Transforming learning with truth, justice, and technology for schools.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Tom Murray serves as the Director of Innovation for Future Ready Schools, a project of the DC-based Alliance for Excellent Education (www.all4ed.org). He has appeared on various television and radio shows such as Real Money (TV) and NPR, and has been featured in various national education publications.

He has testified before the United States Congress and works alongside that body, the U.S. Senate, the White House, the U.S. Department of Education and state departments of education, corporations, and school districts throughout the country to implement student-centered, personalized learning while helping to lead Future Ready Schools® and Digital Learning Day.

An ASCD best selling author, Tom serves as a regular conference keynote, was recently named the “2018 EdTech Leader of the Year,” by EdTech Digest, the “2017 Education Thought Leader of the Year,” one of “20 to Watch” by NSBA in 2016, and the “Education Policy Person of the Year” by the Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2015. 

His best selling book, Learning Transformed, co-authored with Eric Sheninger and published by ASCD, was released in June 2017.

Congratulations on The EdTech Awards and being named EdTech Leadership Award 2018 Winner.

Tom: That’s something I’m really honored about.

Alright, glad you feel that way. I have a bunch of questions for you and I’ll just launch right in.

Tom: Yeah, absolutely; not our first rodeo together—let’s do it!

I’m here with Tom Murray and he’s with the Alliance for Excellence in Education. I hope I’m saying that right.

Tom: It’s the Alliance for Excellent Education, it’s All4Ed.org just so you have it as a reference, yep.

Okay good.

Tom: Because they are two different organizations so just to clarify that.

Yeah exactly, there’s one under Jeb Bush—The Foundation for Excellence in Education—then there’s another, The Alliance for Excellent Education under-

Tom: Correct. Governor [Bob] Wise is my boss, that’s right.

By the way, is there a huge distinction or are both organizations headed in the same direction?

Tom: Actually, what’s interesting is—although at times politically while serving together they may be polar opposites, they’re actually good friends that work to try and collaborate on the best interests of kids. Our organization does do different types of work, and [the organizations] don’t always agree on things, but we also try to be collaborative as well.

Oh okay; well, very diplomatically put!

Tom: Yeah, from politicians. It’s funny, they kind of coined the term “Digital Learning” together 17 or 18 years ago. I don’t remember if it was on 60 minutes. It was one of those main news channel shows. And they talked about [for] the first time on record people talking about how this notion of computers in the classroom could actually support learning. And they did it as both governors in a bipartisan way, so it was pretty neat.

Okay, and it’s not a case of Al Gore inventing the internet or coming up with—

Tom: No, no, no, no, yeah; it was this notion of, how can people leverage technology.

But back then, think about technology, what it looked like 17 or 18 years ago.

Yeah. Yeah.

Tom: Yeah, but anyway, kind of neat little backstory on that.

Okay, well good, that’s interesting. Congrats on The EdTech Awards recognition. You’re a 2018 EdTech Leadership Award Winner. What does that do for you? Is it great to be acknowledged? Does it validate your work?

Tom: Sure, I think anybody anytime they receive recognition for the hard work that they do, it certainly feels good in that regard.

I will say that I spent a lot of time away from my family, my wife and kids. I spent a lot of time on airplanes, a lot of time in different states across the country that’s away from my family here in Pennsylvania.

So to be recognized and a pat on the back is certainly a wonderful feeling.

But I will say, to couple with that, there’s no award in my opinion that is ever truly only for one person’s work. And what I mean by that is:

The work that I do is not about me. It’s about the kids that I have the opportunity and privilege to serve around the nation, but I also recognize there’s so many people that support the work that I do, that work hand-in-hand with the work that I do, that are right alongside there with me.

I’ll say that I’m very honored by the award. It does feel good for that recognition.

However, the work is not done, there’s more to do. There’s more we can do for the kids that we serve. But it’s always a team effort.

Fair enough. You’re Director of Innovation for Future Ready Schools at the Alliance for Excellent Education. “Innovation” is one of those words we’re hearing a lot in the last five years especially I would say. I mean innovation has always been in the dictionary, but the pace of technological change seems to be accelerating at a more rapid rate than in the last couple dozen centuries, one might say. What’s your definition of innovation and what does “future ready” mean?

