Tracing the Evolution of Education Technology

“Books will soon be obsolete in schools.”

This may sound like a breathless pronouncement made by an over-caffeinated education tech blogger, but the prediction dates back to 1913 and is attributed to Thomas Edison, who believed motion pictures would replace textbooks as the single source of authority in public education.

While motion pictures did not provide a death knell to the textbook, video did emerge as a powerful resource for learners looking to acquire new information. In much the same way, continued technology innovation has added overhead projectors, calculators, the CD-ROM, the Internet, tablets, interactive whiteboards, e-books, social media and more to the learning mix. And as each new tool appears and is absorbed into existing learning infrastructures, new models of teaching and learning emerge. Consider massive open online courses (MOOCs) and their use of video, social networking tools and online assessments to reach broader audiences than ever before.

What distinguishes the current environment from the development of the motion picture is the volume of new, education-focused technologies being introduced along with the unprecedented ability to connect tools, resources and learners. Numerous categories of learning technologies have exploded inside and outside of the classroom in recent years - from the aforementioned MOOCs and the “flipped” classroom to gamification, adaptive learning, and the digital textbook. (For a quick cheat sheet on ed tech jargon, check out this helpful infographic.)

As a publisher of high-stakes certification exams, CompTIA has a vested interest in investigating how education technology trends stand poised to disrupt the marketplace for professional credentials and to explore the opportunities presented by those disruptions.

Adoption of Adaptive Learning Software and Systems

The concept of adaptive learning - using computer intelligence to adapt content based on student performance - dates back to 1956, when a keyboard skills training program known as SAKI went into commercial production. What doomed initial attempts at wider adoption was the need for intense computing power and data storage. That obstacle has been overcome as we've witnessed a deluge of adaptive learning products.

All of these products offer the promise of personalized instruction, but systems vary widely in how they adapt content. How content is adapted and how learner analytics are used to improve the program's adaptability differentiates the systems with the most potential from those attempting to gain traction from the buzz surrounding the adaptive learning label.

An interesting implication of adaptive learning for credentialing is its focus on skill or competency mastery. In other words, the system continues to present content and assessments until the learner demonstrates achievement of the identified skill.

The interdependency of adaptive systems and content is playing out in the partnerships emerging in the education technology marketplace. Start-up adaptive learning platforms are partnering with established, well-capitalized content providers to produce complete solutions. For example, Knewton powers the Pearson MyLab product line and the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt SkillsTutor product. Area 9 Learning, another significant adaptive learning start-up, powers the McGrawHill LearnSmart solution. Macmillan Higher Education similarly offers a product built on the Prep U platform. Discovery Communications, the TV and media company known for its television properties like Discovery Channel and TLC, recently made a strategic investment in Grockit, a company that incorporates a heavy social learning component into its adaptive learning platform. And Barbri incorporates a test prep tool for bar exam review using Knowledge Factor's Amplifire platform. In each case, the large content providers have made substantial investments in the adaptive learning start-up.

Badging as Proof of Skill Mastery

Badging is a characteristic of gamification, or the use of game design elements in non-game contexts. Badges are digital tokens that appear as icons or logos on a website other online venue. Similar in concept to the badges one might have earned as a Boy or Girl Scout, badges signify specific accomplishments, such as completion of a project or mastery of a skill.

Badges represent a different approach to credentials; one that places the focus on an individual's learning accomplishments. The trend is aided by the Mozilla Open Badge Infrastructure (OBI) initiative, which provides some standardization around how badge data is stored so that it might be shared across websites and through relevant platforms such as LinkedIn and Facebook. A drawback to badging is its lack of broad acceptance as legitimate indicators of education, skills or experience. Clearly, ongoing work will need to be done to validate badges and ensure those who earn them as well as those who issue them are who they claim to be.

Prominent examples of organizations utilizing badges are Khan Academy of flipped classroom fame; edX, the online learning effort jointly sponsored by MIT and Harvard University; and - from a more traditional provider of education - the University of California, Davis. Other examples include start-up online learning platforms such as smarterer.com and codeschool.com that use badges and other elements of gamification to engage their community of learners.

Online Portfolios as the New Resumé

Online portfolios were once used almost exclusively by those whose work could be shown visually - graphic designers, photographers, writers and so on. Increasingly, they're being adopted by those in technical fields to showcase their expertise. The practice is especially common in higher education where digital artifacts serve a dual purpose - they often provide a more authentic type of student assessment than closed-ended exam items do and may also be saved and catalogued for use in the graduate's eventual job search.

There is no shortage of portfolio platform providers, but a few are noteworthy for the company they keep. Start-up Pathbrite e-Portfolios has garnered investments from the likes of standardized test giant ACT and was recently embedded into the Pearson LMS. Behance, an e-portfolio tool that targets those in creative fields, was purchased by Adobe in late 2012 for $150 million. Behance and similar professional portfolio sites also target corporate hiring departments with employee recruitment tools and resources.

Badging, adaptive learning and online portfolios are representative of trends with the potential to impact the way employers vet job candidates both within and beyond the IT industry. While these items seem unlikely to supplant individual certifications in the near term, it appears prudent to continue to monitor the ed tech space to identify ways to keep CompTIA certifications relevant.

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