5 Things You Need to Know About EdTech

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Just read another of those "5 Things You Need to Know About EdTech" posts that seem to crop up on Twitter every couple weeks.

It was the typical stuff, of course: Tech isn't the Point of EdTech, EdTech is about Learning, EdTech is Exciting.

I know this type of post well. It used to be my bread-and-butter. But now that I'm a jaded old man, I offer you a brand new kind of post. I call it "5 Things You Need to Know About EdTech".

Here we go.

5 Things You Need to Know About EdTech

1. There is no such thing as "free". If you didn't pay for it, then you yourself are the fee. The data you produce and the connections you open up are generally worth a whole lot more to the longer term business plan of any EdTech startup than the dollar you might spend to download an app. The CEO of a well known EdTech startup on the West Coast recently remarked to me: "Our business strategy is the typical Trojan Horse scheme." Yup. And if you think this is the rambling of a lone-wolf... well you might want to start chatting with some folks who do biz dev for EdTech. Free is the new expensive.

2. "Open" isn't so much about content as it is about the distribution arrangement. Though as users we tend to think about the Internet in terms of content, in reality the Net is agnostic in terms of what's written or posted upon it. The core function of the Net is more as a distribution mechanism, or more precisely as an environment of connections that allows for myriad distribution. And depending who has developed what, the different applications that live on the Internet have varying degrees of openness. That includes EdTech. A good way to gauge the "openness" of your favorite EdTech company — whether for-profit or non-profit — is not to ask them whether their content is free and freely available, but to ask whether they actively participate in the creation and modification of Open Source projects and whether they have a commitment towards public APIs. In other words: how does the company itself contribute to opening the channels of distribution?

3. EdTech companies need to make money. And it doesn't matter whether we're talking about a corporate for-profit that's been in the business for 20 years or a development co-op working out of a local hackerspace. They need to make money. Think about that next time you make a decision to purchase a piece of EdTech. Who are you really paying? Who are you supporting? Remember — whether you are a classroom teacher shelling out a couple bucks for a classroom set of apps, or whether you are a district administrator purchasing a system that will effect tens of thousands of students — your dollar is your vote on what you want the future of EdTech, and the future of learning in the digital age, to be.

4. You are being exploited. You are good natured, early-adopter, well-meaning educators. Everyone in the EdTech business knows that. Some companies exploit outright by getting teachers to do their work for them (especially in creating content). Others do it implicitly by leveraging relationships they have with schools, district leaders, conference organizers, and the like. Here's the catch: every business on Earth — for-profit and non-profit alike — to some degree exploit their advantages in order to grow. In this case, you must realize that YOU are the advantage. EdTech companies are smart enough now to realize that they have nothing without educators. In the same way that Nike has nothing without athletes. Once you realize this, it should empower you. Because really: you are the one with the power. Companies live and die on the fact of whether or not (and how) you use the product. It's time that you use that to your advantage and start exploiting the companies.

5. Most of the important stuff is under the hood. Sexy user-interfaces and sleek design are rightfully awesome. But if you really want to know what your favorite EdTech is about, you gotta look under the hood. Security gaps, poorly tested code, and/or products designed to all but ensure vendor lock-in have been practically the norm in EdTech for years. Next time you see a flashy data visualization or the spiffy use of a gesture control in your favorite EdTech, you might keep in the back of your mind the question: "Just how well built is this thing? And to what purpose?"

There are a lot of fantastic technologists and visionaries creating amazing new EdTech products. But in all the talking I do with educators, I am continually struck by how little recognition there is of how the business of EdTech — let alone the technology of EdTech — actually works. We do no benefit to learning by trying to hide the business and technological realities of educational technology from the very educators we call our customers and community members. I encourage educators and businesses alike to reach out to discuss these issues and I hope that the outcomes on all sides will be better on account of that discussion.

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