When Education Giants Stumbled and Data Ruled

Opinion | Entrepreneurship

When Education Giants Stumbled and Data Ruled

By Todd Brekhus     Dec 31, 2019

When Education Giants Stumbled and Data Ruled

This article is part of the collection: A Decade in Review: Reflections on 10 Years in Education Technology.

This op-ed is part of a series of reflections on the past decade in education technology. Todd Brekhus’ industry experience dates as far back as the early 2000s at PLATO, and later at myON. He is currently the chief product officer of Renaissance Learning, which acquired myON in 2018. Stay tuned for other reflections in the coming weeks.

Ten years ago, the iPhone was already out, but the iPad had not been released yet. The Kindle and the Nook had already been around, and this idea of personal devices in schools was in the air. Computers were still housed in labs or on carts, but one-to-one computing and internet accessibility were hot topics.

I was just starting myON, where we all predicted that a digital reading environment was key in the coming years. The big players at the time were the large textbook publishers. They were the most powerful companies in education. They bought other companies to try to blend assessment and curriculum as they also continued publishing.

Most of us wouldn’t have believed then that the big publishers would fade in the K-12 landscape over the years. On the other hand, companies like Curriculum Associates took the path of blended learning and have seen significant growth driven by a technology-first model.

Clearly, a lot has changed over the last decade. Here’s a look at some of edtech’s notable successes and failures that might shed light on the decade to come.

EdSurge: What technology has actually delivered on its promise?

Todd Brekhus: The tools that have delivered are specific, targeted solutions that are easy to use and provide teachers and students delight. Simple solutions, like Read 180, which helps accelerate learning for struggling students, still deliver 20 years later, now under Houghton Mifflin Harcourt instead of Scholastic. Accelerated Reader, a product that started more than 30 years ago, still motivates kids to read.

Companies that aim to provide student data in a usable fashion, like Schoology, still provide value. The company that I started, myON, helped to transform literacy in the classroom with unlimited books, and it continues to deliver on its promise. Achieve3000 still helps high school students improve literacy, and products like Lexia have improved over time and made it easier for teachers to find and use data.

More broadly, I think the promise of data in education is still proving itself. It has taken awhile, but we’re getting to a point where data is more actionable. Renaissance just acquired Schoolzilla, which was launched in 2011, for this reason.

When it comes to devices, many kids today have access to iPads or Chromebooks. Although one-to-one computing hasn’t been as transformational as some predicted in 2010, we’ve certainly seen a huge shift in how kids work and use technology in the classroom.

What's been most disappointing in edtech?

The largest companies in 2010 were the textbook providers. Many of these companies believed that a combination of assessment, primary instruction, supplemental learning, and everything else an educator might need in one closed environment would prove to be the best education model of the 21st century. Touring the halls of ISTE, a major education technology conference, you would see banners like “assess, align, instruct, evaluate” in nice marketing packages. The slogans made the combination sound easy to do and powerful.

Unfortunately, when you looked under the hood, you saw a much messier situation. Most of these companies tried to re-platform every unique product into one monolithic model, but the promise didn’t pan out—the products proved clunky and hard to use, and customers still demanded each of their point solutions.

What predictions were right?

Predictions that educators would want more assessment data to drive instruction have proven true. Most of the companies, like Renaissance, that provide assessments have grown year over year. In many cases, our assessments are used in place of others because computer-adaptive tests have proven a more efficient model and better predictor for end-of-year tests. Companies that provide teachers with data to inform instruction and monitor progress are still an important element of education.

The prediction that digital reading would be simple and easy to implement has also proven true. Many students have tablets connected to services that provide a huge selection of reading materials with cloud software to guide them to titles targeted to interests and skill levels.

In part thanks to digital reading and a slew of other technologies, blended learning has become so mainstream that in many classrooms it’s just considered a normal part of the day.

What predictions never panned out?

Virtual reality hasn’t panned out yet. As cool and interesting as a virtual classroom with students in goggles is, it just hasn’t gone mainstream.

Predictions about online learning didn’t really hit the mark, either. It’s still largely relegated to alternative education and credit recovery in partnership with traditional schools. That’s certainly very valuable, but predictions that massive open online courses and open courseware would open the ability for do-it-yourself education or create a lot of entirely online schools never really materialized.

The rise of gaming in education was another prediction that has largely faded. I remember a hot product from about 10 years ago that delivered algebra through a Modern Warfare-type interface, but it seems that what everyone actually wanted was not an immersive gaming experience for math, but better education.

What problems have we solved and what new ones have we created?

We've started to solve the challenge of data interoperability and portability. Assessment can drive instruction across multiple products for the right student at the right time, but there’s still work to be done.

Alongside that, privacy and data responsibility are still a problem we must solve. Another problem the industry has created stems from those monolithic all-in-one systems the big publishers created. The sense that they had all the answers to create a robotic teaching model where the system does it all distanced teachers from students’ actual needs.

The role of the teacher, however, is still critical. Rather than take over responsibility for educating students, technology’s role should be—and increasingly is—to put multiple options into educators’ hands to easily solve different types of challenges for individual students.

That may be the overarching lesson of the last decade in edtech. As vendors, rather than enmesh teachers in a closed world where we do everything for them, we should make our services more open to teachers as they try to open the future for their students.

Our bet at Renaissance for the next 10 years is that the most successful edtech tools will support assessment-driven instruction in an open environment with insightful data from multiple sources.

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