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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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As the Ed-Tech Market Grows, What Voice Do Educators Have?

Audrey Watters

Education technology journalist

It's that time of the year when tech journalists like myself start to review everything that's happened over the last twelve months so we can write our obligatory "this year in tech news" stories. And my, what an interesting year it has been for education technology. We've seen new hardware (least of which, of course, the iPad), new software (with new education startups galore), new ed-tech programs (at schools, at libraries), more broadband penetration (well, slightly more), and more widespread adoption of technology tools -- by students and educators, in the classroom and at home.

All of this has had a big impact on "the business of ed-tech," and according to statistics released last week by the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA), the market for educational software and digital content has reach a new high: some $7.5 billion for the U.S. alone.

Of course, it's a bit of a red herring to talk about the "educational software market" with such broad, sweeping generalizations because there are a number of different types of buyers there: schools, teachers, parents, and students to name at least four "consumers" (and that's ignoring, too, the differences between K-12 and higher education). Nevertheless, it's been a big year for ed-tech.

But when we examine the growth in the ed-tech industry this year, it's still important to examine how much voice educators and students have. Sure, they're the end-users. But they're not always the buyers. Even in the case of the most popular of educational products -- and the iPad is a good example here -- that there are some great features (touchscreen, mobility, and so on) alongside some elements that just aren't "right" for schools (individual accounts, syncing and administering multiple devices in a 1:1 environment, for example). Schools are still being sold hardware and software with little chance for teachers and students to dictate how those products are built and what shape they'll take.

Yet it feels like 2011 marked a shift -- maybe not in hardware manufacturing, but certainly on the software side. We're beginning to see educators and students not just as the consumers of education technology; they are also more and more the makers.

More Third-Party App Developers, in general: Part of that shift, no doubt, is thanks to the third-party app markets that Apple (and Google and others) have created to work with their respective devices (whether that's the iPad in the case of Apple or the Web in the case of Google). The Android and iTunes apps marketplaces have provided new distribution opportunities for developers, helping them get their apps in front of learners. In many cases, this has meant that educational apps can make money without having to go through the enterprise sales cycles that getting software onto school desktops has long required.

Startup Weekend EDU: One organization that made a concerted effort this year to make sure educators were among those building new education apps and education startups is Startup Weekend. The Kauffman Foundation-funded Startup Weekend events ask participants spend the weekend -- Friday evening through Sunday evening -- building working on a tech product (and ideally a tech startup). In September, after a couple of successful of events focused on building education startups, Startup Weekend announced a series of events dedicated to building startups in the education vertical. Since then, Startup Weekend EDUs have been held in Seattle, San Francisco, Washington DC, and London. And much to my great pleasure, teachers have become involved more and more as the year has progressed.

I've argued elsewhere that educators' participation in Startup Weekend EDU may well be a new form of professional development. Of course, some teachers really do plan on leaving the profession to become edu-entrepreneurs. But even for those who don't, working as a member of a Startup Weekend team can, as Edutopia's Elana Leoni suggested, spark innovation. Working on a startup means tapping into project management, problem-solving and marketing skills. It also means identifying a problem in education and building a solution, one that is economically viable as a new business.

PLN: That's something that's echoed all the time in educators' own personal learning networks: identify a problem; build a solution. Those solutions can mean resource-sharing in face-to-face settings, on blogs, on Twitter and the like. Solutions can mean helping explain how to use a tool, how to "tweak" a tool for an educational purpose, or how to build something from scratch. This last piece seems particularly powerful this year and in the future. After all, as the ed-tech market grows, educators' voice in not just buying, but in building the next generation of ed-tech will be crucial.

So More Teachers/Hackers/Builders/Makers in 2012, Please: Let's help support one another in building and sharing our tricks and tools and hacks. Better ed-tech will require all of us become builders, whether that means we're looking down at the code or looking out for other users.

Audrey Watters

Education technology journalist
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