Front and Center Series: Discussion with Johanna Wetmore
This week we begin a series of talks with CEO and Co-Founder Johanna Wetmore. In a career devoted to education; first as a teacher, and then as a publisher and educational product developer, Johanna has an extensive track record of successfully planning and executing education product strategies. She shares her thoughts on the role of technology in the classroom; firm in the belief that teaching can only improve when we listen to and understand the workflow needs of our educators.
Johanna, You’ve been able to witness the use of technology in the classroom from many different angles- as a teacher, publisher, and education technology developer. As we wind down 2013, tell me your thoughts on the state of the educational technology industry:
Johanna: Well, first of all, educational technology may be an industry – really a niche within an industry – but it’s not a subject. It’s not a course. Educational technology is a means to an end. It’s a medium for delivering education like any other medium. Mediums have powers and they need to be used effectively. What we create at EvoText (or any other software firm) is not education. It’s not pedagogy. It’s not ‘what’ to learn. We create tools to facilitate learning; to facilitate teaching; to disseminate pedagogy. Basically, to help educators and students do their job. When software firms effectively partner with their end users to listen, really listen, to discover the real needs and provide real solutions and efficiencies, that’s when they create a benefit with technology.
The country–the world really–is in the midst of a slow transition from one medium (print) to another (digital). Anytime we’re making a shift like this, we have to ask ‘why?’ and ‘for what benefit?’ If it’s easier or more effective for me to do something on paper, why should I switch to digital? With the shift specifically in education from print to digital the process seems to be going a bit slower and to be a bit bumpier than perhaps we would like. So, in order to make a meaningful transition from print to digital, there are a couple of options and certainly gradations between these options: there’s creating a top-down mandate and just forcing the issue and sort of weathering the transition storm, and then there’s bottom up: building products that have a value-add over paper; that entice the end user to switch; they save you time; they give you data you wouldn’t normally have; they organize things faster/more efficiently than you could do on your own; they help you to understand something in a way print can’t; they adapt to your learning style; they give the teacher more hands in the classroom.
No technology can take the place of a good teacher. That’s not its job. It needs to extend the reach, the effectiveness, the efficiency, the time, the quality of a good teacher. There are products that do this very well, but there are a lot that just don’t. And we’re in a period in our history with hugely conflicting forces. Web and device-based education applications are flooding the market. Every company in the technology space seems to be vying for a share of the education market. States are saying ‘no’ to print. Schools do not have the bandwidth or hardware to fully implement a primarily digital curriculum or classroom. Teachers are stuck in an awkward place between using print and digital products. Common Core, and the unknowns about its implementation, adds another layer of complication to the mess – how much ‘tech enhancement’ will there be in those questions?
And we can’t ignore the very real consequence of changing mediums – from print to digital. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, “changing mediums changes the message” – the medium has an impact on the content – on the educational material – it would be naïve to think it wouldn’t. So that fundamental shift to a new medium – from print to digital – has an impact on education. We have to go into this with eyes wide open about the change and make sure that the technology is helping, rather than hindering the message delivery and that the message is taking appropriate advantage of the medium. With any change there is always societal circumspection – because we need to make sure the changes we are making are positive and beneficial. We’re still in the very real process of defining this medium and its role in education delivery. Honestly, the energy in educational technology is incredible right now. Reminds me of the golden age of newspapers. There is no industry in which I would rather be.