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Harvard Business Review July/August 2017 issue

The edtech craze

FutureOfLearning2The July 22nd-28th issue of The Economist has a special segment on the future of learning, which I of course read with interest. My conclusion after reading it is that edtech is vastly overhyped. In all fairness, I was already leaning toward that conclusion before reading The Economist, and this may not be the conclusion The Economist had in mind when it printed those articles. 

As someone born in Europe, I do have to say the whole emphasis on technology to allow for personalized learning smacks of that whole American exceptionalism, where it apparently seems outrageous to parents that their child could benefit from the same learning approach as someone else's kid. I can hear the screams from here. (Nooooo! My child is unique!) I think what education needs is small classes with students of a similar level so no kid gets particularly bored and no kid gets left behind, even if it means the class would move at a different pace than another class for the same year, because the other students would be at a different level of preparedness.

But edtech has become a very profitable endeavor and it obviously isn't going to please a number of people if we admit that what kids most need is human contact while they try to master the material. (I think this remains true at the undergraduate level in college, although not at the graduate level. Edtech has its place in the education spectrum. The market segment where it, in my opinion, truly brings benefit is much too narrow for edtech's taste, though.)

I read The Economist's leader and then to be fair I also read the briefing, but the briefing was even worse. For instance, the lead example is that of a 10-year-old kid in Mountain View, CA.  That's next door to Stanford University. I'm not going to even try to estimate the number of Stanford professors' families that live in California, but I remember a prominent Stanford faculty coming to visit my former institution a while back and mention that this person's kid's high school had seen a number of teen suicides due to the pressure the kids are under to get into Harvard or M.I.T. or Stanford. So forgive me if I'm not particularly impressed by the potential of edtech when I hear about a seemingly privileged 10-year-old already angling for advantage. (It's not the 10-year-old's fault.) His parents must love the idea he's special, and the students I've taught who couldn't deal with the corporate world and launched their own startups at age 25 certainly thought they were special too. The dark secret, though, is that the 25-year-olds whose startups make them billionaires are startups that can scale. This is not even an original idea of mine; I first read it in one of MIT entrepreneur Bill Aulet's book. 

What I like about edtech is the potential to reach students that traditional educational techniques would otherwise leave behind, but those are not the students who have the ability to pay and justify sky-high IPO valuations. We've got to be honest on that. A whole mystique surrounds edtech (and MOOCs, and tech in higher ed) and the media loves a feel-good story but that's not what's going to pay startup bills. It's in the edtech field's interest to push for more and more technology in the classrooms, but it's not clear to me that we really need sophisticated tools.

As a course management tool, Canvas is quite good. Group videoconferencing abilities are going to become a must. Maybe little things will help, like annotating a student's submission directly on the website. Ultimately, though, software taking into account a student's learning style is really only helpful to students who are falling behind, and the marketing as an important tool reflecting a student's unique learning styles just helps parents feel good that their kid is unique. An ideal day in real life is a day where you only get bored a little, struggle a little, and then stretch yourself to an extent appropriate for your knowledge level. You don't have to be fascinated by what you're learning every single second to have a productive day. It doesn't mean it's (necessarily) a day wasted. People wouldn't run a marathon like a sprint. 

Again, if students in the classroom are from too disparate levels, then yes the best students will get bored, and maybe lose motivation for class, and lose the opportunity to become star achievers. If some students are always bored and others always struggle, there's something wrong in the class composition. (Although the French system often mixes such students so that the parents can't complain that their kid was put in a less-good section while they think their offspring is the next Nobel prize winner.)

I like that edtech makes education possible in places where it had not been likely before, but technology can't replace the main U.S. problem, which is that public schools are funded by local property taxes. As long as that system is in place, the kids from poor neighborhoods will struggle to have an education similar to kids from wealthier neighborhoods, and parents from wealthier neighborhoods will throw a fit if their property taxes don't go to their kid's school. The U.S. school system is particularly sensitive to money, which is why so many parents find themselves roped in for the latest fundraiser event or cookie sale.

The funding of U.S. public schools via property taxes is the main problem today, because of the U.S. place on the world stage. Even a global, U.K.-headquartered newspaper like The Economist is more sensitive to what happens in America. It's easy to look away from the school-funding-formula issue and let edtech startups thrill us (their CEOs would love that...), but that's just a Band-Aid. Entrepreneurs, though, won't make money from new public-school-funding formulas.

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