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.

Investing in Pearson-style Learning

Yesterday Pearson, our favorite merchant for all things standardized testing, sold The Financial Times for £844m (roughly $1.3 billion US money) in cash.

So, what do they plan to do with all that money?

We plan to reinvest the proceeds from today’s sale to accelerate our push into digital learning, educational services and emerging markets. We will focus our investment on products and businesses with a bigger, bolder impact on learning outcomes, underpinned by a stronger brand and high-performing culture.

This will help us progress toward a future where learning is more effective, affordable, personal and accessible for people who need it most. By doing so, we can help more people discover a love of learning and make progress in their lives.

This is the promise of learning— and the future of Pearson.

I’m not sure what most of that means, what a “bigger, bolder impact” might look like, or how they can help people “discover a love of learning”.

But based on Pearson’s history, be afraid. Be very afraid.

A Very Solid Business

Between media companies looking to schools for new revenue streams and charter schools as investment opportunities, I think I’m in the wrong end of the education sector.

Charter schools, as you might remember, were supposed to be innovative alternatives to “traditional” schools, funded with public money and often serving poorer communities.

However, according to something called Entertainment Properties Trust, they might also be a nice addition to your investment portfolio.

What is Entertainment Properties Trust? According to its website, it is “a specialty real estate investment trust (REIT) that invests in properties in select categories which require unique industry knowledge, and offer stable and attractive returns.”

And the website also says this: “Our investment portfolio of nearly $3 billion includes megaplex movie theatres and adjacent retail, public charter schools, and other destination recreational and specialty investments. This portfolio includes over 160 locations spread across 34 states with over 200 tenants.”

The video interview with the CEO embedded in the Answer Sheet post is quite strange, although not especially unsurprising given the concerted effort of politicians to sell off as many public resources as possible to the highest bidder.

I especially enjoyed this little piece of analysis.

Well I think it’s a very stable business, very recession-resistant. It’s a very high-demand product. There’s 400,000 kids on waiting lists for charter schools … the industry’s growing about 12-14% a year. So it’s a high-growth, very stable, recession-resistant business. It’s a public payer, the state is the payer on this, uh, category, and uh, if you do business with states with solid treasuries. then it’s a very solid business.

Pick companies in the right states, the ones willing to divert lots of public money into charters, and you have a winning investment.

What we don’t get from the charter industry, and most independent charters as well, is a better education for the money spent, one of the claims often heard from their political advocates.

Getting Twitter Some Help

Twitter announced today that they were getting a rumored $15 million in additional funding which will be used to improve their infrastructure and reliability.

Considering how often the microblogging service reports that it’s overloaded (or just plain off line), they better put that money to work fast!

The other piece of good news is that the investment comes in part from Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, who has some good experience with building an online community.