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The History of the Future of Education Technology

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    One Horned Cow - Porsporder, Brittany, France - 2007



    UC Irvine professor Richard McKenzie left his Coursera-run economics MOOC mid-stream this past week “because of disagreements over how to best conduct this course,” reports The Chronicle of Higher Education. According to the article, a UC Irvine dean said those disagreements stemmed from the professor’s “reluctance to loosen his grip on students who he thought were not learning well in the course.” Tweets from students in the class add another dimension to story — storified here. The course is continuing without him.

    FutureLearn, the UK’s MOOC platform, announced that it’s expanding the number of university- and organization-members, with the universities of Bath, Leicester, Nottingham, Queen’s Belfast and Reading all joining, along with the British Library. [Insert Fathom joke here…]

    6.003z, the learner-run MOOC created as a follow-up to the MITx class 6.003x (and one of my favorite education startups of 2012), is preparing to run again this spring.

    edX, the non-profit MOOC platform funded initially by MIT and Harvard, announced a major expansion this week, adding six new schools to its consortium: The Australian National University (ANU), Delft University of Technology, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), McGill University, the University of Toronto, and Rice University. According to documents obtained by The Chronicle of Higher Education, edX plans to offer participating institutions two choices regarding revenue-sharing: one based on a self-service model and one based on an “edX-supported model.” It’s still not clear, however, where exactly this “revenue” is going to come from.

    Coursera also added more universities — 29 new ones — to its MOOC platform this week: California Institute of the Arts, Case Western Reserve University, Curtis Institute of Music, Northwestern University, Penn State University, Rutgers University, UC San Diego, UC Santa Cruz, UC Boulder, University of Rochester, University of Minnesota Twin Cities, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, University of Wisconsin Madison, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Tecnológico de Monterrey, Ecole Polytechnique, IE Business School, Leiden University, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitat Muenchen, Sapienza University of Rome, Technical University Munich, Technical University of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, University of Geneva, Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, National Taiwan University, National University of Singapore, and University of Tokyo.

    Shocking, I realize, but some other non-MOOC-ish things happened too…

    Making the Grade… Or Not

    Judge Emil Giordano ruled this week that there was no breach of contract in the case of Lehigh graduate student Megan Thode and that, as such, she was not eligible for the $1.3 million in damages that she’d claimed, stemming from the C+ grade she got for a class.

    Johns Hopkins University professor Peter Fröhlich grades on a curve, whereby he gives the student(s) with the highest mark on an exam 100% of the points. It’s been the “most predictable and consistent way" of assessing students’ work, he says. Until now. The students in his fall classes all boycotted the final exam, and hence the zero points they received became the highest score — they all received full marks. He’s changed his grading policy now, but kudos to him for honoring it in the first place — and a big thumbs up to the students who hacked his system.

    Launches and Upgrades

    The test-prep company Kaplanannounced that it was launching an ed-tech startup accelerator program in NYC, in partnership with Techstars. Techstars will invest $20,000 in the startups accepted to the program, who’ll get office space, access to the "Kaplan Way for Learning” proprietary program, and mentorship from “industry leaders” — a bunch of entrepreneurs and investors but according to the press release at least, not a single educator.

    Pearson also announced that it was launching an ed-tech startup accelerator program in NYC. No funding involved with this one, although Pearson says it will mentor the startups (yay?) and then send them to London for a demo day (wheee.)

    It’s time once again for the Microsoft-sponsored Imagine Cup, a student technology competition. Microsoft has doubled the cash prize amount this year and has also launched several awards aimed specifically at women developers: the Women’s Empowerment Award and the Women’s Athletics App Challenge. unveiled a new education vertical to encourage teachers to use the blogging platform. (Nicely timed with the news below, I guess…)

    Downgrades and Closures

    Twitter announced this week that it was closing down Posterous, a microblogging platform that it acquired last year. You have until April 30 to pull out your data before everything — about 4 million blog posts, links, and so on — goes kaput. Pro tip: if you are now considering moving from Posterous to Tumblr, you’re doing it wrong.

    Oxford Universityannounced this week that it was blocking access to Google Docs, stating that the tool had been used in a series of phishing attacks. While the shut-down only lasted a couple of hours, it served to highlight increasing cybercriminal activity (and concerns about cybercriminal activity).


    Celly, one of my picks for the best education startups of 2011, announced this week that it’s raised $1.4 million in funding. Celly, which provides a safe text-messaging service for schools (and for other community organizations), also released a free iPhone app.

    Quad Learning announced that it has raised $11 million in funding. The company is building a national network of honors programs at the community college level.

    Tutorspree, which as the name suggests offers a platform for finding tutors, has raised $800,000 in a Series D round of investment, reports Techcrunch.

    BrightBytes, a startup that helps schools measure whether or not technology is affecting student achievement, has raised $750,000 in funding from Learn Capital, New Schools Venture Fund, and, according to Techcrunch, “an unnamed ‘strategic investor in the education sector.’”

    Student Loan Hero, described as a “ for student loans” has raised $100,000 in funding. Not much. But enough for a press release and a Techcrunch story. So there’s that.

    Stanford became the first university to raise over $1 billion from donors in a single year, according to the Council for Aid to Education. Although charitable giving to universities did increase between 2011 and 2012, it still hasn’t returned to pre–2008, pre-recession levels.

    The Washington Post reported a fourth quarter loss of $45.4 million and took a $111.6 million write-down of Kaplan Test Prep. So there are some great lessons there, I’m sure, if you plan to join the Kaplan ed-tech incubator program, right?

    Bad Metaphors and Ugly Examples

    The Three-Fifths compromise was a good example of how compromise has helped the US “to form a more perfect union.” — Emory University President James Wagner.

    "Education is the Afghanistan of technology.” — Google’s Peter Norvig.

    Accountability rules will mean “higher ed will go jihahi” — anonymous “insider.”

    Research and Data and Other Numbers-Related News Items

    Teacher job satisfaction has reached a 25-year low, according to the 29th annual MetLife Survey of the American Teacher.

    AP scores are up— with the highest percentage ever receiving a score of 5 — and more students are taking the test, according to data released by the College Board, which is good news for the College Board, errrrrr, I mean good news for students. Or for schools. Or something.

    Non-US students perform better on the quantitative section of the GRE than do US students, says the Educational Testing Service. Cue the “schools are broken” meme.

    According to a study conducted by Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, “students in demographic groups whose members typically struggle in traditional classrooms are finding their troubles exacerbated in online courses.”

    Khan Academy bragged this week that it has recently surpassed one billion problems answered on its platform. “Why would students voluntarily complete one billion math problems?” Shantanu Sinha, the president of Khan Academy, wrote in a Huffington Post piece. Um, this Storify, gathered from students’ tweets, might give you some idea.

    More and more jobs are requiring applicants have a college degree, even for positions that haven’t traditionally called for one, according to a story in The New York Times.

    A study appearing in the Journal for Advancement of Marketing Education finds that college students continue to prefer print textbooks over digital ones. Some of the reasons: print offers fewer distractions, is easier to highlight and annotate, and offers better accessibility (h/t Nick Carr).

    Photo credits: Keven Law

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    I have given a number of talks lately on this topic: who owns education data? (And will give a couple more next week -- on a panel at SXSWedu and then, a related but expanded version as a keynote at WebWise.)

    I'm not sure why the topic has resonated so deeply with me lately -- perhaps it's all the talk outside the ed-tech sector about the promises of big data; perhaps it's the metaphor of mining vis-a-vis data mining; perhaps it's this new obsession with becoming "data-driven" that I hear politicians posit for schools and students (and thus all the ed-tech products that follow suit); perhaps it's that I am both intrigued and concerned by the emerging field of learning analytics; perhaps it's because I continue to be frustrated by our lack of attention to terms of service and to control of our content (which is data); perhaps it's that I struggle with thinking through exactly how to navigate the personal and the public demands for sharing education data.

    Anyway, last night I facilitated a session as part of ETMOOC, a MOOC about education technology and media, organized by Alec Couros.  Here's a link to the webinar recording and a link to my slides, along with the wonderful visual notes taken by the even-more-wonderful Giulia Forsythe.

    #etmooc @audreywatters asks 'Who Owns Your Education Data (and Why Does It Matter?)'

    Image credits: Giulia Forsythe

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    pockets hole or zip?


    It’s March 1. Cue the sequestration, across the board budget cuts because our “leaders” in Washington DC can’t do their jobs. The White House has released a state-by-state breakdown of how this will impact people and programs, which as education reporter Emily Richmond points out, will overwhelmingly impact the poorest schools and the most vulnerable students — an estimated $725 million cut to Title I programs and $600 million in special education funding.

    Meanwhile, instead of actually addressing this budget impasse, the House of Representatives opted to pass a resolution creating a nation-wide content encouraging students to build mobile apps. No rules for the contest established yet. The amount of any prizes also remains undecided. But hey, STEM legislation! That’s a win for the future of America, right? (Ugh.)

    The Oklahoma legislature passed the HB 1674, the Scientific Education and Academic Freedom Act this week (or as Esquire called it, the “Dare To Be Ignorant Protection Act of 2013,” which prevents schools from penalizing students for their stances on “controversial” science topics like global warming and evolution.

    The governor of São Paulovetoed legislation that would have established a policy of OER in Brazil’s wealthiest state.

    Massachusetts state representative Carlo Basile has sponsored a bill that would ban the mining for commercial purposes of any K–12 student data stored in or processed by cloud computing services. The wording in the law, as well as in this Wired write-up about it, certainly sounds like it’s aimed at Google but could have much more sweeping consequences depending on how “mining” and “commercial purposes” are defined.

    Money continues to pour in to the Los Angeles Unified school board race: $1 million from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and $250,000 from former DC Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. “It’s for the sake of the children,” I’m sure.


    Apple has settled a lawsuit over “bait apps,” games that are free but then offer in-app purchases. Apple was sued by parents who found that their child racked up hundreds of dollars in charges from these apps. (See the Daily Show’s investigation into this practice.) As part of the settlement, Apple will offer $5 credits to those who claim that a minor bought an in-app item.

    Accreditation… Or Not

    The Higher Learning Commission, the regional agency that accredits the University of Phoenix, has recommended that the institution be put on probation. According to The Wall Street Journal, “probation was recommended after a review team concluded the University of Phoenix has ‘insufficient autonomy’ from Apollo, its parent company and sole shareholder, that complicates the board’s ability to manage the institution and maintain its integrity.”

    Learn to Code

    You should learn to program, say a bunch of CEOs, rockstars and ball players in a destined-to-be-viral video, many of whom have probably not committed a line of code in a very long time. But hey! Fame! Rockstar status! A job at a place that has video games and catering! Wheeee! More details via the newly launched organization

    Launches and Other Reasons to Issue a Press Release

    The College Board has announced that it plans to redesign the SAT. No big surprise here as the new head of the College Board is David Coleman, the architect of the Common Core State Standards.

    The data infrastructure inBloom (that I recently covered here) announced this week that it’s formed a strategic partnership with LearnSprout, one of my picks for the best education startups of 2012.

    ShowMe, maker of an interactive whiteboard iPad app, has launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new app it’s building called Markup, which will enable teachers to grade (essay) assignments (with a stylus) on an iPad.

    Khan Academy has issued a press release heralding the “first statewide pilot” of its program. The state in question, Idaho, where the “‘Rebooting Idaho Schools Using Khan Academy” grantees will collectively receive nearly $1.5 million for training, technology, technical assistance and assessment from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.”

    Apple issued a press release this week, touting that its iTunes U has now had over 1 billion downloads. The company also told All Things D that it’s sold 4.5 million iPads to U.S. schools and told Techcrunch that it’s sold 8 million iPads to schools worldwide.

    It’s a much smaller number, but I confess, it’s one that makes me happier: Raspberry Pi says that it’s sold 1 million units of its credit-card sized computer since its launch a year ago. Happy birthday, Raspberry Pi, and hooray for those who’re using this tool to help kids learn to hack and build with technology, not just consume it.

    The New Orleans-based education accelerator program 4.0 Schools is now taking applications for its next cohort. Deadline is March 13.

    Funding and Fiscal Results

    TED awarded its $1 million prize to Dr. Sugata Mitra for his “School in the Cloud” idea. See my rant on Twitter for my concerns — questions that I’m just too tired to re-write here. (It’s been an exhausting week.)

    The math MMO startup Sokikom announced that it has raised $2 million in funding, half of that from a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (a research branch within the U.S. Department of Education) and the other half from former Intel CEO Craig Barrett and Zynga co-founder Steve Schoettler.

    The learn-to-code startup Thinkful has raised $1 million in funding from Peter Thiel’s FF Angel, RRE Ventures, Quotidian Ventures and others. The company’s founders, Darrell Silver and Dan Friedman, were recipients of the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship. More on the startup at GigaOm.

    Kickboard, a startup that offers schools and teachers a dashboard for academic and behavioral data, has raised $2 million in investment.

    Textbook and testing giant Pearson released its 2012 financials this week. Among the results, its North American Education revenues were up 2% “in a year when US School and Higher Education publishing revenues declined by 10% for the industry as a whole.” And “International Education revenues up 13% with emerging market revenues up 25%.”

    Interactive whiteboard maker Promethean Worldreleased its annual financials too. Revenues fell 29.4%, resulting in a pre-tax loss of £165.4 million (versus the company’s £16 million profit in 2011).

    Barnes & Noble also posted fiscal results this week — losses in its third quarter (particularly bad news since that covered the holiday season). The losses were particularly felt in the company’s Nook division, falling 25.9% to $316 million. That division saw investment last year by Pearson and Microsoft, so we’ll see what happens as the company crumbles.

    Research and Data

    The Pew Internet and American Life Project released the results of its survey of National Writing Project and Advanced Placement teachers: “How Teachers Are Using Technology at Home and in Their Classrooms.” Among the findings (and I recommend reading the whole report and not just the few stats that are pulled out in the overview): 54% of respondents said that all or almost all students had sufficient access to digital tools at school. Just 18% said that students had sufficient access at home. The survey population isn’t typical of all teachers, I don’t think, and it’s certainly more tech savvy than the “average” adult Internet user — creating more content, owning more gadgets, and so on.

    Mathematica Policy Research released the results of its latest study commissioned by KIPP, the “Knowledge is Power Program” chain of charter schools. The study examines 5 years worth data from 43 KIPP schools and concludes that “the average impact of KIPP on student achievement is positive, statistically significant, and educationally substantial.” Recommended reading: Bruce Baker’s analysis of the study and its “non-reformy lessons.”

