How to Talk Tech With Austin Independent School District

How to Talk Tech With Austin Independent School District

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Known affectionately as the “Silicon Hills,” Austin, TX has its own thriving edtech community that doesn’t receive quite as much acclaim—or scrutiny—as its California counterpart. The edtech community there follows a similar pattern.

Nestled in the heart of those hills is Kevin Schwartz, chief technology officer of Austin Independent School District, who oversees technology that affects 84,000 students across 130 schools. His interactions with the tech community have been mostly positive, but he’s had a few nettling conversations that leave him wary of company representatives. Often he finds that edtech companies are more interested in selling to his district than they are in solving its problems. “Conversations” based on that intention are predictably unproductive for him, so we asked him what companies can do better. We talked to him on the brink of a metaphorical cliff: the day before school started.

Edsurge: What did you do over the summer?

Schwartz: We focused on getting the data right. There was a big community push to offer and to encourage people to use online registration. We tried to make it much easier for parents, eliminating stacks of paper that they have to take home and complete in duplicate. Doing it online is much efficient, and there’s a much higher accuracy rate with the data because we can check it and transcription doesn’t play as much of a role. We end up with better information for students and schools. We’re scaling that, and we’ve had 39,000 students register online this year.

We also launched an app called “Where’s the bus?” that lets parents see buses on the road, issues and [estimated time arrivals]. It’s a great interactive tool for getting kids to and from school. It came from a collaboration between several departments.

What are the big student needs you’re thinking about right now?

Oh my, that’s a big question. A couple of anchor points in everything that we do: Are we doing the things we aspire to as opposed to things we’ve always done and are we doing things that are equitable? Equity is also a question in itself.

Equity is a simple part of its job because technology, by its nature, helps to provide equity. A computer can perform many different tasks for many different students, and so we aspire to be 1:1 at least.

That sounds a bit simplistic to me; it seems like you’re saying that once you get to 1:1, all equity issues will be solved. That doesn’t seem possible. Can you expand what you mean?

That’s fair. It’s an example of how we think about trying to solve the technology problem.

Another way we look to work on equity is by employing a new learning positioning system—I use that word “positioning” carefully. We believe the positioning system will be transcendent from a learning management system, which is good at bringing you the resources to get to a goal. We think the positioning system will go beyond. A positioning system takes into account where a student is coming from and helps you map the course to your goals. We’ve been inconsistent with the programs across the district, which has served some kids well and others poorly, especially if a student moves from one campus to another. Picking one system for all kids is another way we’re trying to address equity.

One example: We have more than 100 languages spoken in our district, so that’s part of our context and a piece of the diversity of Austin. We have so many students who are ELLs or ESL, and their first or second day in the country is their first day of school. Tech is a great equalizer in that situation because those students can use a device to translate materials that classroom materials and solving that inequity right there.

So do you search for language-agnostic technology?

That brings to mind a pretty nontraditional use case but a great one nonetheless: sign language classes. If you think about sign language, it’s almost always a one-on-one conversation, so when you’re trying to teach or manage a class on that, it’s difficult and linear. You have one student and the next student and the next. The teacher is the one who knows the language well enough to help the students.

When you insert tech, kids can practice with each other through video conferencing, they can record their work for reflection later, all the students can record their work simultaneously but the teacher can review it separately. They can spend a lot more time working together. That changes the game not only with sign language but with languages in general.

What tech issues are big in Austin right now?

Of course! Austin is a hotbed of innovation. What’s the term—hot mess? Austin is a hot mess, but the new thinking coming from here is some of the best in the world. Harnessing that, channeling that, helping kids to a place where they can partake in that as adults is something we’re always trying to do. It’s very dynamic and messy because of change. Having world-renowned companies and tiny startups driving that innovation is fantastic.

Are there any companies or products that have recently caused more problems than they solved?

I don’t think so. The problem is almost never about the company. But one of the most frustrating situations is when a company comes to us with what they’re sure is a solution …and yet they have no idea of what we’re doing or what our real problems are. Those conversations always begin very standoffish, even on the rare occasions when they’ve got a great idea. Sometimes they’ve spent a lot of money and time on a path that just isn’t viable. Earlier conversations would have helped that. I’m quite certain they have the best intent, but there’s a lack of understanding there.

How would companies go about avoiding that situation? It seems very preventable.

Of course. Talk to us, don’t just come in and sell to us. Become authentically involved in the school district. Sometimes it’s a phone call or a face-to-face conversation. Especially for people in Austin, there are a thousand ways to get into the district and see what’s going on, whether that’s from the technology side or the teaching side. We love those conversations.

What do those conversations look like?

It starts with wanting to identify problems of practice and then engage with companies who have different strengths and expertise to solve them. We can design for those problems collaboratively if we understand the issue.

We’ve had a company recently—I won’t name anyone—come to us and say, “Hey, I’ve got a thing that can do this.” It’s not “I have the answer to your school district’s problem,” it’s “My technology has this capability.”

Asking us how it would be applicable in our classrooms or campuses is a much better way to get in.

What happens when they won’t change?

Then it’s rare that their product gets bought by us or other districts. They end up with a product that they’re committed to, all the eggs in one basket, and selling that to school districts.

School districts are the worst things to sell to! We have a procurement procurement process that moves slowly. We really don’t just go buy stuff, we ask for a certain level of expenditure—in many cases before we’ll even consider buying it—in the form of a Request for Proposal. The traditional sales techniques don’t really work, though people still try it. Those people get frustrated fast. There’s also the timing of when districts buy and how much lead time it takes for something to work well in a district.

A very common occurrence for me is that I start my day with a bunch of messages from companies wanting to have a “conversation,” but really it’s a fancy way of saying that their sales pitch is ready. I know that there’s a very low likelihood that I’ll be interested.

On the other hand, if someone comes to us and says, “I have an idea! Can you help me think it through?” I could spend all day on those conversations. 

Even though that’s a frustrating process, there’s no nobler purpose. What these companies are doing can reshape the world if done right.

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