What Makes For Good Ed Tech? An ISTE 2014 Reflection

A couple weeks back I attended the ISTE 2014 convention, and I discovered something;

This wasn’t the first time I got worked up about edtech, but this time my frustration is directed towards the amount of money thrown around, particularly on products that don’t consider pedagogy nor the extensive research available on  how students learn. That got me thinking about how we can wade through the dump and find the treasure.

So I wanted to look more at some companies where I really value their emphasis on students and learning to see if I could find some patterns.

Let’s start with Desmos. A quick click to their about page reveals this;

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It’s very clear, and easy to find, that their focus is on constructivist learning. Then if you dig a bit deeper, you’ll find that they’ve partnered with amazing teacher leaders Dan Meyer, Christopher Danielson, and Fawn Nguyen to make some great lessons, designed for learning, powered by Desmos. I also had the fortune to have an extended conversation with Eli Luberoff, CEO of Desmos, and was struck by how much their pedagogical ideals influence what they do. They want to create a place for students to experience math, not a place where math is done to them. It’s inspiring.

Another good example is Dreambox. Their front page boasts

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 9.47.56 PM Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 9.48.09 PM

My daughter uses Dreambox through her school, in a different district than where I teach. I was won over to Dreambox first by the exercises she was completing that place strong emphasis on conceptual development of place value and the meaning of mathematical operations, and then by a great conversation with Tim Hudson, a former math teacher who now designs curriculum for Dreambox. Tim confirmed that pedagogy and conceptual development of mathematics are at the forefront in the design of Dreambox activities.

Aleks

At first glance, Aleks (adaptive learning software) seems to be grounded in research.

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 9.53.23 PM

I started digging a bit about Knowledge Space Theory, and found KST is about assessing knowledge, not about how students are able to actually gain that knowledge The difference is important. While it’s good to know what students do and don’t understand, it’s more difficult, in my experience, to actually get them to learn things. Dreambox focuses on getting students to understand concepts through conceptual development, while Aleks focuses on, from what I have seen, drill and kill practice based on what the platform decided a student doesn’t know.

Khan Academy 

Screen Shot 2014-07-16 at 9.55.11 PM

I admire that Sal Khan wants to change “education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere”. It’s an admirable goal, and one worth pursuing.

The problem is that KA repeatedly refuses to consider research on pedagogy and student learning (see Frank Noschese’s and Christopher Danielson’s posts for starters). The about page boasts about data and badges (read Bill Ferriter’s post about the problem with badges) rather than about deep thinking and conceptual development. I won’t rehash Frank and Christopher’s arguments, but seriously, go read those posts. It’s amazing what we do actually know about learning, and that Mr. Khan is dismissive of it all.

After my Twitter rant at ISTE about edtech nonsense, Kelly made an interesting observation;

[tweet 484002706185392128 hide_thread=’true’]

Edtech as an industry seems bent largely on ‘personalization’ and ‘individualization’; there is, however, a significant research base on student learning through collaboration and dialogue. Edtech should aid in promoting methods that work, rather than move away from them. Some are. I’m hoping this post helps myself and others make some strides as to how to find those edtech companies that really do have students, rather than dollars, at their core.

As for the edtech startups,  I can only hope they heed Frank’s edtech PR tips.

Finally, the most reliable method I have found in vetting edtech is to pay attention to what the right people are saying. Everybody in the MTBoS raves about Desmos. When I originally posted to Twitter asking about Dreambox I got rave reviews from folks I highly respect. KA, on the other hand, is not spoken highly of in those circles, and I don’t ever hear mention of Aleks. Chances are good, it seems,  that if a number of twitter folks are raving about a product for it’s usefulness in student learning, it’ll be a good one. Find people who explicitly evaluate learning effectiveness, and listen to them.

 

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2 responses to “What Makes For Good Ed Tech? An ISTE 2014 Reflection

  1. Thank you Casey. I find myself going to edtech programs, and feeling like I have got to catch up or I’m going to be left behind. Often I leave feeling so overwhelmed that I don’t know where to start, and yet feel like I’ve got to get on the bandwagon. There are times that I struggle to remember that being an effective teacher is so much more important than all the fancy gadgets. It’s good to know others think about it too.

  2. Thanks for the pointer to Desmos. This is fantastic.

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