Speed­ing the march of tech­nol­ogy

Dif­fer­ent sec­tors ab­sorb new tools at much dif­fer­ent rates

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - BUSINESS - By Ly­dia De­Pil­lis

Chavez High School ad­min­is­tra­tor Stephanie Crook helps tackle the te­dious process of putting to­gether a mas­ter sched­ule that meets the needs of 3,000 stu­dents. Au­to­ma­tion is on the way. Steve Gon­za­les / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

STEPHANIE Crook sat in the back room of the li­brary at Hous­ton’s Cesar E. Chavez High School in front of a lap­top last spring, sur­rounded by stacks of pa­per and gi­ant binders. One by one, she en­tered course se­lec­tion sheets into a com­puter data­base, mak­ing sure that they matched each stu­dent’s fouryear plan and tran­script.

It would take her — and 10 other coun­selors and ad­min­is­tra­tors — weeks of work to con­struct a mas­ter sched­ule that works for more than 3,000 stu­dents.

“It’s a te­dious process. It’s a long process,” Crook says. “It’s go­ing to definitely take away time from be­ing in the class­rooms, work­ing with teach­ers, work­ing with kids.”

That is chang­ing at the Hous­ton In­de­pen­dent School District’s 38 high schools after the district re­cently pur­chased soft­ware to au­to­mate the sched­ul­ing that nor­mally sucks up enor­mous amounts of time at the be­gin­ning and end of each school year. All of that data will be ac­ces­si­ble to of­fi­cials at head­quar­ters, sav­ing them days of an­a­lyz­ing in­di­vid­ual re­ports to learn how many stu­dents are tak­ing which classes, and how they’re pro­gress­ing to­ward grad­u­a­tion.

The new sched­ul­ing tool is an ex­am­ple of how tech­nol­ogy makes oper­a­tions more ef­fi­cient and work­ers more pro­duc­tive and ul­ti­mately fu­els eco­nomic growth. But it also

shows that it can take a long time for tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances to reach dif­fer­ent seg­ments of the econ­omy and helps ex­plain why pro­duc­tiv­ity growth has slowed dra­mat­i­cally since the end of the na­tional re­ces­sion in 2009 — even as smart­phones, ma­chine learn­ing, big data and other in­no­va­tions sur­faced and ad­vanced. For ex­am­ple, soft­ware that can crunch large amounts of in­for­ma­tion, co­or­di­nate thou­sands of mov­ing parts and al­low many users to share in­for­ma­tion is hardly new — think mo­bile-app based ser­vices — but it is only just now pen­e­trat­ing sec­tors like ed­u­ca­tion.

Econ­o­mists have long rec­og­nized that it can take years for new tech­nolo­gies to trans­late into pro­duc­tiv­ity gains as in­dus­tries adopt ad­vances at dif­fer­ent rates and work­ers learn how to use them. Stud­ies, for ex­am­ple, have sug­gested that it took decades for elec­tric­ity to sig­nif­i­cantly in­crease in­dus­trial pro­duc­tiv­ity as man­u­fac­tur­ers balked at re­vamp­ing pro­duc­tion lines and train­ing work­ers or­ga­nized around steam en­gines. The per­sonal com­puter was in­tro­duced in the early 1980s, but the U.S. econ­omy did not see pro­duc­tiv­ity growth ac­cel­er­ate un­til the late 1990s as busi­nesses slowly in­te­grated the PC into their oper­a­tions and work­ers learned the tech­nol­ogy, ac­cord­ing to one the­ory.

