Why Edtech, Why Now, and How It Will Change Public Education Forever – Eventually

by Jack West

Unmet Expectations from The Great Equalizer

The decades long attack on public education has weakened the institution enough to make it nearly indefensible in many geographic regions of the country. The once-was pride of a post-war America has suffered sustained insults from privatization advocates, and anti-tax alliances. Perhaps we have lost sight of our common cause. Maybe the absence of a formidable foe on the global stage leaves us waiting in the halls of the coliseum for too long, forcing us to turn on each other. Regardless of the cause, public education in America is nearly the shame that opponents have been calling it since the 1960’s when the system was the envy of the world.
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The current sustained economic recession is the immediate cause of systematic failure. First, schools increased class sizes, cut sports and music programs, and turned off the heat at the last bell. Then came the furlough days, and the trimming of administrative positions. Now,instruction is being outsourced to unproven, and in some cases, fraudulent, online education purveyors simply because they will meet state education obligations (some of which the online education lobby has re-written themselves) for a lower cost. Hang onto these crumbling walls a high needs child population, 26% of whom now live in poverty. Let them eat Ketchup! The situation is as grim as it has been in more than half a century.

But this is America, home of Hollywood. In our stories, whenever the protagonist is beaten down and appears to be taking his last breath, rock bottom gives him the foundation he needs to spring once again to his feet.

Enter the edtech entrepreneur or edupreneur. The edupreneur is a new breed of motivated hero-genius. She is the TFA alum who spent just enough time in a classroom within a school that was more like a prison than a Utopian city on a hill to be inspired to change a system that would do that to children. He is a former Paypal, Google, Yahoo, LinkedIn, and Zynga engineer/executive who called in rich and wants to be a part of a growing movement of like-minded individuals applying the same collaborative/competitive energy to solving a problem whose solution truly has the potential to save the world. They are seasoned nonprofit executives who have joined forces with others and found a way to fund making quality educational content free to everyone. All of them come to the wire-frames with at least two things in common: they have all been to school, and they all want to make it better.

Occupy Education?
If there is anything we have to thank the machinery behind our global financial crisis for, it is the rebellion that it has spawned. While many are occupying city centers across the country, directly protesting the unequal representation purchased from congress by the entitled few, the edupreneurs are attacking one of the roots of the problem, a democracy weakened by inadequate public education. Education budget cuts in every state are forcing school systems to spend more creatively to meet the progressive (lower case ‘p’) improvement demands of NCLB. In the same way that the ‘x factor’ was perceived to be a source of the extended prosperity of the 1990′s, education leaders now hope that edtech will do the same for education achievement.

A true democracy demands an educated citizenry, a citizenry that knows when they are being ‘played’ with emotional issues like immigration and terrorism. Democracy requires a confident populace that reads, discusses, and understands when and why a government official makes a decision that weaves the last thread from the shawl of the poor into the cloak of the king. The edupreneur is a tinkerer, a problem solver. He is the one that changed how we communicate with each other. She is the one that changed how you listen to music. They are the ones that believe with the right team, anything can be done – including reclaiming our democracy.

The edupreneur is a technocrat and a meritocrat. Even those that had the advantage of attending the best schools, still had to work intelligently and diligently to achieve what they have before arriving at edtech. Their work involved solving complex algorithms, collaborating with a team of different personalities and nationalities, and even communicating with their competitors on standards that would benefit the entire field. They succeeded in their prior work because they were open minded, capable of pivoting their business model to respond to a new market or meet a new challenge, and because they were intelligent. They are idealists, and those that are engineers (which is most of them) probably appreciate the complex moral confrontation often addressed in their favorite sci fi and fantasy. The edupreneur is not satisfied with financial reward alone. She did her market research and knows that the time of return for any education business is double that of the other startups she worked on – if there is to be any significant financial reward at all.

Edupreneurs as Changemakers
This bespectacled army of once was science fair blue ribbon winners, robotics team champions, and mathletes will change how we engage with information and ideas in the school setting. They already have. Gone is the need for native software that every individual teacher must maintain themselves. Gone is the need for the ink-smudged transparency. Soon, gone will be the need for letters home because the communication between student, teacher, and guardian will be safe and ongoing. The opportunities for reconfiguring what we think of as class, teacher, and even school are boundless for the edupreneur.

few education institutions will show us what can be done with the forthcoming quiver of edtech arrows. Within a year there will be learning analytics platforms that make possible formative assessment that gives both teacher and student the ongoing feedback they need to make differentiation a reality. There will be social networks that keep teachers connected with their students wherever they are in a safe and productive environment. There will be adaptive, cloud-based mathematics instructional systems that will change the meaning of the phrase drill and kill.

The students of these few successful models may very well, finally, offer us hope that the promise of The Great Equalizer is a legitimate one. The successes of these pioneering schools, contrasted by the distinct possibility of a much larger failure of the dominant traditional institutions, will inspire the real change that must happen if we want to recover our democracy.

From the Ashes..
The likely failure of edtech to cause any significant reform in the majority of education institutions can inspire the reforms necessary to effect broad scale change. When the edupreneurs discover that their paradigm-changing inventions fail to pave the path to national excellence that they had thought it might, some will retreat in defeat. Others will seek answers.

The tenacious eduprenerurs will wonder. Why didn’t the ever-presence of formative assessment data, available to teacher, parent, and student alike, increase student test scores in inner-city Oakland? We gave it to them for free! Why didn’t the suite of multi-media mixing tools inspire students in L.A. Unified to attend more school? Why aren’t U.S. scores on the PISA moving up to join other industrialized nations? Why is the number of students pursuing post secondary education continuing to decline?

Then, some of those edupreneurs that remain in the game, having dedicated themselves to solving this national problem of giving every child a quality education, will seek answers outside of technology. And it is the collective power of this technocratic intelligentsia, that can crowdsource a protest of thousands in a few short hours, raise half a billion dollars for a minority presidential candidate, and provide the tools for a global people’s revolution against tyrany in a single spring, that will finally begin the process of changing education at its roots.

The deep solution will employ all of the edtech tools the edupreneurs will have built, but it will be much more. Meaningful education reform will require that we give up on American exceptionalism and learn from countries like Finland, Singapore, Germany, and Japan. A lasting solution to our education woes will mean changing how we recruit, train and compensate teachers. A lasting solution will mean that we embrace standards articulated by the practicing professionals themselves and not bureaucratic ad hoc committees. Perhaps most importantly, a lasting solution will mean that we make a commitment to ensuring that every child comes to school from a safe home with adequate nutrition.

We can only hope that there will be a few edtech entrepreneurs that stay the course even after this current recession ends and the recruiters begin once again to hound them day and night. If there are a few that remain, perhaps they will have allied themselves in dedication to the idea that education is not the privilege of a free world, it is the foundation of the free world. Then, perhaps they can help us #occupy education.

One thought on “Why Edtech, Why Now, and How It Will Change Public Education Forever – Eventually

  1. How absurd seem the worldwide blinkers towards the fundamental truth that the quality of exucation has a direct bearing on the quality of a nation’s future.

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