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.

On The Hazards of Free

free stuff

In the past week or so, we have a few more examples of why it may not be a good idea to depend on free.

The first involves Padlet, a service that began about six years ago under the name Wallwisher. Padlet allows users to create a virtual bulletin board and then include others as collaborators. It was enthusiastically adopted by many teachers for instructional use, as well as by many of us who did professional development activities.

The service was attractive because it was relatively easy to use and, of course, the account was free. At least the basic version was free, which means someone had to be paying the server bills.

Padlet is one of many web-based services struggling to succeed using a “freemium” business model. Under that concept, a company makes money (or tries to) from the relatively small part of the user base who are willing to pay for advanced features. It’s a tricky balancing act trying to attract enough “premium” users while not giving away too much value at the free level.

This week Padlet decided they need to rebalance and announced a change to their pricing structure that removes some of that free-level value. The new model severely limits the number of Padlets that could be created by free users and, as you might expect, many of them were not happy.

Then there was another big piece of edtech news that didn’t get the same degree of Twitter coverage but still illustrates the problem with free.

Edmodo, a popular system for building communities founded in 2008 as a “Facebook for education”, was sold to a Chinese company. Their service was also free, at first, and teachers flocked to it, growing to more than 90 million users around the world.

Although Edmodo was able to raise money from investors, they never found a model that could sustain the company for the long term. The question now is how the new owners will change the service to recover their purchase price and provide an income stream. Whatever they decide will likely not be popular with users who have become accustomed to free.

Finally, there was one more reminder about the problem with free that landed in my email box. The message came from the CEO of Noosfeer, letting me know that the service will be “closing its doors to the general public” at the end of the month.

Yeah, I didn’t recognize the name either. Or remember having an account.

According to the website, Noosfeer is (soon to be was) a “content reader and aggregator”, evidently founded around four years ago. It sounds like something I would have wanted to try. I’ve opened a lot of accounts over the years. And forgotten about most when they didn’t fit my needs.

Anyway, this blip, along with the higher profile changes to Padlet and Edmodo are just the latest reminders that free is not a sustainable business model. Just don’t be surprised when “free” changes in a way you may not like. Or disappears.


The photo, by Frank Hebbert, was posted on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons license.

Understanding Blockchain. Sorta. Maybe.

You’ve probably heard of Bitcoin, the “virtual” currency that was all over the news when it shot up in value in January and then dropped off just as quickly in February.

You may have heard about Blockchain, the technology behind Bitcoin and literally thousands of other virtual currencies. A concept that everybody says is going to change everything, but can’t exactly say how or why.

Do you understand any of it? I think I have a basic grasp of the blockchain concept but don’t hold me to that.

On his weekly dose of premium cable sanity, Last Week Tonight, John Oliver does an ok job of explaining all the pieces of the technology. But he does a great job of putting it all in context (“…if you choose to invest in the cryptocurrency space, just know that you’re not investing, you’re gambling.”).

The video is worth 25 minutes of your time. If nothing else, skip to the very funny closing that includes Keegan Michael Key.

However, even if you have no interest in the Bitcoin and cryptocurrency part of this topic, educators should at least have at least a fundamental understanding of the blockchain concept.

There is a lot of chatter about the technology having a big impact on education1 and edtech vendors are already finding ways to weave at least the word “blockchain” into their products.

When the marketing guys shows up at your door, one of you in the discussion needs to have a basic understanding of what you’re talking about.


HBO always posts John Oliver’s main segment to the Last Week Tonight YouTube channel. It’s worth subscribing to.

1. Audrey Watters’ guide on the topic, The Blockchain for Education: An Introduction, is two years old but still the best explainer on the topic I’ve read.

Being Transparent About Being an “Ambassador”

Posters

Remember about five months ago when the ed community was all a twitter over a New York Times article about teachers with a side gig as “brand ambassadors” for edtech companies? It was good for a few weeks of tweets and posts discussing the ethical issues around these “teacher influencers”.

And then what happened to all that outrage and introspection?

I ask because we’ve just been through a burst of big edtech conferences in the UK, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania, another is coming up in California next month, and ISTE, the largest US event, is not too long from now in June. All of them feature big vendor floors and many sessions showing off the hot, new shiny tech stuff.

Has there been any change in the number of educators using their credibility to market these products and services since that burst of interest?

Just based on my Twitter feed, I doubt the number has declined. So instead, a better question would be, are these educators, the companies they work for, and the organizations running the events being any more transparent about the relationships?

Out in the real world, governments and journalists are taking a closer look at “social media influencers” and their relationship with the companies whose products they endorse. No surprise, they’re discovering that it’s no accident that some celebrity is a big fan of a new health product, restaurant, or vacation spot.

The Federal Trade Commission has published a set of basic guidelines for both companies and the influencers, recommending not only that “endorsements must be honest and not misleading” but that any connection between the endorser and the company be made clear.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with getting paid for an endorsement. That’s why big name movie stars are paid big bucks to appear in advertising. But on Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, you rarely, if ever, get the text required for television and print stating that they are a “paid endorser”.

In the edtech world, any relationship between a well-known educator raving about a new app or web service in a conference presentation, tweet, or Facebook post and the owners is often even less obvious. Are the teachers featuring this product in their session here because the company covered their travel expenses? Is the person who just did their three minutes at a demo slam being compensated for it?

Educators acting as brand ambassadors should read those FTC guidelines and take steps to be far more transparent about their endorsements. Their social media profiles should make clear if they are being compensated, including receiving free products, for promoting it to their network.

Anytime they post something as part of that ambassador role, it should be clearly labelled. If they present at a conference as part of an agreement with an edtech company, that arrangement should also be made clear, both in the conference program and during the presentation.

It’s also important that these relationships are disclosed to the school or organization that employs them, as well as their co-workers. They also need to be honest about why they are selecting particular tech tools for their students to use. And that decision must be based on a clear educational need.

Despite a lull in the discussion, I doubt that this issue is going away. And I really don’t object to teachers who want to moonlight selling edtech products. As long as everyone is transparent about how and when that is happening.


The picture is of the poster area at an ISTE conference. Even in these informal sessions, I sometimes wonder about potential “brand ambassador” relationships.