How Districts Can Inform EdTech Companies to Make Better Products
By Ken Wallace - Guest Author
Innovation often requires leading, not following, in technology advancement.
I was involved in two important decisions in 2007 while serving as the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction at Maine Township High School District 207 in Illinois. First, needing a new Director of Technology to help us advance technology into an essential role to improve learning, I hired a talented young man named Dr. Hank Thiele.
Because we had a proprietary, expensive email system at the time, one of our first discussions was about strategies to migrate from our email system, which led to a discussion about Gmail and to approaching Google to inquire about their interest in partnering with a school district in the K-12 space. Gmail was new, and Google applications for education were in beta format with four university partners, but our call to Google led me to our second important decision to become their first K-12 partner, and we like to think it helped launch the cloud computing and 1:1 digital revolution. Here are three key lessons we learned during that experience that we have taken forward to help us continue to improve as a District:
Embrace being in a state of beta — The world moves faster today than ever before, which can be both a blessing and a challenge. We like to think of ourselves as being in a constant “state of beta” instead of ever just in one place. New tools emerge more often to help solve problems in ways that can enhance the educational process by adding efficiency, analytics and learning support to students and staff alike; the challenge is keeping up. Humans are hard-wired to resist change even if what we are doing (or using) isn’t as effective as we’d like. The advent of cloud-based computing in which devices and applications are often updated automatically has been a game changer for how our technology departments need to allocate resources, freeing up resources that allow us to reimagine the work. Additionally, today’s technology allows a much wider set of individuals to create applications than ever before. Students in our district have created multiple applications to help solve issues ranging from where to find all student-related announcements in a single spot to an application to help students find an open parking spot on days when one particular student is absent, freeing a parking spot up.
Be influencers in education market — This state of beta thinking provides unique opportunities for our student and staff to by helping developers through actual beta testing in the classroom, something we have been doing regularly since our early days of beta testing for Google applications for education. Hank and I were often amazed that we had more responsiveness to staff and student input from Google about how to make the education applications better than we sometimes did from software companies we paid to provide software solutions. We’ve always put a lot of emphasis into supporting teachers to implement technology and pedagogy into the classroom through the use of coaching, and right now we are doing beta testing for two companies that have coaching suites to help make the coaching process more efficient. Because we have an advanced program that we think can still improve significantly, having a beta testing relationship with the companies that are most invested in the work that is important to our success puts us in position to impact the larger world of education and instructional coaching by informing the process with cutting-edge practitioners who are in the field doing the real work that these software solutions want to support.
As often as possible we try to include feedback from as many teachers and students in these trials as the circumstances allow, which varies. We have done beta testing on everything from very small trials to large district trials with Google, for example. Early on with Google Education Applications, the sheets couldn’t do lines of best fit for graphing, so many of our teachers rightly wanted to continue using Excel for these functions. After calling Google it turned out that sheets had the capability to graph the line of best fit, but the function was not “live” yet on sheets. Our call (and influence) helped the change happen and helped convince our holdouts to use sheets instead of Excel.
Including multiple voices has two important functions. First, for organizations to be great, everyone needs to be empowered, to have a voice, and to know that their voice matters. Failing at this step will almost certainly lead to employee and student reluctance to be part of the exploration process. Second, over time when you exist in a state of beta, learning new things becomes the culture and expectation. People tend to be less fixed on “what they’ve always done” and instead are more open to exploring new and hopefully better ways to do the work. More importantly, our students’ and teachers’ voices are a valued part of the process. It’s a form of metacognition that we have found invaluable to help us get better each year.
Create a culture of inquiry — Being in a state of beta is really about creating the conditions that help support our shift from a traditional transmission model of high schools to one that embraces authentic inquiry. For too long school has been about the answers. We packaged them, sometimes hid them, valued them and rewarded those who paid the closest attention to them, even if they often were unable to connect the answers to the larger world or construct new meaning and understanding based on those answers. Students come to school naturally questioning the world around them; in fact the human brain is naturally wired to solve problems. Try this test for example:
M_ _her Nat_ _e
Even at a subconscious level your brain will try to solve the puzzle, figuring out that the answer is “Mother Nature” for example. And most humans will do this over and over again if we remove the punishment that comes with getting answers wrong. It’s why teenage boys or girls may play a video game for hours on end but choose not to do their homework. The video game is a puzzle to solve and rather than being punished for failure, players get to push restart after losing and use the knowledge gained to complete the next level. When we support students and teachers to own their learning, to lead their learning and to construct their own questions and meaning we are creating better learning conditions for all student and adult learners. When we connect that process to the larger world of education technology we have a hand in not only shaping tools to help us do our job better, but to also help improve learning conditions beyond our schools.