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A SxSWedu 2016 Epiphany

Throughout the panels, conversations, and catalytic collisions of SxSWedu last week, the state motto of North Carolina kept popping into my head:

Esse Quam Videri. “To Be, Rather Than To Seem”.

The promise, potential, and portent of education technology has been future-focused ever since I started teaching almost 20 years ago — well after playing Oregon Trail and Lemonade Stand in school on Apple IIe’s was the extent of edtech. But the transition to a reality where educators get what they’ve been promised is coming… but it won’t be pretty for everyone. While the currently opaque market benefits those with big budgets and strong marketing teams, the esse quam videri moment in edtech will spotlight those that are making a difference and providing classrooms with useful tools, rather than those that are flashy but ineffective — leveling the playing field for those who are making an impact, not just full of false claims and promotions.

One only needed to join the Technology for Education Consortiumunveiling during the “Begging for Disruption: Fixing EdTech Procurement” panel at SxSWedu to see this play out in hardware. The new group shared initial findings from an audit conducted across over a dozen districts. The crowd didn’t seem surprised to see a disparity of 36% between pricing, unrelated to size or bulk discounts, of the exact same item across districts and putting a fine point on the need for transparency.

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During the panel, three organizations, including LearnTrials, shared their approaches to help manage edtech procurement. Needless to say, our team is committed to fulfilling North Carolina’s motto. We never take payments from vendors to help sell and market products; but rather, we improve the capacity, visibility and rapid efficiency of educators, their schools and institutions to demand more effective, efficient, valuable technology to meet their local needs. LearnTrials is a research-based, on-demand edtech ecosystem, NOT a marketplace; and as a “B Corp” (“for benefit”), our business model ensures we are measured by our impact and sustainability, not on getting more people to buy more stuff.

My second panel, “The Dog Ate My Charger,” addressed the real challenges of driving systemic adoption in tech-enabled learning. Educators and vendors alike (including SamsungCharter Schools USA, and dozens of district attendees) focused on addressing professional development needs, ensuring effectiveness matters in decision making, and giving educators a voice and the leeway to innovate and share practices quickly. Not surprisingly, the crowd at the Jefferson Education Accelerator was filled with researchers, technologists, policy makers and educators envisioning the “merit over marketing” world they hope is rapidly approaching.

This year’s conference “cool kid” seemed to be virtual and augmented reality platforms (“VR/AR” for the really cool kids). Based on conversations with dozens of investors and almost every single educator we know, the esse quam videri moment for these realities sounds like it’s a ways off. If anything, the excitement one kept hearing about these tools around the hallways reinforced the criticality of teacher voice and designing for actual reality of classrooms struggling to personalize learning. Dr. Adam Fried, a NJ superintendent in a small district, espoused the need to “solve real problems WITH teachers, not FOR them” on his first-day panel, and it rang true the whole conference.

For the past few years, analytics has been the conference “cool kid.” Companies like CivitasSoomo and others that were new in past years, appear to be pointed on their esse quam videri trajectory. While privacy data and confidentiality seem to be an even bigger bogeyman in the higher education market than K-12 (where else does one have access to health, school, living, gym, spending and other records on every individual?), solving real challenges in safe, useful ways appears to be the goal. Most importantly, doing so in context — rather than clinical, or worse, unsubstantiated/unknown contexts — will help America’s institutions harness the power of their own actions for student learning and awareness.

Even the panel on “what works” pointed to the fact that we have yet to define or reach our goals. Former head of NYC’s iZone, Steven Hodas, called their $500,000 randomized control trial — whose report was released 3 years after completion — “a very expensive shrug”.

And, while Chris Liang-Vergara, who oversees Chicagoland school pilots with Chicago LEAP and the Learning Assembly (a growing network of similar groups), shared a recent report on two products that seem to make an impact in their efforts, he couched the details by saying, “Asking if edtech works is like asking if food works. There are different types used for different things by different people. We now know some food probably isn’t healthy, but do we stop eating?”

The reality is edtech is not going anywhere. It is required in the 21st century, just like food. And, in several realms of edtech, we will see more and more folks start “to be, rather than seem”. Our team and LearnTrials platform are committed to both delivering on our promises, and helping the market reach its esse quam videri moments as quickly as possible.