Immersed in the Latest Edtech Buzz

Monday, October 10, 2022 - With all the talk about the metaverse, Michael and Jeff examine where the latest bright shiny objects in edtech--augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR)--really stand when it to comes to transforming teaching and learning. This episode made possible with sponsorship from Course Hero.

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Transcript

ASU Dreamscape Instructor:

Now you go and put on the headsets now. So for the headsets, what you want to do is go ahead and grab the front of the headset. And in the back of the headset, push it together in order to time it. If you do need assistance, we are here to help.

Jeff Selingo:

No, Michael, those aren't the instructions for a ride at Disney World. It's from a science course at Arizona State University where they're using immersive virtual reality to help students understand concepts from the classroom.

Michael Horn:

And Jeff, with all the talk about the metaverse, we want to take a step back to understand where the bright, shiny object in edtech, augmented reality and virtual reality or AR/VR, where it really stands right now when it comes to transforming teaching and learning on this episode of Future U.

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Michael Horn:

I'm Michael Horn.

Jeff Selingo:

And I'm Jeff Selingo.

Jeff Selingo:

When my family was in New York right before the start of school this fall, we tried the virtual reality experience at the Harry Potter store there. And afterwards, the look on the faces of my two girls who are in 5th and 7th grade this year made me realize that after years of reading the books and watching the movies and yes going to Universal, that this was experiential learning in a different way for them. So maybe extended reality, which is the umbrella term for VR, which immerses you in an alternate world through a headset, or AR, augmented reality, in which handheld devices or glasses are enhanced by virtual objects, maybe it could potentially augment their learning. Years after VR was talked about as potentially transformative for the classroom, it does seem that many professors and institutions are now talking about it the way that Lisa Flesher does. Lisa, who helps head up the VR efforts at Arizona State University, describes VR as another classroom tool, much like PowerPoint.

Lisa Flesher:

There is the affordance of it sticking differently in your brain. And so when you have a combination of general lectures, PowerPoints, reading, like all the other tools that we use in education and we just add one more tool to that toolkit, it's ensuring that a wide variety of learners can persist and succeed.

Jeff Selingo:

I'm a special advisor and professor of practice at ASU. I was visiting ASU's entry into VR called Dreamscape Learning on its Tempe campus in August just after my virtual visit to Hogwarts. ASU's VR work is a partnership with the entertainment company Dreamscape Immersive, which is led by Walter Parks, a Hollywood producer, with credits such as Men in Black and Minority Report. Now the plan for Dreamscape Learning is to eventually bring their VR experience to K-12 schools as well as other colleges and universities.

Lisa Flesher:

We're starting just here at ASU. And for us this scope is huge, and that's probably just because we are huge. So we did a very big pilot study last semester. And for all intents and purposes, it might as well have been for real study. We put lots of students through. But this semester, this fall, we have all of our Bio 181 and 100 students going through this. And so we're talking thousands and they're doing it both campus and online. So it's a 2D version for all of our remote learners. It's a full pod version like we have at our Creativity Commons on the Tempe campus for those students that are campus-based. So I think we're going to... I mean, It's huge for us.

Jeff Selingo:

For now, as Lisa mentioned, ASU is focused on intro courses in biology where students on the Tempe campus come to a central location called Creativity Commons once a week, nine to 12 times a semester before their labs.

Lisa Flesher:

They come here to Creativity Commons and do one 10 minute VR experience in the Alien Zoo. All the data that they collect in there, the different experiments that they're performing, all that information is passed back to their Canvas shell through APIs and LTIs. And then they have to do it before lab that week because then they still go to their three hour lab and do everything with that data collected. So they're graphing that data, analyzing it, forming hypotheses, connecting it to real world problems. In our cell biology module, it's actually they're doing work that's solving breast cancer. And so all very much connected back. They test a bunch of things. They go back into VR the next week and test their hypothesis, make some adaptations, make some edits to what they thought might have been the problem. And then ultimately they will go back in the third time and kind of see did their solution actually work. And so every module has kind of a three act sequence and they do quite a few of those throughout the semester.