Tom: I love, love that question, I truly do. One of the things I hear at conferences is that we’re preparing our kids for a world that doesn’t yet exist. My pushback to that is that’s always been the case.

But here’s the difference, it’s exactly what you stated in the question.

The increased abilities of technology have increased that acceleration at a pace it’s never seen before. And it continues to accelerate.

When we look at this notion of innovation, it definitely has become a buzzword in the educational sector in the last number of years, without a doubt.

What does innovation mean to me?

Innovation is about process, not about tools.

Sometimes we see in schools people talking about, “Look how innovative I am because I’m using X tool.” I wrote a blog post in December, that the title of the blog post was, “No, your 3D printer does not make you innovative.”

Because you can use a device, you can use something like a 3D printer in very innovative ways, absolutely.

But just because we’re using a device we can also use it for very low-level learning. Innovation to me is about process, not always about end result. Innovation, I truly believe, is making things better in new and different ways.

To move onto this notion of future ready, sometimes there’s pushback about our kids need to be future now, they need to be ready now, and we fully agree in that. It’s this notion of are students ready for that future that’s been described in the question.

Are students having the ability, these future ready skills per se to adapt to change?

Because that change is going to continue to accelerate. Do they have the deeper learning skills and the content knowledge needed? Do they have the agency to get what they need when they need it so they can be that decision maker moving forward?

Education has really shifted from understanding content and regurgitating content—to being able to create and design for those skills moving forward.

Alright, well that’s very provocative. I’m thinking about that and I’m thinking the emphasis isn’t on the tools, it’s not on the technology itself, it’s on the people, the individuals and helping them get the evergreen skills. Not necessarily skills that are going to be out of date in a year or two, but-

Tom: Here’s what I mean, maybe it’s kind of a quotable there per se but I truly believe it:

I believe you can be highly innovative with very little technology, and you can also be extremely traditional with all the technology in the world.

And what I mean by that is:

It’s about the use and about what it actually looks like in process.

And think about it from a teaching and learning end, that’s the lens I’m coming at it from.

Just because something is digital doesn’t make it good.

When we think through these pieces, technology is an amplifier. It can amplify those incredible best practices, but it also can amplify poor instructional practices.

Just because we’re using a device doesn’t mean it’s being innovative. Innovation in that sense is doing things better and different over time.

Alright Tom, you’re a best selling, and this is a real thing here, a best selling ASCD author, because a lot of folks are not best selling—

Tom: Right, right.

And that’s with Learning Transformed8 Keys to Designing Tomorrow’s Schools Today. Change happens quickly; would you already revise or add a few keys? Or are these timeless or is that what your next book is all about?

Tom: As Eric and I were writing ASCD, the goal to make the book evergreen was really important to us. One of the things that you won’t see in the book is the latest trend or the latest tool or the latest app, because those continue to evolve literally on a monthly basis, right? So we really wanted to make the book evergreen.

Part of the reason and the rationale for doing that is so much of the book moves from research to practice, and evidence to practice, and what are those tried and true practices over time that people have been able to leverage and what does it actually look like in practice?

I would say even though we’re a year out from the book’s release in that regard, at this point I wouldn’t change the keys I would just continue to enhance data.

Let me give you an example.

The data that we cite, we cite a lot of data around things such as equity.

And the data over time will continue to be updated and continue to change. Just yesterday I saw on Twitter, it was some sort of article on a new report that came out that shows our students of color have less access to high quality deeper learning type courses at their high schools than their white counterparts in suburban parts of our country.

Now Eric and I cited a study that says exactly that from a few years prior, but that data continues to get updated.

If I were to write a revised version of Learning Transformed, we would update statistics, update our case studies and update the things that we cite. But in terms of what actually works, it’s really designed to be tried and true to research over time as we studied schools that had been transforming, what were those key areas?

What is technology’s role in education? I’ll just come out and ask that, because that’s an overview, it’s a Birdseye type of from 50,000-foot question. What do you think technology’s role in education is and what it should be?

Tom: Technology can absolutely be an amazing tool for teaching and learning. However, we are also spending vast amounts of money on technology that can be a complete waste of money in the classroom.

And here’s what I mean, and it’s kind of what I started to get to earlier.

