What Is EdTech: its Definition and Impact through the Years

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In an exclusive interview for The Observatory, Sabrina Seltzer, director of Open Innovation and EdTech Entrepreneurship at Tecnológico de Monterrey, shared her knowledge of the area.

She explains that EdTech is a diminutive combination of two words, educational technology, and that it has two branches. The first is the academic one that refers to the "possibility of studying, analyzing, or reviewing teaching/learning processes from a technological perspective." The other branch is the practice "that has to do with technology prepared or used in educational contexts."

Later, Seltzer comments that people typically associate technology with things digital or the internet, but its definition refers to instruments, tools, or procedures that are used in a particular field or sector. In the case of EdTech, those tools were planned for other areas but ended up impacting education. She added that it is a growing field that came in a messy and disruptive way.

Taking this into account, what has the evolution of EdTech been like over the years? Martin Weller, Professor of Educational Technology at Open University, published an overview of EdTech's development over the past 20 years.

From 1998 to 2018, what has changed?

1998: Wikis

According to Weller, the first EdTech to arrive were the famous "Wikis," websites that can be edited by anyone. They were fundamental because they represented a change in the way the internet was viewed; it became collaborative. The Wikis were one of the first examples of cooperation and online participation and became the principal source of knowledge. Even so, it was indebted to teaching, and it had the potential to be a platform for online courses because of its openness but did not meet those expectations.

1999: e-Learning

A year later came the platforms of "e-Learning." Gradually, educational institutions began implementing e-learning programs. E-learning laid the foundation for the next decade in terms of technology, standards, and focus.

2000: Learning objects

By 2000, learning objects arrived, which are defined as digital entities that can be used, reused, or referenced during technological learning. These are the result of programming because they emerged from reusable functional codes that could be used in different programs.

2001: E-learning standards

Then came e-learning standards in 2001. Due to the interest in e-Learning, different e-learning platforms focused on content creation and providing evidence and initiatives to describe and share tools, and content began to emerge as a result. This is when e-learning standards, such as SCORM, came into play, specifying the content that can be used in virtual learning. These types of platforms facilitated the work of e-Learning because, previously, the content had to be moved from one to the other, which was a lot of work. 

2002: Open Educational Resources (OER)

In 2002, open educational resources (OER) arrived, and that is when people started to understand licensing. This movement resulted in the creation of the Open Content License (OCL), the Open Publishing License (OPL), and the Creative Commons (CC) licenses. All content from The Observatory, for example, is registered under the CC 4.0 license, allowing readers to download, reuse, and share its contents free of charge and legally.

2003: Blogs

A year later, the blogs began to become popular because anyone could publish their writings and get thousands of readers, which was very revolutionary. This resulted in much more access to information and opinions, distancing many of the academic journals and other publications.

2004:  Learning Management Systems (LMS)

In 2004 came the learning management systems (LMS), which offer collections of the most popular tools for e-Learning, and these systems made the installations of e-Learning tools in the universities faster. The biggest example of an LMS is Blackboard, which often becomes the sole provider of institutions, limiting innovation.

2005: Videos

Sabrina Seltzer said much of EdTech is comprised of tools designed in fields other than education. An example is YouTube. As with blogs, YouTube became a way to convey information. Specifically, in the educational sector, this platform has served to explain concepts or answer questions, helping students study.

2006: Web 2.0

A year later, the "Web 2.0" tag began to be implemented in education. It was a time when the focus was on free service. The web 2.0 opened the door to social networks and the use of data as a key to entry. Also, this year, problems about freedom of expression and offensive behavior began to arise. Lately, Web 2.0 has forced educational institutions to rethink their processes, especially when it comes to e-Learning and the quality of content production.

2007: Virtual Worlds

In 2007, virtual worlds such as Second Life or games like The Sims arrived. Universities decided to start creating their own versions, and some even began teaching courses on Second Life. Unfortunately, the educational potential of these virtual worlds was not fully exploited, and now these "islands" or worlds are virtually empty in terms of educational teaching.

2008: Electronic portfolios

In 2008, electronic portfolios became a place to store the evidence of formal or informal learning of students. The e-portfolios were intended to support lifelong learning and professional development but, despite the academic interest and investment, these did not become adopted as the standard for evaluation, as expected.

2009:  Twitter and Social Media

Another example of an unexpected EdTech tool, as it happened with YouTube, was the popular emergence in 2009 of Twitter and other social media. Because of the ease of connecting people all over the world, crossing disciplines, and promoting the engagement of debates, social media entities became revolutionary technologies and changed the relationships among academics, students, and institutions.

