What We Really Need To Know About Ed Tech

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By Shelly Blake-Plock

Those "5 Things You Need to Know About EdTech" posts seem to crop up on Twitter every couple weeks -- Tech isn't the Point of EdTech, EdTech is about Learning, EdTech is Exciting. But for those who've heard and read it all before, here's a completely different take on that headline.

1. There is no such thing as "free." If you didn't pay for it, then you yourself are the fee. The data you produce and the connections you open up are generally worth a whole lot more to the longer term business plan of any ed-tech startup than the dollar you might spend to download an app. The CEO of a well known ed-tech startup on the West Coast recently remarked to me: "Our business strategy is the typical Trojan Horse scheme." Yup. And if you think this is the rambling of a lone-wolf... well you might want to start chatting with some folks who do biz dev for ed-tech. Free is the new expensive.

2. "Open" isn't so much about content as it is about the distribution arrangement. Though as users we tend to think about the Internet in terms of content, in reality the Net is agnostic in terms of what's written or posted upon it. The core function of the Net is more as a distribution mechanism, or more precisely as an environment of connections that allows for myriad distribution. And depending who has developed what, the different applications that live on the Internet have varying degrees of openness. That includes ed-tech. A good way to gauge the "openness" of your favorite ed-tech company — whether for-profit or non-profit — is not to ask them whether their content is free and freely available, but to ask whether they actively participate in the creation and modification of Open Source projects and whether they have a commitment towards public APIs. In other words: how does the company itself contribute to opening the channels of distribution?


3. Ed-tech companies need to make money. And it doesn't matter whether we're talking about a corporate for-profit that's been in the business for 20 years or a development co-op working out of a local hackerspace. They need to make money. Think about that next time you make a decision to purchase a piece of ed-tech. Who are you really paying? Who are you supporting? Remember — whether you are a classroom teacher shelling out a couple bucks for a classroom set of apps, or whether you are a district administrator purchasing a system that will effect tens of thousands of students — your dollar is your vote on what you want the future of ed-tech, and the future of learning in the digital age, to be.

4. You are being exploited. You are good-natured, early-adopter, well-meaning educators. Everyone in the ed-tech business knows that. Some companies exploit outright by getting teachers to do their work for them (especially in creating content). Others do it implicitly by leveraging relationships they have with schools, district leaders, conference organizers, and the like. Here's the catch: every business on Earth — for-profit and non-profit alike — to some degree exploit their advantages in order to grow. In this case, you must realize that you are the advantage. Ed-tech companies are smart enough now to realize that they have nothing without educators. In the same way that Nike has nothing without athletes. Once you realize this, it should empower you. Because really: you are the one with the power. Companies live and die on the fact of whether or not (and how) you use the product. It's time that you use that to your advantage and start exploiting the companies.

5. Most of the important stuff is under the hood. Sexy user-interfaces and sleek design are rightfully awesome. But if you really want to know what your favorite ed-tech is about, you gotta look under the hood. Security gaps, poorly tested code, and/or products designed to all but ensure vendor lock-in have been practically the norm in ed-tech for years. Next time you see a flashy data visualization or the spiffy use of a gesture control in your favorite ed-tech, you might keep in the back of your mind the question: "Just how well built is this thing? And to what purpose?"

There are a lot of fantastic technologists and visionaries creating amazing new ed-tech products. But in all the talking I do with educators, I am continually struck by how little recognition there is of how the business of ed-tech — let alone the technology of ed-tech — actually works. We do no benefit to learning by trying to hide the business and technological realities of educational technology from the very educators we call our customers and community members. I encourage educators and businesses alike to reach out to discuss these issues and I hope that the outcomes on all sides will be better on account of that discussion.

This post originally appeared on An Estuary.