Just because we have the technology doesn’t mean it’s effective. We can go one-to-one in a classroom, but we need to focus on the right one in the one-to-one and make sure that it’s actually effective. It’s not the device, it’s the kid. What is it that that kid needs and how can technology support that tool?

Sometimes we see, and I work a lot with school leaders and I’ll work with school leaders on even the supervision process. They walk into a classroom and they get all excited because every kid is on a device.

And what I’ll say with that is at the end of the day so what? What if it’s all low level learning? On one hand, it’s not a contrarian view, it’s the reality that in many places and many environments, students are using it for very passive use, consumption-based use.

And all the evidence shows from a passive or consumption-based use, that’s not doing much for student learning.

Why?

Because it’s all low level.

The flip side to that is the power that technology can have. When used well, when used to create, when used to design, when used to explore, and those are all evidence-based examples, that’s where the magic happens.

That’s where technology can amplify amazing practices in a classroom. It’s truly when it can help unleash a student’s genius. There are students that I get to work with around the country that will never leave the county that they reside in.

Technology can amplify that and bring them to anywhere in the world that they can connect and collaborate with any other person, and that’s not possible without the technology. Go ahead.

I feel like there’s a theme here, and its basically students should control technology, not technology in control of students—is that fair to say?

Tom: Yeah, no I love that because at the end of the day when we look at deeper learning outcomes, so much of it comes down to student agency and student voice. Technology is a tool. And it’s an amazing tool. Just like if I’m building a house, a hammer is an amazing tool. But a hammer might not be the tool that I need if I’m working on my car.

So it’s the right tool at the right time for the right job. The technology and the advances in technology that we’re seeing with things like artificial intelligence, I don’t know if you saw the Google call this last week and the office assistant that makes the call to the hair salon. It’s unbelievable where the technology is evolving.

However, when we use it in schools, we need to make sure that we’re focused first and foremost on high quality teaching and learning, and technology is an incredible amplifier for that.

Before we go running with glee over the technology cliff, when I hear things like Alexa, to me I’m like ‘surveillance!’ and we’re already in that Surveillance Economy— we’ve been in that for years, except some folks are kind of waking up to, “Wait a second, what’s going on here?” I don’t want to be all alarmist here, but give me a break: You’ve got a kindergartner saying “Hi Alexa, help me with my times tables!” and that thing can actually record them? And, ‘Oh! Wouldn’t it be nice to have a recording of what their voice sounded like when they were two years old?!’ I’m thinking, that is a surveillance economy type of thing. Are you looking at these issues, or are you kind of just like, ‘Wheeeeh!’?

Tom: Your question is awesome. And the reason I say that is I actually testified in front of congress two and a half years ago on student data privacy. Any time we’re talking about technology that’s related to student data, any sort of student outcomes that tie the technology in any capacity of course under FERPA or anything that would be in educational record, under—any kid that’s under 13 especially, schools need to make sure that student data privacy is at the forefront.

Your example that you referenced is that home use. And I’ll tell you, I got an eight year old little girl and a four year old little boy that love their technology, but I’ll tell you as dad I make ever precaution to make sure.

My little girl the other day, she was searching, she was wanting to find images. She’s doing this story on Foxes. Well I’ll tell you what, I didn’t just have her go to Google Images and just look up foxes because it’s very careful if I didn’t have the safe settings on, which I do, if I wasn’t filtered in that regard.

Obviously some things could have come up.

Part of this is digital citizenship, this notion of a child’s not digital footprint, we’ll say digital tattoo in the work they’re doing, but part of it’s the privacy side in people’s rights. And from a school end, what do they need to do to balance it?

When we take a look at privacy, privacy is non-negotiable when it comes to protecting a child’s information, all of the personal information that a child might have or does have in those environments. But it’s a balance on the privacy end, as you say, as technologies evolve it can absolutely become more and more intrusive to privacy.

We have to as educators really safeguard kid information. Again, that’s non-negotiable. Excuse me. But at the same time, what we don’t want to do is sometimes there’s a notion, and I say this as a former tech director, there’s a notion where we start locking and blocking everything. This fear factor comes in and nope, we can’t do anything, we start blocking all these great tools and blocking all these great things.

Should we block certain things?

