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The History of the Future of Education Technology

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    Part 6 of my Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012 series

    Digital Textbooks

    When I looked at the most significant trends in educational technology last year, I opted to write about the “Digital Library” in lieu of digital textbooks. And truth be told, it would be quite easy for me to make the same argument again in 2012: despite all the hype about “revolutionizing” the textbook, faculty and students are still slow to adopt digital versions. (Not to mention, sorry, but textbooks, yuck.)

    In May, the Book Industry Study Group released the results of “a first ever survey of college faculty perceptions toward classroom materials” that found that most professors (88%) still prefer (and assign) the printed versions of textbooks and other class materials. The survey also found that while 32% of faculty reported making digital versions of textbooks available, just 2% of students said this was the primary way in which they accessed the materials.

    Digital textbook provider Coursesmart issued a press release the same month with (not surprisingly) a sunnier view on adoption and usage. Coursesmart said that among the students it surveyed, more said they were likely to bring a laptop (51%) than a print textbook (39%) to class. Coursesmart’s survey also found that the vast maority students owned some sort of technology — laptop, phone, e-reader — which they used to study. But as The Digital Reader’s Nate Hoffelder noted, taking a closer look at the actual survey data, there’s a huge gap between using technology to study and buying digital textbooks. Students are definitely doing the former; the latter, not so much.

    But that didn’t stop publishing companies, tech companies, governmental agencies, and non-profits from pushing digital textbooks this year. In February, the U.S. Department of Education and the FCC launched their “Digital Textbook Playbook,” a guide (a (67-page PDF) to help K–12 schools makes the transition from printed textbooks to digital ones. According to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, the goal is to get all students in the U.S. using digital textbooks in the next five years.

    As I wrote at the time, I was a little dismayed by the PDF and by the oft-touted argument that the main reason we’d “go digital” are to make our kids’ backpacks lighter:

    An argument for digital over printed content shouldn’t just be that we’re going to take those heavy print-bound tomes, scan them, and convert them to the beautiful weightlessness of bits and bytes. That seems like a gross failure of imagination to rethink what digital content (hell, let alone digital learning) can be. Truth be told, it feels like reprise of the decades-old promise of electronic publishing (which isn’t that surprising if you look at who helped the two government agencies write the playbook or if you see who the tech press has crowned as “the winner” of this announcement. Hint: it’s not students).

    (Answer: it's Apple.)

    Apple and the Digital Textbook Counter-Revolution

    In January, Apple held its first press event since the death of co-founder Steve Jobs. And after months of speculation — beginning with the hints in Walter Isaacson’s biography— we finally heard about the company's plans to “transform the textbook industry.”

    I heard the plans in person, as I was fortunate enough to attend the event in New York City — the one Apple press event I’ll ever be invited to, I’m quite sure, particularly after I called the news the “digital textbook counter-revolution” and said this was “Apple at its worst.”

    On stage in New York, Apple announced that it was partnering with the largest educational publishers — those who already controlled about 90% of the textbook market — so as to put their content onto iOS devices via a new iTextbooks app. Apple also unveiled iBooks Author, a (Mac-only) app that allows you to make your own digital books (and sell them exclusively through the iTunes store).

    Proprietary educational materials from the largest educational publishers on a proprietary device from the most valuable company in history. Not so revolutionary.

    Open Textbooks

    But the trend I’ve identified for this post isn’t “proprietary educational materials on a proprietary device.” (Thank goodness!) It’s “Open Textbooks.” And while the major technology companies and publishing companies were making all sorts of deals this year — Microsoft bought a stake in Barnes & Noble, for example, Amazon started renting textbooks, Bookrenter launched Rafter to leverage its campus bookstore procurement/distribution technology, and Discovery Education launched “techbooks” — all in the hopes of getting their content into the hands of teachers and students (textbooks are a huge market after all), there was some real progress in making sure that content was free and openly-licensed.

    The state of Utah announced in February its plans to build open textbooks for high school-level math language arts and science. The math and science books were to be remixes from CK–12, and the language arts books were to be developed locally. The state said the books were expected to cost $5 each (compared to roughly $80 for a “standard” textbook and even the $14.99 Apple boasted at its announcement in January). According to BYU professor David Wiley, some 6000 students used these open textbooks during the 2012–2013 school year, and 75,000 will as of next fall. (For more on the Utah “$5 textbook,” see Wiley’s talk from SXSWedu.)

    In September, California governor Jerry Brown signed two bills into effect that would create a library of openly licensed textbooks for the 50 most popular courses taught at the state’s universities and colleges. And in October, British Columbia announced similar plans for a library of open textbooks — available for free online or for a low fee for a printed version.

    The Publishing Industry Responds to “Open”

    Despite these legislative successes, things weren’t all rosy for open textbooks in 2012.

    In April, the Boston-based open textbook startup Boundless was sued by Pearson, Cengage, and Macmillan for copyright infringement. Boundless creates openly-licensed textbooks, “reverse-engineered” from the topics found in most major titles. As I wrote about the lawsuit back in April,

    “The complaint doesn’t charge the startup with copying content per se, but contends it has ‘taken hundreds of topics, sub-topics, and sub-sub-topics that comprise Plaintiffs’ textbooks and copied them into the Boundless texts, even presenting them in the same order, and keying their placement to Plaintiffs’ actual pagination. Defendant has engaged in similar copying or paraphrasing with respect to the substance of hundreds of photographs, illustration, captions, and other original aspects of Plaintiffs’ textbooks.’”

    The lawsuit raises a number of interesting questions about copyright — can you copyright a Table of Contents? What counts as a derivative work? — and it could have serious ramifications for open textbook initiatives. As long-time open education advocate David Wiley wrote in response to the suit, the strategy of the publishers seemed to be to “connect the dots to shape public opinion toward the idea that ‘OER = cheap copiers without creativity and who lack basic respect for copyright.’ Whether or not they win this specific lawsuit, the publishers get their wish – the first exposure to ‘OER’ for most Americans will be on the publishers’ terms, equated to theft, piracy, killing bunnies, and the end of civilization generally.”

    But while one arm of Pearson was trying to shut down an open textbook startup, another arm wanted to make sure it could still get a piece of the OER action. In November, the publishing giant launched Project Blue Sky, a search engine to help people find OER as indeed, discoverability remains one of the major obstacles to OER adoption.) But Project Blue Sky won’t just surface OER; it’ll surface proprietary (Pearson-owned) content too. (In his analysis of the news, Phil Hill argues that “The impact of Project Blue Sky will probably tell us as much about Pearson’s ability to transform itself from a textbook to a digital services company as it does about OER adoption and acceptance.”)

    Pearson’s Project Blue Sky. Pearson v Boundless… If the publishing industry and the courts weren’t offering enough challenges to OER, venture capitalists too began putting the squeeze on open textbooks. In November, long-time open education darling Flat World Knowledge announced that it would no longer offer its textbooks for free. The move raised all sorts ofquestions about whether or not its textbooks would (could) remain openly licensed and what exactly “open” means when it doesn’t include “free.”

    Hacking Your Textbook Open

    As I chronicle all that’s happened this year with both proprietary and open-licensed digital textbooks — the adoption, the usage patterns, the lawsuits, the laws, the launches — I realize it probably looks like a real mixed bag for OER. But I’d argue that the bright spot in all of this is really bright — and it isn’t just the governmental nods to open textbooks in California, Utah, or British Columbia. It’s the rise of the textbook hackathon.

    There are plenty of DIY e-book tools available now, including ones that are open source and that support openly-licensed and DRM-free content. Pressbooks, for example, has opted to open source its book-building tools. GoodSemester launched in early spring — it’s since rebranded— to make it easier for people to share and work with OER. And although lots of startups say they want to be the “GitHub for Education,” there’s actually GitHub itself, which works quite well for uploading, sharing, and forking text, HTML, and Markdown files. (I posted all my old syllabi there this year.)

    But the textbook hackathon isn’t just about taking advantage of these textbook-building technologies. It’s about bringing together authors and experts and learners to collaborate on writing the content. South African non-profit Siyavula has found success offering two to three weekend-long workshops, where volunteers come together to author free textbooks. (Its textbooks are distributed by the Department of Basic Education to every learner in the country taking Physical Science and Math in grades 10-12.) There have also been textbook hackathons in Finland, Boston, and elsewhere, covering a variety of math, science, and CS topics.

    When I wrote about textbook hackathons after watching the Siyavula presentation at OpenEd12, I asked,

    How else can we expand these sorts of events to create textbooks for other disciplines — and, of course, to create materials that extend beyond textbooks as well. Why couldn’t we build annotated versions of the fiction found on Project Gutenburg, for example?

    Wikipedia has made efforts recently to convince professors to make editing the collaborative encyclopedia a class assignment. It seems as though there are many more opportunities for us to do this sort of work — as researchers, as educators, and as students — to contribute to open education, to build educational materials together, license them openly, make them easily and freely accessible to learners, and as [John] Willinsky argued, to give back to our local libraries, to the community, and to the public domain.

    The proprietary publishers added all sorts of bells and whistles to their textbooks this year — high resolution images, embedded YouTube videos, analytics so you can track how much your students have read, deals with schools that bundle the costs in with tuition fees, and so on. (Much of the xMOOC trend is quite textbook-like too.) But none of this feels particularly transformative.

    The most exciting change in digital textbooks, I would argue, comes with efforts like these hackathons, where teachers and learners are the creators not just the consumers of OER. (At that point, I think the word “textbook” will be entirely the wrong way to describe things. And amen to that, I say.)

    Disclosure: Discovery Education paid for me to travel to a Beyond the Textbook forum earlier this year. I also conducted some research for Portland-based Drupal shop Funny Monkey on the topic of open textbooks.

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    Part 7 of my Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012 series

    I chose “data” as one of the top trends of 2011, and the opening line of that article reads “If data was an important trend for 2011, I predict it will be even more so in 2012.” Indeed. There’s a great deal that happened in 2012 that’s a continuation of what we saw last year — enough that I could probably just copy-and-paste from the article I wrote back then:

    More of our activities involve computers and the Internet, whether it’s for work, for school, or for personal purposes. Thus, our interactions and transactions can be tracked. As we click, we leave behind a trail of data–something that’s been dubbed “data exhaust.” It’s information that’s ripe for mining and analysis, and thanks to new technology tools, we can do so in real time and at a massive, Web scale.

    There’s incredible potential for data analytics to impact education. We already collect a significant amount of data about school and students (attendance, demographics, test scores, free and reduced lunches, and the like), but much of it is administrative and/or siloed and/or unexamined.

    …Despite the promise of personalized learning through analytics and data, what we’ve actually seen this year is an increasing emphasis on standardization (or rather, standardized testing). And as such, most of the stories about education data this year have been stories about testing. Stories about dismal test scores. Stores about teachers’ performance tied to those student test scores. Stories about cheating.

    It’s no wonder that talk about “data” (or its variation “data-driven”) continues to make lots of folks shudder.

    When you are bored during a standardized test this can happen

    What Counts as “Education Data”?

    ”It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” – William Bruce Cameron (1963)

    But what do we mean by “education data”? And do we risk, as the Cameron quote (often attributed to Einstein) suggests, valuing the wrong thing by focusing on certain data and certain measurements?

    “Education data” is more than just standardized test scores, of course (but if you’re keeping track at home, SAT scores were down this year and the ACT scores remained flat). For some other interesting education data from the year, we can look at U.S. poverty rates (up) or median household income (down); how much states in fact spend on standardized testing; how much for-profit schools spend on advertising; the impact of iPads on literacy among Maine’s kindergarteners; the state of wiki usage in K–12 schools; online forum usage in higher ed; how much is invested in ed-tech startups; high school graduation rates; employment rates for college grads; where the Gates Foundation spends its money; how many teens own smartphones (55.5%); crime rates in schools (down); youth suicide rates (up); the enrollment of special education students at charter schools; the metadata on the Harvard University Libraries collections; demographics of MOOC enrollees; the confidence on public schools (an all time low); who has student loan debt and how much; how much adjunct faculty earn; how well students perform in virtual schools; and how the physics of Angry Birds works (and what you can learn from it).

    What can you learn from it — from all this data? Great question — one that many journalists, politicians, entrepreneurs, government officials, researchers, and others have sought to answer this year. The promise of this data they argue is that through mining and modeling, we can enhance student learning and predict student success.

    The Politics of Education Data

    “Data, data everywhere and not a drop to drink” – The Rime of the Ancient Psychometrician

    The Department of Education pushed that promise of “big data” in a big way this year. In April, it issued a draft report on data mining and learning analytics that tried to make the case for how these practices will transform education. (The final version of the report was released in October.)

    The department’s interest in data and analytics are connected to a number of other key initiatives, including the 2010 National Education Technology Plan and the Obama Administration’s funding competition Race to the Top (RTTT). The latter demanded states and districts conform to a number of data-oriented reforms, including “supporting data systems that inform decisions and improve instruction, by fully implementing a statewide longitudinal data system, assessing and using data to drive instruction, and making data more accessible to key stakeholders.”

    Of course, RTTT emphasizes data in other ways too — namely, more standardized testing, and in turn, then using that data to assess teachers. Once again, we’re back to just thinking that the education data that “counts” are test scores. And as in 2011, this became highly politicized when teachers’ names and associated test score data were made public.

    Bubble World

    In February, following a lengthy legal battle, the city of New York released data about almost 18,000 individual math and English teachers’ performance. The Teacher Data Reports ranked teachers based on their students’ gains on the state’s math and English tests over the course of 5 years (up until the 2009–2010 academic year).

    Also known as “value-added assessment,” the data is purported to demonstrate how much a teacher “adds value,” if you will, to students’ academic gains. By looking at students’ previous scores, researchers have developed a model that predicts how much improvement is expected over the course of a school year. Whether students perform better or worse than expected is then tied to the impact that a particular teacher had.

    Proponents of value-added assessment — that includes Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and former NYC School Chancellor (and now head of News Corp’s education division) Joel Klein — argue that this model demonstrates teachers’ effectiveness, and as such should be used to help determine how to compensate teachers, as well as who to fire.

    While the teacher’s union and teachers have been vocal in their opposition to the city’s move to release this data, they aren’t the only ones deeply skeptical and deeply troubled by this particular measurement — let alone the appearance of individual teachers’ names and rankings in local newspapers. Arguing that “shame is not the solution,” even ed-reformer Bill Gates penned an op-ed in The New York Times arguing the release of the Teacher Data Reports was a bad idea.

