Do We Really Need Dedicated Edtech?

A different view on making and buying technology for student learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Marc Prensky

CREDIT Photo by Rodion KutsaevDo we really need to continue to create, sell, and buy dedicated “educational” hardware and software”?  Venture capitalists think so—I just saw an investment figure of over $9 billion per year. But I believe this is a huge waste, both for investors and for students.

Our kids live in a world where almost any technology they could possibly need is available in a general-purpose, easily-configurable-to-whatever-the-need form—often free. It lets them do much more than just academic work—it empowers them to accomplish real things.

“We should be thinking about what role the new technologies can play in a world of post-academic, empowerment, accomplishment-oriented education—the education of the future, now emerging around the world.”

General-purpose technology (e.g. writing tools, communication tools, video tools, analytical tools, databases, Google docs, programming and app-building tools and much more), as it quickly evolves—when used well—works fine for this, and is the bulk of what today’s kids will be using for the rest of their lives.

So What Do We Need?

Our kids—and their educators—need to be finding, creating and inventing ways to use these new general-purpose communication tools, collaboration tools, programming languages, big-data and other analysis tools, simulation engines, robotics tools, AI, AR, VR and more, in ways that will empower them to achieve their dreams and become good, effective world-improving people.

Today’s dedicated “edtech” is almost entirely about supporting our old, “academic” paradigm of education. It is dedicated almost entirely to doing things we could do before—e.g. delivering and receiving content, doing research, or keeping records—in faster, and sometimes marginally better ways.

In the age of iPhones, academic education doesn’t need dedicated technology—a lesson Rupert Murdoch learned painfully with his Amplify tablets.

In the age of You Tube, highly funded startups making “content” are finding that, no matter how good or beautiful that content may be, no one will buy it.

The Real Question for Education 

Our kids, with their extended minds all networked together, need little more than powerful devices and a really fast connection to the web. Once we forget about “edtech” we can deal with the real educational question—how to use the powerful technology we already have—and will have—to achieve our kids’ and our goals.

We should be thinking about what role the new technologies can play in a world of post-academic, empowerment, accomplishment-oriented education—the education of the future, now emerging around the world.

The Real Potential of Technology

Although creating dedicated “edtech” may make economic sense in the short-term, it is disastrous in the longer-term—it holds us back from moving to a new educational vision.

Creating new and expensive technology just to do the “same old education” in different ways is almost certainly the most wasteful use of our resources for educating our kids there is.

Using technology in this way both trivializes technology’s real potential, and fails to empower our kids further to do anything new that they need.

Compared to how technology could be helping our kids become educated for the future, using edtech only—or mainly—to do “old things better” is trivial—no matter what the complexity and sophistication level of the products themselves.

The Best Role for Startups and Researchers

The best role for those technology start-ups and researchers interested in our kids’ future is to begin thinking about using technology to replace the academic K-12 education system we have today with an empowering, real-world project-based education, in which kids—of all ages—do work that makes a measurable positive impact on the world.

That kind of education requires inventing more innovative and imaginative ways for us to use the powerful tools that we already have—and that will continue to emerge.  It means more free, general-purpose tools like Google docs and fewer products “dedicated” to learning STEM or anything else.

The main arguments I hear in favor of dedicated edtech are

(1) that kids need “better” content and “interactivity,” and that

(2) that we need such dedicated tools to maintain our kids’ “privacy.”

I believe both justifications are going away.

A More Important Task At Hand

Almost all “content” is already on the Internet for free, and is daily improving. (In fact, the kids who care about each kind of content can be, and should be, improving it as part of their education.)

Expectations of “privacy” are also fast changing in the digital age, as young people’s attitudes towards a great many things morph to fit their new times.

As they do, there will certainly be issues to deal with, but anyone who thinks their salary, health records, or their kids’ school records will not be findable by anyone online in the near future is kidding him or herself.

We live in a new world, and preparing our kids for it involves a lot more important tasks than making new products for the education of the past.

Marc Prensky is founder and Executive Director of The Global Future Education Foundation and Institute and author of Education to Better Their World: Unleashing the Power of 21st Century Kids (Columbia TC Press, 2016), which won the FOREWORD INDIES 2016 Book of the Year Awards in Education. He has spoken in 40+ countries and promotes civilization-level change in education, empowering students to better their world. Write to:

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One comment

  1. Mr. Prensky is quite correct in saying, “Creating new and expensive technology just to do the ‘same old education’ in different ways is almost certainly the most wasteful use of our resources for educating our kids there is.”

    Note, however, the emphasis on “same old education” that assumes that any edtech **dedicated** to education will be doing that old education. The article treats this as a binary choice. Its fault lies in the sophistry of the excluded middle. Dedicated edtech might (and should) be more than just animating quiz questions or adding videos to textbook contents. It should reach as far beyond the trivial extensions as we can manage.

    You will note that Mr. Prensky, while advocating for this reach, does not propose or provide any specific examples. He also singles out STEM for special mention at the end. This is my area of expertise.

    The truth here is that neither vendors nor teachers, generally speaking, are ready for world-shattering new edtech. Progress rarely occurs in giant leaps for just this reason. I learned this the hard way when I created something new in education at the end of the last century. It broke ground in too many ways to be accepted readily by the education community.

