Subject-Specific Solutions: A Path to More Effective Learning Technology

Subject-Specific Solutions: A Path to More Effective Learning Technology

The advent of digital media has presented educational publishers with not only opportunities for the delivery of effective teaching and learning solutions, but also significant challenges that are well known by readers of this column. These challenges include the need to acquire within the organization’s new competencies, the creation of new partnerships with service providers, and the need to sort through a range of technical issues.

However there is one challenge that is discussed less often, a challenge that may prove especially vexing: the need for fundamentally different approaches for different subject areas in the application of educational technology.   This was less of a problem in the past, when the same product model could be applied to most subjects: the textbook. However, the new capabilities of digital media require publishers to think in terms of subject-specific approaches.

Over the past few decades, some of the most effective applications of learning technology have been specific to the subjects they address. A few examples include:

  • Aplia entered the field with a learning model that allowed students to interactively and graphically explore and manipulate mathematical functions required for the mastery of economics and other quantitative fields.   It is a powerful way to master difficult concepts.   Thomson/Cengage acquired Aplia in the hope of extending the platform to all subjects. However, the Aplia model was proven to be most effective for the subjects for which it is originally intended.
  • Adaptive learning platforms such as Aleks and Lrnr take math students through individualized and prescriptive sequences of math problems based on their mastery of concepts. As effective as this approach is, it is clearly most appropriate for math in which the student is attempting to efficiently progress through large arrays of problems.
  • Discussion and social interaction has long been an approach for exploring humanities and social sciences. This is natural fit for community based learning platforms such as Blackboard or Moodle that support a group of learners or researchers in asynchronous (discussion threads) or synchronous (IM, chat) modes.
  • Alexander Street Press and History IT are two organizations that provide resources for fields in the humanities by providing access to well-curated collections of historical documents. Such approaches are also beneficial for such fields as archeology or material culture, that are supported by access to documents and other artifacts.

A pattern emerges: learning technology is most effective when it is oriented from the ground up around a specific subject area. The subject domain should drive the requirements of how the technology will be best used.

Educators and publishers have wasted precious time pursuing a vision in which technology adapts to different learner styles. In other words, if a student is determined to be visual learner, they would have a different experience than one that is more responsive to a narrative-driven approach, and from a third student that benefits from “social-constructivist” project-based work. The pursuit of this Holy Grail has borne little fruit. The time would have been better spent creating effective approaches for different subject areas than pondering the nuances of individual learning styles.

Subject-specific learning technology presents a challenge for large educational publishers. (And in this present area of consolidation, that would include most). Large publishers leverage their market reach and capital resources by acquiring, integrating or developing technology delivery platforms that they can use for all of their subjects. However, if the most effective use of technology is subject-specific, this one-size-fits-all platform approach is less competitive. In fact, this allows smaller, new entrants (the Aplia’s of the future) to successfully compete against larger incumbents with more effective subject-specific approaches.

If history repeats itself, these new entrants will continue to get acquired by larger players (in order to take both technology and the competitive threat of the new players) who will then unsuccessfully attempt to apply this approach to subject areas for which they are not intended. Far better to leave such programs alone to continue the pursuit of teaching and learning excellence within their specific domains.

Educational publishers can improve the efficacy of their educational offerings by avoiding the trap of attempting to use a common technology platform or delivery model for all subject areas. Publishers must understand at the outset of product development the potential scope of a delivery model, and to not attempt to apply the model outside of that scope. For example, an adaptive learning platform may be well suited for a range of courses within mathematics, but be less effective outside of math.

Second, publishers must observe, engage with, and if appropriate retain leading educators within each subject domain, to help develop not only the scope and sequence of course content, but also to capture and reflect the most relevant engaging modes of delivery for that subject area.

Leading educators will typically be the first to see and understand the most relevant ways to use new modes of technology-based delivery to support teaching and learning within their given domains. Educators will have this understanding before publishers or technologists do. The strategic value of the acquisitions function for educational publishers is to establish relationships with such leading educators and reflect their approaches in published offerings. While this may require different approaches, platforms, and delivery models for different subject domains, the result will be more successful and effective offerings.