Hous­ton’s schools have tried hard to keep up with the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, rank­ing eighth for large stu­dent pop­u­la­tions on the Cen­ter for Dig­i­tal Ed­u­ca­tion’s 2016 list of in­no­va­tive school dis­tricts, which mea­sures adop­tion of tools like data an­a­lyt­ics and com­puter lit­er­acy classes. But the school district still wasn’t look­ing for a way to short­cut pa­per sched­ules un­til Chavez High sought a tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tion on its own. So what took so long? “Peo­ple have just been con­tent that it’s OK to spend time and money that way, and it’s re­ally not,” says An­gela Bor­zon, the head of in­struc­tional tech­nol­ogy at the Hous­ton In­de­pen­dent School District. “Ba­si­cally our mantra has been, ‘Let tech­nol­ogy do what tech­nol­ogy can do, and let hu­mans do what only hu­mans can do.’”

A teenage en­tre­pre­neur

John Kennedy didn’t set out to build sched­ul­ing soft­ware. He was more in­ter­ested in bas­ket­ball.

The sandy-haired 18-year-old was learn­ing to code on his own while at­tend­ing the elite pri­vate St. John’s School and came up with an al­go­rithm to au­to­mat­i­cally pro­duce writ­ten re­caps of NBA games based on game sta­tis­tics. The same type of al­go­rithm, he re­al­ized, could be used in dif­fer­ent sec­tors to dis­till data more ac­cu­rately and ef­fi­ciently.

Kennedy pre­sented his idea to use the al­go­rithm to launch an an­a­lyt­ics startup two years ago at a lo­cal pitch night, where en­trepreneurs show­case their ideas to po­ten­tial in­vestors. There, he met the team be­hind ScribeSense, which sells a pro­gram that au­to­mates grad­ing to HISD, and through them, con­nected with Rene Sanchez, prin­ci­pal of Chavez High, an HISD school near Pasadena.

The chal­lenge: de­sign a sys­tem that could au­to­mate the pa­per-in­ten­sive and hu­man er­ror-rid­den process of build­ing sched­ules that keep kids on track to grad­u­ate, even as state re­quire­ments change and kids move from school to school.

“Even at my pri­vate school, it’s still a per­son with Ex­cel, sched­ul­ing 600 high-school­ers,” Kennedy says. “That’s a re­ally poor use of hu­man cap­i­tal.”

Kennedy started de­sign­ing the pro­gram, which will al­low stu­dents to in­put course choices and show them which ones they still need to grad­u­ate, ac­count­ing for ever-chang­ing state stan­dards. The soft­ware, called Mesa, also tracks stu­dents’ grades in real time and al­lows ad­min­is­tra­tors to quickly pull stu­dents who may be fall­ing be­hind.

“So rather than wait­ing for a cri­sis to hap­pen,” Sanchez said, “we can go out and find stu­dents who need ad­di­tional help.”

Slow go­ing

The next chal­lenge for Kennedy and Mesa was get­ting HISD to buy the prod­uct. Even in Austin, where there’s a vi­brant com­mu­nity of ed­u­ca­tional tech­nol­ogy star­tups, build­ing a busi­ness model around schools is more dif­fi­cult than sell­ing to busi­nesses or con­sumers. It can take a long time to work through a school district’s pro­cure­ment process, which re­quires moun­tains of pa­per­work and sign-offs by mul­ti­ple lay­ers of bu­reau­cracy.

The plod­ding pace of ac­quir­ing tech­nol­ogy is symp­to­matic of a big chal­lenge fac­ing the Amer­i­can econ­omy: The speed at which work­ers are grow­ing more pro­duc­tive has slowed dra­mat­i­cally over the past decade. Pro­duc­tiv­ity is one of the main fac­tors in in­creas­ing stan­dards of liv­ing, since em­ploy­ers can jus­tify pay­ing work­ers more when they pro­duce more.

Econ­o­mists have sev­eral the­o­ries to ex­plain the pro­duc­tiv­ity slump. Fore­most among them: Tech­nol­ogy isn’t mov­ing through the econ­omy as fast as it used to. As in­dus­tries have con­sol­i­dated into fewer and fewer big play­ers, ris­ing mo­nop­oly power among the largest cor­po­ra­tions and stronger pro­tec­tions on in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty have sup­pressed in­no­va­tions pi­o­neered by newer play­ers.

