Ed-tech without educators is doomed

Elements 4D is a current project on Kickstarter featuring a set of wooden blocks engraved with the elements of the Periodic Table. When viewed through the frame of an iPad or iPhone, the blocks have “augmented reality” codes that cause them to show up on the screen as clear cubes, labeled with their various properties. If you touch the “hydrogen” block to the “oxygen” block, the screen depicts water sloshing around.

Wow? Yes. Cool? Yes. More educational than a real-life chem lab? Probably not. As my colleague at Fast Company, Austin Carr, points out, “On a practical level, it’s slightly unclear how kids will play with the element blocks while holding a tablet (the video demo shows two hands futzing with the cubes, so who is holding the iPad?). And not to get too eggheaded here, but shouldn’t you need two hydrogen blocks and an oxygen block in order to form water? ”

Play-i is another project that will launch a crowdfunding campaign in September. It’s a robot toy designed to teach very young children–as young as five–to program. The robot’s movements and actions can be controlled using a “graphical interface,” dragging and dropping commands  in various shapes and colors on a touch screen without even needing to type.

Wow? Yes. Fun? Yes. Can kids really learn the basics of programming in ways that will be translatable in the future? Is coding really more fundamental than reading, writing or math? Who knows?

What these two projects have in common is that they are amazing whiz-bang technical achievements pitched as educational breakthroughs whose creators have no education background. The maker of the Elements 4D project is Daqri, an augmented reality startup with lots of buzz and $15 million in venture capital whose founder’s background is in robotics and computer vision, and whose team members include “4D thinkers, vision scientists, artists, interface designers, and engineers.” Play-i, which maintains a nice blog on innovations in education, has a distinguished founding team with backgrounds at Google, the globally recognized firm Frog design, and Apple. Play-i’s spokesperson, Imran Khan, maintains that they are getting teachers’ expertise through user testing with elementary school students. However, this stands in contrast to innovations coming out of the MIT Media Lab, such as Scratch and Makey Makey, where there is a robust interdisciplinary group of researchers on learning and play as well as technology making really fun things to play and learn with.

Thinking about these offerings as toys rather than for use in the classroom lowers the stakes somewhat. And assembling the cross-disciplinary talents needed to bring cutting-edge technology into the classroom is a challenging task. But companies like Play-i and Daqri are making a name for themselves by proclaiming a revolution in education that is relevant and tied to today’s needs. “All the founders have kids, and we have this common passion, to help the next generation and get them ready for the challenges of the 21st century,” says Khan. These pronouncements are making big promises that the products had better deliver on.

Education is a vital human function about which not enough is known. Few would expect to get taken seriously in the health technology space, for example, with a founding team that included no MDs. Does it make sense to settle for the equivalent in the ed-tech space?