    New data from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce on community college degrees and career and technical education. CNN goes with the headline and factoid that nearly 30% of Americans with associate’s degrees now make more than those with Bachelor’s. Of course, the area that degree is in matters. Yes, a two year degree in nursing might be a more lucrative option than a four year degree in art history. Duh.

    OU grad student Katy Jordan is tracking the completion rates across the various MOOC courses and platforms (those that make the data publicly available, that is). Really interesting stuff here, and while much of the emphasis continues to be on that very low rate of completion (on average, it’s less than 10%), I think there are other insights to be gleaned here as well: does robot-grading versus peer-grading make a difference? Does the subject matter or level make a difference? Too bad the "open" in these MOOCs doesn't include being more transparent about this and other data, and kudos for Jordan for doing the research here.


    Congratulations to Colin Woodward, winner of the 2012 George Polk Award for Education Reporting for his story “The profit motive behind virtual schools in Maine.”

    Photo credits: s2art

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    Last week as part of its glitzy annual conference in Long Beach, California, TED awarded its $1 million prize to Sugata Mitra to support his wish to build a “School in the Cloud,” a self-organized learning environment based on his “Hole in the Wall” and “Granny Cloud” research.

    Next week Pearson, the largest and most powerful education company in the world, will publish Dale Stephens’ book Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will, a personal experience narrative and guide about dropping out of college and making it in Silicon Valley.

    Both these projects — the Hole in the Wall and the Uncollege movement — claim to “hack education” on behalf of the learner. And both have been the topics of TED Talks — on the main TED stage and at the smaller TEDx spin–offs.

    Mitra’s TED talks, which have been particularly successful, describe his company’s placing of computer kiosks into the slums of India. From there, street children have gained computer and English literacy skills without adult intervention.

    It’s an story that Stephens nods vigorously at: the self-directed and self-motivated student can learn anything; no thanks to our testing-dominated public school curriculum; no thanks to our federally-subsidized, loan-obsessed university; but thanks to the Internet and the growing availability of open online resources -- thanks to the access and a lot of “grit.”

    In the TED world of techno-humanitarianism, this computer-enabled learning certainly makes for an incredibly compelling story.

    But once something becomes a TED Talk, it becomes oddly unassailable. The video, the speech, the idea, the applause — there too often stops our critical faculties. We don’t interrupt. We don’t jeer. We don’t ask any follow-up questions.

    They lecture. We listen.

    The phrase, “child-driven education” — promoted by Sugatra Mitra and Dale Stephens and others — is a stirring one. It’s a good slogan, as all popular TED talks are wont to be.

    It’s one that posits that all children are capable learners — no manner race nor creed nor gender nor income; it’s one that posits that knowledge need not be delivered by teachers nor learning spaces be teacher-centered. Hail discovery, curiosity, inquiry and such.

    This new vision for education, as Mitra explains it, can be enabled now thanks to computer technologies. “The future of learning” will be a break from the present and the past — from our current education system’s factory model and its colonial legacy.

    “I tried to look at where did the kind of learning we do in schools, where did it come from? And you can look far back into the past, but if you look at present-day schooling the way it is, it’s quite easy to figure out where it came from. It came from about 300 years ago, and it came from the last and the biggest of the empires on this planet. [“The British Empire”] Imagine trying to run the show, trying to run the entire planet, without computers, without telephones, with data handwritten on pieces of paper, and traveling by ships. But the Victorians actually did it. What they did was amazing. They created a global computer made up of people. It’s still with us today. It’s called the bureaucratic administrative machine. In order to have that machine running, you need lots and lots of people. They made another machine to produce those people: the school. The schools would produce the people who would then become parts of the bureaucratic administrative machine. They must be identical to each other. They must know three things: They must have good handwriting, because the data is handwritten; they must be able to read; and they must be able to do multiplication, division, addition and subtraction in their head. They must be so identical that you could pick one up from New Zealand and ship them to Canada and he would be instantly functional. The Victorians were great engineers. They engineered a system that was so robust that it’s still with us today, continuously producing identical people for a machine that no longer exists. The empire is gone, so what are we doing with that design that produces these identical people, and what are we going to do next if we ever are going to do anything else with it?

    [“Schools as we know them are obsolete"]

    So that’s a pretty strong comment there. I said schools as we know them now, they’re obsolete. I’m not saying they’re broken. It’s quite fashionable to say that the education system’s broken. It’s not broken. It’s wonderfully constructed. It’s just that we don’t need it anymore. It’s outdated. What are the kind of jobs that we have today? Well, the clerks are the computers. They’re there in thousands in every office. And you have people who guide those computers to do their clerical jobs. Those people don’t need to be able to write beautifully by hand. They don’t need to be able to multiply numbers in their heads. They do need to be able to read. In fact, they need to be able to read discerningly.”

    Pardon my quoting Mitra’s TED Prize acceptance speech at length, but I always feel like it’s hard to get a word in edgewise in TED Talks. Indeed, they’re designed that way: well-scripted and highly-polished presentations — 15 to 20 minutes on “ideas worth spreading.” The audience is supposed to bask in the ideas — get carried away in the prose and in the delight of human curiosity and the superstar delivery and “why hadn’t I thunk of that” problem-solving.

    You are not supposed to interrogate a TED Talk. You’re supposed to share the talk on Facebook.

    But I have questions.

    I have questions about this history of schooling as Mitra (and others) tell it, about colonialism and neo-colonialism. I have questions about the funding of the initial “Hole in the Wall” project (it came from NIIT, an India-based “enterprise learning solution” company that offers 2- and 4-year IT diplomas). I have questions about these commercial interests in “child-driven education” (As Ellen Seitler asks, “can the customer base be expanded to reach people without a computer, without literacy, and without any formal teaching whatsoever?”). I have questions about the research from the “Hole in the Wall” project — the research, not the 15 minute TED spiel about it. I have questions about girls’ lack of participation in the kiosks. I have questions about project’s usage of retired British schoolteachers — “grannies” — to interact with Indian children via Skype.

    I have questions about community support. I have questions about what happens when we dismantle public institutions like schools — questions about social justice, questions about community, questions about care. I have questions about the promise of a liberation via a “child-driven education,” questions about this particular brand of neo-liberalism, techno-humanitarianism, and techno-individualism.

    You don’t get to ask questions of a TED Talk. Even the $10,000 ticket to watch it live only gives you the privilege of a seat in the theater.

    As Evgeny Morozov recently wrote in a review of several books published by the new TED press,

    “Since any meaningful discussion of politics is off limits at TED, the solutions advocated by TED’s techno-humanitarians cannot go beyond the toolkit available to the scientist, the coder, and the engineer. This leaves Silicon Valley entrepreneurs positioned as TED’s preferred redeemers. In TED world, tech entrepreneurs are in the business of solving the world’s most pressing problems. This is what makes TED stand out from other globalist shindigs, and makes its intellectual performances increasingly irrelevant to genuine thought and serious action.”

    Dale Stephens is not a tech entrepreneur. But as one of the first recipients of the 20 Under 20 Thiel Fellowship, the program that pays young men and women (well, mostly men) $100,000 to drop out of college to pursue their entrepreneurial visions, Stephens has been supported by one of the most powerful tech entrepreneurs and one of the world’s richest men: PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

    Stephens’ and Thiel’s message about education overlap in many places, namely: “there is a higher education bubble.” That is, our investment in college education is overhyped and irrational, and now the cost of a diploma has out-stripped its value.

    That’s the underlying argument of Stephens soon-to-be-released book Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will.

    The book, along with Stephens’ larger speaking and writing efforts about unschooling, share with Sugata Mitra’s TED Talk the notion that we can and must support a learner-centered and learner-driven education future — something that universities in particular, Stephens argues, fail to do.

    But this isn’t simply about the rise of the learner — we’d be so naive to believe that’s the case. It’s about the rise of the technology industry alongside the collapse of the education sector. Take away the public school, as Mitra suggests — it is a colonial legacy! — and replace it with computers. Something like NIIT Enterprise Learning Solutions, perhaps, “one of the top 5 training companies in the world.”

    Stephens echoes those on the TED stage and those in Silicon Valley when he talks about the future of higher education thusly: “the advancement of technology means that educational institutions are being dismantled. … And just like that, the three major functions of a university—knowledge delivery, community building, and employer signaling—are replaced.”

    Of course, to narrow “the university to these three “major functions” is, well, narrow. What about knowledge building? What about research? What about civics and service? What about the public good?

    And let’s be clear here: this is a calculated view and one perfectly crafted for the intellectually impeccable TED stage, one that situates education institutions as attacked by the Internet, rather than as the co-creators of it; one that posits professors as necessarily resistors to change, rather than agents of innovation.

    And framed as such, this signals a massive opportunity —a wink and a nod to those investors in the audience — for the tech entrepreneur. See also: the TED Talk by Salman Khan (2+ million views). The TED Talk by Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller (+900K views). The TED Talk by Sugata Mitra (1.2 million views).

    Much like a TED Talk, Stephens’ book is neither designed nor prepared to be closely interrogated. He talks “big ideas” in sweeping generalizations. Stephens invokes anecdote after anecdote, hoping I suppose that this blurs into data. But while “uncollege” might make a good slogan — particularly considering the high cost of tuition and the increasing burden of student debt — the advice in Stephens’ handbook doesn’t always stand up to close scrutiny.

    “I’m the first MacCaw not to go to Cambridge,” says one of the informant. This and a myriad of other utterances are rather mind-boggling markers of privilege, markers that Hacking Your Education fails to examine and that the book seems extraordinarily unaware of.

    One hack it offers for the young uncollege-er: “take people out for coffee” — budget $150 a month to do so. Another hack: “go to conferences.” Sneak in. “Hardly anyone will notice.” Another hack: “buy an airplane ticket.” “You can go anywhere in the world for $1500.” “Collect frequent flyer points.” Too bad if you’re big or black or brown or a non-native English speaker or the working poor or a single mom. Just practice your posture and your grammar and your email introductions, and you’re golden.

    “You are responsible for your own successes and failures” according to Hacking Your Education. Systematic racism, sexism, classism be damned. Race, class, and gender privilege, family and community and mentor support — how much of “hacking your education” entails relying on this and not just on individual drive, curiosity, or “grit”? The book ignores all this. (Cue Peter Thiel’s libertarianism and Silicon Valley’s insistence that it is a meritocracy.)

    Now don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty that education institutions do — from K–12 onward — that doesn’t help learners at all. Cost. Curriculum. Control. Assessments. Standardization. Debt. Unemployment. Existential Malaise.

    Yet much of what’s written about in Hacking Your Education feels like a caricature of school, a convenient description of the failures of our modern education system that feels very particular to Stephens’ own biography, to the anecdotes told by his informants and — and here’s the most troubling part — to a larger political narrative about the “brokenness” and irrelevance of the public education system. “Think about it,” Dale writes, “in your twelve years of school did any teachers ever ask you what you wanted to learn, or did they just prepare you for the next test?”

    Or “schools only teach what is settled.”

    Or “university does not exist to train you for the real world—it exists to make money.”

    These assertions can all be easily disputed, if no other reason than none of them are backed up with any evidence or research. And even the data the book does cite are flawed or contested, crafted to make a particular political point. The way that Stephens (and he’s certainly not alone in this) touts the findings in Academically Adrift— that college students don’t learn critical skills — without any recognition of the serious critiques about the book’s methodology, is a case in point.

    Take too the claim that “When I started writing this book in 2011, the average student graduated with $25,000 or so in debt. By 2012, it was up to $27,000 in debt.” Not quite true. That might be the average for students who take out student loans; but only two-thirds of students do so. That means the average student loan debt is actually lower — and here’s the problem with mean versus median — skewed too by the very small percentage of borrowers (3.1%) who borrow over $100,000.

    I’m quibbling here, perhaps. This isn’t a book grounded in education research. It’s a book grounded in personal experience: “Ditch the lectures, save tens of thousands, and learn more than your peers ever will.” Or, “Do what Dale did.” Drop out. Network. Travel. Profit.

    And Stephens has been extraordinarily successful at this. He’s been successful as a (TED) speaker. As an op-ed writer. And now, as a Pearson-published author.

    His book is not a TED book, but it shares with the Mitra's TED Talk that certain hope for virality and inscrutability. As Morozov writes,

    Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void. Richard Dawkins, the father of memetics, should be very proud. Perhaps he can explain how “ideas worth spreading” become “ideas no footnotes can support.”

    Hacking Your Education advances the notion that education is a personal (financial) investment rather than a public good. The School in the Cloud project posits that education is a corporate (financial) investment rather than a public good. Why fund public schools when we can put a kiosk in a tech company’s annex? Why fund public schools when you can learn anything online?

    The future that TED Talks paint doesn’t want us to think too deeply as we ask these questions. But what happens,when we “hack education” in such a way that our public institutions are dismantled? What happens to that public good? What happens to community? What happens to local economies? What happens to social justice?

    As such, the vision for the future of education offered in Stephens’ new book is an individualist and incredibly elitist one. It contains a grossly unexamined exceptionalism, much like the Hole in the Wall which, at the end of the day, worked best for the strongest boys on the streets.

    So despite their claims to be liberatory — with the focus on “the learner” and “the child” — this hacking of education by Mitra and Stephens is politically regressive. It is however likely to be good business for the legions of tech entrepreneurs in the audience.

    Sugata Mitra, “Build a School in the Cloud,” TED, 2013. (link)

    Dale Stephens, Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will, Perigee Trade, 2013. (Amazon Affiliate link)

    Photo credits: TED, Uncollege

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  • 03/08/13--16:47: The Weirdness of SXSWedu
  • “Keep Austin weird.” That’s been a long-time slogan of the Texas town, adopted by the local business and artist community. It's a slogan that has always worked well in conjunction with the annual SXSW festival.

    I like that weirdness, Austin’s blend of indie, counter- and subculture traditions.

    But when I say that SXSWedu was “weird” that’s not necessarily what I'm referring to at all. I don’t actually mean it was terribly “funky,” “eccentric,” or “offbeat.” In many ways, I found this week to be more like some of the word's other meanings: “strangely unsettling” and at times “disconcerting.”

    After last year’s SXSWedu, I thought hard about whether or not I’d come back. But I figured that as it was only the event’s second year, I’d give it another shot; I’d do what I could to improve things rather than to simply shrug and walk away. I sat on the event’s Advisory Board (meaning I reviewed proposals as part of the SXSW Panel Picker process) for example.