Absolutely.

But sometimes this lock it and block it mentality gets in the way of student learning and resources that are needed there.

Kind of to wrap those pieces up, when I’m running future ready schools kind of in a day-to-day basis, one of our main gears of future ready framework is data and privacy. Districts absolutely have to stay on the forefront.

Part of the difficulty is they’ve got federal aspects of it. There’s FERPA, CIPA, COPPA, PPRA from a federal end, and you’ve got your state laws and every state’s going to be a little bit different there. Then they also have a local board policy as it comes to this stuff.

Local school boards have been updating their policies in the past number of years, but there’s still school districts out there that their board policy in these areas was written before social media was even a thing, or written before some of these tools could be collaborative and was written in an era where you have these desktops that were standalones in the back of the classrooms.

So it’s important for districts to stay up to date on privacy, the legalities of it, make sure that student information is always secure in that regard, but also just making sure they’re making comments and decisions for kids.

Well Tom, I think you should get a leadership award just for being able to say all those acronyms in one breath.

Tom: Do we not buzzword bingo the heck out of everything in education or what?

Wow, well yeah, then buzzwords on top of that—but that was pretty impressive. Before I get onto that, do you want to take a shot at this question? What is the state of education these days from your perspective? That’s a broad question, but there are so many amazing answers to that.

Tom: Yeah, yeah there certainly is. I have a relatively unique perspective in that I get to work with thousands of school leaders every year.

So from coast to coast in virtually every state, here’s what I know. Everyday I see incredible educators working so hard for the kids that they serve. Everyday I see students that have incredible learning opportunities, and I don’t mean this to be cliché, but to change the world in different ways.

Here’s what I also know, there’s certain students that their learning looks a lot like it did 30 years ago.

And terms of the state of education, we’re doing a lot of great things, we’re making a lot of growth, educators are working their hearts out. But for some kids in some environments, it hasn’t changed a whole lot. Some kids in some environments it’s completely changed from the way it was 20 or 30 years ago.

I have a lot of hope in our state of education because I believe in people, and getting to work alongside these incredible school leaders, I know they’re making great decisions for kids.

Where the state of education becomes really difficult is on a political front.

Everybody wants to make education a political football for his or her gain politically, whether it’s in D.C. or at the state level or even at the local school board level.

How do we make sure that we continue that focus on kids moving forward?

Because everybody out there seems to think they’re an expert in education because they all went through the K-12 system themselves.

With that, I have a lot of hope because everyday I see great things happening for kids.

But at the same time, yes we need to continue to make some changes moving forward to make sure that we’re really meeting the needs of today’s modern learners.

Alright, I’m in awe. That’s very insightful, okay.

Tom: I try.

Alright, well very good then. What is the role of policymakers as relating to edtech companies with concern, for example with concern regarding issues such as—we’ve covered student data privacy, but—

Tom: Right.

What would you say is the role of policymakers relating to edtech companies? Are there any caveats, any warnings?

Tom: Yeah, working bipartisan in DC and working alongside the senate and the congress, the issue of where does policy fit when it comes to private companies, when it comes to kids, when it comes to kids that are under 13? Federally we’ve always created these policies to protect kids. In my personal opinion, we do need these guardrails to protect kids to make sure that nobody’s trying to profit off them.

We wouldn’t want an edtech company taking the data that they get because they’re providing something in the classroom, to turn around and market it for their parents, “Hey Johnny needs this because I’m telling you again,” that they then profit on that end. That can become really ugly really quickly.

Federally in these policies and even from a statewide end, we’ve seen changes in California and some of those places, we need to set these policies up so that that way our kids are protected. However, just like any legislation in any other sector that’s out there, there are times where government can overstep in my opinion.

When we take a look at those pieces from their end, their role is to make sure that kids are to remain safe and you see that through FERPA and CIPA and COPPA and those pieces that are out there, but at the same time to make sure that they’re not over regulating things to the point where then ed companies start to back down and just say, “well then we’re not going to do any of it because you want to regulate every aspect of everything we do,” and then we slam the breaks on innovation is what can happen in that regard.

Okay.

Tom: Yes they have a role, their role is guardrails and safety for kids, but also to make sure that it’s loose enough that innovation can thrive.

