When I buy a new laptop, desktop, or smart phone, I have in mind what I want to use it for and how much I can spend. I then read about the appliance and its software, listen to other users and what they say about it, and then try it out for awhile. I ask myself: does it do what I need it to do? Is the price of the device worth what I want it to do? Then I decide whether or not to invest in it. I am what academics would call a “rational actor.” Yet there is an emotional side to my decision also: how does it look? how does it feel to use? how many other people are using it? Do I really need it or have the ads influenced my decision?
That is me the individual buyer and user. It is not, however, in most instances the classroom teacher who seldom gets the chance to decide what software enter her classroom. The classroom teacher is the end user and yet, in most cases, is seldom consulted about how new instructional software can be best used with students. (I and others have written about this problem of who exactly is the customer for school high-tech and who is the end-user–a split that, in my opinion, impedes integration of high-tech devices into classroom lessons (see here, here, here, and here)
A recent publication from a non-profit organization and for-profit vendors (Digital Promise and The Education Industry Association) makes this point of the divorce between who use the classroom software–the “consumer” (read: district administrators, directors of technology, principals)–and who is the end-user (read: teachers) indirectly while raising directly tough issues that exist in districts when school boards buy laptops, tablets, hand-held devices and software.
In Improving Ed-Tech Purchasing, the authors, in concert with the Johns Hopkins Center for Research and Reform, surveyed over 300 “education leaders and technology executives” and conducted 50 in-depth interviews with these respondents. They were principals, superintendents, business officers, curriculum directors, technology directors, and vendors. Don’t look for teachers in the crowd. They are absent from this study. These respondents are the “consumers,” i.e., customers; teachers are the end-users and were uninvolved in the study.
In the report, these administrators and vendors see teachers as having “limited involvement in procurement decision-making process.” Amen, I say.
The lure of money and doing good (e.g., solving problems of equity, academic achievement, classroom management) draw start-up entrepreneurs into the half-trillion dollar education market daily. Yet treating end-users as the customers, knowing their world well before designing and pitching new “solutions” to old problems continues to be the exception, not the rule. Smart advice to ed tech entrepreneurs and established vendors is already out there. “User-centered design” is promoted by some but continues to be largely ignored by vendors. Listen to the advice Steve Hodas gives in the above publication.
Assuming you were not recently a teacher yourself, I suggest that you work hard to get inside the school, inside the classroom, inside the day-to-day lives of the educators you want to help. If you’re resourceful enough to get in, don’t sell. Don’t demo. Don’t text or tweet. Just watch and listen. Help with a task if you can. Earn the space you’re taking up.
Bring pizza to the teachers’ lounge. Sit in on a common planning period. Clean up after lunch. Act as if you know nothing, be humble, and soak up school sounds and rhythms. Go to school board meetings. Join online forums for parents in your town. Learn what parents and teachers really care about. Until you’ve done these things, it’s arrogant to write code, let alone attempt to sell. Unless you’ve done these things, the likelihood that you are aiming at something big is small. Your solution must manifest your deep understanding of educators’ daily struggles and small victories. That understanding is the beginning of empathy, without which you cannot succeed.
This advice from a person who entered public school work from the business world a few years ago is both useful and essential. But is largely ignored. Even with user-centered design, thousands of teacher entrepreneurs, start-ups, and high-tech cheerleader EdSurge (see here and here) that urge teacher involvement–usually called “stakeholder”–most established vendors continue their myopic (but profitable) ways that Improving Ed-Tech Purchasing documents.