Technology can be an enabler to a better classroom by actually getting out of the way.

GUEST COLUMN | by Dave Vasen

CREDIT brightwheelThere’s a general refrain that technology should be avoided when it comes to early education. Teachers should not be pulled away from the classroom; young students should not be sucked into devices.

As a parent and someone who’s dedicated their career to education, I strongly agree with those principles. But it’s a mistake to assume that technology does not do so as well. The reality is that there are a large number of requirements and expectations placed on teachers in Pre-K, and technology can actually play a meaningful role in saving time and improving the learning environment.

We conducted extensive research across a variety of early education settings – childcare, preschool, after school – across school sizes and demographics. What we found was significant time spent on non-teaching activities. This includes licensing and funding requirements, such as tracking attendance and student activities. Educators have various systems for observing student development, including notes and photos. Then there is the internal communication and coordination across teachers (most rooms have multiple) and the plethora of communication with parents – updates, reminders, events, etc. And on top of all this, because pre-K is a private industry, many educators are also managing a business – staffing, billing, tuition collection, taxes, and so on.

With thoughtful design in collaboration with educators, technology has the opportunity to support teachers and deepen the learning experience.

This is a lot to expect of the individuals who are educating our children in their most formative years!

And it’s being done inefficiently. While many industries have developed great tools that are customized to the specific needs of their constituents, early education is an exception. The majority of the tasks described are still being done on paper. Paper is inefficient – and actually expensive.

Let’s take one example: Pre-K facilities are often required to log attendance on a daily basis, which usually consists of a daily sign-in sheet. That’s one piece of paper per classroom per day. Parents physically sign the sheet twice a day, while staff members monitor it and relay information across rooms. At the end of the day, paper is stored in binders and filed cabinets – later removed for billing or licensing purposes. That’s 260 pieces of paper per room per year. Not to mention the coordination across staff and parents to ensure accuracy.

Now transfer all of that to a single tap on a mobile device. The device logs the person, time, and location. If someone forgets, it sends a reminder. If a staff member wants to know a student’s status, she can quickly look up that information from anywhere on campus.

Parent communication is another great example. Think of all the notes, reminders, and calendar items that get sent home on paper for each student, not to mention the rushed verbal communication each day. That is usually just to one parent. Imagine if a teacher could relay all of that much faster – in less than 1/4 of the time – for all students in a medium that all parents can stay up to date with. Mobile and speech-to-text technology has made this possible.

The list goes on. The fact is that – when thoughtfully developed and deployed – technology can be an enabler to a better classroom by actually getting out of the way. Through time studies, teachers have reported saving up to five hours per week by combining the activities described into a single app that is faster and more efficient. That’s five more hours with students each week. It’s giving teachers great tools for observing child development. And it’s teachers and parents in better communication, having deeper conversations about student learning rather than focusing on logistics.

With the introduction of any new process of any kind, there will be detractors. With technology in classrooms, people warn of separating teachers from students, enabling helicopter parenting, or reducing teachers to mechanized robots. This fear mongering is simply unwarranted; we see the exact opposite. Across thousands of schools, we have consistently seen teachers saving time and being more satisfied with their work, while parents are more connected to their child’s development. Not every technology solution is worthwhile, and indeed some may have negative externalities. But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the potential when tech is done right.

With thoughtful design in collaboration with educators, technology has the opportunity to support teachers and deepen the learning experience.

Dave Vasen is the founder and CEO of brightwheel. He has led education initiatives for companies such as AltSchool, Amazon, Cisco, and Teach for America. He lives with his wife and daughter in San Francisco.