Monday, June 19, 2017

EdTech And Culture

Education will be transformed by technology, but not until the technologists have fully appreciated the Culture question.

This is EdTech's blind spot. Culture is 'soft' - it is hard to capture in a spreadsheet - and yet Education is a 'cultural activity', deeply embedded in the society that surrounds the learner and constantly informed by its history. Tech, on the other hand, at least in its modern, global, incarnation, wants to be culture agnostic: Its quest for scale is intricately linked to its ability to operate culture blind.

The EdTech businesses fail to account for culture for more reasons than just its inherent claim for scale. They also assume technology is used in an uniform way, despite all evidence on the contrary. The users almost always adapt technology to their own purpose, rather than changing their habits to suit what the technologists originally intended, but such ideas are not welcome in technology circles addicted to the idea of 'habit-forming' technologies. Besides, one believes technologies would 'disrupt', but often leaves what is to disrupted in the realm of conjecture: The technology disruption is often assumed to play out similarly across sectors, for example, similarly in FinTech and EdTech, regardless of the sectoral differences.

This is also partly because the term 'culture' is misunderstood. Peter Drucker may have thought Culture would eat Strategy for breakfast, but he meant Company Culture, and this is the sense the modern EdTech entrepreneurs are comfortable with. For them, after technology, company culture is the great leveller: An outstanding company culture is expected to be the cultural answer to everything. Here, of course, by culture, I mean the culture of the marketplace, the assumptions consumers operate with. In the world of supply-side cultural thinking, the demand-side culture is often deemed unimportant.

But culture matters, and greatly. I learnt my lessons through my deep disagreements, but eventual enlightenment, regarding how we teach Chinese students. When I started U-Aspire, the idea was to create a 'blend', synchronous online lectures combined with hands-on project work at location, and I spent time and money figuring out how to implement this model in China, which emerged as our market. But when my Chinese partners, who eventually took over the project, implemented it, they reduced it to a sequence of recorded videos and readings, much to my dismay about the stripped down educational experience that this would mean. However, this was not just about technical feasibility (online conferences are a challenge given China's Great Firewall), but also what the students wanted. In fact, I can see now that the students like Recorded Lectures more than Synchronous interactions, because of the way they are used to learn. So, as a matter of admission, I have had my brush with demand-side culture, and it was a humbling experience.

There is also another thing that I am learning in my current work. What I do now is to offer 'Experiences' to students. The essential idea is that people learn best through application, and conventional Higher Education does not offer its learners any opportunity to apply their knowledge. The 'experiences' we offer - projects of different levels of exposure and complexity - allows the students to work hands-on, in groups, with clear deadlines and deliverable, just as the real life work will be, accumulating a 'score' as they go along. This option allows learners to start building a CV even before they have started working.

This is like 'Internships', as I often get told, but more accessible across locations and social classes (see my take on Internships here). And, indeed, it is easy to assume that this will work everywhere, regardless of the country and culture. However, after watching the model for a considerable period of time, I have come to appreciate an important issue of demand-side culture. The best way to describe it is to use a theoretical model that Erin Meyer of Insead uses, the distinction between Application First and Principles First culture. Professor Meyer's idea is indeed limited to the context of persuasion, but I shall claim that it applies to the broader context of knowledge and understanding, and therefore, to what I am involved in. 

Briefly, in some cultures, one learns by internalising the principles first; in some others, they learn through application, making mistakes, and learning general principles in the context. As an illustration, in some countries, language learning would start with grammar and vocabulary, getting into sentence construction only later; but in other places, one would start with attempting to speak and make sense - just as I am doing in my attempt to learn German on Duolingo - with the support mechanisms, which will be gradually withdrawn. From one vantage point, the other approach may look dated or accidental; but this is what demand-side cultures of learning are all about.

Applied to the context of my own work, people anticipate and approach 'experiences' differently in different cultures. Regardless of the 'common sense' appeal of the model, and the smart technology underpinning it, some students love being thrown at the deep end of the pool more than others. And, while this issue is clearly visible in terms of 'individual differences' and therefore, factored in constructing the 'score', there are clear macro-cultural patterns in this behaviour, which not only makes the experiences less enjoyable, but also the 'score' culturally biased and therefore, less reliable.

Issues such as these, I shall contend, need more attention in EdTech than it has done so far. This is relevant across industries, true, but even more so in EdTech; and particularly sensitive as we attempt to assess and grade people. It may be regarded as a 'soft' issue, but we are indeed allowing it, through ignorance, to seep into our hard data and scientific judgement. And, indeed, ignorance of this undermines our business models on a daily basis. 

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