    In no small part, that’s because there are many problems with relying on value-added assessments to determine a teacher’s effectiveness. First and foremost, of course, it reduces the impact that a teacher has on a student to a question of standardized test scores. How does a teacher help boost a student’s confidence, critical thinking, inquisitiveness, creativity? What about other subjects other than math or English? What about teachers whose students are gifted, have disabilities or are still learning English? (Well, according to VAM, they’re “bad teachers.” The “worst” math teacher in NYC, in fact, had many students who received perfect scores — but as these students hadn’t improved from previously stellar scores, well…) What about poverty and other socio-economic influences on students’ lives?

    Furthermore, there is a sizable margin of error in these value-added assessments. As The New York Times notes, the scores could be off as much as 54 to 100 points, and the city is only “95 percent sure a ranking is accurate.” As Gotham Schools reported several years ago, the margin of error has meant that “31 percent of English teachers who ranked in the bottom quintile of teachers in 2007 had jumped to one of the top two quintile by 2008. About 23 percent of math teachers made the same jump.” Did these teachers suddenly get better? We just don’t know.

    The Business of Education Data and Learning Analytics

    Not knowing hasn’t stopped us from assessing, measuring, monitoring, and mining, (and from condemning, damning, and dismissing teachers). Nor has it stopped the testing industry from expanding and profiting — something that will continue to occur with the new Common Core State Standards and their associated testing requirements. (According to a recently released study by the Brookings Institute, the states spend about $1.7 billion per year on testing in K–12.)

    But a ridiculously impossible question about pineapples and hares on the (Pearson-developed) New York State eighth grade language arts exam — one where based on a wonderfully absurdist story by children’s author Daniel Pinkwater and one where every multiple choice answer was equally right or wrong — helped draw attention to the problems of these tests’ design and usage. (You can read the passage and the test questions here.)

    NP pineapple

    “Pineapples don’t have sleeves.” — New York State 8th Grade ELA Exam

    Nevertheless big data was big business in 2012, and lots of companies released data and analytics products, including:

    Shared Learning Collaborative: This Gates Foundation-funded initiative was best explained this year by Frank Calatano who used “buckets” and “spigots” to describe the SLC’s infrastructure plans: K–12 data stores, APIs, and Learning Registry-related content tags. (More to come on the SLC in my next Top Ed-Tech Trends post.)

    Learnsprout: A graduate of the ImagineK12 program, Learnsprout is API-focused startup helping schools integrate other products with their SISes. It raised $1 million funding from Andreessen Horowitz and participated in Code for America this year. (I wrote about the startup here; more to come.)

    Clever: Backed by Y Combinator, Clever also launched this year with an API-oriented solution to the problems of SIS data siloes. It raised $3 million funding from Ashton Kutcher, Mitch Kapor, and others. (More to come on Clever.)

    Kaggle: The data mining/machine learning competition site Kaggle hosted several education-related contests, including a Hewlett Foundation-sponsored one on automated essay grading (yes, more to come on that.) Kaggle also hosts “Kaggle in Class,” which allows the data mining platform to be used in class-based assignments/contests.

    Amplify/Wireless Generation: Rupert Murdoch’s plans for his company’s education division got a little clearer this year with the unveiling of Amplify in June. News Corp had acquired Wireless Generation and had hired former NYC Schools Chancelor Joel Klein in late 2010. Much of the focus of Amplify remains on what were Wireless Generation’s offerings: assesment and analytics. For its part, Wireless Generation remained involved in the development of the Shared Learning Collaborative; and it won a contract to build a Common Core State Standards assessment reporting system.

    Kickboard: From New Orleans founded by TFA alum Jen Medbery comes Kickboard, which gives schools and/or teachers a way to track academic and behavioral data, along with family contact, in one dashboard. (I covered Kickboard here.)

    Always Prepped: Another data dashboard for teachers, Always Prepped raised $650,000 in seed funding from True Ventures in November.

    TeachBoost: Another ImagineK12 alum, TeachBoost offers a school to track teacher’s performance data, from classroom observations and evaluations. (I covered TeachBoost here). In August, the “social network for scholars” launched an analytics dashboard so that users could track the citations of their research in real-time.

    Coursesmart: The largest digital textbook provider, Coursesmart recently launched an analytics tool that tracks a student’s usage of an e-book, including page views, time spent in the app, highlights made, notes taken — then notifies the professor of that student’s “engagement score."

    IBM/Desire to Learn: In April, IBM and Desire2Learnannounced a partnership for their Smarter Education Solution— one part D2L LMS and one part IBM analytics. Desire2Learn raised $80 million — its first VC investment — this year.

    Instructure: In June the LMS startup Instructureunveiled its analytics feature. With it, students can view their assignments, grades, and other performances stats, and they can see how they’re doing compared to others. Instructors can see overviews of courses, compare courses, and (ideally at least) identify and help struggling students.

    Coursera: The online education startup Coursera announced just last week its plans for Coursera Career Services, whereby students (via performance and geographical data) would be matched with potential employers (See also: MOOCs.)

    Udacity: Udacity also offers a similar recruiting service to employers based on students’ data (See also: MOOCs.)

    Civitas Learning: Founded by Charles Thornburgh, a former exec at Kaplan, Civitas Learning launched a predictive analytics platform to help colleges and universities identify “at-risk” students. The company raised $4.1 million in funding this year.

    Junyo: 2012 wasn’t such a good year for Zynga… errr, former Zynga exec Steve Schoettler’s learning analytics startup Junyo, according to Edsurge, which reported on its pivot in September.

    Knewton: Arguably Knewton remains the company most synonymous with education data and analytics. Early in the year Fast Company named it one of the world’s most innovative companies.

    Whose Data Is It Anyway?

    “Data is the new oil” — Marketers, everywhere

    We often hear that "big data is big oil," but the metaphor's a lousy one, Jer Thorp (Data Artist in Residence at The New York Times) recently argued, admitting that possibly the “idea can foster some much-needed criticality.”

    Our experience with oil has been fraught; fortunes made have been balanced with dwindling resources, bloody mercenary conflicts, and a terrifying climate crisis. If we are indeed making the first steps into economic terrain that will be as transformative (and possibly as risky) as that of the petroleum industry, foresight will be key. We have already seen “data spills” happen (when large amounts of personal data are inadvertently leaked). Will it be much longer until we see dangerous data drilling practices? Or until we start to see long term effects from “data pollution”?

    What happens when we use the resource extraction metaphor? How does that shape how we view (education) data? Indeed, as Thorp writes, “where oil is composed of the compressed bodies of long-dead micro-organisms, this personal data is made from the compressed fragments of our personal lives. It is a dense condensate of our human experience.”

    Who owns the learning experience? Who owns all this education data? Companies? Schools? Instructors? Students? Do students know what data is being collected about them?

    How can we make sure that learning analytics and data mining aren’t about extracting value but adding value? How do we make sure that in our rush to uncover insights from all this education data we now capture, that the student isn’t just the object of analysis? How do we make sure the student has subjectivity, agency and control — over their data and their learning?

    To that end, the Department of Education did launch a MyData initiative this spring (which I covered in April). Much like the Blue Button that allows veterans to access and download their personal medical records from the VA in both human- and machine-readable formats, a MyData button will allow students to download and store (and share as they choose) their personal educational records.

    Of course, education data is a lot more complex and distributed. Unlike veterans’ data, which is centralized under the VA and Department of Defense, educational data is scattered across the federal, state, and local levels. (The Department of Education only handles financial aid data; it doesn’t control our transcript or test data, for example). Education data, as I argue at the beginning of this post, can include all sorts of other things too outside the realm of official institutions: what you read, who you are connected to via social networks, what videos you’ve watched, what you’ve built and written and accomplished.

    The MyData button, along with personal data lockers, could be seen as part of the growing “quantified self” movement, which involves collecting and tracking one’s own data through hardware (e.g. sensors like Fitbit), software (e.g. time-tracking tools like Chrometa), and/or handwritten journals and log entries. When applied to learning, there's the possibility then to construct one's own dashboards and visualizations.

    As I wrote in a post on the quantified self and learning analytics back in April,

    My concerns – and maybe “concern” is too strong a word – about the quantified self and learning involve a fixation about transactional data, about the easily quantifiable but in the end meaningless. There are a lot of obvious numbers in our day-to-day lives – what we read, where we click, what we like, how much time we spend studying, who we talk to and ask for help. It’s the administrivia of education. And frankly that seems to be the focus of a lot of “what counts” in learning analytics. But does this really help us uncover, let alone diagnose or augment learning? What needs to happen to spur collection and reflection over our data so we can do a better job of this – not for the sake of the institution, but for the sake of the individual?

    Mixed Media Painting (Detail) by Choichun Leung / Dumbo Arts Center: Art Under the Bridge Festival 2009 / 20090926.10D.54927.P1.L1.C23 / SML

    One of the year's most important developments around the personal ownership of learning data might be the University of Mary Washington’s Domain of One’s Own project. The pilot offered some 400 students and faculty at the university their own domain name and Web space and helped them learn how to build their own e-portfolio — the power to control their data, even after they graduate.

    As UMW’s Jim Groom writes, the Domain of One’s Own is

    a conceptual shift in how we think about controlling data, syndicating content, aggregating ideas, and, more importantly for UMW’s purposes, empowering faculty and students alike.

    There’s no one easy way to frame this project as an elevator pitch because it’s a very small, experimental instantiation of a much larger vision of Jon Udell’s that pushes us to imagine highly personalized digital domains wherein we manage myriad elements of our online lives from school work to personal photos to dental records to electric bills. A private/public domain of personal data that tells the stories of our lives and as a result is crucial for us to control and decide who sees what and what goes where. A digital social security number of sorts, a token that is secure and frames a context digitally that was heretofore not only been unnecessary, but unimaginable.

    And that’s a vision for our personal learning data that looks quite different from a lot of the data dashboards and analytics tools that many companies and organizations want to sell us.

    Image credits: CIAT, Benjamin Chun, See-Ming Lee

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    Part 8 of my Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012 series

    An Introductory Sidenote

    In late 2007, Web browser pioneer, entrepreneur, and now venture capitalist Marc Andreessen wrote a really great blog post about Internet platforms. When I decided I’d write about education platforms as one of my Top Ed-Tech Trends, I immediately searched for it. I had only a vague recollection of what Andreessen had written. But I figured it’d give a good definition of Internet platforms and be an interesting frame for what I wanted to say about the “platforming of education." Because, ya know, it’s Marc Andreessen. (Link to Wikipedia entry, in case you don’t know.) 

    Slight problem: some time in 2009, Andreessen deleted most of his blog posts, including that one.

    So a shout-out of thanks here to the folks who archived much of the site. And also, WTF Marc Andreessen deleting his blog?!

    Defining the Education Platform

    We throw the term “platform” around a lot in tech-speak, using it to refer to everything from software to hardware, from applications to operating systems, from websites to the Web and the Internet itself. In tech-marketing-speak, “platform” is often meant to invoke greatness or aspirations thereof: to become a platform is a goal — “the next Facebook,” if you will.

    Marc Andreesen offered a good definition of platforms in a 2007 post titled “The Three Kinds of Platforms You Meet on the Internet”:

    A “platform” is a system that can be programmed and therefore customized by outside developers — users — and in that way, adapted to countless needs and niches that the platform’s original developers could not have possibly contemplated, much less had time to accommodate.

    Andreessen goes on to argue that there are 3 levels of Internet platforms — 1. Access API, 2. Plug-in API, and 3. Runtime environment — the differences depending on where and how developers run the code, as well as the amount of technical expertise and financial resources necessary to do so. Level 3 platforms are the best for developers, Andreessen contends, adding that “I believe that in the long run, all credible large-scale Internet companies will provide Level 3 platforms. Those that don’t won’t be competitive with those that do, because those that do will give their users the ability to so easily customize and program as to unleash supernovas of creativity.”

    There are some flaws with Andreessen’s taxonomy here (best articulated by Fluidinfo’s Terry Jones) — least of which being his argument that Ning (the company he was then chairman of) sits at the pinnacle of Level 3. But as we think about education platforms — who is building them, who is developing third-party apps for them, why, and how — I still think it’s a useful technical framework.

    But the programmatic aspect of platforms is just one part of why they’re important in education. There, they offer functionality that includes content, course administration, assessment, analytics, communication/collaboration, and external apps. Education platforms (and I should clarify here that I’m focusing specifically on Internet education platforms) are a fairly new development, I’d argue, and while the Web remains my favorite education platform, what we witnessed in 2012 is probably less about the open Web and more about the development of closed commercial platforms.

    Education APIs

    To say that education platforms are a fairly new development is not to say there aren’t major education / technology companies. Of course there are. Publishers. Software makers. Student information systems. Interactive whiteboard makers. But until recently there weren’t really platforms, certainly not Internet platforms in education — not the way in which Andreessen describes them at least.

    Of course, until recently, there’s been a dearth of Web APIs in education — and that’s the technical pre-requisite for even Level 1 of Andreessen’s platform definition. In fact, as I wandered the rows of exhibitors at the ISTE conference this summer, asking them if their product had an API, it became pretty clear that they’re still few and far between.

    As I wrote about APIs back in April, that means

    Educational data is stuck in silos, something fostered by educational software – administrative and instructional – that makes it cumbersome at best and impossible at worst to move data in and out of systems. As a result, there’s lots of extra clerical work that educators and administrators have to do – recreating rosters, copying grades, downloading CSVs, copying-and-pasting, and so on. All because educational apps and software do not, as a rule, talk to one another.

    The cost of upgrading schools’ various software packages and databases is high, But there were several major advancements this year in developing APIs to help retrofit legacy systems, including the launch of the non-profit Shared Learning Collaborative (SLC) and two for-profit startups Learnsprout and Clever. (See also: Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012: Education Data and Learning Analytics for more details on these.)

    While these three three help address some of the problems surrounding software integration, interoperability, and data portability, other API developments addressed sharing metadata (e.g. the Learning Registry), tracking learning experiences (e.g. the Tin Can API), and issuing digital credentials (e.g. Mozilla Open Badges). (Noodle Education published a directory of education APIs — along with an interesting metaphor to help explain them — over the summer. Mulesoft’s APIHub lists a lot more.)

    Caveat Platform?

