Learning From Teachers Beyond the Classroom
In the crowded educational technology marketplace, products, to succeed, must stand out as a superior solution to real educational issues. Every company talks about customer focus, but success today requires a level of engaging with educators that is rarely achieved. At Texas Instruments (TI), this invaluable relationship with teachers and students started more than 15 years ago, when the calculator business at TI was discouraged by our competitive position in a small product segment of consumer electronics. But, we were given a strong message when we received an order from Connecticut for 10,000 simple four-function calculators. We were either smart enough or lucky enough to use this purchase as a motivator to assign a couple of people to understand what prompted the purchase.
Introduction of Technology
The team started to contact leading math educators and found that exciting changes were being implemented in math education. One component of these changes was the introduction of technology with calculators and computers to add richness, exploration and real-world problems to the teaching and learning of mathematics. We organized a strategic planning course to more thoroughly study this potential opportunity. This study indicated that a deep engagement with a relatively large group of influential educators would help us understand specific classroom demands. Since we had no experience in the education market but lots of desire to learn, we felt this was the best approach. We quickly identified two resources to help us: the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), which was developing new teaching standards, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which was initiating a series of grants for new textbook development for mathematics in middle and high schools. And we rapidly built contacts within these groups and other professional associations. The educators saw a unique opportunity to affect the course of technology development, while we saw three ways that TI could benefit:
- The leaders could thoroughly educate us in all aspects, both pro and con, of curriculum changes.
- Participants in these projects could provide specific input on product features. By using 10 or more advisors on a project, we could get a broad range of inputs to best assure that we would satisfy classroom and curricular needs.
- Finally, by having broad market contribution to product development, we naturally had educator-advocates who could explain the uses of the product much better than we could.
We introduced the TI-81 in 1990, with specific features to facilitate visualization and exploration of mathematical functions for advanced algebra and precalculus courses, typically taught in the 11th grade. By following the advice of our educator-advisors, the TI-81 was well received and became widely adopted within two years. But our relationships with educators also meant that we received scores of suggestions for ways that it could, or must, be improved. This led to the TI-82 three years later.
While working with identified leading educators, we soon realized that we must also engage with everyday classroom teachers. We started putting together informal focus groups of teachers who used our products so that we could understand their experiences and barriers to higher levels of success. While we had historically conducted focus groups with an outside moderator, we decided to run these ourselves. Surprisingly, the teachers were not restrained in their comments.
During the same time, we experienced some issues with our advertising agency. We felt their work wasn't making the right impressions or stressing the right points. During a frank discussion, we explained that the agency had to get their team to talk to real teachers. That led to a series of focus groups from which the agency came away with many revelations. The agency's work began reflecting the correct and necessary elements for our audience. They had a much clearer understanding of TI's market position, which they were able to incorporate better in our ad campaigns.
The success of using intense customer feedback by real users to develop the TI-82 encouraged us to do it again, leading to the development of the TI-83 in 1996. We were fortunate to be developing the TI-83 while the College Board was developing an Advanced Placement (AP) statistics course. By working with the AP statistics test development committee, we designed the TI-83 to cover all the computational needs of the AP statistics course. Because the TI-83 meets the course needs so well, and high school computers seldom are available enough to use everyday, almost every AP statistics teacher uses the TI-83.
Another critical, if not most important, lesson we learned early on is that technology in education means much more than selling an electronic device. With that in mind, we developed a broad range of services around the product to support its evaluation, adoption and implementation in the classroom. The core device, along with supporting services, is commonly called the 'augmented product.'
We are successful if teachers and students are successful using our products. That success can be measured by grades; performance on standardized tests; enrollment in more advanced classes; the level of attention and participation of students in class; the ability to solve complex problems; the ability to relate the subject to real-world examples; and more subjective measures. The most enthusiastic teachers can be successful with the core device, and those are often the people with whom product development teams work. But, to be widely successful, augmentation around the core device must be extensive and easy to use. Some examples of these augmentations are:
- A loan program to experiment using the product;
- A special product version that works on an overhead projector;
- Classroom posters of the products;
- A Volume Purchase Program that provides free samples of teacher equipment when adoption results in student purchases at retail stores; and
- Books of supplementary exercises using our equipment.