Jeff Selingo:

And what are you finding in terms of their engagement? How has it changed from the way these courses were previously taught?

Lisa Flesher:

Honestly, they love it. It would be hard to give you quotes right now because two of my favorite quotes have expletives in them, so maybe I'll tell you and you can choose. But even yesterday, we just started this semester and a student came out and they're like, "This shit is so cool." I mean, they're just excited about it. It meets the way that they engage just for entertainment, it fits it. And so this brings a kind of an excitement education that they might not otherwise see. And so they're excited about it.

Lisa Flesher:

Last semester when we did our research study across the board, students rated it about a 4.6 out of five. So every time they came into VR, they quickly rate it, how they felt about that module, if they had motion sickness. We kind of thought throughout the semester it would wane like 4.6, 4.5 or "I'm tired of going to Creativity Commons." And their highest rated module is the last one. They just like it. And so I think it's because we have so many students that are growing up in the metaverse that are gamers that just spend time in technology. And so this is just sort of a way to meet them with the tools and things that they use.

Jeff Selingo:

I got to experience a bit of what the ASU students do in these immersive lab modules. I put on a headset and sensors on my hands and I was transported in a flying research pod through an Alien Zoo of creatures. The idea is that we're researchers in what Dreamscape calls an alien sanctuary for endangered species of the galaxy and we're collecting data on the animals. Now, when it was over, I asked Lisa about applying this to other disciplines across the curriculum.

Lisa Flesher:

With Dreamscape, like with Walter and with the core team, the next two content areas that we're pursuing are climate and sustainability, and then also chemistry. So those are the ones that were collectively kind of as an executive level team pursuing. And then because as part of this relationship, we also got access to the software development kit so our staff and faculty and students can start developing on it themselves if they can code, if they know Unity or have students that can.

Lisa Flesher:

And so our School of Earth and Space Exploration as well as our Herberger Institute of Design and Arts are both going to start building environments themselves with their students and faculty. So upcoming, like starting in January, we have two big projects going in those content areas and then we have our teams here starting to build as well. So I don't see a world in which we send somebody into a VR environment for four hours.

Jeff Selingo:

For four hours. 

Lisa Flesher:

Right, it's too exhausting. There's fatigue in those technology tools in my opinion. So I think it's best use as an augment, a supplement to the curriculum, not a replacement of. I don't see it being productive as a replacement. I see it being something that comes along and supports the curriculum just like all sorts of other tools, Zoom, PowerPoints. All of those things are just tools in the tool belt to ensure that every learner has a chance of succeeding.

Jeff Selingo:

ASU, of course, is known for its huge scale and its forays into edtech, so I wanted to see how immersive learning was being used elsewhere, particularly at small institutions. So I went to my undergraduate alma mater, Ithaca College, where I also serve on the board of trustees. Now, I didn't pick these two institutions where I have affiliations to say no one else is doing anything in this area. Indeed, lots of campuses are experimenting with VR and AR. By focusing on ASU and Ithaca, I wanted to illustrate that it is happening at all kinds of institutions and in many academic programs. So here's Becky Lane, Associate Director for Innovative Technologies at Ithaca, talking to me about how Ithaca used VR for education students during the pandemic.

Becky Lane:

We started out in the education department and this was right when the pandemic was starting and everybody had been sent home, the students were all doing Zoom classes. But we had a teacher education program that needed to give students the opportunity to teach, but they couldn't really do that in person, just on Zoom. So we sent them each inexpensive headset and we used social VR and had the students construct different lesson plans and teach in a virtual space to each other in sort of this virtual embodiment situation. And they really liked it and it really helped them feel less alone, which was great. And that was the first iteration of that. And it worked okay. Like I said, it was an entry level headset, so it had overheating issues. They could use it for a half an hour and the battery would die.

