A line drawing of a unicorn

A Provocation for Digital Leadership

On 6th December 2019 Jisc launched a Digital Leadership community.  As the instigator of the Jisc work in this space I was invited to offer some provocations to kick the community off. I have been around the education technology space for a while, and I thought a retrospective on my personal pursuit of EdTech Unicorns might be the way to go.

I want to start by giving you a potted history of me and my roles in EdTech – so indulge me.

I have been working with Education and Technology for a reasonably long time. Since the 1990’s in fact, I started working firstly on large funding council projects putting money into institutions to seed change. Back then at my Institution we had no dedicated learning technology officers or educational technologists. We did have a good educational development unit. So my first job in an institution was evaluating some technology, looking at what I could use for myself to build a virtual field course. And the field was limited. Back then some IT authoring programmes were expensive and most often not available to everyone.  I was using the built in tool in Netscape Navigator, and eventually I managed to get the department to buy a copy of FrontPage.

OnOil Painting of young woman and a Unicorne of the staff members at the university asked me to develop a virtual field course “shell” that he could drop the content into.

He wanted to be out in the field with cameras attached to him, beaming live images back to the computer lab, where students could interact with him and the images he was sending back. He said we could have cameras set up on tripods in the field controlled from the lab, weather stations for environmental monitoring giving live results. He wanted to lecture to them from a rainforest, in realtime and have the students discuss and interact online.

A line drawing of a rough looking rhinocerous I asked “how much budget have you got for this project”

“I got a £1200 teaching grant, can you do it?”

This was 1997. And that was the point at which I first realised that many academic staff think technology can do anything. That was my first experience with “EdTech Unicorn Effect”.

Of course, whilst he wanted a Unicorn for his “£1200” what he actually got was something a little different.

He actually got a Sony Mavica FD7 (zoom version), recorded 12 images on a floppy disk. It cost around £800 and took about 10 seconds to write to disk once you’d captured the image.

He thought it was amazing. He came back from a trip, handed me 40 floppy disks and an illegible notebook and said can you create a virtual field course.

And you can ascribe your own roles to whichever of the main protagonists depicted here that you wish.

An oil painting of a mounted man running a lance through a dragon that is smaller than his own horse

I had become an educational technologist!

I remained in the University as a learning technologist, mostly on short term precarious contracts – meeting with academics with huge ideas for projects and small budgets! And most of the time, with each small grant, they also wanted their cut. I don’t mean a financial reward, but each time I saw a grant to introduce a new technology, it might come with half the budget taken up with, for example, a laptop, or digital camera – almost always there was a travel and conference budget. So depending on your viewpoint I was either slaying their schemes, or was the beast to be overcome to realise their fantasy teaching tool.

I then worked nationally, advising about Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences for the Learning and Teaching Support Network (it would eventually merge with the institute for learning and teaching to become the HEA, and is now AdvanceHE, although that organisation looks very little like its origins).

A line drawing of a unicornEventually, I was invited to work with Jisc on another EdTech Unicorn. In 2001 I set up Jisc’s first Technology and Disability Service, for those of you who remember it was TechDis. With the new disability legislation coming into law, Jisc wanted a service to provide both staff and students with advice about how technology can help students with disabilities, and how technologies can be used without providing a barrier.  “Lawrie – just write a set of guidelines, how hard can it be?”

I have written of this EdTech Unicon many times! And we had many false starts (see my early publications and compare the differences in approach). And I still stand by our ultimate conclusion – which is obvious – “no one size fits all”.

One of the first things I was tasked with at TechDis was looking at the accessibility of the seven  main virtual learning environments / learning management systems (yes I said seven).

  • Blackboard
  • WebCT
  • COSE
  • Granada Learnwise
  • Fretwell-Downing (FD) learning environment
  • Futuremedia Solstra
  • Teknical Virtual Campus

These products were identified only because they were part of a huge JISC interoperability project. But there were also other VLEs too including Boddington, CoMentor and TOOMOL (all built in universities). When it came to accessibility they were pretty much all the same, no one stood out as being great, no one stood out as being awful. Probably because back then, firstly the VLEs were all pretty basic, and secondly our understanding of accessibility and inclusion was also pretty basic, although evolving at speed.

