The State of EdTech

A few weeks ago I spent a chunk of my Sunday at an odd little conference held in the threadbare ballrooms at one of DC’s utility hotels. The meeting was a combination of a micro version of the ISTE expo, an edtech pitchfest, and an attempt at a teacher pep rally.

As I said: odd.

The event was the Tech for Schools Summit, presented in various locations around the US by a company called edSurge. For those who don’t follow the edtech “sector” and haven’t heard of them, here’s the nutshell description in their own words:

EdSurge was started in 2011… to connect the emerging community of edtech entrepreneurs and educators. We wanted to share detailed information about what new technologies could–and could not–do to support learning.

However, the short time I spent at the summit didn’t leave me feeling very good about that “emerging community”.

About thirty small companies participated in this event, each of them showing off their creations at tables in a cramped, noisy room as well as giving a short pitch on the stage in another space. None of them did a good job explaining either what their product did or why any educator would want to use it. If I was a wealthy investor, I would pass on all of them.

Anyway, my biggest problem was with the concept behind their products. Except for two tables1, these edtech “entrepreneurs” presented very little that involved students in creating their own learning.

They were showing technology grafted to the same old curriculum and classroom process, aligned to the Common Core, of course. Very little innovation in either the “ed” or the “tech” part of the equation.

And that pretty much sums up the current state of that whole edtech “sector”.


  1. Ironically both small subdivisions of Autodesk, a very large, well-established company.

Investing in Pearson-style Learning

Yesterday Pearson, our favorite merchant for all things standardized testing, sold The Financial Times for £844m (roughly $1.3 billion US money) in cash.

So, what do they plan to do with all that money?

We plan to reinvest the proceeds from today’s sale to accelerate our push into digital learning, educational services and emerging markets. We will focus our investment on products and businesses with a bigger, bolder impact on learning outcomes, underpinned by a stronger brand and high-performing culture.

This will help us progress toward a future where learning is more effective, affordable, personal and accessible for people who need it most. By doing so, we can help more people discover a love of learning and make progress in their lives.

This is the promise of learning– and the future of Pearson.

I’m not sure what most of that means, what a “bigger, bolder impact” might look like, or how they can help people “discover a love of learning”.

But based on Pearson’s history, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Chipping Away at the IT Barriers

A few months ago I ranted about how our IT department is adamant about not wanting Chromebooks to be used in our schools. If a technology is not blessed by Microsoft, they really don’t want to talk about it.

Now, however, things may be changing – a little – whether IT likes it or not.

A small group of principals here in the overly-large school district decided to bypass the usual bureaucratic channels, along with all the IT denials, and took their case for Chromebooks to directly our Deputy Superintendent (with a great deal of support and encouragement from our little cheering section).

To our surprise, he approved their proposal to purchase a limited number of the Google-based devices to test in their schools. The initiative only involves a few classrooms in five six schools so we certainly aren’t talking about any major shifts in thinking. But potentially it does represents a big crack in the IT barriers.

Of course, nothing is ever simple in our world. As you might imagine, our CIO1 is not happy.

The “Nonstandard Computer Exception Request” she signed (required by regulations) includes this pissy little declaration: “No requests for hardware or software support associated with these devices will be made to IT personnel.” It also forbids the schools from using the standard Google administrative dashboard to manage the Chromebooks, conveying the message: this is our sandbox, keep your crappy toys out.

So, IT is essentially treating these as BYOD devices2 and clearly trying to set up this project for failure. We on the instructional side, are doing our subversive best to make this initiative a success, with a big assist from our Google Education rep. More to come as we see how things play out.

One more thing about Chromebooks.

I’m not going to tell you that they are the ideal instructional device or that they will magically transform learning in our schools. They have plenty of flaws as a classroom tool3. Same with the iPad, another popular choice by schools over the past couple of years and also hobbled for effective use by the barriers erected by IT.

No computing device by itself is going to change public education. The technology must be accompanied by a whole new approach to pedagogy and curriculum, along with huge shifts in thinking from teachers, administrators, parents, and kids.

And, at least in our district, a major alteration in IT attitude – from obstruction to support.


  1. Her official title is Assistant Superintendent for Information Technology but she prefers that “industry standard” title.

  2. The process kids in our schools use to put their personal devices on the network is about as convoluted and unreliable as you could imagine.

  3. Start with being locked to a Google environment.

Dumb Headline

In their new education blog, Grade Point, the Washington Post reports on a study showing My smartphone is making me dumb. Actually, that headline is probably making their readers dumber.

Researchers gave college students their first smartphone and asked them “whether they thought the devices would help them learn”. Of course a large majority said yes.

But a year later, when they were asked the same questions in the past tense, the results were entirely different — the college students felt the phones had distracted them and hadn’t been helpful, after all.

So, of course, we blame the technology, instead of any number of other factors (start with this being their first smartphone) that don’t necessarily translate into provocative headlines.

Finally, tacked onto the end of the post, the writer did manage arrive at the far more accurate conclusion of research like this.

Just providing access to mobile technology wasn’t enough, they concluded; educators would need to offer more structure or guidance if they wanted phones to enhance students’ academic experience.

Teachers must learn how incorporate mobile devices into their practice before students can understand how to use them for their learning.

Not exactly link bait.

Abandoning Blackboard

It’s been a while since I’ve written about how much I dislike Blackboard, the borg-like learning management system used here in the overly-large school district.

Why bother? Little has changed over the past four years. The site is still a turn of the century course delivery system, one that gives both teacher and students a false impression of what publishing to the web is or could be.

The writer of this post has been Working in Blackboard (at the college level instead of our K-12 application) a little longer than we have and sees many of the same problems.

But 15 years later I am no longer relieved to be working in Blackboard. I now find it an obstacle. Things that should be easy, such as blogging, editing and uploading videos, live synchronous sessions, using wikis etc. are unnecessarily difficult in Blackboard, or they are [not] in the version of Blackboard that I am using.

She, however, is willing to work around the flaws in the system, using kluges to offer her students far superior blogging, wiki and discussion tools.

I’m not. I’m tired of helping people patch together something useful. It’s long past time for our district to abandon the expensive mess that is Blackboard and find an online solution for students and teachers that actually works.