What Happens When Ed-Tech Forgets? Some Thoughts on Rehabilitating Reputations
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I was a guest today in Chris Hoadley’s NYU class on ed-tech and globalization. Here’s a bit of my rant…
Thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you today. I have been really stumped as to what I should say. If you look at the talks I’ve given this year — and I’ve done quite a lot since I’ve volunteered to visit Zoom school and speak to classes — there are a couple of notable themes: behaviorism and surveillance. I could talk about both of these for hours, and I want to leave plenty of time after I rant at you for a bit for us to maybe tackle some of these issues. It’s worth noting that these were things I talked about before the pandemic — behaviorism, surveillance, and trauma — but many folks seem a lot more amenable to hear me now. Unlike previous moments when ed-tech was in the spotlight — notably in 2012, “the year of the MOOC” — I am now inundated with media requests to talk about the drawbacks and the dangers about the move online, particularly as it relates to online test-proctoring companies, at least one of which is proving to be as villainous a character in ed-tech circles as we’ve seen since (perhaps) Blackboard.
One of the things I have written about quite a bit is this idea of “ed-tech amnesia” — that is, this profound forgetting if not erasure of the history of the field. And I don’t just mean forgetting or erasing what happened in the 1950s or 1980s. I mean forgetting what happened five, ten years ago. Some of this is a result of an influx of Silicon Valley types in recent years — people with no ties to education or education technology who think that their ignorance and lack of expertise is a strength. And it doesn’t help, of course, that there is, in general, a repudiation of history within Silicon Valley itself. Silicon Valley’s historical amnesia — the inability to learn about, to recognize, to remember what has come before — is deeply intertwined with the idea of “disruption” and its firm belief that new technologies are necessarily innovative and are always “progress.” I like to cite, as an example, a New Yorker article from a few years ago that interviewed Anthony Levandoski, the Uber engineer sued by Google for stealing its self-driving car technology. “The only thing that matters is the future,” Levandoski told the magazine. “I don’t even know why we study history. It’s entertaining, I guess — the dinosaurs and the Neanderthals and the Industrial Revolution, and stuff like that. But what already happened doesn’t really matter. You don’t need to know that history to build on what they made. In technology, all that matters is tomorrow.” (If this were a literature class, I would tie this attitude to the Italian Futurists and to fascism, but that’s a presentation for another day.)
There are other examples of this historical amnesia in ed-tech specifically, no doubt. Narratives about the “factory model of education” and whatnot. Some of these other examples appear in the introduction of my forthcoming book, which I won’t spoil since I have to save a chapter like that for the book tour — if we can do book tours.
I want us to be vigilant about this amnesia, in no small part because I think it’s going to be wielded — I use that verb because I’m thinking here of that little flashy light that Will Smith had in Men in Black — in the coming months and years as many people want us to forget their mistakes, as they try to rehabilitate not just their bad ideas but their very reputations. By “many people,” of course I mean Jared and Ivanka. But I also mean any number of people in education and education technology, who’ve not only screwed up the tools and practices of pandemic teaching and learning today, but who have a rather long history of bad if not dangerous ideas and decisions. These are people who have done real, substantive damage to students, to teachers, to public education. We cannot forget this.
We already have, of course.
Remember AllLearn? (I’m guessing not. There’s not even a Wikipedia entry. We’ve just memory-holed it.) It was a joint online education project founded by Yale, Stanford, and Oxford in 2000 that had over $12 million in investment and created over 100 courses. (Do the math there on the per course costs.) It closed some six years later. AllLearn was short for Alliance for Lifelong Learning. The pitch was that it would provide digital courseware from “the world’s best universities” to those university alumni and to the public. The former would pay $200 a course; the latter $250. The Chair of AllLearn was also the head of Yale University at the time: Richard Levin. Despite the failure of AllLearn, in 2014, Levin was named the CEO of Coursera. (His Wikipedia entry also fails to mention AllLearn.)
AllLearn wasn’t the only online education failure of the early 2000s, of course. Columbia University invested $30 million into its own online learning initiative, Fathom, that opened in 2000 and closed in 2003. Fathom, for its part, does have a Wikipedia entry. There, you can learn that this initiative was headed by one Michael M. Crow, who is now the President of Arizona State University and according to plenty of education reformers, the visionary behind “the new American university” — one whose interests are not those of the public, I’d say, but rather those of industry. (Crow’s Wikipedia entry, for what it’s worth, does not mention Fathom either. It does mention that he’s the chairman of the board of In-Q-Tel, the investment arm of the CIA.)
I talk a lot about the problems of industry when it comes to ed-tech — how venture capital and venture philanthropy have enormous influence on shaping the direction of education policy. But we should recognize too that the call, if you will, is also coming from inside the house. Terrible ed-tech isn’t simply something that’s imposed onto universities from the outside; it’s something that certain folks on the inside and certain institutions in particular are readily promoting, designing, and adopting. The learning management system, for example, originated at universities. (We can debate which one. You can trace the LMS to PLATO at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign, for example, or you can trace it to CourseInfo at Cornell.) Plagiarism detection software originated at universities. (TurnItIn was founded at UC Berkeley.) And online test proctoring software has roots at universities as well. (ProctorU was founded at Andrew Jackson University. Proctorio was founded at Arizona State.)
