A post-SXSW ed tech challenge: Put teachers at the heart of product design

A year ago, we wrote about the “teacher gap” in ed tech. The post echoed a question bluntly posed by education writer Anya Kamenetz in the wake of last year’s SXSWedu: “Where are the teachers?”

The point was that in both larger ed reform conversations and in the narrower world of ed tech, teachers were too often missing from the conversation.

Where are we almost a year later? SXSWedu 2014 made real strides in terms of putting more teachers front and center on panels. And to the extent that the conference is a leading-edge indicator of industry or sector trends, that can only be good news.

But we can’t walk away satisfied that the job is done. Including teachers at conferences isn’t the same as putting them at the heart of the product design process – which is where they really ought to be.

The ed tech challenge: Changing how we look at teachers…

Melissa Greenwood’s SmartBlog summary of a talk by scientists Vivienne and Norma Ming,  co-founders of an educational technology company called Socos, drives toward the idea that teachers’ needs must be central to the way we design products:

If you have an elaborate, fancy report that you hand to a teacher or provide in a dashboard, and the teacher doesn’t look at it, you haven’t provided any information at all,” Norma noted. “Think about the environment that teachers are working in. Present data in a way that makes sense to them. It needs to be something that is useful, meaningful and actionable.

(Read the entire story.)

Amen! Change starts with thinking about the teacher POV.

Change starts with thinking about the teacher POV.

… and changing how we look at education data

Besides that statement, two other points really hit home with us:

From Norma:  “The shallow use of data has always been a problem. We have to look for the data that tells the real story for the problems we need to be solving.” (In other words, we need to help teachers process the data that matter, not just the data—e.g., summative test data—that’re easy to capture.)

From Vivienne: “’With technology that’s available today, we can look at social interactions between students on the playground. We can look at online interactions between college students…We don’t have to keep on testing. We can build assessments that are part of the learning experience.’”

Both statements echo and amplify our point of view on what education data really is, and on how it can and should be used to enable learning, summed up neatly by Joe Siedlecki: “You can’t have data-driven instruction without data from multiple sources. And you can’t have data from multiple sources if you’re myopically obsessed with test scores. Schools should be defining “data” to include such things as test scores, interim and formative assessments, student engagement, and student work.”

The takeaway: Teachers are experts

In the coming months and years, if we really and truly want to use ed tech to help teachers change outcomes for kids, we need to do more than expand our presenter lists. We need to acknowledge and champion the idea that teachers are experts we can learn from.

About what? About teaching, about learning, about students and about the education data that really matters. We also need to champion the idea that teachers should be at the table when we gather requirements for the tools we build for them.

Here’s hoping that the educators, innovators, funders and industry stakeholders who descended upon Austin for SXSWedu heard that message, so powerfully delivered by the Mings, loud and clear.