    Today, it’s almost mainstream. As much as I love Mr. Prensky’s vision, it’s just not practical as an immediate activity. It is very practical as a potential roadmap to the future, a roadmap that must begin with a goal. That goal may be far beyond what anyone will accept today.

    I see another issue with the thesis above. It certainly works well in some environments and for some materials. Certainly, Wikipedia proves the value for written content, although even Wikipedia must be read with care. However, some material must be created AND MAINTAINED at great cost. It cannot be free, or it will wither and vanish as the harsh winds of new technology cause it to dry out and wrinkle, becoming old and no longer engaging for our youth. As I have been working in the area for 20 years now, I have seen this cycle more than once.

    In summing up, Mr. Prensky writes, “Almost all “content” is already on the Internet for free, and is daily improving.” The phrase “almost all” may be true in terms of overall Internet material. There’s so much of it. It ignores the fact that also “almost all” Internet content is useless for education, especially for the brave new world of education that he advocates. All of that content, YouTube, Wikipedia, and the like, is passive. The new education will be interactive, rendering this massive repository of content useless, except for reference. Look in a library, and compare the volume of reference works to the rest of the material to see where this gets you.

    To make an analogy, it’s as though having free computer languages means that you can expect all computer programs to be free as well, ignoring the cost of developing and maintaining those programs, many of which are focused on niche markets. Like it or not, education is a niche market. Sure, it seems to be a large one in the aggregate. However, if you extract expenses for educational materials from that aggregate and then consider specific subjects and then further look at only certain grade levels, you will find that the total spending is modest on a per-country basis, even for the U.S.

    Right now, we are mired in a swamp of too many new technologies: AI, AR, VR, big data, etc. No one knows which ones will support the new education that we all believe lies somewhere over the horizon. Maybe, they all will. However, each requires its own experts along with so much more.

    In my own situation, I discovered, along with my co-founders, that we had to have a certain set of capabilities to succeed in reaching our goal, our vision. Then, we had to have another set to turn this success into a **business** success. Just to provide you with a hint of the issues involved, here are some of the expertise areas necessary for the first success (the business acumen is well know already). The product is one that we expect to advance science and STEM education substantially through online capabilities.

    • Subject matter expertise across a wide range of science disciplines, usually requiring a large number of SMEs (subject matter experts).
    • Pedagogical expertise that applies to learning science and comes from experienced educators.
    • Programming expertise at a high level, the sort of level that educators lack and that can be hard to find even in the programming community. Beyond general programming expertise in a programming language, such as Java, you must have more specific computer expertise.
    § Database expertise to build and maintain a highly efficient database.
    § UI/UX expertise to build a front-end that looks good and that is easy to use.
    § Graphics expertise, e.g. SVG, to create high-quality drawings to support learning.
    § Animation expertise, e.g. CSS animation, to create animations that support learning.
    § XML expertise to create a meta-language to describe each learning unit succinctly.
    • Filming expertise so that the video material looks great and also works well in the educational paradigm being employed.
    • Video editing expertise so that the end-user sees exactly what’s important in the way that maximally engages, while also allowing effective hands-on measurement.
    • System architecture expertise to build a large and complex system that works well and can be maintained for decades.
    • System administration expertise to handle the server and keep it up to date while running efficiently.

    In most companies, each of these items would require one or more people, although some personnel might be capable of handling two or even three of them if the company is fortunate enough to find (and recognize) such people.

    As mentioned above, you must augment this team with the business people who do the finance, marketing, management, sales, and other business operations. Some functions might be outsourced, of course. It seems as though you’ll have around 20 people in your company — or less if you do enough outsourcing. You have to have at least $2 million in revenues to support this operation without spending much on marketing. To grow, you’ll have to make $3 million or more gross sales, and it will take some years to get there because of the long sales cycle for schools and because of the reticence of schools to buy new, untried, untested products.

    From where will the money come? Despite the excitement in VC circles these days with edtech, you will have a hard time finding investment until you have real sales that you can demonstrate are sustainable. In other words, you cannot get there from here. We did, but our situation is exceptional.

    So it is that I heartily embrace the long-term vision Mr. Prensky advocates while being less sanguine about short-term prospects. We cannot rely on so-called free resources to move education forward. We cannot rely on general-purpose software, repurposed for education, to build exciting new education systems. We cannot rely on teachers, who are not software professionals, to create new software for education — even from free, general-purpose software.

    No, it will take true visionaries who can see past the hills up to the mountains to change education. It will take real creativity to marshal the available resources in support of this vision. It will take small step by small step to introduce the new ideas to educators. It will take revenue from paid products to support this evolution. In effect, it will take a vendor-client partnership between entrepreneurs and schools to make this happen.

    If you work for a school or district, please keep the above in mind as you navigate the chaotic waters of edtech. If you are interested in science or STEM, please consider contacting us at Smart Science Education Inc. to talk about working together to bring science/STEM education to the next level. Contact any vendor, especially the smaller ones who create the most innovation, no matter what your subject, to explore relationships. Hopefully, they will be very responsive to your interests and ideas.

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