Beyond Build or Buy: The Case for Co-Designing Edtech

Beyond Build or Buy: The Case for Co-Designing Edtech

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All too often, the connection between teachers and technology tools falls flat. Pioneering schools and educators search for technology to support teacher-led instruction, only to find that existing technologies do not meet teachers’ needs. The alternative to off-the-shelf technology is build-it-yourself, but most schools find they lack the scale, revenue sources or expertise to support a software development department.

There is a third alternative, however: partner with a company to co-design new technology.

Partnerships between edtech companies and schools may not seem like an innovative new idea. However, what we describe as partnerships commonly entail little more than developers listening to teachers before designing technologies for the classroom. For technologies that facilitate traditional teaching practices—such as taking attendance, administering and grading quizzes, maintaining a gradebook, or digitizing textbooks—this approach makes sense. These tasks are defined by well-established best practices, and soliciting teacher feedback is an effective way to make sure the technology aligns with common practical approaches for implementing them.

But for edtech companies that aim to transform teaching and learning, it's not enough to solicit feedback from teachers. It doesn’t work to develop technology at arm’s length from the educators developing new teaching practices, especially when trying to enable teachers to focus more on students’ individual learning needs. At the leading edge of educational innovation, the best instructional models are still in flux, and attempts to create technology independent of new teaching practices restrict innovators’ ability to experiment and determine what will actually work.

In the early product development stage of any sector, it’s critical for innovators to design and build all performance-defining system components under the same roof. For example, in the early days of the mainframe computer industry, IBM could not have solely manufactured mainframe computers. Manufacturing was unpredictably interdependent on the design process for the whole system: the machines, operating systems, core memory, and logic circuitry. Specifying how these discrete components should fit together was essentially impossible at the outset.

Instead of subcontracting its constituent parts to subcontractors, IBM realized it essentially had to do everything in order to do anything. Each system—logic circuitry, the application software, the memory systems—had to be designed interdependently with the other systems. A change in one part of a memory system might necessitate a tweak in the application software, which could cause a change in how all the pieces fit together. All of this was unpredictable, and fixing or specifying any one interface would have detracted from IBM’s iterative design and innovation process.

The same pattern holds true for innovative instructional models, where teaching practices are rely on the technologies that facilitate them and vice versa. Any attempts to develop new teaching practices or technologies at arm’s length force innovative educators to back away prematurely from the frontier of what is technologically possible.

The problem with taking an integrated approach in education, however, is that the business models of school systems and technology companies don’t generally fit under the same organizational umbrella. States don’t give schools large amounts of categorical funding for technology R&D; and for-profit tech companies’ fast-growth business models are typically incongruent with the nonprofit, capital-intensive business model of operating public schools. So how do you develop tightly-integrated technologies and instructional practices when you can’t house tech development and school operations under the same roof?

Creating tightly integrated technology and instructional models requires in-depth, collaborative partnerships. By partnership, we don’t mean a tech company taking feedback from users or schools testing software options until they find the right one. We don’t mean occasionally interacting with another organization for feedback. We mean two organizations merging their teams to collaboratively design a tool to support a school’s learning model.

Take, for example, Leadership Public Schools, a charter school management organization that operates three high schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, and its tight-knit partnership with Gooru, a nonprofit edtech company. Embedding the teacher and leaders who developed LPS’s innovative 9th-grade math courses within its design team, Gooru redesigned its Learning Navigator platform to align with the courses’ innovative instructional practices. Within just a few months of using the new Navigator, students in LPS’s Academic Numeracy program were already showing positive learning results.

It remains to be seen whether LPS and Gooru can sustain their partnership over the long-term and whether the free technology and resources they offer at will scale to impact the broader K–12 education sector. But one thing is clear: the two organizations are united in their commitment to create a solution together. LPS sees Gooru playing a crucial role in fulfilling its mission to impact the broader education sector, and Gooru views LPS as an extension of its organization. Their story suggests that when school systems can’t find technologies that align with their innovative instructional models, and when tech companies struggle to ensure their solutions address the real needs of innovative educators, a viable third-way approach is to create the conditions that enable collaborative co-design.

Read the full Clayton Christensen Institute case study here.

Thomas Arnett is an Education Research Fellow at the Clayton Christensen Instituteand author of “Connecting Ed & Tech: A Case Study on Partnership and Collaboration.”

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