Becky Lane:

But the gist of it was that it was really useful and helpful. And so we did it again the next semester with a nicer headset and a better social VR platform. And that's when we really saw the students sort of taking that technology and running with it and really enjoying using that.

Jeff Selingo:

So is this best applied in what we would think of as hands on learning or can it really be applied across the curriculum in innovative ways?

Becky Lane:

I think it really can be applied across the curriculum because we've used it in so many different ways. Right now we've got the physical therapy students studying neuroanatomy in a virtual lab with a professor. It's funny because last semester the professor was actually in Brazil and they were able to sign in Brazil and meet with the students here at Ithaca College and be in this virtual lab and study a model of the brain and look at different animations and take it apart and look at all the different pieces and they're continental way.

Becky Lane:

We've had uses in the Art Department where the subject was street murals. So we were able to use Google Street View and Google Earth to place a student in the area where the mural is. So they get a sense of where this piece of art is in space and the culture around it and the feeling around it. They can walk around the neighborhood and just have that embodied sense of viewing that art where it's supposed to be viewed. We're also using it with our occupational therapy students where we're showing them how they can use VR in their own practice. So we know that if you're a patient, you'll try harder in VR, you'll reach farther, you'll work harder. So showing that to the occupational therapist is really helpful and they've really enjoyed using the technology that way.

Jeff Selingo:

There's the technology and then there's the underlying pedagogy. One of the things that Becky stressed is that VR is a team endeavor from the tech side to the teaching and learning center that can help professors design the story so that students learn what's expected from the experience, so that it's not just some cool movie or video game for them.

Becky Lane:

Well, it's definitely something that needs TLC. It's not just the cost. The headset from Meta is about $400 and that's a commercial headset. You can design a class around four people using one headset. It doesn't have to be a one-on-one thing. But if you go to something that's more of an educational solution like the Lenovo Solution, it's going to be a little bit more expensive. But what you get with that is a content management system, which is if you're working with 30 students, it's important because the commercial headsets are not designed to be shared and they actually made it difficult to share by forcing you to have a Facebook account, which was problematic. They don't do that anymore. That's a recent thing. But I think that it is possible to have a good program with a few headsets. And then the next thing is to have somebody actually go out and help the professors understand how they can use it. And without a dedicated person there, I think that that's pretty difficult.

Jeff Selingo:

Okay. So let's talk a little bit more about that. So how does that happen? So does a professor raise their hand and say, "I want to use this." Do you demonstrate it? Is it word of mouth? You talked earlier about different courses this was being used in. How does that spread across a campus?

Becky Lane:

Well, I make a concerted effort to reach out to professors. And also at the beginning of the semester we do a presentation where I talk about all of the things that they can do with VR and invite them for a consultation, share what other professors have been doing. We do popup events around campus. We have open hours where people can just come and play in the headset. Students, faculty, staff can come and do that. But usually if a professor expresses interest, I'll sit down with them and ask them what do they want their students to learn and then try and match what is out there as far as either narrative programs, 360 videos, applications, either commercial or educational or the social VR where people can come and have discussions and look at 3D objects. And that's really helpful for the health sciences. I mean, when it works, it's great. When it doesn't work, it feels like me trying to struggle with this microphone in front of a class and it's not working.

Jeff Selingo:

Right.

Becky Lane:

It doesn't work for everyone. It's not just the accessibility issues. Some people still get sick even though they've really worked hard to address that with the refresh rate and the headsets. And I've had people say, "Well, I'm afraid of open spaces," or "I'm afraid of being alone." And before I put a headset on them, I'm like, "Well, I don't think you should do VR because you're going to be alone in there."

Jeff Selingo:

Right. So there's the VR experience of two very different institutions. When we come back on this episode of Future U, Michael and I will be joined by a reporter from EdSurge to help us distinguish the hype from the reality when it comes to extended reality.

Michael Horn:

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Michael Horn:

Welcome back to Future U. And for this next segment, we're welcoming Rebecca Koenig, a reporter and editor at EdSurge. Rebecca, you've reported extensively around this question and concept of extended reality in the realm of higher ed, so we're looking forward to this conversation. Thank you so much for joining us.

