Software Will Not ‘Eat’ Education (Ben Stern)

Ben Stern is “the Manager of Education Partnerships at TeachBoost and an advisor to Ponder. Formerly a history teacher and technology integrator….” This appeared in EdSurge September 11, 2014.


Marc Andreessen, with the support of long-time colleague and amateur rapper Ben Horowitz, famously leads Andreessen Horowitz with the thesis that software will “eat the world.” Naturally, I wonder whether it will “eat” education.

Most recently, Andreessen and Horowitz suggest healthcare, education, and government are poised to be eaten. They may be right about healthcare. Government, they admit, is a longer way off. Education may be more imminent. Andreessen explains,

Technology is not driving down costs in…education, but it should…[Access is] the critical thing. We need to get every kid on the planet access to what we consider today to be a top Ivy League education. The only way to do that is to apply technology.

Ostensibly supporting this thesis is the growing edtech industry, in which I work. $452 million of VC money in 2013 is no small potatoes. Andreessen and Horowitz must be on to something, right?
No – at least, not as they frame the issue.

The biggest problem in education is not, and never will be, that too few students have access to Harvard. Let’s ignore for a moment the discussion about the value of an Ivy League education. Instead, consider the myopia of this view of education. K-12, as opposed to higher ed, is more relevant to the vast majority of Americans. Rightfully, getting every kid into Harvard is far from the top concern of anyone involved in this space, whether as a student, parent, educator, policy-maker, or entrepreneur. Let’s get every kid into and through high school first.

The many issues in K-12 –the achievement gap, funding disparities, and teacher attrition rates, to name just a few –are not issues that can be resolved by instant access. In fact, they are not software problems. They are human issues, political issues. Software alone will not change ,  much less save ,  the world of education.

Software can help, under three conditions:

  1. Edtech should be designed to focus on a narrow set of problems. The complexity of the American education system can be frustrating for companies, but it exists for a reason: educating 77 million students isn’t simple. Certain parts of it must exist to manage so many people. Companies aiming to
    1. overhaul education with their product are DOA. Instead, they should be targeting inefficiencies in the system. Companies ought to recognize that there are certain confines within which they must operate.
    2. Related, edtech companies ought to make sure the problem they solve is a real problem, not a mere annoyance. Often, great edtech software never gets adopted because it’s solving a problem that doesn’t yet exist, or won’t exist until 20 years of innovation have transpired. Companies that believe that their software will help to usher in a whole new educational model, who will truly disrupt or “eat” education, probably won’t. Iterative –not radical – change is itself ambitious in education, an industry in which the most successful companies thus far reinforce the status quo.
    3. To focus on the right problem, companies must assume a purely Socratic approach  :  know that they “know nothing,” and be inquisitive, open-minded, and responsive . By asking rather than answering questions, companies can deliver software that helps humans improve teaching and learning.

    Using good software, humans begin to chip away at the big issues of the day: software might free up time to focus on the issues, surface data that elucidates the issue, and empower teachers and learners to grow in new ways But humans do the important work. Software must strike a delicate balance between innovating and meeting current, non-technological needs–a balance that’s harder to strike in education than anywhere else. But who said startups should be easy?


Filed under Reforming schools, technology use

20 responses to “Software Will Not ‘Eat’ Education (Ben Stern)

  1. Larry – honored to appear on your blog. I’ve followed and studied your work for years. I’d love to connect and chat about these ideas more if you’re willing.


  2. Software will eat education if money and efforts are spent on hardware and software that don’t contribute to student educational success. What can and should educators do? According to educational experts, they know how people learn and those conditions and approaches which help or hinder delivering quality education and learning. And, at some level, there is agreement what should be learned, certainly at the PreK-8 level. Educators should make that information easily available. Perhaps, the successful teaching and learning of this information should be the first course supported by software. (From what I’ve heard from teachers, the methods used to teach teachers how to teach and improve don’t use the methods they say are effective — you’ve got to eat your own dog food).

    The other use of software is identify and implement support systems for those tasks which are overhead for teachers, students, and parents. Teachers, parents and students should spend as little time as possible fulfilling the needs and desires of administrators, including those who think that accountability is the key to success.

  3. Its not like killing education, its like the proper use of the technique, a software can help teachers and students, it depends on us how we manage or design a software for that purpose, all depends on our mind, dont forget a virus is also a software but has got negative impact.

    • larrycuban

      Actually, the success of software depends greatly on how much of customers’ perspective and context come into play for software designer. Nice reminder about virus as software. Thanks for comment.

  4. I view the evolution of ed tech somewhat differently. I argue there are three major purposes for which the technology can make a difference.
    1) Improved instruction and assessment – this will always be a shared responsibility between software and human teachers. What the tech can do here is to help teachers and students work smarter, as with differentiated instruction (formative assessment). Instead of the teacher having to do everything without assistance, some specific instructional and assessment tasks can be automated, leaving the teacher free to do those things that have highest value because they can’t be automated.
    2) Improved management – ed tech can automate the crushing load of paperwork that teachers now face; it can partially automate curriculum and lesson planning; it can automate record keeping and reporting at all levels, thus making possible a degree of evidence-based practice for all levels of the system, from classroom teachers and parents to the district, state, and federal policy makers and administrators. It can manage some kinds of testing. This is where I put applications that improve communication and access: their value proposition does not necessarily include better instruction than a class; it does include improved access.
    3) Cost saving – automation of various process can save costs, if they offset other costs now built into the system. The most obvious examples include access to information (not instruction) by way of the Internet, e-textbooks, and the like — if they offset the costs of print textbooks, encyclopedias, etc. Automated test delivery is a direct cost offset to handling paper tests. Online courses could be an offset to campus-based classes (though online applications do have their own infrastructure costs) – if the accounting system works that way.

    Within these broad categories I’ve identified I have identified over a dozen specific roles for ed tech. Each has its own value proposition, profiles of users and their needs, profiles of buyers/influencers, profiles of implementation, and cost-benefit timeline (over a period of years). Understanding ed tech in this way starts with a deep systemic understanding of how education works — something that is rarely in evidence in many of today’s ed tech developers, whether for-profit or not.

  5. JoeN

    I’d make one key observation about this post. It helps to understand the complex procurement routes technology companies have to negotiate, in order to sell anything substantial into the education market place, and it’s even more useful to know something about the people who manage those routes.

    The UK government, for example, has recently reissued their ICT Services for Education framework, which any company needs to get onto, if they want to operate in the education market. Getting onto that framework is a competitive, complex, formal process requiring a team of skilled, experienced and knowledgable people: writers, project managers, technicians and accountants. Regular readers of yours Larry, might be interested to hear that this new framework has abandoned previous inflated rhetoric that asked suppliers to explain how their technology would “transform” education, for a more pragmatic request that they deal with educational “impact.”

    • larrycuban

      Thanks so much, Joe, for linking viewers to UK’s ICT services for Education framework and, even, the shift in language.

    • Hi Joe! Found your comment on my TeachBoost colleague Ben’s post really interesting. I am new to the UK Education landscape and would greatly value the opportunity to learn from your experience and insights around the UK education landscape, ICT Services for Education framework and the teacher CPD space. Message me at rachel (at) teachboost (dot) com

  6. Software are design for our help not for troubles it just depend on how we use it.

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