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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.

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  • amooma

    "Similar to the consumer tech revolution, this ed tech revolution will take some time and happen unevenly in waves." I totally agree with this as i think the ed tech revolution needs time,training, proper understanding and appropriate implementation to be a successful revolution.

  • Amal Hamdy

    It is an interesting article. I really hope we can benefit from this ED Tech  in Egypt in the coming few  years regardless the budget.

  • Nohakandil07

    i do agree with the author that the young teachers under30 can integrate it in their daily routines as this will save time of teaching and preparing to teach . I also liked the bottoms up channels which makes the teachers job easier .

  • Ola_fm

    I agree with the author that applying technology at school will help to individualize teaching and teaching will be continous not only at school but anywhere and at anytime. I totally agree that this will engage the students and will allow them to succeed and also it will help the teachers not to get frustrated because of the amount of work they have to do. teaching and learning will be fun for both teachers and students.

  • youssrazakareya

    An interesting 15 year plan for the development of Ed Technology in schools, despite the duration of such a plan, but I think its worth it !! Nevertheless I may not be with the writer's opinion concerning the Physician-Patient relationship as I think many people may misunderstand information on their diagnosis and at the end give the physician a huge hard time:)

  • Dalia Khalil

    very interesting article....It is beautifuly  forcasted,but the world is full of unforseen events or innovations that might change the flow of any plan:)

  • Ayten M Nayel

    I agree with the author regarding spending money on education R&D regardless the score results. Always do R&D, as it will enhances the future of the eduction. As well, I beleive that young age teachers will be able to face the new challenges of ed-tech much easier than older generation. I am rather concerned with the content and materials offered to students. There should be a monitoring insitution to approve the content to make sure, it fits the educational framework and appropriate.

  • ShimonSchocken

    Very inspiring article! Thx for the vision and insight. The argument that change will come from the ranks, driven by 30-something teachers, makes a lot of sense. In fact, a similar paradigm shift happened before. In the mid 90's, when graphical browsers and Java took hold, the first web applications began to emerge. Young executives played with the web in their homes, and saw the potential. They soon discovered what can be done, and pushed to introduce the web into their companies. In other words, the web did not enter corporations from the top, through some planned or reasoned process -- it sneaked through the back door, and caused a complete havoc in corporate IT and legacy systems. This is precisely the bottom-up, grass root revolution that Tim envisions.  -- Shimon    

  • justabil

    Hmmm. Many of you commenters are not reading the parenthetical material in the first sentence. It says "accounting for inflation". Did you really think they spent $4000 per student in 1971? That would be worth about 40k today.

  • Tom

    As I read about bringing the new technology into education I thought of installing electricity in an outhouse.  But schools becoming less like factories?  Bravo!  More like colleges?  They are becoming more and more like factories.  But there are some good points:  The line between learning at school and outside school beginning to blur.  Right on.  But why only through computers and technology?  The opportunities for such learning are greater than ever.  Trouble is it goes unrecognized because it is outside.   Schools should become like libraries, or other institutions that are used for specialized services.  We need to de-school society--a bold  idea that came out during the short-lived school reform movement of the 60s and 70s.  So-called "free" schools, and alternative schools were steps in that direction. And a few of those steps managed to make it through the uncritical acceptance that the only place education can be centered is schools.  And the dogma that test scores instead of personal development are the way we identify learning.  

  • TeachLowell

    No disrespect Tim, but this blog has nothing to do with the future of ed tech. There is absolutely no future thinking here.  You have identified some incremental change at best. Even the cost per pupil figures you start off with do not even consider the 40 years of inflationary costs.  And, as previously mentioned we certainly HAVE seen increases in student performance, all the while we have educated the most diverse population on the face of the Earth.
    Here is a thought:      A Future Vision.......

