Hey Ed Tech Companies: You Will Not Disrupt Education

I am an idealist. For the past couple of decades I have dreamed about ways that technology will radically improve the way people learn. Since 1998 I’ve worked at businesses with grandiose visions of how their software would transform education as we know it.—from the scrappy start-up to the multinational corporation. My three children have attended schools around the world ranging from having almost no modern technology to tech-focused schools. I’ve seen the spectrum of what’s out there and I can definitively say that THE TECHNOLOGY DOES NOT MATTER.

Given that there is now a very large and growing field called ed tech, with its own media outlets, meet-ups and even venture funding and research groups, I imagine there is a large group of people whose lips are poised this very moment to tell me why their venture is disruptive and will change everything. Believe me, I’m rooting for you. I’ve staked my career on this very premise. I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you, however; it won’t.

The only thing that will improve education is people

We learn from and with people. Throughout history education has been largely a social exercise. Plato conducted his dialogues with the people of Greece. Reading is largely a solitary exercise, but I urge you: take a moment and reflect on something you learned that has made a profound impact upon your life…Did it involve just yourself? I’m wagering that there were others involved in this experience for most of you.

When we talk about genuine learning, the kind that stays with you, there must be some kind of connection taking place. There is an emotional component to learning. Students form relationships with teachers, with other students, with the material, and that is when engaged, authentic ‘minds-on’ learning happens. It may be a connection to a teacher, or to the content written in a book (whether digital or old fashioned), or with people connecting online across the globe. 

When someone is engaged in learning it is exciting and challenging. It doesn’t matter if this happens in a flipped classroom, using wearable technology, or in a treehouse. Tapping into people’s natural curiosity and desire to learn engages learners beyond just being able to regurgitate material for a test. Furthermore, what students learn seems a lot less important than how they learn. I’m not advocating that multiplication tables no longer matter; of course, there is basic material we need to cover. But, let’s face it; by the time kids who are in 2nd grade right now graduate from college they probably  will just have to think “When did World War I take place?” and the chip implanted in them can send the data directly to a retina display. 

Despite all this, I still believe technology holds great potential for transforming learning, such as:

  • Engaging learners using multimedia and gaming
  • Individualizing learning
  • Facilitating communications
  • Providing access to resources
  • Connecting people
  • Automating jobs to enable humans to focus on important work

But perhaps the most promising aspect of technology is that youth are digital natives and can take ownership and control over this aspect of learning. Technology can shift the dynamic between student and teacher.

Back in the 1970’s when I was in elementary school, technology consisted of filmstrips and overhead projectors. The only ‘grown-up’ role for students was the AV squad. Giving young students this responsibility was actually profound, and we have many opportunities to build upon this model. Empowering kids to take responsibility, to lead and become the experts--this is the stuff that proponents of constructivist learning, project-based learning, constructionist learning, experiential learning—basically, sound pedagogy—have been espousing for a long time.  When children have important roles and are empowered to take control over their own learning, genuine engagement happens. In my experience, evidence of my kids’ engagement in school can be seen, not by whether they have ipads or smartboards, but rather, whether they lead (or are even invited to) parent/teacher conferences to discuss their own education.

There seem to be fewer opportunities for children to take on real responsibilities. Parents shield their kids from working, recognizing that teens are too busy juggling homework and extracurriculars, worrying about college applications to work regular after-school jobs. Having a job, with people relying on you, is an important part of growing up. And taking responsibility for your own learning is critical for success as an adult in the 21st century.

Of course, there are ed tech companies developing some interesting stuff, and there are some less-sexy tech developments, such as learning tools interoperability. But in many ways, it matters less which technology can claim it has succeeded in disrupting education. Historically it’s not always the coolest—or even the best—software that wins massive adoption (remember how much better Word Perfect was versus Word?). I’m just glad there’s so much technology out there. The real challenge is getting teachers to be vulnerable to not being the ones with the answers and empower students more to lead their own learning journeys. Technology still holds great promise to help that happen.