An ed-tech riff on Smil’s “Invention and Innovation”

An ed-tech riff on Smil's

Published in February 2023

What sort of book might Vaclav Smil write if he turned his attention to higher education? Imagine that Smil retained his outline for Invention and Innovation but drew all his examples from the academy.

Smil covers three classes of inventions. The first are inventions that arrived to great promise and fanfare but ultimately proved hugely harmful. Included in that first category are leaded gasoline, DDT and chlorofluorocarbons.

In the next section are inventions that appeared poised to replace prior technologies and dominate their markets but failed to achieve any lasting impact or scale. Among these inventions, Smil tells the stories of airships (dirigibles), nuclear power (fission) and supersonic flight.

The third category of hype and failure is those inventions that are perpetually three to five years away from “changing everything.” Smil includes in his deep dives for this category the Hyperloop (travel in a near vacuum), nitrogen-fixing cereals (which is surprisingly super interesting) and controlled nuclear fusion.

For longtime readers of Smil, the themes of Invention and Innovation will come as no surprise. These themes include the admonishment to be skeptical of technohype, ground projections in data and resist decontextualized and ahistorical analysis of social and technological trends.

The exercise of going deep into why Musk’s Hyperloop is mostly an (unoriginal) fantasy and why we are unlikely to be flying at supersonic speeds anytime soon is also super helpful in thinking about technology and higher education.

Riffing on Smil, what ed-tech innovations would fit into this three-part framework? Borrowing Smil’s section titles, here are some nominations.

Ed-Tech Inventions That Turned From Welcome to Undesirable

The LMS: The learning management system was supposed to be higher education’s bridge to a digital future. Analog classroom materials could be digitized. Assessments could move from paper to online. Courses would be designed backward, with learning objectives for every curricular module neatly (and consistently) represented in the LMS. What happened is the LMS became the repository for course materials and the technology has enabled chiefly a content-centric and high-stakes-assessment pedagogical approach.

OPMs: The model where a for-profit company takes two-thirds of tuition revenues under a 10-year contract has few current defenders. Online program management companies have evolved to offer a range of revenue-share and fee-for-service options, shorter contracts and flexible services.

Adaptive learning software: Remember all the hype about online adaptive learning software and the personalized learning environments they were going to power? The technology has never quite recovered from the hype and implosion of Knewton.

Scantron: Machine-graded multiple choice exams must have seemed like a considerable advance when Scantron machines were introduced in the mid-1970s. Looking back, technologies that enable high-stakes testing for large lecture courses don’t seem like much of an advance.

Laptops in the classroom: Initially, the practice of students taking notes during classes on laptops as opposed to by hand seemed like an advance. That was until we figured out students were using classroom Wi-Fi and browsers to do everything else in class rather than pay attention.

Ed-Tech Inventions That Were to Dominate—but Did Not

MOOCs: A decade ago, every higher education conference and ed-tech professional gathering featured sessions on massive open online courses. Trustees, presidents and provosts wanted to talk about MOOCs. While scaled online learning has never gone away, these platform-based courses are no longer “massive” or “open” but have evolved primarily into revenue-generating alternative credential programs.

Lecture capture: Universities invested in lecture-capture technologies for good reasons. Who could argue with the goal of giving students time to rewatch the lecture, review materials and catch up with classes missed due to illness or travel? Today, we wonder if lecture-capture technology adds to students skipping class altogether. And do we want to invest in a technology built around lecturing?

Clickers: The idea of clickers as tools to turn passive lectures into active learning opportunities seems compelling. A few years ago, all the cool professors seemed to use clickers to bring interactivity to their classes. As far as I can tell, clicker diffusion never went beyond early adopters.

Learning objects: In the early 2000s, learning objects were all the rage. Lightweight educational animations seemed the perfect companion to the newly ubiquitous learning management system. We were all going to be searching MERLOT and building online courses with premade flash objects.

Interactive whiteboards: In 2023, we seem no closer to replacing all of our “dumb” classroom whiteboards with smart interactive whiteboards than we were in 2013 or even 2003.

Badges: The dream of alternative credentials never quite seems to go away. A few years ago, digital badges were set to be the new currency of credentialing and employment. We were all going to list our digital badges on our LinkedIn profiles.

Digital textbooks: When the iPad came out in 2010, it seemed pretty clear that the days of the paper textbook were numbered. Apple was going to invest in creating high-quality digital textbooks with built-in assessments and animations. The fact that a large proportion of students prefer paper textbooks was largely ignored.

Chromebooks and netbooks: Remember when we thought that super-cheap laptops—Chromebooks and Windows netbooks—would take over higher ed? Nowadays, I don’t hear anyone talking about netbooks. And Google never really made an effort to sell Chromebooks to universities.

Ed-Tech Inventions That We Keep Waiting For

Metaverse/virtual reality: A future in which universities move into virtual reality spaces seemed all but inevitable in the early 2000s. We experimented with Second Life, and some universities even created digital campuses. The fantasy that what we do in higher education may lend itself to virtual or augmented reality seems to be returning, with Apple getting into the VR/AR hardware game.

HyFlex: The HyFlex course represents the dream of pedagogical flexibility. Students can choose to learn in person, online or a combination. In-person classroom and digital synchronous learning would be combined. Getting the HyFlex classroom to function absent a massive team of classroom technology professionals has proved challenging.

Blockchain: The hype around the blockchain for higher education seems to have calmed down, although it will likely return. There was a time when the very smart people in ed tech were convinced that blockchain was set to revolutionize postsecondary credentials. Maybe next year.

Analytics: Learning analytics are another educational technology that seems perpetually just about to arrive. Very soon, instructors will have access to predictive analytic dashboards to take early action to help at-risk students. Educators will be able to make data-driven decisions. Various sources of student data would be integrated and transformed, made accessible to instructors as tools to help their teaching and advising. We are still waiting.

Mobile learning: Social media went mobile. Inevitably, so will education. Or so the thinking goes. Since 2007, when the iPhone was released, we have been convinced that digital learning would leave the browser for the phone. We rushed to implement apps for our learning platforms. Perhaps where we went wrong is not understanding the centrality of the keyboard. Learning requires producing, and typing anything very long on a tiny screen is hard.

At the end of Invention and Innovation, Smil turns his attention to AI. Unfortunately, the book was written before the launch of ChatGPT and all the excitement, consternation and speculation around generative AI. I suspect Smil will be skeptical that generative AI will change “everything” about how we learn and work, as very few of the most hyped technologies have ever lived up to their original predictions.

It would be fascinating, however, to think about technologies that were as revolutionary as contemporary commentators imagined—or were even underhyped.

I’m not sure that we understood in higher education (or anywhere else) just how much the invention of email would change how we work. Nor have we come to terms with what ubiquitous and reliable synchronous meeting software (Zoom) will do long term to how workers (including those employed at universities) work.

What other educational technologies would you insert into Smil’s typology?

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