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Grade Smarter

Perhaps It’s Time for EdTech, Not Educators, to Change

Are we looking at a future higher education system with no degrees, no teachers, and no buildings? Although definitely a possible reality, a professor at Wharton believes breakthrough innovation usually takes hold through a middle path.

Radical Innovation

Radically different innovation often fails miserably (at first); think of the Segway, the Newton, or Google Glass. I had an Apple Newton in the mid-90s, and I thought it was awesome; however, I was in the minority. Steve Jobs killed the Newton as one of his first acts upon rejoining Apple. To put it politely, I didn’t understand Steve’s decision (okay, I was pissed), but after reading Invisible Influence, The Hidden Factors that Shape Behavior, by Dr. Berger, I think I have a better idea why. The Newton was way too “different.” Most people didn’t think my Newton was cool; rather, they thought I was just plain odd.

Ironically, after Apple put the Newton on the chopping block, they came out with the “think different” tagline. Oh, and they launched the familiar computer, an iMac, in a “different,” brightly colored box.



It wasn’t until Apple released the Newton in the form of a smartphone that it became a success. By that time, smartphones had already gone mainstream. In the case of Apple and Google, their biggest product innovations (i.e., search and iPhone) came through familiar packaging or products. Jonah Berger, a marketing professor at The Wharton School, further explains:

“Change often comes through cloaking technology in a facade of the familiar.”

Lessons From The Past

It turns out that being novel doesn’t drive success in a variety of settings. One key concept discussed by Jonah is optimal distinctiveness. According to Berger, “innovations that catch on mix familiarity and novelty, old and new.”

In his book, Dr. Berger provides numerous examples of technological advancements that struggled to take hold in our world. For example, the automobile initially had difficulties gaining mainstream adoption. Cars offered huge advantages over travel using horse and buggy. The new automobile was faster, safer, and eliminated the manure problem that contributed to significant environmental issues. However, the leap from a horse to a horseless carriage was simply too radical. They required a completely new skill set and expertise. It took nearly 100 years for cars to go mainstream.

As ridiculous as it sounds today, Uriah Smith created an automobile called the Horsey Horseless Carriage that contained a wooden horse head attached to the front of a car to resemble horse-drawn vehicle. Here’s the patent for the invention and drawings.

That raises an interesting point: With driverless cars on the horizon, should seats be facing forward, even if it’s not required?

There are numerous examples of technological innovations that have mimicked their analog predecessors. For example, digital cameras look nearly identical to film cameras. Digital audio MP3 players, such as the Rio, looked similar to the Walkman. TiVo designed their devices to look like a VCR player.

In all of these cases, these innovative products leveraged our evolved reaction that if we’ve encountered something before, it becomes easier to process. “This ease of processing, in turn, is coded positively. It’s the warm glow of familiarity.” By linking new with similar things, we simplify judgments, making our lives easier.

Implications for EdTech

There are enormous premiums for EdTech companies to be disruptors. Venture capital firms love to hear how a new technology is going to change things forever. To “get funded,” it’s smart to position the company as being a game changer.

Reflecting on Jonah’s position, there’s probably a lesson for those of us funding education through technology. For the last decade, EdTech topics and VC MOOCs and adaptive learning have dominated funding. The future looks like a dystopian scene from Blade Runner. Teachers being replaced by bots, degrees replaced by credentials, and buildings long abandoned by fully online “campuses.”

Educators often comment that entrepreneurs are disconnected from teachers’ needs.  Technologist believe education is a tough market that is reluctant to change. Well, we’re probably both right while missing the point entirely. Perhaps, a source of the problem is what Dr. Berger calls optimal distinctiveness. The solutions created by entrepreneurs and funded by VCs don’t provide sufficient familiarity that address “hidden” psychological factors, linking to mainstream adoption.

My Two-Cents

No matter the delivery, online or in person, the best learning environments have a great teacher front and center. Instead of a dystopia with abandoned buildings displaced by adaptive learning, bots, and AI, I see technology ultimately learning to serve instead of aiming to replace educators.

As tech leaders, we believe our products will change things for the better. If we develop technology based solely on the way things ought to be, we risk losing the opportunity to help the people we look to serve. We need to be aware of the Segway lesson, a device so different that nobody knew what to do with it. Let’s examine our approach and develop products that serve the classroom and psychological needs of teachers.

Mark Espinola
Founder + CEO of GradeHub