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Edtech Fool’s Gold

Showing up at a gold rush with a shovel and a pan doesn’t make you a genius. – Dave Pell

Dave, who curates the daily and essential NextDraft, was commenting on a story about the debate over whether the tech industry is in another bubble. But his observation could also apply to edtech.

I don’t know whether there is a bubble yet, but lots of companies are showing up to the edtech gold rush with apps, software, “solutions” for your Common Core problems, and a variety of tools repurposed from other businesses to be “innovative” and “entrepreneurial”.

In many cases, the “gold” they are seeking is data. Either they want to collect enough student information to make their products more valuable than the next one, or they are selling products that are supposed to help schools and districts magically find the nuggets in their own data. Very often, both.

Whatever the motive for arriving at the school door with a shovel and pan, very few of these edtech products are concerned about actual learning and kids. Scan through the huge collection of vendors from the ISTE boatshow1 floor and Edsurge’s summit and it becomes obvious that most of this crap is edtech fool’s gold. And we are the fools for buying it.

The State of EdTech

A few weeks ago I spent a chunk of my Sunday at an odd little conference held in the threadbare ballrooms at one of DC’s utility hotels. The meeting was a combination of a micro version of the ISTE expo, an edtech pitchfest, and an attempt at a teacher pep rally.

As I said: odd.

The event was the Tech for Schools Summit, presented in various locations around the US by a company called edSurge. For those who don’t follow the edtech “sector” and haven’t heard of them, here’s the nutshell description in their own words:

EdSurge was started in 2011… to connect the emerging community of edtech entrepreneurs and educators. We wanted to share detailed information about what new technologies could–and could not–do to support learning.

However, the short time I spent at the summit didn’t leave me feeling very good about that “emerging community”.

About thirty small companies participated in this event, each of them showing off their creations at tables in a cramped, noisy room as well as giving a short pitch on the stage in another space. None of them did a good job explaining either what their product did or why any educator would want to use it. If I was a wealthy investor, I would pass on all of them.

Anyway, my biggest problem was with the concept behind their products. Except for two tables2, these edtech “entrepreneurs” presented very little that involved students in creating their own learning.

They were showing technology grafted to the same old curriculum and classroom process, aligned to the Common Core, of course. Very little innovation in either the “ed” or the “tech” part of the equation.

And that pretty much sums up the current state of that whole edtech “sector”.

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.

It’s Not Pearson’s Fault

Despite carrying the title Everyone Hates Pearson, the profile of that company and it’s new CEO in Fortune almost makes you feel sorry for them.

The problem is, legions of parents, teachers, and others see the new Pearson in a very different light. Many of them, particularly in North America, where the company does some 60% of its sales, think of it as the Godzilla of education. In their view, Pearson is bent on controlling every element of the process, from teacher qualifications to curriculums to the tests used to evaluate students to the grading of the tests to, increasingly, owning and operating its own learning institutions.

Actually, the article is a good overview of Education Inc., and specifically the testing business. And the writer even includes a little bit of push-back on the assessment culture that has taken over most public schools, based on personal experience with her own child.

I cringe, feeling that I have failed as a parent if this is what she believes2. And yet she has a point. In New York City, that test helps determine which middle school you get into. In her classroom, the pressure was so great that the teacher referred to the tests by aliases: the “waka-waka” and the “whablah.” They were the elementary-school equivalent, it seemed, of Harry Potter’s nemesis Voldemort, more commonly referred to as “he who must not be named.”

In a remarkably short time, the worthy notion of holding students and teachers accountable seems to have morphed into a system centered on “teaching to the test.”

But that doesn’t last long: “This is not Pearson’s fault, of course.”

And she’s correct. We in the US did this to ourselves.

We elected leaders at all levels who want to privatize public education – and view learning as a process that can be automated and enumerated. If Pearson didn’t exist, there would be plenty of other companies sucking up millions to provide the tools to make that happen. Which, of course, there are anyway, in addition to the “Godzilla of education”, taking their smaller share of the public pie.

Anyway, this is a long article but well worth the time, keeping in mind it comes from a business publication.

The Fast-Growing, Cash-Generative Business of Education

I don’t pay much attention to the day-to-day business headlines, especially since reporting in that area is just as bad or possibly worse than what passes for public affairs reporting these days.

But when Pearson, the UK-based educational publishing conglomerate that pretty much runs the Virginia DOE, is the subject, things get a little more interesting.

Evidentially, the company didn’t have a good first half of the year and plans to cut about 4000 jobs. However, it’s this statement from the CEO that really caught my eye.

Pearson is positioning itself as “a global learning services company,” Fallon said in a statement today. “This will drive a leaner, more cash-generative, faster-growing business from 2015.”

And where does all that cash being generated come from? At least half is from public schools, of course.

Pearson is the largest company in the fast-growing business of standardized testing, both writing and scoring the exams. Plus study materials to help teachers prepare kids for the tests. And textbooks “aligned” to Common Core or state standards (alignment being a euphemism for test prep).

Even worse, Pearson sees a great deal of potential in “emerging markets”, other countries to which they are exporting American-style standardized testing.

In the end, their bottom line will likely improve in the next fiscal year, even if the quality of learning provided by their customers (aka schools) doesn’t.

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