Educational technology needs to grow like a weed

Want to scale education reform? Plant a tech seed and help it flourish.

Why do so many well-conceived education reform designs fail in implementation? For the same reason that old-school top-down software development fails in today’s rapidly evolving Internet-based marketplaces.

In both cases there is an implicit false assumption that the designers can accurately predict what users will need in perpetuity and develop a static one-size-fits-all product. In response to that fallacy, both software development and education reform have developed agile models of adapting to unpredictable environments. Independently, these have failed to scale to their potential in the real-world trenches of the U.S. educational system. Interdependently, could they achieve the results that have so far eluded each?

Traditional education reform, like traditional engineering development, invests heavily in up-front design. In engineering, this makes sense when dealing with deliverables that are hard to change, like silicon, or when mistakes are not an option, as with space flight or medical technology. However, when the deliverable is malleable, as with consumer software, once the market starts to change the implementer is trapped between the choice of piling modification upon modification until the initial design is completely obscured, or plowing ahead unswervingly only to deliver a product that is obsolete on delivery. The software developer is destined to be outperformed by more nimble developers who can adapt effectively to changing market needs, new information, and an evolving industry.

Similarly, education reform interventions are rigidly constrained. To prove a treatment’s effectiveness, research needs to demonstrate that one particular variable in a messy human dynamic environment is responsible for a change in student outcomes. This means that an educator and his/her students must behave precisely as designed in order for the research to be valid. Tremendous resources are spent in these kinds of trials to ensure “fidelity of implementation.” In this situation, the educator is trapped between the choice of corrupting trial data by changing the implementation to meet the changing needs of students and the environment, or plowing ahead only to limit the good he/she can do for students to the lowest, common, measurable denominator.

In the software world, we address this dilemma through an iterative development model. That is, we assume that when we are thinking about what users might need or how they will use our product, we will get some things wrong. So we code up some simple end-to-end functionality, throw it out for people to use, and then improve it iteratively based on feedback from our users. This feedback may be explicit, in the form of questions and requests, or implicit, based on our observations of how the software is used. It may well be automated, in the way Google instruments the applications we use and modifies them based on how we engage.

In the education world, there is also a shift away from rigid implementations to more scalable adaptive approaches. Alan Bain writes in “The Self-Organizing School” about how the metaphor of emergence mediates the tensions between top-down control and bottom-up chaos. Rather than designing and dictating the everyday workflow of educators and students, the self-organizing school identifies a small set of simple rules. These rules, in combination with multiple feedback loops, drive and iterate the work of teachers, students, administrators and others involved in teaching and learning. As with the emergent behaviors of ant hills and flocks of birds, the simple rules drive elegant, complex system-level behaviors that adapt to changing circumstances.

This model of education reform depends on real-time, effective feedback loops of information at a scale that is possible only with the support of technology. But the technology platforms to support a self-organizing school haven’t been developed — as with most educational use of technology they are likely to be pulled together on an ad-hoc basis with minimal support, making them clunky to use and difficult to modify. As a result, rather than enabling and supporting adaptation, they are just as likely to carve existing processes into digital concrete and become a force resisting change.

How do you get to a technology platform that supports scalable education reform? Perhaps the best option is to grow it. Plant it in the fertile soil of existing open source education software and open education resources. Seed it with some simple elements: digital content creation or assessment distribution or maybe collaboration spaces or online courses. Feed it with a few data flows: perhaps computer-graded quiz results to students, teachers and parents; homework assignments and recorded lectures in one direction, completed projects in the other; automated attendance data to teachers and administrators. Immerse it in an environment built on feedback loops that are nourished by the data that is generated on the platform. Adapt and evolve it in response to decisions and needs that are uncovered by those feedback loops.

In symbiosis, the platform and the practices it supports mature and reach a sort of dynamic equilibrium of continual, steady, incremental growth. As it matures iteratively, the technology platform becomes ready for transplantation to other environments.

Traditional education reform fails to scale because top-down designs don’t survive the reality of the day-to-day classroom. Emergent designs adapt to real circumstances but depend on extensive data collection driving feedback loops at every level. Not only is this not well supported by existing technology implementations, but the functional requirements of those implementations are not yet well understood. Through a process of co-evolution, those requirements can be surfaced and technology platforms developed that can then enable education reform to scale.

