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Want ed-tech boom? Go for ‘disruptive innovation,’ Thomas Jandris says

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.

Thomas Jandris
Thomas Jandris

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.

Riskier proposition
“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.

Customizing instruction
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.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/07/2011 - 08:35 am.

    “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 Cantasia Studios (SP), 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.”

    Holy crap, I’ve been doing this for years. I guess I should have been the one interviewed for this story.

    Seriously, Mr. Jandris. This is not new. The University of Minnesota does this as well.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 10/07/2011 - 09:58 am.

    I’ve read about instances of instructors using the technique Jandris mentioned for a couple of years now, and usually in reference to classes that took place some time before the article itself was written, so – in a very rare instance of agreement – I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Tester. This is not really all that new, though it’s not a mainstream technique at this point, and perhaps that’s what Jandris is driving at.

    Be that as it may, I look forward to Beth interviewing Mr. Tester for an article on something education-related…

  3. Submitted by scott gibson on 10/07/2011 - 02:30 pm.

    Many schools are already putting their lessons (such as ‘smartboard’ lessons) on the internet so students can access them after the fact. They are not put there as the only means of obtaining the lesson. They are an additional resource for absent students or those who wish to revisit the lesson later. The instructor’s act of shuttling the lecture onto itunes, only, seems an admission of its secondary importance. Maybe the lecture shouldn’t exist in the first place.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 10/07/2011 - 08:59 pm.


    While it’s true that the recorded presentations can be revisited again and again, the real instructional design strategy is to put remedial or prerequisite lessons online so the time in the classroom can be spent as more of a lab, taking better advantage of the instructor’s face-time with very few student questions on fundamentals and more on actual application of the new knowledge.

    With the addition of social networking, like blogs and chat rooms, instructors are finding that student interaction isn’t limited to their time in class but carried on after class, perhaps even for several hours into the night.

    Compare that model to the traditional 45-minute lecture where everyone takes copious notes, gets a reading assignment at the end of the hour and comes back in a few days to be quizzed on it.

  5. Submitted by Randall Ryder on 10/08/2011 - 11:29 am.

    I was involved in a four year Federal grant examining the effect of computers on learning with a focus on applications of technology which would be “disruptive.” Bottom line, no significant differences in learning regardless of whether the students were in suburban, rural or urban districts. No effects whether students were in private schools or whether students were high or low achievers. We need to flip the instructional paradigm then figure how to best use technology.

  6. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 10/08/2011 - 10:19 pm.

    It’s nice that some of the pushers of new educational technology are Minnesota-based companies, but it would be even nicer if there were some more solid evidence that what they are pushing really works and would really be affordable for our public schools.

    As a foreign-language instructor, I have seen a lot of high-tech innovations come and go. For example, about 10 years ago I was shown a newly wired “language lab” with about 16 cubicles that would empower me, the teacher, to put students into different pairs or groups by clicking on a screen. That seemed to me a wonderful waste of money, since every language teacher knows that it is possible for students simply to get up from their chairs and form pairs or groups by moving their bodies. (By the way, I don’t know how it is in other subjects, but in foreign-language classrooms, the “lecture model” died out a long time ago, and giving students texts to read for homework and activities to do themselves in class on the following day is a long-established practice.)

    Not all high-tech innovations are wasteful. I admit that “Rosetta Stone” software is engaging and fun to use for language learning, at least at the beginning level. However, my experience has made me highly skeptical of high-tech solutions to the eternal problem of motivating students to learn. Either the technology will not work as promised, or it will frequently break down (as “Rosetta Stone” may unless you have a very well-maintained network), or it will not be cheap (and these three possibilities are not mutually exclusive). For example, I don’t imagine it would be cheap to provide every student with a personal computer, rather than only one in four, but if all students are to be expected to watch their teacher on DVD prior to every classroom meeting, that will immediately become a necessary expense.

    The proposal to “pay more attention to the end user – the student – than to the payer” seems to me yet another strategy to exclude teachers from the discussion. Whereas formerly these hucksters avoided skeptical teachers by marketing their dubious products to “the payers,” that is, gullible school administrators, in the future, apparently, they will appeal directly to schoolkids, who may not actually have any idea what will help them learn, but who do have a strong sense of what is “fun.” Presumably appealing directly to these “end users” will be a “riskier proposition” because their sense of what is “fun” is likely to change as quickly as any other fad. Still, it seems to me that if technological innovation in education is going to be faddish, and my experience suggests that it always will be, the buyers are taking a bigger risk than the sellers. As I say, I have seen technologies come and go. They may succeed or they may fail to help young people learn, but in either case, the tech company profits. Do the learners benefit? Who knows?

    I am most particularly unimpressed with technology that has “proven a godsend” for gifted kids. Engaging gifted children with clever, high-tech toys is like catching fish out of a barrel. The really difficult and worthwhile thing would be to invent a machine that actually helps a child who is learning-disabled, or whose parents don’t speak English, don’t have a college education, or don’t have enough disposable income to buy a personal computer for each child. I have yet to discover a machine that does that. Maybe somebody has invented one that does, but I would advise waiting for some evidence to prove it before making any major new investment.

    Finally, I cannot help but see, lurking behind all this blind faith in the next great technological fix, the not-so secret desire to save money by replacing flesh-and-blood teachers, and their troublesome unions, with machines. Really, I can’t imagine any other way in which perpetual high-tech “disruptive innovation” in our schools could be cost-effective.

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