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.

The EdTech Boat Shows

Swap the boats for computers and it begins to look familiar.

Happening this week in London is one of the largest edtech conferences in the world, one that many educators in the US have probably never heard of.

It’s called BETT1 and the organizers say it will attract almost 35,000 attendees. For comparison, recent ISTE2 conferences, largest in the US, have included around 22,000 people.

Also happening this week in Orlando, Florida is another large edtech conference, one that is probably quite familiar to anyone reading this, FETC3. They usually attract around 8,000 people. So, big but not nearly the size of the other two.

All three edtech organizations, of course, want us, the common educator, to believe that the event will provide hundreds of professional development opportunities. Ones that address the “future of education” and “transforming education” (in the case of BETT).

Several days that will be an “intensive, highly collaborative exploration of new technologies, best practices and pressing issues” (FETC). That will offer “powerful ideas and inspirational speakers, while connecting with innovative educators who share your passion for transformative learning” (ISTE).

However, a large and growing part of these huge conferences is the vendor floor. I would argue it’s the largest, and likely most important, part to these three organizations. Companies pay big bucks to have a presence at these events, even more for a high profile sponsorship, money necessary to keep their budgets in the black.

BETT at least is up front about primarily being an industry trade show, rather than a professional development conference. According to it’s about page, this is the “first industry show of the year in the education technology landscape”. ISTE and FETC are more circumspect on the issue, but their literature still places a heavy emphasis on the number of companies that will be exhibiting at their events.

Ok, I’ve never attended BETT or FETC, and, based on their online programs, I really have no desire to go. (Although I wouldn’t mind visiting London. Anytime.) On the other hand, I have been to ISTE many times (over almost twenty years) and the attraction for that event has been declining.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always felt my trips to ISTE were worth while, learning much during the time and always making or renewing some wonderful connections. And almost none of that came from visiting the “massive Expo Hall”. I expect that the same would be true if I was at the big events in London or Ontario right now.

But I find that it takes more and more work to find those professional benefits at these overly-large conferences. Considering the number of people I see spending hours in the vendor hall and flocking to the “Cracker Jack” sessions, along with the volume of social media posts about the “cool new” stuff, I’m not sure that’s happening at all for a large percentage of those tens of thousand attendees.

On top of that, the dominance of the edtech industry has steadily grown at these conferences. Large parts of the formal program at ISTE and FETC are now presentations by corporate representatives and sessions by educators sponsored to some degree by those companies. Extending their marketing reach beyond the one hall.

All of which is making these huge conferences more resemble the classic boat show than an education event.


The title for this post is borrowed, with thanks, from Gary Stager. It’s just such a wonderful name for the massive and increasingly flashy vendor floors of these events so I hope he doesn’t mind me using it.

The picture is from the Detroit Boat Show.

1 From the original name the British Educational Training and Technology Show.

2 Anyone else see something wrong about an organization with “international” in it’s title that’s never holds it’s major event outside the US borders? Sorta like the “World” Series.

3 Which started life as the Florida Educational Technology Conference. It was changed to the Future of Educational Technology Conference when the event was purchased by a media company that operates many other business conferences.