Even With Flipped Classrooms, Teachers Still at Head of The Class

It's become trendy for edtech leaders to call themselves education evangelists, but the ones that matter most stand in front of a classroom every day. The idea that teachers are critical to the edtech process seems pretty straightforward, but it's a lesson that is often lost in the race to deliver the latest app, software or magical learning tool to the classroom.

My mother was a teacher for many years. It is hard work, and it is alternatively the most rewarding and thankless job you can have. I know that teachers want to do what's best for their students, and that they are understandably sick and tired of hearing others with no experience telling them how to do their jobs. So for edtech providers, understanding teachers' pain points matters, but so does making sure their voices are heard in the process.

I learned this lesson more than 20 years ago as a young Massachusetts legislator working on a comprehensive education reform package. The key elements of the reform, which I later worked to implement as Governor, included increased accountability and new school models through charter schools--along with the state becoming a major investor in public K-12 education. While the deliberations between the stakeholders were at times contentious, there was a sense that we were all working to help students succeed.

The key takeaways from that process was that teachers really matter--and letting teachers know that you realize they matter, and how they matter, is essential to reaching a level of trust to get things done.

When I came to Middlebury Interactive Languages, it was very early in the company's history, and we hadn't quite figured out how to sell our K-12 language courses to schools and work with teachers. Our mission is all about access; we provide high-quality digital language curriculum and materials--designed by language experts--to schools that can't provide it to their students for a variety of reasons. But making the case for teachers to completely change course and bring new resources into the classroom is not always a matter of "common sense" as some in the edtech world would like to believe.

Now, there has been criticism of digital learning--some warranted, much not. Some oppose digital learning because it is mostly supported by for-profit education providers. The digital education movement, which is based on increasing access and flexibility, has been labeled by some as a corporate takeover of education.

This argument ignores the more than a hundred years of private sector partners contributing to the success of teachers and children. These partners including publishers that produce textbooks and other instructional materials as well as other classroom learning aids--including chalkboard, erasers, desks, chairs, maps, projectors, computers, none which is made by the government. But for some reason, you mostly hear about the corporate takeover of schools when it is connected to digital education.

Digital learning--online or classroom-based--is not a revolution in education, it's the evolution of education. For all the talk of the flipped classroom, digital tools have not turned education on its head. But it does provide teachers with more resources and tools to help students and applies learning in a way that helps these digital natives connect with the subject matter.

A significant, but declining, percentage of our 215,000 student enrollments are learners whose course of study is fully online, generally referred to as home schoolers. Home schooling is becoming more popular: some have suggested it's the best path to get into Harvard. Homeschooling relies heavily on online learning and that is a big and important population for many digital providers.

However, we are seeing the strongest growth in the blended learning model, which keeps the teacher at the front of the classroom. That gives teachers a lot of say over which products succeed and fail.

This reality should spur edtech providers to bring teachers into the development process. Even if you win a contract at the district level, you need to show value at the classroom level or you won't see future growth or long relationships with customers. But if you can engage teachers and add value for them, they will embrace your product and provide advice to make it better.

In essence, any teacher can become the education evangelist we see so often on Twitter. We have found that our best advocates are teachers who were at first skeptical about our online programs. Once they work with us they discover that we have the same goal: helping students to learn.

While a blended learning model is the future of education, there are challenges to its success: balky hardware, poor Internet access, systems that don't speak to each other and a lack of training and support for teachers and districts. Teachers are basically left to fend for themselves when it comes to using technology in the classroom.

We spend a significant amount of time and resources to help these teachers and their school leaders address technical challenges. In fact, often we serve as the de facto tech teams for the districts we work with. But as we move forward and more schools speed into the digital age, states and the federal government need to make digital infrastructure investment and standardization a top priority.