    Platforms can provide lots of benefits — for users (who get an integrated experience), for third-party developers (as Andreessen argues, who can easily build — and hopefully monetize - their apps on it), and for platform owners (who get to monetize it all). Rather than being stuck with the software as it was originally written, platforms allow functionality to be extended and customized. That's a big win for education, I'd argue, as it means teachers and students can have more personalized user experiences.

    Of course, platforms also raise questions about data security and privacy (particularly in education, where the reg flag of FERPA is often thrown about).

    There are questions too about the Terms of Services, something that the crowdsourced and crowdfunded TOS;DR project — yes, that’s a play on the Internet lingo tl;dr (too long; didn’t read) — sought to tackle this year by reviewing various apps’ terms based on things like data portability, anonymity, cookies, data ownership, copyright, censorship, and transparency about law enforcement requests (something I’d urge us to pay attention to for education sites as well).

    But how the terms work for Internet platforms isn’t just a question for users; it’s one for developers too. And while this doesn’t neatly fall under the category of “education platforms,” the changes to the Twitter platform this year should serve as a cautionary note to users and developers alike. Like many ed-tech companies, Twitter has raised a lot of venture capital but has struggled to find a business model (A LOT of venture capital: $1.16 billion-ish).

    Despite growing popularity — thanks to users and third-party developer alike — in 2012, Twitter seemed to close its previously open(ish) platform. It introduced numerous restrictions to its API for third party developers (e.g. rate-limiting, shutting down Twitter access for certain apps), arguing that these were in the service of “delivering a consistent experience.” In August, Twitter unveiled changes to its API that included updates to the “developer rules of the road” and outlining the types of tools that it wanted to see built on the Twitter platform.

    Twitter said it would encourage development in the upper-left, lower-left, and lower-right quadrants and crack down on those tools in the upper-right — which is quite frankly where all the cool stuff happens.

    Twitter can do what it wants, some folks argue. It’s Twitter’s platform. And that’s true. But its success is thanks to innovations from third-party developers and users. And it’s our data — all those tweets that we still cannot download.

    I can't help but wonder: are there lessons for us here as we see the rush to “platform education”?

    Who’s Platforming Education?

    So who's racing to platform education? Below I've written about some of the major platform plays and players. But I have focused here on Internet platforms. That means that Microsoft, despite the reach of Windows, isn’t on my list of folks who are working on education platforms. I could make the same argument for Apple, I suppose, although its mobile platform in particular has helped spawn a sizable educational app ecosystem. Who else does that leave?

    One of the most important Internet platforms is Amazon, and its Amazon Web Services — where you can run virtual servers and processors — make it one of the very few “Level 3” platforms. Amazon has made very few ventures into education (it launched a “Whispercast” service in October to make it easier for schools to sync Kindles and it did start renting textbooks this year too), but via AWS, the Amazon platform powers a lot of other companies. Coursera runs on AWS. Edmodo runs on AWS. Hack Education runs on AWS. (You know, all the movers and shakers.)

    Google is another major Web platform (duh), although again its interests aren’t explicitly education-focused. Google made several moves to consolidate all its products into one platform this year, most notably perhaps with a revised privacy policy that covers all of them. Google continued to push its Apps for Education product which now boasts some 20 million users. The company made Google+ available to all its school customers in November and in June launched bundles of education apps from its Chrome Web Store for easier installation. That effort was tied to the Chromebooks, which despite my snarky prediction at the beginning of the year, did not get the ax. All of this, along with the importance of YouTube in the “flipping the classroom” hype this year, points to Google is one of the most important education platforms (although arguably the platform for Chromebooks is the Web).

    At one point I would have listed Chegg as a major education platform, particularly after it made a string of acquisitions in 2011 (buying CourseRank, Cramster, Notehall, Student of Fortune, Zinch, and 3D3R Software Studio) to extend the company’s products and services beyond simply “textbook rental.” But in 2012, I didn’t hear a peep from Chegg.

    Other incumbant education companies have made it very clear that they see the importance of developing as an Internet platform. Learning management systems, for example, despite being on the Web haven’t traditionally been “of the Web.” But they now seem to recognize that they need to open APIs, be programmatically extensible, and be user- and developer-friendly. (This is one of the things that makes Instructure different from its competitors, I think. It’s been architected as an Internet platform from the get-go.) For its part, Blackboard seems to moving towards a platform (although traditionally it’s done this by acquiring the companies that had features it wanted to add rather than building a platform that others could offer those features on). The LMS giant had a very interesting 2012, with the acquisition of Moodlerooms and Netspot, two Moodle support companies (with an associated promise that it was committed to open source) and with the resignation of co-founder Michael Chasen.

    Like the LMSes that are seeing the need to become platforms so too are the textbook publishers. We saw signs of this last year with Pearson and its launch of OpenClass, which as The Chronicle of Higher Education described at the time would be “a free LMS that combines standard course-management tools with advanced social networking and community-building, and an open architecture that allows instructors to import whatever material they want, from e-books to YouTube videos.”

    Pearson has a very close relationship too with Knewton, which in turn offers an analytics platform that publishers can utilize to add adaptivity to their content delivery.

    Another adaptive learning company Grockit took a different approach this year to (potentially) building out its platform. It launched Learnist in May — a “Pinterest for education,” if you will. (To my knowledge, Learnist doesn’t offer an API, so maybe I’m jumping the gun a bit on seeing this as a platform-play by Grockit.)

    The startup that made a much clearer move towards becoming a platform this year was Edmodo. Or at least, that was the headline I gave the story in March when Edmodo opened its API to third-party developers. As I wrote then, “Using the Edmodo API, these companies can now connect their own apps to the Edmodo social network, meaning that they can tap into Edmodo’s badge functionality, feeds, assignments, grade book and so on. These apps are integrated with Edmodo, in terms of single sign-on, analytics, and – and this is key for both Edmodo users and app developers – roles (that is, who’s a teacher, who’s a student, what grade is the student, who’s a parent, who’s a principal and so on). According to Edmodo co-founder and CEO Nic Borg, the ability to integrate other tools with Edmodo has been the biggest request from users – some 6 million of them at last count, in some 70,000 schools.” 9 month later, “at last count” is now 15 million users. The company also raised $25 million this year, bringing its total investment to $47.5 million and prompting me to raise an eyebrow) about the potential for revenue and acquisition.

    Schoology, which also offers a social-network-like-LMS to schools, also opened its API, expanded its developer area, and launched an App Store this summer. It raised $6 million this spring.

    Following the acquisition of Wireless Generation and the hiring of former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein in 2010, News Corp finally unveiled its plans for its newly rebranded education division, Amplify. And this is certainly a platform play as the company will offer digital learning tools for the K through 12 market focusing on three areas: assessments and learning analytics, digital curriculum (Common Core-aligned content for math, language arts and science), and content delivery. News Corp has also partnered with AT&T to pilot a tablet program in several schools. Wireless Generation is also helping to build part of the Shared Learning Collaborative.

    Both Khan Academy and TED offer access to their video content via APIs (the former also offers user data, badge info, playlists, and exercises via the API). TED launched its TED-ED initiative in April — “lessons worth sharing” — and although teachers can download and remix some of those exercises, there isn’t really a way to do this programmatically (i.e. editing the lessons is manual). Are these two non-profits education platforms? Yes… maybe… sorta.

    I think that “yes… maybe… sorta” also applies to this year’s biggest ed-tech trend, MOOCs and their role in and plans for platforming education. edX, Coursera, and Udacity haven’t opened APIs (to my knowledge), and while there are clearly efforts on the part of the former two to expand the content offerings by partnering with multiple schools, that seems to involve offline business development, not the “BizDev 2.0” Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake famously argued that APIs enable. But as George Siemens argued this summer, “MOOCs are really a platform” — or at least their proposed business models sure look that way.

    Unbundle Education, Then Platform It?

    There seems to be an interesting tension here with education platforms and the “unbundling of education.” We have heard a lot this year about “unbundling”: that many the services once offered by schools — content delivery, assessment, credentialing, research, mentorship, affiliation and networking, job placement — will no longer be monopolized by them.

    But much like I argued in my Top Ed-Tech Trends story on MOOCs, I have to wonder if what we are “unbundling” from one institution (“school”) we are bundling and consolidating into another (into “the technology sector” broadly, and into platforms specifically). After all, content delivery, assessment, credentialing, research, mentorship, affiliation and networking, job placement — those are all the things that a good education platform would offer its users, right? That, along with the APIs for others to add apps and exchange data.

    As Marc Andreessen recently argued, "software is eating the world." Will it "platform" the world as well?

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    Every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to talk about the latest ed-tech news. Well, every week or so. We skipped a week. And while I had to Skype in (virtually), Steve actually recorded this "live before a studio audience" in Phoenix. (You can see "CogDog" Alan Levine's take on the event as he was there.)

    In this podcast, Steve and I work our way through several of the trends I'm covering in my massive year-end series. Listening to it, I sound really jet-lagged as I'd just returned from Paris. (My apologies for the jetlag. Not apologizing for going to France though!)

    The link to the MP3 of the show is below, and/or you can subscribe to the podcast feed. You can also find the podcast in iTunes, as part of Steve's EdTechLive series.

    December 7, 2012

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    I was a guest on today's Ed Startup 101 Hangout, the class's last hangout of the year. I joined instructors David Wiley, Richard Culatta, and Aaron Miller, along with my fellow student Julian Miller.

    It was particularly interesting to hear about Miller's experiences, who's been using the class to help "workshop" (if you will) his startup Ontract (featured just a few days ago in a Techcrunch write-up). I talked a little bit about my thoughts on the class, my struggles with deciding how and if the startup "frame" really works for Hack Education. (You can find my previous posts on the class here,hereherehere, and here.)

    The Ed Startup class will continue in some form, according to Wiley, and I'm glad to hear it. I think the hangouts in particularly have been really valuable in exposing a variety of positions (positions as in "roles" and as in "philosophies") in education technology entrepreneurship.

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    Apologies for being late with this weekly roundup of education news. I was traveling and in meetings on Friday. Friday, the day a young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and killed six adults and 20 children. This is now the second week in a row in which my write-up of the week’s education news includes murders at a school. Last week’s occured in my hometown. If it hadn’t, I’m not sure I would have included it. I’ve been thinking a lot about that — about “what counts” as news here and what doesn’t. After all, students experience a lot of violence — at schools both K–12 and university — and it doesn’t always make headlines. What do we say, what do we write about for any of this?!

    The killings at Sandy Hook Elementary (and the responses to them by mainstream, alt, and social media) have also colored what I’ve thought about education — the space, the people, the politics — for the last few days. As such, writing my Hack Education Weekly News has seemed quite ridiculous as one of the biggest events of the week had been, up ’til Friday, the furor over the University of California logo. Nonetheless, here’s a list of (some of) what happened from December 7 to 14, 2012.


    The University of Californiaintroduced a new “modern” logo this week, ditching the whole “let there be light” script for a spray-painted-looking yellow C in a blue shield. OMGWTF was the overwhelming response, and late in the week, UC withdrew the logo.

    Law and Politics

    The FTC issued a report this week blasting children’s app makers for weak privacy protections. “Our study shows that kids’ apps siphon an alarming amount of information from mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. Nearly 60% of the apps the FTC surveyed transmit information from a user’s device back to the developer — or more commonly, to an advertising network, analytics company, or other third party.

    The Michigan legislature passed a bill on Wednesday that would allow gun owners to carry guns and concealed weapons into locations that were formerly “gun-free zones” — including schools.

    Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed a landmark anti-union bill this week, making the state the 24th in the country to become “Right to Work.”

    Demonstrating that the anti-teacher union sentiment is hardly something restricted to just the U.S., the British Education Secretary Michael Gove“has written to all state school heads in England, urging them to take ‘robust’ action against teachers involved in industrial action, and dock their pay,” reports The Guardian, “in a move described by Labour as putting the government on a ‘war footing’ with the teaching profession.”

    The U.S. Education Department announced the winners of its Race to the Top-District competition. “These districts will share nearly $400 million to support locally developed plans to personalize and deepen student learning, directly improve student achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare every student to succeed in college and their careers.” (It’s interesting that the charter school network KIPP — one of the winners — counts as a district, I think.)

    The Year of the MOOC: Week 49

    Georgetown has joined edX. (edX member institutions now includes Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley, the University of Texas system, Wellesley College, and Georgetown.)

    12 British universities (Cardiff University, King’s College, University of London, Lancaster University, The Open University, University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, University of East Anglia, University of Exeter, University of Leeds, University of Southampton, University of St. Andrews, University of Warwick) join forces to create FutureLearn LTD, a new MOOC platform.

    Launches and Upgrades

    Straighterline has launched“Professor Direct” — something that Fast Company’s Anya Kamenetz describes as an “eBay for professors” — which will allow individual professors to offer their own online courses, set their own tuition, and offer (ACE) credit.

    MIT’s CSAIL department announced the development of a new online learning tool, Caesar, that provides crowdsourced feedback to students on their homework.

    Google has teamed up with DonorsChoose to offer $99 Chromebooks for the holidays. Teachers must still go through the DonorsChoose application process in order to request these for their classrooms (and then they must in turn raise the funds for them). And hurry: applications close December 21.

    In other Chromebooks news, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) says it’s working with Google to make sure that the Chromebooks are ready for online standardized testing.

    BoingBoing highlightsEsplora, a new Arduino controller “— The Arduino Esplora is a ready-to-use, easy-to-hold controller that ”lets you explore the infinite possibilities you have in the world of Arduino, without having to deal with breadboards or soldering. Shaped like a game controller, it’s designed to be used out of the box without extra parts since it comes with many sensors and actuators already on it.”

    The educational data infrastructure initiative Shared Learning Collaborative has released V1.0 of its technology.

    Khan Academy intern Jamie Alexander has launched “Khan Academy Lite,” an effort to bring the site to places that do not have Internet access.

    Research and Data

    More international test score data — the TIMSS (the Trends in International Math and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) — were released this week, providing lots of fuel for the ol’ “American education is broken” narratives. The U.S. scores are “unacceptable if our schools are to live up to the American promise of giving all children a world-class education,” said Arne Duncan. But University of Oregon education professor Yong Zhao has the best response to this handwringing and notes wryly “The fact the U.S. as a nation is still standing despite of its abysmal standing on international academic tests for over half a century begs two questions: Is education as important to a nation’s national security and economy as important as believed? If it is, are the numbers telling the truth about the quality of education in the U.S. and other nations?”

    Some interesting research from Andrés Monroy-Hernández who asks “Is working in groups better for functional works like code than for creative works like art?” He examines the community around the learn-to-code tool Scratch and found that “remixes are, on average, rated as being of lower quality than works of single authorship.”

