Like many in the education world, I was excited to read the recent announcement by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan regarding their significant investment in personalized learning.
From working in the edtech space for many years, I’ve observed not only the general tendency to under-invest in what should be considered the most important industry in our country (K-12 education), but also that poorly invested money in edtech fails to produce the intended outcomes.
Understanding that investing more money in the wrong places will continue to shortchange our students and educators, consider four important recommendations to ensure that Zuckerberg’s dollars make a difference.
First, spend money on learning. Before investing money into new technology platforms, products, tools or apps, we need a more in-depth understanding of the student needs that exist. Taking it a step further, we must inform educators and decision-makers about what personalized learning actually is and the possibilities it provides so that they understand its value and start to demand it. Money should be invested in connecting with and informing as many district leaders and educators as possible. To do this, consider hosting events across the country that teach and excite leaders about personalized learning. The goal should be a paradigm shift from only a handful of schools experimenting with personalized learning to schools demanding personalized learning models that are essential in reaching every student. Until we do, millions of students will continue to feel disengaged, uninspired or frustrated, and it’s up to district leaders to notice and initiate change. Some industry leaders already taking charge include the Lexington Education Leadership Award (LELA), which helps district leaders of all sizes develop their vision and strategy for personalized learning at a systemic level, as well as the XQ Super School project that engages district leaders to rethink high schools.
Second, go big or go home. Pilots don’t work. That’s not to suggest that schools stop trying, iterating and improving, or that they should not test ideas and products – but there must be a clear path to adoption at a district level. School level, one-off pilots demonstrate a singular success and lead to discussions on how an individual leader or school made it work. But district-wide initiatives, with district support and capacity building, demonstrate that anyone can do it. While conditions for success are important to consider, the leap from taking a single success story and implementing at scale is a leap rarely taken. So, invest in districts that are willing to commit to a phased approach rather than pilot experimentation. For example, districts like Horry County Schools, Enlarged City School District of Middletown, Yuma One School District, Piedmont City Schools and Uinta 1 School District have all been implementing district-wide visions for personalized learning with fidelity. In some cases they started with a teacher opt-in model (Middletown), and in others they went whole district (Yuma). But in each case, the initiative was supported by district leadership and was part of a phased approach, not a pilot that could disappear.
Third, invest in ideas that will not need your money forever. There are many edtech companies knocking on the doors of every educator with the idea that converting a teacher (for free) will eventually lead to a sustainable business model – but this rarely works. Educators should support companies that have a scalable business model, or spend money to help them develop it. Without a sustainable business model, these edtech companies that rely on external capital ultimately fail. And when the money goes away, the tools these companies provide disappear with it – and it’s the students who ultimately suffer. Talk to other district leaders and ask them what they are looking for from edtech companies that can provide classroom solutions. Most of them will say they want a partner and a guide, not a vendor.
Fourth, put your money toward people and pedagogy too. We must remember that this is about people and pedagogy more than it is about technology. As the CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg knows this, and as a pediatrician, Priscilla Chan has experienced this. It is crucial to remember to invest in helping people to change and improve, not only in the technology that will be useful to them along the way. We have seen again and again that technology enables change, but not by itself. Mindsets and behaviors need to change, and this holds especially true in education. Even as the CEO of a company with a personalized learning platform, I recognize that technology itself it is not enough to change educational experiences, and therefore the educational outcomes, for millions of children. But combined with a strong focus on people and pedagogy, those dollars will go much farther.
For example, Fulton County Schools in Georgia had more than enough money to buy devices for students, but they instead insisted that each school first develop a solid instructional design, communications plan and a professional development plan. They knew that the technology without the people and pedagogy would not work, and the district is now part way through transforming 100 schools – starting with the teachers and the leaders, not the devices.
There’s no denying that $45 billion dollars, with a significant amount going to personalized learning, has the potential to have a tremendous impact on students. And for that reason, I am both excited about the possibilities but conscious of the pitfalls if it is invested carelessly. My plea is to listen and to learn, create demand and then build for it.
Think systems level, not school level, and focus on investments that can sustain and scale. Finally, please remember: the people, not the tools, will make it happen.
Anthony Kim is the CEO and founder of Education Elements, a group that helps schools and districts apply blending learning models.