The Future of Education Technology
Edtech is well past the orientation period.
Ninety-nine percent of K-12 classrooms in America have reached at least the minimum internet bandwidth target established by the FCC. At the same time, more than three quarters of teachers say students use Google’s G Suite in the classroom. And even though survey data collection is imperfect, estimates have shown that more than half of students have access to a laptop or tablet. As EducationSuperHighway’s most recent State of the States report concluded, “the classroom connectivity gap is now closed.”
To at least some degree, that assessment may be misleadingly optimistic (more on the subject soon). But with the infrastructure bedrock established, generally speaking, we’ve definitively entered the next stage in edtech.
“The role of education technology is to support learning and support the classroom, and as access gets more ubiquitous, that really becomes much more possible,” Karen Cator, president and CEO of edtech nonprofit Digital Promise, told Built In.
So what exactly is possible? With venture capital investment growing more and more targeted, how will the edtech landscape shape up, long-term?
Built In spoke with three edtech leaders to get a big picture view of where classroom technology and tech-related teaching approaches are headed. They include:
- Karen Cator, who also formerly served as director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. There she helped spearhead the 2010 National Education Technology Plan, a watershed blueprint in edtech.
- Tonika Cheek Clayton, a managing partner of edtech investment for the NewSchools venture fund who previously worked at curriculum assessment firm Amplify.
- Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow, an education nonprofit that studies edtech trends and advocates for STEM resources.
These edtech insiders spoke of increasingly sophisticated, subject-specific tools — while also underscoring that edtech resources will increasingly support higher-order learning. Some mentioned greater teacher autonomy in terms of tool selection — even as procurement roadblocks stand steadfast. And they spoke of high and still-climbing edtech adoption rates — even as an “avalanche” of products, as Evans put it, intensifies the paradox of choice and complicates how to measure effectiveness.
PROCUREMENT POWER AT THE DISTRICT LEVEL...
President and CEO of Digital Promise
A very big roadblock to [seed-stage edtech startup] companies getting going is procurement. That's the way that schools purchase software. It's a very thorny issue in education because we have 15,000 school districts just in the United States alone, never mind the rest of the world. In most cases, school districts make their own decisions about what to purchase. It often involves selling to very small purchasers, one after another. However, there are some great products that have stood the test of time and have been able to build their capacity.
CEO of Project Tomorrow
Districts continue to spend more time curating content collections for teachers to use that are already vetted, that they have a license for or that they understand the bandwidth capacity of and have very tight data privacy constraints.
District CTOs and CEOs have much more authority than they ever had before. And with that consolidation of power — which has occurred over the last five years or so — you see this idea of determining what digital content and tools will be used.
That doesn't mean every district follows that same posture. But we see this trend because, if nothing else, outside of the data privacy issues, it’s all about enterprise management at the C-suite level.
...OR A SHIFT TOWARD TEACHER AUTONOMY?
Tonika Cheek Clayton
Managing Partner of NewSchools Venture Fund
When I think back to where we were years ago, you were limited by the types of devices that you had, and the way technology was purchased at the time. Oftentimes purchases were made at the district level. There were fewer free options and high-quality free options available to teachers. When you're in the midst of changing the classroom environment, it's a risk to introduce something. Perhaps teachers may have been less inclined to take a risk if an administrator or someone in the district hadn't signed off. Now there's so many more types of products, that teachers are using lots of different tools throughout the day.
There’s generally more autonomy given to schools and teachers to use different types of tools. Depending on the type of school and school district you're in, I can see why the natural evolution is to grant teachers more autonomy to make choices.
ADOPTION RATES WILL KEEP CLIMBING
Clayton: We conducted a Gallup report recently in which we surveyed thousands of teachers, administrators, principals and students to get a sense of edtech usage and perceptions in the field. We were somewhat surprised at just how much people use it on a daily basis — even though we as a country, of course, use technology every day.
A 2016 Deloitte study had daily edtech usage in the classroom at 42 percent; now that’s jumped to 65 percent. That confirmed that what we're feeling and seeing is real, that edtech is really an integral part of student learning, particularly in K-12. Eighty-five percent of teachers said they support increased use of edtech.
Another interesting thing to point out is, across rural, urban and suburban areas, there wasn't any real distinction with regards to usage; they were fairly similar.
And we’re seeing a shift in terms of who students consider the most trusted source for where to find edtech tools. A 2015 Gates Foundation study found that district administrators ranked first and online search was second. And there's been a dramatic shift to where over 80 percent now say teachers are the most trusted source. Which makes sense when you think about overload of information — online search leads you to hundreds or thousands of products, right? I think you’ll see those trends continue.
Cator: Many apps are free, so teachers can download and try them out essentially on the fly. A recent report found that school districts used over 700 edtech products [per month]. So the long tail is definitely a fact. So you end up with lots of different applications, but not a lot of evidence that they're worthwhile. Sometimes the very best ideas and best products don't necessarily make their way through. A lot of things start as small ideas and don't have the chance to mature.