Alright. Understanding what we’re talking about in education is pretty key. Let’s discuss, “adaptive learning” is somewhat of a technical term, authentically accomplished through algorithms and backend technology, while “personalized learning” seems to be popular but so general and vague that it could be used as a vehicle to smuggle anything through the line. Your thoughts on that? And how do you separate adaptive learning from personalized learning?

Tom: Wow, I have to say you are asking some incredible questions, and I mean that. That’s an hour conversation in and of itself, but let me try to answer it from the get go. I said earlier that I truly believe we buzzword bingo everything in education. Ask 10 administrators what the words personalized learning mean, sit back, and watch you get 10 different responses. First of all, it’s vital that whatever terms we’re using or discussing, we have some sort of a norm or a common understanding of what we actually mean.

When Eric and I were writing Learning Transformed, we were talking about things that were personal in nature. The notion personalized learning has been pushed by the Gates Foundation and a variety of other funders to really get at the intent being how do we make learning more personal for kids? How can we—and I’ll put the other two together, adapt to technology in different ways and different pathways?

Let me break them down like this:

Let’s start with the adaptive learning piece.

Adaptive learning is something in the past number of years that continues to grow. Essentially when we look—[it’s a tool we can use that can] continue to increase or lower based on their abilities.

On one hand, from a research end, what we see that actually works from research is this notion of interactive learning.

So how much interaction is the child doing.

What we don’t want to see is kids just being put behind devices for endless points of time, just staring at computer screens, because I also think that can do a lot of harm and damage from a social end or there’s other skills that we certainly want to work on.

However, this notion of adaptive technologies—let me back that up in a little bit.

When we think about the effectiveness of adaptive forms of technology, it goes back to the research of interactive learning.

Why is it effective?

It’s effective in the notion of the student; it’s more interactive for the child.

When we look at adaptive learning, it’s leveraging software or different types of technologies to meet a child where they are and progress with the needs of a child.

What’s traditional if I think back five or 10 years ago, quite often software or different programs would basically ask the same questions over and over and it didn’t matter if the kid was getting them wrong, getting them right, getting percentages.

Kind of like a very traditional mode of education. But here when it’s adaptive as a kid continues to show success and shows an understanding, the questions can get more rigorous, they can get deeper, they can progress.

But if a child shows they’re not understanding, then it can back it up, lower it and level it down. That adaptive nature is more personal in the sense that it definitely meets a child where they are, as opposed to treating it just like the child next to it.

This notion of personalized learning is certainly a huge buzzword and has been for the last number of years. At the heart of personalized learning is:

How do I make learning more personal for kids?

I think in some segments, just like any terms we would use, there’s really a gamut of this.

You’ve got some people that look at personalized learning as, I’m going to stick a child behind a computer all day, the computer is going to dictate what they need, how they need it, when they need it, at what point in time—and that becomes “education” for that child.

But we can look at the personalized learning in different ways that have nothing to do with technology. To make learning more personal through music, through art, through interactivity, through conversion, there are ways to do that as well.

For me, these are two massive buzzwords that we put out there that I would say people have very different understandings about.

Going back to take something like personalized learning—it’s so vital that we have a common understanding of what we’re talking about.

And it’s even just as important that students and parents know as well, because quite often it’s parents that get left out of this mix, where we throw these buzzwords out there, institute these new programs, and then, parents are looking at it like this is very different from what they did, without an understanding­—if they’re left out of that process.

Two words that certainly we’ll mix together at times, because as we’re making learning more personal, using adaptive technologies can be a tool to that process.

But I would say personalized learning is a much larger scope, where adaptive is a tool or an aspect of that to support making learning more personal on the other side.

I personally use the term “making learning personal” as opposed to “personalized”—based on the notion that the connotation of personalized learning has become very tech heavy, and I think technology is one component of making learning more personal for kids, but not all of it.

Alright, technology may be great for schools but we’re really heading into some uncharted territory. And we’ve been wading around in it for some time now. Any areas of concern you have regarding areas of edtech that especially may need caution?

Tom: Yeah, one of the areas that I really refer back to quite often is this notion of the Digital Use Divide. We’ve been talking about the Digital Divide for probably 20 years now. The digital use divide is the notion of how the technology and the edtech is actually used in classrooms.

