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.

Quest For The New

Over the next week or so, tens of thousands of educators will descend on London and Orlando on a quest to discover what’s new in edtech. And thousands of vendors will be in their booths, starting today at The BETT Show, Sunday at FETC1, eager to show it to them.

At each conference/expo, attendees will also flock to sessions about the latest in software, hardware, apps, and extensions, with presenters offering “solutions” to whatever problem they might have. Plus tips, tricks, tools, hidden features, and more little bits of technology that you must have.

Both huge events represent one major reason why edtech has been largely ineffective, using multiple definitions of that term.

Like the tech industry in general, we in education embrace the promise of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and the other “cutting edge” concepts that we are told will revolutionize the learning process, and the world in general, with far too little questioning.

I’m not saying we should never be curious about new stuff. Or ignore the possibilities that come with the development of new technology products.

However, when wandering the glittery sales floor of conferences like BETT and FETC (plus ISTE and any number of state and local edtech-related events) we need to dial back on the gee-whiz and ask some tough questions.

Like if claims for their products are backed by research. Or get the marketing people to talk about their privacy policies. Is any of the student data collected shared with other companies? Who are your investors?

I’m betting that last one will get you some funny looks. But we deserve to know the people in the background who may be more concerned with something other than student learning.

Anyway, as you go questing for the new, also indulge in some good old fashioned research before you adopt any of it. 


Indiana Jones, of course, is an archaeologist looking for old stuff. But if you think about it, he was on a quest for new stuff to put in museums that were already packed with relics.

1. BETT, formerly known as the British Educational Training and Technology Show before being shortened to just the initials, will attract around 35,000 people. FETC, which was the Florida Educational Technology Conference before being bought by a “media group” and rebranded as the Future of Education Technology Conference. They will likely have around 10,000 in attendance.

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.

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.