Education tech is changing, here’s one VP who is helping lead the charge

Education tech is changing, here’s one VP who is helping lead the charge

Technology has been a driving factor in changes to almost every aspect of our lives, but one facet that sometimes seems to be straggling a bit behind is the use of technology in education. Sure, Google and other web-based features may have changed how research is conducted and virtual learning environments like Blackboard have been around for 10+ years now, but when you really dig in, many things are still very similar to how it was 20 or more years ago.

As Vikram Savkar, VP and General Manager of Legal Education for Wolters Kluwer puts it, “[…] this was not because the stakeholders were “behind” (in wanting to implement tech) but because so much energy within the education community was going to other kinds of revolutions: profound changes in pedagogy, student evaluation, student support, and so on.”

So, where is technology at currently when it comes to education and what can it truly benefit? Where did it go wrong and what is being done about it? I had the chance to have a virtual sit-down with Vikram to talk all about education tech, including the questions posed above. Check out the interview below!

Where do you think education tech missed the mark in the last decade?

I think that perhaps some education tech start-ups were operating with an incorrect premise. There was a sense among the tech community that education was far behind the rest of the economy in the uptake of transformative technologies, and that the reason for this was that the people, schools and companies who were driving the education space were just not “progressive” enough.

But eventually, I think that tech entrepreneurs came to realize that, actually, the key stakeholders in education are generally extremely forward-thinking people, who are constantly striving to reinvent their approach as the facts on the ground change. If technology was being taken up gradually, therefore, this was not because the stakeholders were “behind” but because so much energy within the education community was going to other kinds of revolutions: profound changes in pedagogy, student evaluation, student support, and so on. These were big changes that resulted in major steps forward for our way of educating the next generation. They just didn’t necessarily turn on questions of technology.

Mostly, they revolved around intangibles such as shifts in goals and techniques. I think a lot of very promising ed tech innovations didn’t quite catch because the demand just wasn’t there yet, as customers were solving a different problem. I’m a big believer that you can’t, generally, force customers to want the things that you want them to want. Most times, successful innovation comes from delivering what customers are looking for, but in a way that is more imaginative than perhaps they envisioned. I believe that today the climate is better for many of the ed tech tools that I saw come and go through the 2000s.

Having reshaped the fundamentals of education, both schools and students are now looking for new and better tangible tools to achieve their goals, and of course they are turning to technology for this. That is why our Wolters Kluwer CasebookConnect program, which takes one hundred years of law school educational content and reinvents it as a purely digital learning experience for law students, has been so valued among schools, professors, and students since its launch three years ago. We’ve designed a very powerful and effective solution; but the customer is also very ready for it.

A long time ago, Apple was talking a big game (and the tech media was too) about the idea of iPads taking over education – why do you think that hasn’t happened?

Any level of focus on “the right hardware” as the single key to educational progress is probably going to be a bit of a red herring. It’s true that new hardware categories (e.g., tablets or smartphones as general categories) can evolve students’ learning styles, but none of them is likely to be the be-all end-all since each category will eventually be replaced by a new one.

What counts in education will always be, first, how personally the student who consumes learning experiences on the hardware can connect with the real human expert who teaches her, and second, how effectively those learning experiences are designed. I’m always a believer that the first challenge that needs to be grappled with in educational innovation is connecting students with inspired teachers.

And the second – although I suppose as a career creator of learning solutions I’m biased on this one – is delivering a powerful content-based experience agnostically on a variety of hardware products. Our CasebookConnect solution, for instance, is usable on just about any device that American law students have, and that’s contributed greatly to its popularity: it’s a student-centric, rather than device-centric, design.


How do you feel about Apple’s connectED program?

I think it’s exciting, and there are similar programs from other tech companies that are notable as well. I view all such initiatives as necessary localized contributions to a very complex ecosystem. Localized in the sense that any such maneuvers will succeed only where there is a passionate educator within the school who has a specific and personal vision of how to leverage the technology on offer to transform her students’ progress.

As one can see easily from the ConnectED website, the technology is being used for quite different purposes in different school systems. In other words, the device is a tool while the vision that requires that tool comes from the school’s leaders. Without Apple and other tech companies supplying the tools the vision may lie untapped; but without the visionary leader, the tools will gather dust. It’s the way in which technology facilitates local leaders that counts. And since that is clearly Apple’s view in ConnectED – and the view of other technology companies like IBM that have also engaged with school systems – they should be greatly appreciated. But never forget that what is most important is unlocking the creativity of the educational leaders themselves.

What can tech help with in schools? Where is it most effective?

Technology is most helpful for schools when it addresses the actual challenges and opportunities that they themselves are working on in order to better educate their students. That varies so widely from place to place. In some niches, the key challenge is attracting, retaining, and empowering top teacher talent. In other places, it’s simulating a complex chemistry lab (with all of the real-world risks from doing experiments!) online. In others, it’s helping students quickly catch-up through self-study on the basic math and grammar skills they may have missed earlier in their education. And so on.

