Silver Linings and the Work to Be Done
“When the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, watchout!”
Jack Welch, 1935-2020
By Matt Brady
It is perhaps not a big surprise that it took something completely outside of Education to change Education. Single handedly, COVID -19 came in and did in a matter of weeks what thousands of tech-positive individuals— on the inside— had been trying to do for decades: COVID took everyone in the building, yes, even the ‘Never Tech-ers,” and put them in the digital game. Assuming an eventual return to a post COVID “normal” in six months to a year, I wondered: what are the big picture implications for technology in international education?
Are the Days of the Cacophonous Impersonal Meat Factory Parent Conference in the Gym Numbered?
I asked several colleagues for commentary on their COVID experiences and one of the more interesting, unexpected effects of COVID revolved around a boon in parent teacher conferencing. At one school, a colleague of mine who wanted to remain anonymous commented that:
“Parent - Teacher - Student conferences had the highest attendance this year over ZOOM than any time in previous years (when offered face to face). The feedback on offering these interviews over ZOOM was overwhelmingly positive and we will most likely move towards having these conferences over ZOOM in the future, in our Senior School (Grades 6 - 12) at least.”
Jackie Van Der Steege, Head of MYP Design at International School of Hamburg noted “Parents accepted online and hybrid learning much more than was expected and many believe it enhances their children's education. This was a surprise. Protocols and clear expectations make new learning environments work. Lack of protocols leads to chaos and mixed results.”
Jackie’s statement made me think of the rise in homeschooling, unschooling and deschooling movements. The market for real online learning is growing and while still in its infancy, the corner on “learning” that brick and mortar schools have had is starting to crack. It’s a tiny crack for sure, but it’s going to keep growing.
Online Learning is Going to Grow Because Expectation Transfer is Accelerating
Customer expectations are usually shaped by the conditions within an industry, say education. Now, because of technology, changes in other industries can have a greater impact on a school than internal ones. For example, when you order an item on Amazon.com and it shows up on your doorstep the next day, you begin to wonder why other services can’t be as convenient and effective.
Expectation transfer occurs because when people can do or get something in one setting, they begin to expect it to translate to all settings. Many parents saw their work lives go “Remote-only” successfully, and online learning platforms like Outschool.com will continue to grow to meet growing expectations for high quality education online.
Digital Teaching is not Digital Learning
When teachers were forced to quickly take their meatspace courses online, everyone realized that online courses work best designed as online courses; the two don’t translate well.
A high school student remarked, “What do we do now when teachers trying to teach us remotely is a lot of times worse than Youtube and Khan Academy. Why spend the time only to end up using other resources to actually learn?”
COVID highlighted key differences between digital teaching (providing instructions, handing in assignments, grading, etc.) and digital learning. Digital learning encompasses digital teaching, but is also geared toward maximizing learning-focused attributes like student choice/autonomy, personalized learning, connection to resources beyond the classroom, etc..
A notable take on the teaching/learning gap comes from Elon Musk, who believes the future of education “Should be more like an interactive game, not what it is today, which is a rather boring Vaudeville act. Before movies, every town had its own troupe of actors and most often, they weren’t very good. But today with movies, and the technology of distribution, you take the best directors and best actors and special effects and you can produce something incredible, and that’s how teaching should be.”
Chris Muller, Adjunct Senior Lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, echoed Musk’s sentiment:
“When we look at mass education in the developing world, the biggest problem is the poor quality of teaching. Why not retrain teachers to guide students through a curriculum provided online? With the sudden surge in online learning, the resources for such programs have increased exponentially.”
We don’t know what the proportions of classroom/online and digital teaching/digital learning students will receive going forward, but an ever-deepening understanding of our true capacities and limitations is not reason for despair, but ground from which to build.
Adjusting to a Strategy of Commitment vs. Compliance
We learn from history that complex systems cannot be changed quickly and the effects created by complex systems are not always simple 'problems' that can be 'solved'. (We also learn from history that we don’t very often learn from history, but that’s another story) So, how do we nurture the new opportunities brought on by the pandemic?
My view of where most organizations are today with digital integration is akin to the hunt and peck typist. They have a method they can rightfully claim ‘works’, but never learning proper technique puts them at a local maximum; they could do much better with training.
