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Tag: edtech (Page 2 of 12)

Don’t Teach Tools

Tinker Toy Windmill

An Education Week listicle “interview” with the CEO of ISTE popped into one of my feeds recently, and with the title “5 Big Ed-Tech Problems to Solve in 2020”, it seemed instantly forgettable.

But one point he made caught my attention, that we need to completely “rethink teacher prep for technology”. 

Instead, teachers could earn an endorsement or certification from say, Microsoft, Google, or Apple. “There’s good things about all their software. But at the same time it comes in with the assumption that all of the problems you need to address as a teacher can be solved by their software. And that’s a problem, and frankly, it’s a conflict of interest.”1

He said that a teacher would never say they were a “Houghton-Mifflin teacher, I only use textbooks by Houghton-Mifflin.  Give me a break. Immediately, there were would be a conflict of interest. But because of this vacuum, we haven’t had another option in technology. … We’ve had superintendents reaching out to us saying ‘please, help with this. We need something that is from a nonprofit organization, that is completely tool neutral.”

Of course, this is an opportunity for him to promote the new ISTE certification programs, but still, good point.

It’s also a problem that likely won’t be solved in 2020 since it’s been around almost from the day we first began bringing computers into schools.

Back when I was first starting we ran classes for teachers with titles like “Clarisworks Fundamentals”, “Intermediate Excel”, and “Powerpoint Basics”. Emphasis on the mechanics of using the software rather than helping students become better writers using a word processor or better communications skills using a computer. And that approach served as a model for teaching students.

The theory was that a person needed to learn the skills of working the device and software before they could understand them as instructional and learning tools. Things haven’t changed much over the years (decades?), as evidenced not only by the inclusion on this list, but also by the online workshops offered for current products like Google Drive.

From experience I know this is a model for professional development that’s relatively easy to design and present, even if it’s totally wrong.

As Culatta notes, concentrating on specific products also locks teachers (and, by extension, their students) into a particular brand, to the advantage of the company, rather than helping them understand the broader concepts of using computing devices as learning and creative tools.

I can’t speak to the quality of ISTE’s certification programs or whether they will actually solve the problem. But maybe it can slow the flood of corporate certification programs now sloshing around the edtech business.


Maybe someone else can make a connection but, for right now, the featured image has nothing to do with the topic of this post. It’s just a favorite from a recent trip.

1. This has a feeling of biting the hand that feeds you. Or at least nibbling a little. But credit to him for at least saying it.

Tech Will Not Personalize Learning

student_ipad_school - 124

At the moment, one of the hot education terms is “personalized learning”. It sounds pretty good, maybe something that we should be doing in schools. As opposed to all that unpersonalized learning currently happening in classrooms.

The problem is that no one is clear about what “personalized” learning really is, a point clearly illustrated by a writer in The New Yorker1 who says the concept is messy.

Danusis [principal at the school profiled in the first part of the article] and her teaching staff practice personalized learning, an individual-comes-first approach, usually aided by laptops, that has become a reformist calling card in education.

Personalized learning argues that the entrepreneurial nature of the knowledge economy and the gaping need, diversity, and unmanageable size of a typical public-school classroom are ill-served by the usual arrangement of a teacher lecturing at a blackboard.

Advocates of personalized learning say that the approach has been unfairly conflated with teacherless, online-only education. They invoke Dewey and Freire and Montessori as guiding lights and take pains to emphasize, in almost liturgical unison, that personalized learning is not about tech—and that “tech is just a tool.”

No, it’s not about the tech. Which is interesting since much of the push for personalized learning is coming from edtech companies. Walk the vendor floor at ISTE or any of the other over-sized tech conferences and count the number products that promise to personalize learning for your kids.

Anyway, two other parts of the personalized learning hype that should raise concerns comes from it’s intersections with the charter business and the usual cast of tech billionaires who believe their software is the magic key to fixing schools.

