Educators, Ed-Tech Businesses Exchange Insights at Industry Summit

Associate Editor

San Francisco

Educators joined about 300 executives for the Education Industry Summit here Monday, shedding light on the challenges, expectations and realities of using digital content and assessment in the classroom.

The educators shared their views on topics from piloting ed-tech products to personalized learning, while company executives explained their experiences working with districts.

“If software is separating the teacher from the student in any way, this would not be a good thing,” said Tom Snyder, who received the industry’s lifetime achievement award for his work in Tom Snyder Productions, a company that he sold to Scholastic. “If you are actually making software for teachers who actually really love to teach… we’re going to be a winning industry.”

The summit, sponsored by the Education Technology Industry Network of the Software & Information Industry Association, covers topics from student privacy and data security—which is the subject of an all-day workshop Tuesday—to innovation, and the difficulty in getting games into K-12 classrooms.

On Pilots

Best practices for successful pilots dominated one session.

Several district representatives said they have had companies focus intense attention on them during the purchase process, then leave them without any contact after they decide to buy. As one administrator said: “We have to ask, ‘Can we support this product by ourselves, when you drop us?'”

On the flip side, district representatives learned that many companies feel frustrated after they conduct a pilot that produced positive results by several metrics, only to lose the district as a client during the procurement process, or when district leadership or direction changes. 

Vendors reported that districts often bring pilots to a halt when testing season begins. District officials, for their part, said companies should understand school systems’ schedules before launching a pilot, and adjust accordingly. Spring isn’t a good time for a pilot, for instance, but the summer is, when it is easier to connect with teachers who are at conferences and in training.

Pauline Burns, assistant superintendent of the Mineola district in New York, said there are two types of pilots: In one, a company is “with us every step of the way,” and her district becomes part of the team during the development process for their product. In the other, a complete product is offered for piloting, and the only question is, “Does it work for you?” In one case, when the answer was “no,” her district received a full refund, she said.

On the vendor side, some voiced the frustration of having districts expect unrealistic outcomes—like moving student achievement several percentage points in only a short period of time. By agreeing upon key metrics before the pilot begins, each side is likely to have more a successful pilot, the vendors said.

One product manager described the challenge within her own company, of having a sales force that wants to run pilots “everywhere,” but she will not allow that. Her practice is to restrict pilots to districts that have instructional coaches engaged in daily classroom instruction, and that are committed to providing professional development.

Another company will only participate in pilots where the strategies for devices, curriculum and instruction are aligned.

On Personalizing Learning

In the Houston district, personalized learning requires considering the needs of 282 schools and 215,000 students who speak more than 100 languages, said Diana Bidulescu, an education technology specialist for the district.

“Your products need to address our student population, demographics, and socioeconomics,” she said.  “And we are decentralized. Everybody has the freedom to select the tool that works best for them on their campus.”

Personalized learning “means you open the walls and you open communications, teaching teachers to embrace feedback and how to elicit feedback,” said Bidulescu.

Terry Nealon, CEO and founder of FishTree, Inc., agreed that it’s important to get the message across to teachers that personalized and adaptive learning can be helpful to them. He said he wants them to understand that using the technology will mean “they’re going to get their weekends back,” and it won’t “cost them more of their life.”

Districts often push back against the idea of ed tech because of “20 years of failed promises and poor implementations,” said Nealon. As an industry, “we’ve learned a lot about implementation,” but getting educators to understand the potential benefits is still a barrier, he said.

For teachers, who often spend up to one-third of their time assessing and grading, the promise of technology-delivered personalized learning is that it will free more of their time to coach individual students, said Dee Kanejiya, founder of Cognii.

In Houston, the district expects ed-tech partners to provide data that will come back to the district, so they can analyze it, and it must be delivered in secure domains, Bidulescu said.

A recommendation engine, she said, is high on the district’s wish list. Finding a way to enter a query for a resource that would meet the need of an individual student, she said, would give teachers what they need to personalize learning.


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