The Most Important Issues in Edtech Right Now

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?

What to Look For When Selecting The Right Edtech Tool

A teacher recently asked me, “What are things to look for when selecting the right tool?” This is a question I’ve asked myself many times and I’m constantly evolving the answer. I hope by sharing my current answer here, I can get some feedback and evolve it further.

Like many questions, I believe the answer ultimately depends on one’s situation and goals. Here is a broad framework that may encompass a variety of situations and help narrow down one’s selection. This is written from the standpoint of a classroom teacher, though it can apply to any kind of educator.

Ask yourself:

  1. What are my goals?

    If this is for my students, what are my instructional goals? What kinds of outcomes am I seeking? If this is for myself, what am I trying to achieve? What problem am I trying to solve?

  2. What kinds of activities do I want to do?

    If this is for my students, am I looking for a solo activity or a group project? Should this be interactive or is it more about rote learning and drills? Will this take place inside or outside of the classroom? Should they make something or consume something?

  3. Who will be involved?

    Will my entire class be participating, or just a subset? What are the grades/ages of my students? Are there any special needs and concerns? Will parents or other individuals be a part of this too?

  4. What are my device constraints?

    What kinds of technologies do I have on hand? iPads, Chromebooks, an interactive whiteboard, a shared computer lab, students’ own devices, etc?

Steps 1 and 2 can be broken down into many sub-steps, such as alignment with Common Core State Standards and fit within Bloom’s Taxonomy, TPACK, SAMR, etc, depending upon your preferences. Going through these steps will progressively narrow down your choices from thousands of tools to hopefully a more manageable number.

Once you have that, here are some ways to help you decide between the final choices. Look at:

  • Expert and peer reviews

    What do experts think about these tools? What do my colleagues think about them? Which opinions are most relevant to me? Which opinions do I trust?

  • Ease of use

    Can I use it easily? Can my students use it easily? Is there a demo I can play with right away?

  • Support options

    If I need help, are there tutorials or guides to help me? Is there a way to contact customer support?

  • Security

    For websites, does the URL start with https://, with the s there? A lack of this doesn’t necessarily mean it is a bad site, but having it is a strong plus – with one exception: if the site has a page that asks for a username and password, that page MUST have an https:// in the URL. Otherwise, don’t use it.

  • COPPA compliance

    If my students are under 13 years of age, is the tool COPPA compliant? Does it ask for parental consent before my students sign up?

  • Data ownership and portability

    Will you and your students own your data, or does the company own it? Will the company use your data in ways that make you feel uncomfortable? Can you export your data from the tool? Does it integrate with your school’s student information system?

If your school is fortunate enough to have a dedicated technology team, they can help you with all of this, and much more. If not, I hope this broad framework can help you.

What things do you look for when selecting the right educational tools?

Edtech Trend: Content Creation

The impact Khan Academy has made on the edtech market is widespread. One such result is in the growing market of content creators.

Though there has always educational videos online, the simple bite-sized format of Salman Khan’s videos attracted a wide audience on YouTube. Then donations from prominent investors like Bill Gates propelled his humble efforts into a full-fledged non-profit.

With this attention came criticism from educators. Some reacted to the grandiose statements made about him in the press. Others reacted to the pedagogical content of Khan’s videos. And others decided to create alternatives. At one point, I was able to count 60 sites similar to Khan Academy. There may be more now.

At the same time, a handful of entrepreneurial thinkers realized they could make it easy for anyone to create Khan Academy-style (i.e. digital whiteboard) videos. Instead of using someone else’s videos, you could create your own that are tailored for your students and curriculum.

This is just one example of the educational content creation trend. Right now, I see tools creating the following types of content:

  • Videos – Digital whiteboards, lectures recordings, screencasts, etc.
  • Audio – Podcasts, songs, etc.
  • Images – Lesson plan illustrations, diagrams, infographics, etc.
  • Animation – 2D cartoons, 3D cartoons, etc.
  • Presentations – Lecture slides, project presentations, etc.
  • Lesson Plans – Online multimedia lesson plans, offline lesson plans, etc.
  • Books – Textbooks, ebooks, storybooks, etc.
  • Interactives – Math manipulatives, simulations, maps, timelines, etc.
  • Websites – Class websites, blogs, wikis, etc.
  • Games – Mobile games, desktop games, web-based games, etc.
  • Quizzes – Exercises, worksheets, polls, etc.
  • Video Quizzes – Quiz questions mapped to certain points of a video
  • Online Courses – Instructional media followed by assessments
  • Digital Stories – Animated multimedia stories
  • Portfolios – Examples of student work
  • Electronics – Robots, mechanical devices, pre-made kits, etc.