Rebecca Koenig:

Thanks for having me.

Jeff Selingo:

So there are really kind of two trains of thought it seems around AR/VR in higher ed. One is that there's a practical way of using it. Virtual reality science labs, which of course became really popular during the pandemic. I interviewed these folks at Ithaca College, which we just heard the segment of where they used it during the pandemic for teacher education to just put people in the classroom, for example. And then the second one is this one, to be honest with you, I still don't quite get. The part that really seems overhyped to me is kind of the metaverse application where higher ed is going to be in the digital realm with avatars and digital campuses. And of course big names in tech are very excited about this, but it seems like higher ed is pretty skeptical about that, right?

Rebecca Koenig:

I would say these very practical applications that you have seen do seem to be catching on and sort of interestingly catching on at the kind of places that are not always the most well resourced like community colleges because they're helping them solve issues that they've had about being able to pay for real physical tech tools and in-person instruction, it can kind of solve for that. Whereas I would say the metaverse concept is sort of catching people's attention in the edtech space, maybe a little bit more than the actual educator space. Not entirely, but I would say your characterization is matching what I have been reporting on.

Michael Horn:

I was just going to say it's interesting because the first one I would say is classic disruptive innovation theory in the sense of, we'd like to be able to offer this experience, we can't. There's non consumption. You put the virtual reality science lab there. Dave Thomas at Morehouse told us that they used that extensively. He was thrilled with now their students being able to have access to what you could only have before at MIT, at a small college like Morehouse. And we've seen venture-backed companies like Labster, which I should say, full disclosure, Entangled invested in where I used to sort of make a big business out of this.

Michael Horn:

But Rebecca, then there was this announcement along the lines of the second, which was the metaversities, there was the 10 metaversities that got announced. And interestingly enough, Morehouse College was among the 10. It was powered by this company, I think VictoryXR, that's been around for I want to say five or six years, maybe seven years at this point. You probably know more. What are these metaversities? What are we to make of this announcement? What exactly are they doing?

Rebecca Koenig:

Yeah, all great questions. And Meta, the parent company of Facebook, made millions of dollars available to spin up these metaversities. The initial 10 campuses that were announced, effort was made to get a diverse set of campuses so that this was not just being built in the Ivy League. And actually, it's possible that one reason that there was reception among the colleges that were picked is they in a sense maybe are a little bit less resourced than your MIT. MIT could probably build its own metaversity if it wanted. These are places that probably couldn't at least initially.

Rebecca Koenig:

And someone at South Dakota State sort of said that to me that, "We don't have the money to do this by ourselves. So when someone showed up and offered this, after assessing it, we said yes." And what they are building is what they call a digital twin campus, which is to say taking the campus at South Dakota State and making a digital version that an avatar could navigate around the way. They don't like this analogy, but the way you might do on Second Life. They say it's way better than Second Life. So just to put that out there, they don't like that comparison but...

Michael Horn:

Understandable. Understandable.

Rebecca Koenig:

So this is sort of the premise and the idea is that you will be able to walk your avatar to your virtual classroom and take a course virtually that is supposed to be way more engaging than your typical Zoom video class. The hope is that this will open access to people who can't make it to campus, but it will also just be more engaging for students who want to take some classes this way. Stay in your dorm, put on your headset and be analyzing a cell under a microscope without having to do that physically. And there are a lot of people who are excited about this and then there are a lot of folks who worry about data privacy. Why are we partnering with Meta here to do this? So sort of the predictable tech supporters and questioners kind of come out here.

Michael Horn:

I don't think I realized that Meta had funded these. Are these virtual twin campuses that they're creating, are they to enroll new students? Are these like an OPM program almost? Or are these for their current students and they create this sort of hybrid campus experience? What's their vision for where this will really go?

