AI is a How, Not a What: Why EdTech Companies Need to Shift to Drive K-12 Change

Every industry is eager to get its hands on the “next big thing” in technology, and K-12 education is no different. I'm old enough to remember when our industry went all in on video playlists as the next big innovation in instruction. "It's the Netflix of education!" the experts said. Well, our educators heard this and incorporated some of the ideas but remained focused on the “why” – student achievement – instead of the "how.”

As artificial intelligence (AI) gears up to take education into the future, we need to look back to determine why the payoff for all these “game-changing” solutions hasn’t always lived up to the hype.

Even with the tools available and the promises made, many districts have yet to see a bump in math and reading scores.

In the race for innovation, the best – and most challenging – thing for AI solution providers to do is to slow down and fully grasp what educators need to shape technology to our schools’ realities.

EdTech companies can save time, increase their impact, and improve student outcomes by centering teachers and kids in the development process.

Learning From Lessons of the Past to Move AI Forward

During the pandemic, school districts latched on to digital learning platforms that could be implemented quickly and slow down learning loss. However, what was successful in the short term didn’t always deliver once the dust settled.

As AI gains steam, EdTech companies and superintendents now have the opportunity to sit in the same room and collaborate in a way they were unable to three years ago. For instance, during recent summits hosted by the Institute for Education Innovation (IEI), solution providers have been equipped with powerful insights from district administrators to alter AI frameworks for the betterment of students. Over numerous discussions between stakeholders, three main points continued to emerge:

Stop Pitching, Start Listening

If you’re coming into a district with an EdTech pitch, the last thing you want to do is lead with AI. That’s what some solution providers are doing right now because they want to seem cool, hip, and innovative. As a result, many superintendents are growing increasingly frustrated, having been burned by other EdTech companies in the past.

My recommendation is to remove the word AI from your vocabulary altogether. Instead, discuss the problems you’re solving, and be sure they’re tangible problems schools face. For instance, a rural district lacking a robust technological infrastructure will face different challenges than an urban or suburban school. When conversations are superintendent-led, your shared vision of student success is clear, and the proper recommendations can be made.

Recognize AI For What It Is – An Educational Tool

EdTech companies have long convinced the K-12 market they would individualize each child’s learning experience. While some have delivered, others served up little more than assessment data and worksheets. 

The industry must grasp that AI will never replicate the intelligence of a teacher with the talents, empathy, and cultural understanding to build authentic relationships with students and provide them with the most optimal learning environment.

Instead, educational AI is a secondary, next-generation tool that takes textbook learning to a more engaging level and is driven by learning trajectory-based instruction. Teachers should be able to provide lesson prompts and trust AI to build supplemental materials, such as interactive maps and game-based learning, and provide up-to-the-minute research on a particular topic to spark a child’s curiosity further.

In addition, AI-powered tools allow educators to gain insights into student performance and learning patterns so they can use that information to tailor instructional approaches, identify at-risk students, and intervene early to prevent academic struggles one-on-one. EdTech can recommend next steps based on assessments, but it will always lack the human element to truly personalize learning beyond the data provided. 

When we overanalyze the data, we overlook the issues that affect a child’s performance, such as coming to school hungry, experiencing personal trauma, or simply having a bad day. Teachers want AI to help them manage pedagogically-sound differentiated instruction, but they also want to use their classroom experience to determine the best approach for the child.

Take the Heavy Lift Off Teachers’ Shoulders

In the past few months, I’ve heard various AI pitches, and the most problematic are those that insist technology can help educators by tackling many of their teaching duties. This philosophy demonstrates the disconnect between AI companies and the teachers they’re marketing to. 

The typical teacher works 54 hours weekly, and only half of their time is dedicated to teaching students. The hours they could spend individually with each child to support their learning is taken up by administrative duties and piles of paperwork. Unrealistic expectations are a top factor pushing teachers to leave the classroom, and 75% of those who feel overworked report there’s not enough time in the day to handle everything required of them.

According to McKinsey & Company, AI can automate between 20% to 40% of non-teaching tasks, freeing up, on average, 13 hours teachers can use to “lead to higher student outcomes and higher student satisfaction.”

If AI takes over multiple tasks, such as generating field trip letters, writing grants, grading, and assisting with lesson plans, teachers can get back to what they love doing, and districts will see a drop in teacher attrition.

Better Outcomes For Educators and Students

By 2030, AI school expenditures are expected to hit $25.77 billion. How well that money will be spent depends on how EdTech companies engage with district leaders and understand their challenges. The last thing any superintendent, educator, or parent wants is for AI to come between teachers and their students. If innovators genuinely want to disrupt education positively, they need to shift their focus from the boardroom to the classroom to translate students’ needs into opportune solutions.

Doug Roberts
Doug Roberts is the CEO of the Institute for Education Innovation. He connects leaders in school districts with edtech companies to drive change in education and is the creator of the inaugural Supes Choice Awards, which recognizes innovative edtech solutions.

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