One of the newest types of content to the market are online video quizzes. I am sure there will be many more to come.

This trend is part of the larger maker movement that many teachers and students are wholeheartedly embracing. It empowers teachers to craft materials suited for their classrooms and students to demonstrate their learnings and creativity in an engaging way.

Content creation going into the hands of teachers and students is a significant shift for education. Though the largest publishers may continue to dominate the market for some time, content created from the bottom-up (teachers and students) will increasingly augment content from the top-down (publishers). Bottom-up content won’t replace top-down content entirely, as there will always be a need for standardized materials, but the growing number of new publishers with high-quality, low-cost content will certainly be a threat the big publishers. And many of these new publishers are working with or are a part of the content creation trend.

There is already a wide diversity of offerings. This number will continue to increase, as well the variety of content types available. This will mean a wider range of quality in the content too. That’s where aggregation and curation will be necessary, so the most relevant and highest quality services and content can be surfaced.

What do you think?

Steve Jobs’ Keynote Speeches

Steve Jobs has the art of the keynote down. Part Silicon Valley, part Hollywood, he’s able to enthrall audiences not just with desirable products, but with the right market timing, anticipation building, mood setting, even the stage lighting. Impressive stuff.

Here’s a collection of his product launch keynotes, in case you ever need some inspiration.

1984: The Macintosh

1998: The iMac

1999: The iBook

2001: The iPod

2004: The iPod Mini

2006: The MacBook

2007: The iPhone

2007: The iPod Nano

2008: The MacBook Air

2010: The iPad

The full keynote is broken up into 10 parts. It’s a bit much to embed all 10 parts here, but if you want to view them, you can see them on YouTube: part4, part5, part6, part7, part8, part9, & part10.

2011: The iPad 2

How to Find a Technical Cofounder

I have a technical background and get about an offer a month to join some engineering team or be a technical cofounder. Active software engineers probably get two or more offers a month.

If you are a non-technical entrepreneur, it can be very, very difficult to find a technical cofounder. But it is not hopeless. Here are some ways to find a technical partner for your venture.

Work for a company that is known to have great engineers
Be a great product manager, marketer, or whatever your role is, and foster deep connections there. Find like-minded people and fostering genuine friendships. Or, at least, solid & respectful working relationships. Also, do a kick-ass job in your role. If you are known as a sharp individual, others will more likely want to follow you.

I was lucky enough to have worked for Yahoo! (YHOO) in its second act. The dot-com bubble had just popped and amazing talent was all over the market. I was able to hire phenomenal software engineers and grow a strong team culture. Many of us have said we’d love to work with one another again. This means we all have access to a large pool of talent. With all the funded startups that are unable to hire, that’s a huge ace up our sleeves.

This is a relatively slow method, however, depending on how quickly you can connect with someone. But such a connection can be long-lasting and meaningful.

Learn to write code yourself
Go to hackathons and developer meetups. Or even contribute to an open source project. The development community is a friendly one (for the most part) and you will often find many people eager to help you out. You can earn the trust of other developers if they see you willing to do this. Also, you will be able to speak their language.

This can be a difficult journey for some. You may have little interest or patience to learn how to program. That lack of motivation can make this method fairly time-consuming. But if you are able to hack it (no pun intended), there are a ton of free resources out there for you. From Codecademy and Try Ruby, to free programming books and free online courses. If those don’t work, pay for a programming course at a local college or workshop. Sometimes having a human being who can answer your questions can help.

Be an inspirational champion for your cause
This works if your passion and business idea serves the community and the world in a greater way. Get yourself involved in various organizations & volunteer groups and be a recognized leader. Build up your personal brand both offline and online. Become someone that others want to follow.

I know of one charismatic individual who has done this via Quora, Twitter, guest blog posts, and various speaking events. He doesn’t have a technical background, but his charisma just radiates.

The common denominator of all these tactics is building meaningful relationships with others through proof of your abilities and talents. I will trust you more if I have worked along side you, seen you try to write a web app yourself, or know you to be an inspirational leader in your field.