Rebecca Koenig:

I should clarify that there are a couple sort of middlemen companies involved. Meta said that they're not actually that involved in the design of any of this. It just happens that they are donating money and the headsets that make it possible. But these companies, other companies are actually building the tech out. So just worth sharing, it's not a direct tie to Facebook. But it's actually for the current students. It's not to build a separate digital-only program. The hope is to make this hybrid college more engaging than like a Zoom class would be.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah, and it's interesting Rebecca because we were in New York City recently. My kids and I, my two daughters 10 and 12, we went to the Harry Potter VR experience. I don't know, I'm a Gen Xer, I just find all this stuff a little whatever. But I get how this is the way they learn and see, and living in this environment is just different. And so maybe this is the future because of the way students are learning today. I guess I'm still skeptical of the big metaverse. That said, I have seen how this supplements, AR/VR can supplement the physical campus and the physical courses.

Jeff Selingo:

Let's stay there for a minute, because you mentioned the headsets and things like that. I mean is this a big barrier to colleges and universities because we're talking about equipment again, hardware, things like that? It seems like so much in higher ed is moving to the cloud and they're trying to reduce hardware on campus and now we're bringing hardware back, and especially hardware that the university has to provide because again, it used to be when I went to college we had computer labs. Now everybody brings their own laptop and things like that. It seems like now we're kind of moving back to this idea where the institution is providing the hardware. And I'm just wondering how much of a barrier is that both to institutions but also to individuals. Are we going to expect students to bring their own headsets now just like they have to bring their own laptops and things like that?

Rebecca Koenig:

Yeah, very good timing. Brookings just put out a report about these sort of similar questions about is there going to be a new equity problem if AR and VR catches on in higher education? And their research suggests yes, that we already have a digital divide where you have some students who don't have internet access, who barely have a working mobile phone that they're trying to type an essay on. So certainly when you introduce... I think the going rate for a commercial VR headset is about $300 these days. And that's not nothing to a student who is trying to figure out how to pay for housing and pay for the bus to get to class.

Rebecca Koenig:

There's been a couple of examples I've seen of university libraries actually taking on this hardware headset situation in which they get some money and they can invest in a couple headsets that students can rent, or not even rent, borrow like a book, but that doesn't serve a campus of 10,000 students. So I think that the access concern is very real. I just heard, I think someone who sets policy for higher education in West Virginia saying like 40% of rural folks in West Virginia don't have internet access. So it's going to be difficult. The better internet you're going to need for these experiences, the better internet everyone's going to need in order to participate.

Jeff Selingo:

Yeah. So I guess the bottom line question here is when we talk about outcomes, right? So I interviewed folks out at ASU, which of course is partnered with Dreamscape Learning for their AR/VR work. I interviewed folks at my alma mater, Ithaca College, and they're using other technology for their AR/VR work a lot as I said in for teacher education but also for occupational therapy. They've even used it for their athletes who are injured. Volleyball players, for example, who are injured and want to continue to pretend to hit balls and things like that. But I guess the question at the end of the day is, again, with a lot of edtech is around outcomes. Does this work, I guess, at the end of the day? Does it have a significantly different outcome for students in terms of how they learn?

Rebecca Koenig:

Yeah. That really ought to be one of the first questions asked. Sometimes with edtech it's not, so I'm glad you've asked it. We did a story on EdSurge about one research study by Richard Mayer, who's a well known researcher in the edtech space. They were comparing how students appreciated and learned during a virtual field trip as opposed to just watching a video on a computer screen about learning about climate science. The results were pretty promising for the virtual field trip. Students who learned the information that way had scored better in terms of interest and enjoyment and the sense of presence, which is sometimes hard to get through just watching something on TV.

