Inappropriate Optimism

Approaching the end of another calendar, the inevitable (and lazy) flood of year-end recaps and forecasts for some undefined future is beginning to trickle in.

In that latter category, one writer is very optimistic about the “next wave” of educational technology, ending his column that tries to make that case with this:

At this point, America’s education system finally has all the key building blocks in place: The infrastructure is solid, almost every student has a device and wireless internet access, schools and educators (at all levels) are now much more comfortable working with technology and data, and thousands of entrepreneurs are working—not just with early adopters, but increasingly with early mainstream schools and educators—to bring edtech and personalized learning to the masses.

This is why I’m optimistic about the next decade of educational technology and innovation. I can’t wait to see how the next chapter unfolds!

Ok. Except that he has all kinds of bad assumptions jammed into just that one paragraph

Start with the statement that the “infrastructure is solid” in schools. It’s true that the vast majority of US classrooms are connected to the internet. But the number with adequate bandwidth is much, much lower, especially in high poverty rural and urban areas.

Even worse is his claim that “almost every student has a device”. I suppose if you average out everything, it might be close to 1:1. But even if you can claim a 1:1 ratio in your school/district, that doesn’t mean every student has the same quality of device1. Or can accomplish the same quality of work with the equipment and software available. That’s true even in the very rich overly-large school district that used to employ me.

Finally, there’s the line about educators being “much more comfortable” using technology and data. I’m pretty sure most teachers are “comfortable” with the tools they use. The digital grade book, attendance systems, Word. Most are not at all comfortable with tools for meaningful learning, especially when it’s students using that technology in creative ways.

However, all of that really doesn’t matter. When it comes to being optimistic about educational technology, this particular column is not at all about student learning or even teacher productivity.

The writer is a “general partner” at a venture capital firm, one that specializes in “disruptive education” startups. His optimism is all squeezing as much profit as possible from the education technology companies in which they’ve invested. Profit which will ultimately come from schools and districts at the expense of other priorities.

After all, there’s a bear market in all that “personalization” and data collection.

1. A Chromebook is NOT a computer. Don’t tell me otherwise because I’ve used both and Chromebooks do not compute. But that’s a rant for another day.

The New Business of School

In case you haven’t heard, Silicon Valley is getting into the disrupting education business. Several tech entrepreneurs, including Salman Khan himself, are creating schools with the ultimate end goal of earning big profits from learning.

A recent segment of the podcast Note to Self visited the Brooklyn location of one called AltSchool, founded by a former Google executive and backed by $100 million from folks like Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Andreesen. The goal of the company is to “optimize” education by build a “new operating system” for schools, one that seems to lean very heavily on the concept of “personalized” learning.

The descriptions and interviews from the program makes the instructional process sound great, and likely wonderful for the kids involved. But in effect they are guinea pigs, contributing data so the company can take what they learn from these ten or so small elementary and middle schools and scale it up into marketable products that could be used in most “regular” public and charter schools. Plus make projetsons teacherfits worthy of a hundred million dollar investment, of course.

I have many doubts about these experimental schools, but especially about the scaling part.

To start, the kids attending these “micro-schools” come from families that can afford to pay the up-to $30,000 tuition, or qualify for a grant. Public schools spend far less per student, and few parents could afford that kind of money for private. And we already know that small classes (30 to 120 students per AltSchool) with highly motivated students, and parents, led by a well-qualified staff almost always leads to better learning.

But what happens when they try to take the same concepts and put them in a public elementary school with 25 not-specially-selected kids per teacher? As the number of adult-kid interactions decline in the classroom setting and the software they are building (based on collecting lots of data, something else that should raise a few red flags) takes over, the experiences will also change. It’s likely test scores, not to mention student engagement, will decline noticeably.

Go listen to the whole thing and see if you hear something different. You may also want to read this profile of the company and it’s founder in Wired.

However, for now, I have many, many questions – and doubts – about this and other “high tech school” startups, siding with this view from the podcast.

NPR’s education reporter Anya Kamanetz is skeptical of Ventilla’s goal to optimize education for the masses, and she’s concerned about Silicon Valley’s foray into education. “They have a giant promise, which is that the right software system, the right operating system, is going to transform teaching and learning… and, what it ultimately means is that they have shareholders to satisfy.”

Transforming teaching and learning is not necessary compatible with making profits large enough to satisfy those shareholders. Nor should it be.

The Illusion of Free

We all love something for nothing, right? And that’s especially true of schools and teachers. Given the choice between paying for something and getting it free, free wins pretty much every time.

In blog posts and tweets, at conferences and EdCamps, during webinars and videos, when you hear someone recommending a website or app, more often than not the presenter will prominently add that the product is free (or free for teachers). That graphic at the left is a label from the side of a large booth on the ISTE vendor floor.

