Roundtable: Six degrees of separation – Michael Hale

How fast is the pace of edtech adoption around the world, and where does the UK stand in the edtech roll of honour? Steve Wright asks six edtech experts for top tips, best practice, and the view from where they sit

Michael Hale is vice-president of education at VitalSource e-textbooks (USA)

Q. What does your country’s edtech strategy look like currently? Is the adoption of edtech where you would like it to be, or is more progress needed?

I can answer for higher education in the US, where the two most significant shifts of the past 20 years have been the relatively rapid adoption of LMS (learning management system) usage, and the adoption of courseware for STEM courses. Since that time, the development of innovative (for example, personalised and adaptive) learning solutions has been rapid. However, the adoption of that technology by institutions has not kept pace, or at least not consistently, due to the onus on each individual professor to adopt the technology – except in a few areas, particular introductory-level STEM courses. 

In these cases, an entire department will adopt a solution, making for a consistent and effective learning experience.

The large publishers were quick to develop or acquire products for this market, and had the advantage of large armies of salespeople on the ground to sell them. Since that time, many companies have come into the market with innovative and effective solutions for sets of courses that remain bound to the textbook. However, the lack of a sales force and the difficulty of convincing single professors versus department-level decision-makers has proven a difficult hurdle.

Easily the most significant edtech trend in US higher education has been the rise of online programmes, which have truly been laboratories for innovation. These were pioneered in the for-profit segment, but we now have a number of public universities that have introduced online degree-granting programmes to tens of thousands of students.

These programmes employ significant numbers of instructional designers and have been willing to engage with new and innovative companies to create or adopt learning solutions that serve their needs. While these programmes vary in many ways, they all start by thinking about how best to teach the specific learning objectives for a course consistently across a wide range of students. The focus on teaching and learning versus research that we see in these programmes has led to the mass adoption and development of digital learning solutions, in which assessments are built into the student experience and learning path.

Q. Are there any factors or agencies driving the pace of change in your country?

Beyond the rise of online programmes mentioned earlier, the contributions of the IMS Global Learning Consortium should be acknowledged. This organisation brings together leaders from across the education landscape, to develop standards for interoperability across the learning ecosystem, and acts as a force multiplier for the adoption and delivery of digital learning materials.

On the other side, the institutional inertia of traditional campus universities in the United States continues to be the biggest hurdle to technology adoption at classroom level. One reason that inclusive access programmes have been successful on traditional campuses is that they do not require faculty to change the way they teach or the materials they adopt. Rather, they ensure that students actually have the materials that faculty require.

Q. What one initiative or development really helped things move fast where you are?

In the US, the rapid growth of inclusive access (IA) programmes has driven both digital adoption of course materials, and the development of technologies to manage digital adoptions programmatically. Inclusive access programmes ensure that all students receive the required materials for a course on or before the first day of class, at a price lower than can be found on the open market. In the span of three years, the number of campuses with IA programmes has grown from around 20 to more than 600, including some large public universities and systems. These programmes saved students more than $200m on course materials spending in 2018 alone.

Q. How would you assess your country’s progress in edtech, against the global picture as a whole?

The United States certainly leads the globe, both in the development of new technology in general and in the mass adoption of courseware into large introductory STEM courses in particular. If you examine the digital sales of the largest global education publishers, the vast majority of these are into the United States. As such, the US could be considered a global pioneer in the development of large online and inclusive access programmes; however, some of the largest of these programmes now reside outside the US.

Q. Which innovations have proved most popular in schools and universities in your country?

I would argue that inclusive access programmes have been the most popular innovation amongst higher education institutions, thanks to their ability to open new doors to students and to promote accessibility to further education. Elsewhere, smartphones have had an obvious and massive impact on the way young people learn, with 98% of Generation Z owning such a device. Mobile devices provide a ‘study anywhere’ platform and access to a growing marketplace of digital study tools and curriculum.

Q. What are your impressions of the UK’s edtech landscape? Anything you have seen here that you like, and anything we could be doing better?

While the US market has moved decisively toward digital, the UK curriculum market is still predominantly print. Growth of gradebook-integrated courseware has been slowed by the lack of compulsory adoption. Also, the high VAT on digital materials creates an unbalanced market when compared to the existing print curriculum.

On the upside, the UK education market seems very friendly to innovation, and is willing to experiment with new models, as evidenced by the presence of UK-based edtech incubators and accelerators.