Rebecca Koenig:

So there is research starting to trickle out about this. I wrote a story about research that's been done about the use of VR to encourage empathy, to sort of take on someone else's literal visual perspective and what that does for a student's ability to put themselves in someone else's shoes somewhat literally. And this is being done through the use of theater. It's a Shakespeare app where you act out a Shakespeare character in VR and then there's class discussions about the violence that's written into this play and how students have a new appreciation for the implications of that on a community once they've acted it out in VR. So that's pretty interesting. It seems though that the excitement sort of outpaces the research here. And so it will be interesting to see if there are studies about these metaversities as they get built. Like what is the implication of spending half of your college time in a VR twin campus as opposed to on campus?

Michael Horn:

Yeah, it's interesting just listening to you say that, because it feels like it'll be the answer to the age old question in any social science class in college, which is, it depends on how it's implemented and so much. I know Chris Dede at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has done a lot of research on this as well and been using AR in a lot of his classes in creating environments for environmental impacts of different tragedies and consequences and how it plays out.  It's also interesting, I will say, and Jeff, you'll get a kick out of this in particular, for the book I'm working on right now, one of my co-authors said, "Michael, you really have to buy, at minimum, an Oculus, maybe something even higher because you and I, we could go for a walk while playing minigolf and really work out some of these issues that we're having on this question."

Michael Horn:

And I thought, "Wow, I don't know if I'm ready for that leap." But it occurred to me what sort of you both are saying, which is Ben Thompson, the technology writer has written about this, the internet, it was all about the worldwide web and then most of us now experience the internet through the mobile internet, through apps and things of that nature. And the metaverse in his view is really just the internet best experienced through VR and much like you've had a mouse at your side and so forth. If you start to have these headsets, and yes it will be unequal for a while, but measured over a decade and a half maybe it looks very different going forward. Maybe this is something that sitting here is much more difficult for at least a few of us to imagine what that looks like, but maybe it could evolve in that direction.

Michael Horn:

And I guess that's where I want to ask my last question, Rebecca, with you here, which is, you're seeing all the funding going into this space, a lot of the hype, right? Startup companies, you have to see effort to create these environments and so forth. Can you just give us a sense of what venture capitalists, what is the industry, what do entrepreneurs think of this opportunity? How are they eyeing this when it comes to VR/AR, metaverse in higher ed?

Rebecca Koenig:

I think that the pandemic, by forcing everyone to do online education to some extent in a lot of tech folks minds really proved the need for more engaging technology than we have access to typically. So it's pretty amazing that those of us with access to these devices to do video calls, to keep education going to the extent we could. But you're seeing such low rates of college student engagement now. A lot of K12 folks reporting that students just didn't log on, it couldn't hold their attention. And so I think in some regard, the events of the past two years have suggested we need a better way to learn online. We need a better way to stay connected to each other. There are some real pitfalls to typical distance education. What if we could improve on them with better tech?

Rebecca Koenig:

So there's excitement about that and I think tempering that excitement will be the work of educators to ask these questions. Just because we can build a digital twin campus, is that what we ought to be doing? Does it work? Who are we leaving out? So, plenty of excitement, plenty of money being invested. We'll see. We'll see how well it turns out.

Michael Horn:

It's super interesting and we'll see if we're filming stage plays at our first venture of creating movies or something else. But Rebecca, thank you so much for joining us on Future U to help make sense of all these developments as Jeff and I sort of struggle blindly through this field. We appreciate having you here.

Rebecca Koenig:

Thank you.

Michael Horn:

We'll be right back with an interview with Sean Michael Morris, of course here.

Jeff Selingo:

So we just had this extended discussion about AR/VR, but we also want to situate that conversation against the bigger backdrop of the role edtech plays, both positively and negatively in teaching and learning in higher ed classrooms. And to help us do that, we're turning to one of our sponsors of this season of Future U., Course Hero and Sean Michael Morris. Sean worked in digital learning and education for about two decades, when last January he joined Course Hero as Vice President of Academics. His hiring caused somewhat of a stir in higher ed circles. Sean was previously the Director of the University of Colorado at Denver's Digital Pedagogy Lab and the Editor of The Journal Hybrid Pedagogy and was known as an outspoken critic of edtech. So welcome to Future U., Sean.

