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A Hot New, Free Resource From the Feds: A Guide for Educational Software Developers

While the debate about the value of educational technology in K-12 continues, and continues and continues… the U.S. Department of Educational Technology has just published a 70-page, free "Ed Tech Developer’s Guide" aimed at entrepreneurs who are considering developing educational applications. The guide is an excellent resource and it should be a required read for everyone involved in K-12 educational technology. And, frankly, it should be a required read for everyone who isn’t involved in ed tech too! While there is no way to predict exactly which specific technologies identified in the guide will have big impacts, we can predict, with virtual certainty, that some of those technologies will most definitely have big impacts.

The introductory comments to the guide note that the document was crowd-sourced. It has been created from contributions by upwards of 50 individuals: educators, researchers, entrepreneurs, big-business folks and government folks. This broad-based authorship is a key reason the guide has significant value. While public debate these days is typically ideologically based — and stridently so — the guide does not reflect just one ideological camp. It is the union of the 50+ contributing authors’ positions so that personalized learning, a reincarnation of CAI (computer-assisted instruction) from the 80s, is listed at the same level as project-based learning, the antithesis of personalized learning. The guide leaves the decision on which educational perspective to choose up to the reader.

In Chapter 1, the Guide starts by identifying 10 opportunities for technology’s impact, from improving mastery learning to increasing family engagement to making learning accessible to all to closing achievement and opportunity gaps. There are wonderful gems of wisdom sprinkled into these initial pages. For example, “innovate, don’t digitize.” If only technologists would take that one particular gem to heart. Yes, you can spruce up drill-and-practice with nifty graphics and animations, but developers need to heed the guide’s observation that the technology should “give learners an opportunity to practice in realistic settings.” Digital versions of flash-cards are not “realistic settings.”

The guide is sprinkled with sidebars from outside experts. One argues: “Become a School Insider … Your solution must manifest your deep understanding of educators’ daily struggles and small victories.” 

And another: “When developing productivity tools, pay careful attention to how long it will take teachers to learn a new tool.”  

And one more: “… talk to teachers, build a simple product, and solve a real problem.” Gems! Gems! Gems! If only the new generation of passionate, but ultimately misguided, educational tech entrepreneurs would have really read the Guide and learned from what they had read! Sigh; if only ….

In Chapter 2, "The Design Process: From Idea to Implementation," the guide talks about how to know what to build. Chapter 3, "Networking and Funding," is chock full of tips on where to look for support. Chapter 4, "Inside a School District," makes the point that in order to gain widespread adoption, a product must solve a real educational problem. Chapter 5, "Getting Apps and Tools to Users," talks about how to scale up a product beyond the initial district. Chapter 6, "Software Interoperability and Open Data," is a technical chapter about how new technologies must play nicely with existing technologies.

But it is Chapter 7, "Important Trends in the Educational Landscape," that hits the home run. It makes the case that technology is finally poised to make a dramatic, transformative impact on K-12. The current trends that are identified in this chapter are all ramping up, and up and up. The guide does not favor one trend over another. It simply reports on the massive efforts underway in using technology in K-12. For example, the chapter talks about how technology is making mastery learning effective and cheap. The chapter also points out a range of activities that exploit technology to support project-based learning … and the range of activities underlying changes in standards … and changes in assessment. 

From reading Chapter 7, we can see that technology is being employed to address a comprehensive range of significant issues from a broad range of educational perspectives. The Rubicon has been crossed. Over the next 10 years, technology will change K-12; of that there is no longer a question. 

But in the final sidebar on the final page of the guide, a sobering observation is made: “Technology is an accelerator; it allows us to scale the reach of what we have chosen to do with astonishing speed. But … It can just as easily scale the bad as the good, the minimally effective as much as the incredibly impactful.” 

Well spoken! Technology per se is neutral; how we put it to use makes the difference. May we have the wisdom, then, to use the technology accelerator for the “good," for the betterment of our children. 

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