Challenging harmful stereotypes about edtech

By:

Sep 14, 2017

If you follow the popular press, you might have noticed the recent New York Times series by technology reporter Natasha Singer aimed to shed light on a dark underbelly of the edtech sector. In her latest piece, Singer scrutinizes the ethics of edtech companies that incentivize teachers to endorse their products.

The reporting fulfills an important role of the fourth estate by scrutinizing outside influences on the public institution of common schooling. But I want to raise another point that seems relevant yet overlooked: honest reporters need to be careful to not paint their subjects with broad brushstrokes that create and perpetuate hurtful stereotypes. Many actors in edtech or philanthropy have noble aims and laudable results, as do teachers attempting to bring technology into their classrooms. But stories that repeatedly evoke Silicon Valley tropes risk biasing the general public against the edtech sector. Some practices in edtech deserve scrutiny. But unbalanced and unnuanced reporting can also undermine laudable efforts by instilling in the public an assumption that edtech is inherently evil.

Singer’s latest piece highlights edtech companies that work closely with teachers, particularly as brand ambassadors. The practice of partnering with teachers for marketing purposes merits greater transparency and oversight. But companies and educators working together closely need not necessarily spell trouble. In fact, partnerships that bring together edtech developers and teachers as co-designers can have a powerful impact on improving student achievement. 

In early 2013, a high school math teacher at Leadership Public Schools (LPS) named Mike Fauteux created a spreadsheet-based tool that accelerated the achievement of his students by facilitating some breakthrough teaching practices. But when he shared his spreadsheet-based tools with Louise Waters, the Superintendent and CEO of LPS, she quickly realized that turning the tool into a sustainable edtech application was no small feat. Prior experience had taught her that philanthropic funding could only take an idea so far, and venture capitalists didn’t seem interested in a product with only a handful of users, even if the product demonstrated strong impact.

At the same time, Prasad Ram, CEO and founder of an edtech nonprofit named Gooru, had spent the last few years working to create a state-of-the-art platform to help teachers find open educational resources. But its adoption lagged because it failed to address specific teacher needs, and Ram was eager to find a way to close the missing link between teaching and his technology.

The two CEOs were introduced and quickly realized that their organizations faced complementary strengths and challenges—and partnering might be the solution to each of their complex problems. They soon secured a joint grant to work on redesigning Gooru’s platform with Fauteux’s instructional innovations in mind.

LPS and Gooru’s immediate objective was to incorporate many of the functions and features from Fauteux’s spreadsheet-based tool into Gooru’s technology. Their ultimate goal, however, was not just to build a tool for Fauteux and his LPS colleagues, but to create a new platform that could facilitate innovative teaching practices for teachers around the world. To make the collaborative redesign a success, Fauteux was soon spending at least two days per week at Gooru’s offices, collaborating with the Gooru design team.

By the end of the 2015–16 school year, LPS and Gooru witnessed the first fruits of their partnership—students who were using an initial update of the platform mastered approximately 2.82 times as much math in comparison to similar students across the nation.

Partnerships like these between teachers and tech developers are crucial to the creation of high-quality education technologies that can help teachers boost student achievement. These partnerships are not about luring teachers to adopt a tool, but about ensuring that a tool actually supports good teaching and learning. In the public dialogue about schools, teachers, private philanthropy, and technology, stories like the LPS and Gooru partnership need to be told. Edtech, like any tech, is neither inherently good nor evil. To make sure that we steer the edtech sector toward positive benefits for society, we need to not only scrutinize its shortcomings, but also highlight its successes.

Thomas’ research focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.