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  • Jacqueline Krain

    The best articulation of the problem(s) that I’ve seen to date. In your experience, have you seen this type of collaborative efforts begin to form with any of your consultants or within your network?

  • Marie Bjerede

    Thanks Jacqueline – I haven’t yet seen these sorts of efforts directly, but I am constantly being surprised by fantastic work that is new to me. On the other hand, conversations are emerging about new types of public-private partnerships that are as much intellectual as financial and I am very optimistic about these kinds of cross-functional, cross-disciplinary approaches.

  • Jay

    This seems purely theoretical, but there are some good points.

    As education budgets dwindle, schools can no longer afford many of the technology “luxuries” and are heading more towards open source technologies by necessity. They also must look at the bigger picture and reduce costs associated with technology that for years have been taken for granted, like electricity costs and proposed replacement cycles that aren’t realistic.

    Return on investment is now paramount at all levels, and it reaches all the way from hiring technology savvy people to building infrastructure.

  • Tom Hoffman

    As schooling in the US is highly segregated, a discussion of “school reform” which does not differentiate between whether we’re talking about high or low poverty schools is a non-starter.

    Our best, affluent public schools are comparable to any in the world in quality. Are you talking about reform to make these even better for the 21st century?

    Or are you talking about the schools we send most low-income students to, which don’t stand up well to other developed nations, but primarily because other developed nations do not tolerate the kind of concentrations of child poverty that we do. Do we need extra-ordinary reforms to make separate equal in the 21st century?

  • Rob Tucker

    This post is so intensely useful it hurts! The idea of applying to educational technology what we learned from SW development is right on and gives us a viable rollout model for so many of the educational technologies we soeak about on this blog and elsewhere. Let the experiemnets begin!!! Wonderful.

  • Graham Glass

    Hi Jay,

    EDU 2.0 for School is at and provides a completely free, cloud-based online learning system for schools, districts and universities.

    Schools with little or no budget would probably find this approach a lot cheaper and easier than, say, Moodle, since there’s nothing to download, install, or manage.

    It has 150,000 users, 7000 schools, and is growing quickly.


  • Marie Bjerede

    Jay – the disparity in educational opportunity and outcome in the United States is intolerable. It remains to be seen whether technology will be one of the tools used to bridge that divide.

    Graham – I am impressed that EDU 2.0 is cloud-based, making it easy and low cost (both for purchase and maintenance) for any school to implement.

  • Stephen Downes

    This article really does read like the author knows what she does about education reform from reading the local paper, then added the usual template argument to it.

  • elizabeth corcoran

    I love the sentiments and the approach, Marie. There’s something of a short-term benefit, long-term benefit question that comes up, particularly in classrooms. I think it’s this:

    In the work world, the early adopters (or in this case, the early ADAPTERS and contributors to building a system) take up the challenge for several reasons:

    1. they’re intrigued by the opportunity and like to tinker (ie: open source community)

    2. someone pays them to do so (companies that adopt/adapt open source technology — perhaps such as IBM?)

    They are less concerned with the benefits they receive from USING such a system and more interested in the contributions they are making TO the system.

    That’s tricky in schools. We hope most kids only go through a grade once. It’s nice if their experiences help make the environment better for next year’s students — but we really want THIS year’s group of students to have the maximum benefit from the experience, too.

    Now, this isn’t an impossible obstacle. But as you think about the design of your project, it might be useful to think about why different people will contribute to it — and how they will benefit in equitable even if different ways.

  • Chris Byers

    In the UK with the Building Schools for the Future (BSF)scheme now underway IT in schools is being turned over to Managed Service Providers (MSPs) who get to dictate to the schools just what they can and cannot run on their systems. Many of these MSPs would simply refuse to install any system not fully supported, or tested, or indeed that they can make money out of.
    On teh other hand however there are still the vast majority of schools who retain their own IT techical staff (network mamgerstechnicians) who are more than willing to ‘give it a go’, and in my experience are in teh schools which do innovate and push the development of better educational software and the needs of schools.

  • Todd Geist

    I am responsible for rolling out new technology for a new charter school. I am find myself continually frustrated by this, so thank you for a clear description of the problem. However, I wish that was all it took to solve it.

