Updated: May 20, 2020
A rousing cheer for the educators, the parents and, yes, the technologists who have stepped up to keep learning going during these past weeks. They, too, are superheroes. Now let’s have a real conversation about what “school” is going to look like going forward. As governors and districts wrestle over new policies, all we know is that school will be very, very different.
In spite of the effort, the creativity and the money that we’ve poured into education technology over the past decades, we, as an industry, must acknowledge a powerful if vexing truth: Not even the best among us designed products to be used under these conditions.
There has never been a time when learners and educators relied on technology more. For years, we have made the case that “blended” learning, a combination of technology and classic approaches, can enrich students’ experiences and support educators.
We’ve entered the age of responsibility. As an industry, we are the ones being put to the test.The best designs are born in the realities of those who use them. Schools, teachers and parents are carrying much of the burden of charting the path for our children’s learning. But education technologists, too, shoulder a mantle of responsibility for building products that support those efforts.
So what should be some of the core principles that underlie our new designs? I recently took part in a panel organized by the Technology Business Group at Columbia Business School (on Zoom, of course) and that conversation flowed over to the comments section of a LinkedIn post. My original principles related particularly to technology for supporting K-12 learners. Adult learners, higher education and even the products that we build to support administrators and the professional development of teachers have comparable issues.
We’re in the equity business. All of us. It’s not optional. If you’re not actively working on ways to decrease equity gaps among learners, you’re liable to be inadvertently increasing them. This new reality may be the hardest for many of us to fathom. Protecting all learners by “sheltering in place” exposed the gaping inequities in our education system. Some students will rocket ahead, supported by remote technology, and available, thoughtful adults. Many, many more risk falling far behind. How we build technology for supporting learning going forward can exacerbate—or narrow—this divide. Questions to ask ourselves: Do our plans account for the needs of different populations of special learners? Do they factor in English learners (whether students or parents)? Do offerings work across devices? Without devices? In different bandwidth situations? Does a product inadvertently contribute to learners’ or educators’ stress, or alleviate it?
Moving teaching to a remote environment, let alone in the current rushed and high-stress circumstances, challenges educators in profound ways. Those who create education technology owe users every effort towards simplicity and ease of use. Preparing our offerings to work in homes where bandwidth may be spotty and devices are irregularly available must be part of our equity considerations. Ironically, one fix that is readily under our control involves adding a print option to digital collections. Bridging the device-access gap is paramount, too.
In the U.S. and a number of other countries, we were just getting comfortable with the notion of enriching the traditional classroom with online and digital learning. But “blended learning” will now take on an utterly new meaning as teachers teach a blend of physically present and remote students, and even rotating groups of students who cycle through bouts of self-isolation and returning to school. How are we rethinking our definition of “blended” and what do we have to do to support that evolving reality?
Parents and caregivers aren’t just stakeholders. Not even the best among us designed products to be used under these conditions.No matter what our specific offering is or who we sell to, we must start considering parents and caregivers (a.k.a. #AccidentalHomeschoolers) as customers. Yes, they’re grown ups, but that doesn’t mean we can treat them as teachers. Consider factors like ease of use, lack of professional training, methods of communication, and simply the reality of working parent(s). Are our offerings tailored and curated enough, or just adding to an already daunting pile of obligations? We can’t lean on a sole teacher, much less a principal or administrator, to be the bridge between our offerings and parents. Parents and caregivers already have plenty on their plates. If we can’t get our offerings to an appropriate level of simplicity, then let’s factor in extra capacity for layperson support.
You must survive. This may sound obvious but it’s important to say clearly: Companies can only be part of the solution if they are economically viable. School budgets will face profound challenges in the coming year. The last thing you can afford is for your company to collapse precisely when your customers (and, of course, your employees) rely on you the most. You don’t want to be surprised in the midst of a crisis and discover your solution doesn’t effectively scale. Or that your cash balance can’t bear the expenses created by spiking usage. Think about responsible expense management, both as you reflect on your existing business model and as you consider any immediate changes to it.
Plan, lots. Meticulously building contingency plans is now a top strategic objective. What are the benchmarks and measures by which you will measure your plan? How will you continue to safeguard student privacy? What becomes of implementation and teacher support when they become remote? We’ve entered the age of responsibility. As an industry, we are the ones being put to the test. We provide the backbone of educational continuity for students’ first responders—administrators, educators and parents around the globe. We will collectively be held accountable for how we bear the mantle of that responsibility. So let’s do all we can to ensure that history will judge us favorably in the important support role we’ve now must shoulder.
Din Heiman (@DinSquared) is a long-time education technology executive. He is currently Senior Vice President of Strategy at Renaissance Learning.