The EdTech Conundrum

Imagine you were the CEO of a brand new EdTech start up with a brand new device that was ready to revolutionize education. (Or at least so your marketing team would have us believe.)

You unrolled your plan to get your device into the hands of students and put it into action. So, here’s my first question. What are your indicators of success? Profit? Devices sold? Number of districts implementing your device? Number of teachers implementing your device? These all seem fairly reasonable.

Do you know what almost certainly wouldn’t be one of your indicators of success? The degree to which your device is improving student outcomes.

So, let’s bring in an article: Education Week’s Popularity of Ed Tech Not Necessarily Linked To Product’s Impact. In which author Benjamin Herold builds a case that there is a fundamental conflict between the traits of Ed Tech that best sell and the traits of Ed Tech that best impact student achievement.

Among the traits that sold best, according to the article, “a promise of cost savings for schools, no requirements for face-to-face training, and an ability to be easily integrated into existing teaching and learning practices.” That is, light on financial commitment, light on PD, and light on classroom disruption.

It’s tough to argue with cost, but the latter two start to expose a weakness that are probably contributing directly to why these EdTech innovations aren’t having that much of an impact: They aren’t innovating. If you are integrating devices that don’t require educators to update what they do in the classroom, then don’t expect for any significant changes in learning outcomes.

The author, quoting Andrew Calkins, adds “Practitioners [in traditional schools] find it easier to adopt technology tools that readily fit within their existing models,” Calkins said. “That’s why tools and platforms that demand a lesser degree of disruption might have found greater purchase in the marketplace.”

It is easier, more comfortable, and less stressful on people and resources to integrate tools that integrate into existing school systems, traditions and practices. But this is fundamentally problematic in school communities where existing systems, traditions and practices had reached their capacity for student achievement. If the systems are working as well as they are going to work, then a tool that makes the system function better isn’t what’s needed. What’s needed is a new system.

And that’s a much tougher sell. And it probably explains why we continue to be somewhat disappointed with the way our technology is faring within our desire to improvement. This is why frameworks like SAMR serve such a valuable purpose. They provide structure and language to the act of transitioning from one educational paradigm to another. This highest level of SAMR doesn’t force a particular type of classroom action or behavior, but simply asks the educator to consider what is possible now that wasn’t possible before the technology was available.

And this becomes the ultimate value of the technology and it also explains why we’ve had such a difficult time having our hopes realized. Technology has the potential to fundamentally restructure the way our schools function. And unfortunately, we won’t see the value of some of these tools until we let them do just that.

Undoing Old Expressions ( #MTBoS30 )

During my undergrad (a decade or so ago now), there was a fairly common expression that I believe was designed to comforting interns who were struggling with classroom management and student engagement.

“No activity will work for every kid.”

It played like, “Hang in there, no one’s perfect. You did the best you could.” Nice enough message, I suppose. However, we need to be careful that a second, much less productive (and potentially harmful) message doesn’t begin to run parallel to it.

“No activity will work for every kid” is just a short morph to “understand that a certain number of disengaged students is just the cost of doing business”. And the latter is an extremely risky mindset. While students are going to struggle to stay fully engaged 100% of the time given our limitations as instructors, that should never stop being the goal. “No activity will work for every kid” might need to get reworded into “Make sure your classroom activities have the POTENTIAL to meaningfully engage EVERY student in class, and don’t stress over factors beyond your control.”

That’s a message that is much trickier to morph because the first portion drives so much.

Every single lesson plan for every single class period should include opportunities for each kid to meaningfully engage. What does that look like?

Well, every struggling learner will be supported every day. Every excelling learner will be challenged every day. Every fidgety kid will get a chance to get up and relocate every day. Every kid will get a chance to practice and get feedback every day. Every kid who needs some worked examples will have ready access to them every day. Every kid will be held accountable for their participation every day. It’s a mindset. Does my lesson have the potential to engage 100% of the learners?

It looks like every question being answered by every kid. It changes from “Any questions?” to “All right, take 3 minutes, solve these two problems and I’ll walk around and look at them.”

One formative assessment attempt is okay with disengaged students. No news is good news, right? The other formative assessment values each student’s thoughts. Okay, yeah… the second one takes a minute or two longer. But then again, the students are much more likely to learn something. That seems like a fair trade to me.

It looks like removing assumptions. “Okay, so back in 4th grade, you were taught area or rectangles, so…” falls away and “Okay, every one draw a 3 in by 5 in rectangle. Use a ruler. Try to make it perfect. Oooh! Look, Alex used graph paper! Nice move! Now, let’s see if we can find the area. No discussion right now. 60 seconds of silent, individual work. What’s the area of that rectangle?”


One sets up a barrier for students who don’t know, don’t remember, or weren’t taught. The other leaves nothing to chance, demands that each student demonstrate their skill set and gives opportunities for reteaching as needed.

It looks like creating expandable experiences. “All right, once you’ve finished 3-13 (odds), you’re done for today” falls away and “Okay, so, if you can get through 3-13, I’ve got the answer sheets floating around. Make sure they’re right and then come and see me. I’ve got a challenge for you. Remember, you knock out 5 challenge problems during the quarter and you get a…”

One generates rush to “get stuff done” with lack-of-productivity being the reward. The other creates incentives for pushing yourself.

And no. These plans aren’t going to work for every student. There. I said it.

But they are ways to make sure that each student will have something meaningful to engage it when they decide to.