One Chance to Get it Right

In an earlier post, I offered my impressions of a New York Times article about teachers who are acting as “brand ambassadors” for edtech companies, sometimes for real compensation. Many of the people in my Twitter feed offered far more critical and pointed comments about this practice. And the edtech industry in general.

The Times piece is one part of an irregular series called Education Disrupted,1 written by a tech reporter working in the business section of the paper. And, in a follow up to the longer article, the writer reflected on the reasons why she finds reporting on the influence of technology companies on education so “riveting”.

Her parents and grandmother were all educators and she has some experience teaching summer courses in “tech-innovation ethics” to high school students. All of which gives her some credibility for me.

Her thoughts from the end of this reflection adds a little more.

But some tech companies were prickly when I asked them the same questions I had put to my students about the potential consequences of the companies’ education efforts. From some companies, I received responses like: “Nobody ever asked us that before,” and “We don’t understand the question,” and “We don’t think this is a valid question.”

Given that students get only one chance at a free public school education — an undertaking with huge implications for their economic prospects and life of the mind — it behooves us to examine Silicon Valley’s effects on the classroom.

I just hope she and others will continue to ask “prickly” questions of those companies who want a high profile in school classrooms.

So, teachers. Most of you have one chance with the students in your classes this year. Can you do your best for them and still sell interactive whiteboards on the side?

Just a question.

Marketing Your Brand

From the New York Times, a high profile story about how edtech companies are recruiting teachers as “brand ambassadors” to promote their products to schools and other educators.

Ms. Delzer is a member of a growing tribe of teacher influencers, many of whom promote classroom technology. They attract notice through their blogs, social media accounts and conference talks. And they are cultivated not only by start-ups like Seesaw, but by giants like Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft, to influence which tools are used to teach American schoolchildren.

Their ranks are growing as public schools increasingly adopt all manner of laptops, tablets, math teaching sites, quiz apps and parent-teacher messaging apps. The corporate courtship of these teachers brings with it profound new conflict-of-interest issues for the nation’s public schools.

I’m not really sure the Times has discovered anything new.Super Software

Google, Apple, Smart, and other tech companies have had “certified” educator programs for many years. Look around any education-related conference like ISTE and you’ll find many sessions presented by Google Certified Educators or Apple Distinguished Educators. Some of the same speakers also show up at company booths in the vendor hall.

I know many of those educators, and few are receiving significant compensation, if any, beyond maybe a t-shirt or some basic tchotchkes. Most enthusiastically use the products they demonstrate at conferences and other professional development, motivated by wanting to share their successes with their colleagues.

But then there are also the high profile edtech “rockstars”. The ones who are featured speakers at conferences, who have tens of thousands of followers on their websites and social media, get quoted in the edtech press, and who are constantly promoting the products of a particular company. What’s rarely made clear is their relationship to the company.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve done hundreds, maybe thousands, of professional development sessions over the years. I was never compensated for using any of the products in my sessions. In fact, when I was working for my previous employer, I hesitate to recommend even the district’s officially blessed tools if I didn’t believe in them. That attitude certainly fouled up my chances of ever working for Blackboard or Pearson. :-)

Anyway, the bottom line to this story is the question of whether teachers who promote a particular brand or product to their peers, regardless of any compensation, are breaching ethical standards or even violating local and state laws. Can you promote a specific device, piece of software, or web service and still remain objective in deciding which tools will work best for your students?

I don’t know. The comparison made to similar relationships between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry could be far too close.

By the way, near the beginning of the article, the writer includes one sentence that I think deserves far more attention in the whole discussion of the use of technology in the classroom.

Moreover, there is little rigorous research showing whether or not the new technologies significantly improve student outcomes.

A topic for another rant on another day.

Personalized Learning by Facebook

If there’s one thing Facebook is great at it’s collecting and using data on “members”. Those skills are why the company is attractive to advertisers. So why not have the same programmers who built that attention-grabbing system create “a powerful tool that could reshape how students learn”?

That tool is called Basecamp, a joint project with the Summit charter school network, and is described in this Post article as a program that “tailors lessons to individual students using software that tracks their progress”. More personalized learning.

And personalized learning systems requires lots and lots of data to do the job.

But it also captures a stream of data, and Bilicki had to sign a consent form for her children to participate, allowing their personal data to be shared with companies such as Facebook and Google. That data, the form said, could include names, email addresses, schoolwork, grades and Internet activity. Summit Basecamp promised to limit its use of the information — barring it from being used, for example, to deliver targeted ads — but Bilicki agonized over whether to sign the form.

