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What Will The Ed Tech Revolution Look Like?

Predictions for how the next 15 years are going to change how children learn, at school and at home.

During the past 40 years, accounting for inflation, we have nearly tripled the amount of money we spend per student in public K-12 education. It was roughly $4,000 in 1971, and last year amounted to $11,000 per student. Over that same period time, our students’ math and verbal test scores have remained unchanged. I am no Warren Buffett, but I can comfortably say to you that that is a lousy return on investment.

This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

In an increasingly competitive world, it is clear that our education system—as currently designed—isn’t sustainable. Simply throwing more money at a system that produces the same results is, well, not smart. Yet, I’m optimistic about our K-12 schools.

In a perverse way, I believe federal and state budget cuts will help focus us on doing things differently and more efficiently. And while I don’t wish an underfunded and failing school on anyone, necessity is the mother of innovation. That is why I am optimistic about the ed tech revolution that is quietly happening in the background of all the political rhetoric about unions, teacher evaluations, and test scores.

Similar to the consumer tech revolution, this ed tech revolution will take some time and happen unevenly in waves. It will occur both at school and at home. And while the blogosphere is littered with the pages of people incorrectly predicting the future of technology use, I still think it a worthwhile thought experiment to project how this revolution may play out. Here is how I think it might happen:

First Wave (0 to 5 years from now): A Change in Perception

At School: In spite of all the media coverage about seniority-based firing decisions, the teaching work force is actually getting younger. According to National Center for Education Information, a full 30% of public teachers are now under the age of 30. This percentage has doubled over the last five years. Why does this matter? Every teacher under 30 years old entered secondary school after Netscape. Like pre and post-TV generations, the pre- and post-Netscape generations think and act differently. They assume that the web is a part of their daily lives and integrate it into their daily routines without giving it much of a thought.

This first phase of the revolution will see teachers become more efficient in their jobs by adopting web-based tools. While teaching can be a very rewarding profession, it can also be grueling. Teachers are asked to do things that take more hours than there are in a day. Much of what they are being asked to do is clerical work that can be automated away with good software tools. Ed tech startup companies are stepping in to supply this set of productivity tools.

Teachers, especially younger, more tech-savvy teachers, are adopting these tools that make their days more efficient so they can spend more time teaching or preparing to teach. They are downloading these products from the Internet, integrating them into their routines, and freeing up time in order to be better at their profession.

At Imagine K12, the edtech incubator where I work, we have seen several examples of this already. Companies such as ClassDojo, Remind 101, Socrative, and Educreations have achieved widespread classroom adoption by distributing their products online to teachers for free. By making easy-to-use software that saves teachers’ time, they have found their way into 100,000s of classrooms and have a legion of devoted followers. And they have done this without a visit to a school district office or permission from the superintendent or the teachers’ union.

At Home: The Khan Academy has brought the notion of self-paced learning outside of the classroom to the mainstream. Even my 68-year-old mother knows about Khan Academy. No longer will the computer at home be viewed simply as a device for games and communication needing regulation by parents. It will now also be seen as a device for learning inextricably tied to a child’s education. This small but important change in perception about the computer at home is a precondition for the second wave.

Second Wave (5 to 10 years from now): A Change in Purchasing an Empowerment

At School: Once web-based software becomes commonplace in the classroom, new distribution channels for selling into schools become possible.

Currently, the only way to sell a product into a classroom is through a visit to the school district’s office. In this "tops-down" process, the purchaser of the product (superintendent) is rarely the user of the product (teachers). At best, it is an extremely inefficient sales process. Most superintendents spend a lot of time soliciting input from teachers in order to know what they need for the classroom. Once they purchase a product, the superintendent then becomes an internal sales agent selling it down to the teachers that have to use it.

In this second wave, a more efficient "bottoms-up" sales channel becomes possible. When dozens of teachers in a school district are using the free version of a web-based product, it’s clear that the product is effective and necessary. The superintendent will no longer need to solicit teachers’ input to know what they want and need. It is exactly how Yammer is changing the enterprise sales process. Superintendents no longer have to investigate what teachers want, nor do they have to "sell it internally" once it is purchased. This new bottoms-up channel makes the their jobs easier and their teachers more productive. The best products, rather than the best sales forces, will begin to win the day.

