If you do not spend at least some of your time in either Tech or Education, you may not know exactly what is meant by the term “EdTech.” Not unlike “FinTech” (technology that enables banking and finance activity) or “MedTech” (technology that enables medical and health activity), EdTech refers to digital solutions in the education space that make the work of educators more efficient or better and the work of students easier and more impactful--or at least that is the hope.
As I write this blog, I’m spending a few days in Los Angeles for the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools Convening, of which the district I lead is a part. This year’s convening began with a pre conference for the newly formed Center for Inclusive Innovation. As educational leaders, we live at the intersection of education and technology and are impacted by the flood of “great ideas,” venture capital, and go-to-market strategy that has inundated our industry in the last ten years, no more so than the last three when the pandemic brought significant demand for digital solutions to new and often misunderstood challenges. As we approach what I would call an “edtech hangover” brought about by the pandemic, organizations like Digital Promise and others like ISTE (national/international and soon to merge with ASCD) and CUE (California specific) are well positioned to help us navigate the impacts.
Being around education colleagues from across the country, edtech entrepreneurs, non-profit partners, and academic researchers the last couple of days, I am finding some clarity around what edtech can ‘get right’ if they really want to have impact--in local communities and at scale--in order to assist the teachers and students they aim to serve.
One thing is certain as I participate in these conversations: nearly everyone is in it for the right reasons. Are there opportunists looking simply to access what seems to be an endless supply of venture funds to seed an idea that will one day make them rich? Sure. You really can’t escape that in any capitalist venture. However, the overwhelming majority of folks operating in the space of EdTech research and design have the same desires as teachers, parents, and students. This entire ecosystem is trying to create tools that make the jobs of educators more efficient, the instruction of teachers more impactful, the learning of students more engaging and effective, and the wellness of all involved a higher priority.
So who’s at this edtech ‘dinner party’? Who will wake up the next day with the hangover and who will not?. What will make the difference? Here are some of my reflections from the last few days…
Welcome in, but the house is a mess.
As anyone involved in innovation can tell you, research and design (R&D) are messy. The best solutions (whether digital or not) will come when folks from lots of perspectives are in the room, so we educators want those of you who have resources (venture and philanthropy), those of you who are designing solutions (edtech entrepreneurs), and those of you who are researching the impacts (academia and nonprofit) to partner with us and we hope the same is true for you. So, come on in. Take off your shoes. Stay a while. AND…be prepared for the mess. If you don’t like or aren’t ready for the messy, take some time to get comfortable with it and then come on back.
Be ready to spend (your) money, but read the menu carefully, please.
Research and Design is expensive and schools don’t have the resources necessary to do the R&D for you. Is there an unusually large pot of money available to schools as a result of the pandemic and several years of economic growth? YES! But, those dollars are largely ONE-TIME funds. What schools need most right now are people, not tools. Tools are important, but they are only as effective as the people integrating them. Thus, prepare that we will spend this money on people. In my district, we are taking one-time funds and spreading it out over three years to ensure we can put as many well-prepared and effective people (teachers, interventionists, mental health, etc.) walking alongside our students--even if the money only lasts us a few years. In my experience, too many edtech solutions have ill-informed go-to-market and pricing strategies. Too many entrepreneurs want to pass the high cost of R&D onto the schools. Too much venture capital results in bad or underdeveloped ideas making it to market. If all stakeholders can work to thoughtfully spend the sizable money that is available from the disparate but necessary sources, then more effective products will emerge and all sides will prosper.
The house is LOUD; help us turn down the volume.
One clear frustration I heard from edtech entrepreneurs and their nonprofit and venture partners is the challenge of getting in front of educational procurement decision-makers and, once in the door, getting teachers to adopt new technologies, rather than letting purchased solutions collect virtual dust. I love design. I welcome new ideas. I appreciate entrepreneurial efforts. AND, the level of noise in the digital problem-solution space is even too much for me right now. If, in this post-pandemic hangover, I’m covering my ears and closing my eyes to edtech, imagine how educational leaders who aren’t warm to innovation are reacting. Simply put, there’s too much on the plates of our educators right now. If you aren’t already in the room, it’s going to be very difficult for you to get there. To ensure that good ideas and needed solutions overcome the noise, get purchased, and get adopted a few things need to happen. First, additive measures have to be met with subtractive measures. While subtractive measures are largely overseen by administrators and Boards, edtech solutions that help with subtraction have a better chance of getting in the door. Secondly, the pressure that teachers feel creates a sense of urgency that is exhausting to always live in and limits our ability to thrive. Educational leaders (yes, folks like me) and our adjacent partners need to hold the sense of urgency around learning and wellness outcomes. We cannot let go of the urgency because it is IN the urgency that real solutions arise. AND…we need to pull out all the stops in ensuring that the urgency doesn’t create frenetic, stressful anxiety among our student-facing staff. Easy? No. If you are not prepared to turn down the volume, maybe wait for the next dinner party.
If your first name is Ed and your last name is Tech, you’re not the guest of honor.
If entrepreneurs are frustrated by how difficult it is to get traction in schools, let me share one of our frustrations. Too few educators and students are involved in your design process--and every other part of the process. Here’s the bottom line, if you are in the edtech space and you are more focused on PRODUCT than on the USER, you’re going to fail. Full stop. The table we educators set ABSOLUTELY has room for folks other than educators. We value what you know and can do. We can and do learn from you. But the reverse also has to be true. Too many education adjacent companies are started by entrepreneurs with no context in education other than “they went to school.” Too many education solutions are designed by technical experts and product designers with little contextual understanding of what problems educators face and are needing to solve. Too many funders provide money without asking the hard questions about the experience of the user. The products that have educators and students at the center of every step will win the day.
If the table inside doesn’t look like the community outside, you’re at the wrong house.
If your technology doesn’t solve for the inequities that harm marginalized and minoritized communities, or worse, if your technology exacerbates those inequities, even unintentionally, then stop what you’re doing right now and start again. Issues of access are the first order of business when designing for inclusivity. If students, teachers, and caregivers can’t access your technology whether due to connectivity, hardware, language, location, or any other number of issues--solve for that first. Once issues of access are addressed, then interrogate how your solutions are providing support for the users that have been historically excluded from tools that further their learning. You can’t do that if the folks at the R&D table all look alike, have the same stories and perspectives, and run in the same circles. If you can’t see it, you can’t solve it. The more your R&D involves multiple perspectives, the greater chance your solution will actually solve something. Efforts like the Center for Inclusive Innovation are designed to help you do just that; theirs is a table to which you hope to be invited!
All this to say, the table is set and it can fit everyone who needs to be there. There’s a banquet full of food ready to taste. Some bites--the most thoughtful, and well designed among them--will be worthy of seconds. Those at the feast who don’t gorge themselves on everything and take time to savor the best dishes and engage in deep conversation with those around them will awake the next day happy and satiated, avoiding the hangover altogether.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.