Earlier this month, EdWeek released an excellent future predictions piece with Sal Khan and Jessie Woolley-Wilson on Marketbrief. Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, is a thought leader I admire for identifying gaps in the ed-tech sector that nonprofits like his can creatively fill. Woolley-Wilson, currently the CEO of DreamBox, lends the perspective of having led multiple for-profit instruction and assessment platforms.

In their predictions for the decade ahead, the two focused on the greatest challenges facing educators and how ed-tech companies will need to pivot to meet those challenges. I appreciate that the piece is framed this way; the ed-tech sector has been consumed with the latest and greatest technology to wow students, but the needs of educators, administrators, and school districts have been largely ignored.

The themes in the article are all areas the Ed-Fi Community has been focused on for years. Spoiler: It is revealed at the end of the article that interoperability is the most critical challenge the ed-tech sector will need to tackle in the decade ahead.

The Rise of Formative Assessments

“‘Testing will become continuous,’” Khan predicts in the Marketbrief piece. “Learners will experience ‘true progress monitoring,’ as they interact with the platforms where they get their practice, take assessments and get feedback.’” As with blended and personalized learning, this more holistic approach to measuring student success screams data interoperability. Continuous testing means continuous data collection, and “progress monitoring” requires real-time, interoperable insights.

Female educator in front of a classroom holding a tablet

While each ed-tech platform develops more advanced reporting tools and even predictive analytics, the data they collect won’t even be able to supplement, let alone replace, summative assessments unless it can flow between platforms and band together (standardize) to produce all of the information required for district, state, and federal reporting.

Educators, administrators, and state education agencies need to know how students are performing in myriad ways, both for reporting purposes and to do their jobs well. And benchmarking will always be required to define how we as a nation measure educational “success”. Exporting reports from each individual ed-tech platform in a school and manually piecing that puzzle together, with data getting recorded differently in each platform, simply won’t cut it as the sector advances toward more accurate, ongoing measures of student progress.

Ed-Tech Tools Will Be Designed for Teachers, Not Solely for Students

Full disclaimer: I’ve given this section of the Marketbrief article my own, slightly stronger title. Sal and Jessie do call out that to date, ed-tech tools have been designed with the student as the primary end-user in mind. Proof of this problem lies in the fact that teachers aren’t always using the ed-tech tools they have access to.

Though it’s important to call out that many tools are purchased at the district level when they’re really intended for specific schools because it’s more affordable—therefore they appear to be underutilized—a 2018 report from BrightBytes found that the majority of app licenses purchased by school districts were never used. And another study by LearnTrials found that 65 percent of licenses were never or rarely used by students. This isn’t surprising, because ed-tech has been asking teachers to learn and promote all kinds of platforms and apps that are designed for their students, or administrators, but not for them.

User experience within these platforms and tools is, of course, important, but what about the analytics? To build tools that serve teachers as well as students, the data has to be standardized and fully interoperable. When it is, teachers are empowered with insights they can, and will, use every day. The bottom line: If ed-tech’s mission is to improve education, technology providers need to do their part to get our educators out of spreadsheets. And that means interoperable tools.

Mid adult professor teaching a lecture from desktop PC at computer lab

Ed-tech tools also need to be built with administrators and school districts in mind. Right now, there’s a vast disconnect. While the ed-tech sector booms, school district budgets are stretched. On average, around 85% of a school district’s budget is dedicated to personnel costs, so that doesn’t leave much discretionary spending to invest in shiny, new technology. And given the nature of public purchasing, technology contracts are long-term, so even if a district has the money for something new, they’re likely married to the tech tools they’ve already got.

For ed-tech companies to be both impactful and profitable, they need to consider the school district’s entire ecosystem of tools, to inspire learning and support the craft of teaching. School districts need and deserve tools that are easy for their educators to use, tools that will work with any and all of their other systems—even if they are in direct competition. Not a new idea, this is the idea of “coopetition” and it happens in other sectors; ed-tech companies must cooperate better in order to compete better.

The #1 Challenge Facing the Ed-Tech Industry This Decade is (Drumroll, Please…) Interoperability 

The Marketbrief piece wraps up by calling out interoperability as the key challenge causing the most confusion and inefficiency in the sector today.

Khan himself is looking at how he can integrate his learning platform with school districts’ systems “so they can provide support to schools directly in working with their students.” (We’ll save the technical and philosophical differences between “integration” and “interoperability” for another day, because that’s an article of its own…)

Directly related to interoperability, Khan calls out data privacy shortcomings in ed-tech, which will likely suffer some missteps before companies and school systems get serious about interoperability. One problem is the way the sector is viewing privacy, security, and interoperability as three separate issues. Rather, education agencies achieve better privacy and security through interoperability.

The good news is—I realized while reading this Marketbrief piece that I now expect articles by reputable ed-tech leaders to discuss interoperability as an important—if not the most important—topic that the sector needs to roll up its sleeves and address. The Ed-Fi Community has been working hard for the past decade, preparing for this moment when the rest of the sector would catch on, and now we’re extremely well-positioned entering into the decade ahead.

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