    One of my criticisms of last year’s event was that it felt very much like the Pearson show. Indeed Pearson was a major sponsor. Pearson’s then-CEO was a keynote. Pearson people seemed to be on a lot of panels, and many of those panels reflected topics Pearson clearly wanted discussed. Educators were in short supply at the event. (I remember one of the parties, where two educators went around the room asking who was a classroom teacher. At a jam-packed event, they could only find two others who were.)

    Unfortunately both these issues — the corporate-driven conference agenda and the lack of educators — seemed to be exacerbated this year.

    Weird Tensions

    According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, however educators did make up 60% of the audience. (Those that I informally polled about this pegged the educator presence as between 20 to 40%.) No matter the actual figure, the perception here matters — “this isn’t an educator conference,” one person said to me — as does the sense among many attendees that there were two distinct tracks at SXSWedu: one for entrepreneurs and one for educators, and to quote Rudyard Kipling, “never the twain shall meet.” And sadly worse — they do meet, but the gulf between them becomes greater. Such things happen when teachers hear things like“learning outcomes matter — once we make money for our investors.”

    The event’s director Ron Reed told The Chronicle that “Frankly, we like that tension” between entrepreneurs and educators. No doubt these tensions exist — we needn’t manufacture them and we shouldn’t try to obscure them. And sometimes these tensions can be used quite fruitfully, if — if— we recognize them and, as such, have the difficult conversations that we must among educators and industry folks. (Note: this does not mean simply using SXSWedu as an opportunity to corner some teachers as a focus group for your startup ideas.)

    Weird Topics

    It’s been a while since I reviewed panel proposals for SXSWedu, and I can’t remember any trends that really stuck out among those I looked at. But I thought the conference organizers did a pretty good job pulling together a program that covered a range of important topics and trends: MOOCs, Maker culture, gaming, entrepreneurship, data and analytics, and so on.

    But with an inBloom lounge and an inBloom session track (in addition to the data track) and an inBloom party and an inBloom hackathon and lots of folks in inBloom t-shirts and a Gates Foundation party and a Bill Gates keynote… well, it felt pretty obvious what the agenda of SXSWedu was meant to be. Or rather whose agenda it was meant to be.

    Return of the Weird?

    Of course, event sponsorship is always awkward and frequently awful. And it’s rarely the panels or keynotes themselves that are the most rewarding at any conference. Rather it’s the hallway and dinner conversations. These are more likely when and where those difficult and productive conversations happen. I do appreciate that SXSWedu provided more physical spaces and allotted times to encourage this sort of thing; but I can’t help but think that a more unconference-y SXSWedu would be weirder, less scripted, less corporate, and as such mo’ better. Looking at what SXSW Interactive has become, however, I won’t hold my breath.

    Like all events that I attend, it’s the people — face-to-face — that make the travel worth it. New friends. Old friends. People I haven’t seen since last year in Austin —that’s key and that could well be the makings of a nascent SXSWedu community. But it’s pretty damn nascent, and I do wonder how much damage that “tension” between educators and entrepreneurs and that obvious corporate agenda has done to it.

    So will I go back next year? I don’t know. It depends on if you’re going. It depends on the major sponsor, and hence the keynote speaker. (I have my predictions already about who that’ll be. Do you?) And frankly I think it depends, a year from now, on how “weird” — “punk” weird or “puke!” weird — ed-tech has become.

    SXSWedu Bingo

    Image credits: Jac de Haan

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    I gave the keynote today at WebWise 2013, and I have to say, after a long week at SXSWedu, I was pretty happy to be able to be around a bunch of librarians and archivists. The theme of this year's WebWise was "Putting the Learner at the Center," and my talk echoed something I've been pushing a lot lately: this question of who owns educational data. I was particularly eager to raise this question in front of this particular crowd, as I believe that IMLS-ish folks will be key in helping answer it. (No pressure, guys!)

    Below is a rough transcript of my talk, along with a Storify of some of the tweets and a copy of my slides.

    Whose Learning Is It Anyway?

    Some of you might recognize the title of this talk as a nod to the TV program “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” — a show that ran for 8 seasons on ABC and which is apparently coming back to cable after a 10 year hiatus. Bonus points if this title conjures the British version of the show rather than the Drew Carey hosted one. Double bonus points if you think of the radio show that predated both.

    “Whose Line Is It Anyway” was/is a comedy show — a game show, but only sort of — where the contestants had to compete in various challenges that tested their improvisational skills (as well sometimes as their skills in singing and impressions).

    Improvisation is a particularly interesting form of comedy — an incredibly challenging but rewarding form of theater.

    With improv, you must hold in your head as many cultural, historical, and literary references as you can. These must be quickly and readily accessible. Characters, themes, situations, voices, postures, gestures. Performers must be able to recall, remix, collaborate, innovate, pivot, and hopefully make the audience laugh.

    Now this certainly sounds like a slew of tech-industry-related buzzwords doesn’t it – remix, collaborate, innovate, pivot — and as such, I’m sure there’s someone who might hear that and think “wow, let’s disrupt improv!” — this is a job for a database or an app: index it all, access it in real-time to maximize humor!

    But can a computer do improv?

    The Turing Test – the test to see if a machine is “intelligent” enough to fool a human – doesn’t necessarily help us here.

    IBM’s AI machine Watson did appear on another game show after all — although on Jeopardy, not on Whose Line Is It Anyway?

    Using far less sophisticated technology — as in something I can program — are Twitter bots, like the incredibly popular @horse_ebooks, that string together random phrases that look a bit like improv… And sometimes are funny. But unintentionally so.

    I would contend there’s a difference here between the programmatic and the improvisational.

    I’m currently working on a book on artificial intelligence and education technology — our decades long quest to build teaching machines — so I have been thinking a lot about these things lately: about how our increasing use of AI — a field that relies a great deal on machine learning — might shape what we think about human learning.

    The idea for the book came to me when I was in one of Google’s self-driving cars, along with one of the car’s inventors, Sebastian Thrun. He explained to me as we zipped along interstate 280 all the cameras and sensors the car possessed — internally and externally — all the mapping data and all the traffic data that Google had amassed — how all of this going into building a car that does not need a human to steer it, to press on the brakes or the accelerator. In the future of self-driving cars, Thrun said, cars will move along the highway much more efficiently.

    Now I confess, as someone who doesn’t drive and who recently moved to LA, I was thrilled with the idea of the robot cars.

    But then I thought about Sebastian Thrun’s latest endeavors — the massive online startup Udacity — and I balked. “Wait, no!” I'm not too keen on the notion of automating education for the sake of efficiency.

    I did wonder if it was simply me that was construing the self-driving car as a metaphor for education technology, or if this really was the model that the artificial intelligence used to think about our “learning journeys” if you will.

    It’s worth pointing out that the three major MOOC initiatives — Udacity, Coursera, and edX — all have their origins in the AI lab. Daphne Koller, Andrew Ng, Sebastian Thrun, and are all AI professors at Stanford; Ng took over the head of Stanford’s AI lab when Thrun stepped down. Anant Agarwal, the head of edX, was the former head of MIT’s AI lab and a developer of exascale computing technology.

    As such, these MOOC endeavors could be read as part of the long-running efforts on the part of AI researchers to develop automated teaching machines and intelligent tutoring systems.

    If we just have enough data — from content to assessment data and sure, from the tens of thousands of students in massive online courses and all their keyboard and mouse clicks — we might be able to build algorithms and models that are “personalized” and “adaptive.”

    But can that system ever really look like improv? Can it look like open inquiry? Can it look like self-driven learning?

    If a tree falls in the road in front of a self-driving car, the car shuts down. It doesn’t go around it. It doesn’t take a different route. It stops. The self-driving car cannot handle that sort of serendipitous event.


    And here we move to the heart of the matter — from “whose line is it anyway?” to “whose learning is it?” And let’s start with the data — because certainly there are many systems — robot teachers and robot graders and adaptive apps and quizzes — being built on top of it.

    Who owns the learning? Who owns student data? Who owns our education data after we’re out of school? Who owns learners’ data across the variety of institutions — formal and informal — where we continue to learn throughout our lives?

    I posed that question on Twitter a week or so ago. Do students own it? Schools? The government? Software providers?

    The answers were varied — some people insisted that education data belongs to the student; others insisted that it belongs to however collects it. The discrepancies, to a certain extent, no doubt reflect the different levels of awareness about and definitions of education data. What counts as education data – and I certainly don’t think it just means student test scores and student ID numbers.

    And honestly, it’s probably not too hard to argue that our lack of a strong stance or understanding on this topic goes for all our digital data: who’s collecting it, to what end, under what legal protections or restrictions.

    These questions aren’t entirely new, but our increasing use of technologies is creating lots of new data — and lots more data — some 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created every day according to IBM — and we are facing numerous challenges and opportunities as a society over what it means to control and access and — in our case here, I’d imagine — learn from it.

    Yet the question of ownership of education data remains largely – and troublingly – unresolved.

    A personal anecdote: a couple of years ago, my mum gave me a large manilla envelope full of my old schoolwork — drawings and writings and photos from as far back as preschool — some projects I remembered making, many I didn’t. Mostly the envelope contained administrative records — my report cards, various certificates of accomplishment, some ribbons.

    That envelope was obviously a low-tech way to collect my school records. It is certainly my mother’s curation of “what counts” as my education data – as such, a reflection of proud parenting and of schooling in a pre-digital age, I suppose. Nonetheless I think the manilla envelope makes for an interesting metaphor — a model to think about storing education data, one with strengths and weaknesses and strange relevancies for our thinking about the digital documentation and storage of education data today.

    What happens now that our schoolwork is increasingly “born digital”? Is there a virtualized equivalent to my mum’s envelope?

    Or — and this is what I often fear — are we creating education-related content in apps, on websites, in learning management systems that we will only have temporary access to?

    Once we put our content in, can we get our content out again — and out in a format that’s actually readable, by humans and by machines?

    Another anecdote: last summer, I met a young girl whose school was piloting a one-to-one iPad program. This girl’s family weren’t particularly tech-oriented. They didn’t have a computer at home. So when the school offered them, at the beginning of the year, a chance to buy the iPad, they declined. It was expensive. They didn’t see the point. But by the end of the school year, their minds had changed — one of those stories that sounds at first glance like a PR win for Apple — the device was easy to use, the girl loved it, she’d downloaded some other apps, she’d created a lot of drawings and written a lot of stories with it. And so the family approached the school about buying the iPad. But it was too late, the school said. The purchasing opportunity was a limited one at the beginning of the year. And the iPad was returned — with all this girl’s data on it. There was no manilla envelope — physical or digital — for much of her 6th grade schoolwork.

    The family had no home iTunes account with which to sync the student’s data — that’s what you’re “supposed” to do to get your data off an iPad. But even more troubling, schools tend to create “dummy” accounts for these devices. So even if you did have your own iTunes account at home, it wouldn’t matter. Your school device is registered to ""

    We need to think about whether that’s the place we want to store all our data — all our kids’ data.

    This isn’t just about Apple, of course. We must ask: Is there a safe digital place – any safe place– where we can store our school work and our school records — not just for the duration of a course or for the length of school year, but for “posterity”?

    “Posterity” — why, that word sounds a lot like “Posterous,” doesn’t it. “Posterous” — the microblogging platform that was acquired by Twitter last year and that announced a couple of weeks ago that it would be shutting down at the end of April. Posterous — a free tool that many students and educators and librarians (among others) were using for sharing and storing writing, photos, video, and other digital content.

    The impending closure of Posterous is hardly the first or the only time something like this has happened to a tool — free or paid – that’s been popular for educational purposes. Heck, we often demand students put their school work into a learning management system where they lose access to it at the end of the semester. And for that pleasure, schools spend hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    So a shout-out here to the University of Mary Washington and its “Domain of One’s Own” initiative that gives domains, Web hosting, and technical training to faculty and students. As the name of the initiative suggests, students own their space on the Web. They own their own domain. They control it as students, they’re encouraged to use it as an electronic portfolio, and here’s the crucial point — they can take it with them when they graduate.

    The impending demise of Posterous prompts us to ask — yet again: Are we storing our digital education content in a place that we actually control, that we actually own?

    Do we — can we — own our education data? Whose data is it — whose learning is it?

    While my manilla envelope might appear to offer better control over my educational content but that’s not necessarily the case.

    The papers that I have in my possession are, in many instances, just a transcript. A copy. My schools retain the originals. Or I guess they do. Some of these report cards are decades old. Regardless — anyone who’s had to send money to their alma mater in order to request an official copy of their transcript has probably cursed this particular arrangement. “I earned those grades, dammit.” Give me my data.

    The school retains my data, although according to FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, the law that in the U.S. governs the privacy of educational records) that data is mine to review and correct. And according to FERPA, I have some say over who it’s shared with. As do, my parents, until I turn 18.

    But despite its claims to protect the privacy of students’ records, nowhere does FERPA say that a student actually “owns” her or his data. Nowhere does it say that a school does either. At best, it would seem, the education institution is a steward for the “official education record” — responsible for its storage, its security, and its protection. And truth be told, the terms of “ownership” are mostly spelled out between individual schools and the databases and software they buy or license.

    So let’s push this question further: what data exactly are schools and other education-related institutions stewards for? Just what’s on the transcript — that is, dates of attendance, major, and final course grades?

    What about behavior records? Test scores? Individual assignments?

    What about library check-outs? Gym visits? Sports records? Cafeteria and bookstore purchases? Minutes from student meetings? Times in and out of the dormitory?

    What about all the data that is being collected on and generated by students? (I should clarify again here that when I say “data,” I don’t just mean numbers. Essays and photos and videos are data too.)

    What about students’ search engine history? Learning management system log-ins and duration of their LMS sessions? Blog and forum comment history? Internet usage while on campus? Emails sent and received? Social media profiles? Pages read in digital textbooks? Videos watched on Coursera or Khan Academy or Udacity, along with if and where they paused it? Exercises completed on any of these platforms? Wikipedia visits. Wikipedia edits. Levels on Angry Birds? Keystrokes and mouse clicks logged?

    (That last item is, along with biometric data, how Coursera says it plans to confirm students’ identities.)

    Do students own this data? Do they control any of it? Can they access it? Download it? Review it?

    And here’s a very important question: Are students even aware that this data is being collected?

    And: Are they asked for their consent before it’s shared?

    Now, none of this sort of data is included in the manilla envelope my mom gave me, quite obviously. But I think it’s worth asking if a digital version of that envelope — whatever long-term storage unit we devise for students’ education data — should include these sorts of things.