What has happened with technology integration in schools prior to COVID is analogous. Edtech has largely been a ‘Trickledown project’ (I’ve written about this in TIE here.) where cultures of compliance get built and the biggest reason to use technology is a sensible, rational decision among teachers to “follow orders,” not to commit to training and practice in digital learning.
One of the silver linings of COVID follows from how it obliterated so many long held limiting beliefs of what was possible with technology. As a leader having taken all this in, the first step in the way forward is implicit in the warning Ben Franklin gives in Poor Richard’s Almanack. “If you would persuade, appeal to interest and not to reason.”
(A colleague who'd signed up with Outschool recently asked me why I thought I'd done well when they've had no students sign up for their sections after many weeks.)
TLDR: it’s a lot of luck and bunch of tweaking involving:
The longer answer is that I made it basically despite Outschool, certainly at least in part
Had I taken their “advice” at key points, I would have never made even remotely close to what I’d made and I almost certainly would’ve become just another one of the thousands of Outschool teacher roadkill.
The fact is, there is no winning formula for Outschool success; if the winning formula exists somewhere out in the internets, I have yet to see it in one place so that’s what I will try to do here. But recognise, much if not all of my “How did I do it” below is speculative. I have no concrete knowledge of what made me more successful than some, so everything is to be taken with a grain of salt and triangulated to your situation.
Background on the Outschool platform itself
As a teacher, especially if you are not on Facebook and social media much, you have no idea what kind of “marketing” Outschool is doing and how your classes may or may not play into that.
There are so many variables that could lead to success and the processes and ways the site works from the parent perspective are relatively opaque to teachers. The analytics/the data that Outschool provides teachers to understand how/what parents are searching for are unhelpful and/or misleading at best.
The search function of the site for parents is terrible. If you search a keyword that is in your class title and description multiple times, say “animation” the returns you get are voluminous and many of them having nothing to do with animation. The process of understanding how parents search and how the Outschool search setup priorities certain classes is something nobody knows or talks about and you have to figure it out on your own. IT’s like how Google doesn’t reveal their algorithm.
There is a dump of random sentences that are input into the search box by parents you get sent once a week or so.
Each week, usually near the top of requests/searches being typed in by parents/students is: adadfad. I also once saw “boobies” in the top ten requests for classes, it’s that asinine of a tool. Nothing on anything Outschool has sent in terms of marketing has turned on a light bulb, except to say- make “Camps” which I then did for summer and made several thousands of dollars offering an iMovie camp, but I have no idea whether it helped to put camp in the title, or if it got included where it otherwise would not have in their marketing.
How do you market to someone when you don’t know who are you teaching?
Nobody really knows the demographics of who is actually signing up for these classes, or at least I have not seen or found any decent data on this. Are they largely unschoolers or deschoolers? Are the parents looking or are the kids? Public school kids with no baby-sitters?, US based? All these things are sorta clear, but not really. Most of what I saw with some exceptions were basically very well off American families, but this could be that I was offering relatively expensive courses, in the top 10 percent of the cost of what was offered on Outschool.
So how did I make so much money so quickly?
I came in at what was arguable the perfect time. The service experienced growth in a short period of time that they’d never seen on such a scale because of COVID 19. I was experienced as a teacher, so I felt my listing and video and personal background were strong, but I am not convinced that even this matters, as the guy who I modelled my most successful class after had one of the most lacklustre profiles, the shortest, most uninformative class listings and NO teacher video.
What he did have was a track record of being on the platform for almost three years and had just been banging away on the same tiny stable of classes, essentially only two or three, and really just one class.
Seeing his success at it and knowing I could do it just as well, I made asimilar class.
Most interestingly, he was charging triple what most teachers charge, $40 dollars an hour per student. If you pay attention to the guidelines that Outschool recommends, you will have to work like a dog every day, full time to still make peanuts unless your classes are completely maxed out and huge each time. Of course almost no teachers see this ever, let alone starting out.
When I submitted the class for listing, Outschool rejected it saying it was too expensive, and that it was too close to other listings. I wrote them back providing the links and information showing how there were multiple classes doing the same thing and detailing how my class was different in its aim to be more comprehensive, with pre and post support through additional video/slides. I said I was at least as much or more qualified to teach the class than the guy who currently was leading all others teaching it and that if he could charge what he was charging, then so could I.
