In Search of a Middle Path for Ed Tech

In my last post I made the argument that teachers won’t be replaced by software. I was excited to see the resulting comments on our blog and on HackerNews.

The discussion surrounding technology in education is contentious, and these comments were no exception. Khan Academy, for better or worse, has become the litmus test defining the sides of the debate.

The ‘Khan Academy is Revolutionary’ Path

The discussion that prompted this post was started by a tweet from Marc Andreessen:

The “biggest K-12 education breakthroughs” he cites are all indeed big – in terms of impact. Google has undeniably changed classroom preparation, homework, and day-to-day life for students and teachers with Internet access. Wikipedia has engaged millions of people in the process of creating and maintaining a public knowledge base, and provided a go-to reference for hundreds of millions of others, including teachers and students.

Andreessen, a forward-thinking investor, tries to understand and invest in the technologies and movements that will shape the future. It’s exciting to think about what education might look like in 20 years and the technologies, businesses, and organizations that will have enacted major changes.

The technology industry, which Khan is very much a part of despite its nonprofit status, is best positioned to deliver this massive impact. But does impact equal effectiveness? The craft of education is highly personal, while technology is often not. Mixing the two can lead to interactive media that, ironically, creates disengagement. And teachers who have experienced this firsthand are not shy about sharing it:

 

Back to reality, say these educators: Khan Academy seems like a massive innovation but upon closer inspection its effects are as varied as any other form of media.

The ‘Khan Academy as Magic Weight Loss Pill’ Path

For some, initial skepticism has grown into complete exasperation with a tech industry seen as oblivious to the needs of real teachers. In response to Andreessen’s tweet, Ed Tech blogger and journalist Audrey Watters had this to say:

Audrey’s an insightful commentator on the industry, history, and rhetoric surrounding education on Hack Education and the forthcoming Educating Modern Learners. Trained as a folklorist, she’s quick to point out when she thinks the stories surrounding companies or technologies have overshot their realities.

And she’s not alone in her exasperation. The conversation that ensued on Twitter focused mostly on Khan Academy:

 

 

OCW stands for MIT’s Open Courseware initiative, which has now blossomed into the Open Courseware Consortium.

One of the more memorable comments in this discussion came from teacher and blogger Frank Noschese:

 

Andreessen, who was by now engaged in this conversation, had trouble understanding the motivations of these criticisms:

 

 

It’s easy to view criticism of, and resistance to, educational technology as reactionary. I honestly don’t believe that is most teachers’ motives. Later on in the conversation, Frank Nochese made exactly this point, even citing research:

 

Frank’s posts on Khan Academy led me to his posts on pseudo-teaching, which I’m still working my way through. Briefly, pseudo-teaching is a phenomenon where students can self-report that a teacher was effective, they have confidence in their understanding, and enjoyed learning. But objective measures of understanding show their actual abilities lagging behind. This is an excellent example of the kinds of insights that ed tech too often overlooks, and one I’m fortunate to have encountered so early in trinket‘s time.

The Middle Path?

This post is titled ‘In Search of the Middle Path’ not ‘Here is the Middle Path’ on purpose: I don’t claim to have found it. Yet. But knowing there must be a middle – and what that middle is between – is a first step. I can tell you the direction I’m headed. This was something I started to articulate in the initial discussion:

 

 

There’s merit to both being awed and inspired by the scale of Khan Academy’s impact on the world and pointing out that, in many cases, it serves more as entertainment than education. Recorded lectures are still lectures, even as they become more interactive.

Going back to Noschese’s metaphor that Khan Academy is heralded by many as a magical weight-loss pill, I’d put it slightly differently:

 

 

The metaphor here is that Khan and other widely impactful technologies are delivery mechanisms. Imagine the pill was just invented; regardless of what the inventor has put into the pill, anyone concerned with delivering medicine at scale should sit up and take note.

It’s a difficult line to walk at times but I think we can both extol the virtues of in-person instruction and study how technology is changing both student and teacher behavior around the world. Any innovation that will change the way teaching happens broadly must have Khan-level reach.

Treading the Middle Path

This concept of the middle path is how I think about what we’re building here at trinket. At its most basic, trinket is the easiest way to put all your course materials up on a website. We’re designed to be used for in-person classes, but since we could just as well be used for virtual classes anywhere the Web is available. By focusing on helping individual instructors create and prepare for classes, we’re acknowledging that they are central to the process of transformative education. By building technology that scales, we are acknowledging that any solution that’s going to have a positive impact on the way we teach and learn must be deployed at scale.

Finding, let alone keeping on, this middle path isn’t easy. When I talk with Venture Capitalists, most of their eyes twinkle when discussing technology changing education at scale. Fewer understand how learning takes place. When I talk with instructors, they’re obsessed with being better in the classroom. Few care to think about the mechanism whereby they learn of these improvements. Both groups are key parts of the equation we’re solving here. Our job is to integrate them.

Do you think this Middle Path exists? Are we headed in the right direction to find it?

Thanks to Karl Rectanus and Jenn Marks for comments on an earlier version of this post. And, of course, @audreywatters, @pmarca, @fnochese, @patlockley and the others who participated in the twitter convo that sparked this post.

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    Generative post, Elliott. One thing that helps me with teaching (a tried-and-true method of learning) is taking time to remember my own lived experiences of learning. When I have an insight into something I am trying to understand or a problem I’m trying to solve I make an effort to review how I got there.

    And I agree that technologies that we can use need to support large scale deployments. But when it comes to my own learning — that I think is personal and quite small scale. But I’m still learning about my own learning.