Silicon Valley’s EdTech Problem

Why “moonshot thinking” is hurting America’s most vulnerable students

Technology has been hailed repeatedly as the savior of the American education system. This unbridled faith that technology has the power to supplant traditional methods of teaching and learning is completely unfounded, but has continued to persist throughout the 21st century. As Stanford education professor Larry Cuban puts it, American culture has “a love affair with technology as the elixir of everlasting improvement in all things personal and institutional.” In the 1930s it was radio that would revolutionize education, in the 1950s television, and starting in the 1980s, it was computers. Today, edtech is reaching unprecedented heights; venture capitalists are investing billions into edtech software and schools around the country are pouring money into making their classrooms “smart” and “wired.”

Yet one could take a teacher from over 300 years ago and put them in a modern classroom, and not much would have changed. The way teachers convey information to students in groups, the manner in which a classroom is organized, or the way students are trained and assessed has largely remained the same. Most recently, the Los Angeles Unified School District spent $1.3 billion to provide every student with an iPad, equipped with an application from the textbook company Pearson that contained a specialized curriculum and interactive learning material. Plagued by technical difficulties and unforeseen issues such as the lack of material for students not proficient in English, the plan was a complete failure. Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million investment in the Newark, New Jersey school system basically disappeared. Recently, Khan Academy founder Salman Khan has started a lab school for the children of tech’s elite that aims to replace traditional education with video-based learning. VC firm Andreessen Horowitz participated in the $33 million Series A for AltSchool, a software-driven private school that is aiming to revolutionize primary education. All in all, Silicon Valley has either taken huge risks in implementing massive edtech programs in America’s most vulnerable public schools or has tailored their programs to America’s most privileged students. The large number of students in the middle have simply been left behind and those who are struggling the most have become a lab or sorts for technologists to tinker with. This is unacceptable.

Despite historic troubles with mass implementation and the recent failures of revolutionary edtech, there is no doubt that technology has had many positive impacts on the education system today. It has made access to information far easier for both students and teachers. It has automated processes like certain types of grading and taking attendance. Videos and animations have helped to supplement in-classroom learning, and websites such as Khan Academy or Quizlet have helped students reinforce certain concepts outside the classroom. Today, we are closer than ever before to seeing big changes in education as a result of technology. Adaptive learning software has made it possible for students to learn at their own pace and receive specially tailored training and feedback. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), most notably websites like Coursera and EdX, have made free, high-quality education accessible for millions of people around the world.

But all in all, technology has not revolutionized education just yet. Rather, the role of technology in education has been a slow, but steady evolution. It has always been the culture of Silicon Valley to encourage “moonshot thinking” and to disrupt existing practices and institutions. But the truth is, teaching and learning are practices that can never be disrupted by technology because the purpose of a teacher and a school will never change; nurturing curiosity, a love of learning, and a sense of purpose in students will always be the essential functions of our education system. Thus, edtech must focus not on replacing the institution of the K-12 American education system, but on making small and actionable improvements to the existing model, both in and out of the classroom. Taking enormous risks with technology, such as the examples from the LA and Newark school districts, only hurts students and their families, often times those who are most vulnerable. EdTech should not be a tool for profit and revolution, but a lever for fixing the most pressing problem in American K-12 education, which is closing the achievement gap and providing high-quality educational opportunities and resources to America’s most underserved youth.

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