They relented and approved the listing, but said in their terse approval if they noticed negative reviews they would pull the class. The rest is history as this class went on to make up about 65 percent of my earnings for June and July, about $18,000 in two months.
Finding your niche
I priced about $5-10 dollars cheaper than the leading animation course at about $30 dollars a class and pulled in pretty big numbers from the start in May. By June, every class I had, 3-4 classes a week was full, usually capped at 16 students. By then I was up to $40 dollars a class, and my classes were making me between $390-490 dollars for a little over an hour. It was insane. It was magical really, I was in my shorts and flip-flops and having fun. It was more money than I had ever made—ever, anywhere.
Classes that are fun more readily get students/reviews
Another possible reason for my success was the type of class. It was fun, it was something the kids were engaged in and it wasn’t like “school” at all, even though it was pretty much- watch what I do and do it, but they were using their own stories and stuff, doing what they wanted so their was a lot of autonomy and creativity involved.
As well, another huge differentiator in both parent and student minds is that for many of the parents, what they saw afterward was beautiful— their kids completely absorbed in a creative activity with technology! Not just slack jawed, dreaded, screen time! Not only did they get the benefit of their kids being happy and busy for that hour of class, they were literally then not having to mind them at all for hours afterward as their kids were so busy making movies! This was part of the reason of that justified the high cost— the actual value kept delivering long after the class, whereas with many classes, you took the class and maybe the kid thought a bit more about it later, but once that time was up, boom, you needed a new fix!
In my view, parents seem to mimic whatever the prior reviews are for a class and I think there is a strong tendency for them to “want to believe” that what they provided for their kids was really good.
Adding new, follow on classes
So for two months, as I was learning how to do things and offering other classes in iMovie and and Google tools like Slides, I realised that teaching academic stuff could be really demotivating and sucky online only. I tried to keep everything creative, but you can only make Google slides so AMAZING! and fun. At the end of the day, learning is work and if the kids aren’t super interested and they can’t to a lot on their own, teaching online only when you have kids with wildly variant talent and experience, different equipment, you can’t see their screens without huge friction costs of screen sharing and generally a compression of time, you just don’t have the luxury like in school of hours and hours a week with a captured audience you have so many tools at your disposal to stay on top of everyone and reach each kid if you need to. It’s doable on Outschool, but it’s a whole different game and it’s like fighting with a hand behind you back if you’re a meatspace teacher refugee without significant tech experience.
Then everything fell apart with more competition and summer ending
Things literally fell off a cliff in August.
Part of the reason was that a guy came in and did to me what I did to the former and still champion animation guy. He undercut my price by 35-40 percent, put in copy paste of my listing but as he was younger and “cool looking” and and added a super snazzy short video ad, he captured huge marketshare and took advantage that I took a break for 11 days first of August to go on vacation while the top dog was also on break. He literally took the whole market because the top two sellers were gone and he had a really good product.
I didn’t even realise any of this was happening until mid August when I did research on who was offering what, trying to find out why my enrollments had fallen off a cliff. It was jolting and I went in and had to really revamp things, make cool new video, lower my price, etc just to be able to regain some market share back. It was a painful realisation that my pie in the sky goal of keeping the gravy train going was dying right in front of me. I made about $13-14K in July down to $2300 in August. I was gone the first week and a half, but it was a fifth/sixth of the profits, just a literal bloodletting.
He had a good class, but what else was at play in his success?
One of the other ways that this guy was able to come in and take the lead in animation was that he was being shown higher in the different search filters because of the fact he was offering sections every single day.
Because of this, he would show up higher in the search rankings, especially because Outschool prioritized this type of immediate availability in the search returns. So even though he had far fewer reviews than my class, the combination of price, happening soon, keyword hits, etc, would mean he was likely coming up far sooner in parent searches than my class.
Similarly yet conversely, the top dog teacher of all time, despite barely offering classes in August, September is now filling classes in October and November where the 2nd and 3rd ranked teachers of the same material have nothing booked and wouldn’t get bookings even if we had classes available then. And this is not because he offers anything different— his classes are not a good value at all if you look at the market, and on top of that he is not even a five star teacher because he is clearly phoning it in somewhat now, with huge classes and parents resenting paying big money and then everything not going perfectly/meeting their expectations.