    Now, I can’t deny: much of my interest in the manilla envelope my mom saved was simply nostalgic. There were good memories and bad memories and forgotten memories from my schooling, and I was grateful that my mum had saved all that paper, even though it was decidedly her record of me — the items that she had chosen to save for me.

    And when we talk about protecting and preserving students’ educational content — making sure that it doesn’t disappear like all those Posterous blogs are about to — I think much of our concern is about maintaining that record for the future. Collection for the sake of recollection.

    That differs — substantially at times — from collecting your data in order to control it. And that differs from collecting it in order to analyze it.

    What insights could I glean about myself as a learner from the contents of my manilla envelope — things unknown and unreflected upon, pulled out of the forgotten drawings and scribbled passions of my childhood?

    And how might those insights have differed if I was able to review this education data on a real-time and ongoing basis, not just 20-some-odd years later?

    The ability to glean insights — in real-time or near-real-time — from students’ data is the cornerstone of the emerging field of learning analytics. And while there are certainly many obstacles to making use of the data that schools already collect about students — thanks to information silos that are both technological and departmental and political — the drive for better learning analytics — and there are both business and research cases will drive this — will make students’ data of increasing importance for all manner of education institutions.

    So again, I ask, who owns our education data?

    I’ve spent the better part of this week at SXSWedu where it was very clear that student data is of major interest to education companies. This certainly reflects a larger trend in the technology sector — all this buzz about “big data.”

    There’s long been a saying among tech folks that “if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.” It’s often applied to free tools like Facebook and Google that do use your personal data to sell advertising. But with what’s becoming a more data-oriented world, we might have to admit that even if you are paying for the product, you’re still the product. Your data certainly is.

    And companies that have long gathered data about all our transactions and demographics are starting to sift through all that data — in order to improve the product, in order to improve the marketing, in order to beat their competition. There’s a sense — and the metaphor here is pretty horrible if you stop to think about it — that data is the new “oil” and our lives are set to be mined with the value extracted from them. How can we make sure that value stays with us?

    Many of the panels at SXSWedu addressed education data (not this question of who owns it — the question of what to do with it, I should add), not surprisingly since one of the major sponsors of the event was inBloom, a new data infrastructure project that’s been funded by a $100 million investment by the Gates Foundation and built by the News Corp-owned Wireless Generation.

    inBloom plans to build a centralized database of educational data, arguing — and this is true — that schools’ data infrastructure is woefully out of date and that data is often siloed in various apps and student information systems. But inBloom isn’t just pulling in the data typically contained in a student information system — that is, your name, your grade, your grades. This database will include health care records, behavioral records, and much much more.

    The promise: to make learning more personalized and more adaptive. The vision: to build a platform that other third-party software providers can build upon and that schools and perhaps other learning institutions too can utilize.

    When I asked Twitter “who owns your education data?” one of the responses was “it doesn’t matter.” The data “has no value except to those who take positive steps to use it.” Framed this way, it doesn’t matter if a student or a school or a software provider or a governmental agency owns the data, as long as its usage is beneficial. Certainly this is the promise of learning analytics: to enhance student outcomes, to boost student retention, and to increase course completion.

    Now I won’t argue that these are “positive” uses for students, nor that students don’t want these things for themselves.

    But if students do not own and do not control their data, then I fear (again) that data and analytics will be something we do to students, rather than do for them or do with them. Or — and here’s a radical notion — that we enable students to do for themselves.

    I think this is why, for me, the “quantified self” movement seems an appealing and important development, not just for how we think of education data but for how we think of all the types of data that we currently create: on social media sites, on blogs, with our smartphones, with personal body sensors, with our credit cards, with our geolocation, with our searches and transactions and clicks.

    A “quantified self” movement within education implies personal ownership and certainly demands personal control over data. As such, it requires setting personal goals. It requires a personal definition of “learning.”

    It would also require a certain familiarity with the technologies that students utilize; it would require, one would imagine, an understanding of retrieving data and building data visualizations. It would require we read the Terms of Service and avoid applications with onerous ones.

    These are all good things, I’d say, empowering things for students — for all of us truthfully — all with the goal of making us subjects and not just objects of technology and research and data.

    If we build, then, that virtual version of my mum’s manilla envelope — in the service of not just long-term personal content storage but real-time personal learning analytics — it would demand that many things change in how we think about education data today.

    Data would need to be portable; it would need to be interoperable. It would need to be human- and machine-readable — in other words, my transcript shouldn’t just be available on a watermarked piece of paper, my assignments not just stored in a PDF. It would mean that education data could no longer be stuck in silos — on or offline. The storage unit — let’s call it a personal data locker, with a nod to the Locker Project — would need to be sustainable – temporally, technologically, financially. It would need to follow a student throughout her or his school career, and ideally include informal as well as formal learning data. The locker would need to be extensible — that is, apps and visualization tools would be able to be built on top of it.

    And the contents of the data locker would be owned and controlled by students. What gets shared. What gets stored. What gets deleted. And yes, perhaps this would mean that the threat that “this will go down on your permanent record” becomes an emptier one.

    Too far fetched? Maybe.

    But what if education data could not be aggregated or analyzed or tracked or sold without a student’s permission, without their informed consent, without a push notification on their smartphones, perhaps, that someone has accessed their info. How might this shape not just the ownership and control of education data, but students’ ownership and control over their own learning. How might students benefit from this shift?

    As it stands, the benefit of much of the data being collected goes to the school or the software provider, but strangely not to the person who created it — to the learner.

    And it is, after all, their data, their content, their learning, their data — even if our laws and our policies and our technologies don’t fully recognize it as such. Yet.

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the OAuth and OpenID specifications lately. I’ve been thinking about the OAuth and OpenID specifications as an authentication and identity technologies, but honestly almost more like metaphors.

    OAuth and OpenID are the open technology standards that allow users to be authenticated with certain websites. OAuth, for example, lets a user grant access to their digital resources on one site to another site. The classic example perhaps: you can sign up for an app using Facebook Connect so that you don’t have to supply a username and password.

    Often when developers sketch out these specifications, they’ll represent the exchange of data between the three legs — the platform, the app provider and the user as some describe it, or the server, the client and the resource owner — as an equal relationship. Lots of arrows that map out the requests and the authentication. But it’s almost always drawn as an equilateral triangle or a circle — as though the relationship there between the platform and the application and the end-user is balanced. But it’s not.

    Don’t get me wrong. OAuth and OpenID do give the user some control here. It’s not the specifications I’m questioning here. And I don’t want to get into a debate in the Q&A section about the merits of OAuth 2.0.

    Rather, I’m questioning how we draw the exchange of data between systems. I want us to think about technologies’ metaphors and their architecture and their power relations — they matter.

    It actually makes me incredibly happy to raise these questions — particularly questions about data — here at Webwise. I’ve been trying to raise these questions in a variety of places lately — with university administrators, with K–12 teachers. And while I do want all of us to be more critical about our data collection and data usage, I am particularly keen to raise this issue here with this audience and its professional capacity to think smartly on this topic.

    After all, I am thankful for the protests by librarians at laws like the Patriot Act and their ongoing work to protect the privacy and the confidentiality of patrons’ library records. I’m also deeply appreciative of the work that archivists and others here do to think carefully — so carefully — about the preservation of artifacts — digital and otherwise — about the objects themselves and about their metadata. I also value the work that those professions here do regarding open and accessible knowledge, content, data — as well as the challenges of thinking critically about lines between what’s “mine” and what’s “ours.” These are all incredibly important insights that those working in education and in education technology need to learn from.

    And I would hope that as we move forward in our more digital, data-oriented world, that questions surrounding the ownership of learners’ data — the centrality of the learner in these and all our discussions — is something that this group can tackle.

    “Whose data is it?” “Whose learning is it anyway?” — it’s the learners’, right? But it’s also, at some point, the communities’ — learning isn’t simply about the individual; it’s tied to the greater public good.

    And as we move forward building more systems that capture and store and analyze learners’ data, how do we make sure we do so in such a way that the value isn’t extracted from the learner or from the community — trapped in a technological silo, mined simply for corporate profit — but that creates more value — real-time value and long-lasting value.

    I would hope that when we ask the question “whose learning is it anyway?” — and with a nod to TV improv too — that we can do so with a smile and not with horror, that we can think of human beings enhanced by technology and not just surveilled or mined or driven by it.

    Thank you.

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    Sad Clown

    Law and Politics

    Tanya McDowell, a Connecticut mother accused of fraudulently enrolling her child in a Norwalk school, plead guilty in court this week and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. (She was also charged with drug possession.) McDowell, who was homeless at the time, used a babysitter’s address to enroll her son in school — guilty of parenting while homeless, poor and Black, I guess.

    AFT leader Randi Weingarten was arrested this week while demonstrating against the closure of 23 public schools in Philadelphia. The state of education politics in Philly right now is incredibly grim. Have a look at the contract proposals for teachers— pay cuts; benefits cuts; the end to seniority; no more pay increases for continuing education; no more parking spots, teachers’ desks, or water fountains; no more school counselors, and no limits to class sizes.

    Edwin Mellen Press said that it will drop the libel lawsuit that it had filed against a university librarian, stemming from a critical blog post he wrote about the publisher. Before we celebrate too much: there is a second lawsuit against the librarian, McMasters University's Dale Askey, based on blog comments. (More details via The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

    Last week, I pointed to the news that a piece of legislation in Massachusetts was poised to outlaw data-mining of students’ educational records for commercial purposes. “Sounds like it’s aimed at Google,” I wrote. So no big shock this week when we learned that one of the backers of the law is Microsoft, who’ve been using the “Google reads your email” scare tactic as part of its marketing for a long long time now.

    More news in the ongoing legal battle between the textbook startup Boundless and the publishers suing it for copyright infringement. This week, Boundless filed more papers this week, asking the court to dismiss the claims, stating that the startup has revised its product offerings and no longer offers those that the publishers claimed were infringing. (In January, Boundless also sought to have some of the charges against it dismissed.) Inside Higher Ed has a more in-depth look at the case.

    In an effort to counter “corporate-style reform,” education historian Diane Ravitch (along with 7 other education leaders) has launched a new education advocacy group called the Network for Public Education. Among its goals: “we will support candidates who oppose high-stakes testing, mass school closures, the privatization of our public schools and the outsourcing of its core functions to for-profit corporations.”

    Launches and Updates

    Amplify, the education wing of Rupert Murdoch-owned News Corp, unveiled its new tablet this week, with a price starting at $299 (plus an annual subscription fee). According to the USA Today, “Amplify will give teachers the ability to both monitor and control what students do with the device. Teachers can conduct lessons with an entire class or small group and can instantly see what websites or lesson areas students are visiting. A teacher dashboard allows them to take instant polls, ask kids to ‘raise their hands’ virtually and, if things get out of hand, redirect the entire class with an ‘Eyes on Teacher’ button that instantly pushes the message out to every screen.” Well that just sounds completely god-awful, which might explain why no one from Amplify reached out to me on the news or offered me a demo of the product. (Um, among other reasons, I imagine.)

    The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, which launched a data standards initiative Ed-Fi in 2011, announced this week that it was spinning that off into a subsidiary non-profit, the Ed-Fi Alliance, all in the service of supporting Ed-Fi to become the de-facto data standard (or in the service of “better student outcomes,” I suppose, depending on if you cite the press release).

    Google released an update to its Google Course Builder (MOOC) platform. The big change: you can now work on your course in the browser.

    Skypeannounced at SXSWedu that it was making Group Video Calling available to teachers free of charge. (This feature is otherwise only available as a premium add-on to Skype’s VOIP service).


    The state of New Yorksays that it will not use Pearson as the provider of the high school GED exam. Instead, it plans to use its own which will be developed by McGraw-Hill. Pearson won the contract to offer the GED (previously offered by the non-profit ACE) and plans to hike the prices (to more than double the current cost) and will also charge students for each time they need to retake it.

    Obligatory Section on MOOC-Related Stuff

    The British MOOC platform Futurelearn announced a partnership with the British Council, an organization that works to promote educational opportunities. The announcement was made while officials were visiting the Middle East, much like the announcement about its expansion last month that was made while officials were visiting India. But don’t worry, MOOCs aren’t about colonization and imperialism at all! Right, Thomas Friedman? Oh… wait…

    Cornell plans to run a MOOC based on its popular “Six Pretty Good Books: Explorations in Social Science” class. The class will be funded by a grant from Google and will run on the Google Course Builder technology.

    Funding and Acquisitions

    The digital portfolio startup Pathbrite announced that it has raised $4 million in funding, in a round of investment led by ACT.

    The social networking platform Edmodo has acquiredRoot–1, a startup that’s been building an adaptive learning technology. This is a big win for Edmodo as the Root–1 team are incredibly smart and have a lot of experience in ed-tech. (Two of Root–1’s co-founders, Manish Kothari and Ketan Kothari, were also co-founders of AlphaSmart.) The Kothari brothers, along with Root–1 co-founders Vibhu Mittal and Adam Stepinski, will all move into key roles in Edmodo’s product, research, and engineering teams.

    My new pick for the education startup with the worst name, Scoot & Doodle, announced that it has raised $2.25 million in seed funding from “unnamed Silicon Valley angels” and from Pearson.

    Slate Science launched a new iOS app called SlateMath K–1 and announced that it has raised $1.1 million in seed funding.

    Hellos and Goodbyes

    Dan Cohen, the Director of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, will be stepping down to take on the role as the executive director of the new Digital Public Library of America. The DPLA is an effort to create, just as the name suggests, a large-scale digital public library available to everyone.

    Kushal Chakrabarti, the founder of the education micro-student loan startup Vittana, is stepping down from his role as CEO. There are a lot of education startups that talk a good game about making the world a better place. Vittana actually does that. Best of luck, Kushal. You rock.

    Rafael Corrales, one of the co-founders of LearnBoost— one of my favorite education startups, in part for its kick-ass technology and design (I chose it as one of the best startups of 2010 when I still wrote for ReadWriteWeb) — is stepping down and joining a VC firm. This news just breaks my heart, and I plan to write more about this later today…

    Conferences and Competitions

    SXSWedu ran this week. (You can read my thoughts on the festival here.) No surprise, there were lots of coordinated project launches and promotions. Among the events, the LaunchEDU startup competition. The winners this year were Clever (one of my picks for the top education startups of 2012) and SpeakingPal.

