"Frees Up Teachers"

Saturday I'll be on a panel at the MIT Venture Capital conference. "Digitalizing accessibility to quality education." Trying to figure out what to say. Don't necessarily wanna rain on the parade, but, you know.

My colleague Ray wrote up what he's hearing as he talks to many K-12 folks trying to use ed tech. Ray writes:

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There are variations of the story, but according to one version, the pungent red herring would be dragged along a trail until a puppy learned to follow the scent. Later, when the dog was being trained to follow the faint odour of a fox or a badger, the trainer would drag a red herring (whose strong scent confuses the animal) perpendicular to the animal's trail to confuse the dog. The dog would eventually learn to follow the original scent rather than the stronger scent.

As I work on Match Next, I'm talking to teachers and leaders in other blended learning schools. I ask about ed-tech products like they like. Without fail, they downplay any actual software their students use. That's the red herring.

"Don't worry too much about which product you use" they tell me. "Just pick something and go with it. Nothing out there is perfect."

This seems remarkable to me. They love the idea of blended learning: kids learning, in part, on computers. Yet they don't seem to ever love the tech itself. Why?

Two reasons:

1. Grass is always greener on the other side.

New products are being unveiled at a high rate. Folks in these schools usually know about "new software" being made, before it's on the market. For example, a staffer at Amplify (Joel Klein's ed tech company, owned by Rupert Murdoch) gave me a sneak peak of an English teaching software. Looked good! Rigorous, simple, good user-interface. But it's still under construction. So I get excited about the new thing, not yet knowing its bugs, and it makes me feel worse about my current software choices, where I do know the problems. (MG editor's note: this is sometimes true of dating).

2. Low Expectations of Products Themselves

Many of the blended learning practitioners have come to see the ed tech products themselves as a red herring. The issue is not whether they teach kids particularly well. The issue is whether they are "reasonable enough" to "free up (human) teachers" to be more effective.

What they get hyped up about is that the software allows them to redesign the schedule, pacing, and staffing of their school, and how products sometimes change a kid's view of responsibility.

"X is okay software, I'd rate it a 5 out of 10. But....

"Our teachers like X because they get to spend way more time with individual kids and small groups."

"Our teachers like X because a kid doesn't have to move on to the next topic until s/he shows mastery of the previous aim. You don't try to divide fractions until you can simplify them first."

"One of our students failed his test on X. Teacher went to offer help. Kid said: 'I don't need your help, I just need to go back to the playlist. We love the kid knows he has the tools at his disposal to relearn the material and takes it on himself to fix his mistakes."