Richard Culcutta, director of the Office Education Technology in the U.S. Department of Education, forgot to ask me to write the preface to the new EdTech Developers Guide. I’m sure he’s very busy, so I can forgive the error. I’m releasing the preface here, and you can insert it into the Developer’s Guide PDF (OS X; Adobe).
The signature challenge for education technology developers is the “curse of the familiar.”
The best way to create something that teachers can easily adopt is to make it recognizable or familiar. If you can digitize a flash card, a multiple-choice question, a lecture, a public behavior board, a gradebook, or a homework turn-in bin, teachers will know exactly what to do with your tool. If you can save them a few minutes of time, they may very well buy your product. Historically, this approach has had some financial successes, but virtually no effect on student learning, the achievement gap, or any of the challenges that the Office of Education Technology has set forth in the document that follows.
If we want technology to support truly new practices that have the potential to substantially increase student learning, educators will not recognize these new practices. Educators will describe your interface and practices as foreign, confusing, and unsuitable for integration into typical school settings.
Instead of just building and marketing a tool, you will have to spread a set of practices. You will have to build a community of educators interested in learning new techniques, giving feedback that refines your technology, and then not merely evangelizing your tool, but teaching other educators how to use a set of practices that makes your tool meaningful.
There are examples of successful entrepreneurs who have successfully transcended the curse of the familiar, but they are few. Reshan Richards, who created the app Explain Everything with a team of colleagues in Europe, developed a framework of formative assessment in his doctoral work that provided a pedagogy for using his screencasting tool. Reshan has criss-crossed the country attending conferences, doing breakout sessions, and supporting educators in thinking about the role that screencasting can play in helping students create rich, multimedia demonstrations of their thinking and practice. The professional learning consultancy that I co-founded, EdTechTeacher, has been impressed with Reshan’s product and vision, and we’ve included his tools and ideas in many of our workshops and work with schools. Reshan has been an evangelist not just for an app, but for an expanded vision of the role of media in formative assessment.
To break the curse of the familiar, you can’t just build an app, you need to build a community. Communities of practice don’t scale like app downloads. Deep changes in pedagogy don’t scale like superficial changes in tools.
Software developers who want to tackle the most important challenges in education need to be pedagogical innovators, community builders, and committed to a long-term vision for meaningful change.