    The Times Higher Education World University rankings have been released. Word on the streets: if you’re not in the top 10, you’re doomed! DOOMED!

    Photo credits: Audrey Watters

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    On Loving (and Leaving) LearnBoost

    Rafael Corrales, co-founder and CEO of one of my favorite education technology startups, LearnBoost, recently announced that he has stepped down from the helm of the company and has moved on to join a venture capital firm.

    I admit: I’m fairly devastated by this news.

    I have long been a supporter of LearnBoost, first covering its official launch back in August 2010 when I was still a tech blogger for ReadWriteWeb. There I covered many of the startup’s tech and product updates — including, for example, the development and open-sourcing of its crowdsourced translation interface— even though the editors were always quick to tell me not to cover ed-tech startups. (“Nobody cares, Audrey.”)

    Nevertheless, when I was assigned to write the end-of-year story “Top 10 Startups of 2010,” I put LearnBoost on the list alongside other exciting new startups from the year, including Instagram, Flipboard, Quora, Square, and Hipmunk.

    I put LearnBoost on the list because, sure, it was an ed-tech startup (Um, hello… people care.). But I wouldn’t have included it if the product and the tech “under the hood” weren’t so damn slick. I put a lot of thought into choosing “the top” startups of any given year; looking back, I stand by the 2010 “top 10 list” — it’s particularly interesting to think about what’s happened to all those on it in the 3 years since.

    Looking Back/Looking Forward

    LearnBoost launched at the beginning of this recent resurgence in ed-tech entrepreneurialism, and in many ways, I thought it encapsulated much of the promise that new ed-tech startups are supposed to hold: great technology, great product, great team, grassroots adoption, freemium pricing, and so on.

    To me, Corrales’ departure now serves to highlight some of the serious tensions, if not grave problems, that this new “ed-tech ecosystem” is facing. Indeed, what sort of “ed-tech ecosystem” are we really building here? Will it thrive? Which startups will survive? Whose values does this “ecosystem” reflect?

    On VC-Backed Companies and Expectations for Growth: What happens when a startup raises venture capital? What happens when it raises a little bit of capital (e.g. LearnBoost)? What happens when it raises a lot (e.g. Edmodo)? Do the expectations of investors — for growth, for revenue, for a “return on investment” and for the timeline in which that will happen — match the needs of education (particularly public education) (e.g. Coursera)? Are investors looking at the right signals (growth in signups versus, say, intellectual growth of users)? Can venture-backed startups build long-term, sustainable, non-exploitative businesses in education? Or is “the exit” always on the horizon once VCs get involved?

    On Business Models and Marketing: Can startups really be “lean” and find success in building for and selling to schools? Can a startup afford to eschew building a giant marketing team? And can education afford an ed-tech industry that cares more about marketing than product? Is the freemium business model, combined with grassroots user adoption, a viable path to sustainable revenue, particularly when startups are up against those enterprise corporations with deep pockets and deep talons — contracts, licenses, and so on — deep into schools and districts?

    On Open Source: Can we (please!) foster a resurgence of open source in education? This isn’t simply about schools running their own Linux servers either (although I wouldn’t mind that). It’s about supporting open source development — community development, capacity building, technology tinkering, bug fixing, and most importantly perhaps, transparency. Can education startups be leaders in developing and supporting openly licensed materials (code and content), helping wrest education free from the control of proprietary businesses? Can we please call “bullshit” on those companies that are starting to use “open” as part of their marketing materials but that have no transparency in the development processes, let alone any openly licensed anything? (Saying open source is “on the roadmap” doesn’t mean much to me, particularly if your funders and developers have a long history of being utterly “closed.” e.g. inBloom) Can we raise the bar for the technology that runs “under the hood” of education products? More eyes on the code tends to do that, I would argue.(For what it’s worth, in the years since becoming a tech writer, there’s only been one person who random developers at random tech conferences come up and ask about, then squeal with jealousy when I say I know. And that’s LearnBoost co-founder Guillermo Rauch. And squeal they should. The technology that LearnBoost has built is incredible. And, yup, much of it is open source. Do you know how cool it is that Rauch works in ed-tech?! We need more of this, for crying out loud!) 

    On User Experience: Why does ed-tech continue to suck?! I look at some of the venture-backed alternatives to LearnBoost, for example, and I am frustrated that users still put up with and that investors still back so much crap. Can we please stop building and adopting tools that require teacher and student training simply because they’re so poorly and counter-intuitively designed?

    On Data Portability and Lousy TOS:You can get your data out of LearnBoost: “We believe that schools should have control over their own data, so we allow teachers to download, export, reference, and share (very carefully) their data as they see fit.” Why is this feature — this fundamental feature — still missing on most ed-tech products? Can you get your and/or your students’ data out of the tools you’re using in the classroom? Do you and/or your students control your education data and content? If not, why not? Teachers, do you read the Terms of Service before hitting “I agree” or asking your students to do so? Why isn’t this issue more of a priority in ed-tech? Who benefits from this lack of data portability? Who benefits from onerous terms?

    On the Web: Apps. Apps. Apps. Apps. 10 Best Apps for Blah blah blah. 100 Ways to Use Apps blah blah blah. Mostly iOS apps. A few Android apps. But what about the Web? The Web doesn’t require a specific piece of hardware — just a browser (well, “a modern browser” which old versions of Internet Explorer are decidedly not) and an Internet connection. The Web connects resources and users; native apps tend to silo them. In education, shouldn’t we build tools that are open, accessible, and hardware-agnostic? With its technologies (including and Mongoose), LearnBoost has moved the Web and HTML5 forward — that’s more than you can say for a lot of big tech companies, let alone many ed-tech ones.

    On Modularity: Do we really want giant, bloated, proprietary software systems in education? Do we want one corporation to handle all aspects of content (e.g. textbooks), assessments, analytics, and data management? That’s certainly Pearson’s plan. That’s certainly News Corp’s. Or do we want simpler and more modular building blocks, so we can assemble our own set of classroom tools — the ones that work best for individual schools’ and teachers’ and students’ needs? How can we do more to demand interoperability and resist vendor lock-in?

    On Community and Media: Who is asking these questions in the (education) technology press? What sorts of startups get their marketing messages published there? What stories, whose stories are getting told? What sorts of initiatives are being built to support ed-tech entrepreneurship, to build bridges between educators and engineers, and/or to build capacity among educators themselves so that we needn’t outsource everything technical to “industry”? Are there community efforts? Who’s leading them? To what end? What happens to insiders? What happens to outsiders in this ed-tech startup ecosystem? (What happens if you piss off the Powerful People in Silicon Valley?)

    This Is Not An Ed-Tech Startup Obituary

    It’s an open secret that publications like The New York Times prepare in advance certain people’s obituaries, sometimes having them pre-written years prior to their actual deaths. (The newspaper estimates that it has about 1500 obits “in the can.”) We all die, so there’s an inevitability, I suppose, that makes this process “work” for mainstream journalism.

    On one hand, the future for ed-tech startups is a lot less certain; on the other hand, as you'll often hear folks say, “the vast majority of startups will fail.” So die they will. I have a feeling that we might be on the cusp of seeing a lot of ed-tech startups hit the deadpool, but even so I couldn’t imagine pre-writing today the obituary for any of them — be that ending an acquisition, IPO, or closure. Certainly the resignation of Corrales isn't the story I'd have pre-written for LearnBoost.

    Just to be clear, this post isn’t an obituary for education startups. It certainly isn’t an obituary for LearnBoost. The company isn’t closing its doors and it remains in the capable hands of two of its co-founders — Thianh Lu and Guillermo Rauch — two of the smartest tech and product design folks I know.

    But if we can’t (or shouldn't) pre-write the ending for this recent explosion in ed-tech entrepreneurship, I think we should take a hard look at the ed-tech ecosystem and gauge its health today — not just in terms of bubbles bursting and potential investor losses, not just in terms of the birth and death of startups, but frankly in terms of some of the disease that I fear is being cultivated therein. We have to start thinking seriously about what sort of ed-tech (and by extension, of course, education) we want -- and then we have to start demanding it and building it and supporting those who do so. Otherwise, as I tweeted in shock and frustration when I read Corrales' resignation post, we're not going to have nice things.

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    Education Politics

    Legislation was introduced in the California Senate this week that, if passed, could drastically reshape public higher education as we know it. SB520, authored by President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, will require the state’s public colleges and universities to accept credit for certain online classes if a student is unable to get into the class on-campus. The state will identify some 50 introductory classes, available from any online provider, including unaccredited ones. While the proposal is being hailed in some quarters as making higher education more accessible, it’s hard not to see this being a dangerous spiral, where for-profit providers (Straighterline, Coursera, Udacity, etc etc etc etc) lobby the state legislature to limit higher education funding. See e-Literate for the most complete coverage on the bill.

    Thank you for your military service, soldiers. Here’s how, thanks to sequestration, our federal government thanks you: by suspending the Tuition Assistance Program. During the 2012 fiscal year, it provided $475 million to soldiers. Soldiers currently enrolled in classes will not be effected; but no one will be able to use the financial support to enroll in future education.

    The New York Times reports that Senator John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, wants to expand E-Rate, the federal program that subsidizes Internet connections for schools and libraries. Staff say that Rockefeller would like the program to expand by an additional $5 billion, and “be used to create one-gigabit connections to every school in America — a speed that is 60 to 100 times faster than most schools or homes now receive — and wireless connections in every school building.”

    Obligatory MOOC News Section

    As it’s been for a while now, the big education news of the week is MOOC news — the proposed legislation in California that sure seems a boon to the MOOC providers (who apparently saw a draft of the legislation before even the chair of the state Senate Education Committee did).

    Timed in conjunction with Open Education Week, the School of Open has opened its virtual doors. The School of Open is developed by Peer 2 Peer University (P2PU) with support from Creative Commons, will offer open online classes in, um, “open.” Four facilitated courses are currently available: “Copyright 4 Educators (US),” “Copyright 4 Educators (AUS),” “Creative Commons for K–12 Educators,” and “Writing Wikipedia Articles.”

    The online education startup Coursera is revamping its forums. This will include a number of usability changes — good news considering how much Coursera courses rely on this very old format of online “discussion.”

    edX is moving forward with its promise to open source its MOOC platform, releasing the XBlock SDK under the general public under the Affero GPL open source license. (The code is on GitHub.) XBlock provides part of the architecture for edX classes, so that their various components — text, video, etc — can be assembled via APIs.

    Launches and Upgrades

    Mozillareleased version 1.0 of its Open Badges infrastructure this week. The project, which has been in beta since Fall 2011, has involved building the open source technology framework for a digital recognition (“badging”) system, one that would recognize formal and informal education skills and achievements.

    Open education leader David Wiley announced the launch of his new startup this week. Lumen Learning hopes to be the “Red Hat for OER,” that is offering services and support to help institutions looking to utilize openly licensed educational materials. More on the launch via The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    The interactive whiteboard app ShowMe has added a new feature: groups. This will allow teachers to create specific groups for their classes, so that students can more easily share the lessons they create with one another.

    The National Archives is partnering with the Digital Public Library of America in one of its first pilot projects, providing some 1.2 million digital documents from the National Archives catalog to the new library.


    RSS is crucial to the work I do as an education technology writer, and Google Reader has long been my feedreader of choice. So it was sad news to hear from Google that it’s shuttering the service as of July 1. I’m still looking for a replacement I like, and for those in a similar situation, Bryan Alexander has collected a number of suggestions on his website.

    Alleyoop, a college prep startup incubated by Pearson and hailed by Mashable as the “Zynga for Learning,” is closing its doors. (I received an email to that effect this week; no link on the Web to support it. Sorry.) I covered Alleyoop’s launch this time last year, raising questions at the time about what the implications for education startups might be with Pearson playing an active role in funding and incubating them. Well, I guess we know now!

    Funding and Acquisitions

    Noodle Education, an education startup founded by Princeton Review founder John Katzman, has acquired Lore, the not-really-an-LMS-LMS startup formerly known as Coursekit. Inside Higher Ed has a good look at what the acquisition might mean for Noodle’s future plans. No details about the finances involved in the transaction. Lore had raised over $6 million in funding from Peter Thiel, Joel Spolsky, David Tisch and others.

    The learning management system Desire2Learn has acquired Wiggio, a Boston-based collaboration platform that Techcrunch describes as the “anti-sharepoint” for students.

    SchoolRack, an education company founded in 2003 that offers a free tool that lets educators create class websites, has been acquired by Leading Capital SGPS, a private holding company.

    This week, the private equity firm Apollo Global Management and the Metropoulos & Company (which owns Pabst Blue Ribbon and Vlasic pickles) acquiredHostess Brands. Why is this education news, you ask? Well, last month Apollo Global Management bought the education section of McGraw-Hill. So textbooks and Twinkies— saved for our future generations. Gee thanks, private equity!

    CreativeLIVE, an(other) online education startup, announced this week that it’s raised $8 million in Series A funding from Creative Artists Agency, William Morris Endeavor, CrunchFund and Google Ventures. More on Techcrunch, which was good enough to include a disclosure at the bottom about Mike Arrington’s connection to the blog and the investment.

    The Gates Foundationannounced new investments into adaptive learning, with 10 $100,000 grants available to colleges that “help them create the partnerships necessary to launch adaptive courses over the next 24 months.”

    Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp continues to position itself as a key provider of the new Common Core State Standards’ assessments, winning a contract this week from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to develop formative assessment PD and lessons for teachers.

    Human Resources

    The Boston Globe reports that Harvard University secretly searched the emails of several staff members last fall as it sought to identify leaks to the press about a cheating scandal that was making headlines. The staff were not notified of the search, and there have been some questions whether the search violated the faculty policy on electronic privacy.

    The online education startup Minerva Project has hired Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn as its founding dean. Kosslyn has most recently been the director of the Center for Advanced Study in Behavior Sciences at Stanford. More details on Kosslyn and the company on Edsurge.


    The “diploma gap widens between rich, poor,” writes The Hechinger Report’s Joanne Jacobs. A University of Michigan study by Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski found that 54% of students born into high-income families around 1980 graduated from college, compared to 9% of those born into low-income families. Both percentages are up from those born in the 1960s, but up by only 4 points for low-income students and up by 18 for high-income families.

    The Pew Internet & American Life Project released a report on “Teens and Technology 2013.” Among the findings, 78% of teens have a cellphone. 93% say they have a computer at home, and 71% say it’s a device that they share with other family members.


    Congratulations to the winners of the annual Education Writers Association’s National Awards for Education Reporting.

