Update: A new version of this post is available on my main blog.
The deficit model is a business model. The assessment and edtech industries will not easily let it go. This business model prevents public education from changing. It turns charter schools into hyper-capitalist deficit model shrines enthralled with data collected for and viewed through their business model—losing sight of humanity and kids. Inclusive pedagogy based on strengths–not deficits–agency, collaboration, play, projects, and self-directed learning is a lot cheaper, which is a threat.
Edtech is built on the deficit model, compliance culture, and greed. Extend our vision beyond deficit ideology toward a school culture built on the social model—where communication is oxygen and inclusion is the normal.
I’m an autistic engineer working in the intersection of tech and publishing who contributed to the creation of a global open source community and one of the first distributed companies. We’re iterating the future of work and collaboration and making it inclusive.
Communication is oxygen, inclusion is the new normal, and the social model for minds and bodies are how we aspire to run our companies and communities. They’re how we design and build software for and with humans. We’re continuously learning and iterating. We’re continuously actualizing the aspiration and sharing what we learn with other creative communities as we all contribute to the shared, open heart of the internet—the heart to which companies offer their intellectual crown jewels as open source.
Learn and iterate with us. Education needs to join in. What we’ve learned building creative, inclusive communities and workplaces for adult creatives applies also to kids. Teachers and tech workers should be collaborating. Instead of buying cronyware from edtech corporations—contributing into the pockets of those destroying public education—use the tools and techniques of the rank and file tech workers building open communities, the workers trying to make collaboration, teams, technology, and the world more inclusive, ethical, and humane. Skip what edtech sells. Use what communities and workers use. Let’s collaborate. Go indie.
Start with communication. Give voice. Give voice to teachers. Give voice to students. Let them collaborate. Let them engage with the digital commons. This is how systemic change happens, with voices collaborating, with teams self-organizing. Communication is oxygen. Without it we will remain in the deficit model script—assessed into despondency and starved of resources.
Resist. Give voice. Communicate, collaborate, iterate, launch. Communicate is first—from it the others cascade.
I enjoy Audrey Watters’ annual reviews of the year in ed-tech. I recommend all ten parts of the 2016 ed-tech review.
- Wishful Thinking
- The Politics of Education Technology
- The Business of Education Technology
- ”Free” and “Open”
- For-Profit Higher Education
- The “New Economy”
- Data Insecurity
These ten parts provide a structural, systemic view of ed tech. I excerpt from parts 1, 2, and 3 below. Read these excerpts, read the entire review, read Communication is Oxygen, and think about how you can build a district-wide collaboration infrastructure and an open by default culture that avoids snake oil and cargo cult shrinkwrap.
Expertise in an Age of Post-Truth
And here we are. A loss of faith in governments, governance, globalization, pluralism, polling, pundits, public institutions, private institutions, markets, science, research, journalism, democracy, each other.
“If the experts as a whole are discredited,” Hayes cautions, “we are faced with an inexhaustible supply of quackery.”
Education technology faces an inexhaustible supply of quackery.
Education Technology and (Decades and Decades of) Quackery
Education technology has faced an inexhaustible supply of quackery for quite some time – those selling snake oil, magic pills, and enchanted talismans and promising disruption, efficiency, and higher test scores. The quackery in 2016 wasn’t new, in other words, but it was notable. It is certainly connected to the discrediting of “expertise,” whether that’s teachers-as-experts or researchers-as-experts. (Students, of course, have rarely been recognized as experts – unless they fit the model of “roaming autodidacts” that society so readily lauds.)
What do we believe about education? About learning? How do we know, and who knows “knowing” in a world where expertise is debunked?
There’s little evidence of how these products or practices will improve teaching or learning. But there’s a ton of snake oil. And a lot of wishful thinking.