What do you think?

How to Find Great Software Developers

I’ve been asked by at least ten people in the last two weeks how to find great software developers. Skills range from CSS & JavaScript to Python/Django & Ruby on Rails. Wherever they are in the technology stack, the plea has been the same:

“How do I find these people? I need more of them TODAY!”

I consider myself damn lucky to know a strong network of great developers. But no, you can’t hire them. Practically all of them have fantastic jobs already. The rest are starting their own companies.

So instead of turning this network over to these hiring managers, I’ve been telling them how I found the developers in the first place. Here is what I told them.

  • First, it helps that I was a developer too. My programming skills have waned a bit, but I understand the programmer mindset and lingo. If you don’t have such a background, have a developer be a part of the technical recruiting team, either as an evangelist & advisor, or full-time member. They will be able to communicate with potential candidates better than non-developers can. This is a key differentiator for your company over other recruiting teams.

  • Next, craft an enticing job description that includes your technical vision describing how you plan on accomplishing the overall vision of the organization. Developers care about the success of the organization because they want to be a part of something great, but I have also found that having a grand technical vision is key. Just stating that the developer will work with XYZ technologies isn’t enough. Draw them in with the technical challenges and lofty aims. This technical vision has to sound immense enough to be daunting, yet exciting enough for candidates to say, “Holy crap, I could never do that myself. I need to be a part of the team that will do that!”

    If you don’t have a technical background, ask your developers to help you write the job description. In my experience, many will give you a plain & straightforward job description. They won’t include any of this visionary detail. To get it, ask your developers to describe the most exciting parts of their jobs. Then ask your technical architects and senior developers about their grand technical vision. You can take this material, edit it for clarity, submit it back to the technical contributors for a sanity check, then publish it as your official job description.

  • Third, search through typical developer hangouts. Github. StackOverflow. Various StackExchange sites. Hacker News. Developer mailing lists. Developers’ blogs. Developers’ Twitter accounts. There are dozens upon dozens out there. Or perhaps someone enterprising enough will build their own way to scour these sources.

    Ask your developers which communities and blogs they frequent. Visit each of those sources. If it’s a blog or Twitter account, check out who they link to, who they respond to, who they mention, who they write about, and who they quote. Blogrolls and Twitter lists can be especially helpful. Not all of these people will be interested, or even qualified, but they make up the peer group of your target audience. Through them, you will be able to find lots of promising candidates.

    For the online communities, it is important to pay attention to their rules. Some frown upon job listings, some welcome them, and many now have job boards. Use those job boards. For an extra bonus, keep track of the number of candidates coming from each, the number that get interviewed, and the number you actually hire. Not all communities are created equal. Some will give you a better return than others. You can use this data to make your searches more efficient.

  • Fourth, identify which candidates are worth interviewing. Like I said, not all will be qualified. If you have a technical background, you can look through their public code or ask for code samples. If not, have the developer on your team help you. The goal at this step is to identify who is at least worth a phone call. Your organization’s procedures may differ, but I generally prefer code samples first, phone call second, in-person interview last. All of this is possible within a week or two if you hustle, depending on the speed of the candidate’s responses.

    For some roles, I have also sent candidates an at-home exercise. If you do this, make sure the exercise looks fake enough that the candidates don’t think you are trying to get free work out of them (and, it should be said, DON’T try getting free work out of a candidate) – while at the same time make sure the exercise effectively tests for the skills you seek.

I should note that this entire process is time-consuming. It is not for the faint of heart. I had a busy schedule while doing all of this hiring, but made it a priority anyways. Other tasks had to fall off my plate. Investing time into an effective recruiting process is worth it if you want to find great developers.

Programming With Only Your Mind

You know what would be cool? If there was the ability to create software just with thoughts.

Imagine sitting at your desk. Looking at a monitor. Electrodes on your head. And seeing your thoughts translated into code.

Just by thinking of a piece of logic or object, it appears. Or picturing a button or form elements, and a user interface is created.

This would just be version 1.0 of Thought Programming, or course. Future versions would allow higher level thinking, much like pseudo code comments. You wouldn’t need to think up each line of code. Thinking in pseudo code would be good enough.

Future versions wouldn’t need electrodes either. And any visual interface into a computer could do, be it your monitor, mobile device, or eyeglasses. You just have to be trained in Thought Programming and have the hardware & software necessary to understand it.

