Edtech fads, trends — and extra-credit myths

Education technology is a hotbed of activity. And some developments will stay warm, while others, now overheated, will rapidly cool.

It’s helpful not just to companies, but non-profit organizations in education and educational institutions themselves, to have an idea of which is which.

At the EdTech for Export conference in New Zealand last week, I flipped the questions I’d been asking other industry execs (if something was a fad, trend, or “it’s complicated”) into advice for the industry itself. It’s mostly U.S.-centric, and has only a three-to-five year time frame.  Both are key caveats.

Below is my presentation — with screen-by-screen notes — on nine developments (from Open Educational Resources to the rise of iPads and Chromebooks). Plus I highlight five bonus myths about education technology, corrected. The last has turned out to be one of the most popular parts of my presentation on Twitter.

Or, if you’d prefer, the full 30-minute video has also been posted by my New Zealand hosts, which may be more entertaining that clicking through slides and reading text.

(Et4e15 – Keynote 3| Frank Catalano, Intrinsic Strategy from Grow Wellington on Vimeo.)

As with any free advice, it may largely be worth what you paid for it.

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It’s dizzying to keep track of developments that affect education technology companies.
Which are long-term trends? Which are unsupportable fads? What’s more complicated?
This is my look ahead three-to-five years, to the U.S. and beyond, to K-12 schools and into K-20.
What affects teachers, learners – and the industry’s prospects.

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Easy to get overwhelmed by acronyms, hype, and confusing terminology.
US-NZ translations:
Grades = Years (13)
Math = Maths
Elementary = Primary
Middle School = Intermediate
High School = Secondary
Standards = Achievement Objectives

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From my perspective as a long-time industry observer, executive, analyst and consultant.
Two decades in edtech, working with or for established firms such as Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and a variety of startups.
Based also on conversations and information at industry conferences, data from surveys and reports (some of which I’ve worked on for MDR’s EdNET Insight service), and the cumulative push of developments, with my analysis and opinion layered on.
Facts, charts and other information aren’t all of the supporting data, just the most illustrative examples.

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Let’s start with one of nine developments.
The Bring Your Own Device movement in the U.S.
Encourages students to bring their own laptops, tablets, and even smartphones to school to help get to 1:1 computing (that is, every student has a device) faster than relying solely on school-issued devices.
First trend.

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Different from BYOD when I was a student.

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A strong trend, more so at the high school level where many students are more likely to already own a mobile device.
This is data from the 2014 Speak Up survey of 431,000 U.S. students, recently released.
Supported by surveys of individual schools and school districts from MDR’s EdNET Insight, and the NMC Horizons report.
Big drivers are the move to digital materials, and strained school budgets.
Challenges are network security and equity for students who don’t have devices or broadband access at home.
Upshot: Design for laptop to smartphone, web, no matter who owns it or where it’s located.

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Second development: Open Educational Resources, or OER, in the U.S.
OER are digital instructional materials that teachers are free to use, change, and share.
Trend, a moderate one.

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It’s been propelled in the U.S. by foundation and government money, and by pockets of educators who develop the resources on their own time, or on school time as part of an institutional effort.
“Free” is the appeal (except labor); a challenge is maintaining OER over time and getting the resources to combine neatly with other digital content a school may already have purchased.
Examples: K-12 OER Collaborative of 12 U.S. states, New York State’s EngageNY curriculum in math and English language arts (may not technically be OER, but free to use).
Upshot: Expect mixing of any content you create, in unexpected ways. Prepare to play nicely.

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Third development: Freemium.
Products or services that have a useful version that is free forever, with an upsell for more scale (say, from individual classroom to school district level) or for more features.
Moderate trend.

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This trend has its roots in the long-time concept of consumer or business freeware or shareware, brought to education by savvy startups either wholly aimed at schools (like Schoology) or that crossed over from consumer (like Evernote).
Gates Foundation study results find 28% of teachers don’t pay for the digital products they use; they’re free.
Once considered a fad, freemium moved to trend after some school districts stopped resisting the idea that teachers could identify, try, and recommend good products – and bought what teachers were using.

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This trend has a downside that may make not make it a long-term one: Startups count on having enough paying customers to support the free ones.
And purely “free” products make their money another way.
As these pigs can attest.
There is a danger in educators relying on “free forever” products if the company isn’t solvent. It’s only free as long as the company is in business, and that could disrupt classrooms and students in a very bad way if they go under.
Upshot: To appeal to teacher influencers, use freemium. But have a plan to make money, too.

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Fourth development: Student data privacy in the U.S.
Protecting digital student data gathered by edtech products through security, policy, and practice.
Not just edtech, but as consumer apps also enter the classroom .
And pieces of the data persist across 12, or even 20, years of formal education.
Strong trend.

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Big concern – by parents – is that student data isn’t under control of the student, that bad data will be hard to correct and follow students, and student data will be sold for marketing purposes.
Educators see the value in connecting data systems to personalize learning, but the industry has been slow to respond.
It’s only a moderate trend if you go with the edtech industry’s Student Privacy Pledge signed by 150 companies since last fall from the Software and Information Industry and Future of Privacy Forum.
Other organizations are stepping in.
Future of Privacy Forum released a guide to help parents understand student data privacy policies and legal protections, including for kids under 13.
Nonprofit Common Sense Media is setting up a system to rate privacy policies of edtech products used by schools, to be formally announced at the end of this month.
And then there is legislation.

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Several strong laws passed last year, including the key state of California, according to the Data Quality Campaign.

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And this year has released the floodgates of state laws.
Plus there is proposed federal legislation based on a newer law in California that’s now considered a national model.
You don’t want to be on the wrong side of this issue, or ignore it.
This has moved from moderate to strong trend in less than a year.
Upshot: Understand the laws. Put your privacy policy in English. Be specific. Get out in front.