My moment or some of my caution around some of this when I work with school leaders is just because we’ve gone one-to-one in our classrooms does not mean teaching and learning has really changed. The caution being we need to make sure that we hyper-focus on pedagogy first and understand that technology is an amazing amplifier, yet technology in and of itself isn’t going to change things.

Taking a look from what we’re seeing a lot of, we’re buying more and more stuff than we ever have before. As budgets have remained stagnant for the past 10, 12, 13 years, even though they’ve gotten a little bit better in the past couple of years on the whole, edtech spending continues to go through the roof.

It’s vital that as we continue to invest in the money, we hyper focus on the learning and not just because the tech is cool or the tech is fun—because you can be 100% digital, 100% paperless, 100% using technology and 100% low-level learning.

We’ve got to focus on the high quality teaching and learning first and foremost—and then absolutely leverage the technology as an amplifier for that.

That’s a great segue to the next question I have for you. What are some great highlights of what’s working with edtech, with technology in education? Any people, now this might be a lot: people, schools, companies, organizations—that are really getting it right?

Tom: Sure, I’ll give you just a couple examples and then a couple examples in two different ways.

One is I love pointing to the Elizabeth Forward school district in western Pennsylvania.

Elizabeth Forward understands that teaching and learning has to be of the highest quality, and that’s the main key. They also understand how technology can be leveraged to provide really unique opportunities for kids. You can go in, when you’re in Elizabeth Forward as a middle school student, you get to go to the dream factory where your math teacher works with your science teacher works with your English teacher in an environment that is tech infused, that kids are designing and creating products.

They’re designing in math class, they’re using the math design to create something like their own candy bar, and then they go to science and figure out well how would I actually make it, and what does it look like from a chemistry end?

Then they go to English and they write out the marketing for it and those pieces.

But they’re leveraging technology along the way, and when it’s used well, kids see the natural connections between the relevance in life and the work that they’re doing in schools, and technology is just an amazing tool for that.

When I look at a school district like Elizabeth Forward, I see some of the work they’re doing with their mobile STEM lab that they give every kid an opportunity, not just their gifted kids, not just their kids on the wealthy side of town, but every kid has an opportunity to design and to create and those types of things.

They’re hyper focused on those high level skills. They’re one example of when I say who’s using technology well, they understand that it’s not just let’s digitize our worksheets and our best practices and pretend we’re doing something wonderful. Let’s do it intentionally and with a purpose.

Elizabeth Forward is an amazing district in western Pennsylvania that’s really using technology well.

Let me give you another example.

Technology is also an amazing amplifier for voice.

Everyday in every one of our schools, truly amazing things happen. When I think of superintendent Joe Sanfilippo in Wisconsin, Joe is an incredible person that understands branding.

And when we think about this notion of branding, branding is often a marketing term obviously for businesses, but it’s also become an educational term as well.

Districts are leveraging technology to communicate far better than they ever have before. Everyday in every one of those classes, great things happen. How does your community know? Joe is somebody as a superintendent who models this for his staff and his community.

Everyday he’s sharing out from Twitter, from Facebook, from Instagram, from using all these digital tools, from their app as a district, the great things hat are happening inside their schools.

And know what it also does? It builds trust.

Technology can be leveraged to tell our school’s stories, to meet parents where they are.

At the end of the day, no parent ever said, “I’m dying to check the school district webpage!”

The webpage in 2018 having a robust web presence is really just an expectation.

As districts look at ways to share great information, collaborate with the community, technology is an amazing way to make that happen.

However, the caveat being we need to make sure when we look at the homework gap, and that’s families that are not connected at home, that we don’t leave them behind per se or keep them out of the loop if everything we do is just digital.

Any companies or organizations also getting it right?

Tom: When I look at an organization like CoSN, they’re one of our partners for Future Ready, they are quite often a Tech Director organization.

One of the reasons I would say they’re certainly doing great work in this area is they’re also working to educate people like superintendents and they’ve got tool kits for them, or they’re working on areas of equity such as the homework gap that I just referenced.

They’re working on how do you balance the needs of privacy with leveraging technology’s opportunity for kids.

They’re an organization that’s doing great things.

