School & District Management Opinion

A Glimpse of Ed Tech Future: Steady Work

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — January 25, 2016 3 min read
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I went looking for unicorns and found clever, friendly workhorses instead...and a prophet in the desert.

The prophet appeared in the person of Coachella Valley Unified School District superintendent Darryl Adams, who held center stage at a technology summit put on by edSurge last Friday. He rocked the place. I mean, when was the last time you heard a school superintendent do call-and-response, clap your hands, song and dance, all while delivering a substantive message about what education technology can do in the hands of poor kids?

On Friday Adams also was seen on the PBS Newshour, again explaining 18,900-student school district’s technology implementation. Where other larger school districts, such as Los Angeles, have failed, Coachella Valley has been successful in rolling out a one-to-one tablet computer program for its students, and it’s added the means to deliver them.

The school district sprawls over an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. All its students qualify for a free or reduced price lunch, and many of them live in remote locations necessitating long bus rides to and from school.

The school district’s solution: give all the students technology: iPads in this case. Let them take the computers home. Then, equip the buses with WiFi, so the kids can study on the way to and from school.

Bus to the Cloud

But many of the students live in homes that are not Internet connected, so the district arranged to park some of its WiFi-connected buses in trailer parks and other remote housing clusters where students live giving them access overnight. As Adams said Friday, “I’d put WiFi on a pigeon if I thought it would help these kids get connected.”

Pay for all this and more by getting a community excited about the possibilities and passing a $42-million bond issue.

But I had gone in search of unicorns. In the technology industries, a unicorn is a startup thought to be so world changing that its capital valuation exceeds $1-billion. In ed tech, Udacity, the online education company, is a unicorn, as is Lynda, which offers subscribers online tutorials. Investors in unicorns are betting on massive disruption of existing industries, as two very big unicorns Über and Airbnb have done for transit and temporary housing.

I didn’t find any unicorns, companies promising to upend the model of teaching and learning that has constituted schooling for a century. Instead, I found a baker’s dozen of product developers and vendors, almost of all of them from small firms, some with just-launched products. The developers were matched with eager workhorses, more than 100 public school district educators, trying to see how new technologies could make them more effective.

The summit in Riverside was sponsored by edSurge, the information sharing organization that connects educators and the tech industry. Similar summits have been held around the country, and more are scheduled for 2016.

The Hard, High Impact Stuff

Michelle Spencer, who heads the summit effort, put together a tightly organized day that started with questions to districts about what aspects of technology adoption were hard and easy; high impact v. low impact. In picking which product developers to meet with, districts were prompted to tackle the difficult and important issues first.

“It’s not about buying their product,” she said. “It’s about understanding what the product does.” She encouraged districts, to plumb the vendor’s knowledge of pedagogy and the tech industry. “There is a powerful network in entrepreneurs,” she noted.

One that caught my eye is Homework Friendzy, a math homework system that incorporates collaborative learning and peer tutoring. It lets teachers customize assignments; kids get help immediately if they don’t understand problems. It allows access via almost anything electronic, and it works in English and Spanish.

But I’m not selling stuff here, and recognition is due each of the developers (below) that edSurge matched with school districts’ initial lists of tech challenges.

I’m going to keep looking for unicorns, because I think that the batch processing system we created to teach students a century ago has about reached the limits of what it can deliver.

The educators said I should quit looking. Like most educators, they are into creating steady progress, moving students and teachers ahead within well-defined learning paths.

That kind of advice takes the wiz-bang magic out of ed tech; it puts the logic of continuous improvement back in. It’s less fanciful, but more real.

As for the prophet in the desert: he’s worth following.

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