Q&A with Rosetta Stone chief: In using social media for education, it needs to serve learning goals, not just be a 'time sink'

By Steven Overly
Monday, September 27, 2010; 19

Rosetta Stone chief executive Tom Adams believes Internet-based technology best serves as an education tool when learners work together in real time rather than plod along solo.

The Arlington-based company built the fourth incarnation of its language software, unveiled two weeks ago, around that concept. It includes video conferences with native speakers, social gaming with fellow learners and an iPhone app for practice on the go.

Adams spoke with Capital Business about how major trends in education technology, including mobile devices and collaboration software, are shaping today's market and tomorrow's opportunities.

What is the biggest trend in education technology right now?

In terms of technology platforms, where people use it, I think the headline for us is fragmentation. It was possible for us five years ago to think about PCs and Macs as kind of the universal technology ... [but] we kind of lived in a world that was pretty simple, to be honest.

Now we live in a world where we're all big users of Android and iPhone platforms, and [we] know that the relationship that you have with those devices is different than you have with a PC. Over time I think platforms like the iPad will become the, sort of, default platforms for environments like K-12.

Is it reasonable to expect your future products would be usable then on tablet devices?

I think every company that has got capabilities like us has to be thinking about those platforms because the relationship with these touch screens is different then keyboard-based platforms. There's just something that makes it much more human.

And I'm not predicting that [adoption] is going to happen overnight. I don't expect schools are going to be 100 percent rolled out with this, because obviously budgets are very tight in K-12. I'm just looking at five years from now, it wouldn't surprise me if 50 percent of kids have an iPad in schools.

One big movement overall is collaboration and use of social networking for an educational purpose. What kind of opportunities or challenges does that present?

I think the real challenge for all companies like us is to say if someone spends one hour doing something social online, from an educational point of view, how are they better?

Most social networking plays in education were much more Web 2.0 hype vehicles than they are real educational platforms. Within our space, although I could have users give grammar tips [and] I could have the word-a-day being e-mailed out with Twitter and all of that kind of stuff, I know deep down inside that that would just be hyping it. Social needs to be synchronous because the magic of social is when you're actually live and doing a live activity with someone.

I guess my big point is, set out to teach first and change people's capabilities and then look around at technologies like speech recognition, social networking, casual gaming, all of these different things. But pick those to help you teach. I think it's a huge technology with huge potential, but people have gotten it wrong because if technology becomes a time sink, then we're making kids dumber, not smarter.

So you think they can be used for education, it's just a matter of intent?

That's right. Each technology has limitations. The whole idea of someone just limiting themselves to one single technology is wrong, unless that's the only thing they're going to do and they're going to have a very limited role in the industry.

I probably sound very negative about our industry in general, but quite frankly I believe our industry should be ashamed. We've underinvested in innovation in technology for education. What we've done is we've tried to build platforms of delivery and administrative tools, and we've not really thought about how people learn and how the brain works.

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