This is par­tic­u­larly true in more heav­ily reg­u­lated ser­vice sec­tors, like ed­u­ca­tion and health care, which are less ex­posed to in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion and more friendly to large in­cum­bent busi­nesses that know how to work the gears of bu­reau­cracy. As Amer­ica’s work­force has shifted from man­u­fac­tur­ing to ser­vices, that’s held back pro­duc­tiv­ity growth.

The schools il­lus­trate this. Even when a need for some­thing like an au­to­mated sched­ul­ing sys­tem has been clearly demon­strated, pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion hasn’t al­ways lent it­self to ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with new tech­nolo­gies. Ad­min­is­tra­tors are risk-averse, says Shelby Joe, the founder of a Hous­ton-based test-prep startup called Piqos­ity, and of­ten un­will­ing to take chances on promis­ing new ap­proaches.

“When you think about the ma­jor in­dus­tries that have been dis­rupted by tech­nol­ogy, ed­u­ca­tion is one of the last ma­jor mar­kets to face that type of dis­rup­tion,” Joe says. “What the schools want to see is a lon­gi­tu­di­nal study. ‘Where is your white pa­per that shows the ef­fi­cacy of your prod­uct over a three-year co­hort?’ ”

In many cases, that means teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors spend about half their days on tasks other than work­ing with kids, ac­cord­ing to re­search by the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment, an in­ter­na­tional agency that pro­motes poli­cies to in­crease pros­per­ity around the world. One of the rea­sons it’s dif­fi­cult for ed­u­ca­tors to adopt new tech­nolo­gies that could help cut pa­per­work is they don’t have the time to sort through and learn them, es­pe­cially with mount­ing re­quire­ments for test­ing, doc­u­men­ta­tion and train­ing on ever-chang­ing cur­ric­ula.

“It is over­whelm­ing,” says Sara McNeil, a pro­fes­sor of in­struc­tional de­sign at the Univer­sity of Hous­ton. “The big­gest prob­lem is that teach­ers need to have time to ex­plore these tools.”

The hu­man factor

Amer­i­cans hear a lot about ro­bots and au­to­ma­tion steal­ing jobs. If a com­puter pro­gram can ac­com­plish core re­spon­si­bil­i­ties like grad­ing and sched­ul­ing faster and cheaper, does that mean school dis­tricts can save money by cut­ting staff ?

The­o­ret­i­cally, sure. But John Ruff, a for­mer teacher who worked at the ed­u­ca­tional tech­nol­ogy firm ScribeSense be­fore join­ing Kennedy to launch Mesa, says teach­ers aided by some la­bor-sav­ing tech­nol­ogy are less likely to burn out. That saves money on re­cruit­ing and train­ing their re­place­ments. In­stead of cut­ting staff, Ruff says, schools can keep qual­ity teach­ers and coun­selors fo­cused on work­ing di­rectly with stu­dents to help them learn rather than on shuf­fling pa­per. If pro­duc­tiv­ity is mea­sured through grad­u­a­tion rates, that counts as a win for eco­nomic growth.

As for Kennedy, he’s tak­ing a gap year be­fore go­ing to the Univer­sity of North Carolina, so he can see Mesa through its de­but sea­son. Longer term, he thinks he can take his al­go­rithms and move into other sec­tors, like en­ergy or health care, to help hu­mans do their jobs bet­ter.

“There’s a lot of easy stuff that we can au­to­mate that’s not go­ing to wreck in­dus­tries, that’s not go­ing to put peo­ple out of their jobs, but that we can just op­ti­mize,” he says. “I feel like I’m aug­ment­ing a field. With coun­sel­ing, we could never touch the hu­man side of the story.”

Steve Gon­za­les / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Chavez High School ad­min­is­tra­tor Roel Sal­divar works on the school’s mas­ter sched­ule. Re­cently pur­chased soft­ware will au­to­mate sched­ul­ing at HISD’s 38 high schools, a process that now takes weeks of work.

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