Why Don't Techies Care About Education?

01/24/2011 07:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In my recent post, "Education Cares About Technology, But Do Technologists Care About Education?" I raised my concern that the education and the technology worlds are coming together, but perhaps not as strategically or advantageously as they could.

I was thrilled to see the insightful and thoughtful commentary that the post garnered, both in The Huffington Post and through personal discussion with developers. Most of the conversation focused on a longstanding divide between education and technology, misuses of tech in the classroom, and disparities in economic opportunity. Here, I want to provide a more in depth look at why technologists do not seem to care about education to those within the ed system. My insights were garnered through conversations with friends and colleagues. In no way is this an inclusive list, but instead, it represents thoughts to launch further discussion on the potential for bringing great developers to the education world.

1. Traditional schooling can be alienating for technologist-savants. Several gifted programmer friends of mine dropped out of school. I will not call out my techie acquaintances, but can name several school "dropouts" that became game-changers in terms of disrupting social norms with incredible technology: Mark Zuckerburg, Julian Assange, Bill Gates, Michael Dell, etc. Schools do not always appreciate ideas that upset or break the status quo. People who are pushing limits with brilliant work or avant-garde ideas seem to show us repeatedly that they do not need school to succeed. In fact, on some level, they are beyond common schooling. When these exceptional developers start innovating, they may not feel a fierce loyalty to the education world -- a place where they might not have fit in or been appreciated.

2. Money. Education, as a public institution, does not adhere to private market laws. Too often the people flustered by low pay in education are the same people who reject merit-based pay or assessment-driven instruction. I do not wish to divulge my own opinions here, but just make a point to highlight some internal contradictions that largely stunt progressive change. If you want education to be a competitive market, then you have to be willing to give up other things you feel are fundamental to free and equal schooling. Back to my point: as a hugely funded government program, public education is a hard nut to crack. There is money, but rarely is it earmarked for one outstanding person's salary. No one would put up with an ed-specific technologist getting paid a few million dollars a year while teachers are working for pennies. Unfortunately, excellent programmers can and do make six + figures in the private sector. This is the exception, but it's not out of question for top developers. Even if salaries in tech are not half that competitive, developers at smaller startups often receive shares of stock in the company. So, when money is to be had in the tech world, it can definitely be big money.

3. Barriers to entry. One friend I spoke with discussed the possibility that technologists might be hesitant to tackle "real-world" barriers to entry. The stabilized funding in education, the federal oversight of the industry at large, entrenched teachers' unions and aggressive lobbyists, and seemingly antiquated teaching paradigms existing from the Industrial Revolution were possible reasons he gave that may deter technologists from the ed space. With such a peculiarly stagnant, well funding sector, he noted, "You've got to be a little crazy/optimistic to embark on building a product that can have a truly revolutionary impact on our education system."

4. Incremental change. Positive change in education, as a huge federalized industry, demands time for piloting, scaling, assessing, and reflecting. "But," as a tech-oriented colleague said, incremental change is "just not as sexy for visionary technologists. And insofar as real-world barriers to entry exist, they'd rather not build something that fits neatly in the context of the status quo."

My ruminations here are in their infant stages. I do believe education is beginning to stake a claim as a viable market for technologists, especially as we see more disruptive start-up companies in the learning management system, electronic gradebook, student information system, and tablet technology spaces. On the other hand, I think we have a long way to go.