Top 10 Ed Tech Trends of 2014: Part One

Since 2010, journalist, blogger, and self-described rabble rouser, Audrey Watters, has annually summarized, poked, prodded, and dissected this amorphous blob we call edtech. This year’s dissertation once again captures the Zeitgeist in action. Read on for excerpts from Part One.(Look for Part Two in the February 2015 issue.) For the full list of 2014 edtech trends, complete with linked references and footnotes, visit


The phrase “education technology” has become a bit of a buzzword in its own right. If you put the adjective “digital” in front of an educational practice or a piece of educational content, then you can act as though you’re tapping into something profoundly new and transformative. Or, as the Obama administration now calls it, you can be “future ready.” This has been a boon for the education industry, which has seen record level investment into edtech startups this year, despite reports of slower sales of digital and print materials.

Other notable education and edtech buzzwords include the following:

* Adaptivity
* Behaviorism (OK, probably very few people call it “behaviorism.” They use some other coded language like “classroom management” or something.)
* Bite-sized lessons
* Digital natives (Yes, people still use this phrase.)
* Efficacy
* Efficiency
* “Everyone should learn to code”
* Gamification (This term is closely related to behaviorism but it should not be confused with game-based learning, Gamergate, game-changers, or having grit.)
* Growth mindset
* Interactive educational gadgets (Heck, we’ll take anything “interactive.” That’ll probably boost “engagement,” whatever that means.)
* Learning object repositories (These repositories may or may not be related to “knowledge clouds.”)
* Learning outcomes (These are skills in which you really, really want to demonstrate “deeper learning.” Duh.)
* Learning styles (Yes. Learning styles. Still.)
* Mastery-based learning (This kind of learning is different from competency-based learning, a trend that I’ll explore more soon.)
* Open
* School choice
* The Sharing Economy (Let’s go ahead and make it very, very clear that this phrase is utterly awful, exploitative, and has little if anything to do with sharing. But hey, it’s innovation!)
* Social learning (This term often seems to be the code word for “homework help” and “note-sharing” for students or “PD” for teachers.)

2 THE POLITICS OF THE BUSINESS OF EDTECH“What’s Big Business Got to Do with Education Reform?” asked the industry newsletter Edsurge this fall. I mean, other than EVERYTHING, right? The deep (deep-pocketed) connections between the business of edtech and the politics of education (and edtech) couldn’t have been any clearer this year when the Senate confirmed NewSchools Venture Fund CEO Ted Mitchell as the new Under Secretary of Education. (Mitchell was replaced at his investment firm by former Gates Foundation executive Stacey Childress.) With 2014 as an election year, education was—believe it or not—an issue in many races. (I’ll talk more soon about the controversial Common Core State Standards.) Voters in New York did approve a $2 billion bond measure to pay for more edtech. But it’s hard to say that the public really endorses edtech or edtech expenditures, particularly on the heels of something like the ongoing Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad disaster.

If you listen to the stories that the industry tells about education, in particular the tales out of Silicon Valley, we’re in the middle of a major “skills shortage.” Schools aren’t training (the word “training” is key here) students correctly or adequately. And so, as the story goes, schools must change. They must change to meet the needs of the industry. One of my favorite headlines of the year involved the coming “clown shortage.” We aren’t training enough clowns, the NY Daily News warned. The industry is gravely concerned. I think of that every time I hear someone announce that we’re facing a “skills shortage” in this country. Do they mean “clown skills”? I gotta wonder.

Rather than fostering an education system and culture where students love to learn and where their employers are happy to help them gain the specific “skills” they might need for a job or a project, we demand that folks commit to a larger “trade” or specialization—and to do so at their own risk, at their own cost. It’s almost like the tech industry is rehashing the ol’ Microsoft certification, wherein the focus of “computer” classes is specialized knowledge in one company’s products rather than training students to have a broad understanding and engage in healthy inquiry. In other words, clown school.

After all, students who love to learn, know how to learn, ask critical questions, and solve problems—that’s sorta what a liberal arts degree could and should produce, right? But nah. Instead, this year, we got more “boot camps” to address the “skills shortage.” “Learn-to-code” boot camps have grown in popularity in recent years, which has been a direct reflection of the “learn-to-code” trend and the lure of high-paying jobs in the computer industry.

First there were MOOCs. Then there were MOOCs!!! Then we witnessed the MOOC backlash. Then the MOOC backlash backlash. And maybe even the MOOC backlash backlash backlash. At this point, it’s hard to keep track.

A better focus is probably on online education more broadly. MOOCs create a bigger picture of what the Internet affords for teaching and learning, the outsourcing of education technology services to third-party providers, and what these actions mean for educational institutions. As I noted before, the trend to watch may really be a redefinition of education as skills training. MOOCs have undoubtedly been a major part of that.

Neither competency-based education nor alternative certification efforts have reached the frenzied hype of MOOCs. (Not much in education technology has, with the possible exception of Khan Academy.) After writing tens of thousands of words about these trends, competency and certification feel much smaller to me. Or at least my discussion about them is shorter. There is talk to suggest that competency-based education and certification are poised to become “a thing” to “disrupt education.” But again, I just don’t think that change happens in ways that neatly fit into a research firm’s or a business school professor’s model.

There’s much glee among education reformers, who are predicting that the increasing support for CBEs is an indication that “the (college) degree is doomed.” There are arguments from some corners that CBEs, and not MOOCs, are “the real revolution.”

But do students want a slimmed down, unbundled degree? And if so, why? They may need scheduling flexibility and appreciate accelerated times to earn a degree, but they still want to feel like they’ve attended a “real college.” And it’s not at all clear that alternate certification programs will “count.” Do they count for students? Will they count for employers?