There’s forever been a debate on the best programming language, or syntax, or IDE. Why not remove all of those barriers and formulate code from its most natural state, your thoughts?

The benefits to physically-impaired individuals would be huge too. Maybe the next Facebook or Twitter (or whatever will be huge in the future) will be thought up by such an individual.

Speed would be another advantage. Ever get frustrated because your hands can’t type as fast as you think? Yea, me too. It would be cool to just think of this entry and have it all transcribed.

There is already nascent technology that reads and interprets brain waves. Methinks such sci-fi imagination may not be that far off (relatively speaking). Maybe not in my lifetime, but the next?

Until then, one can only dream. And think.

Biz Vision: Phone Numbers are Archaic

I’m surprised more people haven’t seen the insight in Nikhyl Singhal’s post. Back in August of 2010, he wrote the controversial post “Phone Numbers Are Dead, They Just Don’t Know It Yet” on TechCrunch. I say “controversial” because most of the commenters attacked his article. Not that TechCrunch’s comments are really that intelligent; sometimes far from it. The overwhelming criticism was still startling though.

In his article, Singhal asserts that phone numbers will go away because of these facts:

  1. No control. Anyone can dial your 10 digits, including your ex-girlfriend, a political campaign worker, or a solicitor. Unlisted numbers, Caller ID and do-not-call lists all tried to solve this problem, but these solutions still don’t prevent unwanted calls.
  2. Phone numbers are tied to a device, not to you. Everyone has multiple numbers, yet your home line is shared, leaving callers guessing the best way to reach you.
  3. User experience is very limited. The phone was designed as a utility—dial a number, have a conversation. It’s remained this way since its inception. It’s not optimized for other experiences, which is why voicemail and conference calls are tedious, and why checking flight status is worse than a root canal.

He sees them being replaced with social networks such as Facebook. “If given a choice between Ma Bell and Zuckerbell as our operator, we should choose Zuck,” he writes.

Perhaps he came across too “sensationalistic” as one commenter criticized. Though I agree with Singhal’s prediction, I would frame it differently. Here is the core reason why I believe phone numbers will lose their utility:

Phone numbers are a poor unique identifier

This seemingly random string of numbers is meant to represent you – or specifically, one of your devices, as Singhal points out. It is a holdover from the telecommunications industry and is a viable solution if you:

  1. only need to call a handful of people often
  2. those people don’t change their numbers often

The cognitive load of a handful of numbers is adequate for some people. However, many people need to be in contact with a wider number. And many change their numbers several times in their lifetime.

If you’ve ever kept a manual phonebook, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Ever try calling an old friend, only to discover their number has been disconnected? That’s what I mean.

I don’t know if Facebook is the appropriate solution, but conceptually, there is a definite need for a way to uniquely identify a person, so he/she can be contacted by friends easily. What are some other ways to uniquely identify a person?

Unique identifier alternatives

There are quite a few ways to uniquely identify a person:

  • Real name
  • Username
  • Email address
  • OpenID
  • Social security number
  • Driver’s license
  • Passport
  • License plate number
  • Fingerprints
  • DNA

Real name

A name is the simplest real-world identifier. That’s how you identify your friends & family in a crowded room. There’s more here too, which I’ll get to after I go over the others.

Username & email address

Usernames & email addresses are both are common in the Internet. They are used on social media sites, community forums, instant messengers, etc. They are not a great solution, however, because they have limited namespaces.

For instance, there can only be one person who uses the username “mikelee.” This leads to usernames like “mikelee13” and “mikelee2010.” The meaningfulness of “mikelee12345” is small. Did you mean to contact “mikelee12345” or “mikelee12346?” Same goes for email addresses too.

And, for phone numbers as well. New area codes are created all the time to address the growing population, but conceivably, we will run out of available numbers one day. That’s a huge, obvious problem, if you ask me.

Usernames & email addresses have the benefit of nearly unlimited lengths, while phone numbers are limited. That’s a slight advantage with the former two, but because it’s easier to remember shorter identifiers, namespace conflicts still exist. Long identifiers aren’t just more difficult to remember, they are more difficult to display too. Imagine trying to display “mikelee-from-newyork-now-in-sanfrancisco” on your communications device. Jeepers.