And of course I have to give a shout out to future ready schools because it’s bipartisan, because it’s free and it’s a free support for school leaders, but at future ready schools we’re working with school leaders from superintendents to tech directors to help support and amplify technology, but at the end of the day to support high quality teaching and learning for all kids.

Are there a few tools out there? Not to specifically endorse anyone, but do you have some thoughts on this?

Tom: Yeah I can give some shouts out to—you know what? Let me share it as a dad, because it’ll put a slightly different spin on it. Does that make sense? So with my own kids.

Okay.

Tom: One of the edtech companies that has impacted my own family as a dad of a little girl sitting in second grade is Bloomz, the communication tool.

Bloomz is a free tool that my daughter’s teacher uses everyday that she connects and shares pictures and videos and a synopsis of the day that when my daughter comes home or when most kids come home in America, the conversation is always, “Hey honey, how was your day?” “It was good.” “What’d you do?” “Nothing.”

There’s not a classroom in America where nothing happens all day long, right? Bloomz has been a tool that has fundamentally changed the conversation at home about education with our daughter, because now when she comes home we have pictures, we have videos, we have images from the classroom.

As a daddy that travels a lot, I travel literally on a weekly basis, it keeps me connected to my daughter’s school, keeps me connected to my daughter’s classroom, I feel like I’m in the loop. And when I’m Face timing with my little girl at night from halfway around the world, I’m able to say, “Hey honey, I saw a picture of you in school today. It looked like you were doing a science experiment. What were you doing?”

And it’s because of this edtech tool that we as parents can stay in the loop.

And you know what it really does? It helps build trust.

Because everyday I see into my daughter’s classroom and I see the incredible things that are happening in my daughter’s classroom, where if we rewind 20 years ago, if it’s just the four times a year report cards, the twice a year conferences and the once a month newsletters, it’s almost impossible to see what’s going on everyday.

But now with the opportunity from wherever I am in the world to see into my daughter’s classroom, to see the amazing things going on, it builds trust as a parent where I can see and it also has really fundamentally changed the way we talk about it at home.

What advice do you have for tech companies creating solutions for education?

Tom: In working with a number of edtech companies in different ways, my advice always comes back to how do you help the student.

Education in and of itself is there to make sure that we’re helping progress our nation forward as a democracy.

As a company, how do you hyper focus on what it is a child needs?

My biggest advice is making sure we understand the needs of all kids.

It’s very easy [to build a] tool that meets one segment or one need or one facet, and I understand there are times or—places are going to do that because that’s the design for it, but as you design edtech type tools, we need to remember that 5 million of our nation’s families do not have internet access at home.

Disproportionally, it’s our Black and Hispanic families. When we have numbers like that as an edtech company—how can your company support still using your app or tool or whatever the case might be at home? What does that look like? For some there’s no issue at all. You don’t need internet to do it.

But—if in the case where I’m the student that doesn’t have that access at home, but I need to use your tool or your app or whatever the case may be—at home, then how does that help me? Because, if we’re not careful, we can design and create these products that will actually widen the gap instead of support those most in need.

Some of the biggest advice I have is: focus on all kids, and understand the need for equity while also balancing privacy—and be proactive about privacy as opposed to being reactive.

That’s interesting, it reminds me I was a the Global Education and Skills Forum in Dubai this most recent one. One of the things was emerging technology for the emerging world, and being able to scale a solution was one emphasis there. Your thoughts on that?

Tom: You know, when we look globally, you hear stories of children in third world countries, places that had very little, getting their hands on technology, and the amazing things that happen from it.

On one hand, I would encourage those, whether they’re foundations, whether from a charity, those kinds of things; how do we support those most in need, not just here at home, but those around the world? Because technology and getting them connected, it gives them opportunities.

It’s such a broad question in terms of what advice do you have or what are the cases there.

What we’ve seen though is technology can help support students coming out of poverty.

And what I mean by that is, some of the research behind families that are connected, they get jobs faster, they’re able to connect and network with others, their incomes are higher. So, what does it look like, how do we support that—not just here at home, but globally as well—what can that look like?

From a teaching and learning end, there are places and classrooms in the country that technology in the classroom is just this far-fetched idea because they don’t even have money for a chair, for a desk in some of our poorest areas.

