We’ve been busy this summer doing two things. First, we’ve been thrilled to see Lingt Classroom grow in popularity and become an integral part of classrooms across the globe. It’s been a pleasure getting to know all the teachers out there who actively search for new technology to improve their students’ experience and found us. To all our users: thank you.
Secondly, we built a shiny new product that helps individuals learn a language online. As opposed to Lingt Classroom which helps teachers engage their students, our new site is meant for anyone that wants to self-study to pick up a new language. Lingt Classroom is still going to operate and be supported like it always has, and we look forward to continuing to improve it.
You can see the new site here. Right now, we’re only offering Chinese (other languages to be added soon), so to the Chinese teachers using Lingt: please tell your students to check it out.
Fred Wilson, a VC in New York, recently wrote a synopsis of an education technology brainstorm hosted by his investment firm. The thinking there seems to be very much in line with our own vision. I look forward to seeing the fruition of many of these ideas – in new ventures and new policy – as well as the education companies Union Square Ventures chooses to back in the future.
I managed to connect with the tech coordinator of an area school district recently to chat about the procedures by which education technology is approved, purchased, and incorporated on the district level. I had plenty to learn, but amongst the many questions I had scrawled on my notepad, there was one I was dying to ask more than any other.
“Why,” I asked, “have you chosen Internet Explorer version 6 as your district-wide browser?” In fact, I had discovered this only a week ago, just days before I was to demo Lingt to a group of language teachers for the first time. Morbidly curious, I downloaded IE6 and opened the Lingt Editor only to find our carefully-crafted user interface carved and rearranged on the screen like a Picasso.
Allow me to describe a web developer’s frustration with Internet Explorer 6 in a way that I think is intuitive to everyone. Imagine you are a painter and you spend countless hours painstakingly perfecting your masterpiece:
Now, imagine you want to admire your work through the lenses of various pairs of glasses. You put on the first pair and see:
You remove those and try on a second pair. You gaze upon your painting again:
Perfect. We put on a dusty third pair expecting to delight in our masterpiece a final time. But, to our horror, we gaze through the lenses to find this:
What happened!? Oh well – we’ll bury these glasses in the backyard and never speak of them again. They were five years old anyway. Except 20% of art lovers out there are still walking around with these stuck to their face.
If you haven’t guessed, the third pair of glasses represent Internet Explorer 6, with little hyperbole. (The first two pairs represent virtually any modern browser available today.) It takes considerable effort by the developer community to accommodate IE6’s lack of compliance to web standards. Basically, the code that generates the look and function of a website is read, interpreted, and ultimately displayed differently by various browsers (IE, Safari, Firefox). Fortunately, there’s a published and widely accepted spec for how this should be done so that there is consistency between them all. Internet Explorer apparently did not get that memo. The faster people abandon this antiquated browser, the faster developers can create great web applications that work well for everyone. Besides, it takes just minutes to upgrade to Internet Explorer 7. Even better, just use Firefox.
So, how did the district’s tech coordinator reply? Why in the world hadn’t the district upgraded from a five-year-old browser that has haunted us ever since we wrote our first webpage? I expected something to do with compatibility with existing network software, but it wasn’t even that. Quite simply:
“Nobody has ever recommended or required an upgrade.”
Well, consider this my recommendation. We continue to attempt support for Internet Explorer 6 since we are likely to encounter other districts still using the old beast, but it does add a substantial burden to development time we could otherwise spend building awesome new features.
This post was meant as a light-hearted and playful glimpse into a small part of the tension created when MIT geeks develop technology for institutions that have much higher priorities than upgrading their browsers. Nonetheless, we think the benefit of keeping browser technology up to date is mutual and real. Support educational web developers – just say no to Internet Explorer 6.
CALL, standing for Computer-Assisted Language Learning, has been a favorite buzz word of researchers in the field for over a decade. However, it’s time to bid it farewell for a new set of bombastic acronyms that better reflect the most promising opportunities for educational technology today.
WALL and MALL, representing web and mobile-assisted language learning respectively, should be the new paradigm of education developers and innovators today. Bulky desktop packages and shoddy textbook software supplements will be overtaken by the tremendous advantages that a web and mobile approach can offer. Imagine a global network that spans every country and language and enjoys high usage by students all over the world. Even better, imagine this network is home to billions of culture-rich images, videos, audio, and text. Luckily, this network already exists. It’s called the Internet and we should take full advantage of it.
In addition to the added functionality, connectivity, and mobility they will offer, WALL/MALL-centric products will likely make short work of notoriously expensive desktop language software. Deployment and sales-associated costs will be dramatically lower, and the ease and ubiquity with which web applications can be accessed will allow WALL/MALL companies to more easily attract the truly global language-learning market and drive down costs with scale.
. . . is to tell them you’re an education company. In parallel with developing our first piece of technology, we’ve been trying to get to know Boston’s startup scene, especially the other great minds working in the education space. Naturally, we’ve run into plenty of investor-types eager to hear what three entrepreneurially-minded MIT grads are up to. An email I recently received from an intestor over at Adams Capital Management exemplifies the usual response:
. . . My condolences on your selection of the Education market. Although the non-financial rewards can be tremendous and the social impact profound, it is an exceedingly hard space in which to make money. . . I sure wouldn’t seek to make my fortune there.
Unfortunately, this pervasive attitude towards the education space can hardly be criticized considering its history. However, I think the general pessimism towards the education market is misplaced for a couple of reasons.
First, this pessimism usually places blame on schools for being extremely difficult to sell to. Blame often targets perceived defects such as overgrown bureaucracy, lack of innovation, and notoriously tight budgets. The buyer-user divide also proves daunting: although teachers are the primary beneficiaries and users of new technology, administrators usually sign off on the line item.
These complaints may very well contain elements of truth, but they are completely naive to the possibility that providers of educational technology are also to blame. Surveying some of the products offered in recent history, there is little question that the rigorous expectations for quality technology in other markets are not enjoyed by the education space. While many companies continue to offer impressive educational software for the home computer, many textbook supplements and other offerings intended for the classroom haven’t been built with the same vigorous dedication and rapid innovation as have mp3 players, cell phones, or graphics software. The bar is low and there is plenty of room for fresh talent.
Second, the average teacher is becoming increasingly likely to have grown up with computers. The often-cited obstacle of technophobia is quickly becoming irrelevant with the new wave of young, tech-savvy educators.
Finally, the increasing ubiquity of high-speed Internet access and home computers is opening doors to how technology can be used to improve the classroom. Whereas integrating computer technology into the classroom has traditionally meant scheduled computer lab hours and some compromises in curriculum, web applications offer the opportunity for boundless media resources, content sharing, collaboration, and a paradigm in which students are expected to participate at home instead of in a canned computer lab session.
The attitude that the education market is impenetrable and stingy is a self-perpetuating stigma. Pessimism dissuades talent from entering the space, which in turn stunts competition and innovation. When we look at education, however, we see opportunity.