On a Mission to Simplify Edtech

Keith Westman on student interest, engagement, performance, and growth.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

A lifelong educator, Keith Westman has spent his entire professional career working in K-12 education and education-related fields.

Keith has served as Otus’ Chief Operating Officer since 2015. He works across a wide range of internal and external efforts at Otus, using his diversity of education experience to propel the company forward and create the best possible platform for schools and students.

After serving as a middle school principal, a technology coordinator, and a third-grade teacher, Keith became the fourth employee of Aspex Solutions (acquired by Frontline Education in 2014) and led the sales and marketing efforts which led to Aspex serving over 3,000 school district clients throughout the U.S., Canada, and Asia.

Keith has a doctorate in curriculum and instruction from Loyola University Chicago, a master’s degree in education from DePaul University, and a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from National-Louis University. In addition to his day job, he serves as an adjunct professor in the Graduate College of Education at DePaul University in Chicago. He also enjoys playing guitar, cheering on the Cubs—and spending time with his family.

You’re a former 3rd grade teacher and middle school principal turned technologist. In fact, most of Otus’ employees are former educators. How does that experience in the classroom inform the technology your team is building? What’s more important in developing and delivering edtech solutions—being the next Steve Jobs or the U.S. Secretary of Education?

There is really nothing like being a teacher. Unlike other jobs where a person has a general focus to their job responsibilities, teachers wear many hats: teacher, therapist, referee, counselor, mentor, nurse—the list goes on. And, by the way, you are doing this for dozens of different students. My classroom experience taught me how to think on my feet, make decisions, and manage my time like no other experience I have had in my professional life. As a technologist, specifically when it comes to edtech, I think it should be required that every company that provides classroom edtech must have folks at the company who have taught. It is so easy for vendors to say, “all you need to do is click this button.”  

“All you need to do” is really not that easy when you have 50 eyeballs staring at you waiting for you to be there for them as their teacher.

As for it being more important to be the next Steve Jobs or the U.S. Secretary of Education in order to develop and deliver edtech solutions, my answer is hopefully neither. I can’t relate to Steve Jobs or the Secretary of Education. For my job as COO of Otus, I always think about how my Auntie Diane–who taught middle school for 34 years and never used technology–would use Otus. I want Otus to resonate not just with the “tech-y” teachers–I want Otus to resonate with all teachers.

There’s an endless array of edtech tools designed to help educators, students and parents, but many can actually making things harder, not easier. How do you ensure you’re building technology that helps rather than hurts the cause of empowering students, teachers and the full school community to learn and do better?

There are lots of ways that we ensure we are solving the right problems for teachers, many of which are not unique to Otus. We conduct user interviews and spend lots of time listening to product feedback. Every edtech vendor probably does those things. What makes us unique is that we provide direct support to every adult user of Otus. Every single administrator, every single teacher, and every single parent. In doing that, we are able to really understand not only how Otus is being used, but how people want to use it. Most importantly, two of our cofounders still work in schools that use Otus. So, when things don’t work well, they will get an earful once they walk into the teacher’s lounge. And, if anyone wants to know what teachers really think about things, walk into the lounge during lunch!

What’s the right balance between “tech and teaching?” How do you ensure that technology in the classroom isn’t a distraction but a tool for learning and empowering critical thinking?

I don’t believe there is a formula for effective teaching. Yes, there are proven instructional strategies that work, but, the implementation of those ideas can vary from teacher to teacher. What I have never seen is any independent study that links the explicit use of technology to student growth. Student growth will always be the result of many factors, with technology being one of those factors. That being said, if technology is being used in a way that helps teachers be more efficient and better able to understand the cognitive, social-emotional, and physical well being of their students, it seems like it’s not a distraction. But, when students are using technology simply because it looks good on Twitter or it is “fun,” for example, I would argue that it is a distraction.

Most parents today are familiar with the traditional report cards they grew up with, or the A-F/100-point system, but in the evolving standards-based learning settings, with more data than ever at our fingertips, educators can report on student progress in revolutionary ways, almost in real-time. How do you help parents embrace this relatively new method of measurement?

When I was a teacher and principal, parents would contact me with issues mostly when they didn’t know the full story. Their child would come home, share information with the parent that would confuse the parent, and then the parent would contact me. Most times, when the parent was given context and more information, the issue would be resolved. In thinking about Otus, all we are trying to do is give parents information about their child in a way that helps them understand their child’s progress in school. As for initiatives like standards-based grading, which are new to most parents, we believe that parents are ok with change, again, as long as they have some context. And, technology can often provide that context.

What about teachers and administrators? You’ve been in both roles in your career. Educators’ time and resources are maxed at seemingly all-time highs. How do you motivate them to take on yet another new technology tool and approach given what you’ve called “one more thing” fatigue?”

Having been in both roles, there is one thing I know for sure: schools have too many initiatives happening at the same time. Administrators can be very good at bringing in new ideas to teachers and having very considerate teachers who are willing to try new things and attempt to bring those ideas to life. The problem occurs when administrators don’t “weed the garden before planting.” When the district shifts direction mid-initiative or when the initiative is no longer a priority, teachers become buried and resist the next new idea. If you want to motivate teachers to take on another initiative, a) remove something from their plate, and b) be sure that teachers know the instructional reason for the new technology. If a teacher is being asked to use [insert edtech tool] just for the sake of using it and without knowing how it will help them help their students, speaking as an edtech vendor, I would encourage them to push back on that administrator and find out the “why.” Find out the reason that you are being asked to implement this tool.

From your perspective, what is technology’s role in education? 

I think that the role of technology in education should be no different than the role of technology in any other sector or, for that matter, in life. It should help people be more productive, more connected, and more informed. One of the biggest misconceptions is that technology must be used for a teacher to be effective. If technology helps school communities be more productive, connected, and informed, awesome. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t need to be there.

Broadly now, what is the state of education today? 

I think it all depends on where you live. Unfortunately, the zip code a child resides in seems to be the biggest predictor of success. So, wealthy communities may have a different answer than less wealthy communities. I would like to see all students receive the resources they need in order to achieve their personal best regardless of the zip code in which they reside.

What’s on the horizon for edtech? What are trends in emerging tech, and what concerns do you have for these?

At some point, if we stay on the current trajectory, edtech will eat itself. Meaning, there are literally thousands of edtech products that claim to be a silver bullet but that aren’t. If teachers are continually being asked to try new technologies that aren’t helpful to them, they will stop trying new technologies–and rightfully so. As far as trends go, I am a bit concerned at how technology vendors are debasing the personalized learning movement. Personalized learning happens when human teachers know how to best support the learning of human students. Often times, I see pictures on social media where students are “doing personalized learning” but are sitting on the floor with headphones on looking at a computer screen. That’s a concern to me because I am not sure of many jobs where that type of isolated work environment is tolerable.

Anything else you care to add or emphasize concerning edtech, the future of education, and/or the future of Otus?

Otus is committed to being an “untech” edtech company. We are simply trying to help teachers be more efficient and more productive by putting many different types of tools on a single platform. It benefits everyone. As much as we can do to help teachers be more efficient and more able to “be there” for their students, the better!

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com


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