I hate to say this as a former classroom teacher – there is a stupid question in EdTech. I have to go on the attack because this question is likely one of the biggest roadblocks to innovation.
Is Technology Effective?
The education sector is hung up on this question. But there are two false assumptions underneath this question that make it one of the few stupid questions you can ask.
Here are the two deadly assumptions: 1) Technology is homogenous, and 2) Technology is static.
1) Technology is not homogenous. To the contrary, Products are different. There is no such thing as “technology.” Technology is simply the black box we accept as the term to wrap around things built by invisible layers of computers and machines, advanced science and gobbledegook. Technology can be pinned more specifically as the methodology, ingredients, or knowledge building blocks used to create new Products. Technology cannot be effective or ineffective, but Products can be both effective or ineffective, depending on if you are doing the thing the Product is Designed for. That’s a capital D. Design is an intention manifested in choices. So, the question is not whether or not technology is effective at increasing outcomes, but rather does this Product do what it is Designed to do? If not, that doesn’t mean the Product is not worthwhile. Indeed, most products take years of incubation and Design iteration. If a Product doesn’t yet do what it is Designed to do, but you believe in the direction, that’s all the more reason to get on board.
2) Technology is not static. It moves and moves quickly, and lately Products move so quickly its almost not worth talking about the past as much as the future. More importantly, technology cannot be separated from the people that make it. Designing and building a product is now more of a craft than a science, and you need to believe in the artisanship of the people behind it. What’s happened is that, at least on the Internet, the many layers of the “technology stack” such as languages, servers, memory management, and a bunch of other things that would make my grandma fall asleep, are now open source, figured out, and easy to install, implement, and manage. This means that coding the Product is now manipulating a smaller layer, involves less code management and investment, and can move so rapidly that small teams of people can push updates weekly if not daily.
I’ll mention a company I advise called Goalbook. Goalbook is an Individualized Education Plan management tool that enables the efficient communication of students support teams (teachers, staff, case workers, parents). This is one of the most profound challenges in all of education, and bringing effectiveness and efficiency to communicating about an IEP will be a giant leap, especially at the K12 level. Daniel Yoo was a special educator and talented software engineer, and Justin Su rose up through the charter school networks as a technology and innovation guru. The product is 10x as easy to use and prettier than any current IEP management software, and Daniel and Justin have built a whole product, brought on paying customers, and made thousands of teachers happy on a budget of precisely $0 dollars. Goalbook has yet to have a true efficacy study. Does that mean we should stand on the sidelines? No, this is too important. We should be demanding great software now for our IEPs, and we should put money where our mouth is and pay Daniel and Justin to build the team to do it.
So forget the question that educators are tempted to ask: “Is technology effective?” Also, forget “Does technology produce outcomes?” I was a teacher in the classroom, and I used to say there are no dumb questions. But, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve certainly realized that some questions reveal a severe deficit in background knowledge. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, per se, but this one is enough of a barrier to fight back against. Because Education is so hung up on this dumb question, they never learn the insights that will bring educators to the important ones.
There are smarter questions:
Does this product do what it is intended to do? If not, at what rate is it getting there? How excited am I for them to succeed? Do I trust the people that are building it? Is it worth hanging on? Is my life going to be better after this problem space is solved for or transformed?