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 boatshow1 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”.

Don’t Blame the iPad. Blame Yourself.

2013 was the year of the iPad in education. Lost of posts and articles declared that the device was going to transform learning and completely alter classroom practice. Plus lists of 23 apps that you must have!

Last year came the backlash, as usually happens with edtech revolutions.

A good deal of it was driven by stories of the poorly designed plan to distribute iPads to all students in Los Angeles2 but there were plenty of other negative voices. Also, a new edtech miracle device was crowned: the Chromebook.

Among the many complaints about the iPad, one of the loudest around here is that the devices are difficult to manage. And by “manage”, of course, we mean control.

There’s a reason why Windows is so beloved by the enterprise, and by IT departments in overly-large school districts that love to use that “enterprise” designation. The machines are relatively easy to clone and lock down. Which also makes many teachers happy as well since every screen is identical and every student gets the same “experience”. Certainly if our head of IT had her way, every computing device in the system would be identical and controlled from HQ.

However, if you’re critical of the iPads you bought because they’re difficult to control, because it’s hard to use them to duplicate the lab experience you love so much, don’t blame Apple.

Blame yourself.

The iPad was always designed as a device for the individual. That’s the way it’s always been marketed, as the most personal of personal computers, for fun, creation, and personal learning. Sure some promotional material shows iPads being used in classrooms by happy kids and teachers, but there’s no reason the sales people would mislead us, right?

If you expect Apple to change the way iPads function just because so many schools are buying them (as I’ve heard more than one IT person declare they must, MUST!), then you haven’t been paying attention. That’s not the company philosophy. Apple decides how the device works and users accept that. They wouldn’t mind selling millions of them to businesses2 but they’re leaving the lockdown control part up to IBM (and who will charge “enterprises” big bucks for it).

Ok, so none of this is meant to be a criticism of the iPad. I know the device has it’s flaws but so does any other computing choice you can name. They just aren’t big enough to inhibit my enjoyment. I love mine and in the almost four years I’ve had one, it has become an essential part of my digital life.

However, if those flaws are insurmountable for you, if iPad doesn’t fit into your model of an instructional devices, just don’t buy them. Get one running one of the many variations of the Android OS. Kindles. Amplify. Windows 8. Try Chromebooks. Forget tablets altogether and stick with a generic Windows PC.3

But you’re looking for the ideal device for instructional computing, the one that will be super easy to manage (aka control), the miracle worker that will turn all of your students into creative, innovative, high-test-scoring, coding, data-generating wonder kids, right?

Just wait. The next revolutionary educational technology should be announced any day now.

A Dismal Future for EdTech

An article titled “12 Companies Transforming Education To Watch Next Year” might be an interesting read if not for the fact it appears in Forbes Magazine, which calls itself “The Capitalist Tool”. And that the list is a very odd mix, with very little truly “transformative”.

One example, ForClass is described as “platform and distribution network” that “increases [student] participation and accountability in the classroom while reducing prep time for professors”. Sounds like any number of learning management systems already in place, all of which do little more than support traditional teaching. Same for Flashnotes which is creating a “marketplace” for college students to sell their lecture notes.

On the other side of the classroom, Panorama Education, “run by two data heads from Yale”, wants to improve teacher evaluations by creating “scientifically valid” surveys that are “cheap, modern and effective”. But at least they have “impressive” backers like noted educators Mark Zuckerburg and Ashton Kutcher, so they must be on to something.

DonorsChooseAndela (which helps youth in Africa learn programming skills), Edmodo, Schoology, all doing good work in their respective spaces but are not shaking up the education process. 

And then there’s the media and Bill Gates’ favorite educational revolutionary, Khan Academy, which basically moves the classic fact-based lecture onto the web.

Transform education? Hardly.

I doubt any of the companies on this list will even produce the kind of extreme profits venture capitalists, or the capitalist tools who read Forbes, are looking for.

Certainly it’s hard to imagine they represent the kind of edtech that will be “taking by storm schools, students and the process of learning across the globe”.

Solutions in Search of Problems

The soap opera that is the Los Angeles school district’s quest for technology continues.4

There really isn’t anything in that article of interest to someone not living in Southern California but some of the statements by the players in this drama are very revealing of how many of our leaders view the place of technology in schools and learning.

For example, the head of the district’s facilities division, responsible for purchasing equipment, noted that “We’re just looking for devices.” in discussing the suspension of the infamous iPad contract. Which highlights one huge error in our approach to instructional technology.

We go shopping for “devices” without knowing how they will be used. We buy “solutions” before clearly understanding the problems they’re supposed to solve.

Then there is this little portion of the purchase.

The district also wanted authorization to spend $16.5 million to buy computers for every middle and high school teacher as well as for office staff. The immediate purpose is to help teachers use a new online student data system that malfunctioned across L.A. Unified at the start of the school year. The computers can also be used for instruction. [emphasis mine]

Also not unique, using computers for instruction as an afterthought.

However, as with discussions of just about any aspect of American education these days, we eventually get around to the primary reason anyone wants to spend large amounts of money on digital devices of any kind: standardized testing.

New bidding has yet to begin, however, and the district said it needs $25 million more in computers right away to be ready for state tests. Those exams will expand to their full length this spring, requiring twice as long, about eight hours, to complete.

A longer test means more computers will be needed at campuses where students are sharing the devices, said Gerardo Loera, who heads of the office of curriculum, instruction and school support.

Especially at high schools, with students moving from period to period and having to fit in Advanced Placement exams and other tests, scheduling the state testing with limited computers is “like an engineering project to pull it all together,” he said.

But members of the oversight committee challenged a district option to limit testing to two hours a day, all in the morning. [emphasis mine]

Oh, and there’s also the matter of the “lack of an inventory of devices the district already owns”.

Of course, none of this happens here in our Lake Wobegonish, overly-large school district. We never throw lots of money at devices (tablets, interactive whiteboards, clicker systems, wireless “slates”, etc.) without having a solid plan for using them to improve instruction. None of our schools suck up every computer in the building (not to mention instructional time) for days and weeks of standardized testing throughout the year. And then ask for more.

That kind of stuff only happens in places where the local media actually bothers to investigate what schools are doing with public money.