy with which it tracks my fuel economy and travel distances, and I like knowing that it would automatically notify a few key contacts in case of a collision. But the device has been less and less reliable recently. A recent email explained why:

automatic done

Like the Basis watch, the value of the Automatic adapter lies, not in the adapter itself, but in the cloud-based services the company provides. Unlike Basis, though, what has left me with a useless piece of plastic is not the discontinuation of those services, but its reliance on a technology that has gone out of date. The device still ‘works,’ but despite firmware updates, it is not longer able to adapt to changing standards. My first generation adapter is now trash.

The major problem with this first generation adapter is that it relied heavily on two kinds of external service, only one of which the company had control over. There is the cloud-based analytics service (similar to that provided by Intel to support its watch), but the device also relied on a Bluetooth enabled smart phone for GPS (to track location) and SMS (in case of collision). Automatic has now learned their lesson. The most recent generations of their adapters do not rely on smartphones nearly to the same extent (if at all). But the fact that Automatic now has greater control over the device and the services that it makes possible does not change the fact that the value of its adapters lies squarely on the service side. The second the service piece is eliminated, the value of the adapter disappears entirely.

These are only two examples of many. I could also have mentioned Narrative, which produces a life-logging camera but whose service-based business model actually undermined product sales (because the camera only works if accompanied by a cloud-based service subscription. It is for this reason that the company recently closed down, only to be opened back up again as a result of an acquisition). And I could have mentioned the Apple Watch (which I love, by the way), which only has value if I resign myself to being locked in to the Apple ecosystem.

So things do not have value anymore. Just as the value of currency is no longer constrained by physical objects that even pretend to have some kind of innate value, so too have our devices ceased to have value in themselves. Our devices merely grant us access to information (and allow information access to us). And to be his extent, our things are not things at all. They are relations. Or, as Luciano Floridi would call them, they are ‘second-order technologies’ with the sole function of mediating the relationship of humans to other technologies.

Women in University IT

In this interview with Jason Pontin for the MIT Technology Review, Shanley Kane claims that tech companies celebrate the hacker and programmer in a way that undervalues other roles that are nonetheless crucial to industry success. She is critical of the ‘lean in’ approach to corporate feminism, as supporting the status quo by promoting exceptionalism rather than significant structural change. She also observes a dependence upon alcohol, noting that it contributes to a lack of work-life balance, and is a strong contributing factor in the perpetuation of sexual violence against women.

At the meeting of the Women in IT Constituent Group at EDUCAUSE this year, it was apparent that the kinds of systematic inequality experienced by women in IT in general are present in higher education as well. What was striking at this meeting was the extent to which group members have largely internalized the ‘lean in’ ideology. A hot topic of discussion was the extent to which the wording used in IT job descriptions systematically discouraged female and other minority applicants. Bafflingly, the overwhelming response to the suggestion that job descriptions be crafted with a view to inclusivity (if for no other reason than to ensure the highest quality pool of applications) was to say that descriptions were fine just they way they were, and that it was rather up to women to overcome their insecurities, work hard, and win positions on the strength of their merit alone. But what is increasingly coming to light is the fact that the IT sector is not a meritocracy, or at least that the conceptions of merit that are mobilized by the industry are profoundly limited.

Among the university’s reasons for being is to function as a place of cultural critique for the sake of social transformation. It is unacceptable for university IT departments and academic departments serving as ‘industry pipelines’ to turn a blind eye to systematic inequalities, particularly since such inequalities stand in sharp opposition to their own interests (both socially and competitively).