With just about every organization going through some degree of digital modernization, and the continuing need to support workplace learning and performance remotely, educational technology (edtech) products are in high demand these days.

From learning management systems to tech-enabled assessments, edtech provides a tremendous opportunity to innovate and to address challenges in skills development. However, despite vendors’ promises of increasing learner engagement, improving performance and reducing skills gaps, many edtech products fail to meet expectations and have a sustainable impact. One of the reasons for this is that organizations lack a holistic understanding of how the introduction of an edtech product will shape the way we learn — and how it will impact the business.

To address this gap, we can start by being better informed about these products and by asking the following questions:

What pedagogical assumptions are the edtech products making?

Every edtech product is based on certain assumptions about learning (whether intentional or not). For example, many virtual classroom systems were designed to replicate the physical classroom, subscribing to the behaviorist theory of learning in which the instructor is at the center of learning, setting objectives and providing appropriate stimuli to elicit the desired responses. Learner behaviors are seen as predictable and controllable via rewards and punishments. Being aware of such assumptions will help us understand why an edtech product is designed in a certain way, to determine if these assumptions align with your learning and development (L&D) goals and shed light on whether the ideology is entrenched in a limited or outdated learning approach.

Does it solve an actual problem?

While it is exciting to explore emerging technologies, the real question is whether these innovations will result in better learning outcomes and experiences, or create a different set of problems. For example, using a learning experience platform to recommend learning content might increase learner engagement but it might also become too prescriptive, require constant feeding of data and lead people only to content based on their own interests and biases.

What are the ethical considerations?

All edtech products collect and record data. However, there is a lack of clarity about how learner data is being used or manipulated. Furthermore, there are concerns about AI-based learning systems with the potential to exclude or discriminate against certain groups or demographics of learners, often without a way to opt out or provide feedback. For example, online proctoring tools verify learners’ identities using biometric scans such as facial recognition. This can be problematic as facial recognition technologies are inherently biased in their accuracy. According to research, Black and Asian faces are falsely identified 10 to 100 times more often than white faces. As we evaluate edtech products, we need to ask questions about ownership of data and learner autonomy, privacy and security; especially if these factors are unclear.

What are the opportunity costs?

Sometimes, technology is not the best (or only) solution to our L&D challenges. When considering the cost of introducing a new edtech platform, we ought not only to factor in the cost of licensing and implementation, but also what we must give up in order to make room for the new product. Prior to setting your sights on a particular edtech product, I recommend conducting an ideation session with your key stakeholders to explore and consider all options and alternatives. This will help to ensure that whatever edtech product you are selecting is the right solution to your L&D challenge.

Edtech products present a lot of wonderful and exciting opportunities to organizations, but in order to choose wisely, we need to ask questions that go beyond functions and features.

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