    The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop has released a report titled “Pioneering Literacy in the Digital Wild West: Empowering Parents and Educators” (PDF) that examines the current market for digital apps as well as how they are being used — in schools, by learners, by parents. As Justin Reich describes the findings in a blog post on Education Week: “breaking: most apps bad.”

    In light of discussions around the importance (or not) of teacher education, Bruce Baker examines some of the data about who’s attending ed schools, which ed schools, and how that’s changed over the last decade. From 1990 to 1993, for example, the top 3 MA degree producers were Lesley College, National-Louis University, and Eastern Michigan University. From 2009 to 2012, the top 3 were University of Phoenix, Walden University, and Grand Canyon University.

    "You’ll often hear the argument that half or almost half of all beginning U.S. public school teachers leave the profession within five years,” writes Matt Di Carlo on the Shanker Blog as he examines the veracity of the claim and the ways in which these statistics are gathered. (“It’s fair to say that the ‘almost half of new teachers leave within five years’ statistic has some backing, he concludes.)

    In somewhat related news, TFA founder Wendy Kopp boasted this week in a Huffington Post interview that “on average, our corps members stay in the classroom for eight years.” The claim raised a lot of eyebrows as it conflicts with other data about Teach for America members which finds that fewer than 15% stay past their third year. In his Education Week blog, Anthony Cody tries to find the source of Kopp’s claim, and Kopp later clarified that “We can’t definitively say what avg is b/c some folks leave & come back, and we won’t know the total for those still at it until they retire.”

    Barbara Ericson has examined the data from this year’s AP CS exam, finding (among other things), that this was the biggest year for the test. 24,782 people took the AP CS A exam this year, a 14.7% increase from 2011.


    Google has announced that the applications are open for its 2013 Google CS4HS (Computer Science for High School) grant program. The program funds universities, community colleges, and technical schools to help them work with local high schools in order to bring CS and computational thinking into the classroom.

    NPR reports on the school districts in California that have borrowed billions of dollars and postponed their repayments, meaning they owe far much more than they ever borrowed. Take San Diego’s Poway Unified School District, for example, which borrowed a little more than $100 million — its debt will cost over $1 billion to repay.

    According to Technapex, the test prep company Testive has raised $500,000 in seed funding.

    The University of California, Berkeleyannounced a $1 million scholarship program for undocumented students. (Because these students are in the country illegally, they do not qualify for federal financial aid.)


    Former Indiana state superintendent and darling of the ed-reform movement Tony Bennett, voted out of office last month, has been hired as Florida’s new education commissioner. (The position in Florida is a political appointment, not subject to the vote of the people.)

    X-Mas Wish-List

    “All I want for Christmas,” writes Scott Leslie, “is for you to buy a single Flatworld Knowledge textbook, before December 31. And then share it with the rest of the world.” Last month, the textbook publisher announced that it would be removing free access to its openly licensed textbooks. “But because of the technical restrictions FWK placed on the books (they are not at public URLs but behind logins; the content is not easily copyable unless you pay for it) after the gate comes down on December 31 and the licenses removed (because surely they will) unless copies of them are made outside of these walls, they will have effectively been removed from the Commons.” He’s created a wiki to list the texts that have been “liberated.”

    Photo credits: Michael Eisen, via Facebook

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    Part 9 of my Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012 series.

    On Saturday, I took a ride in one of Google’s self-driving cars. “This will be the most incredibly boring drive ever,” joked the car’s developer Sebastian Thrun.

    Incredibly boring indeed. I mean, sure, the trip was utterly uneventful: the car cruised along I–280 without incident, just like any Saturday morning drive should go. The other cars did slow and swerve when they saw the Lexus with the Google logo, the little camera on the top, and the words “self-driving car.” Drivers and passengers turned and stared. Amazed. I was amazed. Yes, uneventful, but also was the most incredible drive I’ve ever taken (beating out that time when I was sixteen and a friend and I “borrowed” her stepdad’s Corvette). There was Thrun with his hands off the wheel, feet off the pedals, eyes not on the road, explaining how the car (and Google) collected massive amounts of data in order to map the road and move along it. The car does have lots of cameras and sensors, but the technology (hardware at leastI) wasn’t really that overwhelming — the car’s computer quite small, tucked away in the corner of the trunk. It all worked flawlessly. Just another passenger vehicle on the road — how banal. Except that it was driving itself — how friggin’ incredible.

    I saw the future, in one of those weird William Gibson“the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed” moments. I hate to drive and I moved to LA this year: the self-driving car is a future whose more widespread distribution I look forward to.

    The limo driver that dropped a handful of us off at Thrun’s house, on the other hand, wasn’t so thrilled.

    But wait, you say. What does the Google self-driving car have to do with education?

    In 2012? Everything.

    AI and MOOCs

    The lead on Google’s self-driving car project Sebastian Thrun is, of course, also the founder of Udacity, one of the most important education startups of the year and key to 2012’s most important ed-tech trend, MOOCs. It was Thrun’s Artificial Intelligence class offered in the Fall of 2011 that’s often credited for igniting the whole MOOC craze. In January , Thrun announced his departure from Stanford where he’d been a research professor and the director of SAIL, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

    Now the director of SAIL is Andrew Ng, who along with fellow Stanford machine learning and AI professor Daphne Koller, is the founder of Coursera.

    In March, Anant Agarwal announced that he was stepping down as the director of CSAIL, MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Laboratory in order to become the president of MITx (now edX).

    The year's three major xMOOC initiatives — Udacity, edX, and Coursera — all originated in AI labs. That’s not a coincidence. That’s a trend.

    (Sidenote: how interesting that the CEO of the recently-announced UK uni response to these xMOOCs — FutureLearn— comes from the BBC and not from the CS department.)

    How will the field of artificial intelligence — "the science of creating intelligent machines" — shape education?

    The Long History of Machine Learning and Teaching Machines

    The field of artificial intelligence relies in part on machine learning — that is, teaching computers to adapt their behaviors algorithmically (i.e. to learn) — and natural language processing — that is, teaching computers to understand input from humans that isn’t written in code. (Yes, this is a greatly oversimplified explanation. I didn’t last too long in either Thrun’s AI or Ng’s Machine Learning MOOCs.)

    In addition to the innovations surrounding self-driving cars, this branch of computer science has also been actively working on adaptive learning, automated assessment, and “intelligent tutoring” systems for a very long time. We are seeing a lot of breakthroughs now, in part because — much like the self-driving car with its sensors and cameras and knowledge of the Google-mapped-world — we are gathering immense amounts of data via our interactions with hardware, software, websites, and apps. And more data equals better modeling.

    Fine-tuning these models and “teaching machines” has been the Holy Grail for education technology – that is, there’s long been a quest to write software that offers personalized feedback, that responds to each individual student’s skills and needs.

    What makes these programs “adaptive” is the AI assesses a student’s answer (typically to a multiple choice question, but in the case of many of the early xMOOCs, the student’s code), then follows up with the “next best” question, aimed at the “right” level of difficulty. This doesn’t have to be a particularly complicated algorithm, and the idea actually based on “item response theory” which dates back to the 1950s (and the rise of the psychometrician). Despite the intervening decades, quite honestly, these systems haven’t become terribly sophisticated, in no small part because they tend to rely on multiple choice tests.

    So the search for that ed-tech Holy Grail continues not only to make software more adaptive — more “personalized” as the marketing-speak goes — but to expand the capabilities outside the realm of just multiple choice testing.

    Automated Essay Graders

    In January of this year, the Hewlett Foundation announced it would award a $100,000 prize to software designers who could “reliably automate the grading of essays for state tests.”

    “Better tests support better learning,” said Barbara Chow, the foundation’s Education Program Director. “Rapid and accurate automated essay scoring will encourage states to include more writing in their state assessments. And the more we can use essays to assess what students have learned, the greater the likelihood they’ll master important academic content, critical thinking, and effective communication.”

    The Hewlett Foundation turned to the machine learning competition site Kaggle to run its automated essay grading contest. And in April, Kaggle data scientist Ben Hamner along with University of Akron’s Dean of the College of Education Mark Shermis published a study that contended that the software that was being developed was as good as humans at grading essays. The researchers examined some 22,000 essays that were administered to junior and high school level students as part of their states’ standardized testing process, comparing the grades given by human graders and those given by automated grading software. They found that “overall, automated essay scoring was capable of producing scores similar to human scores for extended-response writing items with equal performance for both source-based and traditional writing genre.” (PDF)

    “The demonstration showed conclusively that automated essay scoring systems are fast, accurate, and cost effective,” said Tom Vander Ark, managing partner at the investment firm Learn Capital and manager of the Kaggle competition via his Open Education Solutions company, in a press release touting the study’s results.

    As someone who taught writing for a number of years (See: My CV), I don’t I agree at all, as evident by the headline I used on my lengthy response to the Kaggle competition, the research, and the whole robot grader hoopla: “Tossing Sabots into the Automated Essay Grading Machine.” I have lingering questions about labor, about gaming the system, about why and how and what we ask students to write and why on earth we’d want to automate that.


    Efficiency and Learning

    Why would we want to automate it? Why, for the sake of efficiency, of course. We have to scale. Process more students. We have to assess more content. Write more. Grade more. Test more. Cut costs. Etc.

    A couple of 20th century theorists who played a part in our thinking his year:

    Jacques Ellul (1912–1994): See my Storify on The Technological Society . See also: The Boston Globe, “Jacques Ellul, technology doomsayer before his time.”

    William Baumol (1922- ): See Clay Shirky’s popular essay “Napster, Udacity, and the Academy,” which invokes Baumol’s Cost Disease.

    Baumol’s Cost Disease posits that there are a rise in salaries even in industries that have not seen a rise in productivity or efficiency. “Higher education has a bad case of cost disease,” writes Shirky. And as James Surowiecki wrote in The New Yorker late last year,

    ”some sectors of the economy, like manufacturing, have rising productivity—they regularly produce more with less, which leads to higher wages and rising living standards. But other sectors, like education, have a harder time increasing productivity. Ford, after all, can make more cars with fewer workers and in less time than it did in 1980. But the average student-teacher ratio in college is sixteen to one, just about what it was thirty years ago. In other words, teachers today aren’t any more productive than they were in 1980. The problem is that colleges can’t pay 1980 salaries, and the only way they can pay 2011 salaries is by raising prices. And the Baumol problem is exacerbated by the arms-race problem: colleges compete to lure students by investing in expensive things, like high-profile faculty members, fancy facilities, and a low student-to-teacher ratio.”

    Can technology change all this? Can technology bring down the cost of education? No doubt that’s why talk of this cost disease matters so very much: the increasing cost of education, the record levels of student loan debt. Can technology make education more efficient? What does that entail? Can technology scale education? What does that mean? With automated instruction and automated grading, can we train people more quickly?

    “Hell yes,” say the xMOOCs and their AI.

    But at what cost? How will the field of artificial intelligence -- remember, the origin of these xMOOCs -- shape how we'll think about teaching and learning and technology and efficiency?

    These questions are at the core of Jacques Ellul’s dark vision about technology, society, and education in The Technological Society (1964). He writes that this impulse drives human history:

    ”The human brain must be made to conform to the much more advanced brain of the machine. And education will no longer be an unpredictable and exciting adventure in human enlightement but an exercise in conformity and an apprenticeship to whatever gadgetry is useful in a technical world.”

    So there’s that.

    Ethics and the 3 Laws of (Ed-Tech) Robotics

    My background is in literature, and when I was asked this summer to speak at conference (the computer-assisted law instruction conference), I couldn’t help but give a talk that drew on science fiction: on the history of robots and labor and learning. And as it was a law conference, I couldn't help but invoke Isaac Asimov’s “3 Laws of Robotics.”

    I feel like I’m being a bit of a doomsayer in that slide deck. Interestingly, I shared the keynote “stage” at with Dave Cormier who spoke about xMOOCs and open learning. “I saw a deadhead sticker on a Cadillac,” were the lyrics he invoked in his talk. #Teameducationapocalypse was the hashtag he used to describe our presentations. And that’s the thing with robots: they seem to contain both our salvation and our doom.

    But it’s fairly clear that 2012 was an incredibly important year for robots (check out my Tumblr, the Robot Chronicles, for all the latest news) – and it’s time for us to think about the implications and the ethics of robotics. For self-driving cars, for robot essay graders, and for drones.

    So how will we proceed? What matters to us? What values will we instill in our robots?

    I think this is why I like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics very much, particularly the Zeroeth law, which reminds us about the harm not just to human beings but to humanity.

    0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

    After all, humanity and learning are deeply deeply intertwined.

    The Robots that Replace Us

    Duke University professor Cathy Davidson often quips that if teachers “can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.” In a political climate that seeks to deprofessionalize the teaching profession (more on that in my last Top Ed-Tech Trends post), that’s a controversial statement. Davidson insists she’s not arguing that teachers should be replaced with robots, but “if, as a teacher, at any level you are no more interactive and responsive than a YouTube video, then your institution and your students should save your salary and go with the cheaper–and probably more entertaining–online version instead.”

    I suppose the same could go for all the technology bloggers who just copy and paste press releases and who will in the near future probably be replaced by the robot-writers at Narrative Science.

    Earlier this month, Paul Wallich posted onto the IEEE Spectrum blog his instructions for building a “DIY Kid-Tracking Drone.” “On school-day mornings,” he wrote, “I walk my grade-school-age son 400 meters down the hill to the bus stop. Last winter, I fantasized about sitting at my computer while a camera-equipped drone followed him overhead. So this year, I set out to build one.” Wallich describes the drone’s mechanics, its electronics, its software, and the tracking beacon that fit “unobtrusively in my child’s backpack.”

    So, did it work? Mostly. The copter is skittish when it’s windy, and GPS guidance is good to 10 meters at best. Because my particular front yard is only about 15 meters across, with a long, tree-edged driveway leading to the street, I either have to follow automatically above the treetops—where I can’t really see what’s going on—or else supplement the autopilot with old-fashioned line-of-sight remote control. Which somewhat defeats the original plan of staying warm and dry while a drone does my parenting.

    Jokes about “helicopter parenting” are pretty easy to make here, and while some folks left comments on the article criticizing Wallich for his innovation, others noted that this was a pretty clever excuse to build a DIY drone.

