Randy Weiner is a co-founder and CEO at BrainQuake, a co-founder at Urban Montessori Charter School in Oakland, CA and former Board Chair, a former teacher, father to two elementary school-aged daughters. In this post, he uses the phrase “we” to refer to those who, like himself, are high-tech entrepreneurs, start companies aimed at the school market, produce software and “solutions” to educators’ problems, and, in general, want to improve the quality of schooling in the U.S.
Weiner anticipates that some readers will disagree with his definition of ed tech. In comments, if you do disagree, offer your amended or new definition and indicate reasons for changes you would make.
Last month, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for education technology companies to focus on addressing problems that matter. Implicit in the Secretary’s challenge is the assumption that education technology can, in fact, actually have an impact on important education problems and opportunities.
To date, however, precious little efficacy research exists to support this assumption, and it is easy to find data that raises questions about ed tech’s potential.
For example, we ed tech entrepreneurs are flooding schools with ed tech offerings, arguably in a counterproductive manner. Numerous studies and surveys, including Digital Promise’s late 2014 “Improving Ed Tech Purchasing”, find school leaders and teachers are overwhelmed by the number of ed tech offerings foisted upon them, making the task of simply identifying those products that might solve problems that matter unnecessarily challenging.
Also, according to the Annie. E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, between 2005 and 2013, the number of American children living in poverty increased by 3%, from ~13.4M to 16.1M. During roughly that same time period, nearly $2B flowed into ed tech ventures and 2014 alone saw over $1B in U.S. ed tech investment. $2B hardly registers within the context of the U.S. Department of Education budget, but it is roughly one-third of Los Angeles Unified’s school budget and nearly one-tenth of New York City’s Department of Education budget. If one of education’s goals is to increase economic opportunity and lift children out of poverty, ed tech dollars have yet to demonstrate a meaningful impact on children’s prospects.
To rise to the Secretary’s challenge, we in the ed tech community must take a few steps backward to clearly define what we mean by education technology itself.
Ed tech’s fundamental responsibility is to re-imagine the very interface to education. That is, technology, intelligently applied, should reveal insight to previously inaccessible, actionable teaching and learning opportunities that impact student outcomes, whether they pertain to the student, the teacher, the parent, the administrator and/or the community.
We need an ed tech definition that has a sense of pedagogical and education product development history. We need an ed tech definition that reflects an understanding of how to identify and assess a potential innovation related to an education problem that matters. With such a definition, we will improve the probability of aligning technology to opportunities to impact stagnant education problems.
My proposed definition pertains to both existing low tech solutions (for example, Audrey Watters has rightly observed that windows in a classroom ought to be considered instructional technology) that are generally not considered to be “education technology” and future ed tech product development that emphasizes demonstrably improved student outcomes ahead of a product’s codebase.
Education technology is a previously unavailable, best possible and proven interface that increases student achievement on one of the nation’s top three education problems or opportunities.
Let’s take a closer look at the definition’s key components.
*”Previously unavailable”: If your problem is not already successfully addressed by a person, product or service, then you may have an ed tech opportunity.
We in the ed tech community can help simply by checking ourselves: there is no need to develop redundant offerings when schools are already distracted by an overabundance of products.
*”Best possible”: Ed tech developers must force themselves to articulate why the use of technology in their product is unquestionably the absolute best possible choice for impacting student outcomes. Unfortunately, we ed tech entrepreneurs have yet to evolve the following to the cliché it should be: Focus needs to be on problems first, solutions second.
*”Proven” – This word echoes Secretary Duncan’s call for ed tech companies to conduct comparison or control group research – a relative rarity today — to justify a product’s adoption when America’s teachers have not a minute to waste in preparing children to participate in tomorrow’s economy.
*”Interface”: Refer to my initial comments above regarding what it means to view ed tech as an interface to accessing and experiencing education in new ways.
Taken together, “previously unavailable”, “best possible”, “proven” and “interface” combine to form a concise, outcomes-oriented focus for ed tech product development that any education technologist can apply to his or her work.
The last phrase in my definition, “that increases student achievement on one of the nation’s top three problems or opportunities” is equally important.
My own biases suggest that the nation’s top three opportunities include:
1. Future-proofing our children by teaching the concrete creative problem-solving skills and mindsets that consistently produce breakthrough organizations, products and services (non-profit or for-profit
2. Developing a national, lifelong learning culture that imbues children with the creative confidence to change the worl
3. Scaling pedagogy and assessment that recognizes that a “one size fits all” approach may not fit anyone
My point, however, is not to establish that my priorities are correct – of course there will be plenty of disagreement. Rather, the larger point is that we in ed tech should unite to prioritize our efforts so as to minimize redundancy and increase investment focus. Intensely disciplined focus on one to three problems at a time will minimize distractions at the school site and incentivize ed tech entrepreneurs to concentrate on deeply understanding critical problems that limit children’s futures and constrain economic growth.
Fortunately, there is a tool that drives such focus: the X Prize’s community platform, HeroX.
HeroX is not the X Prize, though it is related. HeroX crowdfunds prizes for solutions to problems that matter. At the time of this post, searches for “education technology” and “ed tech” do not yield a single relevant result. The ed tech community could lead by example, banding together to establish a disciplined priority list for U.S. students. Each year a new prize (assuming a past year’s prize has been claimed) could arise to drive focus and innovation on problems that truly matter.
A more focused definition of ed tech can provide guidance for entrepreneurs and stakeholders looking to use technology to improve educational outcomes for children. To date, we in ed tech have flooded the market with unproven products that distract schools from otherwise focusing on serving their children. In doing so, we have attracted billions of dollars that have not changed children’s future at scale. We can do better and we should start with an inspiring definition of and laser focus on what it is we are trying to deliver in the first place.