Once the effectiveness of this bottoms-up channel becomes apparent, superintendents will begin to transfer some purchasing power directly to teachers. Currently teachers have no purchasing power save their own pocket books. Different teaching styles and different learning styles necessitate different classroom tools. Not every teacher will want to use the same tools. Consequently, superintendents will give individual teachers small online budgets (less than $500 per year) from which to purchase their own products and tools. A handful of companies, like EdShelf, are currently building the infrastructure necessary for this change to take place.

This new teacher purchasing power will be exercised at online stores like Apple’s App Store, Edmodo’s App Store, and EdShelf. Once established, these new stores will act as distribution channels for new educational products. Small software companies will be able to develop great, low-cost products and offer them to individual teachers at a tiny fraction of what is currently sold by big "vertically integrated" publishing companies to the districts for all their classrooms. Small companies with great ideas will thrive in this environment and the number and diversity of educational products will explode. Again, the best and most effective products will win the day.

At Home: Online assessments, marketed to parents and organized around the Common Core curriculum, will become widely available online. Parents will be empowered to evaluate their child’s progress with these assessments. It will be a natural transition for parents to begin using the computer to assess their child’s progress once parents view the computer differently. Parents will no longer be beholden to the quarterly report cards, or the even more infrequent parent-teacher conferences, to find out how their child is doing.

Helping driving this change is the USDOE’s RTT mandate of states having year-end assessments transition from offline to online by the 2014-15 school year. Ed tech companies are building products now for our school systems in anticipation of this transition. Once the year-end summative assessments are up and running for the school systems, it will be easy for these assessment companies to offer a scaled-down version of these assessments directly to parents.

Further supporting the empowerment of parents is the Common Core curriculum. This common assessment standard establishes a language that bridges the chasm between school and home. Parents can more effectively communicate their concerns to teachers using this common framework.

My wife is a physician, and I remember very clearly the effect that the Internet first had on her profession. Patients would come to appointments "armed" with information gathered from various websites. As my wife will tell you, not all of it was good: There is bad information on the web and a patient often lacks the ability to correctly assess symptoms. But for the first time, patients felt empowered concerning their diagnosis and prescription. Patients no longer were required to have blind faith in their physician, and the doctor-patient relationship has been changed forever for the better.

The same thing will hold true from parents, teachers, and the education of a child. In the beginning, this transition will be bumpy just like it was for doctors and patients. As with doctors, teachers will bear the time-consuming brunt of this change initially. But ultimately, it will be a positive change where everyone wins. A more empowered and, consequently, more engaged, parent will lead to better student outcomes.

Third Wave (10 to 15 years from now): A Change in Process

After a decade more of fiscal pressure at school and many of the changes discussed above, we will finally see widespread changes to our public school model. Schools will move toward one of a handful of models that better support the needs of individual students and reflect the fiscal realities of today.

More specifically, public schools will look to save money by moving away from their traditional age-based and grade-based system (i.e. the "factory model") toward one based on mastery. Kids will be able to test out of certain classes by proving competency. High schools, and maybe even middle schools, will begin to operate less like factories and more like colleges.

A lot of these new models exist today. They are largely being pioneered in the charter school community, but not exclusively. Two of the most exciting new models in recent years are the School of One and Quest to Learn. Both of these operate inside of the New York City school system.

Supporting all of these new models will be the maturing technology of adaptive learning—software that adapts to the individual student’s need. Companies today, such as Junyo and Knewton, are off to a great start and will have another decade of experience analyzing data, perfecting algorithms, and proving efficacy. They will see wide-scale adoption in and outside of the classroom. They will make self-paced learning even better, saving students time and schools money.

Furthermore, where learning at school ends and where learning outside of school begins will start to blur. The ubiquitous access to high-quality learning resources online will make learning a continuous process driven much more by the motivation of the student than by the dictates of a time-based school schedule.

This is my best stab at how and when the Ed Tech revolution will occur.

Most disappointing to me in this projection is the long timeframe likely required to see substantial change. Fifteen years is an entire generation of students! It is difficult to accept the idea that change will take that long while we are failing so many students. But there is no silver bullet for fixing our K-12 system. At Imagine K12, we are trying to compress the timeframe by investing in early stage ed tech companies and helping them launch.

Most exciting to me in this revolution is the movement away from the factory model of education and towards something more individually customized to each student and more cost efficient. Technology helps make this possible. We will fail fewer students because they will be more engaged, and we will lose fewer teachers to frustration. And that is an investment worth making.