Friday, 25 April 2014

EdTech Vs Edu: Why I'm Sitting on the Fence

In my last post I highlighted that one of my faviourite conferences is the Education Innovation Summit which took place this week. My "Land of the EdTech and the Home of Unity" post also highlighted a major issue that saw me stop following the conference on the last day: the division and lack of unity amongst various stakeholders.

What position do I take when the discussion spills into this kind of disagreement? I most definitely, and purposely, stop and take a seat on the fence! Why? Is it because I'm indecisive? Nope. Perhaps because I want to keep the peace with everyone? Nope. The reason for sitting on the fence here is because I can get the best view, I can also hear the discussions on both sides of the fence. 

I find that that I can tend to get a bit more perspective from this vantage point.

NetFlix: Tuning in... Then Tuning Out!
I saw that Reed Hastings from Netflix was presenting and thought "I'm looking forward to this!" I highlight Netfilx as a great example of an organisation that constantly disrupts itself in my "Massively Creatively Disrupt... Or Someone Else Will" post. After watching Reed's presentation I was not disappointed!

Hastings spoke of so many of the principles that I have discovered from reading the research and findings of Jim Collins, Dave Logan, MIT as well as from the practices that many successful companies use... Namely that It's all about the culture and the people.

Then it happened, negativity from members of one of the other tribes that make up the education ecosystem. The comment was "This is the same guy who wants to eradicate local school boards" with a link to an article called "Netflix Reed Hastings has a big idea: Kill elected school boards"

I opened the link and saw the headline, as the conference was in full swing, I bookmarked the link to read later. However my immediate reaction to the headline was "Now that's a good idea!" I don't say this to annoy educators, I say this because of one of my favourite videos of Steve Jobs is when he highlights the number of committees he has. Find out the answer on this link: Steve Jobs and Managing People

I know there are educators who get frustrated at the fact that Chater Schools can be seen as "the darlings of education" and the saviours of the attainment gap. I am a fan of programs like Kipp (and am aware of some of the criticisms), but I truly believe that a part of their success is the lack of scrutiny/bureaucracy that state education gets subjected to.   

Faced with rapid changes, who would you want on your Board?

Board Schools

My views on school boards is not without any examples within education. I know a truly inspiring leader in education who would love to bring in some changes that they feel is vital to their students. However, implementing these changes brings the biggest headache imaginable... unions, governors, local authorities, Ofsted and many others wade in with every reason why it can't, or shouldn't, be done. 

How much of this resistance is a result or the make up of the boards themselves? Any time there is talk about improving social mobility and the attainment gap how many people are in the room who have come from poverty and truly know what the issues are? 

Or what about the motivations of Board Members? Hastings suggested that;

"Rapid school board turnover is a fundamental root cause of many district struggles" 

Why is this? Is it because members get frustrated at the challenges with implementing changes and the slow progress? Is it because they are more interested in looking good within the community, rather than having an commitment to education? Or maybe they are only interested for as long as their own kids attend the school?

So on the topic of education committees... I'm sitting on the fence! 
Apple was able to collaborate and do great work without them... education seems to be surprisingly hindered with making necessary changes with them.

EdSurge Contributors: Bursting Bubbles...
Next up were two articles from EdSurge contributors. The first was from Katrina Stevens, who also moderates #EdTechChat, which will be celebrating its 1st Birthday this week, join the celebrations on Monday at 8pm EST.

Katrina interviewed Mark Cuban who had some interesting views on EdTech incubators, he was;

"Bearish on the proliferation of accelerators and incubators: “Entrepreneurs shouldn’t participate. These programs focus entrepreneurs on raising money and not on building a business. Incubators can become an easy crutch that get in the way of the entrepreneur,” he adds, arguing that every entrepreneur has to find his or her own way rather than following templates that worked for other companies in the past"

"Whoa! Hang on a minute!" I thought! I am a big fan of EdTech Incubators, a lot of Educators faviourite Tech appears to come from "EdTech Incubator Alumni" companies. It is my view that they get a lot of things right.

But then again, you don't disregard advice from people with this kind of experience without assessing it. You have to at least try to assimilate this new advice with whatever other information you have... This is especially true when other investors like Mitch Kapor told the conference earlier in the week that they have only found 3-4 EdTech companies that were worth investing in because they were "scalable."

On the issue of EdTech Incubators...I'm sitting on the fence!
I think that the EdTech incubator companies do great work. But, at the same time things change. As these early incubators demonstrate how successful they have been, perhaps they attract different founders and investors. In the early days maybe it was only those that had a true passion to make a difference in education that would consider EdTech. Maybe their success today is attracting different types of founders and investors.

 ...And Predicting the Future
Frank Catalano posted an insightful piece from 2012 on the #EdInnovation hashtag "Here comes another Tech Bubble - In Education." He posted this as he felt his predictions were coming true. I agree with this article, and can see the benefits and drawbacks to it. 