    But clever excuses and clever innovations and clever drones aside, I think there remain many unanswered questions about drones and robots and artificial intelligence and why and how -- when it comes to kids and to learners -- we want to automate things. What about surveillance? What about data? What about messiness and inefficiency? What do we gain through automation? And what will we lose?

    Image credits: Jesse Stommel, Audrey Watters, Paul Wallich

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    Part 10 of my Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012 series

    Education is political — inherently so and despite the protestations from some quarters when what happens in our schools, in our textbooks, in our brains “becomes politicized.” Education is political not simply because of the governmental role — federal, state, local — in school funding and policies. It is political because of the polis— the connections between education and community. Education is political because learning is at once personal (and, of course, “the personal is political”) and social; it is both private and public.

    But I’ll leave a round-up of all that happened in 2012 with regards to the “politics of education” — the U.S. Presidential Elections, the Chicago Teachers Union strike, the Dream Act — for someone else to write. I’m interested here in the “politics of ed-tech.”

    Of course, if education is political, then ed-tech must be as well. As such, “the politics of ed-tech” isn’t really a trend; it’s a truism. (And wait, “what is ed-tech?”) So why frame this as the penultimate trend in my year-in-review series? I think it’s because, much like the first trend I examined — the business of ed-tech— we witnessed in 2012 the (education) technology sector discovering, seizing, wielding its power and influence.

    The year began with the Internet’s protests against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the Protect IP Act). The proposed legislation would give U.S. law enforcement more authority to crack down on online copyright infringement, allowing them to ban search engines from linking to “infringing” websites and require Internet service providers to block access to these sites as well. The technology industry was very vocal in its opposition to SOPA and PIPA (except GoDaddy. I hope you all changed domain registrars!), arguing the laws would “break the Internet” — in technology and in spirit. Internet co-founder Vint Cerf penned a letter to the author of SOPA, Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), stating that "Requiring search engines to delete a domain name begins a worldwide arms race of unprecedented ‘censorship’ of the Web.” On January 18, the English Wikipedia, Reddit, Wired, and thousands of other websites coordinated a protest, “going dark” to express their opposition to the bills. Access to pro-SOPA websites was difficult as Anonymous called for DDOS attacks against them. Rep. Smith put work on the legislation on hold 2 days later.

    The Internet had won.

    The (Ed-)Tech Lobby

    The Internet — whatever we mean by that — isn’t a new political force, by any means. But in 2012, at both the grassroots and the corporate levels, the Internet flexed its political muscles. Major Internet/technology companies increased their lobbyist presence in Washington DC. According to, Google had over $14.3 million in lobbying expenditures this year (it was the fifth highest spender). Microsoft spent $5.6 million. Facebook spent $2.5 million, almost twice what it had in 2011. Apple spent $1.4 million. Compare that to $790,000 spent by Pearson Education, the $540,000 spent by the Apollo Group (parent company to the University of Phoenix), the $5 million spent by Ford, or the $9.8 million spent by Exxon.

    What, if anything education-related, did these tech companies get for their efforts? For starters, an updated COPPA, just released today. The updated version of privacy law reflects changing technologies, adding geolocation data and photos to the types of “personal information” that sites cannot capture from those under 13 without parents’ consent. The new rules also state that platforms like Google Play and the Apple App Store are exempt from liability if they sell apps that violate COPPA. Facebook had protested some of the proposed changed that would have required the “Like” button (and similar social media plug-ins) to comply with COPPA. That language didn’t make it to the final version, which will allow sites to collect data without parental consent

    ”for the sole purpose of supporting the website or online service’s internal operations, such as contextual advertising, frequency capping, legal compliance, site analysis, and network communications. Without parental consent, such information may never be used or disclosed to contact a specific individual, including through behavioral advertising, to amass a profile on a specific individual, or for any other purpose.”

    Allowing contextual advertising has led several blogs tospeculate if this means kids under 13 can join Facebook (I don’t think it does, but I’m neither a lobbyist nor a lawyer so I could be wrong.)

    Lobbying doesn’t just happen at the federal level, of course. Salon recently reported on the lobbying efforts of the University of Phoenix to defeat proposed legislation in Arizona that would have allowed some community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees.

    And it’s at the state level where the efforts of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) are focused. As I wrote in October (as part of yet-another series I penned this year — this one on “What Educators Should Know About Tech”), ALEC is

    a powerful non-profit organization whose membership is comprised of corporations and conservative politicians. This isn’t merely a lobbying group, as corporate members craft legislation introduced at the state level that promotes free-market and conservative ideals — all behind closed doors.

    While ALEC has been in existence for decades now, it’s only recently found itself in the spotlight, in no small part because of the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and the invocation of the ALEC-sponsored Stand Your Ground Law as a defense by his shooter George Zimmerman. Other legislation that the organization has promoted include the spate of voter ID laws that some argue prevent voter fraud and others say are an organized campaign of voter disenfranchisement.

    ALEC currently runs 9 initiatives to impact legislation at the state level, including one specifically devoted to education reform. “The mission of ALEC’s Education Task Force,” according to its website, “is to promote excellence in the nation’s educational system, to advance reforms through parental choice, to support efficiency, accountability, and transparency in all educational institutions, and to ensure America’s youth are given the opportunity to succeed.”

    ALEC’s legislative efforts in education include legalizing and expanding charter schools and vouchers, passing parent trigger laws, eliminating caps on virtual school enrollment, penalizing students who take longer than 4 years to graduate college, breaking teacher unions, weakening teacher certification requirements, and eliminating tenure. In short: dismantling and privatizing the U.S. public school system.

    The list of education and tech-related ALEC members includes AOL, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, AT&T, Comcast, the Entertainment Software Association, the Foundation for the Excellence in Education, the Innosight Institute, iNACOL, K12 Inc, Kaplan Higher Education, Microsoft, News Corp, Reed Elsevier, Scantron, Verizon, the Walton Family Foundation, Wireless Generation, and Yahoo.

    Politicians, Policies, and Pundits

    2012 was an election year, but education wasn’t much of an issue in the Presidential Presidential campaign (compare Republican and Democrat Party platforms to gauge why). Education technology, even less so. Similarly, education was important in a number of state-level races (see Education Week’s Voters’ Guide for edu-related campaign results), but ed-tech was a question at stake in just one — in Idaho where voters rejected 3 measures dubbed the “Luna Laws" (so-called for their connection to State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna).

    Voters rejected a proposition that would have required students take 2 online classes to graduate and mandated they all lease laptops. They also rejected a law that would have linked teachers’ pay to standardized test scores and one that would have curbed teachers’ collective bargaining rights.

    This trio of “Luna Laws” should make it clear why it’s hard to extract the politics of ed-tech from the politics of education and/or the politics of tech. Online classes. Mandatory laptops. Performance pay. Standardized testing. Anti-union measures. It’s all part of the education reform agenda, and as such it’s near impossible to just talk about the ed-tech and not situate it in politics/policies/practices.

    Five more points of interest:

    New Jersey: Until December 14, and the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut I would have said New Jersey was the site of the most devastating stories of the year: Hurricane Sandy. In the wake of the storm, I think folks saw a different side of Chris Christie. I think they saw the massive vulnerabilities we face in light of climate change. And John Merrow, in a PBS NewsHour segment, highlights why in light of all this “schools matter” — as teachers and principals help maintain the safety of their students.

    Hurricane Sandy wasn’t an “ed-tech” story per se, although there were elements — thanks to social media — of its being a “community tech” story, particularly with real-time, crowdsourced news via mobile devices and via Twitter.

    Bonus points for New Jersey for Newark mayor Cory Booker, avid tweeter, friend of Mark Zuckerberg, teen media startup founder, and part-time superhero. Also not an ed-tech story. Still somehow relevant.

    Lousiana: Louisiana’s story isn’t particularly “ed-tech-y” either, unless you link, as some folks do, charter schools to ed-tech. (There’s a sense — in some quarters at least — that charter schools, less encumbered by district bureaucracy, are more apt to adopt new computer technologies, more willing to experiment with “blended learning” (that is, a blend of face-to-face and computer-mediated instruction), more interested in data and learning analytics.) Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has had to rebuild much of its infrastructure, including its school system — and charter schools have proliferated. (About 80$ of New Orleans schools are charters.) New Orleans is also the site of a thriving ed-tech startup community, with the 4.0 Schools lab helping to support some of that innovation. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal also expanded a voucher program this year that allowed public funding to be used for almost any sort of “school.” This has since been found to be unconstitutional. Phew, because if you see the list of the “14 Wacky “Facts” Kids Will Learn in Louisiana’s Voucher Schools,” it’s pretty clear that this was the anti-STEM initiative of the year.

    Virginia: Virginia made the “Politics of Ed-Tech” news this year with the decision at UVA to fire president Teresa Sullivan. In June, the political appointees who make up the university’s Board of Visitors (none of whom were educators) ousted Sullivan (long-time educator, sociologist, administrator), in part because they felt she was slow to hop on the MOOC bandwagon. Massive outcry from alumni, professors, students, academia followed. Sullivan was reinstated. And a few weeks later, the university announced it was joining Coursera (it had already been in discussions to do so when Sullivan was fird.) Ell Oh Ell,.

    Minnesota: Insisting "this has been a longtime requirement in Minnesota (at least 20 years)” the state informed Coursera this summer its residents were not allowed to take MOOCs, prompting the startup to clarify its Terms of Service:

    Notice for Minnesota Users:

    Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.

    After much pointing and laughing from the Internet (and suggestions that entrepreneurial-minded folks set up coffeeshops just across the state line where Minnesota folks could legally MOOC), the state said it would revisit the law. “Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning,” said the Office of Higher Educaiton. I mean, obviously.

    Florida: See also: Jeb Bush.

    (Note all the names here that come up as possible contenders for the White House in 2016.)

    Plenty of ed-tech is clearly tied to education policies. You can see it in the Race for the Top competition and its requirements that states and districts comply with the administration’s demands for more testing, more data-driven decision-making, more tech. And you can see it in the Common Core State Standards— the new curriculum and the associate development of new, computer-based assessments. (It’s worth noting here too that one of the creators of the CCSS, David Coleman, was named the head of the College Board this year. You know, the highly profitable “non-profit” that handles the SAT and AP exams.)

    All this — the testing, the RTTT, the Common Core — necessitates new procurements, new technology, new apps, new (digital) textbooks, new hardware, new tests, kaching, kaching, kaching -- link the business of ed-tech to the politics of ed-tech.

    Workers versus Machines?

    Will computers replace teachers? Can computers replace teachers? Should computers replace teachers? Folks keep asking these questions — and not just as link-bait-y blog headlines either. I think that people are genuinely concerned. Are their jobs in jeopardy? Are their relationships in jeopardy? Will education be cheaper? Better? Faster? Do we just need a handful of "superstar professors," some webcams, and an Internet connection and we can ditch everyone else?

    Oh no no no, we have no plans to replace teachers, most ed-tech companies say reassuringly. But sometimes it feels like they doth protest too much. (Khan Academy, I’m looking at you here.) But then there are the folks who make that agenda overt: “Why the Chicago Teachers’ Strike Will Help Education Entrepreneurs,” read a headline in Inc Magazine. “If there’s a bright side to the Chicago teacher’s strike as it continues to victimize (for no good reason) hundreds of thousands of kids and parents, it’s that it will provide an opportunity for many Chicago-based entrepreneurs and education start-ups.” Or take former DC mayor Adrian Fenty who told the crowd at the Education Innovation Summit at the ASU campus in April, “if we fire more teachers, we can use that money for more technology.”

    Some trade-off.

    Education Politics and Internet Culture

    But remember: the Internet stopped SOPA. Not just the big tech co’s. The Internet. Us. I think about that a lot in relation to the politics of ed-tech: whither the Internet?

    What role might the Internet play in demanding better education? More access? More opportunities? Will the Internet be interested in protecting user (learner) data? What does Internet culture have to say for and about education politics? There are some profoundly anti-teacher and anti-school narratives being told (particularly in the tech industry, I think): how do these shape our tech, our ed-tech? Are these narratives being spread or being countered by the Web? What stories do we tell about learning and learning online? I mean, we the Internet, not just the corporate voices.

    And how do "the politics of ed-tech" run through of the trends I’ve looked at in this series: data, platforms, DARPA and the Maker Movement, MOOCs, open textbook initiatives, startups, investment, and so on.

    Sure, there weren’t a lot of great education-related memes this year, I lamented at one point, in a year rich with political meme-ry. A couple of Sesame Street-related GIFs popped up after a presidential debate, but not much more. But I'd wager education had its fair share of viral TED videos, a viral Clay Shirky blog post for good measure. PBS autotuned Mr. Rogers. And somewhere along the way, a Web of teachers and techies and movie critics convinced the world not to go see the pro-“parent-trigger” education reform movie Won’t Back Down, which can now boast the worst box office opening in history. So we have the Internet to thank for that.

    One final note: in April, education historian Diane Ravitch started a blog. I know, right? A blog? In 2012. Heh. But also, wow. Ravitch posts incessantly — on average 10 post a day. Commenters flock to it. While Ravitch is not much of a fan of education technology, she has certainly embraced Web 2.0 tools — the blog, the Twitterz — as a platform for her message. She noted just this week that her site has already seen 2 million pageviews since its launch, invoking just the sort of metrics that the tech industry loves to hype. And really, her blog's become quite the year’s big political ed-tech thing.

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  • 12/20/12--08:15: Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012
  • The List

    1. The Business of Ed-Tech

    2. The Maker Movement

    3. Learning to Code

    4. The Flipped Classroom

    5. MOOCs

    6. The Battle to Open Textbooks

    7. Education Data and Learning Analytics

    8. The Platforming of Education

    9. Automation and Artificial Intelligence

    10. The Politics of Ed-Tech


    (Notably missing from my list: the student (youth) voice; #Occupy; BYOD; gaming; badges and credentials; the globalization of ed-tech; cheating; crowdsourcing and crowdfunding. Make of that what you will.)

    Image credits: Hugh Lee

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    It probably goes without saying, but I’ll type it out anyway: 2012 was an incredible year for education technology startups. Launches. Updates. Funding. Acquisitions. Adoption. Headlines. Disruptions. Drama. Politics. Buzz. Hype. Revolutions. And stuff.

    With all that’s happened this year, making a list of the “top” new education technology startups was more challenging than ever before – least of which because there were a lot more companies to choose from. Making it tougher still: I’ve met a lot of great entrepreneurs and educators working on a lot of great projects this year. Picking the “top” was hard. I’ve stewed on this list a long long time, and I feel like I’ve left a lot of great folks off it. I could easily double its length. I could just as easily not publish a “Top Startups” list this year.

