2013-01-28-educon
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Why Edtech is Not Radical Enough

Teachers at EduCon urged to 'hack entrepreneurism' to develop a new generation of education approaches

News bulletin to all edtech entrepreneurs who pride themselves on pushing the envelope: There's a group of a teachers who are out in front of you. In fact, they're so far out front that one of their biggest worries is that most of education technology is building software around exactly the kind of practices they would like to see schools abandon. The main thing these radical education thinkers would like to glean from entrepreneurs is not new products but their way of thinking and designing. 

That particularly edgy point of view was the undercurrent of last week's EduCon  conference which called itself “Hacking Entrepreneurship”--a playful jab at all the "hacking education" efforts that have won mindshare over the past two years. The conference, held at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, and its  deep-dive into the real-life successes, failures, barriers and enablers of learning in the K-12 space made the event a refreshing break from the wide-eyed optimism and business-mindedness of Silicon Valley problem-solving. 

With some of the nation’s most innovative and vocal techie teachers and edu-tinkerers sharing out, much of the conference was devoted to developing the next generation of entrepreneurial minds. But more broadly, conference leaders raised pointed questions about entrepreneurship’s role within education. In particular, many seemed to be wondering: how does education develop "agile" mindsets amongst administrators, teachers, parents, and students in an ever-changing political, socioeconomic, and technological landscape?

Ironically, some of the most successful education technology startups and companies are codifying learning through digital re-representations of the current edusphere that many educators are trying to escape. Of course, their successes speak to some real or perceived need, but piggybacking on Shelley Blake-Plock’s notion that education technology "doesn't exist," part of the message of EduCon 2.5 seemed to be that edtech entrepreneurs have yet to tackle the biggest, hairiest, hardest problems in K-12 education.

Here are three takeaways from EduCon 2.5 that summarize problems begging for, as Jeff Pulver eloquently stated during the opening session, some brilliant mind to “focus on the open-ended unboundedness.”

Culture is the Culprit

Deep technology innovations demand cultural shifts. But at least in education, outdated procurement cycles and bureaucratic decision making are setting the agenda for many would-be edtech innovators. What's worse, entrepreneurs aren't trying to change these institutions, because, after all, entrepreneurs need to ship. 

So ship we do -- to the likes of charter organizations, private, and independent schools where it's easier to build a compelling use-case on why a product will do XYZ effectively in a big district setting. This model need not be interrupted as every disruption requires eager early adopters, but it risks ignoring the cultural differences between young, agile school systems, and the weighty, antiquated ones that compose most of the American K-12 landscape.

During the "Disruptive Talent" session, there was plenty of nervous laughter as one teacher described her "deranged" attempts to protect a 72-pack of pencils with a chain and padlock over the summer break from other would-be poaching teachers. Another teacher, in the "Reflecting upon Reflection" session, lamented the toxic atmosphere created by tension between local administrators, union leaders, politicians, and businesspeople. Mirrored all the way down to the teacher's lounge, he felt his school's faculty was permanently divided between the "can-do's," "will-not's," and "I need a job to pay my bills" crowds.

It would seem that as entrepreneurs race to create data-crunching algorithms to increase students' performance on standardized tests, there is also an opportunity to measure, analyze, and simulate policy decisions and outcomes at all levels. Principals and superintendents can remain knee-jerk middle managers or perhaps with technology, they can dynamically lobby for resources that best support their local conditions and help remove external, toxic elements from the teaching profession.

The question for edtech entrepreneurs is whether or not we will continue to create products that tow the line on policy or focus intently on the needs and wishes of educators on the ground. It's not as if entrepreneurs in every other industry have been overly concerned with following the rules as written!

Meaningful, Measurable Outcomes

"A lot of parents have the 'supermarket' mentality."

The quote from a Connecticut middle school principal refers to the test-score one-uppers you're likely to hear from plenty of moms and dads in the grocery store. It may as well be the intensified, 21st century version of the "bumper sticker" mentality. No more "My son/daughter proudly attends..." or "My son/daughter made the A Honor Roll." It's so much sexier to be in the upper 95th percentile of quantitative reasoning -- even if no one knows what that really means.

Facilitating the "Leading When the King has No Clothes" session, Dr. Doug Green lamented how standardized tests, originally intended to group, sort, and track have become the de facto measuring stick for student and teacher performance -- and how everyone assumes that the assessments were expertly designed.

Surprisingly, many teachers in the session found positives in standardized tests: such tests can can be an effective baseline for relative comparison and focused intervention when they are well designed and when the school provides adequate resources for said intervention. The problems, teachers noted, stem from how the outcomes are used.

Teachers noted that there is little evidence that students' test scores can identify effective teachers. Even the progressive and teacher-friendly Measures of Effective Teaching report is licking its wounds after Gary Rubenstein exposed statistical conclusions rife with "unreliability".

Many teachers also noted that standardized tests do a poor job of pinpointing exactly where students are not learning. And when they do, it's usually too late: a student's current teacher must prepare for new students with different learning styles and different learning gaps. Any test-identified deficiencies become problems for the next teacher who will likely need to teach different materials. AYPs fall, funding freezes, and the pressure ratchets up a notch.

The message to edtech entrepreneurs from these teachers: are you are designing products to help students get higher test scores or to provide better feedback for learning? To educators, it really matters if technology is aggregating more and more bad data vs. democratizing control of data.

Dr. Green has published a list of takeaways from the working session on what superintendents, principals, teachers, parents, and students can do "while we wait for policy makers to discover that the test culture they have created is a mistake." Which edtech products support these efforts?

Poverty, policy and people

Without a doubt, the hairiest problem affecting American K-12 education is poverty. Throughout each session there was no escaping the distinction between the have's and have not's. It's a great credit to the EduCon organizers and participants that they could meaningfully exchange thoughts and ideas even when there were, at times, glaring differences in resources of respective schools. 

Edtech can't provide convenient nature walks for students in overcrowded, urban schools. Nor can it turn glue, glitter, and macaroni shells into 3D MakerBots. And it shouldn't: there is an individual responsibility in addressing poverty that extends far beyond Objective-C and OER.

But are we only capable of innovating with iPads and steady broadband? If so, does innovating at the margins trickle down to the average? And are we bold enough to say so outright? If there is more to it, do we carry the business acumen and entrepreneurial resolve to do so?

Fortunately we have great assets on our side. We have dedicated, hard-working teachers like those at EduCon, those on Twitter, and the many more searching for ways to expand and improve. We marvel at digitally savvy (and sometimes deviant) students who are already using technology in ways we neither planned for nor imagined. We can point to detailed models of what does and doesn't work in building great school environments. We have oodles and oodles of good and bad data waiting to be cross-analyzed with valid and rigorous research and presented to the public in digestible formats. We have a growing variety of resources, organizations, and events, all eager to distill relevant and useful information. And of course, we have each other -- the most risk-averse and rational of us left for desk jobs long ago.

The question is: how much are we up for the task? This isn't a fire drill. Don't head for the exit sign.

One More Thing: 

Teacher-blogger Will Richardson had this to say about EduCon 2.5: 

"The reality is that we are now the central organizing force in our own learning and education. It’s not the school or in the institution any longer. "

 For more, see his post: Educon 2.5-ish Random-ish Reflections 


About the Author

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Leonard is a Product Manager and staff writer at EdSurge. Email: leonard@edsurge.com

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