My experience of working with learning technologists in both higher and further education during most of my time at at TechDis was “but there must be an answer?” which translated means “why is it so hard?”.

There is no universal design that will make all things accessible to all people. I have the scars to prove it.

This is an iguanodon.

Line drawing of an iguanodon.
Drawing of iguanodon based on Richard Owen’s interpretation.

Gideon and Mary Ann Mantell were the first people to find the fossils of the iguanodon. In fact they found a large amount of the skeleton – but no full skull.

sketch of a iguanodon skeleton
original sketch of iguanodon skeleton based on the Mantell’s interpretation

So, when it came to drawing (Mary Ann was the illustrator) what they thought the reconstructed skeleton would look like, they suggested that one particular hornlike piece ,would have been on the dinosaur’s nose, not unlike the horn of a rhinoceros. The speculative drawing of the iguanodon as it could have been alive is based on the models commissioned by Richard Owen, one of the Mantells’ rivals in palaeontology. Both reconstructions had the “horn” on the nose of the Iguanodon.



modern reconstruction of Iguanodon
Nobu Tamura’s 2013 interpretation of iguanodon based on latest data and understanding

This 2013 image by Nobu Tamura, as well as being much more like the Mantell’s original idea of iguanodon than Owen’s, is the currently accepted reconstruction now that scientists have discovered many more fossils, and with skulls intact. If you look at the forelegs of the drawing you’ll see that what Victorian scientists thought was a horn for the nose was actually the Iguanodon’s thumb spike.

We look at the evidence and we make a best guess.  And when we acquire new evidence, we should reconsider, recognize our mistakes, and take on that new information going forward.

I moved to Jisc in January 2006 to work on “Web as Platform” or “User Environments”. These were both phrases that Jisc had been struggling to articulate, but they were essentially the Web 2.0 things – and they came stomping across our IT landscapes and our well ordered and manicured edtech environments much like Owen’s version of iguanodon might have done. And also like these early versions of Iguanodon, we didn’t get things quite right. I was told “Lawrie see if there is any mileage in Web 2.0  and if anyone in education will ever use it” We put a programme together that looked like a Victorian iguanodon, complete with the thumb on the nose! Programme and projects lasting 3 years – all based on Web 2.0 tools. The most successful projects were the low cost, fleet of foot “quick field sketch” type. Some of which are still relevant today. But a large number of them were becoming extinct before the projects ran out – although we did manage to change some of them and we learned a lot.

Seeing some of the rapid changes to practice that the web 2.0 tools and approaches were creating, Dave Cormier, Mark Stiles and I got together, did a webinar in late 2007, and followed it up with an article in 2008 asking “VLEs – Extinction or Evolution?” We suggested that with the availability of Blogs, wikis, photo and video sharing sites, podcasts and a range of other tools that have become more readily available perhaps Virtual Learnings Environments might become obsolete. Alongside those developments we had noticed changes to the way we behaved online, given that  it was relatively simple to collaborate, share and publish, either to a wide audience or to ‘trusted’ colleagues.

We argued that no student when they graduate is grateful they can use a VLE or LMS! We tried to figure out if we had stuck the VLE’s thumb on its nose? Or maybe the VLE was the thumb stuck on the iguanodon of pedagogy’s nose?

In March 2016 I started to revisit some of these ten-year old questions from a different angle. After a very long conversation with Dave Cormier I posed the question “What would a learning space look like if you designed it in networked culture, where identity is more important than role?”  This started me down the route of next generation digital learning environments, which were also discussed as part of jisc’s Codesign work. 

a map stating here be dragons

The  digital environments, and the wider digital landscape of 2016 were very different to those of 2006.

A line drawing of a ChimeraI was lucky this time around to have a small budget and so I worked with a team of consultants.

