A Call for More Engineers in Education

| April 25, 2011 | 6 Comments
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Flickr: Smithsonian

Last month, the digital textbook startup Inkling announced that it had secured a new round of funding, including investment from the two biggest educational content companies in the world, McGraw-Hill and Pearson. I spoke with CEO and founder Matt MacInnis about Inkling’s iPad app and the company’s plan to re-imagine the textbook.

Textbooks on Inkling’s platform aren’t simply the print versions converted to the tablet screen. Content isn’t bound by pages or sections or chapters in the same linear fashion. Rather, it’s hierarchical, richly illustrated and augmented. It’s interactive. It’s social. It’s not really a “book,” per se, but something that, due to the iPad’s format, feels new and different.

During our interview, MacInnis said something that struck me as particularly interesting. I asked him about his team, because, unlike many other companies that are working to digitize textbooks, Inkling isn’t a spinoff from a major publisher. He described his team as engineers, not publishers. Digitizing textbooks is an “engineering problem,” he said, not a publishing problem.

Inkling’s success has demonstrated that the engineers’ perspective brings a new way of bridging this important intersection of education and technology.

Employing engineers and not publishers has helped Inkling rethink what a digital textbook on the tablet could look like — unfettered by the constraints of printed textbooks or by the constraints of hundreds of years of the history of what a book “looks like.”

This begs the question: does education (and education technology) need more engineers? The answer — at least to the ed tech question — is a loud “yes.”

The technology industry in general is suffering from a shortage of engineering talent. While unemployment remains a problem across the country, the tech sector seems to have the opposite problem: the inability to find enough skilled programmers.

With some of the big names in the tech world engaged in lavish recruiting efforts — huge bonuses offered by the likes of Google, Twitter, and Facebook — some small startups are struggling to fill job openings.

Add to that the relatively marginalized position of education technology, and the problem may be more pronounced. So yes, ed-tech needs more engineers.

But the call for more engineers is also a call for those who can bring not just skills from the technical aspect, but fresh perspectives and cutting-edge technology to the sector.

Though education technology companies have been criticized for not having enough educational expertise, Inkling’s success has demonstrated that the engineers’ perspective brings a new way of bridging this important intersection of education and technology. The same may be said for online gradebook LearnBoost, a startup with an engineer-heavy staff. LearnBoost is not simply re-imagining how a gradebook works but is a leading contributor of open source code. (LearnBoost is certainly the top education company on GitHub as measured by project followers, and they are one of the top companies overall along with Facebook, Yahoo, and other.)

“Education technology has traditionally been light on the technology side, making ‘edtech’ a bit of a misnomer,” says co-founder and CEO Rafael Corrales. Unfortunately, he adds, “when you think of innovation, you wouldn’t think to look towards education technology companies.”

Having more engineers in ed-tech could foster a substantive leap forward in innovation — in both education and technology. Too often the software designed for schools lags behind consumer tech. It’s clunky and it’s ugly. By bringing more engineers to work on education, we can build better applications. In turn, students and teachers get to benefit from the best and most innovative technology. And when cutting edge technology evolves from the education technology sector, the status and appeal (and recruiting power) of the whole industry could be elevated.

Re-imagining education may not be an engineering problem (though some do argue this point, too). But re-imagining education technology certainly might be. How do we recruit engineering talent and convince programmers to work in education? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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  • Guest

    As an instructional technologist, a basic respect that we are professionals would go a long way toward recruiting and retaining individuals that are passionate about re-imagining education.

    It’s not uncommon to see instructional technology jobs starting at $30k. That’s beyond disrespectful! Personally, I’ve been a practitioner and student of the learning sciences for over a decade, including earning a PhD; and yet, if I want to work in an area that benefits our public education students, I can’t find a job that pays more than $50k. Sorry, but with the student loans I have, and the minimal retirement that I have, $50k ain’t gonna cut it! So, I’m in military contracting, and trust me, there isn’t any re-imagining going on here!

  • http://twitter.com/pkananen Peter Kananen

    I don’t see how it’s going to happen if these positions pay on the same scale as traditional education jobs. Although they’d be fun projects!

  • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

    The problem with Ed Tech is distribution. Creating products is easy, cutting through the bureaucracy needed to get people to use your products is insanely hard. This is why you don’t see lots of engineers building ed tech.

    Think about it: If you’re an awesome engineer, why waste time battling the unions and edu-bureaucracy for years when you could build a web or mobile app and affect millions of peoples’ lives instantly.

    For a full discussion, see: “K-12 Entrepreneurship: Slow Entry, Distant Exit” by Larry Berger & David Stevenson of Wireless Generation (sold to News Corp for $300M) http://www.aei.org/docLib/20071024_BergerStevenson.pdf

  • http://www.facebook.com/bernardo.kyotoku Bernardo Kyotoku

    kahnacademy is the best and most strucured education re-imagination I know. And they have quite a bit of attention from developers.

  • Anonymous

    Engineers are great at solving problems in creative ways that take full advantage of new technologies. Educators have a solid understanding of the problems in education that need to be solved. By building a great dialogue and collaboration between engineers and educators there are great opportunities to enhance the education we provide our kids, who in general are already digital natives. Students are fully comfortable with digital content, mobile devices, and social networking, and are coming to expect it in their educational environment. In this sense they are generally ahead of educators and schools which are often slow in adopting technology (and in some sense a little wary of it). At mySpark Technologies, we are a team of strong technologists with deep experience in digital and mobile technologies. We are building strong partnerships with educators, educational content publishers, and schools to ensure that we build a mobile educational platform that really does enhance the student’s education and the educators toolbox to provide the best education possible.

  • Mikejunior14

    There may be too few engineers and good programmers. What education doesn’t need is engineers and programmers commanding requirements and directing function in learning applications. The best engineers look at informed requirements and add value to those. Any entity looking for engineers to establish and bring requirements will slow pace of tech in education.