The edtech community is obsessed with building things. But in addition to “things,” education also involves a complex, interconnected system of people and processes.
Any attempts to improve education must look at it as a system. No single piece of technology out-of-the-box can produce a meaningful educational result by itself. That was my takeaway from the Carnegie Foundation Summit on Improvement in Education held recently in San Francisco.
The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching has been a strong advocate for applying Total Quality Management (TQM)—a set of principles articulated by W. Edwards Deming—to improve U.S. education. Deming is credited with the dramatic improvement in the quality of Japanese products after World War II. By instilling a top-to-bottom culture of continuous improvement that valued getting the process right rather than focusing only on the final product, Japanese companies eventually produced much better cars than US manufacturers. Carnegie has been helping educators adapt TQM from its manufacturing origins to the messy, human-centered reality they face.
Lesson from Deming: Does technology enable the process?
I have previously written in EdSurge that public education is “a compliance-driven, risk-averse environment.” The situation is even more challenging for technology companies since the benefits of classroom technology are still open to debate. Most school officials look to “research” for guidance on teaching and learning, but it is not realistic for companies to run controlled studies for several years to prove the efficacy of individual products.
Usage is usually cited as a measure of success for technology, but that metric by itself does not prove educational value. Student outcomes lie well downstream of clicks and screen-time.
So how can schools justify investing in technology?
TQM proposes that we stop our fixation on targets (remember No Child Left Behind?) and focus on continuously improving the underlying processes. In other words, the success of technology should not be measured solely by test scores or student outcomes, which are impacted by a myriad of factors, but by how well the technology enables and enhances new pedagogies adopted by educators.
Technology can touch students, teachers, administrators and other non-teaching staff, and parents. Companies must determine what everyone who is impacted will have to do differently. Will they have to do more work or is there something they can stop doing? Contrary to the popular narrative, the introduction of technology into the traditional classroom can require teachers to do more work and not just different work, at least during the ramp-up phase. More intensive professional development may not increase adoption if teachers do not see sufficient accommodation by the district for the changes they are expected to make.
Don’t go it alone
Currently, education technology is a fragmented industry. Startups trying to scale beyond early adopter teachers are frustrated trying to reach central office staff. The few success stories seem random.
Internet pioneer and AOL founder Steve Case advises entrepreneurs to resist their natural inclination to go it alone. Many founders try to follow the business models of sensations like Facebook and Google, but he says the playbook that created these icons has largely failed to disrupt education and other regulated sectors such as healthcare. In his book “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur's Vision of the Future,” Case says that the central role of government as both regulator and customer necessitates a different strategy: entrepreneurs need to construct a dialogue with government (which includes school districts) to influence policy, and the winning companies will be those that form the right partnerships.
Education consultants and edtech companies would be ideal partners
Districts implement specific strategies to try to achieve their goals. Some seek “technical assistance” from education consultants, usually former educators. Since these consultants are usually engaged with the district well before it shops for technology, and can be instrumental in setting its direction, they would be ideal partners for edtech companies. The consultants become familiar with products that enhance their strategies, the companies are connected with districts that need their products, and districts are introduced to only those companies that share their philosophy.
Case’s advice to seek partnerships makes sense; most edtech companies cannot effectively touch all the pertinent parts of a school system by themselves. Reform is the result of educators assimilating experiences, data and research to align their school systems in a new direction. Working in concert with district staff and education consultants, technology can prove its value by helping to facilitate that re-alignment.