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Product Developers Weigh Ed-Tech Impacts on College Students

In a Tuesday panel, “Technology and the College Experience: How Institutions Can Exceed Learner Expectations,” product managers from Anthology, D2L and Turnitin discussed potentials and pitfalls of emerging technologies.

A person in a classroom looking at a tablet.
As universities and colleges continue to expand online course offerings amid a growing demand for flexibility, ed-tech companies are thinking about how to meet the needs of institutions and students with new learning management systems and other digital platforms.

With this in mind, several private-sector product managers spoke at the Learning Impact Conference in Nashville on Tuesday about how higher education institutions could provide the types of robust digital learning experiences K-12 schools have grown accustomed to in recent years. The ongoing conference is hosted by the nonprofit collaborative 1EdTech, formerly known as the IMS Global Learning Consortium.

In a panel titled “Technology and the College Experience: How Institutions Can Exceed Learner Expectations,” Turnitin Chief Product Officer Annie Chechitelli said higher-ed institutions may soon need to consider how advances in artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies will affect how student work is assessed. Noting that Google Docs suggests ways to complete sentences, she said, instructors will need to grapple with making sure assignments reflect authentic work from students.

“What if it just completes the rest of your paragraph? Is that still your written word?” she said. “Those are the types of questions we have to be discussing as we grow.”

Steve Rogalsky, vice president of product management at D2L, said students want to see more consistency in how professors use digital learning tools, as more classes require the use of ed-tech platforms that are interoperable with one another. One of the main challenges for higher-ed institutions and digital learning developers, he said, will be ensuring some sense of consistency in this regard, while allowing instructors freedom in how to utilize them as part of their courses.

“They want to see consistency in technology from course to course,” he said, citing concerns raised by students and teachers in recent workshops he’s attended. “Where do I find the course material? How do I talk to the instructor? How do I get my grades? Where do I submit assignments? Those kinds of questions, the ‘where do I and how do I?’ Make those consistent across courses.”

According to Rogalski, the introduction of new digital learning tools could be counterproductive if students are spending too much time figuring out how those tools work, and how different instructors make use of them.

“Everything we can do as a group to reduce that friction and remove the sand from their ears is going to help students focus on their learning,” he said. “We’re just trying to set a baseline for the ‘where do I and how do I?’”

Anthology Vice President of Product Management Chris Husser said ed-tech companies are constantly working to improve digital learning products with these types of concerns in mind, as well as teachers’ need to provide large numbers of students with personalized feedback on assignments.

“Constantly getting good at how to use that to tune your product to be better is a lot of what we think about doing a lot of times,” he said. “There are still some challenges around this vast ecosystem of tools we have ... It’s just inherently going to make it challenging for the students.”

Chechitelli said digital learning tools that make use of AI and other emerging technologies have the potential to give students personalized feedback at scale, a key aim of many newer platforms in the ever-growing ed-tech market.

“That piece of how we help with scale is going to be important,” she said. “Every faculty I’ve talked to wants to spend that personalized time. It’s not that they don’t want to, it’s just very hard with [more students].

“Part of what we try to do, in addition to feedback, is make sure that students realize the importance of working through problems themselves,” she said. “Making sure that students are providing and putting forth their authentic work and their own train of thought is really important.”
Brandon Paykamian is a staff writer for Government Technology. He has a bachelor's degree in journalism from East Tennessee State University and years of experience as a multimedia reporter, mainly focusing on public education and higher ed.