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Chapter 6: How Innovation Happens

Implementing any new technology that disturbs deep-rooted social structures is tough, and looking at the process at any moment in time is no guarantee you’ll see the next step. You have to weave between two extremes: unfounded hype on the one hand, and at the other pole a short-sighted vision that can’t see past the way things are now to the way things might be.

Education technology, up to this point, has not lived up to its promise. Is that changing?

Blended learning has certainly gotten its share of breathless attention. People are desperate for ideas that work in education. Yet “there is a very long and storied track record of education technology, up to this point, not living up to its promise,” notes Scott Benson of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Funders should know that even a well-designed blended-learning program won’t quickly bring children failed by their traditional schools up to grade level, mastery, and beyond. “Technology is an amazing tool—it really is—but it’s just a tool and if it’s not used by good teachers in a strong school culture, it’s not going to achieve what a philanthropist would want it to achieve,” says Scott Hamilton of Seton Education Partners.

Of course, the flip side of this caution—dismissing blended learning as yet another fad that will be tried and abandoned, much as a kid loses interest in a fading video game—is a flawed approach too. Many people who looked at the internet in the mid-1990s wondered what the fuss was about. As new ideas emerge, it’s often hard to see exactly what they might be useful for, or why existing patterns might change.

This stuck-in-time vision has tinted some of the criticism of online and blended learning. When the world started paying attention to Sal Khan’s videos, several educators accurately pointed out that lectures—whether online or not—were not a particularly innovative approach to education. One of Khan’s most thoughtful critics is Frank Noschese, an award-winning physics teacher at John Jay High School in New York. Noschese blogs about education, and describes how his students learn physics principles through experimentation: using little battery-powered buggies, rulers, and stopwatches to answer that classic physics question about when two trains leaving distant stations would meet. In a good classroom, Noschese has argued, “there’s a lot going on that I don’t think I can get from a video.”

There’s also plenty of evidence that expository lectures and problem sets often work poorly. Millions of us studied trigonometry via this method, and promptly forgot everything after the last test. The educational theory of constructivism—advanced by Jean Piaget and others, and dominant in schools of education—holds that people construct knowledge from their experiences and what they care about. While this is often caricatured as children discovering the quadratic equation as they skip through fields of flowers, proponents are not wrong that we tend to absorb and retain deeply things that we figure out on our own, partly because we have personal reasons for wanting to understand. People who hated high-school chemistry figure out acids and bases as they balance the pH of their lawns or gardens. Project learning, done right, is likewise more compelling than videos or online or in-person problem sets.

But the beauty of blended learning is that you can get the best of both worlds. Appropriate technology can expand the reach of a teacher who does an amazing job at presenting material. It can also free up teachers who work best one-on-one so they have more opportunities to ply that skill. Small-group projects that neither bore nor frustrate—and that are aimed at discovery—are much likelier when teachers know exactly what their students have already grasped, and what they are missing (as blended learning promises to reveal more effectively than any class-wide method).

The Achilles’ heel of blended learning in its nascent state is that the rich content which is possible hasn’t yet been created on the scale that educators dream of. In interviews for this book, person after person complained about gaps and inadequacies in the technology that is currently available. “There isn’t really a pure model today. If there was, everybody would be using it,” notes Anthony Kim, head of Education Elements, a firm that helps schools select blended-learning software.

The thin supply of programs frustrates attempts to show what blended learning can do, in much the same way that YouTube didn’t bloom until most people had broadband access. The blended-learning Holy Grail is software that is adaptive to the student, able to instantly feed rich data back to teachers in useable forms, and exemplary in its subject area, not just part of a common suite. None of the schools profiled in this book yet have technology that meets all those standards.

Jelena Dobic of KIPP says that in L.A.’s Empower Academy, “right now we’re not even looking at the data” from the online work students do, because it has not yet proved useful enough for teachers to be able to quickly scan it and decide what the next action should be.

Appropriate technology can expand the reach of a good teacher.

Nonetheless, there is enough solid digital content out there to get schools going and proceed with the process of improvement. Pioneering schools like those profiled in this guidebook are working on overcoming these challenges. Many have collaborative relationships with content providers to test and expand different approaches. They also vote with their dollars; KIPP Empower Academy, for instance, has changed its software to achieve improved analytics.

Kim rates today’s content at five on a 10-point scale, and expects rapid progress in the future. “There are a lot of people working on it,” he says. Software gets better, as software is wont to do. There is no comparison between the graphics of World of Warcraft today versus the 1990 version of SimCity.

The adoption of disruptive technology is always messy. As Clayton Christensen wrote in The Innovator’s Dilemma, since new technology tends, at first, to be not especially good, it colonizes the margins of an industry. Right now, educational software is often inferior to the best teachers. But teachers aren’t improving at nearly the rate that software is.

There is a lot of venture capital pouring into educational technology. In 2005, venture capitalists put only $13 million into education ventures; by 2011 that was up to $389 million. Deb Quazzo, founder of GSV Advisors, which invests in educational products, set out to discover whether a lack of capital was inhibiting innovation in education. Her answer? “Absolutely not.” While it’s easy to complain that there isn’t enough investment, she challenges observers to name an excellent company that hasn’t been funded.

The field is now ramping up rapidly. The NewSchools Venture Fund has seed-funded a host of new entities, including LearnZillion (providing free online lessons for teachers and students), Matchbook Learning (a school operator), and GoalBook (software to manage special education students). “Our approach is to invest relatively small amounts of capital ($50,000-$300,000) in the most promising ed-tech ventures,” says Jennifer Carolan of NewSchools Venture Fund. “We then help our companies raise their next round of financing from other capital sources.”

Right now, educational software is often inferior to the best teachers. But teachers aren’t improving at nearly the rate that software is.

The incubator Imagine K–12 has kicked off such companies as Chalk (which simplifies the tsunami of paperwork teachers and schools manage), NoRedInk (which covers grammar), and Tioki (a LinkedIn of sorts for educators). Reasoning Mind, the successful blended program pushed by philanthropists Ernie Cockrell and Forrest Hoglund for teaching math, now has dozens of philanthropic and corporate backers financing its introduction into schools. Over time, products from major players like Knewton, Junyo, DreamBox, Education 2020, Khan Academy, Edmodo, Achieve 3000, Revolution K12, and others will continue to get better and more comprehensive. Jessie Woolley-Wilson of DreamBox describes her product as “an adaptive engine.” “We’re going to continue to grow,” she says. “We have not realized our company mission if we limit it to early math.”

Meanwhile, good outcomes are possible even with rudimentary tools. “Let’s cut them some slack here and look at the results,” says Gisèle Huff of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation. “Never mind the glitches, look at the results in spite of that.” Education software customers, she says, “are getting 200 percent more than they ever have before, and now they want 500 percent.” Over time, a competitive market in content will likely give schools what they want.

The question is which schools will be bold enough to grab hold of the new technology. “Innovation will not come from a rank-and-file district, rank-and-file school, rank-and-file teacher,” predicts Brian Greenberg, CEO of the Silicon Schools Fund. “I think we need some sort of beacon schools to go first and show the way.”

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