    The year is 2025.  The collapse
    and deregulation of education following the implementation of the National
    Education Act of 2020. Education and learning are now client-centered and

    Congress’ decision to dismantle the
    federal education system was based on the realization that the increasing
    federal and state education costs were unable to sustain the current system. By
    the year 2017, the annual federal education budget had grown to over $95
    Billion due to the fact that most State education budgets had not yet recovered
    from the first recession of the 21st Century in 2008-2009, and were continuing
    to struggle to make ends meet, even with the temporary investment of $100
    Billion from the federal ARRA.  It had become abundantly clear that a new
    funding model would be required for education.  The struggles of
    identifying this new model became the primary discussion and argument in
    Congress from 2017 to 2020 when the National Education Act of 2020 finally took

    The decision to eliminate the federal
    education budget by allocating a specific, and lesser annual amount of $50
    Billion in funds to the states was based on several significant
    realizations.  First, the increasing amounts of federal dollars had not
    translated into the expected positive student performance effect.  Second,
    and maybe the most significant realization, was based on the increasingly
    personal selection of educational choices available as provided by
    technology.  Online educational programs had continued to gain traction
    and were showing major growth in the elementary grades.  And, finally,
    many charter schools and other learning organizations had already made the
    change away from the educational program dogma of the previous 150 years and
    were truly providing 21st Century learning opportunities.

    Following this decision by the
    Federal government, and with the realization by most states that the limited
    federal involvement would not allow their fiscal recovery, State governments
    also began to reconsider their funding models.  Upon review it became
    obvious that significant State education dollars were funding facilities,
    regional and county education programs, out-dated evaluation and testing
    systems, special education, and significant, non-academic policy
    requirements.  In California alone, the State Education Code had become
    the largest policy and penal document in the state. Fortunately, in a majority
    of states there were many forward thinking legislators.  While the
    original idea has been attributed to the legislature in Kentucky, no one is
    certain when the actual Individual Funding Model (IFM) concept initially took

    The Individual Funding Model was
    ultimately designed to provide the parents and or child providers all state and
    federal dollars for each child.  The IFM funding was differentiated for
    each child based on identified need. Considerations for State appropriations the
    IFM accounts were based on poverty level, language capability, special needs,
    age and location. It was this model that would ultimately provide parents with
    IFM debit cards for the future of each child’s education.

    Thus it was the largest recession of the
    21st Century in the years 2020 to 2022 that forced the most massive educational
    innovation in the history of the United States.   This serious recession
    of 2020-22 was caused by the influx of thousands and thousands of public school
    teachers laid off due to the destruction of the old education system. 
    Only recently has this recession begun to subside as innovation takes over and
    former educators are being retrained into other professions and/or learning how
    to support the new individualized demands of a more selective clientele. 
    Regardless, all learning is now individualized. 

    The remaining educators and learning
    institutions of 2025 are those that were able to adapt to the massive paradigm
    shift in education.  The new learning centers began by building
    information access points and resource indexes to address the need of learners
    to access and coordinate the enormous source amounts of information that had
    grown exponentially. These new learning centers have been flexible enough to
    reinvent themselves as places where all individuals may come for educational
    assistance.  Individuals of all ages have begun to utilize these services
    to reach their personal learning goals. A variety of client goals, from early
    childhood education, reading and math skills for children to specific adult
    employment desires or retraining for career changes, personal skill and
    recreational learning are routinely handled by these centers.   The
    primary services offered in the learning centers are by the planning
    consultants and learning facilitators who assist each individual to develop a
    personal learning plan (PLP).

    Very much like the prototypical
    financial planner, the learning planners and facilitators consider a client’s
    current abilities and needs, providing individual assessment as required. The
    client’s learning and assessment are assisted primarily by the facilitator
    whose job is to provide the necessary connections to technology, expertise,
    training, projects, as well as other sub-contractors necessary to help the
    client complete each step in the learning plan successfully.

    ......    Obviously, this
    is a fictional picture of the future. Yet in a world where information grows
    exponentially each year, it is not that far fetched to believe in the
    possibility of just such a world.  The truth will probably be even more
    bizarre than this possible result.  One thing is certain, however.
    Lifelong individualized learning is no longer a wish but a requirement.   