    Image credits: Steven Isaacson

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  • 03/17/13--18:43: The Ed-Tech Startup Crunch
  • Following the slew of recent startup acquisitions, pivots, closures, and resignations (along with a couple of emails from entrepreneurs hinting that their company is weighing some of these options), I thought I’d take a look back at the last few years’ worth of ed-tech startup history:

    Who’s been funded? How much and by whom? What’s happened since? Who’s been acquired? Who’s pivoted? Who’s shuttered? Who’s got a (sustainable) revenue model? Who’s been in the headlines (and why)? Who’s been ignored by the press? Who’s been forgotten by bloggers and users alike?

    Ed-Tech and Crunchbase

    While far from the perfect source to answer these questions, Techcrunch’s Crunchbase does provide a decent amount of data about startups’ funding, staffing, and media coverage. Anyone can edit the Crunchbase database, so there are lots of gaps and messiness in the data. But (for better or worse) it’s a free, tech-community-supported effort — one that some folks worried would fall into disrepair after AOL acquired Techcrunch. (It does look like the company is putting some resources into Crunchbase, hiring developers and — gasp! — blogging.)

    You can query Crunchbase directly through the website’s search interface (that works well for looking up a company or two), or you can utilize the API to pull the data you want.

    Thanks to (a lot of) help from my partner Kin Lane, I chose the latter, pulling the data I wanted via the Crunchbase API . You can read Kin’s thoughts on working with the Crunchbase API here. He cites me as calling the process “tedious” — which if you know me is a well-censored description of how I’d describe the endeavor.

    For my research, I pulled information on all startups tagged “education” that have been founded or funded since 2009 — the year when we started to see this recent resurgence in ed-tech entrepreneurship (as well, I confess, as the year that I founded this blog).

    Crunching Startup Data

    Based on Crunchbase data, I can give you the list of the startups who’ve received the most funding in recent years (I should note again, as I state above, that this is crowdsourced and incomplete data):

    1. 2U (total raised: $90,800,000)

    2. Kno (total raised: $89,000,000)

    3. Desire2Learn (total raised: $80,000,000)

    4. Kaltura (total raised: $69,100,000)

    5. Rafter (total raised: $66,000,000)

    6. Knewton (total raised: $54,000,000)

    7. Grockit (total raised: $44,700,000)

    8. Xueersi (total raised: $40,000,000)

    9. Edmodo (total raised: $40,000,000)

    10. Parchment (total raised: $35,500,000)

    11. Axilogix Education (total raised: £30,000,000)

    12. ConnectEdu (total raised: $28,200,000)

    13. Knowledge Adventure (total raised: $26,800,000)

    14. Altius Education (total raised: $26,600,000)

    15. Flat World Knowledge (total raised: $26,200,000)

    16. Zeebo (total raised: $25,000,000)

    17. Coursera (total raised: $22,000,000)

    18. UniversityNow (total raised: $21,500,000)

    19. EverFi (total raised: $21,000,000)

    20. Trovix (total raised: $18,300,000)

    21. Bloomfire (total raised: $18,000,000)

    22. Apreso Classroom ($15,000,000)

    23. Classteacher Learning Systems (total raised: $15,000,000)

    24. K-12 Techno Services (total raised: $15,000,000)

    25. Revolution Prep (total raised: $15,000,000)

    But that list is really not that interesting...

    What I'm more interested in: what about those startups who’ve raised between $800,000 and $5 million since 2009? Where are they now? What are their prospects — for sustainability, for acquisition?

    Other questions: which investors are “doing well” in ed-tech startup-land? Which investors are furthering which education policies (CCSS, NCLB, RTTT, etc) with their funding? In other words, does investment follow policy? Does investment lead policy? Are trends like “data-driven education,” for example. market-driven? Policy-driven? Investor-driven?

    Which metrics are the startup ecosystem tracking that give us the wrong signals for which education startups are interesting or important or tranformative? Which signals do investors (and by extension Crunchbase and Techcrunch… to name a few) follow that do not mean much when it comes to questions of learning, equity, justice? (i.e. user sign-ups, funding amounts)?

    And finally, how can I make my research on this topic more relevant? What questions should I be asking of the Crunchbase(ish) data? What questions does this data fail to answer? How can I make this research and data open and accessible to others?

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    Janus GATS

    It’s a story I’ve long been meaning to write: “update on edu startups I covered last year.” I’m taking a first stab at it here, prompted by some poking around in the Crunchbase (startup funding) database and by comments on a blog post where I talk about doing so.

    My (Crude) Methodology

    I’ve looked through all the blog posts that I wrote when I was at ReadWriteWeb (Spring 2010 - Summer 2011) for mentions of education technology startups, products, and initiatives — about 40 all told.

    Obviously this is not a full list of the education technology companies that were founded or funded during this time period (heck, it doesn’t include those that I wrote about here in the early days of Hack Education, a blog that was designed to cover the things I was discouraged from writing about for RWW — namely, um, ed-tech). These 40-some-odd startups, products, and initiatives do not include all the ed-tech related topics I covered for RWW either — things like cellphones in the classroom, web filtering at schools, social media bans, and so on.

    And finally, yes, the time frame for this analysis is based solely on the duration of my stint at RWW, for what it’s worth. But that is a time frame that works well with the recent resurgence in ed-tech entrepreneurship, one that is typically dated from around 2009.

    The Data

    Here’s a link to a spreadsheet with the data I’ve gathered. Yup, there are empty fields. In some cases, that means I couldn’t find the data; in all cases, it’s a reminder that “this spreadsheet is a work-in-progress.” Feel free to chime in the comments about what’s wrong or missing or presumptuous.

    Some Thoughts

    On ed-tech startups: To be honest, I thought that I’d discover that many of the startups that I covered 3 or so years ago had gone away. Turns out, of the 25 I covered while at ReadWriteWeb (Kno, Grockit, QuoraMahalo, Inkling, Udemy, StudyBlue, Inigral, Instructure, Schoology, Highlighter, Babbel, Teachstreet, Rocketship, MeeGenius, Internmatch, Open Study, LearnBoost, MiniMonos,, TripLingo, Stencyl, ResearchGate, Neverware, GoodieWords), all are still in business with the exception of Teachstreet, which was acquired by Amazon last year. (Of course, maybe that’s because I chose to write about the “good” ones. Or something.)

    The health of those remaining startups, however, isn’t all that clear. 4 have pivoted (Kno moving from tablet to e-book software, Grockit moving from test-prep to Learnist, for example). 6 CEO/co-founders have stepped down and/or left the company. Not all have recognizable revenue streams. The startups have survived, sure, but not all are thriving.

    It’s hard to say who’s doing the best out of this group — I haven’t seen these companies’ balance sheets. And I’m pretty skeptical that that would really tell us what’s “the best” in and for education.

    On legacy (ed-)tech: It’s worth noting, particularly in light of all the hoopla about “ed-tech revolutions” (in products and in sales cycles and so on): the continuity and sustainability of ed-tech products introduced by older, more established tech companies. Lego’s Mindstorms lives on, for example. So does Microsoft’s Imagine Cup (its college-level coding contest) and its educational productivity suite (although it’s since been rebranded from Live@EDU to Office 365 for Education). All (9) companies and products still exist — except those provided by Google.

    I covered 8 of Google’s education products and programs while at RWW. 7 are still around. One of my last stories while at RWW hinted at the precariousness of the Android App Inventor project. Sure enough, less than a month after I left the publication, Google quietly shut down App Inventor, eventually handing the code over to MIT.

    I realize some of these comparisons are apples-to-oranges. But it’s still worth asking: which ed-tech products have been the best bet for for schools, for students, for teachers (and, of course, for entrepreneurs and investors)? Which will be in the future?

    On university-built ed-tech: According to my limited sample of data, there’s an interesting answer — one that might run counter to plenty of mainstream (ed-)tech narratives that posit that schools are boring and broken and that the tech industry is here to innovate and fix stuff. Whereas both startups and big companies have pivoted, stuttered and shuttered their edu initiatives, 100% of the university-sponsored ed-tech products I covered while at RWW are still up and running. Okay, okay, it’s a tiny sample size, sure: Zotero, Omeka (both from George Mason University), MIT OpenCourseWare, and the Digital Public Library of America (which, okay, is a university- and public library and government organization-sponsored initiative — but you get my point). Up and running and under active development.

    Are the successes of these efforts a matter of open source and openly licensed content? Administrative and professorial and developer support and affinity? A matter of edu expertise? Strong product-user fit? Smart resource allocation? Is there something to be said about developing an education product outside the market?

    How does the funding and resource allocation for all of these products — startups', enterprise companies', universities' — compare? What other metrics should we look at?

    Next Steps?

    I’ve had quite a bit of interest from readers about building out a database that can better address questions of ed-tech's business models, revenues, learning outcomes, viability, alignment, and so on. I’ve got a lot on my plate right now (um, I’m writing a book, remember?), but I’m going to see how I can continue to move this project forward — refine and open the data. I’d love to hear your thoughts…

    Image credits: Chris Christian

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    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    “What has the impact been of MOOCs on MIT OCW usage?” Matthew Rascoff (@mzrascoff) tweeted earlier this week. It’s a great question.

    Have massive open online classes spurred more interest in MIT Open Courseware— that is, those freely available and openly licensed course materials (readings, lessons, lecture notes, and quizzes) posted online by the MIT faculty?

    Or has the interest and hype surrounding massive open online classes (MOOCs) driven users away from MIT’s openly licensed course content and towards course content on the various new MOOC platforms — course content that might be free to access or enroll in, but that isn’t necessarily openly licensed?

    It doesn’t have to be an either/or situation, of course. It’s not necessarily a matter of MIT Open Courseware or MOOCs winning the future of education. (It’s worth pointing out, perhaps, that within the institution of MIT, MIT OCW and MITx (now edX) have always been separate initiatives.) But then too, this is not just a matter for MIT, whose open education practices are well established — over a decade old.

    For other institutions, this might appear to be a choice: either open education or MOOCs. That’s part of the concern that (NITLE]’s Bryan Alexander articulates when he says that “All of the issues around creating or using OER, of getting faculty towards supporting open access, of implementing inter-institutional open source software communities – all collapse before the MOOC.” Rather than pursue policies and practices that would lead to establishing open access, open educational resources, open source, many administrators simply want to pursue MOOCs.

    For MIT Open Courseware, the pursuit of MOOCs — by MIT and by higher education at large — seems to have boosted usage. That’s the response by MIT Open Courseware’s spokesperson Steve Carson to Rascoff’s tweet, at least. The site has seen “record levels of traffic” since the MOOC craze began: 22.3 million visitors in 2012, up 25% over 2011.

    Other open education initiatives, such as the online study group Open Study, also report growing numbers. According to its CEO Preetha Ram, “Over 9 million people visited OpenStudy last year, generating over 25 million page views. They came from 160 countries to learn from each other, to hang out, and to help one another. Our partnerships have grown to include corporate and MOOC providers.” One of Open Study’s partners has long been MIT Open Courseware, in fact, and the two — along with Peer2Peer University and Codecademy— have offered a “Mechanical MOOC,” an introduction to Python based on open resources and open study groups (and a good old fashioned email list serve). More evidence, it would seem, that the choice here isn’t between MOOCs or open education.

    But that’s not the only signal that points to this. Indeed as Mike Caulfield has argued, xMOOCs (along with textbooks) seem likely to become courseware themselves:

    What’s happening right now is that xMOOCs are moving backwards into replicable content from the interaction and assessment pole while textbooks are are moving forward into interaction and assessment from the replicable content pole.

    The end result of this is not necessarily massive classes. It’s broadly used courseware — software that provides much of the skeleton of standard classes the way publisher texts do today. In other words, the best way to think of a MOOC isn’t really as a class brought to your doorstep — it’s more a textbook with ambitions.

    There’s still plenty to question here about the “ambitions” of xMOOCs (MOOC providers in particular) and how these might support or undermine the efforts of those who’ve long worked in open education — a tension that reflects, no doubt, the struggles around (and sloppiness over) our usage of and intentions for that adjective “open.”

    What happens to open courseware, what happens to OER with the hype about MOOCs? If MOOCs do become courseware, how much (if at all) will they rely on OER? Will only institutions like MIT -- those with an institutional history of open source, open education, and so on -- be able to maintain open education initiatives? How important to universities is “openness”? And how important is all this massive hype? 

    Image credits: Helen Cook

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    Law and Politics

    Thanks to the across-the-board budget cuts resulting from the sequester, NASA has suspended its public outreach and education programs, effective immediately. Good job, Congress. Way to support STEM education.

    And because the U.S. legislative leaders are such smarty pants, they’re also making moves to restrict the National Science Foundation from awarding grants relating to political science, “unless the agency can certify them ‘as promoting national security or the economic interests of the United States." God forbid we study how democracy works — or, um, doesn’t.

    The Supreme Court ruled this week in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, upholding the “first sale doctrine.” The case stemmed from a lawsuit by textbook publisher Wiley & Sons who sued a Thai student Supap Kirtsaeng who was purchasing cheaper versions of textbooks in his home country, then reselling them in the U.S. Wiley & Sons argued that copyright law bans this. “Nope,” said the Supreme Court thankfully.

    The Department of Education released new guidelines this week to help higher education institutions navigate “competency-based education” and how and if they’re eligible to receive Title IV funds while doing so.

    The city of Chicagosays it is closing 54 public schools in order to address over a $1 billion in deficit that the CPS faces. Some 30,000 students will be affected by the decision. The majority of the schools are in Black neighborhoods. According to mayor Rahm Emanuel, the decision was a difficult one. (He’s been on vacation skiing, but did not offer a ski slope grading metaphor to explain just how difficult.) The mayor says the city closed the schools so that “all children in Chicago receive a quality education.” I call “bullshit.”

    Maineplans to revise its contract for supplying the state’s public schools with computers as part of its one-to-one laptop program. That means schools can purchase tablets, not just laptops.

    MIT says it plans to release documents relating to Aaron Swartz’s prosecution (Swartz, who committed suicide in January, was arrested in 2011 for downloading a massive number of JSTOR articles while using the MIT network.) More details via The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    The Utah legislature has passed a law that would create a “cloud-based student achievement ‘backpack,”” allowing students and parents to access their education records from their entire school career, all in one place. Utah has earmarked $250,000 for this — a budget and a process to keep an eye on, particularly in light of the $100,000,000 that the Gates Foundation has poured into its student data infrastructure, InBloom.

