Why Technology Alone Won’t Fix Education

Opinion

Artificial intelligence will transform the education system.” “Immersive technology will reshape learning forever.”

These are just some of the industry rumblings about how edtech will disrupt and ultimately “fix” what’s wrong with the education system in the United States. With back-to-school season in full swing, it’s imperative that we set the record straight.

The truth is: technology alone isn’t the answer. As the CEO of a consumer learning technology company in Silicon Valley, perhaps this is an unconventional stance to take, but not as the father of two school-aged daughters. The issues affecting the educational system, especially at the school district and classroom levels—budget constraints, staffing and training gaps, lack of material resources in many regions—are complex. And a tablet, Chromebook, or the next hot social learning app isn’t the solution.

We’ve gone so far down the innovation rabbit-hole that we’ve overlooked the fact that technology is only as strong as the people driving it. Study apps are great resources for learners, as they help students stay inspired and engaged. However, without a motivated teacher who has the time and resources to effectively integrate these technologies into their classroom work, the tools themselves can only go so far.

We need to bridge the gap between technology and human capital, in order for these two sides of the coin to succeed in helping students receive the education they deserve. Our global economy depends on it.

Fortify the Foundation

Let’s start with the obvious—teachers must be properly compensated and equipped. Last school year, we saw teacher strikes occur throughout the country in a campaign for higher wages and improved classroom conditions. The Economic Policy Institute reports that teacher pay has painfully eroded since 1960. In 2017, public-sector teachers were making a record 18.7 percent less in wages than comparable workers with similar education.

At a time in history when there is so much more to learn, some school districts are even opting for four-day school weeks to conserve money—a concept that many kids may be thrilled about, but that has considerable ripple effects for both parents, who need to figure out childcare options, and teachers, who need to readjust their lesson plans. That is, if those teachers feel supported enough to stay at their jobs. The Learning Policy Institute finds that 90 percent of open teaching positions are created by teachers who leave the profession, as opposed to schools proactively hiring staff to shrink the teacher-student ratio.

It becomes a Catch 22—without the proper financial support, teachers are inevitably less able to invest their time and resources into more effective methods of teaching. That especially includes the adoption of technologies. Nearly 2,000 students were surveyed about their thoughts on the recent U.S. teacher strikes. When asked where they would direct funds if their schools had more money, almost three in four (72 percent) students would put it towards their teachers’ salaries, indicating an overall understanding, and sense of empathy, for keeping educators properly compensated.

As a community, we need to be vocal about adequately compensating teachers. And individually, we need to look at how we can make positive changes so that educators can do their jobs effectively. Speaking as a member of the tech industry, it’s essential to ensure that financial barriers don’t prevent educators from using digital learning tools, such as free and affordable platform subscriptions and apps that can be accessed on personal hand-held devices and computers. Of course, these learning tools are only as good as the educators who put them to use, so once equipped, then what?

Keep Up With the Changes

Step two in bridging the gap between technology and human capital is educating the educators. As mentioned in a previous article, Google, Apple, and Facebook are investing as much as $252 billion in the global edtech industry. Silicon Valley is committed to providing teachers with seamless ways to engage and share knowledge with peers, students, and parents—as evidenced by platforms such as Google Classroom and Apple Classkit.

The onus is on us in the technology industry to provide teachers with the means to understand and apply these digital learning tools. That requires an investment in training programs, conferences, webinars, boot camps, and more, to boost teachers’ confidence and keep them competitive in the digital learning age.

In the future, we are going to see the global economy propelled by advancements in technology, and that will trickle down to the classroom. For example, artificial intelligence-powered software will be able to create specific content for students’ personalized learning plans so they can master subjects more effectively. As AI and machine learning change how we approach student learning and measure success, let’s ensure that teachers are keeping up. After all, teachers spend anywhere from 600 to 1,000 hours a year with their students, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Edtech should, and does, enhance traditional classroom teaching. However, it takes a village to educate our children. Investing in technological innovation is great, but we need to similarly invest in human capital—educators in schools. Without focusing on supporting teachers on the front lines in the classroom every day, it doesn’t matter how many billions are invested in edtech. The learning environment won’t succeed. People have to come first.

Matthew Glotzbach is the CEO of San Francisco-based learning tools company Quizlet. He joined Quizlet after 12 years at Google, where he was most recently VP Product Management at YouTube. Follow @mglotzbach

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