Not Your Father's Classroom: The Rise of Edtech

At Leadership Public Schools in Oakland, Calif., teachers, students and technologists worked together to create software called ExitTicket for mobile devices that helps teachers and students gauge how well students are absorbing lessons. If the kids aren't getting it, teachers can stop a class and go over the material again -- before anyone goes home and struggles over the homework. Educators at Aspire Public Schools have recently spun out a startup company called Schoolzilla that creates a data management that pulls together assessment and operational data so teachers have a snapshot of what's going on. And at Summit Public Schools, educators have reached out to work with entrepreneurs to understand how to best employ technology to help their students.

Educators are not only using technology; they're helping to build it. Over the past 2.5 years, entrepreneurs have launched hundreds of startups devoted to building education technology (or edtech). Rather than slowing, that startup fever will likely increase: Over the past year, more than a dozen "incubators," have popped up, each nurturing at least six and often more edtech startups. (Check out the list here.)

Having educators involved in starting edtech companies is key to ensuring that the evolving technology solves real problems for schools. Even so with this onslaught of technology, how are educators to know what might help their students? How can school leaders and educators make good choices?

My startup, EdSurge, which we started in 2011, is steadily building an index of educational technology products, both the fresh-from-the incubator firms as well as those already serving students and schools. Other sources include: the Graphite project of Common Sense Media, EdShelf, and teacher-bloggers Richard Bryne (who writes Free Tech For Teachers) and Larry Ferlazzo (via Websites of the Day).

Yet before educators start digging through lists of products, there are a few key questions that they need to be able to answer. We've evolved this list through conversations with some of the most sophisticated school-users of technology. (We're even helping coordinate a program, "Try Before You Buy," which you can see here.)

The first -- and most important -- questions that educators must ask are these:

1. What are my students' needs and goals?
The best choices will be those that are genuinely serving the needs of the students: Do they need support in basic skills? Do they need ways to advance critical thinking skills? Understanding what skills or experiences students need is the first and most important part of picking the right technology.

2. What kind of teaching model should the tools support? What other needs do teachers have?
Some teachers are eager to try "flipping the classroom," namely recording lectures that students can review at home and then using class time to work on skills. Others want to tightly guide students through materials. Still others want to coach and mentor. Again, some technologies support one approach -- others not so much. Still other teachers desperately need technology to support the administrative work they do -- getting out the right forms, pulling together instructional materials or assessments, or a myriad of other tasks. There are plenty of choices, meaning that those making choices must have a detailed understanding of the problems they hope to solve with technology.

3. How much do my students (or teachers) need to connect with others outside the school?
There's a growing toolbox of communications products for education: some connect the teachers with students' families; some connect a classroom in one geography with a classroom elsewhere. How much does the educator need to be able to reach people beyond a school's brick-and-mortar walls?

4. What are the professional needs of teachers?
Teachers need to communicate with other teachers and with administrators, too. In addition, they need to have opportunities to be learners. And they may be drowning in paperwork. Understanding and appropriately prioritizing teachers' needs is critical.

5. What is my tolerance for experimenting with technology?
Many of the most exciting technologies are emerging from startups, and the key word is "emerging." Beta products may be free, but teachers may discover that they are helping test the early technology. Some educators may relish that role on the frontlines; others may be willing to wait until someone else has worked out the kinks. Don't mistake a "beta" product for something from an established firm, and remember only you will be able to tell which product would suit you best.

6. Does it 'work'?
This is the hardest question to answer of all: Most of the recently debuted technologies don't have a long-enough track record for educators to independently assess whether it "works" or not. The latest technologies are in flux -- and that may or may be suitable for your school.

What are a school's practical concerns?
Make sure you run through this checklist:

• What kind of hardware does your school currently have? Will it run everything you're considering? Will you require that all edtech software "be in the cloud"?
• What kind of software environment does your school have? Do you want to use software written in Flash? Do you have the devices that will run that?
• How much connectivity do you have? Increasingly, the rule of thumb is that a school needs close to 100 MB bandwidth in order for all students to be able to run sophisticated applications. Unfortunately, we're still learning which schools are bandwidth rich and which ones are not. (Here's a place running a bandwidth test.)
• What's your budget? No one ever has enough money. Are you interested in seeking grants? How much funding, really, do you need to renovate what you have?
• Does your school have some IT support? How about leadership support for technology?

No technology will replace teachers; the best tools will simply amplify the best practices of strong educators. But figuring out the right questions to ask is the first step of choosing technology that will genuinely support teachers and student learning.

Visit Cisco's new monthly digital magazine called Focus. This month features articles on ways technology innovation is fueling today's new learning environments.