Another Wealthy Education Expert

The latest billionaire who wants to revolutionize education is Jeff Bezos. He says he got the idea from a Twitter “conversation” about where he should put his philanthropy. So you know the idea is well thought out, right?

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is launching a $2 billion “Day One Fund” to help homeless families in the US and create a series of innovative preschools.

The Amazon CEO announced his new organization would be “creating a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities,” inspired by the Montessori School model, a child-centered educational method that relies on scientific observations of children from birth to adulthood.

Bezos didn’t offer many details on the preschool project, but his words show that he plans on treating these new schools like he does Amazon. He described the students as “customers” and explained that his new organization would ”use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon” to “learn, invent, and improve.”

Describing preschool children as “customers” is rather clueless and somewhat frightening.

And I always thought the principles that have driven Amazon were to grow as fast as possible, crush the competition, and make Bezos very, very rich. I suppose I could have been mistaken.

Anyway, the writer of this particular report at least manages to land on some good reasons why we should not be relying on super rich people to create education policy in this country.

Bezos’ latest announcement comes at a time of heightened criticism of Amazon’s business practices, and some critics say this latest move is savvy PR by the CEO of one of the world’s most profitable companies. But it also illustrates a deeper problem, which arises when private philanthropy fills a gap that the government should be filling, namely, the lack of quality, affordable early education in the United States. The problem lies both in the US government’s lack of investment in early education, and in big tech companies’ success at avoiding paying taxes, thus depriving states of crucial funds they could use to start their own early education programs.

Yep. Maybe if Bezos and his friends just paid their fair share of taxes, we could afford to develop quality educational programs for all kids at all levels.

Sidenote: As always Audrey Watters has an excellent take on this story, adding the historical context that the general media usually misses. Check the URL on the page for her original title. I wish she’d kept it.


Image credit: Wikipedia, used under a Creative Commons license. The Amazon Go stores are completely self-service. Maybe the Bezos schools will be self-learning.


Misdirected Metaphor

Explorer

Lots of tech startups like to explain in their pitch deck how they would be the “Netflix of x”, the “Amazon of y”, or the “Uber of z”.1 Edtech startups are no different.

However, when it comes to edtech, Michael B. Horn, a futurist who a few months ago was declaring that voice-activated devices like Alexa would be “the next technology that could disrupt the classroom”, spotlights a company that is using a more unexpected metaphor. 

The founder of Gooru “makes the argument that what education needs is really a Google Maps for education”. Of course, it’s all about “personalized” learning.

What he means by that is services that starts by “locating the learner,” or understanding the position of a learner relative to her learning goal before suggesting the best pathway to help that learner achieve that goal. Such tools must also accommodate a variety of other pathways depending on the actions and needs of the learner—just as Google Maps can accommodate a variety of routes to a destination once it knows where you are and dynamically change the route based on what you actually do.

Which is all very nice. Except that the Maps analogy assumes a fixed destination. One that is most likely established by someone other than the student. Based on a fixed curriculum, much of which they probably find uninteresting and irrelevant.

If you really want to relate learning to maps, maybe a better metaphor would be the classic road trip.

Layout a basic plan on the map but allow for diversions at each stop based on information from the locals, curiosity, and unexpected discoveries. Real learning can occur with a tightly designed plan. But, like a good road trip, it more often comes when you take a path that looks interesting and wasn’t on the original map.

Ok, that’s a pretty half-baked idea that likely will go nowhere. But it certainly makes more sense than the tortured Google Maps metaphor in Horn’s post.


Image: Explorer by Sakeeb Sabakka, posted to Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Well, not so much Uber anymore since they’ve acquired a rather sketchy reputation in a variety of areas.

The Wrong Question

You may remember back in March that Apple held one of their events. It was a little different from their usual shows since the focus was on K12 education, featuring new, cheaper iPads, their expensive pencil, and some software.

The usual tech and edtech channels showed up for the presentation, of course, but there were also reports on the regular news channels and even your local stations. Why? Well, because it’s Apple.1

Anyway, the announcements generated lots of chatter among educators I follow on social media. Discussions (arguments?) that largely swirled around the age-old question, what is the best device for education? iPads? Chromebooks? Mac? Windows? Chart paper and crayons (my personal favorite)?

However, that “best” question is totally wrong. It was wrong twenty years ago during the classic Mac vs. PC wars2. It’s wrong today when the selection of devices and software is far greater.

Take a careful look at the products being promoting at the Apple March event. Line them up with competing offerings from Google, Microsoft, and others. Zoom in really close. Notice, that there really isn’t much difference between any of them.

For one thing, most of that technology being sold as “educational” today is far more more about teaching than learning. About controlling devices and access (we can’t have students doing the “wrong” things). And mostly designed to replicate the traditional analog teacher-directed classroom on an electronic device.

Take for example, the Chromebook. It’s fans3 heap praise on the device because it’s cheap, easy to manage, light, great battery life. Did I mention it’s cheap?

All of that is true but above all teachers and IT departments love the Chromebook because it’s a hardware and software system specifically designed to lock down the machine so that students have few options other than following the path laid out by adults. Apple’s Classroom software, a centerpiece of their education event, offers to do the same thing with iPads.

In the same way, Apple’s coming-soon Schoolwork software is little more than a iPad variation of Google Classroom. Classroom, as just about anyone even near a school knows, enables teachers to “easily assign anything from worksheets to activities in educational apps, follow students’ progress, and collaborate with students in real time”.