The problem, however, is that nothing is ever free.

Although relatively cheap, server space and bandwidth still cost something. Designers, coders, and engineers expect to be paid. And don’t think all those sales people working on that ISTE expo floor1 are donating their time.

In the world of digital products, there are only a few ways companies can provide their products for free, and in the long run, none of them are particularly good for kids and teachers (much less anyone else).

For the seemingly endless parade of startups, edtech and otherwise, free software or services are made possible through “backers”, investors who expect a big payoff somewhere down the line. Which means, at some point their products will no longer be free, usually switching to some kind of payment model. Or they disappear altogether.

Some, like Khan Academy, are funded by grants from foundations or companies. Unless they can shift to some kind of business model, the money will eventually run out, usually when the charitable focus of the organzation changes. Anyone remember ThinkQuest?

More common in the edtech world is the “freemium” business model. These companies offer users the basic functionality of their software or web services at no charge, supported by others who elect to pay for a version of the product with more features. In-app purchases on mobile devices is a popular application of this model but certainly not the only one.

Then there are the many software or services supported by advertising. You don’t have to pay a dime to use Facebook or Twitter, for example, but the businesses who stick ads into your timeline/stream certainly do.2 But there is still a cost for these kinds of free services, paid in terms of wasted time and annoyances.

Finally, there are companies that support their free products by collecting data on users and selling it. Google is exhibit number one in this category, but marketing data is also a large part of the income for companies presenting you with advertising. Google, of course, also sells ads based on the data you provide, even more successfully than Facebook.

In the edtech marketplace, Google and other companies are not allowed to insert ads in the products they provide for schools and, for that reason,many educators are under the impression that they are actually “free”. But that doesn’t mean Google doesn’t still collects huge amounts of data on the millions of students using Apps for Education, connecting that to other Google products not specifically tied to education, like search, that are often being used concurrently.

Ok, I’m not saying you shouldn’t be using free products. I sign up for pretty much every interesting new idea the web comes up with, and have downloaded way too many apps over the years. I accept the trade-offs that come with spending way too much time on Twitter, and the risk that comes from Flickr being owned by Yahoo.

However, if you rely on a particular piece of software or service, take a close look at the business model. Be very aware of what you and your students are actually paying (usually in terms of your personal information) when someone offers free stuff. And understand, that even paying with real money doesn’t guarantee the reliability – or longevity – of any company.

Edtech Fool’s Gold

Showing up at a gold rush with a shovel and a pan doesn’t make you a genius. – Dave Pell

Dave, who curates the daily and essential NextDraft, was commenting on a story about the debate over whether the tech industry is in another bubble. But his observation could also apply to edtech.

I don’t know whether there is a bubble yet, but lots of companies are showing up to the edtech gold rush with apps, software, “solutions” for your Common Core problems, and a variety of tools repurposed from other businesses to be “innovative” and “entrepreneurial”.

In many cases, the “gold” they are seeking is data. Either they want to collect enough student information to make their products more valuable than the next one, or they are selling products that are supposed to help schools and districts magically find the nuggets in their own data. Very often, both.

Whatever the motive for arriving at the school door with a shovel and pan, very few of these edtech products are concerned about actual learning and kids. Scan through the huge collection of vendors from the ISTE boatshow3 floor and Edsurge’s summit and it becomes obvious that most of this crap is edtech fool’s gold. And we are the fools for buying it.

The State of EdTech

A few weeks ago I spent a chunk of my Sunday at an odd little conference held in the threadbare ballrooms at one of DC’s utility hotels. The meeting was a combination of a micro version of the ISTE expo, an edtech pitchfest, and an attempt at a teacher pep rally.

As I said: odd.

The event was the Tech for Schools Summit, presented in various locations around the US by a company called edSurge. For those who don’t follow the edtech “sector” and haven’t heard of them, here’s the nutshell description in their own words:

EdSurge was started in 2011… to connect the emerging community of edtech entrepreneurs and educators. We wanted to share detailed information about what new technologies could–and could not–do to support learning.

However, the short time I spent at the summit didn’t leave me feeling very good about that “emerging community”.

About thirty small companies participated in this event, each of them showing off their creations at tables in a cramped, noisy room as well as giving a short pitch on the stage in another space. None of them did a good job explaining either what their product did or why any educator would want to use it. If I was a wealthy investor, I would pass on all of them.

Anyway, my biggest problem was with the concept behind their products. Except for two tables2, these edtech “entrepreneurs” presented very little that involved students in creating their own learning.

They were showing technology grafted to the same old curriculum and classroom process, aligned to the Common Core, of course. Very little innovation in either the “ed” or the “tech” part of the equation.

And that pretty much sums up the current state of that whole edtech “sector”.