Last week the first cohort of the ImagineK12 incubator demoed at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference with high hopes and soaring self-predictive expectations to transform, disrupt and revolutionize K-12 education with the help of internet and mobile technology.
It’s quite a goal! But whereas innovative technology has shown its ability to disrupt the publishing, music and newspaper industries, it’s probably useful to first consider where technology is capable of accomplishing revolution in the K-12 classroom.
Technology does two things for us; it either provides a shortcut to accomplishing something, or it amplifies that which we want to do. Using this framework, where and how can shortcuts and amplifiers aid us in teaching and learning?
At the individual level, learning is an inherently incremental, evolutionary process. There are no shortcuts really. Sure, this varies by individual student. Some only need access to the info in order to absorb it. Giving this type of student a shortcut to the content is useful. But most non-future-hedge-funders learn gradually, incrementally and experientially.
Case in point: much of our collective knowledge is on the Internet already, but this has made little difference in student learning outcomes. Real learning experiences take time and guidance.
That’s not to say that shortcut technology doesn’t have its place in schools. It does. Data processing, student tracking, gaming, testing, instant messaging, and content distribution will help us save some time and track what’s trackable. Money will be made and engagement may see at least a short-term boost.
Eduvant, Goalbook, ClassDojo, Nunook and Remind101 of the ImagineK12 graduates fit in this category with clever approaches that are sure to improve efficiency and have a positive cumulative effect. But I’m not sure if they are transformative or revolutionary, yet.
Then comes the question of amplification. Here there is more promise, certainly! Of the 10 ImagineK12 startups, Educreations and FormativeLearning are amplifiers. They take aspects of what teachers do and make them more powerful when doing it. Educreations, for example, lets teachers easily record lessons using a browser-based interactive whiteboard and share them with their students on the web. This amplifies the time a teacher spends teaching her students. That’s powerful. FormativeLearning is creating a professional development platform where teachers post videos of themselves teaching and then get critiqued and tutored by coaches, amplifying the speed at which teachers improve their pedagogy. That’s awesome.
In combination, shortcuts and especially amplifiers will have an impact, but at heart it still comes down to the teacher and the administrators. Amplifying a weak teacher will only weaken the teaching. Giving more data to passive or overwhelmed administrators will accomplish little.
Though the ImagineK12 startups will absolutely help (and hats off to ImagineK12 for focusing on education) I’m still waiting to see if technology will be able to pull off the dream of true transformation-disruption-revolution which merely equals this: a strong teacher in every classroom across the country, supportive administrators in every school to back them up and the right tools—including the above—to amplify their results.
In that sentence and in the real world, it all starts with the teachers. Oh, and it would help to fix poverty, too. Now that would be revolutionary!
Paul Edelman is a former NYC public school teacher and the founder of TeachersPayTeachers. He previously argued against the tech-centric Khan Academy taking over classrooms, and discussed where to hack education.