Pads, pods, phones and the peripherals to turn them into full-fledged mobile workspaces: There was a record amount of gee-whiz personal technology on display in the airy atrium of the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center Wednesday, where a small army of venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and cutting-edge thinkers came together to talk about one of Minnesota’s most promising growth industries.
Organized by the nonprofit entrepreneur network TiE Minnesota, EduTech 2011 was an attempt to draw attention to Minnesota’s blossoming $1 billion educational technology industry. Ranging from the publicly traded Capella University to small shops, all but one of the 15 companies present are Minnesota businesses.
They develop assessments and apps, create virtual classrooms or high-tech tools for the bricks-and-mortar kind, and are in R&D on serious space-age stuff — eyeglasses that train kids with ADD or autism to attend to their teachers, anyone?
All very cool and worth some serious scratch as schools scramble for anything that will help student and teacher performance, but not necessarily the wave of the future, according to keynote speaker Thomas Jandris, whose deep CV includes teaching and educational administration, technology entrepreneurship and national-level education policy consulting.
If they really want to turn the Twin Cities into an ed-tech boomtown, those in attendance would do well to focus on “disruptive innovation,” the ways in which technology can unexpectedly open up markets or opportunities not yet contemplated.
“For years, ed tech has catered to the payer, has sold them tools,” he said. “Now, you must pay more attention to the end user — the student — than to the payer. And this takes some stomach for risk.”
By way of example, Jandris told a story about an instructor at Concordia University Chicago, where Jandris is vice president for innovation and Graduate College dean. Using screen-capturing software called Camtasia Studios, the professor in question uploads her lectures to iTunes. Students watch them on their own time, freeing up class time for working collaboratively on problems with their instructor.
The technology’s existence allowed the professor to augment an experience that was essentially passive for students, a lecture, with dynamic learning time, noted Jandris. When end users get such a clear return, the people ed-tech entrepreneurs are used to thinking of as their market, the “payers,” will invest.
When it comes to technology, he added, educators need to think more like entrepreneurs. Specifically, Jandris said, they need to stop viewing computers as “tool and topic devices”: tools for delivering the same content as always, and the topic of instruction, as in “we’re going to teach you computer programming.”
Pre-K through higher ed, educators have spent $60 billion on computers alone in the last five years, said Jandris. There is now one computer for every four students, as opposed to one for every 125 in 1981.
Yet U.S. fifth graders use in-school computers an average of 24 minutes a week. Eighth-graders get 38 minutes a week.
“That was money well spent, huh?” Jandris asked. “Most computers in schools are used to support old-paradigm activities.”
Better, he said, to focus on the ways in which technology can break apart existing structures and institutions.
The term disruptive innovation is not new to many education policymakers, who have interpreted the concept in a parallel, but different, fashion. Indeed, the 3-year-old book “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns,” argues that technology’s biggest boon may be its potential for customizing instruction to individual students.
(An aside: You know those growth-model tests we keep hearing about? The ones that, administered at a minimum in spring and fall, say whether a student got a year’s instruction in a year? Kids take them on computers. As they get things right, the computer spits out tougher questions. As they miss questions, it can serve up others that pinpoint skills gaps. Et voila — not just proficiency, but a snapshot of an actual pupil.)
Another example: Many online learning systems were originally set up for behaviorally challenged kids who could not learn in a regular classroom, Jandris noted. That’s had mixed results, but the technology has proven a godsend for lots of school systems that use it to provide advanced coursework to gifted kids whose schools can’t afford traditional “differentiated instruction.”
“We have just barely scratched the surface,” he said. “Computers have the potential to allow students to learn the way their brains are wired.
“If there is no disruption,” he concluded, “there’s no innovation.”
Did the message take? Stay tuned. TiE Minnesota plans to make the forum an annual event.