    I agree that this needs to come from the bottom up. Teachers are the ones that actually need to use the new technology and without their input, most tech rollouts will fail.

    Sadly, my experience has been that most teachers are simply too worn out after a day dealing with kids to try to figure out how to use new technology. Another huge chunk of them are too scared to try anything new. And unfortunately a small minority of them just don’t care anymore.

    As a long time tech geek, software developer and now educational tech consultant, my assessment is that for most people over 35, new technology is a lost cause. These folks just barely figured out email, and MS office 15 years ago, and that seems to be about all they can handle. Anything new fills them with fear.

    The iPad and tools like it aren’t necessarily the answer either. Anything that comes on an iPad is, by the very nature of it’s closed platform, top down.

    If I sound pessimistic, that may because I am. Last night I did an online training seminar for all of the new teachers and staff at a new school, even parents were invited. The subject was an intro to Google Apps For Education. Google Apps is our collaboration platform, so I thought there would be some interest.

    The result, only 8 people bothered to sign up and of those only two parents and the principle and showed up. 3 people! thats it!, The rest were simply to tired, too afraid or didn’t care enough to bother.

    I would really love some real world examples of how to deal with this problem. It is not technical. It is psycho-social!


  • Bob Calder

    The problem is indeed obvious to people who understand social production. Too bad it isn’t clear to people who depend on the top-down lifestyle – which includes almost every school manager in the known universe.

    Adoption for older people isn’t a problem. Age isn’t an issue. I’m 58 for goodness sake. You have to use natural adoption patterns and find the place you can touch each person. Sure there are people who won’t ever adopt a particular technology, but if something is useful, you can get to them.

    My school is a Title One school. That means we have tons of low income families if you don’t know what it refers to. I installed Moodle in 2002 and we use Google Docs, school email and open source and free services. I realize my students don’t have the dough to lay out for a lot of software after they buy a laptop. So we use Php, MySql, and Aptana for web design.

    But the digital divide is still with us. Computers in the home are now commoditized to the extent that it is a decision between a game console and a computer for a child’s birthday. However the problem is now broadband Internet access at fifty bucks a month.

    Only about half of my school could make full use of a fully electronic delivery system because of this. Even if they made the decision to buy a computer.

  • Marie Bjerede

    Elizabeth & Todd,

    Add to the challenges the weariness that comes from reform burnout. Why would teachers who are already working hard days, with more work grading and lesson planning at night, take on the added burden of integrating technology into their practice? Especially when this wave of change will surely pass as so many others have.

    Clearly their participation has to have something in it for them and their students, it can’t be pure volunteerism. If they invest the energy to perform a task with tech, they need to see a direct payoff.

  • Jeanne Century

    This posting gets to the heart of some of the complex issues people trying to improve education face.

    As a researcher who focuses on the ways education reforms spread and why they last and don’t last – I am with Rob Tucker above – it’s so on target, it hurts!

    I’m at the University of Chicago Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education reform where we have been exploring ways to measure adaptations of innovations over time, not only to understand what is and isn’t useful; but also to understand how and why they spread and even more important – how and why some elements of innovations endure and others don’t.

    We’ve also come to the conclusion that if we are to make any progress, we have to embrace an “open research” approach that welcomes experimentation and collaborative efforts. The key in doing so, however, is ensuring that we all are speaking the same language, and have shared conceptual understanding of what we are doing so that what otherwise might be many small albeit productive experiments can be part of a more cohesive movement to accumulate knowledge and learn from one another.

  • Richard Wilson

    Marie, I am a high school teacher in Calgary Alberta. I am very intreged by your use of cell phones. I would be very interested in talking to you about how to instuted a similar program here.
    Thank you for your time.
    Richard Wilson

  • Ann McCarthy

    This article makes me want to weep with relief. Someone out there understands what teachers are up against in trying to cope with ill-conceived top-down mandates, and it certainly isn’t anyone in the Department of Education.

    Thank you, Marie

  • Marie Bjerede


    Sure – to find out more about implementing cell phones in classrooms, there are two groups I know about who provide those services:

    Project K-Nect:


  • Bram Moreinis

    Thank you Marie!

    You’ve co-inspired (along with some bedtime reading) my latest post for Open Source Education:

    Jay notes above the challenging gap between theoretical and practical discourse. It’s tough for writers and readers of blogs that straddle both worlds.

