Archives for the month of: September, 2011

Many journalists have responded to aspects of Matt Richtel’s Sunday article in the New York Times, “In Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores,” because it raises so many different issues about the effective use of technology in our schools and our over-reliance on test scores as a measure. My concern with this article and this public debate in general is the lumping together of all technology. Imagine if we talked about books this way—all books are good, all books are bad. The use of books increases or decreases standardized test scores. Clearly some books are crucial to learning, while others, say a romance novel, not so much. We’d never lump together a book of Sudoku puzzles, a spy thriller, a Shakespeare play, an elementary math book and a chemistry textbook, so why do we lump together technology so often when we make sweeping judgments?

Or insert tools into the debate instead of technology—all tools are good, all tools are bad. The use of tools increases standardized test scores. A surgeon, for example, needs researched and tested tools to perform his or her job well, but the best surgical tools cannot replace the knowledge and experience of the surgeon. Technology should be thought of similarly—as a set of tools to be wielded by experts. Not the be all and end all to itself.

Any technology that claims to replace the wisdom of a talented teacher is immediately suspect to me. I’ve written before about my issues with edtech companies who know little about education foisting products that don’t solve real issues, and that often argue that they can work around or replace good teachers. It’s an entirely different conversation to discuss tools that help teachers use their expertise to target the specific needs of students or even that help them amplify their wisdom so that other teachers may benefit.

Richtel incorrectly concludes that the fact that some classroom studies show increases in scores while others show decreases with the use of instructional software should, “not surprisingly, give researchers pause about whether big investments in technology make sense.” The issue shouldn’t be that there’s inconclusive evidence that instructional software is effective, but rather which instructional software is effective and under what conditions.

The research I want to see is an analysis of the effectiveness of specific kinds of technology—sensors used in science classroom rooms should be evaluated completely differently than games that reinforce arithmetic skills or programs that claim to improve reading scores. A document reader is a different kind of tool than a mobile app. In a former job where I oversaw English language arts for a county with over 100,000 students, I reviewed a great deal of useless instructional software, but I did see some great technological innovation as well, always designed by former teachers.

As Cathy Davidson writes in her response, we’re not preparing our students for the digital future—it’s the “digital present: it’s here, it’s now, like it or not.” Our job as educators is to arm our students with the skills they need to function successfully in a digital age. I’m a firm believer in education as a way to level the socioeconomic playing field; if we limit the use of technology in the classroom, then those students who have wide access at home to technology will continue to be more competitive in college and the workforce. Students need hands-on experience with a wide range of technological tools—the issue is which tools best prepare students? And when I say best prepare students, I don’t mean to take standardized tests, but rather for the real challenges they’ll face competing in the global workforce.

Davidson also wisely points out that missing in Richtel’s article is a discussion of where teacher training fits. She argues that “no school should invest in technology without investing in substantial, dedicated retraining of its workforce—which is to say teachers.” She shares that IBM spends the equivalent of $1700 per employee each year to keep them up-to-date on new technology, tools and methods. Anyone who works with educational technology in a school setting recognizes that the success of any technological innovation or tool lies with professional development, yet money and time are rarely allocated here.

Knowledge acquisition and knowledge production are also completely different tasks, and the use of technology should be reviewed differently for each. Students should be able to do more knowledge acquisition independently so that teachers can spend more classroom time helping students make sense of what they’ve learned. Tom Vander Ark, a vocal advocate for blended learning, argues that Richtel’s article leaves out online learning entirely. Richtel only cursorily discusses the shift from “sage on the stage to guide on the side” without untangling when this approach is appropriate. Do teachers need to waste precious time pushing knowledge acquisition on their students? No, their time is better spent working with students in analyzing the information they’re learning, and helping students share their own knowledge. Using instructional software to guide at-home reading and reporting that understanding (or lack of) to the teacher so that she is better prepared to respond to her students the next day could be a great use of technology. However, do I want a chemistry teacher to be the “guide on the side” the first time students interact with dangerous chemicals? Of course not. If great technology exists though that helps students understand the data they analyze during this experiment, then I want that teacher to use it.

