Technology in education has historically been a story of control and limited access.
The main sources of information for students were their textbooks and their teachers. Both were limited: either in content, or in time. Research happened in libraries, closed after school. Lab computers blocked sites. The class portal was a nuisance. All were controlled and chosen by administrators of the school, and were created by companies that saw schools, not students, as their customers.
In recent years, the quality of products offered by schools has superficially improved. Textbooks now come with website access, class portals look more modern, and schools have iPads with authorized apps.
Meanwhile, something has quietly arrived in the hands of students everywhere: choice.
From America to India, smartphone penetration is highest among 18–24 year olds. In developed countries, 80% of 18–24 year olds have one. Empowered by their devices, students have become independent and savvy consumers of information and apps from unlimited sources.
Today, when a student is stuck working on homework or studying for a test, they’ll use what they know and what’s been most useful. That means searching Google, watching a Youtube video, or messaging friends.
Today, it makes little sense for any institution to push poor technology choices on students. The textbook’s website is clunky? Wikipedia and Google are clean and fast. YouTube is blocked in the lab? It works on their phones.
If students don’t like what’s been pushed onto them, they’ll go around it. The only way to help students is to build for them, and the only way to do that is to watch them try to learn.
Watch them search for help on their phones even though they are sitting with a laptop open. Watch them struggle to understand a Wikipedia article on Physics, written at the PhD level. Watch them regularly turn to Yahoo Answers, only to find conflicting responses. Watch what they are trying to do and where it’s breaking, and you’ll find an opportunity.
In this world, building for students is quite like building the rest of the consumer Internet. More experiments will happen. Iteration times will go down. And best of all, products built for students will actually make learning easier.
Thanks to Andrew Parker, Asha Gupta, Andrew Kortina, Shipra Bhansali, and Andrew Staub for reading drafts of this.