Question: if they promise not to use the data to deliver targeted ads, why is it being shared with Facebook and Google? Two of the largest distributors of targeted advertising?

Anyway, currently about 20,000 students in 100 charter and public schools are providing that data as the company is racing to have their product ready by the beginning of the school year next fall. A product that will compete with similar personalized learning systems from dozens of edtech startups.

Although the reporter tries to put a positive face on this story – starting with a headline claiming the software “shows promise” – there are so many things wrong with this project beyond the involvement of Facebook. Like this:

“There’s a lot of hype,” said Joel Reidenberg, a Fordham University law professor who researches student privacy. “In effect, they are experimenting on children.”

Then there’s the fact that the developers have very little evidence of the effectiveness of personalized learning systems.

“We really don’t know that much about personalized learning,” said Monica Bulger, senior researcher at the Data and Society Research Institute in New York.

Which applies to all the other companies on the hunt for venture capital to develop their version of personalize learning.

Not addressed in this story, of course, is whether the curriculum being “personalized”, how it is presented, and the pacing is appropriate for every child. Or if their learning from these systems will be meaningful enough to persist past the spring exams.

But I suppose none of these concerns are important as long as schools can boost test scores, administrators can keep their jobs, and investors are paid their profit.

At least in this case, a billionaire (Zuckerberg) is paying the bills. And Summit is the one organization in the world immune to potential data loss.

“We’re offering this for free to people,” she [Diane Tavenner, chief executive of Summit] said. “If we don’t protect the organization, anyone could sue us for anything — which seems crazy to me.”

I’m convinced.

Conference Overload

Did you ever think that there might be too education-related conferences? Especially edtech-related?

You probably don’t know the half of it.

Twice a year, a consultant from Toronto assembles a list of “selected events that primarily focus on the use of technology in educational settings and on teaching, learning, and educational administration”, to be held in the next six months, all over the world.

And it is a very long list. I didn’t bother to count the number of items in the current edition, but the information is distributed in a 102 page Word document. Each entry given two or three lines of 10pt type.

Some, like the International Workshop on Content-Based Multimedia Indexing (next month in Bucharest, Romania) and WorldFuture (presented by the World Future Society in DC in July) don’t exactly strike me as education conferences. And the list likely misses many state and local conferences.

However, my overall feeling as I scroll (and scroll, and scroll,…) through this list is: Are all these meetings really necessary? They all cost someone money and time to assemble; are they worth the costs involved? Do participants at these events really learn something that improves their practice, and, more importantly, positively impacts their students?

As someone who attends and presents at a few conferences a year, I always leave them asking those same questions. I’ll be in Denver for ISTE next month (attending, not presenting) and I know I’ll learn from the people I meet, as well as having a good time. But that doesn’t mean I won’t question the value of both the conference and my participation.

Anyway, just something to think about. If you’re interested in scrolling through the conference list yourself, the 35th edition, covering mid-May through December 2016, is now available.

Computers Destroy Learning!

“Investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils’ performance…”

That’s according to a new global study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). And we all need to sit up and take notice of “global” research.

In case you’re not familiar with OECD, they are “an international economic organisation of 34 countries, founded in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and world trade”. They also administer the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the test most often cited by ed reformers in the US as conclusive evidence that our students are falling behind their counterparts in the rest of the world. Especially Finland. Or maybe it’s Singapore this week.

Anyway, as you might expect, the conclusions reached in this study are based primarily on PISA data.

The report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development examines the impact of school technology on international test results, such as the Pisa tests taken in more than 70 countries and tests measuring digital skills.

It says education systems which have invested heavily in information and communications technology have seen “no noticeable improvement” in Pisa test results for reading, mathematics or science.

Several other quotes from the OECD’s education director also make clear the organization equates test scores with learning, and learning with traditional knowledge transfer classroom practice.

He said making sure all children have a good grasp of reading and maths is a more effective way to close the gap than “access to hi-tech devices”

He warned classroom technology can be a distraction and result in pupils cutting and pasting “prefabricated” homework answers from the internet.

But Mr Schleicher says the findings of the report should not be used as an “excuse” not to use technology, but as a spur to finding a more effective approach. He gave the example of digital textbooks which can be updated as an example of how online technology could be better than traditional methods.

However, the supporters for the use of technology in schools quoted at the end of the article didn’t present a very good case. As evidenced by this image

showing students playing games in a computer lab, and the usual statements about preparing students for a future that “hasn’t yet been invented”.

Probably the only valid conclusions found in this study said that the highest achieving students were the ones who made “moderate” use of technology.