Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Making Education Technology Make Sense

March 14, 2012

There's been a long-time joke in education: if Rip Van Winkle woke up today, he'd be puzzled by just about every aspect of modern life--from planes to cell phones--but he'd feel right at home in many classrooms in America. Now that's starting to change in a big way. The result: educators are confronting a dizzying array of technology choices.

How do we know what tools to use and when to use them?  

Five years ago, educators interested in trying out new technologies had a modest number of choices to consider. Education--as an industry--was something of a quagmire for technology companies.  It was expensive to build the technology; trying to build a market for it was even worse. In the U.S. companies discovered that they had to sell--one by one--to American's 15,000 or so school districts. Only a few education-technology companies that started in the late 1980s or even early 1990s managed to survive.

Within the past three years, however, the cost of starting software companies has plummeted. Open source tools have become more robust and widely available. "Lean startups" have become the Silicon Valley mantra.

At the same time, concerns about the health of American schools have soared, exacerbated by an economic downturn that has slashed education budgets even as it has made parents acutely conscious of the need for a top-notch education.

The EdSurge web site

Add to that a third dominant trend: the mobile communications devices that have flooded every corner of life--other than schools and infused the Rip Van Winkle joke with a bitter truth. Professor Scott McLeod created an intensely viral video, Shift Happens, that progressive school superintendents began showing at parent-teacher gatherings. (Here's the original Shift Happens; it's been updated many times since then. Here's Scott McLeod's blog describing the implications of this powerful work.) 

Although not every technology is good, surely there should be some role for technology in schools, they argued. 

That confluence of factors has sparked an explosion of startup companies building new tools for learning. Although there are no readily available numbers on the number of edtech startups, industry newsletter EdSurge, (itself a startup) last year chronicled the emergence of scores of new companies. Some efforts, such as the Gates Foundation supported Khan Academy, are free. Others have price tags, both small and big.

As school and district leaders have begun to think through the role of technology at their schools, they have started to seek out independent information on how those tools work and what experiences others have had. Unfortunately, that information is hard to find. Many schools have created task forces assigned to "survey the landscape."

A few, such as the charter school Rocketship Education, have run their own, in-house experiments, working hard to test out technologies. Some have put delegations of teachers on a plane to visit other school districts. And a growing number with the means to afford it have turned to a handful of consultants to provide customized recommendations.  

Last week, EdSurge, with support of the Gates Foundation, has created another alternative for educators and parents seeking independent reports on how technology tools work. EdSurge has spent a year publishing a newsletter that covers new education technology ventures. This week, we launched a beta website ( that has several goals:

  1. to surface in a searchable way the technology tools available to educators
  2. to report in detail on how these tools work
  3. to create a forum where educators can share their experiences in using these tools.

The EdSurge site is itself a beta, or starting point. The team is eager to receive feedback from educators of all stripes--in school, out of school, in the U.S. and elsewhere--both on their experiences in using education technology tools and on what they need to know to begin to evaluate tools.

The right tool might be able to amplify great teaching, to engage students and to help narrow the achingly large achievement that has persisted in the U.S., in spite of heroic efforts of individual teachers. Using an inappropriate tool, by contrast, can backfire in a spectacular way.

Now we just have to be able to tell the difference. 

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