Growing up during the 1970’s and early 1980’s (and being just a bit of a technology geek), I have to say that I am enjoying having a 4 ½ year old son that is obsessed with watching Star Wars.  I also have to say, watching all 6 episodes on repeat mode, as my son likes to do, really starts to mess with your mind and get into your subconscious.  Thus, the title of this blog post…I’ll try not to take the analogy too far…

The Empire
Much of the story in education technology is not new.  In the 1980’s, an education technology “surge” drove millions of dollars to a market that had been largely untouched by technology and innovation.  Today, a new ed surge is happening with a lot of new investment dollars and technologies hitting the market.  The surge has been spurred on by a market transition to Common Core standards, and more philanthropic and government money reaching the space.  In this continuing saga of education technology (for the purposes of my analogy) the empire is NOT any one company, nor is it the dominance and control of the space by a relatively few players.  The empire is everything that is preventing choice for the best applications to be used in the classroom.  The empire is the inefficient market that plagues education and prevents efficient purchasing and distribution of the best products available to help teachers and students.

Death Stars
While the education field may seem like fertile ground for teacher-friendly innovation, current purchasing practices continue to reward mediocrity.  Common practice has been for schools and districts to seek massive solutions (shall we say “death stars”) that check every box and seek to provide one system that attempts to solve all problems.  Gravity and the energy field of the purchasing/RFP process takes it there.  For example, if a district is looking for a tool to administer formative assessments and provide related data for students and stakeholders, the RFP for such a system might also include requirements to deliver summative assessments, teacher evaluation tools, standards-aligned lesson plans, explicit curriculum mapping tools, behavior management tools, a report card system, a traditional online gradebook, an LMS delivery platform, and on and on….enterprise companies love to check the boxes…it’s what they do…it is what wins RFP’s in the empire.  Decision makers are often looking to try and solve many things by writing one large check with the hope of data interoperability within massive systems.  This approach effectively eliminates the competition and allows the vendor to charge more for a huge array of mediocre solutions.  In the race to “do more,” focus and attention on doing things well or innovating with new approaches to the problem are often tossed to the curb.  The result is too often a bloated software system that lacks innovation and a user-interface too difficult for teachers to navigate.

The proliferation and demand for the development and sales of these massive systems is often unknowingly exacerbated by those who have the intent to do the most good, like those who helped to get money for states through Race to the Top.  Case in point…North Carolina was given $400 million in RTT money.  Part of the requirements for this one-time money for states as outlined by the Department of Education is that RTT states use part of the millions they’ve been given to build an IIS (Instructional Improvement System).  So what did the recent state-wide North Carolina RFP look like?  Well, it looked a lot like what I described earlier. It read like one vendor will be awarded to come in and solve all these problems in one monster system.  While it is amazing to be at a place now in education technology where these ideas and the problem-set is being outlined and defined, I’m fearful that mistakes of the past with attempts to build such data systems will be repeated with all this new money.  As an edtech startup, I believe I can speak on behalf of many other innovators in the space.  Our collective hope and plea is for state and other education technology leaders to take a step back, just for a moment, to really think about the system architectures that are about to be built with this $5 billion infusion of RTT money… system architectures that could finally bring choice and innovation to the classroom.

A New Hope – The Application Ecosystem
This is an exciting time for edtech as new and innovative start-up companies are building amazing cloud-based solutions that are targeted to the specific needs of teachers and students.  These companies are agile, responsive, and the tools are user friendly.  They are building a loyal following of teachers by offering all or part of their solution to teachers for free, while working to secure funding from school and district leaders seeking to provide their teachers with quality solutions.

An interesting part of the North Carolina RFP story is that there was one part of the RFP that gave me hope.  In this episode of the edtech story, there is hope that there might actually be a chance for systems to be different, a chance there just might be balance brought to the force.  There on page 25 of the 106 page RFP (not including appendices), was the requirement that this massive IIS system be integrated and communicate with the Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC).  The SLC is a $75 million dollar Gates-funded project that is being run a team at the Gates Foundation (Shout out to Stephen Coller doing a great job leading the charge), while code is being developed by a 60-person team (shall we call it a clone army?) from Wireless Generation in Durham, North Carolina (A $75 million project to put a rework and build upon on the Ed-Fi standards, not a bad gig when you can get the work).  The SLC is a data repository and integration framework that, given it becomes all it promises to be, will allow cloud-based or other solutions to “plug in” to student information and receive relevant information about students to use in an application.  The new standard promises a data communication layer to send information about the student (for example, mastery of a Common Core standard) back through to be stored in any system at a school or district.  My diagram below illustrates what could be done and modeled in states like North Carolina.  For example, if such an architecture were to be adopted, best-of-breed applications and new innovations could be easily plugged into the ecosystem with a common student data communication layer.  Teachers/Schools/Districts could make the decision to change out their apps much more quickly, and RFP processes could be dramatically changed.  Local schools and teachers could choose MasteryConnect for their formative assessments, BloomBoard for teacher evaluation, BetterLesson for lesson planning, ClassDojo for behavior management, GoalBook for IEP tracking, Engrade for a traditional gradebook, Edmodo for an LMS, and on and on.