Hapsis looked at the emerging technologies. Identifying trends around analytics, collaboration and connectivism, disaggregation of technology and the increase in the number of staff using tools outside of the traditional VLE/LMS, and also identified the emergence of tools like Slack and Teams.  It was a comprehensive review.

A line drawing of Medusa, a gorgon of greek mythFollowing the technology review, it was identified that we needed to understand more about how academics were teaching. We contracted Donna Lanclos to lead an ethnographic study, and so Donna and I went out and gave teachers a long hard look. Key themes around academics’ practice can be found in our paper, and they included

  • Teaching Places
  • Students
  • Change, Innovation and Risk
  • Organisational Support
  • Technology


Some of the key things we identified included:

  • It is important to distinguish digital from innovation – they are not synonymous,
  • Innovation is not creativity.
  • Mandating technology is not the same as supporting teaching practice
  • Mandating technology it is not the same as embedding digital.

painting of Hephaestus in his forge

I have worked with technology and teaching for a long time. I have seen academics working with learning technologists to forge good learning experiences with technology, and I have seen academics working on their own doing creative things with technology.  But in these cases it is generally at a small scale. But scaling this artisanal technology approach is almost impossible. It can’t be done. Probably.

However, at the other end of the scale, where we see large monolithic learning environments deployed and mandated, we see academics complying with minimum standards, using the system as a repository for notes and slides. At this scale “one system to serve them all” also doesn’t seem to work either. So what does a strategy look like that recognises this, and recognises that we want creativity and wide scale access and support?

Another area I am starting to think about is the common digital environments we use in teaching now. To revisit a question I posed earlier:  How many students leave college or university and think “I am so glad I can use a VLE/LMS”?

When I reflect on my time at TechDis – and that was a long time ago and to be fair I will admit that some EdTech companies have improved around accessibility, but in all of the work I did at TechDis, I was struck by the two primary locations from which accessible tech emerged, neither of which were EdTech spaces. The first was from big tech companies (you know who they are) who know that their market share depends on being accessible and compliant with legislation (and who have the resources to do the work).  The other location was at the other end of the scale, where artisan technologists had worked with an individual or a small group and made an adjustment to a system, a tool, or a web environment.

a unicorn pin badge with a scroll that reads EdTech will not save youSo is EdTech a useful term anymore? We just want stuff that works for us.   Is EdTech something that is there just to sell us (in education) technology that we think is specially designed for us.

And when I look at EdTech now, the companies all seem to be competing to do everything. How many of us are working with academics who use every feature in the systems we have? And yet vendors seem to think they should keep adding more features as a way of locking us in?

How many of us have heard the vendors selling our senior management magic beans?

a young man called Jack, trading his cow for magic beans

One of the things I have noticed with EdTech vendors is that most often they don’t respond to problems you identify – they look at what tools academics are using – from industry, from start-ups wherever, and then they add them into their system – but de-featured and at a premium price.

I have heard phrases like “this is Teams for Education” or “this is Whatsapp for teachers”. Or “slack for students” – all of these things creating a myth that the actual tools they are based on MUST NOT BE FOR EDUCATION.  Why is that? Why must we have magic beans?


a jackalope and a Fiji Mermaid

Is the Virtual Learning Environment /  Learning Management System a jackalope or a Fiji Mermaid? A beast created from many sources and “sold” to the gullible?

Have we let the vendors create an EdTech Shangri La? A mythical digital space where all our educational needs will be met? And like the mythical valley in the mountains are they invested in ensuring people do not leave, and that time passes slowly with little changing?

Is the EdTech industry creating a false dichotomy between Tech and EdTech?

I have asked does the VLE need slaying?  And I will ask it again. But I am also asking does EdTech need slaying?  What is necessary to get tools that serve us, rather than us serving them and profiting the vendors who sell them (and our data)?

a Wyrm cosuming itself by the tail

Maybe EdTech will eventually consume itself!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.