DAILY INSIGHT: The ed tech bubble

By Steve Smith, CIO Advisor

I recently attended an event organized for ed-tech startups called LearnLaunch. The mission of LearnLaunch is to increase learning by providing support for the creation and growth of education technology and learning companies in New England by offering classes, peer group learning, conferences, networking opportunities and other educational services to individuals and organizations seeking to work with educators, students and families.

As I understand it, this group believes there may be an ed-tech bubble and it wants to help grow that bubble. The founding team members appear to be a mix of entrepreneurs and venture capitalists with a sincere interest in promoting ed tech progress. I believe there are similar efforts in NYC, Chicago, and the Bay Area.

I attended this event as a K-12 technology leader and found the conference very interesting. There is a lot of excitement in the possibility of this bubble really existing. On the one hand, this can be very exciting for K-12 technology; on the other hand, it can be very scary. I’ve been working in this role in K-12 education for 17 years. I have seen a great deal of innovation—both good and bad.

These new entrepreneurs have mostly good intentions (beyond making $$) to help improve the education landscape, but if not done right it could become very frustrating. One keynote speaker advised new startups to approach teachers directly with their apps/products to gain buy in as a market strategy. If this bubble takes off and the startups begin approaching K-12 staff, mainly teachers, with fancy new apps without any real coordination and considerations given to the true hurdles of enterprise implementation, a lot of great energy could be wasted.

From my perspective, the last thing we need is a barrage of new startups solving every classroom problem with their own miracle app. I don’t want to squash the innovation that this could bring, but at the same time we need to promote standardization and compatibility. As the CIO of a fairly complex urban school district, I become much closer to retirement every time I hear of a new app that needs to be integrated into our systems.... Most vendors do not really understand what it takes to truly integrate a new app into the K-12 environment—especially the ones who say, “We’ll do all the work for you.”

We need a balance between innovation and standardization to support compatibility and true enterprise implementation across the K-12 environment. Ideally, K-12 ed tech needs to have a common data structure and interoperability standards that would allow for “K-12 certification” of apps. The certification would ensure that once an app is accepted by a district and moved into its K-12 data ecosystem the data would flow correctly and almost automatically. Obviously this will require a great deal of work and I believe similar efforts are underway but I’m not clear just how far the efforts will take it. The certification standards would be some sort of combination of SIF, CEDS (Common Education Data Standards), and SLI (Shared Learning Infrastructure).

With a K-12 ed tech certification as described, innovation could flourish with the support of K-12 technology leaders. Teachers and curriculum heads could be encouraged to explore the suite of certified apps and find those that truly meet the needs of the classroom and their students. The implementation of these certified apps would then be simply a matter of implementing the app within the district’s data ecosystem. Prior certification will ensure that when implemented, the app will exchange necessary data elements without additional work on the vendor or local district staff.

Perhaps this is a utopian view, but one I believe we need to work towards if we truly want to move K-12 ed tech forward with the bubble rather than bursting it.

Steve Smith is CIO of Cambridge Public School District in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter as @ssmithcambridge.

Steve Smith is CIO at Cambridge Public Schools in Cambridge, Mass., an active leader in the Student Data Privacy Alliance, and a member of A4L’s board of directors.