The debate about the use of technology in the classroom should be more focused on what we want students to be able to do and to know, and then which tools are worth the time and money spent to achieve these goals.


When I went through the pitch process at the Mega Start-Up Weekend in Mountain View (See article in Fast Company for description of event), I initially felt frustrated. Coming into the weekend, I was hyper-excited about being there because I loved my first experience of Start Up Weekend SF EDU. When pitch after pitch had little to do with teaching–and two pitches advocated horrible pedagogy, I was running a bit hot. I felt like we were facing the same issue as we did before— a real lack of understanding of the true needs of education in the tech world. I was fully prepared to write extensively about why this needed to change, and then I realized that my perspective was fairly narrow and wasn’t giving me room to grow personally. It’s easy to rant about something, but harder to work toward a solution.

When I stepped back and allowed myself to pay more close attention, here are some of the lessons I learned over the weekend:

1. Most people go to Start-Up Weekend to have fun—and that’s okay. Not everyone needs to save the world over the weekend. (Think about what we could do though if we tried!) I shouldn’t have been mildly irritated when one developer told me that he chose another group because it sounded like more fun, even though he knew it wouldn’t have any real impact on education. While making an impact is really important to me, it’s not why everyone comes to StartUp Weekends. It’s also about developing a community, learning about startups and having a great time with interesting and talented people.

2. When someone who has listened to thousands of pitches, like Scott Case, gives you feedback on your pitch, you should listen closely. We had recently made a significant pivot and thought we had committed to it, so when Scott told us that our pitch reflected ambivalence, my first response was defensive—why didn’t he recognize that we had already just decided to change direction? The more I ruminated on his comment though, I realized that he was right. Our first product was our baby and it was hard to leave it alone while it was still in its infancy. Though we had started working on a new LessonCast product, we hadn’t fully planted our feet, turned our backs and completely faced the new direction we needed to go. We were still trying to drag our first baby along with our new project. Case’s comment probably pushed us forward a few months in terms of our own mental framework of where we were.

3. Keep it simple! What we’re trying to do to improve teacher effectiveness is fairly complicated and nuanced because teaching is complicated and nuanced. However, as Ahmed Siddiqui, one of the organizers and founders of QwikMind and Go Go Mongo, the pitch needs to be simple. If we can’t boil our explanation of what we do down to a couple of sentences, then others won’t be able to share what we do with their friends and colleagues. It’s our job to find some simple explanations–as a teacher I do this all the time. In the classroom I often start with a big overview and easy analogy and then build the nuance in as we pull something apart or build an idea. It’s the same concept for our pitch. I believe we finally have our pitches down.

4. The next time I go to a Start Up Weekend, I’ll probably join a team instead of working on LessonCast because our startup is further along than what StartUp is designed to do. Besides I now having something to contribute beyond adding a teacher perspective: I can do mockups in Balsamiq, throw around business plan models and think through a validation process. A year ago, I would not have been comfortable with any of these tasks, aside from recognizing what works in a classroom. Most teachers can learn how to do these skills as well.

Which leads me to my next realization:

5. When teachers can speak some of the language of tech and/or startups, then we can have more impact because we’ll be taken more seriously. If we understand an ed tech perspective, then we can move tech in directions that will support what we’re trying to do in the classroom. Bringing non-teacher, tech startup skills to the table also allows us to be a more active drivers of the conversation.

The good news is that LessonCast was asked to help organize the first Start-Up Weekend EDU on the East Coast in Washington, DC, so there’s an opportunity to nudge Ed Tech startups in the right direction in my own neighborhood. StartUp Weekend and Grokit recently announced the launch of a series of StartUp Weekends with an education focus starting in Seattle, which means there will be more opportunities for Ed Tech communities to develop around the world and teachers should be part of it. I firmly believe bringing teachers to the Ed Tech process will make better products that both serve the needs of educators and allow Ed Tech Startups to succeed. The next challenge is to figure out some concrete ways to have teachers participate meaningfully in DC’s StartUp Weekend EDU. If there are any teachers in the DC area, block out October 21-23 because we’re going to need you!