Investing in EdTech

ISTE Expo

A couple of posts back, I ranted about the ongoing quest for the new in edtech at large conferences. Of course, on the other side of that quest are the many companies developing and marketing their products at events like BETT, FETC, and ISTE.

Related to that, Audrey Watters is someone who does excellent work writing about the big money attempts to “reform” American education and the place of edtech in that process. In a recent essay, Fables of School Reform, she starts with this observation of the results of all that investment.

Over the past five years, more than $13 billion in venture capital has been sunk into education technology startups. But in spite of all the money and political capital pouring into the sprawling ed-tech sector, there’s precious little evidence suggesting that its trademark innovations have done anything to improve teaching and learning.

Extend that timeline back, say thirty years, almost the range in which I’ve been involved in the process of using technology for instruction, and consider all the money and time that’s been expended by schools, governments, and teachers. Can we say it has improved teaching and learning?

A question, not a judgement. One deserving a much more extensive debate.

Anyway, Audrey is excellent at following the threads of education reform through history and in this piece traces the efforts to bring computers into schools back to A National At Risk, the 1983 report that kicked off the modern panic about the American education system. As with so many of the studies that followed, the conclusions were based on test scores (the SAT in this case) and are “wrenched out of historical context”.

She then brings the thread into modern day by visiting the ASU + GSV Summit, “a business of education conference fondly known as ‘Davos in the Desert’” (before moving from Phoenix to San Diego). The New York Times called it “The must-attend event for education technology investors”.

This year featured speakers included such well-known education experts as former Mexican President Vicente Fox, former US president George W. Bush, and… Matthew McConaughey?1 Of course missing from the presenters (and likely the attendees)2 was anyone who could speak with actual experience to the process of teaching and learning.

In addition to the conspicuous absence of education researchers from the “constituencies” served at Davos in the Desert, there was no mention of either students or parents. Indeed, every year (this year’s was its ninth), the ASU+GSV Summit seems to nearly coincide with AERA [American Educational Research Association], an organization that’s been around since the early 1910s. It’s hardly an insignificant scheduling gaffe. If nothing else, the dueling conference schedules tap into a powerful cultural trope, one that’s particularly resonant among Silicon Valley and education reform types: that education experts and expertise aren’t to be trusted, that research is less important than politics, that the “peer review” that matters isn’t the academic version, but rather the sort that drives a typical VC roadshow.

There is much more to Audrey’s experience at the Summit and her observations of the edtech business in general. This post is well worth 20 minutes of your time to read it all. She is also someone you should follow.


The photo shows just a part of the vast Expo floor at the ISTE conference last June in Chicago. ISTE also works very hard to promote the edtech startup business through their Edtech Startup Pavilion and annual Pitch Fest.

1. The speakers at the 2019 event in April include a mix of tech executives, politicians, and celebrities. It’s a very strange brew.

2. With ticket prices starting at $2800, I’m guessing not a lot of teachers attend this conference.

Maybe I Don’t Own a Domain of My Own

I’ve owned this domain since 1999.

Although, “owned” may not be the correct verb, a point made clear by a professor at American University in Cairo writing about the Domain of One’s Own concept.

I don’t know why we say “domain of one’s own” and “reclaim your domain”. It’s not very accurate.

My understanding of ownership is that something belongs to me. That I have already acquired it or been gifted it. And I own it until I die, no additional payment required. If I own it and I die, it passes to my heirs.

That isn’t at all the case with domains.

When I created a domain, it didn’t become mine. Basically I don’t own the domain name. I pay for it every year. That looks like rent.

Domain of One’s Own (DoOO) is a concept that originated in 2007 at the University of Mary Washington, just down the road from here in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and which has now spread to many colleges around the world. In a nutshell, UMW gives every student and staff member a domain when they enter the college, and provides hosting services along with support to help them “design and create a meaningful and vibrant digital presence”. When people leave the school, they can take their domain with them to another host.

