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Experts Debate Edtech Pros & Cons

NYCtickerAfter buying a $5 street umbrella on my way to the Tyton Education Summit last week, I looked up at the news crawlers ringing Broadway and 7th Avenue in Times Square and wondered, “If the headlines were about edtech, what would they say, and would anyone care?”

Our industry has never been short on hype. The problem is that like street umbrellas turning inside-out in the wind as soon as they’re opened, many products struggle to do their jobs.

Tyton recognizes this and brings industry leaders together to explore more durable solutions. Once inside the impressive TimesCenter — a 600-seat auditorium with a glass-walled atrium framing a tall stand of birch trees behind the stage — Tyton served up a thoughtful program for edtech investors, practitioners, and consumers.

Here are some of the ideas, issues, and questions that struck me as worth sharing.

Measureable outcomes | Adam Newman of Tyton asked: “Can we better reverse engineer the outcomes we want and make the systemic changes needed to meet those outcomes?” This theme of setting and measuring results without unnecessarily impeding innovation recurred throughout the conference. “In pharma you can’t get a drug approved that causes a small amount of arrhythmia in a tiny fraction of patients,” said Paul Freedman, CEO of Entangled Ventures. “But we don’t measure education nearly as closely.”

Broken system | Bill Hughes, Chief Strategy Officer of Learning Objects, summed up a view of K-12 procurement shared by many: “The system is broken. We’re spending $10,000 per kid but where does it go?”

Loyalty is a two-way street | Paul Freedman also cited a rising source of corporate angst: Employee training no longer ensures employee retention. Starbucks has partnered with Arizona State University to offer free courses to all of its employees. Many corporate-university partnerships have followed. Will lifelong learning as an employee benefit become the new normal?

Network fit | Perhaps retention depends more on hiring the right people in the first place. Jean Martin, Executive Director and Talent Solutions Architect at CEB, puts it this way: “Network fit is what companies are most hiring for now. Not a cloud engineer but an Apple cloud engineer.”

Maximize learning. Minimize debt. | Mohua Bose of Excelsior College articulated a formula many online schools want to put into practice: “For non-traditional learners how can we maximize education while minimizing debt and time away from the workforce?” Schools that succeed in delivering on this value proposition could put schools that don’t out of business.

Don’t forget the learner | After the session Are You Ready for the Workforce? I met Diane Inverso, Senior Director of the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy in Philadelphia. Diane has spent 25 years working with disadvantaged adult learners. She thought we had heard too much about meeting the demands of employers and not enough about serving the needs of learners with limited literacy skills.

Life skills needed | Doug Walcerz of Essex County College expanded on this topic during a session on Institutional Change Management moderated by Rahim Rajan of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Essex graduation rates have risen from 5% to 10%. Math remains the key barrier to graduation. With just $4,000 per student to spend on a total population of 13,000 (95% need remedial help), great adaptive programs like ALEKS can only do so much. Walcerz says math instructors need to teach other skills like time management and learning strategies.

MOOCommunities | Chris Liedel, President of Smithsonian Enterprises, asked this question about MOOCs: “How do we keep the community going when the class is over?”

Critical thinking | Jeff Braden, dean and professor of psychology at North Carolina State, and his colleagues are working on better ways to assess critical thinking. This is a key focus at Muzzy Lane, where we’re developing tools to automate such assessments, so I was grateful to meet Jeff and learn more about how NCSU’s tackling this important issue.

Uber Edtech | The phrase “We are the Facebook for [edtech burning need]” seems officially to have been replaced with “We are the Uber or Airbnb for [edtech burning need]” but the underlying substance of such claims remains dubious. Prasad Ram, CEO & Chairman of Gooru, framed market inefficiencies this way during a session called Will Free Models Win?: “Like Airbnb if Airbnb also needed to worry about supplying the linens.”