Reinventing Curriculum

The Holy Grail of Ed Tech Apps: Require Minimal Teacher Investment and Provide Maximal Student Impact

Background:  Today’s blog post bubbled up from CN and ES recent effort in providing professional development to elementary school teachers in an urban school district. We were showing the teachers how to use our new software platform — the Collabrify Roadmap System (CRS) — that supports teachers (and curriculum developers) in managing the full life-cycle of their digital lessons. [Stay tuned for blog post about the CRS.] The PD was delivered in 40 minute blocks during the teachers’ common planning period, e.g., 7:55am — 8:35am for 5th grade teachers. All the teachers had newly minted 1-to-1 classrooms.

During the 40 minute sessions…

  • some of the teachers listened politely;
  • some engaged with us and asked really good questions about the CRS;
  • some actually told us what instructional problems they were having — and we suggested we might be able to build an app to help them; and
  • some (a very, very small number) were off and running,  and had a zillion ideas on how to use the Collabrify Roadmap System. 

Here, then, is our analysis of the different types of participation exhibited by the teachers.  

The Holy Grail of educational technology is this: Create an app that requires minimal investment by a teacher to use it successfully, while providing maximal impact for the teacher’s students.

Why is "requires minimal teacher investment" so important? And why do X% (where X is sincerely high) of educational technology developers hardly ever think about that — about the amount of investment a teacher needs to make in order to use the techie’s app effectively?

[Admission: In our partnership of 20+ years, ES is the techie while CN represents the viewpoint of the K-12 classroom teacher since she spent 14 years in middle/high school teaching math, Spanish, English and history. But, CN is also a card-carrying techie inasmuch as she has a Ph.D. in Computer Science and is chair of the Learning Technologies Department at University of North Texas. Oh but ES knows lots about the K-12 classroom too: His wife was a kindergarten teacher. Just in case you missed it: there was a healthy dose of sarcasm in that last sentence.]

It’s not that techies are bad people who are out to break K-12 teachers’ backs.  It’s just that in trying out our earlier apps in a pilot in a school, we had the good fortune of having early-adopting teachers use our technology in their classrooms. We were lucky in that these early-adopters loved our technology and, through their investment of inordinate amounts of time and imagination, they made our technology work in their classrooms. Now, we techies didn’t really see all that effort — we just thought our technology was great. However, the reality is the pilot was successful because those early-adopting teachers turned water into wine.

In his now classic little book on high-tech marketing, Geoffrey Moore points out that those early-adopting teachers make up about 10 percent or so of the tail on a bell curve. And, in the early days of computers in K-12, when those computers were expensive and thus access to a computer was limited, educational technology companies could survive on that 10 percent.

However today, as computers are the price of a pair of sneakers, e.g. $100 to $150, 1-to-1, where all students have ready access to a computer, is fast becoming the new normal. Now, we techies need to engage at least the next 35 percent or so of that bell curve, Moore’s "early majority." There is a key difference between "the many" in the early majority category and "the few" in the early-adopter category: The former don’t love the technology like the latter; the former ask: so, what educational function does the computer serve? Duh! (Moore goes on to talk about the "late majority" and the  "laggards" — it’s a really good book on technology adoption!)

Moore goes on to say that testimonials from early-adopters are viewed skeptically — if not downright negatively — by the early majority. Yes, it is "easy" for you early-adopters to make the technology work because you spend bunches and bunches of hours figuring out how to make it "easy." But, the early majority teachers have a life and are willing to devote only so much — which is not bunches and bunches of hours — to the technology.

[Admission: ES is an early-adopter. His son once said to him: "You are always buying smaller and smaller black boxes — but none of them ever really work." Picky, Picky, Picky. CN is in the early majority: she asks the not unreasonable question: so what good is that app in my classroom?]

Back to our PD in the urban city schools:  In the six sessions we led, the one app that all the teachers in all the sessions used and used and used, the one app that they all were animated about, was — ready for it — "Kahoot!"  Kahoot! is an app that supports students learning factual content while playing a Jeopardy, question-answering, type game.  Now, Jeopardy-style games are not new to educational technology. Indeed, there are plenty of Jeopardy-style games on the Internet. Kahoot! is just the latest — and from its clear popularity — the greatest instantiation of that venerable, fast-paced question-asking style of instruction.

Check out how a techie advertises a website he created that hosts a Jeopardy-style game:

  • "JeopardyLabs makes it easy to create jeopardy templates without PowerPoint. Give it a try, you'll probably like it a lot. … The best way to learn about JeopardyLabs is to mess around! Make sure you read everything on each page, and click all the links."

"… mess around… read everything… click on all the links."  Really? Who has time for that?!

Now, check out the how Kahoot! advertises its version of Jeopardy:

  • "Kahoot!’s new challenge feature lets you assign kahoots as homework, saves time on correcting assignments and makes it easy to assess learning progress. Now with new reports!"

"… saves time … makes it easy… new reports!" Sign me up, boss!

While Kahoot! might get close to the Holy Grail goal of "minimal teacher investment" it’s not clear how close it gets to the Holy Grail goal of "maximal impact on the students." How often can one play Kahoot!? Is Kahoot! good for all types of learning and learners?

Careful, careful: let’s not get all snooty and academic right now. Clearly, students benefit from playing Kahoot!

  • "Kahoot! got my students more plugged into learning, helped them improve mastery of complex science topics, and,  as a result, they did 11.4 percent better in their exams compared to last year.… Game-based learning with Kahoot! fuels content mastery and it has been a game changer for my students."

Rather, let’s learn an important lesson:

  • "Techies, don’t count on the early-adopters saving you — if not inadvertently fooling you; if you want serous numbers of teachers using your apps, minimize the investment the teachers need to make in order to use those apps. Learn from Kahoot! and learn from Moore’s Crossing the Chasm."

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