A Call for More Engineers in Education

Last month, the digital textbook startup Inkling announced that it had secured a new round of funding, including investment from the two biggest educational content companies in the world, McGraw-Hill and Pearson. I spoke with CEO and founder Matt MacInnis about Inkling's iPad app and the company's plan to re-imagine the textbook.

Textbooks on Inkling's platform aren't simply the print versions converted to the tablet screen. Content isn't bound by pages or sections or chapters in the same linear fashion. Rather, it's hierarchical, richly illustrated and augmented. It's interactive. It's social. It's not really a "book," per se, but something that, due to the iPad's format, feels new and different.

During our interview, MacInnis said something that struck me as particularly interesting. I asked him about his team, because, unlike many other companies that are working to digitize textbooks, Inkling isn't a spinoff from a major publisher. He described his team as engineers, not publishers. Digitizing textbooks is an "engineering problem," he said, not a publishing problem.

Employing engineers and not publishers has helped Inkling rethink what a digital textbook on the tablet could look like -- unfettered by the constraints of printed textbooks or by the constraints of hundreds of years of the history of what a book "looks like."

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This begs the question: does education (and education technology) need more engineers? The answer -- at least to the ed tech question -- is a loud "yes."

The technology industry in general is suffering from a shortage of engineering talent. While unemployment remains a problem across the country, the tech sector seems to have the opposite problem: the inability to find enough skilled programmers.

With some of the big names in the tech world engaged in lavish recruiting efforts -- huge bonuses offered by the likes of Google, Twitter, and Facebook -- some small startups are struggling to fill job openings.

Add to that the relatively marginalized position of education technology, and the problem may be more pronounced. So yes, ed-tech needs more engineers.

But the call for more engineers is also a call for those who can bring not just skills from the technical aspect, but fresh perspectives and cutting-edge technology to the sector.

Though education technology companies have been criticized for not having enough educational expertise, Inkling's success has demonstrated that the engineers' perspective brings a new way of bridging this important intersection of education and technology. The same may be said for online gradebook LearnBoost, a startup with an engineer-heavy staff. LearnBoost is not simply re-imagining how a gradebook works but is a leading contributor of open source code. (LearnBoost is certainly the top education company on GitHub as measured by project followers, and they are one of the top companies overall along with Facebook, Yahoo, and other.)

"Education technology has traditionally been light on the technology side, making 'edtech' a bit of a misnomer," says co-founder and CEO Rafael Corrales. Unfortunately, he adds, "when you think of innovation, you wouldn't think to look towards education technology companies."

Having more engineers in ed-tech could foster a substantive leap forward in innovation -- in both education and technology. Too often the software designed for schools lags behind consumer tech. It's clunky and it's ugly. By bringing more engineers to work on education, we can build better applications. In turn, students and teachers get to benefit from the best and most innovative technology. And when cutting edge technology evolves from the education technology sector, the status and appeal (and recruiting power) of the whole industry could be elevated.

Re-imagining education may not be an engineering problem (though some do argue this point, too). But re-imagining education technology certainly might be. How do we recruit engineering talent and convince programmers to work in education? We'd love to hear your thoughts!