Should Ed-Tech Platforms Empower or Restrict?

I’ve previously written on being bullish about the potential of ed-tech platforms.

Currently, both Summit Public Schools and Alt Schools are leading the way on developing platforms that may eventually be used by thousands of schools across the country.

Many people are drawn to ed-tech platforms because they can: (1) support teachers to curate innovative lessons and execute more personal coaching; and (2) allow children to learn at their own pace and explore their intellectual interests.

In short, ed-tech platforms are about empowerment.

But it is unclear to me that empowerment will be the only way that ed-tech platforms improve education.

I think they might also improve education by restricting educators and students.

I’m still trying to work through this, but see below for a graphic representation:

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 8.39.49 PM

The goal of many (thought not all) personalized and ed-tech enthusiasts is to move from wherever they are to the top right corner.

This vision has much to be said for it, and under the right conditions it very well may work.

But there is also another option – one based more on restriction than empowerment. A couple of great educators have been pushing me to think about this path as well.

The argument for restriction goes something like this:

  1. The No Excuses charter movement has learned a lot about what it takes to increase the learning of students who are multiple grade levels behind.
  2. It will be very difficult to scale No Excuses charter schools due to human capital, operational, and political constraints.
  3. Professional development has proved generally ineffective in spreading the practices of No Excuses charters to mediocre charter and traditional schools.
  4. A tech platform that utilized software that mimics the instructional practices of No Excuses charter schools – and then frees up teachers to do scripted small group and individual tutoring – could be a way to scale the core components of the No Excuses model while bypassing traditional human capital, operational, and political constraints.

Under this scenario, the goal is to move from the bottom-middle row (I do think No Excuses charters are empowering students more than before) to the top-middle row (with more scripted curriculum and teaching structure preventing this model from being ed-tech progressive).

In this model, the tech platform is really a backend way to scale a high-performing whole school model, in that the platform would dictate curriculum, assessments, pacing, and staffing.

Ideally, this packaged model would only take up 3-4 hours a day, and there could still be plenty of time for true project based instruction, extracurriculars, etc.

In summary: perhaps there is a (mostly) best way to teach basic reading and math, and, perhaps, a tech platform can scale this (mostly) best way.

And maybe the “big data” from such a platform could further evolve the (mostly) best way.

I’m not really sure. All feedback welcome.

3 thoughts on “Should Ed-Tech Platforms Empower or Restrict?

  1. Mike


    Can you say a few more words on “utilized software that mimics the instructional practices of No Excuses charter schools.”

    Ie, I thought NE teachers build relationship capital with kids and parents, then spend that relationship capital to get kids to try much harder than they did, on average, in their previous school. That’s the foundation. That — the “culture building practices” that creates some amount of new effort — allows for the instructional practices. Does the software somehow create the positive culture of urgency/effort, or somehow bypass the need for it?

    1. nkingsl

      All good questions. Some thoughts, none that I am certain about:
      1. I think there are subset of mediocre charter schools that actually do ok on culture but that are terrible on instruction. This might be the sweet spot for this type of product.
      2. Ditto for probably the top third of many urban district schools.
      3. So while this type of tech is not going to turn around a dysfunctional school, it might be a good “C” to “B” play by raising level of instruction and altering role of teacher.


  2. Mike

    Good thoughts. Thanks for response.

    Yes, some schools have good culture, weak instruction. Some Catholic schools might be added to your list. Certainly makes sense: substitution has “lower cost” when quality of existing teaching isn’t that good.

    I wonder what happens to culture, though, when the type of instruction goes from “whole class” to “each kid with a playlist.” In short-term, that pedagogy often threatens the culture: kids who were disengaged but not misbehaving now are more “exposed” (in a good way for their learning, but often in a way that creates, from a teacher’s point of view, many students frustrated with change in status quo).

    It’s why for decades, within many strong culture traditional schools, at anyone time they may have a few individual outlier teachers, who do low-tech project-based learning that is more “guide on the side.” Bad teachers of course get increased chaos; the good ones succeed, but others typically don’t adopt the teaching practices, because it’s not clear how to “pay the one-time costs” associated with that type of change to one’s teaching.


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