Chan/Zuckerberg: The “Tech” is not the Hard Part in “Ed Tech”

Phil and I were recently interviewed by KQED’s Sarah Tan for a story about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s Summit platform. As often happens when our comments are just one bit of a larger story—particularly when we are asked to provide a more critical external perspective as a check on the enthusiastic reports of a project’s participants—some interesting parts of the interview conversation inevitably ended up on the cutting room floor. Ms. Tan was kind enough to grant us permission to repurpose some of the source material from the interview for this blog post.

To be clear, Phil and I have no direct experience with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and have only seen the publicly available information on the Summit platform that it has released (although we both took some time to review that information carefully in advance of the interview). The value of the conversation snippet we provide here is in answering the questions, “Even if you think an ed tech platform seems well designed and the creators seem well intentioned, why might it fail anyway? And while we’re at it, how should we even define success?” These are questions that rarely get asked and answered clearly in discussions about ed tech, including in much ed tech research.

The context of our comments below is that Ms. Tan had asked us about how different the Summit platform is from other personalized learning platforms and whether its potential for transforming education is overhyped.[1]

Michael: Well, there are two separate questions in there. One is whether the platform is truly different from other personalized learning platforms out there and the other is whether it truly is going to revolutionize the classroom. From what we’ve seen, the Facebook platform—should we really call it the Facebook platform? It’s not really Facebook’s. I don’t think that’s fair…

Phil: It’s really the Summit Platform.[2]

Michael: From what we’ve seen, the Summit Platform is quite different from many of the products that are labeled as “personalized learning” in the sense that it is more focused on the curricular level—at helping students identify the projects and skills that they want to work at next—rather than focusing on helping students master those skills through targeted and data-adjusted problems given to the student to work through the skill. So it is much more aimed at fostering students’ sense of self-directed learning, and maybe a sense of wonder and curiosity. Those are all good things. It also is more focused on facilitating a relationship between the students and the teacher. Many personalized learning platforms are designed to have students working alone on their computers. There’s a much bigger emphasis on collaboration—both student/teacher collaboration and student/student collaboration—in the Summit platform.

The degree to which it will revolutionize education is a separate question. The good thing about the Summit platform is that it really focuses on facilitating good teaching and classroom techniques. It’s focused on encouraging teachers to move out of lecture mode and into student-driven learning projects. But that’s also its challenge. Because in order for that to work, you need to have skilled teachers and, to a certain degree, you need to have students who have some basic skills—both self-efficacy skills and a sense of empowerment as well as basic math, reading, and other sorts of skills—to be able to work in a project-based environment. That kind of curricular approach probably works very well in affluent communities like Silicon Valley. And while we would want it to work well in less advantaged communities, those communities are going to need a lot more support in order to make this work properly.

Because the platform is not the magic. The magic is in the teaching that the platform facilitates. And that requires skilled teachers, and it requires students who are coming to the class with certain skill levels.

Phil: I would add, the platform does look different. It’s not just a copycat and it’s got some really nice elements to it. And I can see within the context of it being used, it being a very powerful approach. The risk is—and I fear that Facebook is falling for the technology disease, where they think anything that works can be scaled and scaled to multiple contexts, ignoring other contexts, if you will. And so, when they start talking about “revolutionizing education,” it implies that you’re extrapolating way past Summit and you can solve other people’s problems without even understanding what their challenges are.

So I seriously question—I don’t think they’re going to revolutionize education this way. But I do think they have a very nice approach and they need to have some humility to think that they can’t automatically scale it.

Michael: I wonder, though, if “revolutionizing education” is even the right question to ask. We don’t believe in silver bullets for education. It’s very complicated. Students are individuals. There is no industrial, large-scale solution to solving the problem of educating millions of individuals. The Summit Platform is focused on encouraging teaching practices that enable the teachers to focus on what makes those individuals unique—their strengths, their weaknesses; more importantly, their passions and their interests. That can’t be a bad thing, in and of itself. There will be a lot of hard work getting that to be effective in more challenging contexts, just as there is a lot of hard work in getting any educational improvement to work in more challenging contexts. But maybe it’s not entirely fair to the effort to judge it by the yardstick of whether it’s going to revolutionize education.

Phil and I keep banging the drum about the importance of distinguishing between a set of technologies like “adaptive learning” and a set of teaching practices like “personalized learning.” This is why. If we aren’t careful about making this distinction, about the difference between needing a softare tool and needing a teaching skill, then we can develop as many cutting-edge platforms as we like and still have little impact on education, particularly for those students who need the most support. The flip side of that coin is that setting the success bar for ed tech products at “revolutionizing” or “disrupting” education encourages the development of platforms with unrealistic goals and disregard for context while discouraging the development of platforms that can making a meaningful, measurable difference when appropriately cast in a supporting role in the classroom. If we don’t understand all that, then we won’t put our investments in the places where they could have the most impact, including professional development.

If you’re curious about the original KQED interview, here it is:

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  1. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. []
  2. The Summit Platform is funded by the Zuckerberg Chan Initiative, which is a separate legal entity from Facebook that happens to be owned by Facebook’s most famous founder and his wife. This distinction did come up several times throughout the interview, although we slip into incorrectly calling it the “Facebook platform” once in this snippet. []

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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