2010: Connectivity

In 2010, connectivity came to education. Because of the abundant online content and the number of students on the various networks, educational institutions began to think about the best ways to teach in open, digital environments. This helped lay the groundwork for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

2011: Personal Learning Environments (PLE)

In 2011, personal learning environments (PLE) arrived. This resulted from the increase in services due to the rise of Web 2.0. Educators began looking for ways to gather data from different tools to provide each student with a set of tools. This started to cause problems because of student data sharing. In addition, providing personalized support to students became very complicated because each student used different devices, so educators changed the focus from a custom set of tools to a custom set of resources.

2012: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

As mentioned above, the advent of connectivity in 2010 laid the groundwork for the massive open online courses (MOOCs) that arrived in force in 2012. Still, MOOCs are also the result of the combination of various educational technologies such as open educational resources (OER), video, and Web 2.0. To really take advantage of this platform, there must be a balance and sensitivity among the universities regarding how they provide the courses; that is, that they do not make prohibitive contracts and do not take advantage of their employees by outsourcing work and experience.

2013: Open textbooks

Due to the advent of online courses, open textbooks followed in 2013. These digital books are open-license and free of charge. With the high cost of many academic textbooks, this digitization of books was a natural step, lowering production costs.

2014: Learning Analytics

In 2006, with the implementation of Web 2.0, many talked about using data as monetary income. Eight years later, in 2014, this potentialized in the analysis of learning, or what has come to be called Learning Analytics. By 2014, data became the new engine of the world and many industries, including education. 

The most advantageous use of learning analysis lies in distance education because it allows the educator to adjust the course material or content based on student behavior. For example, if a student repeats a course a lot, that indicates the need to adapt the content and modify the behavior. Still, regarding the data, it must be handled carefully and ethically to avoid making mistakes that have been made by other industries, some of which have displayed a lack of ethics or have deployed data irresponsibly.

2015: Digital Credentials

Although they were already present before, it was not until 2015 that digital credentialling fully entered education. These verifiable digital credentials represent a combination of challenges for EdTech: applying a growing technology that is easy to use, marketable, and which provides value structures and policies.

To overcome these challenges, educators must work collaboratively with companies and employers, as all see value in digital credentialing. The combined work of academia with industry on this will increase its credibility with students. Where most progress has been seen is in linking MOOCs to staff development in different organizations.

2016: The Return of Artificial Intelligence (AI)

In 2016, artificial intelligence (AI) returned in force. This technology had been the focus of attention in the 1980s and 1990s, but it still did not enter the world of education. In the beginning, a user needed to predict the types of mistakes that an apprentice would make to advise him or her as best as possible. Now, thanks to the advancement in computing, some of that complexity is better addressed by accommodating multiple possibilities and probabilities without the need for a user to conceive these.

2017:  Blockchain

One technology that was also not planned for education but that, nevertheless, has greatly impacted it, is Blockchain, which arrived in 2017. This tool brings together different past tools of EdTech, such as electronic portfolios. Blockchain provides individual records of academic achievement and digital credentialing; it recognizes MOOCs, OER, PLE, and personalized learning.

Blockchain is intended to be a secure, permanent, and portable ledger, and only as such will it be able to unite these technologies. However, it is important to note the errors committed with EdTech tools in the past and let them serve as examples so that they are not repeated in Blockchain. The success of this technology falls on its ability to function undetected.

2018: Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR/AR)

Learning has become increasingly interactive and engaging, so it is no surprise that one of the most impacting EdTech technologies in 2018 was Virtual and Augmented Reality. By that year, its application had become more accessible to institutions. VR/AR improves education in concepts that are difficult to understand and may be used in practice activities in educational “labs;” they are especially helpful in the scientific field.

Because we are still only a little past half the year in 2019, it's not possible to determine what is the significant EdTech of 2019. Still, if there is one thing that has been made clear over the last 20 years, it is that EdTech is an area of continuous change and growth.

Although many of the EdTech tools on this list are technological, it is important to remember Sabrina Seltzer’s reference to an EdTech branch "that has to do with technology prepared or used in educational contexts although initially planned for other areas.” This fact has been continually demonstrated over the past 20 years, even in technologies that had existed for years, such as Artificial Intelligence.

While the future is uncertain, many more technological tools from other areas applied in education can be expected, but also a new era of responsibility for the adoption of technology is expected.

What do you think the EdTech of 2019 is? How do you imagine the EdTech sector in the next 20 years?