If you hang around conferences, incubators or hackathons devoted to K-12 blended learning, you’ll constantly hear people lament the so-called “valley of death”–the slowness of the public procurement process in particular, and bureaucracy in general, that provide an unbridgeable divide between innovations and students, teachers and classrooms. There’s a metabolism mismatch here: In Silicon Valley the mantra is “fail fast” and an organization that spends 18 months and several million dollars before closing down without impacting many users isn’t necessarily considered a failure, just a bump in the learning process. In public schools, that is a scandal. But there are emerging solutions.
In Slate, Katherine Mangu-Ward, a writer with a conservative and libertarian background, asks if onerous regulations and teachers’ unions will “kill” virtual learning. She calls seat-time and line-of-sight requirements that demand that students be physically in front of teachers for a certain number of hours per day or per year outdated, given the current reality of blended, hybrid, competency-based, and distance learning. And she calls teachers unions “obtuse” for suing to limit the number of children in charter schools, to close virtual schools, and to try to limit enrollment in such schools to the physical districts where online schools are based.
Over on Pandodaily, a tech news site that is spending this month plunging into the world of online education for an eager audience, writer Erin Griffith notes that the so-called “bottom-up approach” to innovation is risky in K-12. If startups attempt to bypass the official district approval process, they’re either trying to appeal directly to parents, who have a limited budget for purchasing devices or apps as a supplement, not a replacement, for education; or they’re going to teachers, who have limited influence to sell their districts on a paid version of the product. The biggest bottom-up success story is Edmodo, a social and collaborative learning platform for students and teachers with 18 million members, but as Griffith writes, “The jury is still out” on whether it can make money.
There might be very good reasons for administrators and teachers to be cautious about experimenting with new technologies and startups. Considering the mixed evidence for blended learning, not to mention the low standards and low achievement in some districts, it’s easy to imagine how lifting seat-time and line-of-sight requirements en masse could lead to some schools that are little more than babysitting warehouses equipped with wide-screen televisions and video games. And this stuff is expensive, especially when it needs to be upgraded every few years. The biggest investment, of course, is in training and familiarizing teachers to integrate the new technology.
But there are emerging solutions to this conundrum. There’s a market for startups that attempt to bridge the gap and simplify the process of adoption of new technologies while perhaps also removing some of the risk. Griffith highlights Chalkable, a platform that allows teachers to adopt a whole bunch of popular apps–like Khan Academy, ClassDojo, DropBox, and more–and use them all in one place, with one set of accounts and logins and one gradebook. Clever, likewise, is a platform that manages student information across a range of different applications.
On the public school side of the equation, New York City’s Innovation Zone is providing a special space and strategy for testing new technologies. The iZone, funded by Race to the Top, the Gates Foundation, and more, expects to encompass a community of 400 schools by 2014. School leaders redesign individual programs, classrooms, or even the entire school around personalization, blended learning, competency-based learning, adaptive platforms, and more. The iZone is building stronger relationships with New York’s “Silicon Alley” startup scene and just closed its first innovation challenge, which asked software developers to build programs that help middle schoolers learn math. By defining a specific challenge, director Steve Hodas told me, they hoped to elicit more targeted and useful solutions. The contest will award a total of $50,000 in cash and most importantly, a direct line to pilot the winning program in iZone schools.
As for regulations, the iZone is looking into ways around the seat-time and line-of-sight requirements, currently submitting a waiver to the state to allow for competency-based standards. With the proper quality control and oversight, this could be a massive step forward.
Politically, it makes sense for self-selected students, teachers, and school leaders to opt in to the challenges and risks of being early adopters. The iZone has proven popular: it’s set to grow from 250 schools this year, to 400 in 2014. If results are good, both schools and startups will have a better model of how to proceed.