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Fifth development: Edtech investment bubble, especially in the U.S.
Too much investor money chasing too many similar or bad ideas.

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For the first time, edtech globally exceeded two billion dollars in venture investment in 2014, for all levels of education tech.
Figures track from EdSurge, Ambient Insight, and CB Insights.
Even stronger in Q1 2015, according to both EdSurge and Ambient Insight.
It’s still a small amount compared to the investment in a single Uber.
But the pace of increase is attracting stupid money, mostly at seed stage and late stages.
The debate is about whether the bubble is limited to certain segments or is over-inflating all of education technology equally.
And how long it will last.
Upshot: Beware froth. Especially in your venture funded competition that might do stupid things if they get desperate.

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Sixth development: Betting on a single device to dominate, either in one country or globally.
First fad.

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Reality: the cool device always is changing.
In 2010 when it was introduced, it was the iPad. Huge for three years.
In 2013, that began to change. Chromebook first introduced in 2011, began to take off when more companies made them.
Futuresource Consulting, in a March webcast and subsequent interview and report:
iPad sales are leveling off in U.S. and Chromebooks have overtaken them in education;
Chromebooks still picking up, but expected to level off in a year or so;
Chromebooks not a factor outside of North America.
Other reports from IDC and Gartner support elements of this.
Upshot: Device brands, and their closed ecosystems, are fads and will likely change in 3-5 years. Expect something light, inexpensive with at least a 10” screen and keyboard. Don’t lock yourself into a specific brand to run your product.

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Number 7: MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses.
Free classes held online at huge scale that are open to anyone.
Faddish in K-12 and higher education.

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After a burst of success with computer science topics, companies trying to make money from MOOCs have conveniently begun dropping words from the acronym.
Mostly “massive” (limiting enrollment to a specific institution or company) and “open” (by charging to take part or protecting the instructional content).
But it’s faddish, not a complete failure.
While MOOCs haven’t led to higher education’s doom, they are slowly growing in a linear way, not exponential.
Great study of HarvardX and MITx courses over time, explained by Justin Reich.
They’re changing how some in-person instruction is done.
They’ve being used as part of blended courses.
Most important: They’re casting light on the potential of OC, Online Courses.
Upshot: Your product may be part of a blended environment using chunks of what were MOOCs.

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Development number eight: digital Open Badges.
Portable digital graphics with embedded data that represent a skill or achievement and can be easily and securely shared by the earner, then confirmed by an institution or employer, as micro-credentials.
Faddish in K12, slow trend in higher education. But one area of promise for teachers.

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Launched by the Mozilla Foundation, Open Badges have failed to take off in K-12 schools as much more than digital gold stars for motivation during school and for after-school activities.
“Chunking” and “stacking” individual accomplishments into, say, a degree or resume is better understood, for adults.
Open Badges spec 1.1 just released last month; easier to find by search, more data fields.

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Where there is traction in K-12 education is to recognize teacher professional development, due to efforts by schools of education
and organizations like Digital Promise, an education nonprofit created by the U.S. Congress.
Upshot: No K-12 traction in U.S. for students yet. But there is for teacher professional development. Consider Open Badges for educators who master your products, not for students.

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Ninth and final development: In the U.S., the Common Core State Standards.
They cover what K-12 students should know in mathematics and English language arts, and only those two subjects.
Modest but continuing trend.

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The political hot potato is not losing as much ground as the news reports would have you believe. Has dropped from 46 states, when introduced in 2010, to 44 states, five years later (Minnesota half-adopted them).
Even some states that have repealed it – Indiana in particular – kept the standards largely unchanged, and gave them a new name.
The Common Core testing consortia tests have been in far more danger and are an easier target for repeal. The number of states willing to give those tests dropped to about 30 in 2014-2015.

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In this graphic from the National Conference of State Legislatures, green means still onboard with Common Core.
Based on my count, two more states will leave for sure, and two more are considering it.
But that still leaves, likely worst-case, 40 states in the next 3-5 years, plus Washington, D.C.
Or for those who have trouble with math: 80% of U.S. states.
Upshot: By any other name… Common Core is the U.S. education standards environment. Near-term.

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So let’s see how closely you are paying attention
Biggest trends? Biggest fads?

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Since we have a few minutes, I want to go beyond trends and fads, and leave you with five bonus myths about edtech that the industry has to overcome.
These are myths that strike fear into the hearts of teachers and learners, the focus of this year’s conference.
Myths you need to overcome.

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Technology replaces teachers. (No. It changes their role.)

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Tech alone can solve all of education’s problems. (No. Poverty, inequity, parenting are not technology issues.)

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Tech is used the same way in all levels and kinds of education. (Markets in education are very different: K-12, direct to parent, higher ed, lifelong learning, corporate training.)

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Digital materials will replace everything, even if it works now. (No. Paper is cheap, portable, and can reach everyone. Manipulatives are important for motor and other spatial skills.)

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Tech in classrooms is unproven. (No. Computer-based edtech goes at least as far back as 1960 and PLATO, and works when applied intelligently. But it, and expectations for it, keep changing.)

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Technology replaces teachers. (It changes their role.)
Tech alone can solve all of education’s problems. (Poverty, inequity, parenting are not technology issues.)
Tech is used the same way in all levels and kinds of education. (K-12, direct to parent, higher ed, corporate training lifelong learning.)
Digital materials will replace everything, even if it works now. (Paper is cheap, portable, and can reach everyone. Manipulatives are important for motor and other spatial skills.)
Tech in classrooms is unproven. (Computer-based edtech goes at least as far back as 1960 and PLATO, and works when applied intelligently. But it, and expectations for it, keep changing.)