  • jjulius

    People have been talking about the "first wave" of changing perceptions driven by adoption of educational technology based on efficiency/productivity for many, many years. It's time to get away from the notion of "waves" of change across all of education over defined periods of time. This kind of change happens at very different paces within individuals and across particular locations and organizations. It is idiosyncratic and doesn't fit into neat timeframes/categories. 

    Rather than a steady progression, in my opinion we are seeing the gap between the innovators and the laggards steadily increasing. This may be inevitable but it creates many problems within particular organizations as well as societally. IMO we need to think more carefully about these challenges ...

  • The ASIDE Blog

    In 15 years, we will have missed a generation of kids. If it takes that long, kids will start to pull out of schools to learn on their own. Unfortunately, many of these students won't have the means or desire to self-motivate themselves to learn. They were brought up in a system that required quite the opposite. A new age of self-learning is already underway, but sadly legislators are still ruled by testing companies that make billions. Our hope, your prediction is a lot short in time frame.

  • HarryKeller

    This article has the wrong ideas.  If you make educational software free, it will be worth what you're paying for it, or you'll pay in other, unpleasant ways.

    Bottom up has never worked in schools and won't begin now.  Teachers have no power and won't be given power by the superintendents and school boards.  They'll keep it for themselves.  I know a few enlightened districts are different, but we're discussing the majority here.

    This impossible utopian vision comes to you courtesy of ImagineK12, which is responsible for its content and which hopes to receive publicity from it as well as promotion for its companies.

    Once again, it's all wrong.  However, it's right in one respect.  We are seeing a quiet revolution as really good ideas for education surface.  Educational technology can be "better, faster, cheaper."  For more on the incredible potential, visit the Educational Technology and Change Journal (

  • Cronos17

    Yea right. The school system has historically shown itself to be immune to change in general and improvement in particular. Technologists have been promising an Ed revolutions for well over a century with no results.

  • Jeff Bryant

    There are so many blatant falsehoods in this piece that I don't know where to start. so let me start at the beginning.

    "During the past 40 years...our students’ math and verbal test scores have remained unchanged"

    This is completely untrue.

    On the long-term National Assessment of Education Progress, from 1971 - 2008, black students age 17 gained 28 points on the reading exam. Hispanic students, 17 points.

    On the math assessment, NAEP scores for black students improved by 17 points, Hispanic by 16 points during the same time period.

    And that's just the first paragraph. There's shoddy information throughout.

    I know that Fast Company is a techey/businessey mag but that's no excuse for publishing erroneous blather.

  • Suzanne Kaplan

    Thanks for pointing this out, Jeff. None of the opinions/claims hold weight because there are no points that the author uses to back them up. Even something as simple as the notion that technology will save teachers time is a claim that needs to be backed up. In fact, as a former high school English teacher, I can vouch that using technology in the classroom always took me more time. It actually take a lot of time to find the appropriate kinds of technology to implement into the classroom. I would have wanted to hear from some teachers who could have vouched that it saved them time. To add, because technology changes so rapidly, teachers are always going to be forced to spend time looking for the next best thing. It won't be enough to find a good program and use that year after year. 

  • Positivepr

    I agree with many of these conclusions, EXCEPT for students from low-income or rural areas who either don't have computers in their homes or the availability of high speed internet in rural areas. We can't make the mistake of thinking of all students as having the same resources available to them in their homes. those obstacles need to be considered in implementing these changes.

  • Canvuljan

    Forty years ago I was paid $6900 to teach school. Today salaries have increased 3x that amount for a starting teacher, or perhaps a bit more. Houses, cars, gas, food, electricity, etc all cost 3x or more. Why should you be surprised that we spend 3x more in dollars on education over 40 years?
    In fact, those things cost much more that 3x what they did 40 years ago. It's actually sad that we only spend so little and education.
    And my school district in Michigan, like most others, only gets $6800 per student from the state. There is tremendous inequity in what we spend on students across this country.