Thursday, November 5, 2015

Disruptive Technology and School Shaped

In 1976, Apple released its first personal computers. At the time, the only real competitors to personal computers were $200K microcomputers. Apple’s simpler, cheaper devices targeted a totally overlooked demographic: the average consumer. However, within 10 years this consumer market for computers had become the dominant market, with Apple as a dominant player.


Apple’s Computers are a great example of a disruptive innovation: one that overtakes the dominant players in a market by starting with a simpler product that targets a smaller, overlooked segment. Two weeks ago, Michael Horn stepped down as the executive director of the Clayton Christensen Institute. Christensen originated the idea of disruptive technology and Horn, his pupil, has done much to promote such advances for education.


Education is a field ripe for disruption. There is a growing achievement gap between the nearly 50% of American children attending low income schools, and those in higher income areas. One of the key drivers of this gap is unequal access to quality technology. Affluent schools have large discretionary budgets to spend on unproven technology and, most importantly, the expensive training these technologies require. In low income schools only 50% of teachers feel they get enough training to incorporate tech into their lessons. These underserved schools are also more likely to have inexperienced or underqualified teachers, who find it difficult to incorporate tech into their lessons.


A new generation of disruptive technology could do much to shrink America’s achievement gap. Just as Apple made computers available to underserved consumers, disruptive edtech could provide quality education to our underserved students. However, most education technology today falls far short of being disruptive. This is certainly not for lack of effort - many products are based on years of research and, in the right setting, can produce astonishing results. The problem is that these product are missing a crucial ingredient for disruption: simplicity. They are designed and built by people who likely haven’t been into a K-12 classroom in 15 years. Apple was able to build simple computers because Jobs and Wozniak represented their target market. They knew what simple meant for PC users. On the other hand, what an edtech developer considers straightforward could become very complex in a real classroom. Thus we see “simple” edtech which requires weeks of training, and often increases a teacher’s workload.

If we want truly disruptive education technology, we need to make it simple. Without free market forces, this is quite difficult - teachers and students can’t vote for the simplest solution with their dollar. Instead we need to have direct partnerships between developers and school communities, to understand what is intuitive in a school environment. This is our mission at School Shaped. We produce teams of edtech creators who know what simple means for teachers, students and administrators. We are working towards an edtech marketplace full of disruptive technology for every school community.

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