I can only assume the top dog is having his classes fill up months in advance for the simple reason he has been on Outschool the longest, comes up first in many searches, people see how many sessions he’s held and there is no reason to scroll further— they enroll with him, end of story. Even though arguably as good or better classes for less money are available now for their kids to take. It really is perplexing.
Play up you are a certified teacher, or not?
There is a case to be made that the parents on the site aren’t big fans of public school teachers/regular teachers kinda thing and in fact it is at least in some cases, I think the whole, sage on a stage, stilted personal video, etc, is all a net negative, they don’t want to see anything they could send their kids to get for free in public schools.
I just ran into this profile of one of the more successful longterm Outschool teachers Mr. Chicka E or something and he is this Australian guy in the US who markets himself more like a YouTube star or Influencer type, super smiley and zany branded stuff. If you look at his classes he has some really thoughtful stuff so there is perhaps something to this combo of “don’t look like a teacher at all, be a really cool or odd, compelling branded instagram personality.”
But from the parent’s perspective, you also have to have really good classes that mix content with some hook to keep kids thinking they are not really getting taught, as many already don’t believe in the whole concept of school, so don’t mimic it worse because it’s only online!
My two cents- good luck!
As I work my way through the first weeks and months of the changes in my life from “not working in a school” for the first time in over a decade and a half, what has become clear to me from out the outside looking in is the importance of collaboration and communication, not just between people, but @ the nexus of where people, communications and technology intersect. These three are ubiquitous and taken for granted anymore it’s hard to mention it without seeing trite, but this "taken for granted" bit leads me to the question in the title of the post- "Anyone have data that supports EdTech as a net positive for learning?
I will be the first one to feel my feathers ruffled by this question as I most recently left a position where I was the "Director of Digital Learning." Shouldn't I know? Well, I like most others, just assume EdTech offers a net benefit, but absent the need to feed the status quo this year, I have time for all the questions I've had and I'm free to follow them wherever the answers lead me.
I think it's important to say from the outset- I am a supporter of digital learning 100 percent. What I am not so sure of is the correlation between EdTech and digital learning. Most of the EdTech that gets talked about and implemented in the majority of schools I would term "digital teaching", not digital learning. What I am concerned about, and what I hope to come to a better understanding of is whether or not we’ve all allowed ourselves to slide into believing something about technology as its used in schools as to be something it’s really not. So since we don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflection on experience, that’s what this first column is about- reflecting on over a decade and a half in the classroom and a few years at the end as a leadership team/administration member at a school.
Some of the struggles I had as a teacher, a coach and integrationist became clearer after becoming privy to the inner views of school leadership. Too few school administrators have much patience to do the kind of work developing a real digital learning program takes.
I am talking about all the loss at the interfaces, dealing with poor infrastructure, leadership of IT staff, there is a serious dearth of leadership for digital anything in your average school. Instead of every single aspect being considered, there is a lot of “default setting” engineering happening. It's an unthinking approach, proceeding mechanically, disregarding information and clues (we've had our 3 minutes for talk about tech in the staff meeting for this week, moving on now...)
NoI was fortunate to be at a school that employed at least some digital learning integration support and put a "tech" person on the leadership team, but there was much less team support for digital initiatives as there were for traditional "teaching and learning". And it makes sense, as even the best generalist administrators are not well versed in any kind of depth of insight regarding technology integration. That's okay-- it's just important to point out because there is a lot of decision making going on and diagnosing of issues happening with very little training or experience behind it in schools that are not on the forefront.
What do I mean exactly?
There is a lot of digital teaching going on, and a lot less last digital learning.
School “computing“ is most often efficient content delivery and assessment systems.
Only a small number of schools have the vision and support and expertise to roll out computers and tablets and have them function as powerful discovery and learning machines.
Why this matters is because digital learning, digital teaching, edtech and IT, etc., are all thrown around interchangeably and they are not the same. There is an "Edtechochamber" of tech industry types, evangelists and a small percentage of heavily tech invested coaches, admin and teachers who support the use of "Edtech" and everything gets megaphoned together. It's repeated in school marketing as all having to do with improving student learning. Combined like this, and marketed with such fervor, one presumes that there is true "game changing" technology being implemented and integrated, but a curious thing is- you never see any data supporting these claims about EdTech's ROI. So my question is simple:
Where is the evidence that any of it, (regardless of what it's called) provides a net benefit for student learning?
