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Audrey Watters Dissects EdTech Investment Wave for School Administrators

Dr. Rod Berger: Audrey you are known for your transparent and honest approach to education in general. If I am a school/district leader what should I glean from the continued and overwhelming investment being poured into edtech and how should I frame my school’s needs in relation to the costs of these ventures and innovation?

Audrey Watters: 2014 was a record year for ed-tech investment – Edsurge said US investment hit $1.36 billion; Ambient Insight put global edtech investment at $2.34 billion. This isn’t just an influx of money; it’s an influx of ideology as well – an argument that, as the managing director of the Techstars Kaplan Edtech Accelerator program told Techcrunch last year, “It’s interesting because public education hasn’t changed that much in 150 to 200 years and there had been almost no technology going into it… It’s not only that there’s this huge behemoth sector of the economy that spends $1.2 trillion on educating kids, but that it’s old, it’s long in the tooth and it’s bound to get disrupted.”

That quotation sums up a lot of education entrepreneurs’ and investors’ aspirations: education is a giant, untapped market, just waiting to be monetized. I don’t think that’s a framework for thinking about education shared by a lot of educators. Education isn’t a “market.”

Furthermore, to say that education is unchanged, I’d argue, is historically inaccurate – but that’s the story that these folks keep telling. It’s a story that ignores changes in policy and in pedagogy. It’s a story that ignores changes in school demographics and school missions. A fixation with “innovation” – and this is, again, business-speak applied to education – prompts us to look at the wrong things. We’re fascinated by the newest and shiniest technological developments instead of looking at some of the other key elements of school infrastructure. As media studies professor Liz Losh has noted, “Windows in a classroom that bring in natural light are an instructional technology.” We cannot presume that investment in “the digital” means we can ignore “the physical.” They are deeply intertwined.

Investment in adequate broadband and WiFi for schools is a great example of this. “School” isn’t simply the building. It isn’t simply what happens in the building. It’s the community in and around it as well. So we need to ask “Do students have access to the Internet at home?” And we need to think about what other learning technologies – let’s let “windows” be our metaphor here – students have.

That’s a better starting place, if we care about equity, than rushing out to buy a bunch of software or hardware because we’ve heard that’s what “innovation” looks like.

RB: School leaders are often reticent to commit to technology in fear that the value of the offering depreciates immediately following deployment. What advice do you have for purchasers and school leaders who are used to materials and solutions “lasting” for years in a world where technology is an iterative and ever-evolving process?

AW: I think this is a challenge that all of us – as consumers and users of technology (whether we’re working within our personal budgets or someone else’s) – have to face. I think the planned obsolescence that we’re witnessing in technology simply is not sustainable – financially and environmentally. Apple is a great example of this: new hardware rolled out every year. Updates to operating systems come regularly as well. The latest OS does not work on older hardware. Moreover, peripherals like power cords are changed too. We’re being herded back into the Apple Store for updates far too often. Computers are not “throwaway” items. I think we need to push back on an industry that treats them as such.

On the surface, software might seem like less of a problem. As it’s virtual, there’s no trip to the landfill when you move from Textbook Version 1.0 to Textbook Version 1.01a. But there are still major issues here that educators need to consider: Remember, if you’re licensing rather than buying (as is often the case in software), you don’t actually own your copy. You’re renting it. This is particularly important for subscription services. So we need to consider not just the cost to license, but the implications of not actually owning (i.e., what if the company or the product goes away?) and the implications of being trapped in a perpetual cycle of upgrades (i.e. you don’t have a choice but to buy the more expensive Textbook Version 1.01b because your access to Textbook Version 1.01a will be revoked).

RB: What are the three best questions a school leader should ask when evaluating the value proposition a given technology brings to their district and/or school?

AW: I’m not sure these are “the best,” but I think they’re important and rarely asked:

  1. What happens to the data? Who owns it?
  2. Can you negotiate the Terms of Service so that they are not onerous when it comes to students‘/schools’ IP and privacy?
  3. Does this technology foster inquiry and agency? Or this technology simply about programmed instruction?

RB: How confident are you that technology companies have genuinely taken feedback and are now actively engaging school personnel in the research and development process?

AW: Not at all.

RB: What trend or trends should school leaders be aware of regarding the edtech industry and the impact these “jet streams” have on purchasing decisions and deployment?

AW: Beware the word “efficiency.” Or at least: ask why “efficiency” might be a goal. Creativity and discovery and experimentation are messy. Learning should be lifelong.

Again, “efficiency” is business-speak applied to schools. You hear folks rail against the “factory model” of education, and yet they still invoke the terms and practices of scientific management.

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