Education Opinion

Summarizing EdTech in One Slide: Market, Open and Dewey

By Justin Reich — April 30, 2012 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I’m working on an introductory workshop on digital media and learning for the upcoming Future of Learning Institute run by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education and Project Zero. My job is to introduce participants to the diverse landscape of the field of education technology. One of the biggest problems in the ed-tech space right now is that the phrase “education technology” means very different things to different people and organizations. Here’s a 2x2 model that summarizes (and, of course, oversimplifies) the entire education technology space:

2x2 Model of Education Technology Space

There are two important questions to ask any ed tech organization or advocate: 1) Are you trying to make a billion dollars? and 2) Do you believe that learning occurs primarily through “delivery?”

By answering those two questions, we can put everyone in the ed-tech field into one of three groups: Market, Open and Dewey.


The “Market” people are those that are trying to make a billion dollars and believe that learning is fundamentally a process of delivery. These people typically believe that free markets are the ultimate tool for optimizing all outcomes in society, and education should be no exception. They view groups like teachers unions and school boards as obstacles to implementation of this free market system. (I’ll write more this week about Educational Reform for the Digital Era, a report published by the Fordham institute summarizing these views). They view learning as the process of delivering learning objects for the individual consumption of students, and they have great faith that this delivery process can be optimized by algorithms and data mining. It is incredibly important for them that we have quantifiable outcomes of learning (standardized tests), since they can only optimize on quantitative metrics.


“Open” people, by and large, share a pedagogical vision with “Market” people, but reject their economic model. There are exceptions, but the biggest players in the Open movement generally believe that learning is a process of algorthmically delivering learning objects to consumers, and they frequently use “supply and demand” models to conceptualize their efforts. The difference between Open and Market is that Open folks believe that learning objects are not commodities to be bought and sold, but the public infrastructure of our culture (to borrow the lovely phrase of S.J. Klein). They’d like learning objects and the algorithms distributing those objects to be openly licensed and free for teachers to reuse, remix, and re-publish.


The “Dewey” people reject the notion of learning as “delivery” and the free market as the best platform for learning. Numerous leaders in this group, from many different backgrounds, describe education technology as the suite of innovations that finally makes Dewey’s pedagogical vision possible. John Seely Brown made this argument in his Keynote at the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning conference; Science Leadership Academy Principal Chris Lehmann made this argument at the EdTechTeacher Leadership Summit and throughout his blog; Michael Glassman of Ohio State and Min Ju Kang of Yonsai University in Korea make this argument in their paper on Web 2.0 and the classroom; Joel Westheimer at Ottawa made the argument the other day at AERA.

Dewey is a complex figure, but when most people invoke him, they mean that learning occurs through people’s experiences and not through content delivery (Chris Lehmann: “Deliver pizza not instruction.”) Technology can enrich people’s experiences, let people from different parts of the world share their experiences, and publicize and share the results of experiences. Learning occurs when teachers and students work together to create or make something with meaning to to people in the real world. For this group, school should look a lot more like the front of Smart Parts Aftermarket. Or the MIT Media Lab, which is just Caine’s Arcade with a budget.

The Dewey group tends to reject the belief that standardized tests can measure the learning outcomes we most care about. They tend to believe that the nuanced, contextual, social experiences that lead to the best learning experiences are easiest to facilitate when the curriculum is not overly prescriptive.

What can we learn from this model?

I am convinced that learning can be both “delivered” and “experienced.” Certain kinds of people learn better in each format, and certain kinds of content are well suited to one format or another. Languages strike me as a good example: the early years of learning languages can benefit quite a bit from content delivery: algorithms that help people learn and memorize vocabulary, conjugation, sentence structure and so forth. For a couple of years, Rosetta Stone works great. But in the later years of learning a language, it’s about experience: immersion, discussion, interpretation and so on. To read poetry, or conduct meaningful conversations in another language, or pass for a day as a local, you need to have rich experiences in particular places or with particular people to learn subtities, idioms, customs, etc.

I am less sure of whether we should entrust significant parts of K-12 education (higher ed is a different story) to those aiming to make a billion dollars. Market forces can be very powerful at unleashing human creativity and potential; look at the device you are reading this on. But, at the same time, education in a democratic society needs to be closely accountable to elected groups, and I’m skeptical of the claim that boosting shareholder profits is a necessary intermediary step to improving educational outcomes. Also, if we believe that all people deserve the best possible primary and secondary education to put them on equal footing to join society as adults, then that principle is incompatible with the belief that the best learning objects or experiences should be proprietary and restricted to the wealthy.

I take away three lessons from this taxonomy:

1) When someone says “ed tech,” you need to spend time figuring out which of these three camps they come from, or at least which one they are referring to at any given time. These three visions of ed tech lead to very different educational systems.
2) If you reject the “Market” camp’s free market philosophy, you don’t necessarily have to reject their pedagogical vision. The folks in the Open community are working their darndest to make sure that there is a free alternative for everything that corporations can build. In fact, if you want to check the power of the “Market” camp to rearrange our educational system to serve their ends, one of the best things that you can do is support Open Policy. In simplest terms, Open Policy means that if taxpayers spend money to produce educational products, services or experiences, the results of those efforts should be openly licensed and free to the public.
3) Finally, I’m sure you’ve noticed that there is no box for contextual learning that can earn a billion dollars. The creation of meaningful experiences does not scale. As a result, anyone trying to make a billion dollars in education necessarily has the incentive to reduce the educational system exclusively to the delivery of learning objects with impacts that can be measured quantitatively.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my papers, presentations and so forth, visit EdTechResearcher.

The opinions expressed in EdTech Researcher are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.