The Third Wave of Edtech: Bringing the future of learning to today’s classes

| April 18, 2016

The developments in education technology, or Edtech, seem quite sudden to many, but they have been around for a long time and have evolved over the years. Michael Jacobson believes we are now seeing the Third Wave of Edtech, and here he explains why this changes everything.

In my previous blog I considered whether the “flipped classroom” was in fact an innovation in education or an educational fad. Of course you need to read that blog to know which side I came out on!

As many regard various “flipped classroom” approaches as involving Edtech in certain ways, it seems timely to consider the Edtech landscape more broadly. And this is a particularly good time, given the world’s largest Edtech event, the Arizona State University Global Silicon Valley (ASU GSV) Summit is being held in San Diego from 18 to 20 April 2016. This now sold out event has keynote speakers such as Bill Gates and over 300 presenting companies (including my startup company, Pallas Advanced Learning Systems) along with investors, teachers, and folks interested in innovations in education. The ASU GSV Summit has been called the “The Must-Attend Event for Education Technology Investors” by the New York Times.

Another timely sign for Edtech is that venture and equity financing for startups reached nearly US$3 billion in 2015, up over 60% from US$1.87 billion in 2014 according to the research firm CB Insights. Heady times indeed for the Edtech world.

To read the popular press, these developments might seem quite sudden. However, as a uni prof who has worked in this area for three decades and in four countries, there have actually been what I call three “waves” for the Edtech field.

The First Wave of Edtech consists of standalone programs, starting in the 80s (but a few earlier), such as classic drill and practice programs Math Blaster and the often used, if not loved, Typing Tutor (as I can vouch from personal experience back in the day when I could barely type), and a popular simulation/tutorial program Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego.

The Second Wave of Edtech consists of mainly web-based systems from the birth of the World Wide Web in the early 90s. Concurrent with the increasing use of so called “Web 2.0” technologies in the 2000s, we have seen a flourishing of now well-known Edtech systems such as the Khan Academy, MOOCs (massive open online courses) and similar systems being marketed by companies, such as edX and Coursera, as well as numerous “learning management systems” (LMS) like the commercial Blackboard and the open source Moodle.

From a learning perspective, though, both the First and Second Wave of Edtech tend to be “transmissionist” where there is some predefined “content” students need to learn. First Wave of Edtech systems would transmit content by text or simple animations, whereas systems of the Second Wave extensively employs multimedia and digital video, such as digitally recorded lectures at the core of MOOCs and related approaches. To check if the “content transmission” was successful with First and Second Wave Edtech, students are typically assessed with multiple choice questions (MCQs) and short answer items.

Unfortunately, considerable research has shown that MCQs mainly assess declarative knowledge or “what” types of understandings, and not explanatory knowledge of “how” and “why” that is required for deeper understandings of knowledge to use for new problems and situations. (I highly recommend ‘Knowing what students know: The science and design of educational assessment’ for a very readable distillation of important research about assessment, research that is quite relevant for the Edtech community as well.)

I believe we are now seeing the Third Wave of Edtech. This Wave combines advances in the fields of cognitive and learning sciences and artificial intelligence with advanced technologies, such as 3D virtual and augmented reality systems, 2D computer modelling and visualisation systems, collaboration technologies, learning analytics, and so on. The Third Wave of Edtech is just now emerging from a variety of cutting edge basic research groups from around the world. Rather than “transmitting” content, Third Wave Edtech has students build and construct their knowledge actively as they learn by doing with support and feedback from their teachers. Research involving Third Wave Edtech is showing dramatic enhancements in how students solidly learn both declarative and explanatory knowledge compared to traditional teaching and to First and Second Wave Edtech approaches.

Why might this notion of the Three Waves of Edtech be helpful? I suggest to the reader to look at the Edtech companies that have been receiving venture capital funding in the past couple of years and deciding for yourself how many companies seem to be “surfing” the First, Second, or Third Waves of Edtech. I suspect you will find very few startup companies on the Third Wave.

As surfers around the world know well, you need to be careful about the wave you choose to ride. For those who develop, invest or use Edtech, I advise you be careful about the Wave you choose as well.

I welcome your thoughts and feedback about the Waves of Edtech, but for now, happy and productive learning!


Reference: Pellegrino, J., Chudowsky, N., & Glaser, R. (2001). Knowing what students know: The science and design of educational assessment. Washington, D.C: National Research Council, National Academy Press.



  1. Yoshiko Ardoin

    April 25, 2016 at 9:56 am

    Very informative

    Very informative article. Education is really important in our everyday lives so we must learn how to use it to be more productive. More power!