That’s part of the challenge, and people are trying to build a better methodology for a consumer report for different apps and learning tools, so that people can understand, what are the data use and privacy constraints? Is it accessible? Is there evidence that it helps students learn? Can you transfer what's learned from this application into another environment? There's a lot of work being done right now on trying to build a better evidence-based system.
Evans: Teachers still say that when looking for products, they look [to see] who is the referer. If I'm a fourth-grade teacher, my best reference point to tell me what to use is another fourth-grade teacher. If I see a reference from a 10th-grade English teacher and I'm a third-grade general education teacher, that reference means nothing to me. So this idea of consolidation at the district level and understanding who exactly is a viable reference — that's all helping to address that issue of how to find the right product for the classroom.
Clayton: Teachers also know there are a lot of other teachers that have already tried a lot of tools. Back when we were initially selling products on Palm Pilots, it was their first exposure [to edtech]. Now they’ve been through a decade of using stuff, and they've used some bad stuff.
There will always be innovators and early adopters, but there are quite a few that are like, I want you to test it out and figure it out before I jump into this. Now if you're using a tool, chances are other people have used it before. You don't have to necessarily be the innovator.
MACHINE LEARNING AND DATA ANALYTICS
Clayton: In talking with product developers and entrepreneurs, people are thinking a lot more about machine learning to improve their products and make them more adaptive. That’ll continue.
On the writing front, when you think about the challenge of really improving students’ writing, it requires a teacher giving direct feedback. And when you consider the numbers in middle and high school, with the ratio of teachers to students, giving a lot of direct feedback is difficult. The more feedback a person gets, the better they'll become at writing.
What they're trying to do at Quill, for example, is use machine learning to identify many different ways you can respond to a writing prompt, so that they can provide targeted feedback to help improve writing. It's super ambitious, but they’re really on it and making progress. They started off with the grammar focus and then migrated to focusing on specifics like thesis statements and main ideas.
But their goal is to reach a point where a student could write something and get very specific feedback that could improve it. That's the type of thing that requires machine learning and looking at a lot of different responses over time. It's a combination of machine learning and data. And having a lot of people providing targeted feedback and then processing that from different teachers.
And we’ll see expanded use of big data to help product developers figure out how to really personalize products, so that they can they can help students achieve mastery more quickly. Every year, folks learn more edtech tools, the technology gets better, and then they incorporate that into edtech tools. We're going to see that evolve over time, for sure.
An example that sticks out for me is Amira. They’ve been able to identify dyslexia with a super high rate of accuracy based on students' reading. And that's from gathering lots of data on what to look for.
And ST Math has years’ worth of data from their product, and they’re always looking at the information to better understand where misconceptions are across students. It’s so important for companies to have their own internal research capacities in order to do that kind of work.
Cator: We're seeing more companies advance the ways that the more content-oriented applications are being developed. They're becoming more sophisticated, with better algorithms, better recommendation engines, better responses to what students are doing.
"Technology is supporting more of the full experience of learning, rather than just being relegated to supporting math drills, reading instruction practices and the like."
BEYOND SPECIALTY SOFTWARE
Cator: More and more people are thinking about technology in terms of how it can support powerful learning or deeper learning — the kinds of skills that students will need in their lives going forward. That means technology that supports the development of good inquiry skills, good research skills, leveraging the internet, supporting students as producers of knowledge, content and ideas — and how to present them in a multimedia fashion.
If we think about how adults use technology in their work, I think [the future of edtech] looks more like that — how adults use tech as they leverage the internet if they need to learn something new or find something out. And big data. So whether it’s weather data or GPS data or myriad big datasets, people in various fields use big data in their work to understand something better, to create a visualization, to present knowledge.
So if you think about students in a classroom, that's a great starting point. We want students to become proficient problem solvers, so they can solve challenges they may have in their community or their school. Some people think about it as project-based learning. Or you can think of it as challenge-based learning. These are methods for engaging students to work with technology like [adults in the professional] world would. That doesn't preclude really good reading, math, spelling or language software.
But I think the headline is that technology is supporting more of the full experience of learning, rather than just being relegated to supporting math drills, reading instruction practices and the like.
But it's a more holistic way of thinking about how technology can be used in the classroom. It’s both. I definitely wouldn't want to start and stop with kids running through math problems on an adaptive learning platform, but I’d prefer to see kids producing content and solving problems and using technology in very creative and interesting ways.
Evans: We're looking now at infusing computational thinking principles within everyday curricula. Giving students what was really the best parts of the coding movement — how to think logically, how to solve problems and how to think about data effectively. Infusing that within teachers' mindsets so that — whether it's an English or science or social studies lesson — they’re looking at it as a problem-solving activity.
There’s been a shift over the last couple of decades; it's just starting to get resonance now because we're putting greater emphasis on workforce preparedness than we ever did before.
