The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology (2019)

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EdTech Café

EdTech Cafe
 Standford EdTech (Author)
EdTech Café is a podcast series produced by the educational technology team at Stanford Medicine.

Several months ago, I started to jot down ideas about what I’d cover in my annual review of what’s happened over the course of the past 12 months in the field / industry /promotion of education technology. For the past decade, I’ve churned out a multi-part series on the dominant trends and narratives. Typically this project has taken all of November and all of December to write, based on all the Friday “week-in-reviews” that I’d written over the course of the year. But for the past year or so, I’ve turned my attention away from the day-to-day news as I’ve researched and written a book on teaching machines and the history of personalization and behaviorism.

So, I’m not sure I have a lot to say about what happened, what stories were told in 2019. I mean, I always have something to say, but this year, it’s not the well-researched, well-linked series that I’ve published in the past.

What I have noticed in 2019 from my perch of not-paying-full-attention would probably include these broad trends and narratives: the tangled business prospects of the ed-tech acronym market (the LMS, the OPM, the MOOC); the heightened (and inequitable) surveillance of students (and staff), increasingly justified as preventing school shootings; the fomentation of fears about the surveillance of Chinese tech companies and the Chinese government, rather than a recognition that American companies — and surely the US education system itself — has long perpetuated its own surveillance practices; and the last gasp of the (white, male) ed-tech/ed-reform evangelism, whose adherents seem quite angry that their bland hype machine is no longer uncritically lauded by a world that is becoming increasingly concerned about the biases and dangers of digital technologies.

Of course, the latter is just wishful thinking. And even if the wish comes true, the damage of ed-tech evangelism — particularly the evangelism of trade publications that have spent the past decade repeating nothing but industry spin — is already done. Even if these publications fade away, the breathless stories about the possibilities of brainwave-reading mindfulness headbands and “mind-reading robot tutors in the sky” continue to be told. Dangerous practices and products are normalized. Stories about the inevitable ed-tech revolution continue to be influential and persuasive, particularly among administrators and politicians and those who can spout the key points of the latest airport-bookstore business-section best-seller at their cocktail parties and in their wine caves. The ed-tech happy hour.

(Deliberate) Misinformation — about what ed-tech can do, about the problems it will solve, about what sort of circumstances students and schools and society are now facing, about what sort of future new technologies will necessarily give us — is picked up and wielded by far too many education leaders and decision-makers. That’s what a decade of ed-tech social media and PR have wrought: hashtag gurus and fake news.

My hope for the new decade is we can keep the lies out of their mouths. Because it is from their mouths that these lies form the basis for policies and expenditures that have proven to be deeply damaging to education — public education in particular. But we can’t do so if we keep cultivating an ed-tech (information) ecosystem that fosters inaccuracies and inequalities.

(Coming soon: the Hack Education Ed-Tech Decade in Review)

Writing the Hack Education end-of-year series has always reminded me of how very short our memories seem to be. By December, we’ve forgotten what happened in January or June. And we’ve certainly forgotten what happened a year ago, two years ago, a decade ago. Or at least, that’s one way I can rationalize how someone like Chris Whittle can get such a glowing profile in The Washington Post this year for his latest entrepreneurial endeavor.

There are rarely consequences for the people — men mostly — in ed-tech who’ve demonstrated that they are dangerous or dishonest. Their reputations get laundered; their transgressions erased. Joi Ito, Nicholas Negroponte, the MIT Media Lab — who will remember their connections to convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein? Who will hold them accountable? How soon ’til they’re back in the game with a new story, a new startup?

One of the problems with a lot of ed-tech journalism, I’d argue, is that it is has not been particularly interested in accountability. Some of that, thankfully is changing. Trade publications have been far less committed to explaining what ed-tech is or does or was and far more committed to proselytizing what it might be or might do — all good, all positive of course. Far too many articles — and this is surely what its venture capitalist and philanthropist backers hope — have not reflected the landscape but have tried instead to shape it. That’s why stories about the golly-gee-whiz prospects of learning to code, game-based learning, social emotional learning, artificial intelligence, blockchain transcripts, and tutoring — by chatbots or by gig workers — still fill the pages of these publications. It’s not that these things are necessarily trends; it’s that certain folks very much hope they will be.