Education Technology and (Decades and Decades of) Wishful Thinking
The promise of education technology, like it or not, is mostly wishful thinking. Proponents of ed-tech insist that ed-tech is necessary; that without ed-tech, schools are outmoded and irrelevant; that “the future” demands it. But as I argued in a talk I gave at VCU in November, “the best way to predict the future is to issue a press release.” That is, the steady drumbeat of marketing surrounding the necessity of education technology largely serves to further ideologies of neoliberalism, individualism, late-stage capitalism, outsourcing, surveillance, speed, and commodity fetishism.
Grief and Loss and Education Technology
Perhaps it’s time to ask why – why this is the ritual and the story that education continues to turn to? It has, after all, for at least one hundred years: the promise of teaching machines. What is the loss that we are suffering? What are we grieving? Why are we in this fog of educational make-believe? Why are we so wrapped up in the magical thinking and wishful thinking of education technology? What do we hope the practices of ed-tech will deliver, will relieve? What are we hoping to preserve? What are we hoping to absolve? What might we afraid to admit has died? Why is wishful thinking, in and through and with education technology, a balm for so many of us?
At what point should we just let go…
The Politics of Education Technology
The business of education technology overlaps with the politics of ed-tech. The politics overlap with privacy. Privacy overlaps with “personalization,” and surveillance overlaps with data collection and analytics and algorithmic decision-making. Coding bootcamps are related to for-profit higher ed, which is connected to credentialing which is connected to accreditation, which is connected to politics. Challenges to accreditation and certification and the steady drumbeat of “everyone should learn to code” are connected to politics as well as to the business of ed-tech.
Then there’s the question: what counts as “ed-tech”? One of the flaws, I think, of much of the reporting on education technology is that it treats “ed-tech” as a product without a politics and without a practice. It also treats “ed-tech” primarily as a product built by engineers, not for example, constructed through the practices of educators or students themselves – problems with education are, in this framework, engineering problems. This reporting treats “ed-tech” as a product built in and by Silicon Valley, not as something built in and by public institutions around the world. It treats “ed-tech” as the result of markets and industry and “innovation,” and not as the result of policy or history. The reporting often isolates education technology from other developments in the computer technology sector and tends to isolate education technology from education politics and policies more broadly (unless, of course, those policies dovetail with the political interests of ed-tech and ed-reform, which they often do).
There is No Technology Industry (There is Only Ideology)
“There is no ‘technology industry’,” technology writer and entrepreneur Anil Dash wrote in August.
Put simply, every industry and every sector of society is powered by technology today, and being transformed by the choices made by technologists. Marc Andreessen famously said that “software is eating the world,” but it’s far more accurate to say that the neoliberal values of software tycoons are eating the world.
Every industry uses computers, software, and internet services. If that’s what “technology” means, then every company is in the technology business – a useless distinction. But it’s more likely that “technology” has become so overused, and so carelessly associated with Silicon Valley-style computer software and hardware startups, that the term has lost all meaning. Perhaps finance has exacerbated the problem by insisting on the generic industrial term “technology” as a synonym for computing.
…There are companies that are firmly planted in the computing sector. Microsoft and Apple are two. Intel is another – it makes computer parts for other computer makers. But it’s also time to recognize that some companies – Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook among them – aren’t primarily in the computing business anyway. And that’s no slight, either. The most interesting thing about companies like Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook is that they are not (computing) technology companies. Instead, they are using computing infrastructure to build new – and enormous – businesses in other sectors. If anything, that’s a fair take on what “technology” might mean as a generic term: manipulating one set of basic materials to realize goals that exceed those materials.
When I write – here and elsewhere – about the politics of education technology, I am interested in these very things: organizations, practices, relationships, ideologies. The politics of education technology shape and are shaped by, as Franklin argues, our ideas of power. And as Bogost and Dash both caution, it’s a mistake to fetishize the tech as product – in ed-tech and elsewhere – especially at the expense of scrutinizing technology in its ubiquity and as ideology.
“Tech” and the Presidential Election
Facebook will appear again and again in this year-end series. Facebook and wishful thinking. Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s education investments. Facebook and personalization. Facebook and algorithmic discrimination. It is one of the most powerful (and frightening) companies – and it has its eyes on “disrupting” education.