    Greater still is the challenge to feel positive about public education, or to avoid getting too techno-centric when we share what we know as part of the solution.

    It’s going to take a while for this discourse to evolve – I’ve just ordered Alan Bain’s book, and I expect it will help.

    Let’s connect!

  • Marie Bjerede

    Bram – Just read your post and I very much like your description of bureaucracy vs. learning organization. That’s exactly what I’m thinking of as well.

  • Douglas

    If you want to see some things that have worked, and see them up close and personal, I can put you in touch with people. I talk to them everyday.

    I am Executive Editor of and education technology and the policies that shape its use are exactly what we focus on in this area.

    I think you and I would have a lot to talk about, if you are interested.


  • Rich Treves

    I agree with some of your points, yes, educational technology is often bolted on with cheers of ‘we’ve improved things!’ and no real thought to testing or reflection on ‘did it work’. Also there’s nothing worse than forcing a teacher to use a technology they don’t believe it because someone on high thinks it will improve things.

    However, that argument doesn’t stretch to the statement:

    “This model of education reform depends on real-time, effective feedback loops of information at a scale that is possible only with the support of technology”


    I *have* to have technology to really see if using Google Earth in that geography lesson made it better for the students than last year? Of course I don’t. I’d ask them some questions to see if they got the point of the lesson, I’d give them an anonymous paper feedback form to give me some more comments and I’d reflect on the whole thing and either keep it or dump it. I would be REALLY annoyed if someone from management turned up waving a sheet of data from a system I didn’t understand telling me I should do something different (even though that data could tell me, the teacher, something useful, I’m probably not going to listen because you’ve dis-empowered me)

    Your argument seems to be saying we should address problems with teaching technology with another sort of teaching technology. I disagree, student centred learning is aided by technology but the most important element in helping students to learn is a motivated, skilled teacher willing to experiment with technology but focussed on the needs of the students.

    “But the technology platforms to support a self-organizing school haven’t been developed — as with most educational use of technology they are likely to be pulled together on an ad-hoc basis with minimal support, making them clunky to use and difficult to modify.”

    I don’t agree. Moodle gives you acres of choice about how to structure learning (modular object oriented dynamic learning environment – its been a baked in feature from the start) and the ability to see masses of data on how your teaching is being used. Want it to do something different? Hey, its OS, write the module you want and it will work with all the pre-existing admin systems and ‘standard’ modules like forums.

    The barrier to use isn’t lack of software, (as another commenter says above) its lack of time, motivation and skills needed to use software on the part of school staff.

  • Bram Moreinis

    Hey, Rich.

    There are some structure problems with Moodle, starting with the fact that guests can’t post comments. It’s a top-down system: someone has to decide whether you get to participate or not. So Moodle is a good choice for many things, but not for promoting emerging self organization within a changing community.

    Drupal is much better for that purpose.

    So Moodle and Drupal, TOGETHER, are a great team for a school organization taking an evolutionary stance.

    Thanks to Marie’s podcast, I’ll characterize this as:

    1) holding on the the “execution” culture where it must be maintained (as it must, since taxpayers are paying and students are moving through and graduating – that’s something Moodle can support);

    2) developing an innovation culture (teachers are innovating, but those innovations cannot be celebrated and shared if everyone is behind closed doors – that’s something Drupal and Moodle can do together, with project development in-service courses that spin-off open projects)

    3) developing a partnership culture (a la NCTAF Learning Teams) where school personnel connect with external networks for STEM and other situated cognition initiatives that require external experts and contexts, for example). This would be Drupal’s bailywick.

    Just talking Drupal and Moodle, there are many other tools! Skype, for example.


  • Thanks for the scholarly and piercing insights into education technology. I’d like to venture some comments.

    1. It seems currently Knowledge Delivery and Exchange Platform/Technology including Blackboard is well placed in many higher education institutions.

    2. Learning Technology, that is, learner/student-centered technology has not really entered into the education market place. By learning technology, I mean, technology that reflects the Principles of Learning as defined by American Association for the Advancement of Science and/or other qualified institutions.

    I’m not sure why many of us have not differentiated the above 1) and 2) for they are clearly different “parts” of the same picture.