By guest blogger Kathryn Baron
From the perspective of many of the ed techies gathered here at an industry summit to share ideas and research, the future for digital education looks as clear and bright as the rare display of sun shining through the Golden Gate.
Consultants who came to the annual Software & Information Industry Association’s Education Industry Summit are predicting that the next school year will be the first in nearly six years in which school spending will regain its healthy glow. Despite worries about teachers’ ability to make sense of those materials, digital education companies could be a huge beneficiary of improved financial conditions, driven in part by the technological push related to Common Core State Standards and new online student testing—if those businesses don’t sink themselves by rushing to market.
“Suddenly, everybody is buying Chromebooks and like it was not a big deal, and buying i-Pads at $40 to $50 million at a time,” David Hoverman told the crowd as the meeting officially kicked off Tuesday morning at the elegant Palace Hotel. Nor do teachers see those devices as just testing machines, he said. “They’re showing up in schools and teachers are saying, ‘Let’s use them for actual instruction,'” said Hoverman, a partner in The Parthenon Group.
But when teachers search the Internet to look for instructional materials, they’re not smiling. Seventy percent surveyed by Parthenon said they’re not satisfied with the resources they’re finding and nearly as many respondents said it’s too hard to find the right stuff.
Hoverman cautioned designers and producers of digital technology to pay attention to those stats and identified three key details to focus on before plunging into the marketplace: Make sure your stuff works, make it easy for teachers to find and use, and be sure that it enhances teaching instead of adding to a teacher’s workload.
In 2008, when Parthenon surveyed teachers, just 14 percent could name an innovative technology platform and program for education, and nearly all of them named Microsoft Word and Adobe Photoshop. Today, there are more than 600 products in that category.
“This is a huge explosion in our view,” said Hoverman, adding that it’s a problem for teachers, students, and the folks in school districts who have to decide what to buy.
It’s not as if there isn’t time to do it well. Rumors of the death of textbooks are exaggerated, attendees at the conference said.
“I haven’t attended an education conference in the past 15 years where someone didn’t say [texts were being eliminated],” said Jeff Livingston, senior vice president of McGraw-Hill’s Education division.
If a full transition from print to digital in schools did happen today, Livingston worries that society would become even more bifurcated as students in the country’s Palo Altos, Marin Counties and other wealthy communities would have access to the best technology in school and at home, while schools in low-income areas would still be waiting to go wireless.
That hits home with Deborah Quazzo, who’s wearing two hats at the summit. She sits on the Chicago Public School Board and founded the venture funding and advisory company GSV Advisors. She’s optimistic that nonprofits like the Education Superhighway are working to get all schools connected to high speed Internet, but worries about exacerbating the technology divide. “A lot of people are screaming and yelling about this, as they should be,” said Quazzo. “[They] probably need to do more.”
When summiteers broke into small sessions, I went to a discussion on how the developers are using brain research to inform their digital classroom programs and found it to be a bit like the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant. Presenters focused on their narrow snippets of research, leaving me with a disjointed view of legs like pillars, a tail like a rope and fan-like ears, but not so much an entire animal.
It was all a bit light on actual science, but there was some acknowledgement that it’s all still a work in progress.
James Bower, a computational neuroscientist and self-proclaimed skeptic of the group—although as developer of Whyville.net and Genesis, he, too, has a product to sell—summed up where many companies are at this point in time in the evolving field of brain research. “This is a stage of invention and real fundamental change,” he said, “and I think the theory comes later.”