President-Elect Donald J. Trump
This isn’t simply a matter of subverting the value of education as a public good. It’s about attacking education as a vehicle for social justice. Some speculate that Trump might dismantle the Office for Civil Rights, for starters, which enforces the compliance for Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, and other federal civil rights laws.
The Obama Administration (in Its Final Year) and Education
I’ll write about the Obama Administration and for-profit higher ed in a subsequent post in this series. (And don’t think for a minute I won’t talk about Trump University in all its gruesome details.) I’ll also cover the various efforts to address college affordability in another post, in part through issuing a “scorecard” to help prospective college students decide which school to attend. And in another post, I will look at the administration’s efforts to promote STEM and CS education via the Computer Science For All initiative launched in January; in yet another I’ll look at its efforts to encourage schools use open educational resources via the GoOpen initiative which it launched last year. I also plan to talk about the administration’s support for charter schools (and how charter school chains act as test-beds for software companies, as well as how their missions dovetail with a push for “personalization”). I’ll talk more elsewhere about how testing, about how testing has and hasn’t changed (and might and not changed) – under Obama and thanks to the “opt-out” movement and because of the re-authorization of ESEA (now known as the “Every Student Succeeds Act” rather than “No Child Left Behind”).
See? It’s all interconnected.
Accessibility and Technology (and the Role of Governments and Corporations)
Access to the Internet – at home and at school – has, obviously, been key to education technology initiatives. Bandwidth is necessary, and schools still struggle to provide it, particularly in rural areas.
Certainly access to the Internet for the purposes of education isn’t just about access at school.
In February, CoSN, the Consortium for School Networking, called broadband access outside of school a “civil right” for students.
Education Technology and Political Corruption
The word “kleptocracy” is already being used to describe the incoming administration. And I guess we’ll have to wait-and-see how technology companies and education technology companies will try to benefit from an era of backroom deals and deregulation.
Or, we could look at a couple of dealings – pre-Trump – that occurred this year to see how some in ed-tech operate.
Yes, Epipens count as “ed-tech.” And yes, this is how the politics of the business of ed-tech works. If anything, the privatization and profiteering that Trump’s election portends is just a difference of speed and degree.
Ed-tech, Civil Rights, and Academic Freedom
Who stands in the way of education’s horrors?
Well, students for starters.
Education technology has become inextricable from education reform in recent years – from efforts to improve test scores and bust unions and built charter schools to those that reframe the civic responsibility of education as an individual, “personalized” product.
Who benefits? Who benefits when public education is dismantled and “disrupted”? And who benefits when entrepreneurs and investors get to define “equity”? Who do their policies and who do their rhetoric really serve?
At the end of 2016, the most pressing question is not, as a recent Edsurge headline asked, “Who Thinks Tech Makes Learning More Fun?” Let me suggest some better ones: what role does education technology play in spreading hate and harassment? What role does education technology play in undermining equity and democracy? Can education technology play any role in resistance?
What Do Venture Capitalists Want?
Some of these areas that are popular for investment do coincide with the popular narratives about “the future of education” – “everyone should learn to code,” for example. But some of them, like the explosion in startups offering private student loans, suggest something is happening quite contrary to the narratives of “free and open,” not to mention to a tradition of publicly funded education or the policies of federal financial aid.
Glaring in its absence from this list: “personalization,” one of the most trumpeted technology “solutions” this year. … Even without funding data to underscore its importance, “personalization” can’t be dismissed.
The word is a crystallization of ed-tech ideology: through technology, teaching will become radically individualized as learners’ lessons are reduced to the smallest possible piece of content, then presented to them algorithmically. Moreover, per this ideology, without the aid of algorithms and “personalization” technology, human educators and traditional institutions have historically failed to meet the needs of individuals as individuals. The responsibility for education therefore must shift to technology, away from the institution, to the individual, away from the public or civic.
The ideological and financial shift from public to private is exemplified by venture philanthropy – that is, venture capital investments framed as charity.
