Someone asked me what I thought were the most important issues in edtech right now. This was my answer.
The debate of whether or not technology really aids learning
The dirty secret of edtech is there has yet to be an unbiased scientific study on how technology has quantifiably changed the learning outcomes of learners. I even know a tech-savvy teacher who once conducted a study of edtech that was as scientific and controlled as possible. He didn’t find a significant difference in the learning outcomes of his students. And if you ask a random sampling of teachers, you will probably get as many anecdotes of the benefits of technology, as stories of the detriments of technology.
In my view, technology is a tool that is meant to augment human interactions, not replace them. We are still in the very early days of understanding the effects and consequences of technology, especially social media. So naturally, there is and should be trepidation and caution. Hopefully, as a society, we can continue down this path in an enlightened way while continuing to study technology’s holistic effects. Efforts to teach digital citizenship to parents, children, and educators is a step in the right direction, as are plans to study the actual efficacy of edtech in the classroom.
I look forward to reading these studies and seeing more of these efforts. If technology is determined not to be a game-changer in education, I hope it is relegated appropriately while new methods continue to be explored.
The tension between raising investor capital and doing good
Being in the startup world, raising investor capital is a frequent topic. I get emails almost every week from edtech entrepreneurs about this. Which is ironic because I didn’t raise funding myself. Just about all of them go into the education world with the intent of doing good. But many aren’t aware, or are naive about the tensions between offering value to their investors vs doing good. The way investors make money is if your startup is acquired for a large sum or you have an IPO. So far, only a handful of edtech companies have had an IPO, with many more going the acquisition route. This means only a certain kind of edtech company can get funding; if you aren’t the kind of company that can have an IPO or acquisition, you likely won’t attract investors. And if you do, you’d better show progress towards one of these goals eventually.
Investor capital isn’t the only way to finance an edtech startup, however. Many bootstrap their startups with their own money, or build a revenue plan from the beginning. For those that sell to schools, they can rest easy knowing that most, if not all learning institutions want to see an edtech company that is making money. This is an indicator that the company will be around for a long time, and they care about longevity more than price, because the total adoption and deployment cost of using an edtech product includes the training and support costs. Also, selling to learning institutions is an enterprise play, which means requiring an effective sales strategy. This is something that may be too expensive or impractical for most cash-starved startups.
My preferred approach isn’t a glamorous one. To make it in edtech, I prefer the slow and steady, “in it for the long haul” approach. Bootstrap yourself in the beginning and start with a revenue plan that can cover your monthly operating costs, then grow from there. That way, you can concentrate on making sure you are constantly listening to educators and learners without the distraction of investors, and can explore features that help them, rather than features that might make you more “acquirable.”
The ethics of advances in technology
This is a broad topic that covers many areas, not just edtech. Within edtech, concerns include student data privacy. Fortunately, more and more companies are beginning to self-police and address these issues, but it still remains a concern for many. This coincides with the general consumer market’s concerns over data privacy as well, especially with social media.
Outside of edtech, concerns include artificial intelligence, artificial superintelligence, or at least artificial intelligence in weapons. Or “simple” miscalculations in algorithms that may lead to biased conclusions. And many others, of course.
I mention AI specifically because such advances are already being applied to edtech. In some cases, it can help make great strides in offering an adaptive learning environment. In others, it may contain unintended biases and errors that may lead to a poor learning environment. Uncovering such biases might be difficult, even expensive. Would a technology company be responsible for any such consequences a learner may face? Should they? How would such consequences even be tracked and determined?
Also: Will advances in technology be bound by ethical considerations? Should they be? Who would determine what these ethical considerations are? How would they be taught, monitored, and enforced? Many computer science programs offer an ethics class, or at least have it in their curriculum. I hope these classes are kept up-to-date, so programmers will have the right frame of mind when building these innovations. Technology can be a powerful tool, but a bad tool is still a bad tool.
The most important issues in edtech right now
In my humble opinion, these are the most important issues in edtech right now. What do you think are the most important issues?