Does Hamilton’s 2016 Speech Hold a Lesson for EdTech Leaders?

Following the 2016 presidential elections, an evening of Broadway musical theater turned into a hotly contested public debate over the post-performance speech to Vice President-elect Mike Pence. While the point of this column isn’t to condemn or condone the statement made after the performance of Hamilton, I was particularly intrigued by a quotation given afterwards by the actor who read the statement at the show. I feel the issue is one that must be addressed by the very companies and organizations that support our national and global edtech efforts.

"We recognize that 'Hamilton' is an inherently American story told by the definition of the American community," Brandon Victor Dixon said.  Further, the show’s inherent theme "demands that we make statements when there are important issues, I think, facing us as a community."

It begs the question, and one we could apply to most any situation including edtech, “Do we tell our audiences what they want to hear, or do we tell our audiences what they need to hear?” For my peers among the companies and organizations that support this industry, I ask which are you prepared to share? And for institutional leaders, I ask which are you prepared to listen to and take to heart?

While giving two very distinct speeches recently, I noticed a trend in how they were received and the follow-up interest. Both were exactly 30 minutes in length before similar audiences of superintendents from across the U.S. Speech #1 focused primarily on cutting edge new technology, inviting schools to come look at buying these new devices. Speech #2 looks at the alarmingly low rate of edtech adoption happening in all school districts, inviting K-12 leaders to look “under the hood” to see if there is indeed a problem with edtech planning and adoption in their schools.

The post-speech reactions surprised me. Speech #2 showed brand new research and studies, revealing that as much as 65% of classrooms show no evidence of technology usage for basic tasks as collaboration and communication. Speech #2 also showed data that adoption of many subscription-based tools was terribly poor – with barely 5% of students meeting close to desired usage targets. For schools investing millions in hardware and subscriptions, this would likely only involve thousands of consulting and planning. The number of superintendents willing to have those conversations? Barely a handful.

In contrast, when dazzled with examples of new, cutting edge technology, 6 times the number of school leaders wanted follow-up to bring this hardware into their school districts

In a prior column from 2015, I highlighted a fundamental reason why 94% of school superintendents were setting themselves up to make major edtech mistakes for their local school systems. At the 2015 AASA National Conference on Education, only 6% of superintendents in the room were even familiar with the name “Project RED” or the massive amounts of research and frameworks readily available to help schools plan and adopt an effective digital learning program. When it was brought to their attention, the vast majority asked to see this information at the time.

While often I may be looked upon as a “vendor” with some ulterior motives, my career in education has instilled a certain level of responsibility I feel I must maintain. Sure, selling products is always good for a company’s bottom line. But in my non-commissioned role, I always want to look out for the best interest of our customers. If that means they delay the project a few months or a year but then launch and maintain a successful program, then that is the best scenario I could hope for.

Sure, buying the latest cutting edge technology can get lots of positive press and appeals to our personal sense of curiosity. But making sound investments that deliver meaningful academic outcomes for students is what gives us a better sense of pride.

With the new year approaching and the wonders of what new technology awaits us in the coming year, I hope that we make the new year a time to reflect about getting our homes in order and doing what is right for our students – the ultimate customer we all support.


Elliott Levine is Director of Education and HP’s Distinguished Technologist in Edtech. He’s a former K-12 district administrator, adjunct professor and startup executive, and serves as an advisor and board of director for education nonprofits and startups. This document is a personal opinion expressed by an HP employee, and not intended to replace or substitute official datasheets or information officially posted at www.hp.com.

 

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