Where Does EdTech Fit In?

Let’s face it: educational technology is overhyped.  There’s nothing out there that gives the same education as a great teacher in a great environment.  But education technology is also underhyped!  Nothing else gives the potential for reaching so many people with the full richness of learning.

Yes, there’s a lot of potential in edtech.  But most startups fail, and frankly they fail because they’re often pretty dumb about what education really needs.  If we’re going to improve, we have to stop using technology “because we can” and instead use technology where it actually makes a positive difference.

I’ve long been an EdTech skeptic who believes that great things are possible.  While I am far from an expert on the field, here are my thoughts on the two big categories of EdTech, the failure points they’ve experienced so far, and the potential for excellence.

Technology for the Classroom

AKA “working with teachers,” this is technology designed to aid teachers.  Two favorite examples include Reasoning Mind which offers a computer-based math curriculum using Russian ideas in math education, and the “inverted classroom” model, in which students get content from videos or other sources outside of class and then do problems in class.  (The idea is that you can learn the basics from anyone, but time with a teacher is precious and should be used where the teacher is most valuable.)  I also like BLOSSOMS, videos made by MIT folks where the in-classroom teacher shows part of the video, does an activity with students, shows the next part, does another activity, and finishes up with the rest of the video.  BLOSSOMS is great because it brings experts into the classroom while working well with the classroom structure.

Why do these fail?  It depends on the tech.  Sometimes, the big innovation is trying to give teachers access to more data so that they can diagnose what their students don’t understand and help them—these fail because entering the data is too clunky, and takes too much time.  Sometimes the innovation is giving the teachers better ways to present material—although the SMART board has succeeded, most other technologies fail when the complexity of creating lesson plans goes up.  I’ve seen tech based on helping teachers decide which student to call on (often not enough benefit for time/cost), tech based on giving all students iPads (not enough educational material to make it worthwhile, and too distracting), and so forth.  Everyone has their idea for what teachers really need to become more effective, and they’re usually wrong.  That’s not entirely true—sometimes the innovators are right, but they haven’t taken the time to align to standards, nor have they made it easy for teachers to find and use their resources.

What are the opportunities?  Some innovations have potential for greater efficiency in classroom time (such as the inverted classroom), and technology should be able to help here.  Technology could also allow for better in-class problems customized to each student (adapting to their prior work) or better assessments.  We’ll eventually find a way to get teachers better data about their students.  Finally, people keep talking about well-designed interactive apps that would allow students to explore material in a non-linear fashion or to do projects where students analyze real-world data.  Although nothing seems to have taken hold just yet, it’s a tremendous opportunity.

Technology for Outside the Classroom

This is designed to skip the in-person component altogether, optimized for self-paced study or for online classrooms.  The motivating forces tend to be either “make education accessible to everyone” or “take the work of the best teachers, distill it, and scale it.”  Favorite examples include Khan Academy (even though I think there’s lots of room for improvement) and Art of Problem Solving.  There are also tons of online schools of various sorts.

Why do these fail?  Often, these technologies don’t account for how much less engaging it is when you’re not in front of a real person.  (That’s why live sporting events and live plays are still popular.)  They also don’t account for our short attention spans.  And, most critically, they don’t account for the importance of being around other learners, part of a community that spurs you to greater learning.

What are the opportunities?  The trend towards adaptive learning is a big plus here, although the give-and-take of adaptive multiple-choice questions remains less compelling than real human interaction.  For very motivated learners or those with someone (e.g. a parent) watching over them, online schools may be compelling.  There’s also an opportunity in short, awesome online content that students can watch, share on Facebook, etc., and then perhaps follow up on in greater depth.  However, I think the real future is in social networking, where students can watch a video and chat live as the video plays, or share questions with a small group of trusted online friends who can help them through the material.  As near as I can tell, that’s the only hope for a real online community of learning that will keep students learning.

The problem with education technology is that there’s a lot of “cool stuff” out there that is genuinely very cool—but it just doesn’t actually educate that well.  I think we’ll get there eventually, as more collaborations evolve between knowledgeable educators and really awesome tech innovators.  I’ll even share some of my own ideas in a future post, places I think there’s space for real innovation.

Meanwhile, as an educator, I’m not holding my breath.  I’m happy to adopt things that come around that will really make a big difference, but until they do, don’t expect me (or anyone else) to jump on your bandwagon!

Author: danzaharopol

I am a math geek. I love doing math, learning math, and teaching math. Nothing excites me more than working with young people who are discovering new and amazing things. Professionally, I founded Bridge to Enter Advanced Mathematics (BEAM), a program that makes it possible for low-income and underserved students to become scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers. That's where I spend most of my time geeking out about math these days. Prior to BEAM, I was a math graduate student (studying algebraic topology) and taught math in places all around the country. I also co-founded and served as the founding CEO of Learning Unlimited, an organization that mentors college students to create enrichment programs for local middle and high school students. In my non-existent free time, I love board games, great plays, frisbee, and reading.

5 thoughts on “Where Does EdTech Fit In?”

  1. Well, EdTech (as it were) has been paying me very well over the past 5 years…. of course, this is adult education, not K-12 I’m talking about. And what I’m teaching is very specialized.

    There’s not many people who teach what I do, and most of us teach online now, as our students are all over the world.

    1. You’re teaching actuarial stuff, right? That seems well-suited to having motivated students who are good at learning the stuff — e.g., they’d be using a textbook if not for you.

  2. I agree that there is no substitute for an actual teacher in the classroom, and that that is a common misconception about what edtech means. The current focus on using technology for “credit recovery” in K-12, which basically gives students online courses for remediation, does a lot to undermine that perspective though. And then there is the LMS misconception: that using a CMS or LMS means that the school is integrating technology.

    School leaders and teachers need to become well-versed in the ways that technology can enhance student learning (meaning, extend it in ways just the teacher in the FTF classroom could not). Successful edtech integration then depends upon the teachers’ expertise in learning theory and their abilities in instructional planning and differentiation (which are all based on knowing the students, so there’s no teacher substitute here). Unfortunately, many teachers and school leaders are currently NOT focused on student learning, so integrating edtech in this way requires a complete overhaul of most current curricula and school cultures.

    Bottom line: technology should expand the abilities of the teacher to motivate and support student learning. It should allow you more simply to employ best practices for learning to a greater degree. You can’t do that without teachers, but given the current focus in K-12 on high stakes testing, it is going to take a veritable revolution to achieve that.

    1. Thanks! I was so focused on output from the developers of edtech that I didn’t discuss actual implementation in the schools at all. While edtech people have to take into account what can feasibly be implemented in schools, there also needs to be more active accommodation in schools for what’s out there.

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