opinion

Checking Your Edtech Assumptions

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This is the first in a series of articles chronicling how education leaders across the country understand the assumptions built into edtech products. The data below comes from the Ed Leaders workshop at the Austin Tech For Schools Summits. Subsequent articles will incorporate data from upcoming Summits across the country.

Assumptions are powerful forces. They’re powerful in the ways we observe and interact with one another. And particularly powerful when we build things. In fact, you might say assumptions are the DNA of what we build. They are present when we’re building relationships with our peers, policies for our schools, or lesson plans in our classrooms. And they are especially present when we build or implement technology to support teaching and learning.

But how aware are educators of the assumptions behind edtech tools? Too often, school leaders focus on finding the right instructional model and assume that the technology will fit. But the reality is that technology is at best an amplifier of existing practices, habits and mindsets. And when educators don’t take time to align assumptions behind teaching and learning with those made by product developers, the tools will likely fail to deliver on the outcomes that companies and schools hope for. Poor implementation often results in lost instructional time and hard-to-explain invoices.

Still, checking one’s assumptions—whether those made about educators by product developers or by educators about products—is a quirky process that requires candor and thoughtfulness. It isn’t easy arithmetic.

At EdSurge’s Tech For Schools Summits, we’ve begun addressing this challenge much in the same way we address all difficult challenges: by creating dialogue. Most recently at our Austin Summit, we facilitated a workshop where over 60 school and district leaders indicated their level of comfort with the assumptions baked into different categories of edtech tools: Assessment, Collaboration and Communication, Curriculum, Data Management and Professional Growth. The methodology, more practical than scientific, posed three central questions:

  1. Have you ever used edtech tools [in a given category]?
  2. How many years experience do you have using edtech tools [in a given category]?
  3. Can you recall a specific instructional challenge addressed by edtech tools [in a given category]?

With the answers to these questions, attendees self-identified themselves into one of four levels of expertise:

  1. I’m totally, completely winging it [when it comes to understanding product assumptions].
  2. I know developers make assumptions, but I don’t know what they are.
  3. I am familiar with some assumptions developers make.
  4. I am familiar with some assumptions and how they affect instruction.

You Can’t Spell Assumptions without Austin

Not surprisingly, the principals, technology coaches, curriculum directors, and superintendents across the Austin area are no strangers to using edtech. Across all categories, some 68% are either “familiar with some assumptions developers make” or both “familiar with some assumptions and how they affect instruction.”

But confidence varied across different categories of edtech products. More than 75% of Austin attendees indicated they are either “familiar with some assumptions developers make” or both “familiar with some assumptions and how they affect instruction” when it comes to collaboration and communication. These types of tools—many of which mirror popular consumer technologies—are a natural extension of the technology students and teachers use outside of the classroom. And the assumptions behind these tools—how to communicate, share, organize, record, synthesize—don’t necessarily change across different instructional approaches.

Likewise more than 70% of attendees indicated they are either “familiar with some assumptions developers make” or both “familiar with some assumptions and how they affect instruction” when it comes to curriculum. This might be explained by educators’ long-term love-hate relationship with textbooks, which have routinely been stacked in the corner whenever misaligned with the teacher’s preferred pedagogy.

Yet attendees also showed a higher level of uncertainty around assumptions baked into curriculum tools than any other category: 13% admit they are “totally, completely winging it.” While teachers may understand assumptions made by software developers in the same way they understand those made by textbook publishers, their mental model may not include the digital equivalent to stacking textbooks in the corner when software isn’t aligned with their pedagogy.

Attendees’ responses around professional growth tools encourage this narrative. More than 10% felt they were “totally, completely winging it” when it comes to unpacking product assumptions around professional learning communities, observations, coaching and evaluations—all areas in flux as devices, social networks and dashboards augment pen and paper, faculty meetings and workshops. Muddying the waters further is an important but not-so-obvious distinction between professional learning products which provide content and support for teachers versus professional development systems which districts can use to support teachers.

We All Know What Happens When You Assume

Understanding product assumptions requires more nuance than educators might like to think. In fact, it requires the same level of candor and thoughtfulness that product developers should bring in understanding educator and student challenges they want to solve. The EdSurge Concierge team straddles the fence by helping education leaders unpack assumptions around instructional pace, frequency of assessment, scope and sequence of content, student agency and teacher autonomy—all areas where technology can amplify promising instructional approaches.

To-date Concierge has helped some 140 schools and districts unpack these assumptions and matched them with over 400 unique edtech tools, but it isn’t the only way EdSurge is addressing this misalignment between what educators want and developers build. The Summits team will be traveling to Seattle, Riverside, Raleigh-Durham, the Tri-State area, and Milwaukee over the next few months to push the dialogue and continue collecting sentiment data around how educators understand assumptions. We’ll be sure to report back, too, on what we learn because this is an incomplete and ongoing conversation, and everyone knows what happens when you assume.

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