    How I Chose

    But I’ve written a “Top Startups” post for two years in a row (See: 2010, 2011), so I guess it's part of my end-of-year writing traditions now. (Yay?)

    Once again, I’m only highlighting here those that were founded and/or launched in 2012. I realize that overlooks a lot of older new companies that are might’ve been more influential in ed-tech this year — Edmodo with more investment and more registered users; Grockit with its launch of Learnist; Minecraft with its open-ended gaming; Mathalicious with its founder’s op-ed fearlessness (and yes of course, its great math lessons). But I had to narrow things down somehow…

    … Meanwhile, I’ve complicated things by expanding my categorization of “startup” a tad to include some initiatives from outside the high-risk, high-growth, for-profit business world. There were so many interesting education technology projects from within academia, from non-profits, and from learners themselves, it seemed a shame not to recognize them here just because of their tax status.

    I’m also fudging a bit on the number here. The headline reads “10,” but there are 11 on this list.

    Whatever. It’s my blog. My rules. My rubric — as much as there’s a rubric here. This isn’t some scientifically constructed list of the startups with the most registered users or most revenue or biggest Series A round or most popular iPad app or most Techcrunch headlines. I chose each of these for lots of different reasons (reasons I explain as I highlight them in turn): great technology, great product, great vision, great founders.

    tl;dr here’s my list, in no particular order…

    1. UDACITY

    Full disclosure: I got to hang out with Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun a bit last week. Thrun is at the center of this year’s MOOC maelstrom, with the popular narrative about them centering on his Artificial Intelligence class at Stanford, offered online last fall to wild success and his subsequent decision this year to leave the university to found an online learning startup. I found his excitement and energy for doing something massive, something transformative in education pretty infectious. Bonus: I got to ride in one of Thrun’s other creations: one of Google’s self-driving cars.

    The connections here between artificial intelligence, automation, and education technology seem to be really under-analyzed by many industry observers, and I think it’s particularly noteworthy that the three big MOOC initiatives of 2012 — Udacity, Coursera, and edX — all have roots in university AI labs.

    But unlike Coursera and edX, which are partnering with universities to license classes, Udacity is creating its own classes, situating its computer science curriculum outside academia and more closely aligned with the tech industry. I do have to wonder how much of the excitement I hear for MOOCs in Silicon Valley is really a reflection of its own need to better train programmers. There’s the perception there that universities fail to develop classes quickly enough to respond to the new languages or developments. Add to that that many programmers are self-taught or learned outside a formal setting, and computer science feels already like a very undisciplined academic discipline.

    As I rode in the self-driving car with Thrun, I couldn’t help but think too about Google’s successful lobbying efforts to legalize autonomous vehicles in California this year and wonder what the MOOC lobby will look like in the future. It’s going to be pretty wild ride…

    More disclosure: I signed up for two Udacity classes this year. I didn’t finish either.

    2. 6.003Z

    With all the MOOC-hoopla this year, I could probably fill a Top 10 list with MOOC startups. I’m not gonna. But I do have to mention 6.003z, which as I’ve argued elsewhere, was one of the most important MOOC innovations this year.

    6.003z was the creation of Amol Bhave, a 17-year-old high school student from Jabalpur, India who was disappointed to learn that MITx had no plans to offer the follow-up class to 6.002x. Typically, the next class students take at MIT is 6.003, Signals and Systems. So Bhave took matters into his own hands, creating his own open online course with help from two other members of the 6.002 learning community – a class based on a blend of MIT OpenCourseWare and student-created materials.

    At the heart of 6.003z are the video-taped lectures from Professor Alan Oppenheim (who arguably boasts one of the best mustaches in Eighties educational video– yes, we had educational video before MOOCs. Shocking I know.). In addition to the videos and the other MIT OCW materials, Bhave and others have created tutorials specifically for this class.

    As I wrote about the course back in August,

    The creation of 6.003z is a triumph of the recent MOOCs, I’d argue, because it showcases learners building and creating their own knowledge, their own websites, their own technologies – not restricted to a single platform or institution or curriculum-map or major. (About 800 students signed up for 6.003z, and Bhave says that about 300 completed the weekly assignments. He’s planning on offering more classes too.)

    I fear too that too often we forget that the O in MOOC should mean more than just “open enrollment.” 6.003z was possible because of the openly licensed materials that MIT has made available – materials that students don’t just read or consume but that they are free to remix as well. And 6.003z points to a growing ecosystem for open learning, one that learners and not just institutions should be free to organize.


    As I noted in the Hack Education email newsletter I sent last week, I do wonder if I should have included crowdfunding as an important ed-tech trend this year. DonorsChoose continued to fund classroom projects. I saw a steady increase in the number of education-related campaigns on Kickstarter and IndieGogo. And there were several interesting crowdfunding startups, two of which make this list.

    The first is Microryza, a crowdfunding platform for scientific research. I met founder Denny Luan in late 2011 at a Startup Weekend EDU event in Seattle where he pitched the idea and assembled a team that worked on this project. Microryza launched its beta in April, and I covered the story for Inside Higher Ed.

    There I wrote about some of the questions that crowdfunding research raises:

    There are questions about “the funding” aspect, but also ones about “the crowd.” If the public-at-large takes a role here, will a different sort of research be funded? How do you translate science for the general public so that it can make good funding decisions? (Do these concerns even matter?) Or will Microryza just be utilized by those within the academic research community itself? And again, how might this shape what’s funded or not? Lots of interesting questions, but as Luan points out, “It’s early.”

    Unlike other crowdfunding sites, Microryza isn’t offering rewards and incentives for those who fund projects. That’s because “what matters is the process, not the results,” says Luan. After all, research projects don’t always go as expected. You don’t always get the results you wanted. “You can’t really offer things like ‘I will name a newly discovered butterfly species after you’” to get people to donate, says Luan.

    The return for those who donate, however, will be insights into the scientific process as recipients update their project profiles regularly. The Microryza site is meant to encourage communication on the part of researchers with their donors, and the donors in turn will be able to offer feedback along the way.

    This last piece is particularly intriguing to me as this can open scientific research not just to crowdfunding but crowd (peer) learning. This might be the most important thing Microryza do.

    4. UNGLUE.IT was one of the startups I was most eager to see launch this year, having followed its founder Eric Hellman’s blog for quite some time. Hellman kept blogging about “ungluing books," and I was intrigued.

    In May, the startup launched to crowdfund money for e-books — not to have them written, but to have them, well, unglued. The money raised goes towards paying authors or publishers for existing works, giving them a one-time licensing fee in exchange for their releasing their e-books for free, under a Creative Commons license and without DRM. (Here’s my write-up on Inside Higher Ed.)

    After the startup's launch, supporters were very quickly successful in liberating Ruth Finnegan’s 1970 Oral Literature in Africa. But only a few months later, Amazon informed that it would no longer process payments for certain crowdfunding sites, forcing the startup to suspend all its campaigns (Kickstarter, which also uses Amazon Payments, was not affected. Huh. Go figure. But the startup doing DRM-free OER e-books was. Weird.). But is back up and running, with more campaigns, ready to unglue more books.


    More with the crowdfunding, I realize, but this was one of my favorite Kickstarter projects of the year: Makey Makey: “an invention kit for everyone.” I pitched in my few bucks for its crowdfunding campaign which raised 2272% of its initial request ($568,000+ raised with a $25K initial goal).

    Hackable hardware has such huge potential in education — I wrote a bit about this in my Top Ed-Tech Trends piece that looks at the Maker Movement. Indeed, what convinced me of Makey Makey’s super-awesomeness was the Bay Area Maker Faire.

    I took my son to Maker Faire this spring — his first trip to one. He walked around wide-eyed, amazed. Makey Makey’s booth was the first where he simply had to touch things. He played the banana keyboard. He and I held hands to complete a circuit. Our bodies were the computer interface. With Makey Makey, anything can be.

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” said Arthur C. Clarke. But it’s not the level of technical advancement that makes the Makey Makey feel magical: rather it’s the magic of our own creativity and making.

    Makey Makey comes out of the MIT Media Lab, with its long tradition of creative computing. Bonus photo: AI pioneer Marvin Minsky, Makey Makey’s Eric Rosenbaum and electronic cupcakes at Gary Stager’s 2011 Constructing Modern Knowledge event.

    6. DIY wins for the best edu domain name of the year. It can also boast the most beautifully designed site. Heck, even its promo video is worth watching.

    This strong sense of design is key for a startup that wants to build a social learning network for young makers.

    When The New York Times wrote about the startup in May, it said that “DIY is seeking to be like a Boy Scout troop for the modern day. Instead of teaching children how to tie a clove hitch that seems fit for teenagers in the 1920s, DIY, a Web site and mobile app, will encourage children to build things, document them with an iPhone or iPod, and then receive rewards for their work.”

    But I don’t think the “Boy Scout” comparison is right. DIY isn’t just about boys earning badges. It’s about skills that all kids can learn and can showcase for their friends and family. In addition to beautifully designed, the site has been thoughtfully designed for kids’ safety and privacy but without what Wired describes as “Nanny State rules” in the process.

    Currently DIY is free — both the mobile app and the website itself — but the startup says it’s looking into offering premium services (per its FAQ). Its founders include Vimeo co-founder Zach Klein.


    I’ve received a flurry of press releases over the past few days with universities touting their plans in the new year to give every student an iPad. What I wish they’d do instead: pay attention to a project piloted by the University of Mary Washington this year and give everyone a “Domain of One’s Own.”

    The Domain of One’s Own project provides students with a personal domain name and web hosting, along with the support and training so they can set up a Wordpress blog, manage their databases, and so on. As such, the project helps students create their own digital portfolios, teaches them about the importance of managing their digital identities, and empowers them by putting the tools and the data under their control — not the control of the institutions, the LMS, or other software.

    The initiative comes from UMW’s Division of Teaching and Learning Technology (DTLT) and from its small but mighty team of troublemakers: Jim Groom, Martha Burtis, Tim Owens, Andy Rush, Lisa Ames. The project was piloted this summer and will be expanded this coming school year.

    As Groom wrote in August, the project “has to be about architectures of empowerment for students and faculty alike. A long-view of our increasingly mediated realities that allows us to enable individual control over our digital artifacts. What is awesome about this project is it is at once architectural, technical, philosophical, and liberatory. I’m increasingly of the mindset that what’s happening at UMW with a Domain of One’s Own (all work born out of UMW Blogs and ds106) is yet another powerful and forward-thinking approach to federating the web and empowering our students and faculty who use it—which is all of them!”

    (You can listen to Steve Hargadon interview Jim Groom here as part the Future of Education series and David Wiley chat with Groom here as part of the Ed Startup 101 class.)


    It feels like cheating to lump two startups together here, but the services offered by Learnsprout and Clever are pretty similar: both build APIs so that schools can integrate their SISes with other technologies. This is an effort important enough that I’ve featured Learnsprout and Clever in two of my Top Ed-Tech Trends posts this year — on data and on platforms— because I think the API integration is key here to both. Without APIs, education data remains in silos — unused, underused, out-of-date, “dirty,” and as often happens with rosters and the like, then retyped manually into other applications.

    What distinguishes Learnsprout and Clever (other some of the technical stuff under the hood...)? Well, the former is a graduate of the ImagineK12 startup incubator; the latter a graduate of Y Combinator. Learnsprout was founded by Franklyn Chien, Anthony Wu, and Joe Woo, formerly engineers at Facebook, Google, and Microsoft respectively; Clever’s co-founders are Tyler Bosmeny, Rafael Garcia, and Dan Carroll, and the startup drawing heavily on Dan’s experiences as a technology district at a charter school network in Colorado. The Learnsprout team were part of the Code for America accelerator program this year and raised money from Andreessen Horowitz; Clever raised money from Y-Combinator, SV Angel, Google Ventures, Bessemer Venture Partners, Mitch Kapor, Ashton Kutcher, 2Tor (now 2U) founder John Katzman, Chegg founder Aayush Phumbhra, and Matt MacInnis, CEO of Inkling.

    I think you can get a sense from the list of investors here that the tech sector is betting on APIs (and on Clever and Learnsprout) being a big, big deal — for schools and for education technology companies.

    9. GO GO GAMES

    There are too often these chasms between education theory, research, learning design, product development, and market that seem to stop us from getting smart stuff built. Not so with Go Go Games which I think represents the best of the blend. Go Go Games was among my favorites when I first saw Stanford grad students and startup founders Joy Wong Daniels, Alexis Hiniker, and Heidi Williamson demo it at the LDT Expo back in August. I wrote then: “Wow. This is a project to keep an eye on, and when Go Go Games comes to the iTunes Store (soon, say the team), I’d heartily recommend this app to all families, not just those with autistic children.” The app came out in October (iTunes), and I dutifully wrote a hearty recommendation. The app received rave reviews during its development from parents and teachers and has earned a 5-star rating from Common Sense Media.

    Go Go Games is designed to support elementary and preschool age children with autism, as I noted back in August: “Incredibly thoughtful game design.” The app offers a series of games — Build-A-Train, Wheels & Roads, and Out of this World — that all utilize Pivotal Response Theory to help children build up the perception skills necessary to play a matching game. That perceptual capability is something essential to learning but incredibly challenging to children with Autism, and helping develop that unlocks many other learning possibilities. “We designed the game to feel more like play but work like therapy,” says co-founder Alexis Hiniker — that is, reinforcing and enhancing the behavioral therapy that many Autistic children receive, doing so through the way many like to spend their free time: playing video games.


    In June, my friend Shelly Blake-Plock wrote a “farewell” post on his long-running blog TeachPaperless, one that marked the closure of the blog and the end of Blake-Plock’s formal teaching career. These are usually the sorts of moves that depress the hell out of me — someone who I find intellectually inspiring (and I imagine hundreds of students have as well) leaving the classroom. Ugh.

    Except in this case, my reaction was “hooray!” because the next step for Blake-Plock was to join the non-profit Digital Harbor Foundation, along with fellow teacher Andrew Coy, where the two have launched a number of incredibly important and innovative programs to help connect teachers, students, and technologists. A little bit teacher professional development. A little bit tech training. A lot of student empowerment (with the possibility too of a paycheck for participating students). Based in Baltimore, the foundation’s programs also help support the community and foster local tech entrepreneurship.