Wealthy individuals often assume that philanthropic donations should be received in gratitude, Reich said, because it’s better for the public than purchasing another house or another boat. “That’s just false to me,” he said. “It’s an exercise of power aimed at the public, and in a democratic society, power deserves attention and scrutiny, not gratitude.”
The Elephants in the Ed-Tech Room
For the last five or six years, education technology has been largely talked about in terms of “startups,” something that helps position the industry as an outsider and an underdog. Of course, most of ed-tech is neither. It’s built and sold by giant corporations.
These are the companies that sell the textbooks; these are the companies that sell the tests.
In response to all these ongoing problems with testing, the Obama Administration said in April it would “take action” in order to “ensure fewer and better tests for students.” “Taking action,” in this case, meant releasing some case studies and posting a notice on the Federal Register about how a competitive grant program could provide a more “innovative” way to build assessments.
Everything’s a business opportunity.
But this notion of an “OS War” shouldn’t be too quickly dismissed. “Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google Are Fighting a War for the Classroom,” Edutechnica wrote in June, with a look at how many colleges have adopted their competing “pseudo-LMSes.” The “war” extends beyond the productivity suite of tech tools and it extends beyond operating system in the classroom. It’s about building brand allegiance with students and/as workers, and it’s about building data profiles to sell ads and other products.
The LMS, of course, needn’t be a permanent line item in schools’ budgets. And its supposed primacy might actually overlook that there’s a great deal of “shadow” technology utilized by instructors who eschew the official LMS for something they find better suited to their classroom needs and goals.
The Procurement Problem
The learning management system is a piece of “enterprise” software after all. That is, it’s built and bought to satisfy the needs of the institution rather than the needs of individual. Purchasing an LMS – or more correctly, signing a contract to license an LMS – requires its own enterprise-level bureaucracy.
There’s a lot that’s wrong with the process, no doubt. For starters, the hefty RFP requirements almost by design tilt purchasing decisions towards big companies and incumbent players. The folks who make the decisions about what to buy typically aren’t the people who are using the products in the classroom.
There’s not a lot of transparency in the procurement process; nor is it easy to find out afterwards which products schools bought or use – although that’s not something you hear companies moan about, funnily enough. You’re just supposed to trust them when they brag they’re used in 90% of schools. (USC professor Morgan Polikoff’s research on textbook adoption, for example, has made this painfully clear. He’s sent FOIA requests to school districts, and in many cases they have been unwilling or unable to share their textbook data. And when they do, the data is often a mess.)
But by and large, procurement issues are a problem identified by companies that companies decide they will “fix” in turn: “Try Before You Buy,” Edsurge reported in June. “Clever’s ‘Co-Pilot’ Aims to Help Schools Pilot and Purchase.” Indeed, an increasingly popular service offered by ed-tech companies and ed-tech investors is “research” into how to buy ed-tech and into which ed-tech products are best, which “work” (whatever that means).
(These companies almost all share the same investors too. And the beat goes on.)
One of the ways in which ed-tech startups have found success in getting their products widely adopted is to sell to charter schools, particularly charter school chains. (Again, they often share the same investors.) Charter school chains, in turn, have started to license their products and franchise their models to others. As such, it’s difficult to separate “the business of education technology” from “the business of charter schools” – and why it’s difficult, as I noted in the previous article in this series, “the politics of education technology” from “the politics of education reform.”
Disrupting the Culture of Public Education
I’ve argued elsewhere that education technology serves as a “Trojan horse” of sorts, carrying with it into public institutions the practices, politics, and a culture of private business and the ideology of Silicon Valley. This is evident in the ways in which you hear many investors and entrepreneurs talk about what needs to happen to schools – that they need to become more efficient; they need to be more like “lean startups” and redesign themselves as a “minimum viable product”; they need to “unbundle,” “unbundle,” “unbundle”; they need to rename job titles and rethink job roles – “learning engineers” or “entrepreneurs-in-residence,” for example; they need to turn to markets, not politics or publics, for solutions.
