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Being a little late out of the gate with new tech may not be a bad thing when you’re dealing with kids.

It’s not that DreamBox Learning‘s Jessie Woolley-Wilson is anti-technology. But the CEO of the Bellevue, Wash.-based company has been in the education technology industry long enough to see tech in schools progress through multiple stages, each with its own set of expectations.

In the initial stage, she said, success in edtech was defined as one-to-one computing. “How do we get more devices in front of kids because that’ll solve everything,” she recalled was the common refrain. “We’re going to revolutionize learning because we’re going to give every kid a desktop, at that time — not even laptop, desktop — and we realized that technology that remained on the periphery of learning was not going to move the mark.”

Since then, Woolley-Wilson said in an on-stage GeekWire Summit conversation with GreaterGood.com’s David Samuelson, the discussion about technology in schools has shifted. It’s moved from device and broadband access, to simple forms of personalization, and now to learning technologies. “What are kids learning, where are they stuck?,” she said. “And most importantly, what do we need to do as ‘learning guardians’ — parents, tutors, teachers, administrators — to get them unstuck?”

GreaterGood.com’s David Samuelson with DreamBox’s Jessie Woolley-Wilson at the GeekWire Summit. (Photo by Dan DeLong for GeekWire)

It’s a direction that DreamBox Learning, which has an adaptive math learning product for elementary and middle school students, has pursued for several years. And it’s attracted big names and big funding, from interest by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings to a majority $130 million investment from The Rise Fund earlier this year.

But despite progress and a positive outlook, Woolley-Wilson is fully aware of edtech’s missteps, too, including mistaken early efforts by some companies to go around the teacher. That’s created a “harder challenge” for some to believe in the potential of learning technologies.

“So I’m part of an industry that frankly has developed skepticism, justified skepticism about education and technology, about the promise of education technology,” she said.

Some of the caution appears to come down to a could/should balance: Just because you could do something with innovative technology in learning, should you do it?

“Do I want to look at pupil dilation in a kindergartener?” she asked. “If we can focus AI and newer technologies on what we can do to support great teaching and learning, I think that’s a win for kids. It’s a win for learning guardians. It’s a win for society. If we use technologies in a way where we don’t know that they’re going to achieve that, then I wonder why we’re doing it,” she said.

Overall, Woolley-Wilson said she’s very excited about the certain uses of new tech to support students and teachers in schools, such as for advanced predictive analytics to help keep individual kids on track for year-end success. “I think that right now we’re in a heady place for machine learning and AI,” Woolley-Wilson said.

However, she said, “At some point maybe the industry will consider adopting a Hippocratic Oath for learning: First, do no harm.”

“One of the things that frustrates people about K-12 is that it adopts technologies much later than the private sector,” Woolley-Wilson said. “Well, maybe there’s a upside in that; maybe we can make better, more informed decisions about what we should bring to learning.”

Scroll up to watch video of the entire discussion between Jessie Woolley-Wilson and David Samuelson from the 2018 GeekWire Summit.

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