Tech Savvy: A Q&A with Lecturer Greg GunnBy newseditor
Lecturer Greg Gunn knows a thing or two about entrepreneurship and education technology. And, as the cofounder of Wireless Generation, a leading educational software company now serving more than 3 million children with groundbreaking assessment and instruction products, he knows a little something about effective leadership, as well. Gunn is now putting his expertise to use as a lecturer in the Ed School’s Ed.L.D. Program.
HGSE recently spoke with Gunn about what sparked his interest in education software and how he came to the join Ed.L.D. Program.
How did you get your start in education?
When I was a teenager, the Apple II computer came out. I was one of those kids who was obsessed with computers and taught myself how to program. I also tutored high school kids for the SATs in Algebra and through that tutoring got really interested in the learning and teaching process in education. In college, I studied physics but spent all my time outside of class programming and working with students on math. Once I got out of college, everyone encouraged me to continue in physics, but I realized it wasn’t for me and I went on to teach middle school.
How did Wireless Generation get started?
When I was working as a teacher in a technology-rich school, we experimented with the use of software and it stayed in my head. It got me interested in education software. My friend, Larry Berger, whom I met while at Oxford and with whom I later started Wireless Generation, also had an interest in education technology. We started making business plans and worked at a web design company together. Later, we were pushed out of that company and so we pulled out our best plan and went with it. In 1999, a lot of people were using Palm Pilots. We thought these devices could do interesting things in a school environment. We figured that using a small device to help support the interaction between teachers and students, rather than a desktop computer that separated them, was an interesting concept.
What is the future of education software?
I think about this all the time. There are really two aspects I’m focused on right now. One is that software is starting to prove itself as a critical tool in personalizing the learning experience for each student. It allows each student to move according to pace, needs, and interest. It’s very difficult to provide a diversity of experiences and structure, and manage those experiences for students without the help of technology. Right now is an unprecedented time in terms of innovation of tools for education. But we’ll see how quickly those tools get adopted and the extent to which that changes how schools work.
The other issue I’m focused on is how research and technology is helping us get smarter about supporting learning. We have become much smarter about understanding the order in which kids need to learn things. We’ve also become a lot smarter about how a complex skill like reading breaks down into component skills. But we haven’t learned as much about how to systematically motivate a variety of different kinds of students. I’m hoping education technology gives us new tools to understand each student’s motivational needs and to support them well every day.
How did you get involved with the Ed.L.D. Program ?
I got to know some of the Ed School faculty, especially some of the founding faculty of the Ed.L.D. Program, through the Futures of School Reform Project. This was my first significant exposure to the HGSE community. I really enjoyed speaking to Professor Robert [Bob] Schwartz and Assistant Professor Jal Mehta. Last year we sold Wireless Generation and I wanted to do some different work in the field. After getting a call from Bob, I was truly excited about the program and mission, and the idea of creating a rich professional learning experience for people who had already done great things in education. I felt like I could bring something to the table from my perspective of entrepreneurship and technology.
I think a very important idea flowing through Ed.L.D. Program, and what draws me to it, is the important contributions it will make in bringing new, concrete frameworks and tools to the problem of designing and operating great schools. In a field where the research world has often been abstract and disconnected from practice, the Ed.L.D. Program is really trying to bridge that gap – and to me that’s the most exciting thing about it.
How does your business experiences inform your thoughts about what makes an effective educator?
A lot of my work at Wireless Generation was about figuring out how to use technology to support differentiated instruction, particularly figuring out how to help teachers create unique and personalized learning experiences for every student. Through the opportunity to teach in this program, I am working with a remarkable diversity of student backgrounds and ambitions. I have to figure out how to differentiate the experience for each student. We are trying to push harder on that than most academic programs do. Going through this process and learning again about what’s hard and exciting about differentiated instruction made me reflect on my work in educational software and the future of that work. Going through this process, we make mistakes, reflect on them, and then come back and try to do it better.
I’ve been learning again how much distance there can be between different people working in the education sphere. Academics, practitioners, and inventors are all pushing toward the same goal, but they do very different work and think about it differently. These are important bridges that we need to cross.