    One of the programs is Ed-Tech Link, which was described in a MindShift story this spring: “teachers will be trained by volunteer technologists, then teach their new skills to students in after-school programs. Continuing the cycle of learner-as-teacher, students who attend the after-school program will, in turn, take their own training to educators in other schools.”

    Students from the Digital Harbor Foundation are also working to improve the content and infrastructure of the Edtech Handbook, a guide to launching an education startup — and more voice, more participation for students is something I hope we see more of in the ed-tech of the future.

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    Law and Politics

    The FTC unveiled the latest version of COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) this week. I covered this news a bit in my recent look at the “politics of ed-tech” because certainly some of the wording here is a result of lobbying from the Internet tech industry. The FTC says it’s updated the language to strengthen privacy protections, but it looks like Facebook, Google, and Apple are winners here.

    Michican governor Rick Snyder vetoed a law this week that would have allowed concealed guns to be carried in schools.

    Another legislative win for OER is pending with the State of São Paulo passing a law this week that, according to Creative Commons, “establishes a policy whereby educational resources developed or purchased with government funds must be made freely available to the public under an open copyright license. The Governor must sign the bill for it to become law.”

    Penguin has settled with the U.S. Department of Justice over the e-book pricing lawsuit. Laura Hazard Owen writes that “The DOJ sued Apple, Penguin and four other publishers in April for conspiring to set ebook prices. Penguin had planned to fight the case in court, along with Apple and Macmillan, but the company’s pending merger with Random House compelled it to get the litigation out of the way.”

    Launches and Upgrades

    A happy holiday shout-out to Scott Leslie who got his Christmas wish early when the Saylor Foundation announced it was liberating the back catalog of Flat World Knowledge, which as of the new year will no longer make its textbooks available for free. The Saylor Foundation has made the books freely available on its site, with a BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.

    Simon & Schuster have agreed to let libraries have access to an e-book, The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson. This is only the second title from the Simon & Schuster catalog that libraries can offer to their patrons as e-books. The other, Farenheit 451 which author Ray Bradbury said could only be released as an e-book if it was made available to libraries. Simon & Schuster agreed to this latest book as it was chosen as the title for The Iowa Center for the Book’s All Iowa Reads program.

    The foreign language-learning app Triplingo has launched a redesigned app. (I first covered this startup in May 2011) (iTunes link)

    Mindsnacks, which has a number of language-learning and test-prep iOS apps, is bringing its games to the iPad. Techcrunch’s Rip Empson has a write-up of the news.

    The higher ed investment fund University Ventures announced it was launching its own company UV Labs, which according to the press release will “will partner directly with universities and other providers of higher education to build innovative products and technologies to help solve the serious issues of accessibility, affordability, quality and accountability facing higher education.” UV Labs is headed by Dr. Satish Menon, formerly the CTO for the Apollo Group (the parent company of the University of Phoenix). More on GigaOm.

    Inside Higher Ed reports on a new program from New Charter University that will “provide an online education at no out-of-pocket cost to workers in three California cities whose employers provide them with tuition assistance reimbursement funds.” That means that workers in San Francisco, Oakland, and Sacramento might be eligible for a free college education.

    Downgrades and Closures

    Following complaints that its app was violating children’s privacy, Nickelodeon pulled the SpongeBob Diner Dash game from the iTunes Store. Now the company says it will resubmit the app to the store as it has reviewed the app and concluded that it does not violate COPPA.


    The social learning company Grockitannounced this week that it had raised $20 million in funding, including a strategic investment from Discovery Communications. Interesting to note that the quotes in the press release from Discovery execs highlight Learnist, the Pinterest-like site that Grockit launched this year. (Edsurge says it predicts a re-branding for Grockit will come soon.)


    An interesting hire by online learning company, which just hired former Popcap Games CTO Frits Habermann. Perhaps more mobile social gaming in’s future?

    David Wiley is taking a leave of absense from BYU to pursue projects associated with the Shuttleworth fellowship he’s just been granted. (Congrats!) Listing updates to all the various projects he works on, Wiley also notes he’s formally severed ties with Flat World Knowledge.

    And on the jobs front, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that “For the first time in almost 20 years, there are likely to be more full-time jobs in 2012–13 for foreign-language scholars than for people with Ph.D.’s in English.” (No. I’m still not going to finish my dissertation.)


    edX unveiled several new classes in its catalog this week, including: The Challenges of Global Poverty, Justice, The Ancient Greek Hero, Copyright, Human Health and Global Environmental Change, Introduction to Statisticsl, and Quantum Mechanics and Quantum Computation. I’m really interested in the Copyright class (taught by the director of the Harvard Berkman Center Professor William Fisher), but I have to apply as the class is capped at 500 students. (I’m not sure I’m a good enough MOOC student to apply.)

    Google says it’s partnering with several universities in Spain to offer UniMOOC, “an online course intended to educate citizens in Spain and the rest of the Spanish-speaking world about entrepreneurship. It was built with Course Builder, Google’s new open source toolkit for constructing online courses.”

    Industry Data

    According to the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA), the spending on non-hardware education technology in PreK–12 grew by 3.5% last year, reaching $7.76 billion. The largest category of spending: testing and assessment. YAY ed-tech.

    Photo credits: Nathan Siemers

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    Steve Hargadon and I recorded our last podcast of 2012 today, making our way through the rest of the Top Ed-Tech Trends that I've written about here on Hack Education over the course of the last few weeks.

    As such, this episode covers open textbooks, education data, learning analytics, APIs, platforms, artificial intelligence, and the politics of ed-tech. We also talk briefly about what's missing my from list of "top trends" as well as my picks for the top startups of the year.

    The link to the MP3 of the show is below, and/or you can subscribe to the podcast feed. You can also find the podcast in iTunes, as part of Steve's EdTechLive series.

    December 27, 2012

    Bonus content: I was a guest on one of Steve's Ed-Tech Live shows alongside Wikispaces' Adam Frey to discussion success as an education technology entrepreneur. I also appeared in a Connected Learning episode, again with Steve, in which we (that is, Steve, Howard Rheingold, Pam Moran, Craig Seasholes and myself) talk about "hacking at the roots" and not the branches of education.

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    A relatively quiet week what with everyone focused on the Mayan Apocalypse, Christmas, and whatnot.

    Law and Politics

    The state of California has been denied its No Child Left Behind waiver, according to KQED. The Obama Administration has offered these waivers to states, giving them a way out of some of the expectations (improved test scores) and punishments (i.e. losing funding) associated with the G. W. Bush-era education law — provided, that is, that states conform to Obama’s education agenda, including using test scores to assess teachers. The California Teachers Association has refused to accept the latter. 33 states and the District of Columbia have had their waivers approved.

    As of January 1, 2013, we can welcome to the public domain (in countries that follow the “life plus 70 years” copyright period) the works of writers and artists like anthoplogists Franz Boas and Bronisław Malinowski and Anne of Green Gables author L. M. Montgomery. Mike Masnick has pulled together the list of new items in the public domain for the U.S. — empty. “Yeah. It looks suspiciously like last year’s list. And the year before that. And before that. And so on. Oh, and also… I hate to ruin the surprise, but next year’s list? Pretty much the same. Year after that? Yeah, that too. For anyone who actually understands the value of the public domain in enriching and enhancing culture, the fact that the US – at the behest of the entertainment industry, which has often mined the public domain for its own works – isn’t just shameful, it’s downright despicable. We’re stifling our own culture.”

    After a long silence following the mass killings at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticutt, the NRA has now offered its proposal to help keep this sort of thing from happening again in the future: more guns at schools. “If it’s crazy to call for putting police in and securing our schools to protect our children, then call me crazy,” said spokesperson Wayne LaPierre. Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter opted instead to call it“a completely dumbass idea.” (The idea. Not LaPierre.)

    Tech and Testing

    PARCC (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers), one of two organizations prepping the Common Core State Standards-related assessments, reached a number of agreements in its recent December meeting, including approving the minimum technology standards for administering computer-based assessments. Specs include processor speed (1 GHz or higher), screen size (9.5” or higher — so sorry, no test-taking on your Androids, kids), the operating system), and operating systems (e.g. Windows 7 or higher)

    Funding and Acquisitions

    Education giant Pearson has purchased a 5% stake in NOOK Media, which was spun off of Barnes & Noble earlier this year. When it did so, Microsoft also took a stake in the company (about 17%). According to the press release, Pearson says that “with this investment we have entered into a commercial agreement with NOOK Media that will allow our two companies to work closely together in order to create a more seamless and effective experience for students." The Wall Street Journal cites an unnamed analyst who calls the trio of B&N, Pearson, and Microsoft an "online education dream team." Hahahahahahahahaha. Um. No.

    Research and Data

    A competition on the machine learning site Kaggle is looking for folks to “visually uncover trends in the Colorado public school system” by using 3 years of school grading data supplied by the Colorado Department of Education. The prize is $5000. The deadline, January 19.

    Photo credits: Audrey Watters

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    It’s that time of year. Review what I’ve done. Think about what I want to do next. Make note of what remains undone and incomplete before I take on new projects in the new year.

    Here, in no particular order, are the projects I have on my plate for the upcoming months:

    Ed-Tech Guide

    I’ve been (more or less) quietly working away at a guide to support “the Audrey tests” — that is, what every educator should know about the tech industry and what every edu-entrepreneur/engineer should know about education. I plan to continue pulling together articles to feature in it, as well as writing more content.

    Ed-Tech TOS

    Following the recent hullaballoo over changes to Instagram’s Terms of Service, I asked on Twitter if educators had been prompted to revisit and review the TOS for the various ed-tech tools they use. The response: nope. Ouch. But I think this is an incredibly important issue: who owns your data? who owns your students’ data? what rights are you signing away? what licenses are you granting companies for your user-generated content when you click that "I agree" button? So I plan to contribute to the Terms of Service; Didn’t Read project and help add information and a little clarity about various ed-tech companies’ terms.

    Education History Book Group

    I talked a lot in 2012 about how we ignore education history, and to that end Bud Hunt and I have discussed having an #eduhistory book group where we work our way through various historical texts. We still need to set a date to hold our first Google Hangout (or whatever tool we decide on) where we’ll discuss the Committee of Ten Report.

    Ed-Tech Crunchbase

    Recently I tweeted that I’d like to see more better data (read: open data and an API) regarding ed-tech companies’ and venture capitalists’ funding — an education version of Crunchbase, if you will. I wrote a post back in October where I started to detail some VCs’ portfolios, but a blog post isn’t the right place to keep this info up-to-date. I’m also interested to see how this funding might connect to the politics of ed-tech— lobbying efforts, ALEC, and the like. And it only seems right that non-profits like the Gates Foundation be included here too. (This would be a pretty massive undertaking though, so I think I’d rather write about a project like this than actually, ya know, build it.)

    Long-Form Writing

    Since there’s plenty of (ed-)tech churnalism out there already — the simple copy-and-pasting of companies’ press releases that fills most of the tech-blogosphere — and more than enough link-baity-list posts— “Top 422 iPad Apps to Use In Your Classroom Today!” — I plan to continue my focus on writing longer, more in-depth, (hopefully!) more thoughtful pieces here on Hack Education. (At the moment, I only have one outlet for whom I freelance regularly — Inside Higher Ed. I’d like to find another publication, one that’s more “mainstream” — that is, neither specifically “tech” or “ed.” But then again, I'd love to just focus on Hack Education.)

    A Book

    I’m gonna write a book in 2013. Really. I feel like this year might be my last chance before the robots replace us writers.

    Image credits: theilr

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    Most Popular Posts of 2012

    1. Codecademy and the Future of (Not) Learning to Code, October 28, 2011

    2. The Wrath Against Khan: Why Some Educators Are Questioning Khan Academy, July 19, 2011

    3. The Real Reason I Dropped Out of a PhD Program, August 29, 2012

    4. The Failure of OLPC, April 9, 2012

    5. Coursera, the Other Stanford MOOC Startup, Officially Launches with More Poetry Classes, Fewer Robo-Graders, April 18, 2012

    6. Apple and the Textbook Counter-Revolution, January 19, 2012

    7. Stanford Professors Daphne Koller & Andrew Ng Also Launching a Massive Online Learning Startup, January 31, 2012

    8. Top Ten Ed-Tech Startups of 2011, December 18, 2011

    9. “The Audrey Test”: What Every Techie Should Know about Education, March 17, 2012

    10. Android App Inventor Open Sourced, Code Released, January 20, 2012


    A Few Thoughts on “Popular”

    Often I feel like Hack Education operates at a strange intersection of “popular” and “unpopular” in the (ed-)tech blogosphere.

    I refuse to chase pageviews. Creating link-baity headlines and SEO-optimized list posts might be good for a publication’s traffic (and by extension, its ad revenues), but it does little to serve readers. It does even less to further critical inquiry or dialogue. We need more of that when it comes to teaching, learning, and technology — not less.

    So I try to write without thinking too much about pageviews, even though I have to admit that it does matter to me that my work is read. I mean, of course it does. I think I have something to say; that’s why I write. And even though I still view Hack Education as my personal site to rant and rave about what I see happening at the intersection of technology and education, I do need to make a living. I do need to cultivate an audience. I probably should pay attention to what folks want to read, click on, and share.

    Lately I’ve been focusing less on "news" and more on "analysis" here, and looking at my Google Analytics at the year’s end could help me weigh whether that’s a smart decision or not. And note: there isn't much from "lately" on this list (although several of my Top Ed-Tech Trends posts would make the list if I extended it to 20). 3 of my most popular posts were breaking news stories (and I think several of these hit Techmeme, which gave me a spike in traffic), but most were analysis — or rather, rants.

    But at the end of the day, I’m not going to scrap my weekly roundup of news here on this site (those posts don’t get a lot of pageviews) and instead only write about Khan Academy (great for pageviews) or Codecademy (also great for pageviews, but damn, the comments are brutal). And I know I can’t compete with the sites that Techmeme tends to highlight, with those that have a large staff of writers rapidly churning out blog posts, or with those that reprint any infographic that hits their email inbox. Hell, I don’t want to. Nor do I want to pen the ed-tech-as-revolution stories where — with apologies to Garrison Keeler — all the entrepreneurs and investors are virtuous, all the engineers and educators are geniuses, and thanks to adaptive learning, all the children’s test scores are above average. You can find plenty of that elsewhere. I bet it's "popular" too...