    California’s higher education faculty are pushing back on the proposed legislation that would require the state’s colleges and universities to grant transfer credit for online courses. In a letter, the UC Faculty Senate write, ““First, limits on student access to the courses this bill targets are in large part the result of significant reductions in public state higher education funding, especially over the last six years. Second, the clear self-interest of for profit corporations in promoting the privatization of public higher education through this legislation is dismaying. In fact, UC’s graduation rates and time to degree performance show that access to courses for our students is not an acute issue as it may be in the other segments. Lastly, the faculty of the University of California, through the Academic Senate, approves courses for credit at the University and reviews courses offered for transfer credit to determine whether they cover the same material with equal rigor. There is no possibility that UC faculty will shirk its responsibility to our students by ceding authority over courses to any outside agency.”

    Testing Failures

    The Providence Student Union published this week the results of an experiment it conducted: giving 50 “successful adults” a math test based on the New England Common Assessment Program. In the state of Rhode Island, a new requirement says that students must achieve a score of at least “Partially Proficient” to graduate high school. 60% of the adults received a lower score. A publicity stunt? Sure. But it certainly does raise lots of questions about what sorts of things we should put on a test if we’re going to make a test mandatory for graduation.

    Obligatory Section on MOOCs

    Coursera’s Contractual Elitism,” reads the headline in the Inside Higher Ed that examines the contracts that the online education startup is offering various universities who come on board. These contracts stipulate that Coursera will only partner with “elite institutions” (members of the Association of American Universities or “top five” universities in countries outside of North America). Funny way to “democratize higher education,” if you ask me.

    It’s Australia’s turn! Open Universities Australia, an online education organization, announced it was launching a MOOC platform called Open2Study. Participating universities include Macquarie University, RMIT University and the Central Institute of Technology and will offer 10 courses at launch including nursing, anthropology, financial planning and management.

    Launches and Upgrades

    Googlelaunched a new free tool this week called Keep — a note-taking and storage app for Android phones. Considering the fate of Google Notebook (axed) and more recently Google Reader (axed), I’m not sure why anyone would want to use it to “safely store” anything.

    Google also announced the availability of Chromebooks to schools in 6 more countries this week: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, and The Netherlands.

    Duolingo has released an updated version of its mobile app that includes offline mode and voice recognition. The language-learning and web-translation startup was one of my picks for the best education startups of 2011. More via Techcrunch.

    Khan Academy says that teachers can now create accounts for students under the age of 13.

    The launch of EA Game’s new SimCity has been fairly disastrous: issues of DRM, online-only requirements, and server failures. But hey, SimCityEDU has officially launched so I’m sure that’ll just be hours of problem-free city-building for schools to check out.

    Microsoft unveiled a new programming competition this week, the Imagine Cup Kodu Challenge. The Imagine Cup is the company’s college-level contest; this new one is aimed at developers age 9 to 18 who develop video games with Microsoft’s Kodu software.

    Downgrades and Closures

    Formspring, the Q&A site that was enormously popular with teens (prompting concerns about cyberbullying from some) is closing down at the end of the month.

    In news that should surprise no one, it appears that the Aakash tablet — the promised $35 device — faces an “uncertain future.” It’s already been plagued with problems: delays, the inability to meet demand. And now India’s Human Resource Development Ministry is expressing its doubts too, saying that it’s looking at other rival devices.

    Funding and Acquisitions

    The Walton Family Foundation (of Walmart wealth and fame) has given the non-profit GreatSchools a $7.5 million grant, bringing the total its given to the site that encourages parents to rate and review their schools to $13 million.

    Demand Media has acquired Creativebug, a website for video-based arts and crafts instruction. Yay! More content farms for education!

    Textbook publisher Macmillan has acquired Late Night Labs, a startup that creates virtualized science labs. (I covered Late Night Labs last year on Inside Higher Ed.)

    The language-learning startup Babbel has acquired the iOS app-maker PlaySay, reports The Next Web. PlaySay will be shuttered and the app pulled from iTunes. It’s part of a move to help the Berlin-based Babbel expand into the US.

    Techcrunch reports that Nearpod, an app that lets teachers project what’s on their screens onto their students’ iPads, has raised $1.5 million from New Schools Venture Fund.

    EverTrue, an alumni social network, has raised $5.25 million in a Series A led by Bain Capital Ventures. More via BostInno.

    Book Banning

    The Chicago Public Schools have pulled copies of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis from classrooms and library shelves. There have been numerous, conflicting stories from the district as to why this occurred — a clerical error, said one source; denying the book was banned from another; arguing that the book was inappropriate, said another.

    HR Changes

    Edsurge reports that Crystal Hutter, formerly the COO of Edmodo, has updated her LinkedIn profile — looks like she’s the CEO now. (Hutter’s husband, Rob Hutter, is the managing partner of Learn Capital and also serves as Edmodo’s Chairman.) Edmodo founder and former CEO Nic Borg is now chief product officer.

    The entire editorial board of the Journal of Library Administration has resigned over disagreements with the publication’s publishers Taylor & Francis about issues of open access and authors’ copyright. (Taylor & Francis’ says it owns it.)

    ”Research” and Data

    Another week, another reform group offers a report card for schools. This time, it’s the Digital Learning Now folks. (The organization is “a national campaign to advance policies that will create a high quality digital learning environment,” brought to you by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former West Virginia governor Bob Wise — so you know, totally non-partisan and stuff.) The report card is based on on “ten digital learning elements,” such as student access, funding, and personalized learning. Congrats Utah on getting the only A (and it’s an A- at that.) As USF professor Sherman Dorn tweeted, “If someone will issue a “state report card” giving CT, IL, MA, & ND A’s, we’ll have perfection: EVERY state will have both an A and an F.”

    The Chronicle of Higher Education published the results of a survey it conducted with professors who have taught MOOCs. (It was sent to 184 professors; 103 responded.) Among the findings: when asked if they believe “that students who succeed in MOOCs deserve formal credit from your home institution,” just 28% said yes. What can we learn from this? Well, among other things: that The Chronicle sorta sucks at making accurate pie charts. And that Techcrunch, which re-blogged the story with the headline “72% of Professors Who Teach Online Courses Don’t Think Their Students Deserve Credit,” can’t seem to regurgitate news accurately either.

    Back to School

    Malala Yousafzai has gone back to school. The young Pakistani girl and education activist was shot in an assassination attempt by the Taliban last year and has been recovering in the U.K. since then. Over 32 million girls around the world are prevented from going to school, and Malala says she will continue to advocate for girls' education.

    Image credits: Eddy Van 3000, because kittens...

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    To Save Everything, Click Here

    Since the publication of his first book, The Net Delusion, Evgeny Morozov has become one of the fiercest critics of the sweeping and giddy proclamations we hear about the liberatory power of Internet technologies. Morozov skewers with brilliant ferocity many of today’s best known “cyberintellectuals” (including Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Tim O’Reilly, Kevin Kelly, Tim Wu, and Jane McGonigal). That ferocity — in various publications as well as on Twitter — has won Morozov few fans in certain pro-tech camps. Indeed Jarvis describedMorozov’s review of his book Public Parts as having “the air of history’s longest troll comment.”

    His second book, To Save Everything, Click Here, offers a more measured Morozov. There are still moments of hyperbole and some fairly brutal zingers, to be sure. (He describes McGonigal as “a bad parody of Mitt Romney” for example.) But the book carefully draws on a wide range of political, philosophical, and historical works about science and technology, and as such, Morozov’s arguments are firmly rooted in canonical, cultural criticism and not simply in an easy-to-dismiss curmudgeon-hood.

    The book identifies two main ideologies — “Internet-centrism” and “technological solutionism” — that permeate the tech industry, its PR wing the tech blogosphere, and increasingly government policy and thus our public and our private lives. “Internet-centrism” connects to Morozov’s earlier arguments in The Net Delusion and describes the tendency to see “the Internet” — Morozov uses quotations around the phrase throughout the book — as a new yet unchanging, autonomous, and inevitable socio-technological development and a master framework for how all institutions will supposedly operate moving forward. “Technological solutionism” is the related tendency to identify simple answers — in all domains, not just the tech sector — “before the questions have been fully asked” or the problems fully articulated.

    Take, for example: “the Internet has changed everything about how we teach and learn.” Thus, “education is broken.” And from there, “technology will fix it.”

    Ed-Tech Solutionism

    Morozov does not explore education technology at any great length in his book (the writing of which, I imagine, coincided with the unfolding and escalating MOOC hype — otherwise I’m sure he’d have had much much more to say, particularly as he spends a good amount of time in To Save Everything questioning “our new fetish for digital openness”). Nevertheless, his book does draw on the theories of several important education philosophers, including John Dewey and Ivan Illich, an intellectual heritage that should serve to remind us of the ways in which the theories of teaching and learning (not to mention schooling) are deeply interwoven into our formulations of democracy and public life.

    Even without Morozov addressing ed-tech solutionism specifically, one can readily recognize its existence in the examples he explores. Open government, data- and algorithm-based decision-making, the quantified self movement — none of these exist terribly far afield from ed-tech; all are, in fact, connected to many of the majortrends that myself and others have identified in the sector.

    I would contend too that my ability to scribble “see also: education” in the margins throughout To Save Everything speaks to the ways in which much of ed-tech (as well as the journalism that’s been cultivated to cover it) easily fits into Morozov’s larger arguments about Silicon Valley: context-free, deeply ahistorical, and suffering from a poverty of theory but certainly not from a lack of ambition.

    Ed-tech solutionism is evident in the tools and particularly in the trade mags: where everything is disruptively innovative and wonderful and, oh hell yeah, well-funded; where — wow, thanks Stanford! — online education is a brand new development; where classroom practices get “gamified”; where learning to code is Sputnik 2.0; where teaching math is just like teaching reading is just like teaching programming is just like teaching physics — it’s all “content delivery,” right? — but in this brave new “Internet-centric” world, who needs teachers anyway when you have engineers, algorithms, autodidacts, and, of course, videos of Salman Khan?!

    Silicon Valley certainly eyes education as “ripe for revolution” (not to mention, of course, ripe for profit-making) — there’s no hiding the industry’s intentions — but as Morozov’s work underscores, these “quick fixes [technological solutionism] peddles do not exist in a political vacuum.”

    The Industry, the Government, and the Quantified Student

    The recent fervor in education and technology circles for “data” is certainly a case in point. More data — more tracking and sharing of student and teacher data and by extension evaluation of their “performance”; more algorithms devised from what’s being gathered — promises to make education more efficient, more accountable, more personalized. And it’s not just a promise either; it’s policy — an effort supported by established corporate players in education (textbook publishers, the testing industry, the software industry), by startups (funded oftentimes by those very corporate giants), philanthropic organizations (also funded by the same folks), and politicians (once again, follow the money).

    As such it’s here, with education data, that technological solutionism and Internet-centrism most obviously collide: the ubiquity of computing devices, now in the hands of more teachers and students, not to mention learning analytics and data-tracking and data-storage systems in the hands of administrators and politicians — are supposed to bring about an entirely new epoch in the “science” of schooling. (It's a new epoch in the "science" of schooling that sure looks a lot like that old one of B.F. Skinner's.)

    So here too, Morozov’s insights might be most applicable, helping to interrogate a growing fixation with data, modeling, and measurement — he uses predictive policing and the quantified self movement as his examples — and to raise questions about the means and the ends of efforts like the Gates Foundation-funded inBloom, along with all the various systems and practices -- RFID tagging, CIPA-mandated logging, LMS tracking -- that students are subject to, often without their knowledge, let alone their consent. The end that Morozov envisions from all this: the stripping away our democracy, if not our very humanity.

    So his book urges us to ask — of tech and, I’d add as well, of ed-tech: what exactly do we mean by optimization — optimized for what and for whom? Who builds and who audits the algorithms that purport to steer students forward through subject material? What subject material is important? Who says so, and why? Who wants to build more automated classroom software, more robot teachers, and why? Why is efficiency, particularly when it comes to learning, something we’d want to pursue? Why do we suppose that more data means better teaching, let alone means better learning? By what means? To what end?

    Morozov argues that,

    This flight from thinking and the urge to replace human judgments with timeless truths produced by algorithms is the underlying driving force of solutionism. Bruno Latour distinguishes between “matters of facts,” the old unrealistic way of presenting all knowledge claims as stable, natural, and apolitical, and “matters of concern,” a more realistic mode that recognizes that knowledge claims are usually partial and reflect a particular set of problems, interests, and agendas. For Latour, one way to reform our political system is to acknowledge that knowledge is made of matters of concern and to identify all those affected by such matters; the proliferation of self-tracking—and the displacement of thinking by numbers—risks forever grounding us in the matters-of-fact paradigm. Once we abandon thinking for optimizing, it becomes much more difficult not only to enact but to actually imagine possible reforms of the system being “measured” and “tracked.”

    As the education system — and the ed-tech industry that is prepping itself to both serve and steer it — becomes more and more obsessed with numbers and facts and with building algorithms that both explain and shape it, are we sacrificing what Morozov (drawing on Martha Nussbaum) describes as the “narrative imagination” for a “numeric imagination”?

    “Where narrative imagination is self-reflexive — it’s painfully aware that in order to account for the world, it also needs to account for the observer—numeric imagination believes in objective, firm accounts of reality out there; these accounts are timeless and never expire.” Somehow, all that matters in the numeric imagination, are how well American students score on standardized test scores — as if that is a measurement that could ever capture the complexity of an individual’s learning, let alone an entire nation’s education system.

    But as politicians and policies and parents and headlines insist: numbers matter. Test scores matter. So ed-tech solutionism steps in to offer a (somewhat) new way to obsess over them — by testing and tracking students more regularly and rigorously, by metering their every mouse click, by acting as though students are machines themselves that can be installed, upgraded, recoded, and rebooted as the latest apps and algorithms might dictate.

    Constructing a world preoccupied only with the most efficient outcomes—rather than with the processes through which those outcomes are achieved—is not likely to make them aware of the depth of human passion, dignity, and respect. We don’t earn our dignity by collecting badges; we do it by behaving in a dignified manner, often in situations in which we have other options. Tinker with this spiritual pasture, and those options might go away—along with the very possibility of dignity.

    And my, how (ed-)tech loves to tinker.

    Technostructuralism and Tinkering with Ed-Tech

    So what do we make of the tinkering? Utopian and dystopian readings likely see very different outcomes in these technological developments: a challenge to outmoded practices and institutions on one hand; privatization and profiteering on the other; personalized learning on one hand; a well-scripted, but ultimately scripted, curriculum on the other; open access and opportunity on one hand; surveillance and standardization on the other.

