The Future of Edtech is Simpler, Not More Complex

Entrepreneurs, investors and decision-makers: take note, says an industry veteran.

GUEST COLUMN | by Al Kingsley

Edtech can be a confusing, fluid, complicated marketplace.

It’s complicated not just because teaching and learning are science, art, empathy and alchemy smushed together or because many of the tools we’re building are quite complex.

Those are both true, but it’s also confusing and complicated because the processes we use, with long approval and evaluation times are simply not well suited pairing innovator and engineer with practitioner and targeted outcome. Long sales cycles and lead times and the labyrinth of government contracting requirements make all those factors worse – like putting a pretzel inside a chicken pot pie. It seems like an odd thing to do and you’re never sure exactly what you’re eating or why.

As a consequence, many education technology tools and solutions and inventions never find their intended audiences. They linger, rust and fade away – wasting intellectual as well as actual capital.

‘…many education technology tools and solutions and inventions never find their intended audiences.’

Interestingly, I don’t think that is such a bad thing. Not all edtech solutions hatched by our industry are really necessary and some make no sense at all. Not every idea needs acceptance, especially in education. By and large, many of us in this industry have been slow to learn the rule that just because something can be solved does not mean it needs to be. And far too many are unaware of the indirect or downstream problems that can be created by “solving” what we in the industry perceive as a problem.

But Why?

We can’t help ourselves. We do tend to want to tackle big, persistent and consequential challenges. And we also tend to want to tackle them with powerful, complex solutions. That makes it easy to forget that – as with most complex systems – the more intricate the problems and solutions are, the more that the simple things matter. In other words, in confusing and interwoven situations, simple often wins.

Which is why I, after more than 30 years in education technology, have come to believe that the near term future of edtech solutions is in their ease and simplicity, not in their power or sophistication. Solutions and tools that are easy to understand, simple to operate and that actually work dominate the market now and will continue to do far into the future. Those solutions that require little to no development, training or new hardware or systems will find eager audiences.

‘…the near term future of edtech solutions is in their ease and simplicity, not in their power or sophistication.’

Case in Point

Take the ubiquitous LMS as an example. It’s essential but it’s complicated. The LMS is a powerful tool but the market likely can’t support another one, even if it’s marginally better. Our schools are having a difficult enough time keeping up with the ones they already have to choose from. Rather than building new, we need to make the existing ones easier to use and less overwhelming to teachers.

New curriculum, same thing. Even if the new curriculum truly improves upon content or modality or accountability or assessment, it will require training and iteration. That makes it a complicated product in a complex environment and the decision to adopt requires significant consideration. The activation energy required to move from good or good enough to better can sometimes be too high to justify.

Innovation, Realism, and the End User

I’m not against tech innovation. I couldn’t possibly be since I am the CEO of a company that develops edtech. However, I’m also a realist with over 30 years in this industry. I’ve been on other side of the fence, making decisions about which technology to adopt for the schools we built in my community.

Given that experience, my point is that there are great, relatively new assessment technologies in the pipeline, but unless they fit with the tech already in use and unless we can deploy them without additional training, machinery, and policies, it’s difficult to imagine them finding any significant traction in the classroom.

Think about our end user. Teachers have little time and many rarely see technology training as a necessity nor was it core to their initial teacher training. Training on pedagogy and teaching techniques rightly focuses not on the actual tech itself. It’s like TPAC without the T. We have become a population of tinkerers. We tinker with new software until we figure it out and if we don’t know the answer, we expect there to be a robust help menu with super short videos and quick answers in an online community.

You know what’s quick and easy? TikTok. It’s fast, intuitive and powerful. It requires neither support nor training and its usage has been immense and the speed of adoption blazing. You could even argue – and you’d probably be right – that TikTok does not solve a problem. There’s no obvious market need for it, especially in a classroom. But it’s easy and fun and requires no training. My point is that easy and fun are highly related to TikTok’s success.

The Path to Success

As I see it, the opportunities for developing new education technology are in products that are fast, nimble and easy. Big and powerful solutions addressing systemic change are facing an uphill battle. And again, I’m not saying those are not important. I am saying that the system we have today – made exponentially more weary by Covid fatigue – doesn’t have room for them.

Entrepreneurs, investors and decision-makers should take note that their path to success in the education market is paved with easy, plug and play, incremental change.

‘…their path to success in the education market is paved with easy, plug and play, incremental change.’

They’d do well to, for example, not develop new security and privacy platforms for remote and online learning – even though we always need them. Instead, they’d find better results by focusing on making the existing tools work better by improving how they turn on and off or making their methods easier for parents and educators to understand.

Education has always been complicated and opaque, which we mostly understand and accept. Adding technologies and corporate interests to the mix doesn’t make it easier to understand or navigate.

And the market we find ourselves in right now is stressed and overloaded, on top of already being complex and meandering. If any among us are going to continue to succeed in it, we should do ourselves – and our schools and teachers, students and parents – a favor by not complicating it further. Be small, be fast, be easy. That’s the kind change we need most right now.

Al Kingsley is CEO of NetSupport. In his newly released book, My Secret #EdTech Diary, he shares technology’s potential to improve our schools for students and educators. It’s also a look at pre- and post-Covid edtech, offering practical advice and insights. Published by John Catt Educational, find it on Amazon.

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