Reading & Reacting: EdTech Start-ups and the Curse of the Familiar

Photo: Computer lab

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by Jonathan Reyes

By Justin Reich @ EdWeek‘s EdTech Researcher

There is a lament that I have been voicing for the last few years about education technology. Essentially, I feel that most edtech is gimmicky and not nearly as helpful as the marketing would lead anyone to believe.

Justin Reich intuitively understand this problem, characterizing it in a very different way than I would in his recent EdWeek blogpost. He frames it as more of an economic imperative.

Here’s my question to the ed-tech start-up scene: if you are building things that are familiar, how are they going to substantially change education?

If our problems are mere inefficiencies–if we need students doing basically exactly what they’ve been doing before but faster–then the gambit of building apps that mirror typical classroom practices will work out great.

As progressive as I can be with technology in my classroom, the hot new tool is unlikely to catch my interest. In fact, most of the tech tools I use in my classroom are not necessarily educational products, or at least not primarily designed with the education market in mind.

My problem with a lot of edtech products is that they essentially serve to solve old pedagogical problems. So the new tool that will deliver a faster and easier way to administer a multiple choice quiz doesn’t interest me all that much. I know, if I set it up properly, I don’t even have to score it. That would be great if I was terribly interested in multiple choice quizzes or tests. I am not.

That scenario is simple substitution, which is what makes up an enormous amount of the education technology. Perhaps there is some minor alterations or modifications made, but the key word is minor.

That is why Reich’s short piece resonated with me. Despite written for a broad audience, it is as if Reich’s piece is aimed directly at the edtech industry, which I also like a lot too.

If you think that the problems in classrooms are not just about kids doing things a little faster, but doing different things than is current practice, then you need to build things that will be unfamiliar. If your technology is unfamiliar, you need to patiently build a network of educators experimenting with your ideas, reshaping systems–bells, exams, furniture, devices–to accommodate your new technology into a new vision. Initially, these people won’t buy your weirdness; you will practically have to pay them to implement your new ideas. During this period, you will not eat.

There is enormous pressure on a edtech entrepreneurs to produce something that is familiar, or as Reich puts it “familiar,” in hopes of marketing and selling it. There are also likely investors who want to see some returns. Transformation takes time and rarely is based on a singular event. In fact, it usually occurs after a series of failed attempts. It is not likely to happen inside the next quarter.

This is one of the problems with a market-based point of view on the world. It is ill-fitting in the education context. Like the investment a teacher makes in a student, the returns are rarely seen or fully understood in the short term. Thus, playing it safe and retracing the familiar is a lot easier, but not necessarily better — and certainly not transformative.

When it comes to technology in my classroom, I am far more interested in looking for more new and interesting problems for myself and my students.

Image: iPad

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and flipped to Teaching Today

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