Ed Tech: Choosing the Best Opportunities

annie-teichThe U.S. Department of Education (DOE) has just released a new document which should be required reading for everyone in the PK-12 industry.

The Ed Tech Developer’s Guide: a primer for software developers, startups, and entrepreneurs serves as a roadmap to developing meaningful educational technology. Even industry veterans will appreciate the best practices and the resources in this report.

First and foremost, the report urges that developers and producers work on solving real problems that have a significant impact on teachers and students. Just because you can develop something doesn’t mean that you should. If you focus your efforts on solving real problems, your chances of making a difference and building good products are greater than if you are just digitizing traditional practice.

The areas of opportunity that the DOE report outlines in some detail include:

  1. Improving mastery of academic skills
  2. Developing skills to promote lifelong learning
  3. Increasing family engagement
  4. Planning for future education opportunities
  5. Designing effective assessments
  6. Improving educator professional development
  7. Improving educator productivity
  8. Making learning accessible to all students
  9. Closing opportunity gaps
  10. Closing achievement gaps.

Education experts urge developers to become a school insider – if not through business, then as a school volunteer. They see this as a critical success factor:

Your solution must manifest your deep understanding of educators’ daily struggles and small victories. That understanding is the beginning of empathy, without which you cannot succeed.

In considering the opportunities, there are two important questions included in each section – “Why is this important?” and “What would help?” The answers to these questions illuminate the difficulties educators face today and potential solutions to their problems.

The importance of involving educators in product design cannot be overstated. Vicki Davis (@CoolCatTeacher), a nationally influential educator, offers this advice for edtech developers and company executives:

There is a massive movement of educators to connect and contribute in online spaces via Twitter chats and other places, and watching these conversations is a virtual focus group for you to glean knowledge to make your company more successful. Add your moving part to the engine of positive change rather than trying to siphon off valuable resources for a need that doesn’t exist.

Research-based product design and the role of data are succinctly outlined with enough suggested additional resources to justify this as a learning document in its own right. Sections on funding (including crowd funding) and a handy chart outlining the differences between incubators and accelerators are also helpful.

This mini-curriculum for educational developers continues with a peek behind the curtain at how school districts operate and the unique challenges they face. Experts discuss the best ways to test your products in school districts and the procurement process.

The report concludes with a discussion of the macro trends in education like blended learning and project-based learning. Joseph South, the deputy director of the office of educational technology at the federal department of education gives this piece of advice:

Technology is an accelerator; it allows us to scale the reach of what we have chosen to do with astonishing speed. But it doesn’t make our choices transformational. It can just as easily scale the bad as the good, the minimally effective as much as the incredibly impactful. This is why the conversation must begin with a well-grounded, transformational vision of learning itself. With that goal firmly in mind, we can then bring to bear the power of technology to enable, measure, iterate, and refine our methods of achieving that vision.