Online test proctoring is pretty abhorrent. We’re quite literally asking students to install spyware on their machines. This spyware extracts an incredible amount of information from students, including their biometric data, audio, and video, and then runs it through proprietary algorithms designed to identify suspicious behavior that might signal cheating. I don’t think I need to detail to this audience why this is a bad idea technically and a bad idea politically and a bad idea pedagogically.
It’s been fascinating, I think, to see the media pick up on this story, because for far too long critiques of ed-tech have been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of hype, overpromising, and marketing fluff. But I want to call out Proctorio in particular in this talk because this company has demonstrated it has no business in schools; its products have no business in classrooms. Online test proctoring is, as PhD student Jeffrey Moro has called it, “cop shit,” — that is, “any pedagogical technique or technology that presumes an adversarial relationship between students and teachers.” Cop shit supposedly brings order to the classroom by demanding compliance. Cop shit, like “broken windows policing,” takes the immense amount of data that schools and ed-tech collect about students and uses that to identify potential criminal behavior — cheating and otherwise. Cop shit relies on carceral pedagogy (and carceral ed-tech), which stands in complete opposition to any sort of liberatory practice of teaching and learning. It stands in complete opposition to education as a practice of care and justice.
But Proctorio has taken its cop shit one step further, invoking the law to threaten students and university staff who challenge them. Proctorio is currently suing Ian Linkletter, an instructional technologist at the University of British Columbia, for infringing on its intellectual property rights. A critic of the company, Linkletter posted links to unlisted YouTube videos — that is, publicly available information — on Twitter. The company has also insinuated they might take legal action against an academic journal that published an article critical of online test proctoring. Proctorio also filed a DMCA takedown notice against a Miami University student who’d posted snippets of Proctorio’s Google Chrome extension onto Twitter and who raised questions about some of the claims the company was making about its product. Proctorio’s CEO, Mike Olson posted a student’s private chat logs with the company’s customer support to Reddit after the student complained about the product. What kind of leader does that? What kind of company culture sanctions that?
Proctorio has demonstrated again and again and again and again and again and again that it holds students and staff in deep disdain. It has demonstrated that it will bully people to get its way — to maintain and expand its market share, to spread the adoption of “cop shit.” Let’s not forget that.
For a long time, arguably Blackboard was one of the major ed-tech villains. I mean, nobody is particularly fond of the learning management system as a piece of ed-tech, but the LMS is not so much evil as it is insidiously unimaginative. Blackboard, however, really upset folks in 2006 when it filed a patent infringement lawsuit against its competitor Desire2Learn (D2L), one day after receiving the patent for “Internet-based education support system and methods.” As I mentioned earlier, one can trace the origins of the learning management system and to “Internet-based education support system and methods” to much earlier technologies, including the PLATO system at the University of Illinois in the 1960s. But Blackboard filed the patent; and Blackboard decided to be the patent bully. What kind of leader does that? What kind of company culture sanctions that? Blackboard won its lawsuit against D2L, although after several years of legal wrangling, the patent office eventually rescinded some 44 IP claims made by Blackboard, and the two LMS companies announced in 2009 that they’d settled all the litigation between them. Nevertheless, this left a bitter taste in a lot of folks’ mouths. We’ll never forget, some said.
But guess who’s back? Michael Chasen, one of the co-founders of Blackboard and its CEO from 1999 to 2012. He’s launched a startup that offers a layer on top of Zoom to make it work “better” for schools — offering things like attendance, proctoring, and eye-tracking. And guess who else is back? Coursera founder Daphne Koller. She and her husband have launched a startup that also offers a replacement to Zoom. Just like Richard Levin did when he was appointed the CEO of Coursera, these folks are going to claim that they have deep experience with online education, but we might want to balk at that because they’ve never demonstrated any willingness to learn from the mistakes they have made in the past.
It makes me rather depressed to say I gave a talk six years ago called “Un-Fathom-able: The Hidden History of Ed-Tech” where I touched on some of these very same themes, these very same stories. I called it “Un-Fathom-able,” thumbing my nose at the failures of Columbia University’s Dot Com era disaster Fathom, sure, but also at what I knew at the time — 2014! — we’d see as the failure of Coursera. There wasn’t a sustainable business model for AllLearn and there wasn’t a sustainable business model (at the outset at least) for Coursera. (I’m not sure that there is one quite yet, although the company has ditched any pretense of “free and open” once heralded as the great innovation of the MOOC.)
Unfathomable. Impenetrable. Incomprehensible. Inexplicable. Unknowable. There’s so often this hand-waving in the face of grave mistakes in ed-tech that no one could have possibly predicted, no one could have possibly known. But people did predict. People did know. That expertise, however, was dismissed; experiences were forgotten; reputations were rehabilitated without any reflection or humility.
This pandemic has given us a pretty pivotal moment for educational institutions, one in which we have to decide what we want school to do, to look like, whose values should it represent and carry forward. But I’d argue we won’t be able to move forward with any sort of progressive politics or progressive pedagogy or progressive university mission until we reconcile where we’ve been before. We can’t move forward towards any semblance of educational justice, until there is reconciliation and repair to the harm that ed-tech and it’s proponents have caused. We will move forward if we just forget. We’ll just keep getting the LMS and expensive video lectures and “cop shit” repackaged and sold to us as innovation.