    Image credits: Jeff Eaton

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    Amapolas magicas *

    New Year’s Predictions

    It’s customary this time of year for bloggers and journalists and pundits alike to make their predictions for the new year. I’ve done so in the past (See: 2011, 2012). But I’m skipping out on the tradition in 2013.

    In part, it’s because I can’t possibly write another blog post for the foreseeable future with a headline that contains a number — any number — or the words “My” or “Top.” I’ve done far too much of that lately with my look back at ed-tech in 2012.

    But mostly, it’s because I recently read Nate Silver’s book The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail but Some Don’t. I’ve been thinking a lot about the questions it raises about predictive modeling, data, dogma, politics, and expertise. (I’m most interested in how this relates to education, technology, and ed-tech journalism, no surprise, although Silver never addresses this sector’s sort of predictions or punditry.)

    Of course, the flurry of predictions posts that we’ll see churned out in December and January are hardly the same as the predictions that Silver examines in his book. Among other things, The Signal and the Noise covers predictions about weather and climate change, elections, sports, gambling, and financial markets — all “serious business.” That’s not like many New Year’s predictions, which are done half tongue-in-cheek —often a gleeful or a panicky “What if…?” Most New Year’s predictions blogged aren’t based on algorithms, models, or Bayes Theorem. They’re simply wishes for about what we hope to see (or hope not to see) in the new year.

    The accuracy of these New Year’s predictions might not be all that important and is probably of interest solely to the author who can, at the end of the year, look back and chuckle at how she managed to get things so right or wrong. As for my 2012 predictions, I was wrong about Google’s plans to scrap Chromebooks. I was wrong about Chegg’s acquisition plans. I was wrong about Arne Duncan’s tenure as Secretary of Education, even more so considering I pegged Karen Cator to replace Duncan, and she’s now leaving the DOE altogether. Of my 10 predictions, I was almost entirely wrong.

    Getting The Future Wrong

    So why was I wrong? Why were my predictions so terrible?

    Why, after such an in-depth look at the “top trends of 2011,” wasn’t I able to better identify trends and developments going forward?

    Were my predictions just sloppy and poorly thought-out? Was I looking at the wrong data, measuring the wrong things, monitoring the wrong signals? By picking out things that Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Chegg, and the federal government would do, was I trying too hard, was I playing it too safe? Were some of these things more a matter of wishful thinking than serious prediction?

    Or was it, to use essayist Isaiah Berlin’s formulation — one that Nate Silver draws on for his book — that I was more “hedgehog” than “fox,” more dogma than responsiveness?

    (Most common words on Hack Education during 2012)

    I’m making a bit too much of a single New Year’s prediction blog post, no doubt. And I’m hardly in the business of predictive modeling here. But I am in the business of helping my readers wade through the news and information surrounding education technology — its markets and politics. I can shrug and say that I'm not that interested in predicting the future of education and technology, but I am in fact very, very interested in what that future might hold.

    As such, I do think it’s worth considering Silver’s observations about political pundits and what they get wrong (as compared to Bayesian statisticians, I suppose). What data do we have about education technology trends? What counts as education data? What’s signal and what noise? 

    Just as important here might be the issues that Mathbabe’s Cathy O’Neil raises about Silver's book and in the possibly flawed analyses of "data science celebrities."

    O’Neil argues that Silver assumes that “the only goal of a modeler is to produce an accurate model,” something that might hold true for some topics — topics in which Silver happens to have expertise, like baseball, gambling, and polling — but that doesn’t hold true for other areas he covers in his book, including medical research and financial markets. Can we really ignore politics to create our predictions? O'Neill writes that

    This raises a larger question: how can the public possibly sort through all the noise that celebrity-minded data people like Nate Silver hand to them on a silver platter? Whose job is it to push back against rubbish disguised as authoritative scientific theory?

    It’s not a new question, since PR men disguising themselves as scientists have been around for decades. But I’d argue it’s a question that is increasingly urgent considering how much of our lives are becoming modeled. It would be great if substantive data scientists had a way of getting together to defend the subject against sensationalist celebrity-fueled noise.

    This seems particularly relevant for education, and not just because its politics and policies seem to be increasingly obsessed with data. What models are we building for education (and why)?  Who are the experts we trust in ed-tech and why? What are their interests in making predictions or even -- and I am implicated here too -- in identifying trends? 

    Image credits: Jacinta Lluch Valero

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    Late on Christmas Eve, the City of Newark released dozens of emails (as PDFs) relating to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million donation to its schools back in the fall of 2010. It did so to comply with a Superior Court order, following a lawsuit by the ACLU on behalf of local parents.

    The Star Ledger has posted the PDFs to its website — PDFs which contain some interesting conversations between various Facebook, Gates Foundation, and city execs as they hash out the details of how Zuckerberg’s millions should be spent.


    As part of the recent Race to the Top-District competition, 16 school districts will split some $400 million in funding in order to “personalize and deepen student learning, directly improve student achievement and educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare every student to succeed in college and their careers.” The applications, along with the scores and comments they received, are posted to the Department of Education’s website.


    I am deeply curious about the contents of the Newark emails and the relationships and politicking they reveal. Why was Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg so deeply involved in the negotiations with the city about how Mark Zuckberg’s private donation would be spent? What policies Bill Gates expect the city’s schools to enact in order for him to make a matching donation?

    I am deeply curious about the contents of the RTTT applications. What technologies are being built and utilized by these districts to (ostensibly) “personalize” students’ education? What ed-tech companies will benefit?

    I will have to read my way through the PDFs in order to tell you — not a particularly fun task (neither grant-writing nor email writing are genres I really enjoy). I will have to read my way through in lieu of asking a computer to do so — to identify common words, to search for key terms or figures, to compare phrases and funding. I will have to do so because there’s no easy way for a machine to parse the PDFs.


    As I’ve written before, I hate PDFs.

    The Portable Document Format is almost 20 years old now. Once Adobe’s proprietary format, it’s become a de facto standard for distributing electronic documents, in part because it nicely “fixes” things onto the digital page as they were meant to be seen on the printed one. In other words, the PDF is a file that contains all the text, fonts and graphics necessary to render digitally what appears on a piece of printed paper.

    My problems with the PDF are severalfold, and I’d contend is a wildly unsatisfactory way to release government data (and not just because as the Star Ledger later discovered that passages that had been redacted by the city could in fact be read by simply opening the PDFs in Adobe Acrobat Pro and deleting the redaction boxes) — that is, if you really want people to read and use it.

    These problems with PDFs include the file size (often larger than HTML or plain text) as well as the high cost of buying the Adobe software that was once necessary to create one. (The Reader has always been free.) The PDF is also incredibly frustrating as it’s a digital document version of Hotel California: once you check in, you can never check out. While you can save a file as a PDF to make it supposedly “portable,” it’s very difficult to get data or a document back out of that format.

    PDFs. It’s where data goes to die.


    (What looks like a PDF of a photocopy of a photocopy, the Puget Sound ESD's PDF is barely human-readable, let alone parsable by a machine.)


    I suppose you can argue the release of these documents is good news for open government (although let’s not forget it did take a court order to get the Zuck-related emails). The data dump from Newark and from the Department of Education can offer us a bit of transparency, a glimpse into what negotiations and please are made to get money, to give money, to shape and respond to policy.

    But in both cases, that transparency is clouded by the fact that the documents have been released as PDFs. And while government can shrug and say that it’s done its part by making this information available, it needs to do better and release information in open, machine-readable, parsable formats. If not, why, it's almost as if folks in the government don't really want the public to read and analyze this information...

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    Facebook Developer Garage Paris

    Law and Politics

    Perhaps in the hopes of burying the news over the holiday break, Newark released emails late on Christmas Eve pertaining to the $100 million donation that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had given to it back in 2010. The ACLU had sued the city on behalf of local parents, wanting to see what sorts of deals had been struck between the city, Mayor Cory Booker, the city’s schools, and the wealthy ed-reform philanthropists. The Jersey Jazzman has examined the emails, noting not only the demands that Bill Gates made (the installation of “panoramic cameras” to monitor teachers) but the involvement of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg (who’s also an investor in the Silicon Valley charter Rocketship Education).

    Malala Yousufzai, the young Pakistani girl and education activist who was shot by the Taliban late last year, was released this week from a hospital in the UK.

    A $100 million lawsuit was filed against Sandy Hook Elementary School by the parents of a child who survived the mass killing at the school. The suit claimed that the school did not do enough to protect students’ safety and that the child was traumatized by heaing gunshots, screaming, and cursing over the school’s loudspeaker. The suit was later withdrawn, although the lawyer says he might refile.

    California Assemblyman Dan Logue has proposed legislation to create a pilot program that would investigate ways for the state to offer a college degree that costs no more than $10,000. (There are similar efforts in Florida and Texas.) It’s not clear if Logue’s bill will move forward.

    The Washington Post reports that the National Labor Relations Board has ruled that a Chicago-based charter school is not a public entity, but a private one. The teachers at the Chicago Math and Science Academy had tried to unionize under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act, but the school had insisted that the law (and thus the process for organizing) did not apply. The NLRB agrees, which means that the employees are subject to private labor relations laws. So we must ask (again): are charter schools public or private?


    Instructure has launched its first native Canvas app for Android. The app, which is free, allows students and faculty to access their To-Do lists, Assignments, Calendar, Grades, and the Canvas messaging service. (In other Instructure-related news, e-literate's Phil Hill examines the recent security audit the learning management system commissioned.)


    The study tool StudyBlueannounced that it has raised $9 million in funding from Great Oaks Venture Capital and Wisconsin Alumni Resource Foundations (WARF).

    Research and Data

    It’s a statistic that a lot of education reform-types like to cite: that, according to the book Academically Adrift, about 45% of college students show no improvement in critical thinking, complex reasoning, or written communication during their first two years in college. But a recent study from researchers at the Educational Testing Service, challenges the the notion that we put too much weigh on the tests on which this statistic (and the larger assertion about universities’ failings) is based, in part because students have no motivation to perform well on them. For more information, see the story in Inside Higher Ed.

    The Library of Congressissued an update on the status of its Twitter archive. Twitter announced that it was donating its archive to the library back in April of 2010. “The Library’s first objectives were to acquire and preserve the 2006–10 archive; to establish a secure, sustainable process for receiving and preserving a daily, ongoing stream of tweets through the present day; and to create a structure for organizing the entire archive by date.” Those first objectives will be completed this month, but scholars’ access to the archive still seems to be a long ways off.

    According to research from the University of Michigan’s Marc Perry, the price of college textbooks has increased 812% since 1978 — something that makes the housing bubble “seem rather inconsequential.” He adds that “the nine-fold increase in textbook prices also dwarfs the increase in the cost of medical services over the last three decades. Compared to the 250% increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the last 34 years, college textbooks have risen more than three times the amount of the average increase for all goods and services.”

    A preview of the 2013 Horizon Report for Higher Education is now available online. On the near horizon of ed-tech adoption: the flipped classroom, MOOCs, mobile apps, and tablet computing. The report’s official release will come in February.

    Photo credits: Ludovic Toinel

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    “Children learn best when they are actively engaged in constructing something that has a personal meaning to them – be it a poem, a robot, a sandcastle, or a computer program.” — Seymour Papert

    The Next Generation of Mindstorms

    LEGO Education unveils the latest generation of its Mindstorms robotics education platform today: the EV3.

    LEGO Education says that it’s made a number of changes to the platform based on feedback from teachers and students. One of the main issues it addressed: how to make the technology less daunting to new users and how to get learners up and running on the platform quickly. It contends that students can build and program a robot in a single 45-minute class.

    Designed for use in the classroom, the Education version of the Mindstorms EV3 software includes a customizable curriculum (some 30 hours of instruction about engineering and design), a way for teachers to track and assess students’ work, as well as a digital workbook for students to utilize to track their own projects and submit assignments.

    "Under the hood" of the EV3, the new brick has more built-in memory, expandable memory, and a faster processor. The EV3 kit includes a gyro sensor in lieu of the NXT’s sound sensor.

    Importantly for schools, the EV3 also boasts backwards compatibility with previous generations of Mindstorms — in terms of the bricks (something that was an issue in the past when Mindstorms switched from LEGO bricks to Technix -- the EV3 works with all LEGOs), as well as the cables, motors, and sensors from older kits. The EV3 software will be able to program older bricks, and LEGO Education says it will continue to support the NXT platform too.

    The EV3 is available for preorder now and will ship this fall.

    The Legacy of Mindstorms

    It’s CES in Las Vegas this week, so the tech news will be full of the latest gadgetry (and plenty of vaporware). As such it’s worth a cautionary note here: sometimes we’re so busy looking for the “next big thing” in (ed-)tech – the new and the shiny and the disruptively innovative – that we forget to consider the old, the reliable, and the beloved, and as I’ve argued again and again, we neglect to remember much of (education-)technology’s history.

    By no means has anyone forgotten about LEGO, of course. The toy, which turned 80 last year, remains one of the most popular and most loved. But a quick refresher on the history of LEGO Mindstorms:

    Indeed, that word “Mindstorms” had better ring a bell for you. It’s the best line from Bret Victor’s esssay “Learnable Programming”. It’s the title of a book that, as Victor insists there, you must read.

    That book was first published in 1980 by computer scientist and educator Seymour Papert, and LEGO Education's robotics platform is named for it. Papert was at the MIT Media Lab in the mid–1980s when LEGO contacted him about helping to make LEGOs and the creations kids build controllable. To program these, LEGO and the Media Lab created a special version of Papert’s Logo programming language. LEGO Logo was a precursor to the Mindstorms platform.

    The design of LEGO Logo and by extension of LEGO Mindstorms reflect Papert’s constructionist theories: we learn by making and building with others.

    It’s easy, I suppose, to label the Mindstorms EV3 as a great tool for “learning STEM" and stop there. But this legacy here -- the connection to Papert and constructionism -- is significant. The design of the hardware and the software and ideally in turn the exploration these foster in the classroom, are all about — as the quotation at the top from Papert makes clear — constructing knowledge by building something meaningful. It isn't simply that students learn to program or learn engineering; it's how they do so that also matters.

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    Again this year, I'm using Storify to gather notes and tweets and whatnot from the events I attend. Today's event: "Rebooting CA Higher Education," an event sponsored by the Twenty Million Minds Foundation on the UCLA Campus. There was a livestream of the event, but the audio and video were spotty (oh, the irony). I have a lot more to say about this event -- thoughts about what was said and unsaid, who was there and who was absent. So stay tuned...

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