Sean Michael Morris:

Yeah, thank you Jeff. It's good to be here.

Jeff Selingo:

So to get us started, Sean, a question that we like to ask our guests, which is the path that you took to join Course Hero and kind of why you joined.

Sean Michael Morris:

Yeah, so that's an interesting question and I answer it a lot actually. It's really interesting. So I've been working in education for just over 20 years in a variety of different capacities. So everything from an instructional designer, adjunct faculty, director of digital learning, et cetera. I also co-founded Digital Journal and a professional development community that was all sort of focused on digital teaching and learning. I was kind of known as a critic of edtech because my work always centered on this sort of intersection of digital technology and critical pedagogy, which means I've been concerned with how technology and human beings interact in education.

Sean Michael Morris:

So I'm asked a lot, "Why did you join Course Hero?" And the English teacher in me actually always wants to look kind of carefully at the semantics about that because I wonder, "Did I join Course Hero, does that mean that I uncoupled from something else? Did I leave education? Did I stop being an educator?" I don't really feel like I did, but a lot of my colleagues have said, both in joking and seriousness, that I went over to the dark side, which I think is kind of implied actually by the question, "Why did you join Course Hero?" But the truth is that when Course Hero reached out to me about the position, I went into the interview process really to vet the company first and foremost, to ask hard questions about their pedagogy as a company because I wondered why did they want someone like me working for them.

Sean Michael Morris:

But I didn't go in to see if they met some kind of purity test. I didn't go in to see that they were doing everything right because I don't think that anybody does everything right. And I've worked at enough universities to know that education is a pretty messy business on any side of the edtech divide. So I wasn't really looking for perfection. What I was looking for though was intention. And I was looking for a culture with a vision where I thought that my work could thrive. And at Course Hero I feel like I have the opportunity to support thousands of educators by providing really high-quality professional development. We provide lots of events and grants and teaching materials and all kinds of that sort of thing. I'm not shining on anybody on here, but I get to work every day with brilliant, dedicated people who actually really want to make the world a better place for learners and educators.

Jeff Selingo:

So as you mentioned, you've long been a critic of edtech, but you also mentioned kind of intentionality, right? That you do see a place for teaching with it. So where can technology help with learning and where do you think edtech sometimes gets it wrong?

Sean Michael Morris:

It's sort of probably more natural for me to start with the last part of that question where it gets wrong because I've been doing that for a long time. But I actually kind of want to say something here that might not go over very well with a lot of folks on both sides of that divide. And that is that I feel like edtech is sort of controlled by education. This is sort of a pivot from the way that I've talked about it in the past. But if you think about it, edtech is a marketplace of products that need buyers. And so those buyers do a fair bit of dictating what the products look like. Almost all of edtech is a reiteration of what schools think they need. And those needs are often based upon a feeling that students cheat and teachers need control.

Sean Michael Morris:

One of the things that I pointed to a lot was learning management systems or a remote proctoring service for example. These services wouldn't exist if teachers didn't think that exams are as important as they think they are. If students could be entrusted with their own educations, their own learning, we wouldn't be so concerned about monitoring them while they take a test. But monitoring students while they take tests, that came first. Remote proctoring came second. So what I'm trying to say here is that edtech is informed so strongly by the behaviors inside of classrooms and that are sort of reinforced in teaching. And so when I was a critic of edtech... And I actually want to be clear, I critiqued edtech, I don't really feel that I was a critic of edtech. I critiqued edtech primarily in an attempt to model critical thinking for other teachers and to get people thinking more carefully about what technology they brought into their classroom.

Sean Michael Morris:

So when I was doing that, I saw edtech as an interloper, I saw it as controlling or ruining pedagogy in the classroom. And I've written and written and written about this all over the place. And I do still believe it certainly does reinforce some pretty bad teaching practices, but it doesn't invent those bad teaching practices. Standing on this side of edtech, I see companies as entirely dependent upon understanding how teachers teach and students learn. And they usually rely on research that pinpoints sort of the middle behaviors across the spectrum. They rarely have space to consider edge cases or the subtle but very powerful currents that are changing the way the teaching happens.