John Hattie's studies apparently show little to no effect on student performance. He is held up as a demigod in Education so I cringe a bit that even he says the effect is small/is not measurably visible. I would so love to see a deluge of studies come forward that I have simply missed. Anecdotes on a small number of classrooms aren't going to cut it. I want to see the data that shows that the integration that's being done in the majority of classrooms is a net benefit for "student learning". Not for teacher efficiency, (which doesn't mean the teachers repurpose the time on students of course!) not for delivering digital worksheets, etc.. Our language surrounding technology makes it all too conveniently easy for everyone to assume its benefitting after the implementation of devices/software, etc has been made and money collected.
If we can't measure the positive effects of "Edtech" on student learning, (because it's digital teaching, not digital learning) then what exactly are we doing to students in schools with technology? How do we know? I’m not convinced we’re getting what we think we’re getting, and I am open to hearing about what I am not seeing. The point is- without thought about the details, all of our tech systems are basically big dumb oafs.
I don't blame any lack of coherent technology ROI on teachers at all, but the comment made by someone I don't know online some time ago always struck a chord with me:
"It all depends on how teachers use it. We don't buy a chain saw for every teacher. If we did, a few teachers would do brilliant work with the chain saws, a few others would cut off their thumbs, and the vast majority would just make a mess.
Again, this is zero against teachers as most schools outright fail in preparing for and paying for the appropriate professional development and support it would take to be proficient at all the tools and platforms thrown at them year after year, but the facts remain that most schools aren't very good at technology in terms of supporting digital learning.
I just wonder how much we've all drank the kool-aid because of the incredible utility and frankly amazing devices present in all of our lives outside of school. Surely, they will be beneficial in school, right? Hmmmmm...
Absent the pressure of a school environment forcing more "digital teaching" in the guise of learning, my mission going forward is to determine what kind of digital learning would most positively impacting students. My next post will focus on the particular steps I am taking to reclaim digital learning from being lumped in with "EdTech" in my own work now that I am no longer in a school. Thanks for reading, let me know what you think!
Outlining my vision for Digital Learning: Interview kicks off NIS's first student and staff produced podcast series.
Some of the questions addressed in the Interview:
Your current job title at NIS is Director of Digital Learning, so presumably your work plan is around how digital spaces can best support our students learning and prepare them for their future. Tell us about what you see the future as being? In other words, what kind of future do you see our students heading into?
So thinking about that future, and thinking about how NIS can best serve our students as they head towards that future, what is your ‘vision’ for digital learning at Nishimachi International School?
As we move towards that vision, what do you see is the most important ‘thing’ we need to do?
So, what do you think is our next practical step to achieving this?
Is there anything that might stand in our way, and if so how can we overcome or work around it?
Many paths lead to technology integration leadership roles and no matter how you get there we all face a common set of actors and obstacles along the way.
Over the next two months I will outline one path to leadership I followed in a series of posts focusing on the "techno-social" aspects of tech-integration. (In my experience the apps, platforms, devices and retweets of tech conference razzle-dazzle that dominate the twitterverse are the least important aspects of technology integration leadership.)
Part 1 of "Beyond PB and J, The Essential Guide to Setting up a Digital Ecosystem for Innovation" will explain how advancing from technology teaching to coordinating to coaching to leadership is all about...
PB & Js, MUSIC and PIE.
Bridging the gap between the present and the future of Digital Learning
Hit the ground running/Semester 1:
Acquire tech/cultural bearings: See where we are in terms of Integration, innovation, communication. Engage/Resolve: Understand common pain points and focus on what staff intend to do and where/when/how they prefer support delivery and how that fits with current/anticipated systems. Create/launch: Build quality concepts and get into user hands. See what they like see what they don't. Educate/iterate: Community wide system rollouts and communication with support frameworks in place to capture feedback and make adjustments. Focusing on encouraging further innovation and incorporating new capacities/technologies to fit personal teaching and learning needs.
Five Core Areas: