Bill Gates recently shocked a lot of people when he told a room full of educational technology entrepreneurs at the ASU GSV conference in San Diego that educational technology hasn’t really improved student learning. This was a blockbuster confession from the man behind Microsoft. While Gates said he still thought technology could be a difference-maker in schooling, his words offered a stark reality check for those hyping technology-infused innovation.
In truth, Gates’s observation should not have surprised anyone who has been paying attention. After all, technology has long been offered as the miraculous balm that will transform and improve teaching and learning. Enthusiasts have said this about iPads, laptops, the Internet, desktop computers, videotapes, televisions, the radio . . . and even chalkboards, if you go back far enough. With each new advance, schools spend heavily on nifty new gizmos, make grand promises, and get enthusiastic reviews. And then, each time, nothing much changes.
Unfortunately, most technology in schooling has involved haphazard attempts to slather new devices across classrooms, with little vision of how or why these will make a difference.
This is less remarkable than it seems. In any sector, the transformative adoption of new technology is usually driven by new ventures that get to start from scratch and build their values and vision with a tight focus. For older and more bureaucratic organizations, whether they’re school districts or big companies, this is much harder to do—because they’re forced to integrate technology around existing cultures, contracts, job descriptions, and policies.
That’s why, across broad swaths of American life, it’s on entrepreneurs to pilot new solutions. Of course, given the size and scope of American schooling, with more than 50 million children enrolled in 100,000 schools across 14,000 school districts, talk of entrepreneurial solutions can feel unsatisfying. Even remarkable successes—like the 183 KIPP charter schools, which educate more than 70,000 predominately low-income students and graduate them from college at five times the rate of low-income students nationally—can seem piecemeal to those hungry for solutions “at scale.”
Unfortunately, the truth is that new solutions are hard to figure out, and even harder to put into practice. That’s especially true in schooling, given the complications of young minds and the inexorable human complexity of schools. That’s where entrepreneurship matters. If we want entrepreneurs who will help transform schooling, and not just peddle overhyped technology to gullible superintendents, there are some lessons worth heeding.
Don’t look for the “next big thing.” Not a year goes by that a new TED-talking, world-saving entrepreneur is held up as the savior of American education. While their spiel is thrilling, their results disappoint. Rather than search for silver bullets, the focus should be on practical solutions to important problems—like how to help teachers communicate with parents or to offer more targeted tutoring to students who need it—rather than TED-friendly grand solutions.
Entrepreneurialism entails risk. Most fields of human endeavor improve slowly and in fits and starts. Look at the world of business. Only 61 companies listed in the Fortune 500 in 1955 are still on it today. But those ventures that thrive, and the lessons learned along the way, have profound impacts on our lives and improve the world for all of us. In schooling, of course, uncertainty and failure are toxic phrases because these are children we’re talking about, but it’s important to keep risk in context. Disruption has real consequences, but it can be worth it if the resulting benefits are large enough.
Small is okay. A common question in education is: “Does it scale?” That is, can the high-performing charter school open 50 campuses across the country? Can the new teacher preparation program prepare 1,000 teachers per year? Given the scope of the challenges, these are natural questions. But it’s vital to keep in mind that solving a small problem is still a big deal. When dealing with children across a sprawling and diverse nation, a lot of effective solutions may turn out to be personal and fine-grained. Small solutions are good. A lot of small solutions is even better.
Do it with, not to. For far too many communities, education reform has felt like something done to them, not with them. New schools and tools work best when co-designed with users, not simply parachuted from on high. It should not be surprising that some of the most promising and popular technology innovations out there today—including names like ClassDojo, LearnZillion, and BetterLesson—were created in partnership with educators and designed to help them solve pressing problems.
Education technology won’t answer Gates’s challenge if we keep waiting on more of the same—on school systems to cram fancy new equipment into place and magically deliver better results. Doing better will require savvy entrepreneurs to lead the way, and that requires giving them room to run.