Sean Michael Morris:

When you market a product, you market to the widest possible audience. But in this case, in higher education, the widest possible audience are people, generally speaking, who are untrained in pedagogy. So the products that they're creating reinforce educational models that are generally kind of ineffective. So to answer your other question, I think that where technology could really help in education is in paying attention to those edge cases, to educators who are looking to break with tradition and consider new ways of teaching and learning, especially in an increasingly digital educational landscape. I think a company that would do that or a technology that would do that would actually not be what we would call an educational technology, but something we could potentially call a pedagogical technology.

Michael Horn:

It's a powerful answer, Sean. I want to harken back to your answer to the first question because it gets at where Course Hero I think fits into this landscape, which is probably another reason why people often ask you about joining Course Hero so often, which is that critics, and take your definition of critics, seriously, but they often say that Course Hero is really just a glorified cheating platform. And I'm curious, your reaction to that and what you've seen?

Sean Michael Morris:

Yeah. I get where people are coming at it from that. And I feel like I kind of want to address a question around academic integrity because I think that there's a lot missing from a conversation around academic integrity, which is why we have this conversation around cheating. I feel like we could be looking at academic integrity or we need to recognize rather the cheating is kind of a result of a misalignment between what the academy expects and the reality of students' lives. Academic integrity to me argues that no matter who a student is, no matter what their background is, no matter where they come from, what their experience they bring to their studies, how they learn, where they find information, they're going to be held at the same standard across the board. And the truth is... And I think the COVID sort of pointed this out in a lot of ways, but we knew this already, we should just know better than that these days.

Sean Michael Morris:

The idea that any student is going to achieve success in exactly the same way and under the same rules and conditions as any other student is not that different from, say, arguments against using laptops in the classroom. Using a laptop is often an accessibility concern, but allowing it requires that we see students as they are, as individuals with capabilities, preferences, textured and varied nuanced backgrounds. If we don't look at students that way, it's easy to point to their laptops and say, "Oh, they're cheating." People see Course Hero as a cheating site because it provides a platform for students to work with each other toward mutual success. The idea of students working with each other toward mutual success can scare a lot of people. In fact, a recent article, and I don't remember where this was out of, but a recent article referred to this as students colluding, which is really interesting language and I think we need to be careful about that kind of language because it villainizes students.

Michael Horn:

Yeah. Sean, it gets to another piece that you talk a lot about, which is the importance of humanizing learning. You talk about humanizing the classroom. It seems that that is connected obviously to this notion of academic integrity and how we think and value students as individuals, their past experiences, their actions to inform themselves. But I'm just sort of curious, when you say humanizing the classroom, I suspect you have a very specific set of things in mind. I'd love to know what those are. And what's an example of how education perhaps is dehumanized?

Sean Michael Morris:

It's an interesting question because I'm often asked to point to a set of practices that humanize education. I really actually think of it as more of an undercurrent. It's actually been an undercurrent in everything I've been saying here today. And it feels a little bit interesting to try to define it because I feel like we should be able to assume that education is a humane effort in the first place. But then we can look at practices and policies that are designed to automate education or designed to separate the individual from the learning process. So fully integrated things like grades, for example. Grades are for beef, not people. Those that are becoming more integrated and other things that are becoming more integrated like plagiarism detection, remote proctoring platforms, these distance learners from learning by fostering an environment of suspicion in the classroom. When we look at these things, it becomes pretty clear that an education that thinks about the person is becoming a little bit harder to come by.

Michael Horn:

No, that's helpful. The quote that I will take away from this conversation is that grades are for beef, not people. But with that, Sean, thank you so much for joining us on Future U.

Sean Michael Morris:

Thank you so much. It's been great to talk.

Michael Horn:

And with that, thank you all for joining us on Future U. We'll be back next time.

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