Benefits: There are some fantastic people who have been true innovators in Technology and who are now providing their expertise in EdTech. If you are an educator and want to test this, take a look at the founders LinkedIn profiles for your fav 4-5 Tech tools... some of these founders worked at major Tech companies at one point. 

I need to give a special shout out to the founder of Wanderful Books @wanderfulbooks, go check out the founders' profile and see what kind of Tech legends are in education today.

Drawbacks: As education becomes a more attractive "potential sector" and more fashionable it may attract people with various ability levels and, possibly, people with quite different motives.

We see educators saying I think I'll leave edu and develop XYZ product instead. While this is not a drawback for EdTech, I think it is a tragedy that people from one of the noblest professions feel they can make more of a difference outside the classroom, rather than in it?! 

Then we have the fly-by-night guys, whether the ones that have a great idea and the best intentions... but no experience in bringing good ideas to market; or those who just want to "find a Market" for their product, scale and try to sell for a fortune, with little interest in education.

What's the outcome here? We get a real mixed bag. We get companies that know what they are doing and truly are making a difference (as early Google employees etc who had share options, surely it isn't about the money!); then we get products that just frustrate educators in every possible way.

Then there are the unintended consequences, like startups who have little budget but are keen to get educators feedback. Startups wanting customer feedback to ensure they are doing good work is a positive thing... but the volume of enquiries from so many well meaning companies can start to frustrate already over worked, time poor, educators. All from an industry that promises to make their customers lives' easier and/or save time?

So on the topic of an EdTech Bubble... I'm sitting on the fence! 
I think that people coming from Google, Apple, Microsoft and Pixar is fantastic for EdTech... the proliferation and attitudes of other groups is perhaps less of a good thing. 

Class Divide and Listening to Stu_Voices
I'm used to the "Us" and "Them" discussions in education but something was brought to my attention through a Twitter discussion with Zak Malamed and Eric Kennedy. The discussion started with;

As a fan of this conference I thought "Oh great more disagreement from another group... and a comment that is really quite unfair." Unfair because the previous day The Gates Foundation launched their "Teachers Know Best" report which highlighted what educators views were about EdTech. This was hardly pro-Tech perspective... nor was it full advice on how to attract VC funding. 

However Zak and Eric's Twitter discussion soon included the question;

"Where is the student voice in this debate and at the conference?" 

This made me realise that the voice of students did appear to be missing from many of the discussions... not only that, what got me most about their Tweets was that none of their comments were being addressed by the organisers. 

What would it have taken for the organisers to Tweet "Hey we'd love to give @Stu_Voice a slot next year." This was especially ironic as these Tweets were going out while Reed Hastings was talking about the importance of giving detractors a voice and listening to their concerns.

I do enjoy this conference but you'd struggle to argue against some of Zak and Eric's comments... and to ignore them was just plain silly.

So on the topic of @Stu_Voice comments... I'm sitting on the fence!
I think that the "Teachers Know Best" was one of the highlights of the event, and was in no way about money or the wonders of Tech. However the lack of student involvement or the organisers listening to and replying to these (and other) negative comments about the conference could have been handled better. 

I had a few late nights from following the event live in the UK over the previous 2 days, so I let Zak and Eric know that Steve Isaacs and Katya Hott were keen to involve all stakeholders, especially students, on their EdTechBridge chat. Then I called it a day with this event, mostly as a result of the divisive conversations that appeared to be starting to take place.

From Sitting on the Fence... to Building Bridges

All in all I'm going to sit on the fence with this event. I did enjoy it, there were some great speakers. Not only are there some diverse voices but we get to hear the views of successful people in other sectors and, given what they have achieved in their field, it would be silly to ignore their advice.

Could the organisers have done things a little differently? Perhaps, but I have found that keeping all stakeholders happy in education is something that a lot of people struggle with. Whether administrators and principals within their own school, or organisers of major Education Conferences. 

Look for the Bright Spots

When sitting on the fence I like to look out for any "bright spots" rather than focus on the negatives and, whether you're a fan or detractor of #EdInnovation, I hope you have found some of the bright spots that I take away from the event useful. 

The search for these bright spots is also why I am such a big fan of two groups: EdSurge & #EdTechBridge.

EdSurge seem to have succeeded where few others have done with bringing Educators together in a fantastic environment with their summits. While nothing can beat face-to-face interaction (whether teaching students or developers creating EdTech), EdSurgeUK doesn't exist yet.   

The reason I'm an advocate of Steve Isaacs and Katya Hott's online community is because I don't have to perch on the fence any longer, #EdTechBridge provides me with a comfier view, I can discuss the issues at either end of the spectrum... and there is great company to discuss the issues as well as to get an understanding of each groups views in an open and collaborative manner.

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