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The Problem with Ed-Tech Adoption: Infrastructure

The idea of technology permeating the classroom walls is far from novel; since the dawn of formal education, we have sought to merge the latest and greatest inventions with our learning experience, whether that be the printing press, the ballpoint pen, the VHS, or the CD-ROM. The common theme running through the history of tech adoption in the classroom is that all of these changes came from the top. Administrators and politicians purchased the textbooks that guide syllabi. They purchased the televisions that feature documentaries about lost civilizations and Darwinian finches. They mandated the inclusion of the TI-83+ within the calculus curriculum. It is a relatively recent phenomenon that the students' and teachers' technological capabilities far outpace that which is mandated from above. This should make us rethink the very method by which we introduce technology to the classroom, because we have clearly hit a tipping point where our schools now drastically lag behind our households.

We are always talking in circles about iPads and 1:1 ratios and the same squabble about technology that everywhere besides the K-12 classroom is commonplace to the point of nearly approaching stale. By the time we get around to properly outfitting our learning experience with a vaguely reasonable suite of tech apparel, the world will have moved on to systems and hardware that dwarf the current conversation. This is why the discussion needs to center more on infrastructure and technological governance than the actual systems at work and hardware at play. What we really need is the ability to at least mirror the progress of the real world in a relatively timely fashion, because the value of early adoption cannot be undersold. The quicker users can familiarize themselves with a technology's or software's ins and outs, the quicker they can efficiently streamline their classroom experience. In the world of ed-tech, this is particularly valuable since vendors readily seek the input of teachers and students to fine-tune their products. If you are an early adopter, you can quite literally help to manipulate the product exactly to your liking.

The concept of simply ignoring technological advances within the learning experience because they are not perfect and because adoption will have its bumps and bruises is akin to ignoring veggies and cardio because working out is a pain in the ass and healthy people die every day. Yes, you will probably survive, but you are unlikely to approach your potential as a human being, neither physically nor mentally nor emotionally. Similarly, a student that reads a chemistry textbook chapter-by-chapter alongside the rest of her class, moving forward at the pace of the calendar while mixing in the occasional paper-based test that her teacher grades by hand and simply marks a catch-all "B" on the exam and within her gradebook, will likely turn out fine and have a reasonable feel for dipoles, double bonds and deionization. But she is unlikely to have mastered much of anything.

Listen, I understand the issues at play here. Technology adoption in schools is a rightfully scary proposition: dollars are scarce, the ultimate users have varying levels of competence, young startups, while often fresh and talented, are frequently at the risk of pivoting, selling, or simply dying off. For a school to go through the process of aligning its curriculum with a new tech product, training its staff and giving up its data, the prospect of that vendor utterly disappearing (and with it, all the traction gained by said school) is a real risk. But these are not reasons to abandon hope: they are kinks to be ironed out. Don't hate the player, hate the game. This is why I applaud groups like Education SuperHighway, which fights to bring high-speed internet access to every school across the country (don't be afraid to make a donation!), and EdSurge, which is helping to smooth the adoption process through free trials of various technologies for the classroom. These groups are fighting the good fight, combating the biggest challenge to ed-tech procurement: infrastructure.

I'd like to close with a shout out to BrightBytes, the latest investment from my team at Rethink Education. BrightBytes helps schools and districts assess their readiness through a combination of student, teacher, and parent surveys, data analytics, and a recommendation engine that helps drive informed tech adoption. Much of the negativity surrounding the ed-tech movement centers on poor experiences and misspent dollars. These problems are often self-inflicted by districts that get in way over their heads, mostly because they seek to be innovative without doing their proper homework and, perhaps more importantly, by adopting entirely new systems of learning without properly outfitting their teachers with the skills and guidance to effectively utilize new technologies. BrightBytes is leading the movement to clarify the tech procurement process in the K-12 classroom (their first product, in fact, is called Clarity for Schools).

When it comes to ed-tech, we often let perfection become the enemy of the good. We try to pick apart all the reasons technology in the classroom is ineffective instead of focusing on the idea that the ed-tech movement is still young and needs a bit of TLC before it can start blossoming into a dazzling flower of efficiency. But with efforts like Education SuperHighway, initiatives like EdSurge's "Try Before You Buy," and data analyzers like BrightBytes helping to educate our educators, perhaps we can achieve perfection a bit sooner than originally anticipated.

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