As many readers know, I spend a lot of time on the road -- typically about half my time in Eugene and about half my time in Silicon Valley. For the past ten days or so, I've been in the latter -- always a great opportunity to talk with tech folks face-to-face instead of just taking briefings by phone.
Oh sure, not all ed-tech entrepreneurs are in San Francisco, but this past week I've had a chance to chat with some great ones: LearnBoost, Grockit, Uncollege, InternMatch, Schoology.
Close observers to the industry know, of course, that Schoology is a New York startup, but the company was here in San Francisco last weekend exhibiting at ASCD, and, I should add, ASCD in town was an added bonus for me, meaning I had an opportunity to talk not just with startups but with educators.
But walking through that exhibit hall, then talking with forward-thinking educators like Steven Anderson and with forward-thinking ed-tech startups, I was reminded of just how intractable some of the forces seem in education and education technology and just what a disconnect there is between wants and needs and marketing and product and pedagogy and showrooms and classrooms.
Here are just a few of the things I've been stewing on:
Public Dollars versus Private Dollars
I hear some educators grumble about the role of corporate dollars in education. They fear the privatization of schools (which makes sense) and thus look with great suspicion at anyone who is trying to "make a buck" by building education companies. While yes, we need to be vigilant about exploitation and profiteering, I think that it is a short-sighted, and frankly, silly stance to snarl at anyone and everyone who's entering the space, particularly if we're only going to apply our critiques to technology companies (okay, and maybe those companies whose products end up in the cafeteria). Where is the rage against the makers of Number 2 pencils? Where is the anger about the monopoly of Mead?
Yes, a private company may be motivated by profit, but we cannot really pretend that public dollars are pure or unmotivated. If we are going to ask difficult questions about which companies are involved in education -- about who we're buying from, about what they know about pedagogy, for example, and we should -- then we need to ask those same questions of all companies, not just those that are building tech products. Moreover, we need to ask those same questions of all funding, because as Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind should make clear, government spending doesn't really "get it" either.
Demanding Effective Teaching/Tools
Along those same lines, we need to question all tools and ask whether or not they're useful, whether or not they're working. I've seen a lot of push-back in the last few weeks about Khan Academy, for example, questioning whether or not online videos are effective in math and science instruction. This is important. But we need to ask hard questions about every tool, not just tech tools. Yes, we should review and assess a new algebra app, for example, but we need to also review and assess the algebra textbook as well.
Let's think of President George W. Bush here, who once uttered the very revealing statement "Rarely is the question asked 'Is our children learning?'" I mean, clearly tech isn't the savior or the pariah of grammar, at the very least.
New Ed-Tech, Same as the Old Ed-Tech
One of the most disheartening things about the exhibit floor of ASCD (which, in all fairness, wasn't an ed-tech event) was just how Web 1.0 most things felt. Heck, Web 1.0 may be a stretch. There were exceptions, of course (Schoology, Google). And you can hardly judge the State of Ed-Tech by what happens in an Exhibit Hall, as the odds are stacked against new, "lean" startups. You need to sell a lot of $.99 iPhone apps to pay for a booth; you probably only need to sell one or two interactive whiteboards to do so.
But Exhibit Halls aren't the only place where technology that is grossly out-of-date still dominates education. Classrooms are full of old computers and old software, due in part to budget constraints to be sure. But there are new tools and new apps that are being built for classrooms now -- tools would never pass muster in the consumer technology market because, well, they're crap.
It's all well and good to laugh at Comic Sans and radio buttons and animated GIFs as some sort of retro-Nineties-Geocities joke. But damn, a lot of education technology still looks like that.
Education and Ed-Tech Are Not a "Niche Topic"
One of the problems is that education technology continues to be siloed. Many times, we're off building ed-tech tools to solve problems rather than thinking about ways in which we can use existing products to serve our educational needs. Google Apps is a good example of this. Rather than having to acquire a productivity suite that's designed and marketed solely to schools, Google Apps for Edu gives schools the same tools that businesses and consumers utilize.
Granted, schools have special requirements and not everything will translate. But I think in a lot of instances, it can. And some companies do recognize the ways in which their products and services are being used in schools and work to support those efforts. Skype's new Skype in the Classroom program, a directory to help teachers connect with others using the VOIP service, is a good example.
But this isn't always happening, and there are lot of obstacles that stand in the way. Filtering may be the biggest. I continue to be surprised to learn of sites that are blocked in schools. (The latest: the document-sharing service Scribd. I mean, really? There's porn on Scribd?!) I'd argue that we need to do more about fighting filtering -- making the case for unblocking Scribd, YouTube, Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, Wikipedia. We need to work with these companies to help flag inappropriate material, but we shouldn't just surrender to blocking and then go about building alternative tools that assume schools must be isolated from the rest of the Internet and the rest of the world.
And finally, let me end this rant by saying this: Please do not tell me that education is a "niche topic" and that education technology is my "personal issue" and that I am narrowing my focus and hurting my chances of doing good journalism by focusing on such a tiny thing. That attitude is part of the problem. My work, I hope, is part of the answer.