Lost in the online pivot and pandemic pedagogy, is vendor creep. In a prescient and thought-provoking post, Peter Bryant, asks “At what point does a vendor cease providing a product and start providing education, and at what cost?”
The disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have made delivering an effective and connected higher education experience more challenging. Physical distancing, country-wide lockdowns, border closures, and anxiety about the safety of learning and teaching in spaces physical and virtual have added layers of uncertainty, opportunity, and fear to the everyday life of a teacher. Learning how to adapt and flourish in this environment is happening at the same time as significant institutional financial stress and austerity, and seismic changes to the nature of assessment (such as the shift to online exams).
In Australia, like many parts of the world, the shift to wholly online learning happened in the first few weeks of Semester 1, 2020 (February-March), without time to deploy appropriate pedagogical design practices or build technological or digital literacy capacity for staff and students. Higher education institutions had to use the technologies that were already there, or rapidly procure new platforms to effectively educate their students. This infrastructure had not been designed for the delivery of online learning at scale, creating downstream implications that were not foreseeable, such as the emergence of Zoom-bombing, the debates about the efficacy of cameras on or off in classes, and the intense controversies created by the use of proctoring solutions. There was a proliferation of broadcast pedagogies and asynchronous learning evolving partially out of necessity, with learners spread across the world, campuses locked down, and curricula designed for campus delivery found wanting for effective online learning. In other cases, academics experimented with the form and function of teaching and learning through technology and social media, exploring repurposed uses for existing platforms and piloting entirely new ones, taking this journey of discovery and transition along with their students.
Institutions can become a branded influencer for the platforms they use
The best solution?
Universities have turned to vendors to act as critical partners in the provision of both administrative and pedagogical services during the pandemic, from the reliance on web conferencing tools like Zoom, the increased prominence of institutional virtual learning environments (VLE), and the growth of collaboration platforms like Microsoft Teams. This heightened engagement did not come without risk, and it definitely came at a price. One such risk is the challenge of identity. As learning products and services come onto the market promising new and exciting features, celebrating the future through ambitious roadmaps, and deluging the institution with the logos of their other successful (and satisfied) clients, their use comes with a pre-determined structure and an architecture. It signifies that the vendor is the best solution to the wicked problems the institution faces. The identity of the vendor and the identity of the institution can blur because no educational technology is fluid to the point of endless customisation. Every product has a language, a framework, and patterns of action. Every product defines and shapes an educational culture sometimes exclusive of the institution it is deployed in. Institutions can become a branded influencer for the platforms they use.
Another risk is that of homogenisation. The marketisation of education has created a false equivalence between voice and corporate partnerships, enabling vendors to move from service provider to participant in the education process. The product features and capabilities shape how the institution can deliver its teaching and learning. As much as my unit might want to use Pedagogy A, the VLE just doesn’t work like that; so you might just have to use Pedagogy B. Rinse and repeat. Innovation can get snuffed out as the tendrils of integration, features roadmaps, data management, and security enhancements can both shape and restrict practice.
Building an ecosystem of trust
What is the optimal relationship between an institution and its vendors? When you create ecosystems of strategic institutional change, aligning activity, ambition, and resourcing, vendors are critical participants. No institution wants to deliver innovation driven entirely by bespoke development and shadow IT. That kind of enterprise development or software start-up requires expertise, cash, and time – things institutions often lack. What we need is a partnership, underpinned by shared ambitions, mutually beneficial outcomes, and an alignment between the pedagogical needs of the institution and the capabilities and capacity of the vendor. The risk is that the latter takes primacy over the former. The deployment of a product or solution changes the pedagogical needs of the organisation and the subsequent activities, policies, and experiences for the students. It is the product that dictates what can and can’t be done in exams, or video production, or timetabling. Institutions get locked into contracts, to offsite service agreements, and to communities of practice run by the vendor. Vendors run educational conferences and co-publish academic research, promoting their systems and their unique approaches. At what point does a vendor cease providing a product and start providing education, and at what cost?
Working with vendors to customise how you use their products means that the educational approach is designed by and for the students and the staff
My argument is, that if managed well, these partnerships between institutions and vendors can be transformational. Applying the expertise and the innovation of a truly enabled institution to the development of a technology makes it a better product. Working with vendors to customise how you use their products means that the educational approach is designed by and for the students and the staff, not to fit with the brand image and feature set of the selected product. Innovation is a collective endeavour, shaped by complex and human relationships. When we choose to compromise (positively or negatively) the experience of students and staff for the language, literacies, and architectures of a solution, we must do so with open eyes and a clear view of the risks. Any long-term relationship needs nurturing, but it also needs trust and a recognition of the principles of mutual benefit, which are not universal just yet in how institutions engage with their vendors. This is not an easy task, not all vendors are open to this kind of relationship. Procurement policies are complex and focused on the risk appetite of the institution, and some vendors hold monopolistic power over institutions. But one thing I have learnt from over 20 years working with vendors; popularity and market power are fleeting and little shifts in practice can turn a profitable business model into an anachronism in a short time. So, there are benefits on both sides for building trust in these relationships.
FERDIG, R. E., BAUMGARTNER, E., HARTSHORNE, R., KAPLAN-RAKOWSKI, R. & MOUZA, C. 2020. Teaching, technology, and teacher education during the COVID-19 pandemic: Stories from the field. Waynesville, NC, USA: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).
This post is opinion-based and does not reflect the views of the London School of Economics and Political Science or any of its constituent departments and divisions.