I was in a serious discussion with the head of one of the two largest educational publishers about the incredible possibilities that high-end educational software could offer students. I pressed him to explain why everyone in educational software kept cranking out primitive games instead. His seasoned response? Kids are already so bored in school that by comparison, just a little bit of entertainment is enough.
In other words, if you’re starving, a crust of bread is a feast. Why waste money on steak? Or more generously, if a baloney sandwich will do, why prepare a feast?
So when is good good enough? Let’s use multiplication tables as an example. Are Flash cards good enough? They’re cheap. If you invest the time, they work. Why do anything else? So maybe you’re more motivated than that and you make a little flash game that teaches multiplication. Maybe you go the extra mile and have it track their work and generate reports? While you’re at it, why not Google someone’s thesis from the 80’s so you can call it “Research-Based” and charge a lot of money for it. That’s basically as far as anyone gets. So why in the world would anyone choose to invest millions and millions of dollars over years and years, when viable alternatives are so cheap and easy?
Our answer is that cheap, primitive solutions aren’t good enough because “good enough” can be easily quantified and our students are failing. Only about 1/3 of students in the US are considered Proficient in math. Period. That really ought to immediately end any speculation over whether our current efforts are good enough.
Once every student is achieving needed levels of mastery in the needed time period . . . THEN we can start arguing about whether they’re having too much fun along the way. Until then, can we as an industry please pull our head out of the sand and stop flooding the world with primitive educational software that simply doesn’t do the job?
Now, I understand the complaints about that philosophy myself. “Hey, the software we already have DOES the job. It’s just insanely hard to get schools to realize that and use it.” Yes, schools are unbelievably fragmented, politically divisive, cash-strapped, and justifiably cynical about educational software. You would truly have to be stupendous in ways as-yet-unimagined to cut through all that friction.
So do it. Create programs that aren’t just well-intentioned, evolutionary improvements. Break all the rules. Invest a billion dollars in Algebra and change the world forever. Billion sounds like a big number, but over 10 years that amortizes down to just $25 per student. And that’s just in the US. Spread that across the globe and it’s practically free. Do you think districts would pay a few bucks to yank all of their students up to Proficient in Algebra? Uhh . . . duh! You’d make a fortune and you’d be saving the world at the same time.
So to summarize then, can we please all settle in on the fact that whatever you’re doing, however you’re doing it, we need to massively improve our education technology. Children are still getting left behind. Only a handful are getting ahead. We have the technology to fix it and we have the capital. We just don’t demand it. We’re settling for a crust of bread when we could have a feast.