When you use that lends of college/career-ready skills, you start to think about, how can technology help students develop these skills in a meaningful way?
That means math games that don’t just teach multiplication, but simulates some problem solving activities and thus develops critical thinking? Or can you collaborate with peers on solving math problems, so you're developing collaboration skills while at the same time learning the math skill.
ACCESSIBILITY AND DIVERSITY & INCLUSION
Cator: Another very important area is accessibility and the ways that technologies can support students with myriad learning differences. We're learning a lot more from neuroscience and cognitive science about how people learn; we can develop technologies using that research to support learning. A student who is blind can have the screen read to them. A student who is deaf can have various supports for things that they otherwise wouldn't be able to access. A student with autism who may not be able to communicate can use communication software to speak with people around them. These are the kinds of things that are being developed and becoming more widely understood and applied, and then obviously perfected as we go.
Apple has been deeply involved with accessibility for years, and Microsoft as well, making sure that all their products are fully accessible. The idea is that if you develop something for one particular group, it's actually very helpful for others. A good example outside of technology is the law that requires sidewalk cutouts. So that if you’re in a wheelchair, you could wheel down and cross the road. And that actually ends up being very helpful for people with strollers or people with other mobility issues.
If you can highlight text on a screen and have it read to you, that's great for people who are blind. But it's also really great for people who are learning to read or need the audio track in addition to their visual track when they're reading. Or maybe they're medical students and it's new information and they want to know the correct pronunciations. These kinds of accessibility technologies have so many applications to support learning and advancement for all people.
Translation technology is another one that's incredibly helpful in schools. Some schools have dozens of languages spoken, and having translation technologies at their fingertips supports interacting with the students themselves and also with their families and parents.
Clayton: From my perspective, as a black edtech advocate, I worry about how bias gets built into technology. Being in at the ground level is important — knowing who the players are and making sure that they're thinking about diversity, equity and inclusion as it relates to the product-building team and the product itself — so that you don't have situations where dark-skinned people walk up to the automatic water faucets and they don’t work because it's not used to seeing a darker shade.
We're tracking the diversity of teams at the ventures in which we invest. We ask them if they have a formal strategy for addressing diversity, equity, inclusion. We're still trying to figure out how to measure that from an impact standpoint. We've definitely seen some movement in some interesting cases that really demonstrate how it can amplify your product and your ultimate sales efforts.
Flocabulary is one where they really ramped up efforts to diversify their staff, and it led to some product changes that helped with their growth. So we want to showcase what it looks like when a product does this work and it’s been a success. But we recognize that it’s still early. Everybody’s looking at universal design, but things are moving so fast and changing. So providing structure and frameworks will continue to be important.
CUSTOMIZABLE VIDEO & MULTIMEDIA
Evans: We're much more visual learners than ever before. When you try to fix something at home, you go to YouTube, right? So it makes sense that teachers, as they’re looking through different units or different activities, explore what video they could supplement to stimulate a conversation and add context.
And the very best implementations of videos in the classroom are not where the teacher puts on a half-hour video and that's the lesson, but rather where teachers annotate video. And there's software that helps you do this. So maybe you run a documentary, but pause and have a conversation with the students about the topic: “What do you think is going to happen next? Where do you think this will go?” So it becomes interactive. That's particularly interesting, and more and more of those primary source videos are becoming available. It also can stimulate that deeper learning in a way that just reading an article or looking at the textbook may not.
Evans: When we ask students what obstacles they face in using technology at school, the number one issue that comes up for high school students is slow internet. It's the same thing in enterprise, right? You may have a perfect situation where your pipe is large and you're bringing in capacity, but if it's being used all the time for high bandwidth activities, you may still have a situation where you don't have enough.
Schools don't really have a good handle yet in terms of what their projected [bandwidth] needs might be, because teachers are still exploring and experimenting with using this technology. It's not consistent yet. So they may have a couple of days when everything runs great, and then they may have a couple of days when they're really hitting the limit.
In one round of research, 24 percent of respondents said they were at the wall every day — that it’s a mess, connectivity-wise, every single day.
So we may check the box and say that we have enough capacity and bandwidth, but in reality, because there isn't a consistency of usage, it's hard for the districts to know whether they really have enough. Particularly as these new products are coming on that demand a much higher bandwidth.
Cator: A barrier continues to be supporting teachers. We've done a lot of work with classroom-based coaches and trying to accelerate the opportunity for teachers to have a coach that can be in the classroom with them and work with them. So I think professional development, professional learning and continuing to advance the skills of teachers is one thing that will never go away.
It's not a barrier, but another consideration is the time students spend with technology — screen time. I always say all screen time is not created equally. We want to make sure that what students are doing with the technology is very thoughtful and very purposeful, so that there isn't any time spent on empty experiences. And then continuing to pay very close attention to privacy and the use of data is, again, not a barrier but definitely a very strong consideration.