Application Ecosystem

For many participating in this edtech saga, it sometimes feels like we’ve been at this juncture before, with the early promises and hope for standards, many are asking if this time will be different.  In my opinion, this time we are in a much better place.  With education technology finally becoming cloud-based and the evolution and emergence of easy-to-implement API’s(application programming interface) and integration tools, I am hopeful that we are close to ending the empire and creating choice for teachers and schools.

And the Shared Learning Collaborative isn’t going to be the only game in town for ecosystems.  While the SLC is indeed seeking to become the standard, their aspirations are to actually enable more ecosystems based on the standards that are developed.  The SLC plans to make everything open source to allow others to build on these new layers and standards.  Word on the street is that Pearson (who has made great strides in recent years in opening up more API’s) is thinking along these lines as well, although it remains to be seen if Pearson will choose to embrace the new SLC standards.  Companies like Education Elements (a MasteryConnect partner), have been essentially pioneering this model of an ecosystem with their blended platform.  Edmodo recently launched an app store for educators (Masteryconnect launched on the new Edmodo platform), a quantum leap forward to providing more choice in classroom technology.  New startups are also entering the market around these concepts such as LearnSprout and Clever, and a new market is emerging to help push student data to the cloud to make it more accessible for more ecosystems to thrive.

In the end, I go back to the plea to states, CIO’s, and district leaders (maybe in the same tone as Princess Leia saying, “help me Obi Wan Kenobi”), let’s work together to look at system architectures and ecosystems that support getting the best technology and innovation into the classroom.  We are on the verge of the next episode…let’s avoid the return of the death star.

2 Responses to “EdTech Episode IV – A New Hope”

  1. Paul Smith Says:

    Great post Mick. The emergence of an application ecosystem is a refreshing departure from the one-size fits all tradition. That being said, I see a few problems that will need to be addressed in order for this vision to become a reality.

    1) Cost
    With school budgets being what they are today, cost is a top concern. Districts have shown in recent years that they’re more than willing to accept lesser-quality solutions with fewer features from a single vendor to save on cost. I think business models of “The Rebels” are addressing this concern, but it’s a commonly held perception that must be chipped away at.

    2) Implementation & Support
    True, standards and open APIs will make connecting systems much easier, but at the end of the day, we’re still asking districts (many of whom are running skeleton crews in the current budget climate) to evaluate, implement and support multiple systems. The prospect of having to connect with multiple vendors for tech support is a daunting one for today’s educational IT professional.

    3) UX
    Will parents and students and teachers have to be trained on multiple interfaces, or can we integrate the UX for a truly seamless experience? Asking consumers to access multiple systems presents enough of a barrier to discourage widespread adoption. If we know one thing from the success that Apple has enjoyed all these years is that SSO and moving data back and forth between systems is not enough for mainstream adoption… you must have a singularity, a simple aesthetic that eliminates contextual switching.

    4) Platform
    The only solution to the UX issue I can imagine is an emergence of platforms that other systems could plug into. Perhaps Edmodo will become such a platform (they’re certainly trying!), but in order for that to happen, we’re going to need real-time data flowing from the SIS. I don’t believe mainstream teachers will have the requisite enthusiasm to upload CSVs or manually key-in their class rosters every time their schedules/enrollments change. I suppose companies like Clever and LearnSprout along with SLC could be the answer, but that assumes that Pearson, Infinite Campus and others will play nice. We live in an attention economy and these companies covet the undivided attention they have won from teachers, parents and students.

  2. Paul Smith Says:

    On second thought…

    Okay… this post has had me thinking for a while, and I’ve spent some time exploring many of the new products emerging in this new ecosystem.

    I think my point on cost was true, and still may be, but I think that could be changing. Direct-to-consumer products and BYOD are greatly reducing costs for LEAs. Authority on purchase decisions are shifting to the classroom and to parents/students. What I see as an emerging trend is a shift back to best-of-breed solutions.

    On Implementation & Support. Because many of these solutions are direct-to-consumer, the LOE required to implement and support them from district-level support is almost nil in most cases and many teachers are stepping up to become resources for their peers.

    My point on UX is silly. Teachers will be able to switch from attendance to assessment to discipline as easily as switching apps.

    The platform issue remains however and I believe we’re going to see a new edtech platform war emerge beginning with Pearson and Edmodo who will fight to establish themselves as the foundation for these new apps. Unfortunately, I see these platforms mimicking Facebook in that they will be closed, and access to their APIs will be conditional and limited to terms that guarantee they will retain the attention of teachers, students and parents. It’s worth noting that absent from the mix of companies that Edmodo is touting on their new platform, are any solutions that offer up access to teachers, parents and students. Where is Class Dojo and LearnBoost? Would Schoology be welcome in Edmodo’s platform? (I doubt it.) What’s needed is an open platform that allows schools and districts to choose either a single, or a variety of destinations for teachers, parents and students.

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