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A blog post today from Rick Hess in many ways states the obvious, that “getting ed tech right isn’t about bandwidth, devices or cool graphics, but about solving problems for students and educators.”  Hallelujah. Many of us have experienced the “hype” of various educational “innovations”, and when technology is part of those, the hype seems to move more quickly from a murmur to a shout.  Technology offers such promise and potential, it’s hard not to get excited that these tools, whether they have to do with instruction, assessment, or even the logistics of running a school/district/SEA.  Fail with humans

Yet technology, of course, is a tool for human beings: for teachers, leaders, students, parents.  Used one-by-one and in the aggregate, it must be used, be used well, and ultimately have an impact on critical levers for all human behavior and the systems in which they reside: Capacity (able to do more, do things better, make impact more widespread), Opportunity (greater opportunity, less expensive/more efficient ways of working, removed barriers to action), and Incentives (to act, to enhance, to collaborate).  Educators and educational systems are not unique in this regard.

In fact, at last year’s Education Innovation Summit (2013), Acting Deputy Secretary / U.S. Department of Education Jim Shelton spoke about why educational innovations fail, and the reasons aligned to these same categories:

  • Failure of knowledge (i.e., “Capacity”).  We don’t know our options, we don’t know how to implement said options, or we don’t use what we do know.
  • Failure of design & engineering (“Opportunity”).  Education products are often more clunky than products in other industries.  If products, in fact, introduce their own challenges to situations, they are not opportunities at all…and instead may be new barriers.
  • Failure of adoption (“Incentive”).  Few or no people actually use new tools or processes.

To add to Rick Hess’s thoughts then, ed tech must solve problems. Yes.  And…that’s still not enough.  Ed tech must also embrace human factors….the interaction between users and tools and technology, as well as the potentially complicated web of incentives and barriers that exist throughout the educational system.  What might be encouraged in one school may be discouraged at the district level, for example.  Or a tool deemed more effective and efficient for some educators may provide burdensome to others.

That’s where the next level of questions must come in.

  • Do they have the Capacity to use these tools?  Is it all or just some?
  • Does the tool make work easier, better, faster?  How do we know?  Are there any barriers slowing it down?
  • What motivates our users?  Is the tool intrinsically motivating? Is it mandated by policy?  Are there social contingencies in place to reward users?  Does it simply make things easier/more enjoyable for users?

The education sector is complicated (you’re welcome for your cliche of the day).  It’s ripe for technology to assist in simplifying this layered system.  But a studied look at what moves people….and ultimately systems….could be the tipping point or slipping point for innovative tech “solutions” to take hold.

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