I’ve been following the DoOO project with great interest almost from the beginning, the benefit of knowing several of the people who worked on it at UMW. It’s a very compelling idea, one that I advocate for with K12 teachers and believe should be pushed down into high schools. (more about that in a coming rant)

However, there is a larger concept of “ownership” at play here.

Audrey Watters, who pointed me to the original post, takes a step back to ask an even more basic question: “What does it mean to “own” a digital good – a domain name or otherwise?”.

When it comes to all our digital data, the answer to the question “what do you own” is probably “not much.” You do not own your Amazon Kindle books; you’ve purchased a license to access the content. Your heirs will not inherit your digital reading library. You do not own the music you stream; you’ve paid for a subscription. Your heirs will not inherit your digital music library. You don’t own the movies you watch via Netflix; again, it’s a subscription and unlike a print magazine subscription, once you stop paying the bill, you won’t have stacks of old copies lying about. If you’re using proprietary file formats for your data or there are DRM restrictions on your content, it’s quite likely your heirs will be unable to open the files to even look at what they contain so as to judge if any of your bits and bytes are worth saving. You (likely) do not own the software you use (unless it’s open source); it’s been licensed to you. Similarly, you (likely) do not own the operating system that powers your computer; you’ve paid for a license there as well. And increasingly, there are restrictions with what you can do with the computer hardware as well as the software that you might think is yours because it is in your possession – but as Cory Doctorow argues, “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”

Although we have attempted to transfer our centuries-old concept of “ownership” from the physical world, digital goods are far often than not rented rather than purchased. Many content owners would love to shift that even farther to a pay-per-use model. Want to read that book again? Pay us again.

Anyway, so the first statement of this rant is incorrect.

I pay a domain registrar in ten year chunks to use the assortedstuff.com name (and to point people to the site). In addition, these pages are stored and served by another company to whom I pay an annual hosting fee. If I fail to pay either of them on time, this “domain of my own” disappears from the web. I cannot will it to my heirs like a paper journal (although I can transfer the lease on the off chance they will want to continue paying the bills).

Do I own even own the content on this site? Something to think about.

Innovation in Name Only

I just finished reading Audrey Waters ebook “The Monsters of Education Technology”, a collection of her talks and essays. I always find much to like (not to mention agree with) in Audrey’s thoughts, but this particular line was one that jumped out at me:

Progressive teachers knew very well how to use the computer for their own ends as an instrument of change; School knew very well how to nip this subversion in the bud.

Over the years, I’ve met and worked with many educators I would call “progressive” when it came to using technology in their instruction (although they were certainly in the minority). I’ve also listened to far too many administrators and politicians praising those progressive teachers, saying that we need more of them.

However, those same administrators and politicians then create policies and processes that work very hard to stamp out any real innovation in the classroom.

The bottom line is that most of those progressive teachers define innovation far differently than most of the people running the system. Especially when it comes to instructional technology.

Templating Education

From a recent presentation by Audrey Watters, The Future of Education: Programmed or Programmable:

Of course, you could argue that the education system is already incredibly interested in “templating” students as well as “templating” knowledge. We see this in graduation requirements, course requirements, essay requirements, disciplinary requirements, tenure requirements, and so on. Many education technologies loyally reinscribe these into the digital world. The LMS is perhaps the perfect example. The call for more adaptive technologies (often connected to textbook, assessment, and LMS technologies) – reliant on they are on data models and algorithms – are the next wave of tools that produce the “templated learner.”

Her term “templating” students just seems to perfectly encapsulate the way we do school.

Our whole system is based on the premise that all kids will fit into one of a handful of educational models. If not, they must be “exceptional”, which is edspeak for weird.

And everything we do in school must also fit into a largely traditional set of templates. Otherwise we’re not following “best practices”.

Go read the whole thing (is there video anywhere?). It’s full of great observations and ideas.