Teachers and Technology, who is thinking about the consumer?

In Education Technology, the consumer must be both the starting point and the ending point, a partner in the process to be able to reap the joys of enhanced learning

Meeta Sengupta
Updated: May 9, 2013 12:37:44 PM UTC

Meeta Sengupta works at the cusp of policy and practice across the education and skills spectrum and enjoys sharing her gleanings via her writing for a wider audience. She has been an investment banker, a researcher, an editor, a teacher and school leader across continents. A keen observer of how economics, foreign policy and investments affect the policy and thence practice of education, she works with leaders to design interventions that improve the quality and process of education. Designing education processes to realise the potential of individual students is at the centre of her education philosophy. Meeta has worked both as a policy observer, and at the coalface of education across the board and across countries. She has served as a governor of an aided school, part of the management committee of a residential school, managed an academic centre in an elite post graduate management school and led a business school supported by a community college. She has worked with children, teenagers, business school and PhD candidates and has also worked with those seeking to rebuild their lives via education. Meeta W Sengupta is a Fellow of the Salzburg Global Seminar, among others and can be contacted via her personal blog at meetawsengupta.wordpress.com/about

One of the first real insights into marketing that I credit my professors with was the concept of need. A gap in the market does not define the need for a new product, however interesting and attractive it may seem to those of us with bright ideas. A market for a product exists only when the need for it is felt so much that it becomes a pain point, which is when people will fish for their wallets, even dig deep to pay for it. Till you have a paying public, you do not have a market.

Somebody tell this to those who design technology for education. Please.

Education technology products, barring a few exceptions, have been designed and created by bright teams that seek to solve perceived needs. And then try to ‘train’ the users in making the most of their products. Naturally, both sides are frustrated.

Teachers and administrators are annoyed at being asked to work extra hard to try to figure out a system that is alien to them and comes with promises of making their life easier only to complicate it further. An analogy: Have you ever worked on an quantitative analysis done in say, excel, by somebody else? How easy is it to navigate through some other person’s logic? Unless there is a standard template it is virtually impossible to work through another person’s processes with ease. The only way around it is to be a part of the initial thinking and process.

Educational users see many hurdles on the path to using the technology that is offered to them. First they have to learn how to access the system, then how to use the highly codified processes and then they have to troubleshoot when things go wrong, as they invariably do, and then they must maintain and update the system with or without specialist external help. To many this sounds like way too much work. This certainly does not qualify for the ‘technology will make your life easier’ badge in their books.

Let us take the example of a medium sized school, as middle of the road as you can imagine. The teacher in charge of a class has around forty students to look after. She had an attendance register that was marked manually. Her major investment of time in this process was writing out the forty names on the left - once or twice in the year. In class, it would take about three (rarely five) minutes to call out the names, mark as she went along and tally the absentees. Her job done, she could send the register down to some administrator who would compile records for the school. In the process, she had the chance to notice the body language and tone of each child in the class, and to respond to it or not in the 35 minutes now available for pastoral or academic conversation. A caring teacher knew her students, their academic and personal challenges and facilitated their growth.

Now, this teacher has been encouraged to use an LMS - a learner management system. A computer sits in the classroom that takes about 2-3 minutes to boot up. In the time it took for attendance to be taken manually, the e-file has barely been opened. And so on.. the tedium of data entry starts with attendance, goes on to marks in tests. Errors and changes add to the confusion. This is for regular tasks, not for teaching yet. Clearly many thousands of teachers see this as an unnecessary burden that is time consuming and resource intensive. The benefits are clear to those of us sitting in judgement above - better recordkeeping, a history of achievement for each child available at the click of (quite a few) button(s), safety and privacy of records (ahem) and a database that helps a school evaluate its own performance.

Of course technology has a role to play in enhancing the educational experience for both teachers and students. Even parents can benefit - for example with the app that sends a message to parents informing them of the status of the school bus their ward is scheduled to use. And yet we see that few schools and teachers evangelise the use of technology in the classroom. They may speak of specific brand names because they have become familiar with them - not necessarily because the technology has enabled them to become better teachers. It is still an outsider in the pedagogical process.

While technology is touted as the solution to the problems of access, of standardisation, of quality delivery and of governance, it is also true that nowhere has technology proved to be a perfect substitute for a teacher. Definitely not a substitute for a good teacher. I have seen technology make the work of a teacher easier, when they have materials to hand on the move, when they can replicate successful lessons and activities, when they can email materials out to their students, when they can run class discussions remotely via twitter. It is also true that students can create and share learning materials, have rich discussions and access information that would be tedious, time consuming and costly in the pre-internet age.

There is no doubt that technology for education serves the efficiency argument. There is also no doubt that a good education is not necessarily an efficient education.. much that seems wasteful is necessary to allow growth of the student. The point of technology is to nudge learning in specific directions, to measure progress and to use the benefits of efficiency to release resources for value addition. But for this to happen, the teacher and the learner have to be at the center and origin of this spiral. The need, and thence the design of the edutech product has to come from a gap in the learning process.

A moment when the teacher says - ‘If only I had a tool to...’ or the student says, ‘If I could do it this other way....’ -- that is a felt need that should be at the core of all education technology design. Not a designer presenting to their team - they can only imagine what may or may not be felt. Design that originates from clear felt need and engages the learners will never be trapped in hurdles or training at all. Good design seems to organically grow out of the process fitting in almost invisibly, enhancing potential. For example: spectacles. Excellent education technology that improves access to learning fusing naturally within the process, requiring little by way of ‘how to use spectacles in the classroom’ training. (Yes, technology is not necessarily driven by electronics, electricity or the internet).

Then, why are MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) so popular? Are they not driven externally? They have been berated by many educationists as being less interactive than teaching should be, for having little or no pastoral or contextual elements to the learning, for being manipulated into a cheap substitute for real teaching etc. These miss the point. MOOCs are valuable precisely because they put the learner at the center of the process. Technology gives the learner choice of two things: 1. What they want to learn (and how much they want to learn, it is barely tested, dropping out is easy, as is joining again in the next cycle) 2. Who they want to learn with - the secret sauce to a successful MOOC is the peer learning network. Which puts the learner firmly in charge of choosing and using the technologies - email, google hangouts, skype calls, chat rooms, open libraries etc.

In Education Technology, as with all successful products, the design has to start and end with the people who will use it - the consumer must be both the starting point and the ending point, a partner in the process to be able to reap the joys of enhanced learning.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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