OpenID is a technical protocol that is used in user authentication. It’s more for an individual to log into a website, than for you to contact and connect with that individual. So it wouldn’t help in this context.

Social security number

This number is a little too important to be used casually. As a government-issued unique identifier, it can lead to identity fraud if used maliciously.

It’s arguably a poor unique identifier as well. I would love to see the government use a different one. But there are few viable alternatives for them. Facebook sure wouldn’t work. Maybe something biological? I don’t know. That’s a tougher problem to solve.

Driver’s license & passport

Being physical items, it would be difficult to use these in a communications context. Their numbers – which are really alphanumeric – are more portable than the physical items themselves. Being of a limited length, these numbers suffer from namespace issues as well, though the use of alphabetic characters extends them a bit.

But who’s realistically going to memorize or write down their friends’ driver’s license and/or passport numbers? They aren’t even as good as usernames and email addresses. People can select their own usernames & email addresses; driver’s license & passport numbers are issued seemingly at random.

License plate number

I included this one just to highlight its absurdity. A license plate number is a unique identifier for a vehicle, not a person. It’s about as helpful as a phone number, which is really a unique identifier for a mobile device, not a person. The only difference is portability; it’s easier to bring a mobile device with you than, well, a vehicle.

Fingerprints & DNA

There are a whole host of biometric unique identifiers, from physiological (fingerprints, DNA, retinal patterns) to behavioral (voice, gait, typing rhythm). Sure, these can uniquely identify a friend, but how would you realistically use a friend’s retinal pattern to send them a message? Keep a copy of your friend’s eyeball on your keychain? Gross.

Ideal unique identification traits

Obviously, most of the unique identifiers listed above wouldn’t work in a communication context. What would work? The perfect identifier would be:

  • Unique
  • Meaningful
  • Scalable
  • Portable

It’s got to be unique, of course.

It should also be meaningful. “mikelee12345” isn’t terribly meaningful, but it’s possible to achieve some kind of meaning in such an alphanumeric string. “mikelee-from-newyork” perhaps? Long and unwieldy, but more meaningful.

It should be scalable. Limited-length strings have a, you know, limit. The only way to scale those is to increase the limit – which has its pitfalls (the constraints of limits, I mean). Think Y2K. Someday, we’ll have a Y10K problem.

It should be portable. Some unique identifiers, like physical items and biometrics, aren’t portable. That’s why alphanumeric strings have been used in the past. It’s easy to store such an identifier in a communications device.

With these limitations, it’s easy to see why phone numbers and usernames have been in use. But is there a better way?

Contextual real-world unique identification

I briefly touched on how real names are the simplest real-world identifier. In a crowded room, you can use a person’s first name to identify him/her. For a common name like “Mike,” a last name is necessary. And for a common name like “Mike Lee,” you need to add an extra layer of context, because by themselves, real names aren’t unique enough.

What is a useful layer of context? There are several kinds. You can say, “Mike Lee from New York,” “Mike Lee, who used to work at Yahoo,” or “Mike Lee, that hairy Chinese American guy.” Current location and hometown are common contextual items. Vocation and employment is another, especially in the US. A physical or personality-based description is another.

Some social networks realize this. LinkedIn uses a real name, photo, current employment, and a self-chosen tagline. Facebook uses a real name, photo and a network. On a mobile device, both default to the simplest pair: a real name & a photo.

That, to me, is the key. A real name & a photo. The real name is a natural identifier, and the photo adds context. Together, these are unique, meaningful, scalable (a photo is rich visual representation with a nearly infinite set of pixel combinations), and portal (a photo image file is also small enough to be stored on a mobile device).

Phone numbers vs real names & photos

I consider myself a humanistic technologist. I believe that technology should be centered around the interests, needs, and behavior of human beings. Technology is a tool and shouldn’t be a hinderance, as it often is.

This is what Singhal was trying to convey. Phone numbers surface technical constraints. They are an unnatural way to reach your friends. We’ve put up with it because realistic alternatives haven’t existed. The advent of social networks and mobile devices may finally be offering a viable solution.

Within the code of a LinkedIn or Facebook account, each individual is represented by a numeric (or perhaps alphanumeric) unique identifier. And that’s okay. That’s how programming languages can most efficiently handle a unique entity. But the presentation of that information should not reflect technology’s constraints. It should reflect your actual mental mode of that individual. Such as a real name & a photo.