A Lean Approach to Literacy Technology

New validated literacy-related technologies can provide an affordable, scalable remedy but only if educators act like “lean” entrepreneurs in adopting these new tools. The unintended personal and societal consequences of undetected reading difficulties in young children are material and alarming. Low literacy skills are directly linked to greater inequality, higher unemployment, less earned income and poor health. Sadly, too many children slip through a school system without having the source of their reading challenges identified and addressed with proper interventions.

According to the most recent federal data, more than 60 percent of fourth-graders in the United States are not proficient readers.

In response, some states such as South Carolina, have passed bills requiring early measurement of reading levels and intervention, while others like California are embroiled in lawsuits related to their perceived inaction on the matter. Legislation and litigation are, of course, time-consuming and often painful and ineffective resolutions. For the sake of our young learners, what we need instead, are more interventions that speed up their path to success rather than inadvertently impede it further.

Beyond “legislate or litigate” is a smarter, faster and less painful way to transform the situation: leverage innovative technologies. While this may seem obvious, common sense doesn’t necessarily equate with common action. In the business world, by contrast, technology innovation – from artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud platform, performance and storage capabilities and data analytics tools – is fueling massive business transformation and enabling new types of companies. In the business world, the evidence of success from adoption and integration of these technologies is clear. However, in the education world, it seems easier to dismiss the latest, highly touted technologies as just “hype” and too risky to try in an educational setting until endlessly validated by independent research and longitudinal studies.

Fortunately, EdTech innovators are developing new, validated products that are focused on literacy issues at a whirlwind pace. Text-to-Speech apps (Natural Reader) and speech recognition apps allow readers of all levels to access more complex text. Game-based learning tools such as Reading Eggs and Homer provide a personalized, fun approach to reading instruction. Scaffolded support for struggling readers (Microsoft Learning Tools, eye-tracking technology, and solutions that provide earlier measurement of reading abilities (my company, Lexplore, for example)), offer near-term hope to address the mounting literacy crisis.

Some have suggested that it is the cost of new technologies that keeps educators from enthusiastically adopting these literacy-acceleration tools. The reality is that school systems and societies are already paying the price in one way or another. Currently, when schools are implementing manual early detection programs, there is a real cost in teachers’ time and salary–many of these methods are in no way “free.” With efficient technology tools that are readily available, there is actually money to save in comparison to traditional and more time-consuming methods of early reading risk detection.

And yet there remains pervasive resistance to adopting new technologies to support struggling readers. Perhaps there’s more than just the technology itself that can (and must) be gained from the entrepreneurial technology industry in order to provoke the positive change needed.

Eric Reis, who wrote the business bestseller The Lean Startup, says there are five principles behind the lean process–each has a correlate that can be adapted to the education community’s adoption of literacy technology.

First, “Entrepreneurs are Everywhere,” which means: “You don’t have to work in a garage to be in a startup.” It also means that educators may not need to wait for special dispensation before piloting certain literacy tools with struggling readers. Perhaps grassroots adoption of EdTech resources can work the same way that business employees revolutionized corporate telecommunications by bringing and using their own smartphones in the workplace, rather than waiting to be assigned an antiquated one from the organization.

Secondly, “Entrepreneurship is Management,” meaning: “A startup is an institution, not just a product, so it requires management–a new kind of management specifically geared to its context.” This can certainly be applied to educational management if administrators and educators view their roles as entrepreneurial leaders, not just bureaucrats and teachers. Administrators can creatively model for students by adopting edtech devices that test students and provides outcomes for struggling readers in an efficient manner.

Next, “Validated Learning,” which means: “Startups exist not to make stuff, make money, or serve customers. They exist to learn how to build a sustainable business. This learning can be validated scientifically, by running experiments that allow us to test each element of our vision.” Similarly, educators exist not just to enforce the curriculum, but also to find ways to engage and transform learners in new ways that fit students’ circumstances. One size fits few. This requires experimenting with ways to influence a student’s learning outcome and identifying new ways to get better results. Piloting new edtech in a classroom shouldn’t conflict with curriculum requirements–instead, it should supplement and compliment curriculum by supporting students’ unique educational needs.

Then there’s “Innovation Accounting,” which means: “To improve entrepreneurial outcomes, and to hold entrepreneurs accountable, we need to focus on the boring stuff: how to measure progress, how to setup milestones, how to prioritize work. This requires a new kind of accounting, specific to startups.” Rather than waiting until there is a buttoned-up business model in place that perfectly predicts outcomes, innovation accounting applies to uncertain situations (start-ups or EdTech pilots) in which it makes more sense to account for progress rather than perfection. This approach, applied to literacy technology adoption, is more likely to encourage educators to make forward progress now – even if messy – rather than expecting just the right conditions before even beginning.

Finally, in the lean startup process, there’s the “Build-Measure-Learn” principle, meaning: “The fundamental activity of a startup is to turn ideas into products, measure how customers respond, and then learn whether to pivot or persevere. All successful startup processes should be geared to accelerate that feedback loop.” In the same way, educators could view the process of adopting new EdTech as a continuous cycle of “build-measure-learn” in terms of what tools work best for improving reading outcomes? By instituting this type of feedback loop, there could be less pressure on educators to expect any single tool to achieve home run success and would encourage greater, faster experimentation to find technologies that at least move the reading ball forward.

If we want to mitigate the looming literacy crisis in the United States, let’s go beyond the drawn-out, expensive and painful paths of legislation and litigation. Let’s not wait! Let’s empower our educators to behave as entrepreneurial leaders who apply a “lean startup” approach to continuously testing and identifying the technologies that will deliver the reading outcomes that our struggling students deserve right now.

For more, see:

Janine Caffrey is an education innovator and CEO of Lexplore U.S. She is an accomplished author and speaker and holds a doctorate in educational leadership. You can connect with her on Twitter @JanineCaffrey 

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Getting Smart loves its varied and ranging staff of guest contributors. From edleaders, educators and students to business leaders, tech experts and researchers we are committed to finding diverse voices that highlight the cutting edge of learning.

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