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Education Opinion

There Ain’t No Such Thing as Halfway Crooks

By Chapman Snowden — April 10, 2012 4 min read
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Note: Chapman Snowden is the founder of Kinobi and an innovator in training at 4.0 Schools.

There’s no better way to title a post about ed tech than a quote from one of the most underrated hip hop groups of all time, Mobb Deep. I promise it’s relevant.

Last week a friend forwarded me a fantastic article commenting on the use of technology in education. As I read it, I found myself quickly developing “aggressive head-nodding syndrome.” In particular, this section, referencing a report from the Ford Foundation, struck me:

... [there are] gaps between what Federal and state funds have purchased for classrooms and how teachers have received and have been able (or have chosen) to use the technology. Funding agencies and school districts have often... ignored the need for teachers to interact with technology contractors and developers.

Education technology, whether it’s a smart board, blended learning curriculum, computer, or iPad, is merely a tool. It’s only as good as it can be effectively used to solve a need for a teacher. In order for developers to create useful tools for teachers, funders and districts should be demanding that developers are truly listening to teachers and their needs.

However, this is not only the responsibility of district administrators and funders. Ed tech entrepreneurs also need to take responsibility for actively engaging with teachers and school leaders to better understand their needs. There’s a significant difference between creating a tool because the technology is cool (think: Segway) and using awesome technology as a means to solve a real problem. While the “cool factor” may be enough of a selling point in the consumer market, in education, where both time and money are precious resources, the “cool factor” isn’t enough. We need tools that solve real problems.

This is a photo take from the TechStars office in Cambridge, MA, and represents one of the most important lessons that aspiring ed tech entrepreneurs can learn. It’s easy to become enamored with new, sexy technology. iPads and the Microsoft Kinects can create interactions with information that are simply astounding. But instead of asking, “What can we do with this awesome technology?” we should be asking, “What are the educational needs of teachers and students and how can we use technology to improve educational outcomes?” This will enable us to move from the novel to the powerful solutions (check out resources like the IDEO Educator’s Toolkit for great ways to do so).

As ed tech entrepreneurs, we have to be incredibly thoughtful of how we discover customer needs. Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” Instead of genetically engineering a faster horse, he created the automobile. Ford astutely observed that while listening to customer needs, it’s important to interpret the need, instead of heeding verbatim requests. Sometimes we get stuck thinking about how to make improvements to a pre-existing solution, instead of envisioning an entirely new way for getting from point A to point B.

Identifying the user need is not easy. When I came up with the concept of Kinobi, I was hell-bent on creating an amazing “flight simulator” for teachers in order for them to practice their craft. It was going to have artificially intelligent kids, use immersive simulations, and spawn the education equivalent of Top Gun. After pitching this idea to Matt Candler and Josh Densen of 4.0 Schools, as well as a group of dubious teachers, they asked me, “What are you solving for?” I was somewhat incredulous that they doubted the amazingness of the technology I was promising to build. Yet I couldn’t succinctly answer their question. I floundered around a bit until Matt asked me to create a prototype in order to help me get more concrete about the product and the pain points it would solve.

This was my first prototype. It’s a sad excuse for a teaching simulator--I used index cards to represent specific teaching techniques (e.g. Right is Right) and used cotton balls to represent student behavior. The idea was that I would create a situation using cotton balls and the teacher would choose the best technique to use in that situation. The prototype may not look like much, but it was invaluable in helping discover what teachers actually needed in order to hone their craft: role-play. It took stepping away from the sexiness of the technology to discover the need in a very rudimentary way.

Teachers told me that they found role-play to be an incredibly important tool in their development. So I set about trying to create virtual role-plays using video that would enable teachers to use recorded, actual classroom situations to practice specific techniques. After filming some classes, I sat down with Ben Marcovitz, the amazing Principal of Sci Academy and a master user of role-play in teacher training. Their feedback on the virtual role-plays helped me develop another important insight. The role-play, in itself, isn’t enough. It’s the repeated practice and the feedback received during role-play that is incredibly powerful for teacher development, yet in short supply. The process of creating a prototype and presenting it to teachers to get their feedback has really helped put me on the path to creating a tool that will be much more impactful than the “Teacher Top Gun Simulator” I had initially imagined.

So back to the peculiar title--essentially Mobb Deep was saying you’re either a crook or you’re not, you can’t just dabble in crime. The same is true for education technology startups--we cannot dabble in cool uses of technology, we’re either solving a need or we’re not.

Oh, and that the Ford Foundation report mentioned in the article was from 1959 on the use of television in the classroom. Goes to show we’ve clearly not learned this lesson very well.

--Chapman Snowden

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.