There’s no single overarching challenge that all types of schools face (other than budget . . . always budget). The key for the tech sector is to work with schools from the start. Allowing the customer to be part of the basic vision and design process will ensure that the resulting product will experience uptake. We’re well past the days of valuations based on eyeballs. Investors today want to see real revenues, and real profit. Education customers are discerning, which means you won’t be able to get them on board with just an exciting vision. There has to be substantial value, and that can only come from customer involvement in product origination.

If new ed tech products begin their life with real and commercialized customer traction, then in my experience they can spread rapidly and become sustainable. Whereas, when new products begin on the outside and try to break in, they will meet with skepticism. Education is not a consumer market. There’s very little value attached to fashion, style, marketing, and the others kinds of qualities that can sometimes help consumer products come out of the blue and achieve significant market impact. In the education space, people buy for very pragmatic reasons, so you must begin with a tangible display of customer impact.

Do you think there are any great tech projects (apart from your own) in higher education that have actually worked? Why?

I worked at Pearson previously, and there’s no question that their MyLab product made a big impact on the market throughout the 2000s, helping acclimate undergraduate colleges to the measurable degree to which technology-based tutorials can accelerate student success. Of course I believe – objectively! – that Wolters Kluwer’s CasebookConnect solution is now having a very similar impact on law students. It’s used daily now in more than 195 of the 205+ law schools, and student response has been overwhelmingly positive, so we plan to continue to add new value to the platform in coming years to help more and more law students succeed in a challenging curriculum.

There are a number of other education-specific technology products I’ve seen over the years that have made a real impact. White boards have helped lots of teachers better engage their students, and lecture-sharing platforms have helped a lot of college students work through in detail what their instructors present in class. But, in truth, some of the most impressive impact by technology on the educational ecosystem has come from smart and creative innovators within institutions figuring out how to take advantage of non-education-specific tools.

Teachers, for instance, use Twitter to share teaching ideas and innovations with each other. Students use Facebook to share study materials. Everyone uses Google. These kinds of general technologies have really profoundly changed how education works, and it’s because their specific use in education is driven by the customers themselves.

Do you believe Chromebooks are a more viable alternative to iPads in the classroom?

Since both of them are our partners, I’m not really going to get in the middle of a Google / Apple bake-off! Personally, I like and use both products, for different contexts. With respect to the education community, as I’ve said above, I’m sure there are pros and cons to both devices – and all of the devices that are on offer – but I just don’t believe that either device, or any device, is the “silver bullet” that unlocks sustainable educational potential for all students.

Both devices can help millions of students improve their outlook, and that’s a wonderful impact. But education is inherently hard, and intractable, and irreducible . . . it’s not about shoehorning millions of individualistic minds and personalities into a box but about allowing each child to be who she is while drawing out from her mind her talents, curiosity, and engagement with the world. By definition, educational innovation is always going to be distributed, heterogeneous, and constantly evolving, because that’s a pretty good description of people.

Anything else to add?

Given my answers to your questions above, I think it’s worth clarifying why, if I don’t believe in silver bullets, we’ve invested in the creation of CasebookConnect to digitize law school content experiences. The answer is that we see CasebookConnect as a powerful platform that facilitates, rather than disintermediates, law schools, and in so doing unlocks brilliant law professors’ own ideas on how to educate today’s students.

CasebookConnect is just a tool: it takes the baseline layers of knowledge that law students need to have in order to think creatively and critically, pulls them out of the written page, and reshapes them as engaging interactive experiences (hypothetical exercises, simulations, active reading, social learning) that help ensure that today’s students (who are largely digital natives) truly understand this very complex subject matter. If we’ve done this well, then this frees up law professors to spend class time in what law professors truly love to do: use the Socratic method of dialogue and verbal debate to guide, provoke, inspire their students to generate powerful legal arguments for the kinds of fresh, topical legal questions that our society is always bringing to the fore.

So far, as a tool, CasebookConnect is making a positive difference for many students in a very difficult course of study. As a result, we’re emboldened to expand our push into the digital space rapidly. Through a partnership with iLaw, we’re providing digital distance education to law students around the world, helping them take classes from high-caliber professors whom they might ordinarily not have access to.

Through a partnership with Examsoft, Wolters Kluwer is offering digital formative and summative assessments to law school classrooms, giving them deeper insight into student strengths and weaknesses than has been possible till now. And we have many more such launches on the way. Since law schools themselves are looking to reinvent their educational approach for the current crop of students, it’s a time of possibility and excitement in the law space, and at Wolters Kluwer.

As we’re continuing to put a lot of time into raising the bar on our traditional iconic textbooks, we’re also doing our best to help stimulate digital transformation as a key part of the education ecosystem.

This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.

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