February 16, 2018

Left Behind by the EdTech Surge | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellThere’s loads of activity happening in the world of educational technology. New start-ups. Dozens of websites for managing learning activities. Apps by the carload. Academic librarians seem out of the loop.

A few months ago I subscribed to the weekly email newsletter from an organization called EdSurge. It’s subtitled “a weekly newsletter for innovators in education.” Depending on you how you feel about the phrase “innovators in education,” you may be thinking that’s exactly who you are—or maybe you’ve had your fill of innovation talk. While EdSurge does dedicate about half of each issue to the K–12 start-up scene, there’s also reporting on the latest educational technology resources and utilities. Some of these are start-up websites that may or may not be here for long. What it reveals is a veritable flood of new educational technologies. It leads me to question if academic librarian educators are managing to keep up with all these resources. Are we taking time to investigate and explore these new tools, or are we falling back on our old familiar standbys? Based on some time I spent listening to an instructional technology discussion at the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting, I think it might be the latter rather than the former.

Some Old Wine

Admittedly, some of these new instructional technologies are simply variants, or even outright replications, of existing educational technologies. Coggle, for example, is hardly the first web-based mind-mapping tool, but it claims to add new collaborative sharing capabilities.  Some replication is expected, because it’s well known in the start-up world that the trick is not always being first to the market but being the product in the marketplace that catches on with users (think MySpace and Facebook). However, that strategy is no surefire path to success. Right now a slew of imitators are trying to move into Snapchat’s space, but so far the original is still number one with the user community. Yet, while discovering some truly original utilities takes a bit of work, checking out newcomers to an old space may lead to a great find with better options or performance (think screencasting utilities).

Hard to Keep Up

For a better idea of the proliferation of web-based educational technology tools, refer to EdSurge’s year-end list of top tech tools for education. There are so many that they were broken up into two separate lists. Some of these may appear more suited to K–12 educators, but even those sites that use language designed to attract primary and secondary school educators may be failing to see how their technology could serve higher education. Take Remind101 for example. The site touts its advantages as a tool to help teachers safely text message with students and their parents. There is no mention of faculty connecting with their college students (and maybe even their helicopter parents). Yet at a teaching and learning conference I attended, a faculty member recommended Remind101 as a great technology to reach students with text messages rather than, or in addition to, email.

Speaking of learning conferences, that’s another place academic librarians discover new instructional technologies. No one can keep up with them all, but these conferences offer a way to find out what tools faculty and instructional technologists are finding particularly useful. In one session I learned how a faculty member is using Smashfact.com’s gaming technology to enable mobile, out-of-the-classroom learning.

Blended Librarians at ALA

So what did I encounter at ALA when I attended the LITA Instructional Technologies Interest Group? I was encouraged by the turnout. It’s great to see a good crowd of librarian educators getting together to hear about instructional technologies and how they are being applied in and out of classrooms. I’ve long advocated that academic librarian educators need to blend expertise with instructional design and technology into their information technology and pedagogy skill sets. The presenters were enthusiastic about their work, but I was quite surprised by their choice of edtech to demonstrate for the attendees. Google Hangouts? That’s been around a while but good to show that Hangouts on Air allows you to invite more than the ten participants permitted via YouTube—useful for remotely presenting to a full class if your institution doesn’t support web conferencing tools like Adobe Connect or WebEx. Things were off to a good start.

Same Old Stuff

But what about some of the other highlighted technologies? Jing? PollEverywhere? These have been around for years now and should be in every instructional technology librarian’s toolbox at this point—or superseded by a superior alternative. It might be fine to mention them and ask attendees if they are still using them or have found better versions or new applications for learning, but I was surprised that these older and well-adopted technologies were part of the main course. I was expecting to hear about some exciting applications for the latest edtech tools. So while it’s great having this interest group platform for sharing our instructional technology experience, and I applaud the efforts of the organizers, perhaps my experience suggests that librarian educators need to do a better job of catching up with the edtech surge.

Turning Edtech Into Opportunity

Academic librarian educators can’t underestimate the importance of staying current with what is obviously an explosion of educational technology tools. They add value to what we may accomplish in our interactions with students, particularly when we need to leverage technology for out-of-the-classroom learning and interaction. They are also essential as a bridge to building relationships with faculty colleagues. Faculty have even less time than we do for exploring good educational technology tools. That creates an opportunity for academic librarians to connect with faculty on a level beyond providing help with library resources. We can, along with our educational technology colleagues, introduce faculty to tools that will help them save time, improve student learning, allow them to introduce gaming, or reach whatever goals they’ve established for themselves as educators. The information is out there. We need to grasp it and then run with it—and share what we learn. That’s where our community excels. Let’s just push ourselves a little harder. We’ll get there.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. Great point! Edtech has really exploded in the past few years. My library (Teachers College, Columbia University) also publishes an edtech-focused news site: The New Learning Times (one time free sign up required).