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In Age Of Custom-Tailored Ed Tech, Teachers Shop Off The Rack

The big names in the growing education-technology industry gathered in Arizona this week.

The "Education Innovation Summit" styles itself the "Davos of ed-tech." Educators, philanthropists and political leaders like Jeb Bush rubbed elbows with the investors, venture capitalists, big companies like Microsoft and small companies hoping to get big. It's hosted by Arizona State University and GSV, a private equity firm.

The event builds on the hype that there's a vast field of education spending out there waiting to be exploited, like an oil field ripe for drilling. And concurrently, that technology offers the clear path forward to reshaping education. GSV has a white paper on its website titled, "American Revolution 2.0 — How Education Innovation is Going to Revitalize America and Transform the U.S. Economy."

But amid the news to come out of the conference was a report by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that detracts somewhat from the boosterism. The foundation surveyed more than over 3,000 teachers about almost a thousand digital classroom products — from hardware such as interactive whiteboards to free websites like Wikipedia.

The findings portray an industry that still struggles to deliver tools that actually help teachers and students do their jobs.

The fine print:

-- On the supply side, in 2013, investors funded a total of 115 new products aimed at K-12 students, to the tune of $262.1 million. That was more products, but less cash, than the year before. The authors predict a growth in the market over the next few years, as schools buy up Common Core-aligned digital materials and equipment to administer computer-based tests.

-- On the demand side, teachers surveyed recognize the value of tech tools for delivering instruction in new and varied ways; diagnosing learning needs; meeting each student's individual needs; supporting student collaboration and interactive experiences; and giving students opportunities to practice skills independently.

— Yet, just a bare majority of teachers – 54 percent — perceive the digital products that their students actually use frequently to be "effective."

— And teachers are just as likely to find free products — whether open-licensed or ad-driven — useful as those their school district had to pay for.

And there was even more sobering news for many of the companies at this summit who are pouring millions into education-specific products: The survey found teachers just as likely to rate as "effective" general purpose tools like Google, Wikipedia, and Prezi, as they are products built specifically for the education market.

A key factor in that effectiveness rating was not the brand or the product, but whether the teacher had a say in choosing it. If so, that teacher was 30 percent more likely to call it effective.

So, at a time when school districts are signing multimillion dollar, multiyear deals with hardware companies like Apple and software providers like Pearson, the Gates Foundation survey finds teachers are just as happy — in fact, even happier — going on Google or Pinterest to find free resources of their own. Is there something wrong with this picture?

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