Except that quote is from Apple’s press release describing Schoolwork. But tell me it doesn’t apply perfectly to Google’s Classroom.

The bottom line is that Classroom, Schoolwork, and whatever Microsoft calls their variation on the theme are not learning tools. They are entirely addressed at classroom management. They exist to distribute lessons and activities and collect the finished products. Lessons and activities that vary little from the paper versions assigned ten, fifteen, thirty, fifty years ago.

Devices from Apple and others didn’t change learning when we first started throwing them into school in the mid-80’s. They didn’t really change teaching either. Flash forward to 2018 and these shiny new products are also having little significant impact on teaching or learning.

And that’s because the basic structure of school hasn’t changed.

The curriculum – what students are expected to know and be able to do when they graduate – is largely the same as it was long before computers entered the picture. The pedagogy – the method and practice of teaching – has been stuck in the mode of teacher-directed information transfer even longer.

We have not re-thought the process known as “school” to take full advantage of the powerful technology teachers and students now have in their hands. Instead we bring in devices and software to “digitize” the familiar and comfortable.

All of which means we are asking the wrong question. Instead of debating the “best” device or class management system, we need to first look at the larger issues of what school should be. At how technology can help students gain an authentic understanding of both themselves and their world.

Next question.


The image is about eight years old but look around. It won’t be hard to find a classroom with lots of laptops (or Chromebooks) and kids working in Google Classroom. 

1. The company still retains some of that Reality Distortion Field, leftover as part of the Steve Jobs legacy. Regardless of the topic, Apple has always done an astounding job of turning their marketing announcements into national news.

2. Spoiler alert: the Mac “lost”. Of course, Apple then went on to become one of the most profitable companies that has ever existed. And the technology that “won” the wars completely failed to “revolutionize” schools. But the Mac likely wouldn’t have done that either.

3. I’ll probably get a lot of hate tweets for this, but in my experience, Chromebook fans are almost as fanatical as those accused of being Apple fan boys.

The Surveillance Classroom

During the 2016 holiday season, Amazon’s Alexa devices were huge sellers. Google was second in the category with Home. Apple just started shipping their Siri-enabled Homepod and they will probably sell a bunch of them.

So now tens of millions of homes have always-listening internet-connected microphones listening to every sound, and more are coming. This despite the many cautions from privacy experts about allowing large corporations to have access to a new continuous stream of auditory data. 

But who cares if the artificially intelligent software powering these devices is buggy? Does it matter that Amazon, Google, and Apple are vague about how they are using that information and who has access to it? Let’s bring these boxes into the classroom!

Michael Horn, co-author of Disrupting Class, the hot education-change book from a decade ago, says Alexa and her friends is “the next technology that could disrupt the classroom”.

It’s not entirely clear why Horn believes a “voice-activated” classroom would improve student learning. Other than that the superintendent he has interviewed is concerned that kids “will come in and will be used to voice-activated environments and technology-based learning programs”.

That’s nothing new. For a few decades (at least) we have been throwing technology into the classroom based on the premise that kids have the stuff at home. That approach hasn’t been especially successful, and Alexa is not likely to change that.

But these days, a major reason for using many, if not most, new classroom technologies is collecting and analyzing data.

These devices could also send teachers real-time data to help them know where and how they should intervene with individual students. Eastwood imagines that over time these technologies would also know the different students based on their reading levels, numeracy, background knowledge, and other areas, such that it could provide access to the appropriate OER content to support that specific child in continuing her learning.

Maybe I’m wrong but I think it’s better to have a teacher or other adult listening to kids.

Anyway, Horn presents a lot of questions about the use of Alexa and her peers in the classroom but his last one is probably the most salient: “What is the best use of big data and artificial intelligence in education?” Before ending, he also very briefly touches on the security of that data – “And there are bound to be privacy concerns.”. As I said, briefly.

But the bottom line to all this is whether we want Amazon, Google, or Apple surveillance devices collecting data on everything that happens in the classroom. Horn seems to think the technology could be disruptive. It sounds creepy and rather invasive to me.


The image is from an article about a contest Amazon is running for developers, with cash prizes for the best Alexa apps that are “educational, fun, engaging or all of the above for kids under the age of 13”.

Don’t Call This Personal Learning

Once upon a time, like around three years ago, one of the hottest concepts in education reform was a collection of “micro schools”, called AltSchool. The brain child of a former Google executive, AltSchool mixed concepts from Montessori and other progressive educators with data-driven technology to produce a startup that attracted hundreds of millions in venture capital. 

Today, not so much. AltSchool is now “pivoting” from operating a few expensive boutique private schools to marketing software for “personalizing” learning in regular public schools.

So, what magic is AltSchool selling in their algorithms?

The software allows educators to build curriculum, tailor assignments, set goals, offer feedback, and track a host of metrics from learners. Students using the platform can create customized “playlist” of assignments and monitor their progress with the hope that their learning will become self-directed.

In other words, this one-time darling of Silicon Valley is marketing a more advanced, maybe even more intelligent, version of the teaching machines we were promised in the 50’s. And the programmed learning software schools overpaid for in the 90’s.

Call this personalized learning if you like. Maybe individualized instruction. But this approach, where every part of the learning process is mapped out by adults, is in no way personal.

I’m repeating myself but it’s worth restating…

Personalized learning is something done TO students. Personal learning is something students do for themselves.

One can be automated, the other is uniquely individual.