More Status Quo

So, spending on edtech is growing. Which means the amount of money being invested in edtech companies is also growing as investors anxiously anticipate huge profits from the “education sector”. These days all those edtech startups, and their funding chase, are not only being covered by business news sites, but also by general interest education information sources.

Here are just three examples I’ve stumbled across recently and I think they have one major attribute in common. See if you can spot it.

First is Nearpod, as reported by Tech Crunch, a website that covers the technology industry in general. The company just received an investment of $9.2 million in series A funding for their product that helps “teachers use tech for live instruction”.

Nearpod’s app lets teachers deliver digital lessons to students right on their mobile devices, during class.

First, teachers sign up and select from a smorgasbord of digital lessons on the Nearpod content marketplace. Then they assign a digital lesson to students, who engage with the material in class via student accounts on Nearpod.

The lessons feel like interactive stories, projects or mobile games, typically. But they give teachers a view on students’ mastery or struggles with particular topics.

Then there is Brainly, which is getting “$15 million in a Series B funding round led by Naspers that brings its total funding to $27 million”.

Brainly is a bit like Quora for students, a social network where children and teens come to help one another work through homework problems that are stumping them. “Peer-to-peer learning” is how the company describes it.

Students earn points for the quality of their answers and can eventually climb into the leaderboards for subjects like math, biology, and so on.

Finally, we have Lilwil, “one of the hundreds of projects built overnight at the TechCrunch Disrupt NY Hackathon” and not a company that venture capital people are funding. Yet.

It then applies IBM’s Watson to assess the different personality traits of students based on their work such as openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and emotional range.

Lilwil then presents a personality analysis to teachers, along with suggestions for the best methods for assisting that student. For example, Lilwil could identify higher levels of extraversion and conscientiousness in a student, and determine that they’re best taught through role-playing simulations and roundtable discussions.

For me, the common thread in these hot new products is that none of the technology will be used by students. These are all tools for teachers and administrators. Even Brainly, which sounds like it’s building a community, is nothing more than a help session for kids to help each other work their way through traditional homework assignments assigned by adults.

Schools and districts that spend their scarce edtech funding on these tools are reinforcing a direct instruction model for the classroom, rather than enabling kids to create and communicate. These and many other edtech startups are building products that reinforce the status quo, rather than something “innovative” or “disruptive”.

Rudely Challenging The System

Recently our overly-large school district held its Education Summit, an annual Saturday morning event for the leadership to connect with the community. The format was pretty much the same as in past years, starting with an opening talk by the superintendent followed by a panel of graduates discussing how their school experience contributed to their success, and then breakout sessions highlighting specific programs.

New this time around, the moderator started things by suggesting that we in the audience tweet about the session and even providing a hashtag. Of course, I took that invitation and about half way through, received an @ reply from a student in the crowd who said she was “disappointed by [my] rude and uncalled for remarks”.

Ok, that’s very possible. I can sometimes a little caustic in my tweets, not to mention these posts. However, when writing anywhere in the open, I try very hard to criticize ideas and not people, and to the degree possible, suggest room for improvement.

So I scrolled back through my stream to see what I might have said that fit her criticism and, finding nothing I would classify as “rude”, replied: “Challenging the system to do better is not rude and very much called for.”

After that we exchanged a few other tweets and, of course, I didn’t change her mind,1 but I never expect to exert a lot of influence in bursts of 140 characters. Even in longer form writing, the best I can ever hope for is to plant a seed of an idea that may influence someone down the line.

Anyway, I stand by my original statement, that challenging the school district I work for to improve is necessary, even during an event that is specifically designed to generate positive public relations (more money, please!). Maybe especially called for in this setting. And simply doing so is not rude.

Because the superintendent proclaiming to the audience that our district is “top rated”2, and sends something like 88% of students to college, and has very high passing rates on the state tests, and here’s the new “Portrait of a Graduate” poster, and, hey look, we have an app!, all may be accurate, but it doesn’t nearly tell the whole story.

In many ways listing those largely statistical achievements and spotlighting carefully chosen examples of success masks the real problems behind our district. An organization that has, over the past decade, spent far too much time resting on it’s laurels, while working hard to resist the huge societal shifts that should lead to fundamental changes in the way we educate our children.

Come to think about it, maybe we all need to be at least a little rude in pushing for the change needed in our education system.

Questioning the Status Quo

Seth Godin offers an interesting list of warning signs that you may be a defender of the status quo. As always, he’s talking to business folks but some of these apply to the American education system (not to mention our own overly-large school district) as well.

Grab onto the rare thing that could go wrong instead of amplifying the likely thing that will go right?

Focus on short-term costs instead of long-term benefits, because the short-term is more vivid for you?

Compare the best of what you have now with the possible worst of what a change might bring?

and especially around here

Exaggerate how good things are now in order to reduce your fear of change?

Reform Without Changing

Alfie Kohn makes it very clear that very few of the loudest voices in the shouting match known as education reform are really talking about changing anything.

For a shrewd policy maker, then, the ideal formula would seem to be to let people enjoy the invigorating experience of demanding reform without having to give up whatever they’re used to. And that’s precisely what both liberals and conservatives manage to do: Advertise as a daring departure from the status quo what is actually just a slightly new twist on it.

On top of that, many of those advocating for the status quo (only more of it), aren’t too fond of children either.

But traditionalists — who, when it comes to children, include a discouraging number of political liberals — have persuaded us to ignore the epidemic of punitive parenting and focus instead on the occasional example of overindulgence — sometimes even to the point of pronouncing an entire generation spoiled. (It’s revealing that similar alarms  have been raised for decades, if not centuries.) To create the impression that kids today are out of control is to justify a call for even tighter restrictions, tougher discipline, more punishment.

As Kohn often points out, nothing in the current mix of so-called reform proposals – merit pay, charter schools, even more testing, blaming teachers – even remotely approaches the kind of change our education system needs.

The status quo is rapidly failing our kids while most of our “leaders” are advocating for even more of it.