If you’re looking for a quick read – one that’s hilariously awful – about the culture of startups in order to convince yourself this is the last thing we should bring to public education, I recommend Dan Lyon’s book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, published this spring.
What VC Spells for Sesame Street
In February, Sesame Workshop, the maker of Sesame Street, announced it was launching a venture capital arm in order to invest in startups because everything is terrible. It’s first startup investment – a tutoring app. It also invested $53 million in a VC fund run by Reach Capital, formerly NewSchools Venture Fund.
Sesame Workshop has also partnered with IBM, to extract data from preschoolers in the name of “research” into the “personalization” of early childhood education.
Of course, what drives the programming on Sesame Street now isn’t education research; it’s market research. It isn’t “equity” as in social justice; it’s “equity” as in the financial stake a VC takes in a company.
And that’s what “the business of education technology” gets us.
Marketing the Mindsets
Intertwined with the push for “personalization” in education are arguments for embracing a “growth mindset.” The phrase, coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, appears frequently alongside talk of “personalized learning” as students are encouraged to see their skills and competencies as flexible rather than fixed. (Adaptive teaching software. Adaptive students.)
The marketing of mindsets was everywhere this year: “How to Develop Mindsets for Compassion and Caring in Students.” “Building A Tinkering Mindset In Young Students Through Making.” “6 Must-Haves for Developing a Maker Mindset.” The college president mindset. Help wanted: must have an entrepreneurial mindset. The project-based learning mindset. (There’s also Gorilla Mindset, a book written by alt-right meme-maker Mike Cernovich, just to show how terrible the concept can get.)
“Mindset” joins “grit” as a concept that’s quickly jumped from the psychology department to (TED Talk to) product. Indeed, Angela Duckworth, who popularized the latter (and had a new book out this year on grit), now offers an app to measure “character growth.” “Don’t Grade Schools on Grit,” she wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times. But there are now calls that students should be tested – and in turn, of course, schools graded – on “social emotional skills.”
Promising to measure and develop these skills are, of course, ed-tech companies. Pearson even has a product called GRIT™. But it’s probably ClassDojo, a behavior tracking app, that’s been most effective in marketing itself as a “mindset” product, even partnering with Carol Dweck’s research center at Stanford.
Ben Williamson argues that ClassDojo exemplifies the particularly Silicon Valley bent of “mindset” management:
The emphasis … is on fixing people, rather than fixing social structures. It prioritizes the design of interventions that seek to modify behaviours to make people perform as optimally as possible according to new behavioural and psychological norms. Within this mix, new technologies of psychological measurement and behaviour management such as ClassDojo have a significant role to play in schools that are under pressure to demonstrate their performance according to such norms.
In doing so, ClassDojo – and other initiatives and products – are enmeshed both in the technocratic project of making people innovative and entrepreneurial, and in the controversial governmental agenda of psychological measurement. ClassDojo is situated in this context as a vehicle for promoting the kind of growth mindsets and character qualities that are seen as desirable behavioural norms by Silicon Valley and government alike.
ClassDojo is, Williamson argues, “prototypical of how education is being reshaped in a ‘platform society.’”
Personalization in a Platform Society
Far from being neutral platforms for everyone, social media have changed the conditions and rules of social interaction.” In this new social order – “the platform society” – “social, economic and interpersonal traffic is largely channeled by an (overwhelmingly corporate) global online infrastructure that is driven by algorithms and fueled by data.”
We readily recognize Facebook and Twitter as these sorts of platforms; but I’d argue that they’re more pervasive and more insidious, particularly in education. There, platforms include the learning management systems and student information systems, which fundamentally define how teachers and students and administrators interact. They define how we conceive of “learning”. They define what “counts” and what’s important.
They do so, in part, through this promise of “personalization.” Platforms insist that, through data mining and analytics, they offer an improvement over existing practices, existing institutions, existing social and political mechanisms. This has profound implications for public education in a democratic society. More accurately perhaps, the “platform society” offers merely an entrenchment of surveillance capitalism, and education technologies, along with the ideology of “personalization”, work to normalize and rationalize that.