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A Three-Part View of the Teacher Tools Landscape

By Adam Geller

In consumer technology explaining your place can be as simple as explaining the problem and solution in one sentences: People have a pain point, and we have a solution for that.

In education, though, while you might be solving a real problem for educators and delivering value, you also need to explain how you’re part of the broader process and system.

The problem we’re solving with Edthena seems quite straightforward--Edthena brings the process of observation and feedback online for teacher improvement using recorded video and specialized commenting tools. We try to remove the challenges of having the right person in the right place at the right time to provide coaching and support.

But that explanation can sometimes be followed by questions like, “How is this different from Khan Academy? They use video, too, right?”

In the case of Khan Academy, the process of clarification is simple. Khan provides model content for students, Edthena provides infrastructure for the process of teachers getting feedback on their own instruction.

But other times the comparisons need more nuanced answers. And a fifteen sentence explanation related just to Edthena and Product X isn’t likely to keep anyone’s attention.

So instead of rambling on about what we do, I’ve been offering an answer in the form of a three-part view of the professional development tools landscape. The framework neatly divides the world into three distinct categories which mirror the natural understanding of how teaching would work.

And the best part? It’s only three parts (easy to remember!) and can apply to technology and non-technology education tools alike.

I present the three parts here in the order I use “in real life.” And you’ll notice it’s out of order. I liken it to telling someone about your Thin Mints inspired ice cream sandwich with a chocolate brownie cookie on each side of the delicious experience. This helps build expectation that there’s something substantive joining together those two parts, something as integral to the experience as peppermint ice cream.

Part 1: Getting ready to teach

Tools in this category are comprised mostly of concrete resources like lesson plans or video samples of how to teach specific content. Examples of Part 1 tools:

  • Mathalicious tries to help teachers bring real life context to their lessons like teaching area of circles by determining the value of pizza sizes.
  • BetterLesson allows teachers to browse more than 300,000 resources including lesson plans, classroom materials, and instructional resources uploaded by other teachers. As the name implies, they want to be the place you can go to get a “better lesson” to teach any topic.

Part 3: Getting better in the role of teacher

The goal of the best teachers is to continually increase effectiveness. In an offline world, this might be done by attending a conference, observing the practice of other teachers, or even reading a book. There are also a variety of online tools and resources meant to address this “next step” need. Examples include:

  • Success at the Core is a collection of bite-sized professional development modules on skills like structuring peer assessment which feature documentary-style videos to explore and illustrate best practices. Links are provided to additional resources to help learners gain a broad understanding of the skill.
  • TeacherLine, which is produced by PBS, offers a large catalogue of online professional development courses which can be taken for graduate credit. These are full-length courses like might be experienced at a local university.

Part 2: Understanding how you’re doing as a teacher

This is the part I think some people overlook or don’t think about as much as Parts 1 and 3 when talking about technology to help teachers improve.

Part 2 tools are those that help teachers understand how they’re doing as a teacher at the act of teaching.

Today, many of the online tools in this category focus on analyzing student data:

  • Gradecam helps teachers get instant feedback from assessments and analyze the data quickly. What this means in practice is that they provide a camera-based grading of bubble sheets on any computer. Think Scantron + webcam + instant analysis.
  • Kickboard provides a flexible tracking tool for analyzing student mastery data. With Kickboard teachers can integrate the assessment data from a variety of sources (maybe even Gradecam) to highlight specific skill areas which may need improvement.

The other “best of class” tools and strategies to help teachers understand their performance in the role of a teacher exist mostly offline today. These are things like peer-observation or expert coaching. At Edthena, we see ourselves as a Part 2 tool since we want to bring observation and feedback online.

Teacher improvement = Part 1 + 2 + 3

This three-part part view helps tell most of the story about the types of teacher tools. But there’s still something left that needs to be called out explicitly -- it’s the relationship between the parts. For this I leave you with the image of Toy Story character Slinky Dog and his three distinct body parts.

I believe this comparison is helpful for illustrating a belief that the tools that serve the Part 2 role are themselves unlikely to overlap with and compete with the function and purpose of Part 1 or Part 3 tools. They are are the connection between the two worlds of getting ready to teach and taking action to get better.

Thinking of the teacher professional development landscape in these three parts makes it clear to me that all three parts are necessary to help teachers be successful in their roles.

So what do you think?

Other important thoughts:

  • In theory, a tool could be classified as fitting multiple parts. However, I’d argue strongly that each of these problems is big enough that companies should focus on one and how to be successful.
  • This is a framework for understanding the types of tools, but teacher improvement is itself a constant cycle.
  • A list of teacher improvement tools would not include any tools which fall across the line of professional development and anywhere in the realm of teacher evaluation. For my thoughts on why, see this past article.

Adam Geller is the founder of Edthena. He’s a certified teacher and principal who has also spent time on the national strategy team of Teach For America and as a Kauffman Foundation Education Ventures fellow. Recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30, Adam is also the founder of Teach For Us.


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