Expert Viewpoint

The Best Ed Tech Innovations Will Be Emergent – If We Do This Right

As a physicist I was taught to boil down every complex problem to its most basic, simple, and solvable elements. It was a strategy I totally embraced. While this reductio ad absurdum approach has made physics the butt of spherical cow jokes, it has generally served the discipline well and yielded a powerful and elegant picture of the universe.

But it is not the whole picture.

In fact, in my role as an ed tech co-founder who is trying to figure out what’s next, I often find it more useful to look in the opposite direction. Instead of trying to fully understand the behavior of the smallest units, it can be very instructive to see what new patterns reveal themselves when those units come together.

I remember the first time I heard the term emergent phenomena. I was listening to a lecture about the origin of life and was impressed by the idea that under certain conditions large numbers of interacting particles and an energy source can produce wholly new complex structures and behavior.

A quintessential example of an emergent phenomenon are the sand ripples that often form in shallow water. Somehow the cyclic flow of wave energy acting on billions of sand grains produces large-scale structures that extend for hundreds of meters. If the wave energy is too low, the ripples never form. If the wave energy is too high, they are destroyed. As a physicist, I could have spent a lifetime studying the interactions of individual sand grains and never realized that such fascinating corporate behavior could possibly emerge.

I have noticed that technological innovations also often develop emergent properties over time. This occurs as larger numbers of users create completely new large-scale patterns. Here are a few examples of innovations that have progressed toward emergent behavior in three phases:

Phase I: An innovation occurred to solve a limited well-defined problem:

  1. Cats were domesticated to keep rodents from eating grain supplies.
  2. The car was invented to replace the horse-drawn carriage.
  3. The telephone was invented to talk to people at a distance.

Phase II: The innovation expands on its original function and/or acquires new functions:

  1. Cats acquire additional functions by becoming beloved members of the family
  2. Cars start looking like a pleasant living room with comfortable seats, music, climate control, a solid roof, and large windows. The interstate highways are built.
  3. Telephone technology expanded to include dial tone, party-lines, busy signals, caller ID, and then later to include mobile phones with cameras, screens, and Wi-Fi connections.

Phase III: Substantial numbers of people use the technology such that whole new cultural patterns develop around the invention:

  1. Cat videos and cat memes now account for a surprising significant percentage of our collective attention span. (whether this fact is terrifying or adorable may depend on your perspective!)
  2. Starting in the ’50s, major cities were designed around cars. Malls and drive-ins flourished, and back-seat babies were conceived. It is likely that Carl Benz did not envision the modern American suburb with its outsized influence on nearly every aspect of American culture when he got a car patent in 1886.
  3. Telephones continue to spawn their own collective behavior including food pictures, selfies, TikTok videos, and — my personal pet peeve — the fact that it is now impossible to have a normal conversation at the gym since everyone is plugged into their phone-connected earbuds.

So What Does Phase I in Ed Tech Look Like?

I see the same phases playing out in ed tech. The first wave of ed tech was limited, focused on solving a narrow problem, and often simply transferred an existing phenomenon (no matter how inefficient) to a new format. Some examples:

  • Word processors started like digital typewriters.

  • Ineffective in-person committee meetings became ineffective internet video meetings.

  • The outdated pedagogy of passive lectures was simply transferred to slick high-production videos — which still used the same old passive, medieval pedagogy.

Ed Tech Phase II: Better But Still Not Emergent

As we developed Pivot Interactives (which joined the Discovery Education family in 2022), we wanted to improve on that first generation of digital content used in common ed tech. We wanted to create something that was much more interactive, where students could observe, explore, design experiments, collect and analyze data, and support their conclusions.

Since then, we have exploited the power of the cloud to provide other features like instant personalized feedback (which is so critical for effective learning) and lab groups that collaborate in real time.

But as transformative as these innovations have been, they are not emergent; they are features that affect how individual students and teachers interact with our platform. However, as I reflect on what is coming next, I am convinced that it will be emergent. So, what would emergent ed tech look like?

Ed Tech Phase III: How Do We Get To ‘Emergent’? 

By definition, emergent ed tech would involve huge numbers of units that interact in new ways to produce unexpected novel patterns and behavior.

In this case, the interacting entities could either be the users themselves, their data, or both. I can imagine networks of learners and educators, like social networks, creating and reenforcing a culture of knowledge acquisition, based on cooperation or some sort of competition among peers either vying for increased status or motivated by tribal allegiances.

Another intriguing possibility is the potential to identify new patterns in the terabytes of user data generated by ed tech solutions. My son is working on a similar initiative in the field of healthcare, scouring the vast repositories of medical data for patterns that can be used to improve patient outcomes.

We should be doing the same thing in ed tech.

While data mining student records justifiably raises serious privacy concerns, research on aggregated data can be legal. Lucky, in the ed tech space, we have the Privacy Technical Assistance Center established by the U.S. Department of Education; PTAC aims to serve “as a ‘one-stop’ resource for educational stakeholders to learn about data privacy, confidentiality, and security practices related to student-level longitudinal data systems and other uses of student data.”

Without minimizing the need to honor students’ privacy rights, we as an ed tech community should also not miss the opportunity to search for the new emergent patterns that will no doubt appear when we look at how students, teachers, and their data all interact. It’s these new patterns, like ripples in the sand, that will likely offer insights into the heretofore most intractable questions in education.

About the Author

Dr. Matthew Vonk is a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin River Falls. He is co-founder and director of curriculum and instruction at Pivot Interactives, part of the Discovery Education family since 2022. Matt is also higher ed co-chair of the Advanced Placement Development Committee for the Physics C Electricity and Magnetism Exam.