Furthermore, two major support programs deserve special comment:
- Professional Development Institutes. Our early work on the TI-81 was with professors Frank Demana and Bert Waits, and their NSF project at Ohio State University. That project involved field-testing a new textbook that integrated graphing calculator technology, as well as training a network of teachers from across the country on the use of their materials with the technology. From that project, we learned the importance of professional development for adoption and successful implementation of new teaching methods. The project evolved to become Teachers Teaching with Technology (T3) with funding from Texas Instruments. More than 70,000 teachers from around the world have been trained through this program in the last decade.
- Publisher Relations. As technology became established, educators selecting textbooks looked for integration of technology. Authors and publishers asked us for support, and we responded generously with samples, technical support and advance information about new products. Textbook authors are some of our most important advisors.
Compared to other markets for electronic products, teachers require a broader array of support components. Teachers are also more willing to accept any support they can get. We recently started targeted e-mail newsletters with some hesitation, knowing that recipients can often be offended by unsolicited e-mail. We were very careful to provide a mix of useful teaching information along with new product announcements. We were pleased and surprised to get many more requests from teachers wanting to be added to our mailing lists than wanting to be removed.
For Professional Development, we firmly feel that Internet-delivered courses cannot replace most face-to-face training sessions. However, we see great potential for using the Internet as one medium in a systemic, long-term professional development plan. Short, online sessions can be used to reinforce topics learned in face-to-face training, as well as be used to introduce new material and teaching strategies. Mentoring by expert teachers can likely be done via the Internet in some cases.
While supplementary materials are most useful on paper, we see potential advantages to using the Internet. We are currently developing a Web-based resource where a teacher can select the specific textbook, specify the current chapter and section, and be shown a list of appropriate activities for that specific topic using TI technology. The Internet allows continual updates of this resource to be immediately available to teachers. While that has appeal, we have received opinions that it won't be used unless it is on paper or perhaps CD.
We also learned some other lessons in our transition from consumer electronics to educational technology. New products usually drive success in consumer electronics, and those are the items that get publicity and placement in retail stores. Products that have been around for a couple years are generally considered obsolete. Becoming successful in educational technology means fighting these almost-visceral cultural norms. Teachers were asking us to promise that our product would be around, basically unchanged, for at least five years. Since our products are often recommended by teachers and purchased by students at retail stores, we had to spend years re-educating people inside TI and our resellers.
We found that standards of durability for consumer electronics products are often not a match for the demands of classroom and student use. School experiments with notebook computers and PDAs are highlighting the durability issues when moving products developed for the business environment into schools. We learned that very early on with some of our first products and dramatically raised our qualification tests. While the tests are scientific and repeatable, we jokingly call them the backpack tests - simulating dropping a backpack with a bunch of books and our product to the floor.
While this attention to the customer probably seems obvious, we have found there are still challenges along the way:
- Keeping people focused outside. It's easy to design things in your office.
- Ensuring their market contacts are broad and authoritative. It's easier to work with people you know than search out new contacts.
- Making sure we are listening more than we are talking. Enthusiastic people want to convince others they have good ideas.
- Talking to a range of users. The most sophisticated users often have the most interesting ideas; less sophisticated users can be more critical. Those inputs are harder to listen to, but can be more important.
To summarize, we were very fortunate to learn our most important lesson early on: The only way to be successful in the education marketplace is to listen to teachers, understand their challenges, act appropriately on their advice, and be a part of expanding their vision for the classroom. The education community has grown and changed since the day we received that first product order in 1986, but our mantra to listen has remained true and served us well throughout.
Texas Instruments Inc.
This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2001 issue of THE Journal.