Charter schools are the bluntest incarnation of education reform and have long enjoyed bipartisan support. Last year’s wave of teachers’ strikes, though, popularized the critique that charters divert funding from traditional public schools and undercut union standards. Personalized learning, meanwhile, is as ascendant a reform as ever, boosted by many of the same philanthropic entities that have promoted charters: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Intermediary funders and education-policy groups that depend on their grant dollars—including iNACOL, Excel in Ed, the Learning Accelerator, Big Picture Learning, and Jobs for the Future—have, in turn, made personalized learning a priority. Karla Phillips, a policy director at Excel in Ed, told me that both personalized learning and charter schools have “flexibility” as their aim.

Personalized learning systems have been adopted by many of the major charter companies as a way to reduce the number of teachers needed, often in the name of making them more “productive”, as well as flexible. Many of the Rhode Island schools visited by the writer were using personalization systems from Summit Learning, developed, in part, by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

None of those somewhat suspicious connections would matter if personalized learning actually “worked”. So, where’s the evidence?

Yet the academic and policy research behind it is thin. A few local pilot programs have been shown to slightly improve test scores and teacher satisfaction, but a 2017 study by RAND, commissioned by the Gates Foundation to study forty Gates-funded schools, reads like a shrug. “Although advocates and reformers have developed PL models,” the RAND authors observed, “many of the component practices are relatively common nationally, making it difficult to clearly identify what makes a school a PL school.”

Of course, this study (and the vast major of other education research) assumes that student scores on standardized tests is a valid measure of “learning”. And that the tests themselves are valid.

And that highlights one of the major problems with “personalized” learning systems.

The question of what kids should be learning in K12 should be the starting point. Instead developers at the tech companies like Summit, along with the school administrators who sign the contracts to buy their products, assume that the curriculum and assessments already in place are credible and will best serve student needs.

That hardware and software by itself will transform learning.


Image by Brad Flickinger, posted to Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

1. Trying to access the article can be a little messy in itself since the website really, REALLY wants you to register. I recommend saving it to a read-later service (like Instapaper), which makes it much easier to read.

2. The writer includes a disclaimer noting that the Gates and Hewlett Foundations and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are among the many funders of The Hechinger Report which partnered on this story.

Certified Value

Delmar Coulter Seventh Grade Certificate 1928

Last month I stumbled across an interesting discussion thread in the ISTE forums, one that began with someone asking for a list of “websites that offer their own teacher certification”.1

After less than a week, participants had suggested more than two dozen edtech certification programs and offered some insight into the requirements for a few. Someone also posted the link to a website dedicated to listing all the edtech certifications available, the existence of which surprised me but probably shouldn’t have. Between the discussion and that site, I’m estimating that there must be something like 200 of these certifications, counting multiples from some companies.

However, missing from this discussion was anyone questioning why. Why should a teacher spend their time, effort, and possibly money to obtain one of these certifications? What is the value of being certified on a particular platform or resource?

I know many educators who have earned one or more. In fact, many of the educators who are presenting at the ISTE conference this week include multiple certifications in their bios2. But beyond simply adding a line to their CV, a large number of them are actually directly representing the company.

Which makes me wonder if the primary beneficiaries of these certification program might not be the companies themselves. After all, they are getting lots of free marketing from the educators who promote their products at conferences and on social media. Does the company gain more from these promotions than the teacher’s students?

Speaking of students, do they benefit when their teacher gets a certification in using a particular edtech product? Does the software or resources their teacher has selected really help their learning in some way? Does being “certified” in one specific product discourage the teacher from exploring possible better options?

Ok, I’m not trying to demean anyone who earns one (or more) of the many, many edtech certifications with this rant. These are only questions, and I probably have a few more. I only hope my colleagues are considering these issues before they use any edtech product in their instruction, much less work on being certified in that product.

One last thought: what happens if/when the product you’ve committed your time and energy to disappears? Once upon a time I earned the right from Adobe to call myself a GoLive Certified Trainer. What’s GoLive you ask? Exactly. :-)


The image, a different kind of certificate than I’ve been ranting about, was posted by Douglas Coulter on Flickr and is used under a Creative Commons license.

1. If you’re an ISTE member, you can check out the posts here. Not sure if you also have to be a member of the EdTech Coaches group.

2. One person I follow on Twitter lists ten of them in their profile.

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.

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