Schools Use Trial and Error for Choosing Edtech, But They Don’t Have to

With President Biden signing on to turn the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill into law, our nation is preparing to make historic investments in its highways, public transportation, railroads, airports, ports, water systems, broadband networks, and the electric grid.

Even in our hyperpolarized political climate, the bill garnered widespread bipartisan support. main reason? Many people realize that 2,500 cities cannot design, finance, and build a national network of roads, bridges, tunnels, railways, and transmission lines on their own.

Nobody wants to build hundreds of bridges and tunnels by trial and error. If a tunneling team in Tennessee discovers unusual soil conditions and tries an innovative approach to managing those conditions, federal coordination and information management makes it possible for teams in, say, Arkansas and elsewhere across the country to access those lessons when they discover conditions similar soil. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

Federal facilitation of this type of information sharing is particularly important in situations where teams lack incentives and/or mechanisms to share their expertise:

  • Pilots who encounter unexpected hazardous conditions, such as large flocks of airborne geese or non-working radio tower lights, are required to report to air traffic control. The FAA then collects, analyzes and disseminates this information to other pilots.
  • Physicians who observe patients with reactions to vaccines are required to report to the Federal Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), which facilitates the collection, analysis, and distribution of this information to other physicians.
  • The National Weather Service collects data from thousands of reporting sites across the country and then collects, analyzes and distributes the data back to those sites, as well as to the general public.

In each of these situations—and many more—the federal government makes it possible to collect, analyze, and disseminate information that would not otherwise flow. When the federal government does this, it does not act as a regulator or financier, but as a regulator information aggregator And distributor.

Paradoxically, the sector of our economy in which our federal government is arguably doing the least to facilitate the exchange of information is education.

Many readers of this probably know, our nation’s education “system” is not a system at all. Instead, it’s a group of over 13,000 school districts that share hardly any information with each other, and certainly don’t share information about educational technology in a systematic and actionable way.

why? Primarily because no one involved has the time, incentive, or mechanism to do so. When education departments spend months implementing a new educational technology tool, they often learn a lot — and they learn it the hard way. The counties do not regularly document and publish their experiences, although doing so can help many (but unknown) counties considering using the same tool. This is the main reason why about half of all education technology tools purchased by school districts may not be used at all, and the technologies are often unfairly implemented.

As I wrote earlier, the lack of information sharing between school districts is a textbook example of what economists call the “teamwork problem.” It will never resolve itself. In the absence of significant systemic change, our schools will continue to make huge numbers of well-intentioned mistakes that cause tens of millions of students to miss out on billions of hours of learning experiences.

Currently, most of what the US Department of Education would classify as doing in its 13,000 school districts is Organize or Finance. What we have yet to see, and desperately need now, is for management to act as an information collector, generator and distributor. We need it to help us overcome the fragmented nature of our education system so that teachers can learn from each other.

Professionals in most sectors of our economy have better access to information than our educators, who struggle to learn how to select, implement and use more than 9,000 different educational technology tools more effectively.

Most of us believe that technology has the potential to dramatically improve student learning and reduce inequality. But we are not yet aware of this possibility, due in large part to the ongoing problem of teamwork in education.

In the coming months, can the US Department of Education learn from other federal agencies and embrace the role and responsibility of distributing information to teachers and school leaders who need it most? I sure hope so.

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