And so that we don’t forget and so that we can hold some of these people and companies accountable, here is a list of some of what did actually happen this year, jotted down for my own memory mostly and so I can see the full arc of the decade’s storytelling:

  • Silicon Valley darling AltSchool “called it quits” after raising almost $180 million and promising to personalize education through surveillance
  • WeWork closed its K-12 school this year. (It also had a failed IPO and ousted its co-founder.) People with knowledge of the school described it as “run like the company of WeWork, subject to constant changes or ‘disruption,’ sometimes without full consideration for the children these changes impact.” Good work, Adam and Rebekah
  • Pearson sold its US K-12 curriculum business for $250 million
  • Pearson said it would shift its strategy and make all its textbooks “digital first” (which you just know is going to cost students more)
  • Cengage and McGraw-Hill announced a merger that would make the new company the second largest textbook publisher in the US. (The deal still faces opposition)
  • David Wiley announced that this year’s OpenEd Conference would be the last
  • “Operation Varsity Blues.” News of the college admissions scandal, in which 50+ people including celebrities like Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were involved in a criminal conspiracy to influence undergraduate admissions, broke in March. And the saga — sentencing, jail time, probation, and so on — has played out all year. It’s not an ed-tech story per se. But of course these sorts of things always prompt some bright-eyed entrepreneur to argue that “technology will fix it!” — in this case, the blockchain
  • The College Board planned to add an “adversity score” to the SAT, ostensibly to help college admissions officials recognize students’ socio-economic privilege, but had to go back to the drawing board after pushback on the idea
  • Instructure announced it would be acquired by private equity firm Thomas Bravo — although it’s not clear that the deal will actually go through. (This year, Instructure also acquired Portfolium and MasteryConnect)
  • PowerSchool acquired the K-12 LMS Schoology
  • Amazon got into the lesson-plans-for-sale business, launching a program called Ignite (not to be confused with its controversial lesson-plans-for-free business, Inspire)
  • Carnegie Mellon announced it would open source its digital learning software. Something about “learning engineers”
  • 2U did not have such a great year. The OPM company acquired the coding bootcamp Trilogy Education in April, but its stocks fell sharply when it had to adjust its growth projections for 2019
  • Udacity got a new CEO
  • Coursera raised $109 million in venture company because investors are cray
  • ASU ends its MOOC experiment, Global Freshman Academy
  • “Mind reading robo tutor in the sky” company Knewton was acquired by Wiley for $17 million — LOL — having raised over $180 million. LOL LOL LOL
  • Emily Tate wrote in July about what happens when an online tutor for VIPKid witnesses child abuse. Spoiler alert: nothing
  • There were far too many data breaches for me to list here — check out the K-12 Cyber Incident Map — but I will note the one at Pearson that exposed the data of some 13,000 school and university accounts (each of those potentially exposing thousands of students’ information)
  • Amazon was sued for Alexa’s recording of children’s voices without parents’ consent
  • Google was fined $170 million for violating children’s privacy on YouTube
  • Google got into the anti-plagiarism business
  • Plagiarism detector TurnItIn was acquired for $1.75 billion (which certainly explains why Google got into the anti-plagiarism business, eh?)
  • Flawed Algorithms Are Grading Millions of Students’ Essays,” Motherboard reported in August
  • The University of Alaska system braced for campus closures and layoffs after its operating budget was slashed by 41%. (Vultures, offering online alternatives, swooped in.)
  • Maker Media abruptly shut down operations and laid off its staff, but Edsurge — whose investors include Maker Media founder Dale Dougherty — insists that this will have no effect on the “maker movement” or on the Maker Education Initiative
  • ISTE announced it would acquire the ed-tech trade publication Edsurge

So much innovation and “edsurgency.” And if we’re not careful, if we do not hold these entrepreneurs and barkers and politicians accountable, if we do not remember their failures and falsehoods, then we will find that all this will just repeat itself on into the next decade.

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The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology (2019)
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