Alan November on the '$1000 Pencil' and Why Edtech Companies Aren’t Pushing the Envelope

Alan November on the '$1000 Pencil' and Why Edtech Companies Aren’t Pushing the Envelope


A few weeks back, EdSurge published a podcast interview with education consultant and commentator Alan November, and Director of Secondary Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment for the Houston Independent School District Mike Dorsey, after chatting with the two education experts at ISTE. The interview got quite a number of listens, likely because November said that the edtech industry had created a “mess” at one point in the interview. However, November was only able to be with us for about ten minutes in that interview, so we really didn’t get a chance to delve into what he meant by “a mess.”

Hence, EdSurge decided to enter back into that conversation with November, this time in a Q&A covering his thoughts on the “$1000 pencil,” whether Khan Academy is or is not pushing the envelope, and how any change in the classroom has to start with the teacher. How has the edtech industry created a “mess”—and more importantly, whose responsibility is it to clean up that message, according to November? (For the full interview, check out this new EdSurge On Air podcast episode.)

EdSurge: Thanks for sitting down with us again, Alan. Your last (brief) interview with us incited a few passionate reactions, from individuals wanting to know what you meant by saying that the edtech industry has created a “mess.” Can you elaborate on that, a bit?

Alan November: So, there’s a seminal book by a Harvard business school professor named Shoshana Zuboff, called In The Age of the Smart Machine. It talks about how merely adding technology to the environment without processes can only lead to incremental improvement, at best. So, that book has influenced me a lot.

Usually, when business buys technology, the country can actually measure productivity units per person, which has been going up on a pretty regular basis. Technology makes work more productive—you’re able, frankly, to use fewer workers. If you’re building an automobile or plowing a field, one guy can now do the work of a hundred or a thousand people, so increases the productivity of the one guy. So, you have these two ways where technology really pays off—either improvement of productivity, or the quality of the work.

How does this translate to the education space?

Without question, we have not improved productivity of teachers. 

We do not need fewer teachers. Some librarians have gotten wiped out as a result of schools thinking they don’t need books (though it’s not a big number). I don’t think anyone can argue that productivity of teachers has improved. If anything, productivity has dropped since we’ve been adding technology. If anyone wants to argue against that, do it! What we’re left with is this: Have we improved the quality of the work that all the same people do that were there before? I just don’t see that.

People say, “How can you possibly defend that we should be looking at standardized test scores when technology doesn’t help those things?” I get that argument all the time, especially from people in the field. “It’s not fair to expect that technology will improve the core business of education.” But that IS why schools exist, to teach those content and skills!

What Zuboff argues in her book is that you will not get any improvement in the quality of work if you don’t redefine the work, or change processes. For example, if you have thousands of questions in Khan Academy, but they’re the same questions we’ve always asked in Algebra class, there’s no change in the design of the work. But if every kid can get immediate feedback on their answers, that’s a change in process.

I don’t think the industry has read the research, or realizes how sophisticated and complicated adding technology is. It’s clearly not a question of “Let’s buy everyone a device and train teachers to buy a thousand apps.” That is not how to solve this problem. You end up with the $1000 pencil.

One problem is that companies are still making money off of selling those “$1000 pencils” as ways to improve productivity. There still seems to be a big demand for that. So, can companies and educators co-exist peacefully in the world of edtech, while also working to redefine education?

Well, first, let’s discuss why schools are racing to buy technology. The biggest driver I can detect isn’t that they want to transform learning—it’s that they have to give every student a device for the new standards-based tests, which are all online. If new testing did not require technology, we would not see the enormous waste of money in part that we’re now seeing. So, for this one moment in the year, schools feel absolutely compelled to go out and buy a device so that they don’t create a disadvantage for their kids.

This isn’t new. Before the onslaught of online Common Core-aligned testing like PARCC and SmarterBalanced, there were already some schools going 1:1. But that obsessive buying appears to soldier on.

The obsessive buying continues because of the change in the design of tests, and there’s also been a lowering of costs. You go to these meetings, and people say, “Can I save money on textbooks?” In the long-run, there’s an argument that [devices] can save you money. Since the price of a digital device has fallen so much, and the price of Xeroxing sheets and sheets is expensive, you can save money. I buy that. But that’s not an argument that we’re improving productivity—that’s an argument that we’re saving money.

Then there’s another argument: “If we buy it, they will come.” That’s a naive argument that technology is a silver bullet. Like I mentioned last time, if you look at that OECD study, countries who invested the most in technology went down the most [in assessment scores]. My argument has quite a lot of data behind it—there’s real data that there is essentially no evidence in systemic improvement in core learning because of investing in technology.

Now look, I want the industry to win. I don’t want to just say, “You screwed it up”—I want to say, “Let’s get this right.” Can technology make a difference under which situations?

If we buy-in that we have to change the design of the work and the processes, I think we have enormous opportunity. Most teachers will agree that all students will not ask for help and raise their hand in a face-to-face environment because they’re afraid. They can be mocked by friends… so the students who need the most help typically don’t ask. But, if you go to an online platform, it turns out that a lot more kids will ask for help online than face-to-face because they feel safer.

Just imagine a whole group of examples where technology reveals more insight into what kids are thinking than without it. The “Making Thinking Visible” part of this is very exciting. Teachers can get new insights, kids can see other kids questions. I think Socrates was right, learning is social. If Socrates is right, that learning is social, than we should be maxing out on that—and online platforms are fantastic in the hands of a creative teacher to do that.

The problem is, when we teach teachers to use tech, we don’t teach them how to design messy problems in class—which is essential.

Then, is this more of a professional development issue, or a problem with the edtech tools themselves?

If you give someone a hammer, they’re going to drive in a nail. So, the question is, who should take responsibility for identifying how to use these tools well to lead to higher academic achievement? I think the industry has some responsibility for this. They should understand that if you’re selling someone something, you have to be upfront and say, “Look, this is complex and difficult, and we’re going to help you understand how sophisticated this is.” It’s sort of like the car industry, with safety standards.

I want the people who are inventing and selling this stuff to explain what they’re selling.

A lot of people say that it is schools’ responsibilities to provide PD for their teachers about these tools. People go back and forth about that.

We can go back and forth about that all day long. You could completely exempt the industry, if you want to. But if you’re going to sell something, and make claims, you better back up the claims you’re making.

Curious to hear the rest of the interview? Listen to it on the EdSurge On Air podcast.

Mary Jo Madda (@MJMadda) is Senior Editor at EdSurge, as well as a former STEM middle school teacher and administrator. In 2016, Mary Jo was named to the Forbes "30 Under 30" list in education.

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