Misdirected Metaphor


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.

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”


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.

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.

Inappropriate Optimism

Approaching the end of another calendar, the inevitable (and lazy) flood of year-end recaps and forecasts for some undefined future is beginning to trickle in.

In that latter category, one writer is very optimistic about the “next wave” of educational technology, ending his column that tries to make that case with this:

At this point, America’s education system finally has all the key building blocks in place: The infrastructure is solid, almost every student has a device and wireless internet access, schools and educators (at all levels) are now much more comfortable working with technology and data, and thousands of entrepreneurs are working—not just with early adopters, but increasingly with early mainstream schools and educators—to bring edtech and personalized learning to the masses.

This is why I’m optimistic about the next decade of educational technology and innovation. I can’t wait to see how the next chapter unfolds!

Ok. Except that he has all kinds of bad assumptions jammed into just that one paragraph

Start with the statement that the “infrastructure is solid” in schools. It’s true that the vast majority of US classrooms are connected to the internet. But the number with adequate bandwidth is much, much lower, especially in high poverty rural and urban areas.

Even worse is his claim that “almost every student has a device”. I suppose if you average out everything, it might be close to 1:1. But even if you can claim a 1:1 ratio in your school/district, that doesn’t mean every student has the same quality of device1. Or can accomplish the same quality of work with the equipment and software available. That’s true even in the very rich overly-large school district that used to employ me.

Finally, there’s the line about educators being “much more comfortable” using technology and data. I’m pretty sure most teachers are “comfortable” with the tools they use. The digital grade book, attendance systems, Word. Most are not at all comfortable with tools for meaningful learning, especially when it’s students using that technology in creative ways.

However, all of that really doesn’t matter. When it comes to being optimistic about educational technology, this particular column is not at all about student learning or even teacher productivity.

The writer is a “general partner” at a venture capital firm, one that specializes in “disruptive education” startups. His optimism is all squeezing as much profit as possible from the education technology companies in which they’ve invested. Profit which will ultimately come from schools and districts at the expense of other priorities.

After all, there’s a bear market in all that “personalization” and data collection.

1. A Chromebook is NOT a computer. Don’t tell me otherwise because I’ve used both and Chromebooks do not compute. But that’s a rant for another day.