Edtech vs. Vogue

In middle school, I learned algebra in malls and Vogue magazines…

Snatching anything fashion-related from my dad’s convenience store to take home, I’d cut out outfits I hoped to buy one day. My mother and I would take my cut-outs and find matching pieces at more affordable stores. However, like everything else, my parents made me work for it. My mother and I began weekly shopping excursions when I reached my teen years. Right around the same time, state exams were gaining popularity — both in placing students in ranked classes the next year, as well as for potential high school scholarship opportunities. So if my mother weren’t otherwise frantic enough over my upcoming state test, I was also averaging a B (as in bad) in math class at the time.

In order to prepare me for my exam, my mother used my love for fashion to get me to practice with percentages, fractions, and decimals. She’d pause as I combed through racks at Macy’s, The Limited Too, or TJ Maxx, and ask me to calculate the tax on the pair of pants I decided to buy, and then the total price if she were to use a 15% coupon. I ended up looking forward to these little games — me, the gangly teenager with eyes too big for my head, dutifully calculating the prices of my outfits and the return of investment (measured in wearability and fierceness). Was each piece worthwhile on its own? Was the outfit a one-time charm, or a durable go-to? Then at the end, on our way to the cash register, I had to add up all the prices of our items. This went on week after week until the math became second nature, and these same skills have remained useful for me to this day — in restaurants, with my credit cards, or when understanding my school loans.

I am the daughter of an uneducated immigrant woman who did everything possible to keep me sharp, and who understood the skills I needed to have in order to succeed professionally later in life. Another crucial thing she understood was how to engage me, not just tossing resources my way but actively implementing my own interests into a productive framework. As frivolous as summing our order’s total just before reaching a store clerk may have been, I was simultaneously absorbing the practical application of a skill so abstract as math (instead of just facing a monochromatic worksheet in standardized test prep).

I, like many other children from low-income families across the country, did not have access to state-of-the-art education technologies. This is an issue, but also problematic is the fact that edtech doesn’t even seem to have worked very well thus far. American public schools now spend upwards of three billion dollars a year in digital content, and yet the horror stories abound; for example, “In 2013, an internal audit conducted in the district of Fort Worth, Texas, identified around $2.7 million misspent in ed tech funding. In Hoboken, New Jersey, hundreds of laptops are sitting idle in a storage closet after the project that aimed to give every student at Hoboken High School a personal computer failed.” Sufficient funding of public schools seems like the sort of popular policy issue that’d be welcomed by both sides of the aisle alike, so why is it that doing so, while updating the system to meet the new and increasingly significant demands of the digital age, has failed so spectacularly thus far?

Citing edtech as a precursor to academic success in the 21st century is like arguing basketball hoops preclude becoming Lebron James — surely it’s a necessary element in the equation, but by no means useful in and of itself. We must focus on designing this technology to fit the needs and wants of the students themselves, and repurposing the same sorts of features that make iPads so engaging to children, like my mother did with my love for fashion. Some edtech products are already exploring this space, but progress will remain slow so long as the decisions are being made according to the old system.

You don’t learn from edtech; edtech is a frame to help you learn in your own way. That I successfully learned mathematics in fashion magazines and department stores is evidence enough that we should be spending less effort proliferating sexy technologies, and more figuring out how to use these resources effectively.