We hope to see the day where technology can bring those places, those children that they never leave their village out to the rest of the world so we can really amplify their genius there as well, but some that’s probably years or decades away—because we have significant issues of poverty around the world, as we all know.

I have one more question, but I feel hesitant to ask it because I feel like it’s going to open up a whole other Pandora’s box or a can of worms or however you want to say it, and it could be the basis of another entire discussion, but I’ll ask it anyway just so maybe you want to give a shallow answer then we can wrap it you pretty soon here. What are some of the great issues of our time which leaders in education dealing with technology—and also technology leaders providing solutions to education— should be paying attention to?

Tom: Oh wow, yeah that’s big. Let me focus on one idea that I touched on a handful of times, and it’s the notion of equity.

As far as we’ve come as a nation, alongside the amazing things that I’ve referenced that are happening in classrooms with technology, in 2018 we still have drastic issues with equity from a tech end, from a teaching and learning end, from a learning space end, and so many different ways.

Disproportionally when you look at any sort of data on this, and for Learning Transformed we did a lot of research in so many different areas.

Let me give you some examples.

A number of years ago, they looked at I believe it was, I’d have to look at the date, I want to say it was 2014. I’d have to double check the number, but the AP computer science exam, they did a study on the students that actually took the exam. In 11 states, states, not a single black student took the exam.

In eight states, not a single Hispanic student took the exam.

So when we look at equity and opportunity, there are huge issues in terms of children even just having access to high quality or rigorous coursework or access to devices.

One of the things from a Learning Transformed end that we really talked about was this notion of equity and opportunity.

The opportunity that our kids have to take some of those courses, to access some of those things online and so on and so forth.

The other equity area that we talk about is equity in access.

Whether it’s the digital divide in terms of actual physical access to devices, the access to broadband which has continued to get better over the past decade or so, we continue to make progress in this area.

But again, recognizing that as I referenced earlier, 5 million of our nation’s families don’t have that access at home, and we’re still looking at and I believe it’s from education superhighway about 6.5 million kids don’t have the needed broadband access even while at school.

One of the huge issues of our time is, “How do we make sure,” as Secretary Duncan used to say quite often, “that our zip code doesn’t determine our educational outcomes?”

Because, when we look at things like funding, when we look at things such as professional development for teachers, access to devices or opportunities for kids—still, across the country in 2018, zip code determines so much of the opportunities that kids have.

And that is a huge issue that we have to address.

Anything else you were hoping to discuss that we didn’t really quite get to, but you wanted to highlight or emphasize?

Tom: One of the areas that we hit in Learning Transformed that I didn’t talk about at all but goes hand in hand as we roll out more edtech, as we focus on teaching and learning, it’s the notion of learning space design in and of itself.

And what I mean by that is, what I wouldn’t want to see in my own children’s classrooms per se or other kids out there is this tech heavy environment where every kid is sitting in a classroom as an island to themselves, all day long.

That’s just not good. And, what’s going to support kids? And what we need moving forward.

So the notion of learning spaces in terms of how the space impacts learning is really, from a research to practice end, is really, really important when it comes to teaching and learning.

As districts are leveraging more technology, as they’re shifting to whether its a more personal or personalized approach, whatever word and phrase they’re using, and looking for—they have to be conscious of the learning space itself; the spaces kids learn in along the way.

And the essential question that I always ask with that is, “Does your vision for teaching and learning and your current learning space design match?”

Meaning, if we’re going to talk about problem solving and collaborating and these critical thinking skills, is every kid sitting as an island unto themselves?

At Learning Transformed we call it the “cemetery effect” of a classroom because then the pedagogy and the design don’t match.

I think it’s important that as we make these changes from a pedagogy and instructional end that we also consider the learning space and the design for learning itself.

Tom, you’re a great communicator. One of the qualities of a true leader, so congrats on The EdTech Awards – The EdTech Leadership Award 2018 Winner that you just earned so recently. I just want to say thank you. It was my pleasure speaking with you today.

Tom: Thank you so much Victor, I really appreciate you, your work and all the work of The EdTech Awards and EdTech Digest that you do. I’m really honored by that opportunity, as I shared earlier, in that award, so thank you for that.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com