    Morozov claims to reject both cyber-utopianism and cyber-dystopian. Despite his savage critiques of Silicon Valley and his dour outlook on the future, Morozov insists that he’s neither anti-tech nor a “techno-pessimist.” Instead, he appeals throughout the book to what he calls “technostructuralism,” a framework for examining technologies not as “good” or “bad” or “neutral,” but as situated, constructed, social, and deeply deeply political. “Technostructuralists,” he argues, “view information technologies ‘neither as technologies of freedom nor of tyranny but primarily as technologies of power that lock into existing or emerging technostructures of power.’ Thus, any given technology is allowed to centralize and decentralize, homogenize and pluralize, empower and disempower simultaneously.”

    But it’s worth pushing Morozov on this point, I think: should the scenarios that he postulates for our future— and they are, no doubt, powerfully nightmarish scenarios — stop us from tinkering? Or in other words, should we tinker more with our political, social and education institutions, in the hopes perhaps of dismantling less? (Because let's not kid ourselves, there are plenty of folks, to misquote Grover Norquist, who want to shrink public education down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.)

    As Morozov frames his arguments in To Save Everything— and he does so incredibly carefully when it comes to political and social theory — I worry that this technostructuralist mode overlooks users’ agency, appropriation, resistance, and (mis!)use of technologies. If not overlooks, then misreads. Or, perhaps, and this is how I imagine Morozov would respond, it always situates them within solutionism. Nevertheless the recognition of an outside to or an escape from technological solutionism is crucial, I would argue, if we are to combat the ideologies that Morozov identifies in his book. (Are these ideologies totalizing? That would seem so… solutionist.)

    How do we distinguish between ed-tech as solutionist marketing (what you hear in (ed-)tech blogs that gush uncritically about every new app and every new investment) and ed-tech as contingency-in-practice (the ways in which students and teachers have always MacGyver-ed together the tools that they need — hacks for inquiry and pleasure, despite a regime that might demand otherwise)? Because do so — distinguish, dismiss, agitate — we must.

    Ed-Tech’s Neuroscientific Turn

    I’ve been told quite often that I’m too negative. Too critical. Too unsupportive of education technology entrepreneurship. Too loud. Too mean. And lately, I’ve wanted to retort, "Maybe. But I’m no Evgeny Morozov” — even though, truth be told, I think ed-tech desperately needs one. Ed-tech, once so deeply grounded in progressive educational theory and practice, has been largely emptied of both.

    There have been brave anonymous commenters here too that have suggested I’m too reliant on continental philosophy. That instead of being the “post-modernist wannabe ‘foucault’ of ed tech , I should “go teach a few years of K–12 with some real kids.” In such formulations, apparently teaching is distinct from theory, the classroom distinct from critique. Solutionism, no doubt, has far-reaching tentacles. Solutionism serves to foreclose critique.

    I have to imagine that Morozov has been similarly charged — too much “talk” and not enough “action” or something (laughable, if you know his background) along those lines. In some ways, Morozov predicts this criticism in To Save Everything when he contends that we have witnessed a “triumph of psychology over philosophy.” All the carefully crafted arguments he makes -- all the rich references to political and social theory -- matter for naught if someone can appeal instead to another field. And that’s clearly the case in education and ed-tech, where neuroscience (of both the armchair and academic varieties) claims that it can provide us with all we need to know about teachers and students, about cognitive development, competency, and their measurements. That triumph comes, in no small part, because psychology and neuroscience carry the markers of science and truth, while philosophy "merely" gives us agonism and contingency, neither of which can be packaged neatly into ed-tech policies surrounding curriculum standards and assessments, neither of which make us turn, when looking for a quick and easy solution to the woes of the public school system, to an app in the education section of iTunes.

    Am I too negative? Is Morozov? Maybe. If you prefer, you are welcome to bask in the sunny shininess of ed-tech solutionism which wants to sell you technology so you can share and like and score and learn (ha, maybe) more seamlessly. It wants to sell you an app (or two or three, plus hardware!) to download, all with the promise of a fix for education, an institution whose purpose we can't all agree upon, let alone all articulate if or how or why it’s broken.

    But it's broken, Silicon Valley repeatedly tells us. It's broken. So click here. Save it.

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    Amapolas magicas *

    Education Law and Politics

    Hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets of Chicago this week to protest the city’s plans to close 53 elementary schools and one high school. Dozens were arrested. African American students account for 90% of those affected by school closings, even though they make up just 42% of the public school student population. For more details, see School Cuts, a website that uses the city’s open data to share more information (including student body demographics) on the schools affected by the impending closures.

    The Texas House voted 145–2 to reduce high-stakes testing in the state. Currently students in Texas are required to take 15 high-stakes tests in order to graduate; the new law would only require 5, in algebra, biology, U.S. history and 10th-grade reading and writing.

    President Obamasigned a bill to fund government operations for the rest of the fiscal year. It will also restore tuition aid for the military and limit NSF funding for political science research.

    New Jersey governor Chris Christie announced this week that the state is assuming control of the Camden City School District, pointing to the district’s low graduation rate and students’ poor academic performance. Thanks to Matthew Di Carlo from the Shanker Institute for a clear look at the data: “NJ officials have justified their decision to the public based in large part on the argument that Camden schools are severely ineffective, but their evidence doesn’t really come close to supporting that conclusion.” Maybe there’s a tech CEO that can donate $100 million to the state to help?

    HEY! Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is exploring forming a SuperPAC, according to SFGate, that will target a number of issues including immigration and education reform. “Sources say the group is bringing on Jon Lerner, the Republican strategist who founded Maryland-based Red Sea LLC and who is behind the conservative Club for Growth. Joining him will be ultra-conservative GOP consultant Rob Jesmer, a former strategist with Texas Sen. John Cornyn and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.” I’m gonna go reread Zuck’s “The Hacker Way” to see what it says about SuperPACs…

    Legislation in North Carolina will force schools tono use digital materials in lieu of printed textbooks by 2017. Schools will be allowed to spend money that’s been allocated for textbooks on technology. But according to the, the state has slashed textbook funding in order to balance the budget, and there isn’t any money earmarked for devices. Sounds like a winning plan.

    The Department of Justicehas reached an agreement with the Meridian Public School District in Mississippi“to end harsh disciplinary practices in which black students face harsher punishment than whites for similar misbehavior. The agreement comes after a lengthy federal investigation that found that black public school students in Meridian are five times more likely than whites to be suspended from classes and often got longer suspensions for comparable misbehavior.”

    The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take on another affirmative action in higher ed case, stemming from a Michigan referendum that banned public universities in the state from considering race in admissions decisions. (Lower courts have ruled that this was unconstitutional.) The Court is also considering Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin this term.

    The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports that Fulton County prosecutors are close to seeking indictments stemming from test-cheating uncovered in the Atlanta Public Schools. “In July 2011, three special investigators found cheating on standardized tests occurred at 44 Atlanta schools and involved 178 educators, including 38 principals.” Lawyers close to the probe say “a large number of people” could be indicted. UPDATE: while I was penning this post, the news crossed the wireFormer Atlanta school Superintendent Beverly Hall has been indicted on 65 counts. She and 34 others have been charged with racketeering.

    A proposed bill in Tennessee would cut a family’s welfare benefits by 30% if a child fails a grade. “It’s really just something to try to get parents involved with their kids,” said the bill’s sponsor, state Senator Stacey Campfield, who has no plans to punish affluent families for poor school performance.

    The Scholarly Kitchen blog has taken down posts relating to Edwin Mellen Publishers, after receiving legal threats from the company. The posts in question deal with the publisher’s lawsuits against librarian Dale Askey and McMaster University (EMP is suing Askey for libel, based on negative reviews about it.) To make an unfortunate story even odder, some sleuthing has uncovered that the publisher has registered domain names relating to Askey, including

    Vagina Vagina Vagina Vagina

    An Idaho high school biology teacher is being investigated by the state’s professional standards commission after complaints from 4 parents that he said “vagina” during a lesson on human reproduction. Apparently the teacher also showed An Inconvenient Truth in class, so clearly he’s a dangerous, science-y sort. .

    Launches and Upgrades

    Dave Winer, podcasting and blogging pioneer and developer of RSS, has a new company, Small Pictures, which released its first product this week: Little Outliner. As the name would suggest, the browser-based tool is great for outlining writing projects.

    Googleannounced a trial that will use white space (that is, unused TV spectrum) to distribute broadband Internet to schools in South Africa.

    Kuato Studios has launched an iPad game called Hakitzu that teaches JavaScript. Wired’s GeekMom blog has a review of the game. (iTunes link)

    Pearson says that it will allow libraries to purchase and lend Penguin e-books. So thoughtful.


    Tinkercad, a browser-based 3D CAD tool (often used in conjunction with 3D printing), is closing down. All academic accounts will be switched to read-only, effective August 31, 2013.


    The digital textbook startup Boundless is losing another co-founder, as CTO Aaron White says he’s stepping down from the company. (Another co-founder, Brian Balfour, departed last year.) The third co-founder, CEO Arial Diaz, remains (as does thelawsuit from the publishing industry, charging the startup with copyright infringement.)

    Wikimedia Foundation executive director Sue Gardner is stepping down. The Wikimedia Foundation is the non-profit that manages Wikipedia.

    Obligatory MOOC Section

    Harvard is asking its alumni to donate their time as online mentors and discussion group facilitators on the edX platform. Because, ya know, the adjunctification of higher education wasn’t bad enough; let’s have TAs work for free!

    Udacity is piloting Course Pods, “in-person tutorials for online courses” beginning with its Intro to Computer Science class. The Course Pods will meet once a week for an hour.

    Google has funded an associate professor in the Indiana University School of Education to develop a new acronym — a BOOC or “Big Open Online Course.” No, I jest. Google has given Professor Daniel Hickey a $50,000 grant to offer a class titled “Assessment Practices, Principles and Policies,” which will use Google’s CourseBuilder platform and be open to 500 students.

    Non-MOOC Class News

    The University of Washington will offer its first online-only degree program, reports GeekWire. The Early Childhood and Family Studies degree will launch this fall and will cost students $160 per credit.

    Enrollment in California’s community colleges has reached a 20-year low and course offerings a 15-year low, thanks to the slashing of the state’s education budget.

    Funding and Acquisitions

    EduKwest’s Kirsten Winkler reports that the language-learning site Babbel has raised $10 million in a Series B round led by Reed Elsevier Ventures with participation of Nokia Growth Partners. (Babbel was in the news last week for its acquisition of the mobile app company PlaySay.)

    The private student loan group SoFi announced that it has “secured a $60 million warehouse line from Morgan Stanley.” SoFi connects students to alumni who invest in a pool of loans for their alma mater. According to the SoFi press release, “This announcement comes two weeks after Sallie Mae, the largest U.S. student lender, sold $1.1 billion of securities backed by private student loans, according to the Wall Street Journal. The popularity of this sale demonstrated investor interest in student loan credit.” Wheeeeeee!

    Amazon has acquired the social reading site Goodreads. PaidContent’s Laura Hazard Owen interviewed Amazon and Goodreads execs on the deal. So will Amazon get the Goodreads data? Yup — another good reminder that we need to ask “who owns our (education) data?”

    “Research” and Data

    The mean base salary for (non-faculty) professionals in higher ed is up 2% from last year, reports Inside Higher Ed. But with a 2.1% rate of inflation, most “lost purchasing power.”

    The National Association of State Budget Officers has released a report (funded by the Gates Foundation) on the state of higher ed funding. According to Inside Higher Ed, it confirms that “that the proportion of state spending going to higher education is lower than in the past, and that per-capita spending on higher education has gone down more than similar spending on prisons and Medicaid.”

    According to a report from the market research firm Ambient Insight, “the mobile mearning market in Asia is in a boom phase,” with revenues projected to reach $6.8 billion by 2017. The report, which suggests that Asian countries are spending more on mobile learning than on e-learning, will run you $3875, suggesting that the market for white papers is also pretty damn strong.

    Although the recent MetLife Survey of the American Teacher found that teachers’ job satisfaction was at a 25-year low, the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index said this week that teachers are happy— or at least “teachers ranked above all other professions in answers to questions about whether they ‘smiled or laughed yesterday,’ as well as whether they experienced happiness and enjoyment the day before the survey.” 

    Take the source with a grain of salt here, but Kaplan Test Prep surveyed students to see if they’d prefer to take the SAT on a computer or via the ol’ No. 2 pencil and paper route. And more than four out of five said they prefer the latter.

    ProPublica has published a report investigating the “growing burden of college fees.” Take Auburn University, for example, where mandatory fees “now make up 16 percent of an in-state student’s combined tuition and fee costs.”

    The Brookings Institution has published a report on “ed-tech success stories.” The successes: robot-assisted language learning, MOOCs, Minecraft, Computerized Adaptive Testing, and stealth assessments. It’s always great to read the endnotes on things like this and see what think tanks “count” as “research.” In this case, sources where you can learn about ed-tech success include CNET, TIME, PC Gamer, PC Magazine, Forbes, the Minecraft wiki, and Dan Lortie’s book Schoolteacher, published in 1975.

    Photo credits: jacinta lluch valero

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    There has been an incredible amount of hype and fear and confusion and excitement surrounding inBloom, a Gates Foundation-funded initiative to build a new data infrastructure for public schools. One such promise: better interoperability will streamline schools’ handling of data. Another promise: more access to student data will help companies build tools to “enhance personalized learning.” One major fear: more thorough data capture and data processing will result in an unprecedented invasion of student privacy.

    InBloom, which had its formal launch at SXSWedu, boasts 9 states (Delaware, Massachusetts, Colorado, Louisiana, New York, Illinois, North Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky) that will pilot the program. Many companies are on board too, with plans to use and integrate inBloom data. These include Amazon, Clever, Compass Learning, Dell, eScholar, Goalbook, Kickboard, LearnSprout, Promethean, Scholastic, and Schoology (for the complete list of inBloom partners, see here).

    But as inBloom moves forward, many questions remain, and not simply as Information Week recently and patronizingly suggested, because the project is “understandably obscure to the average PTA mom.” Indeed, Bill Fitzgerald, co-founder of the open source education company FunnyMonkey has posted a number of questions on his blog after diving into the technical specifications: What is a “unique state identifier”? Which states use Social Security Numbers for student records? Will inBloom data be used to screen students’ immigration status? Why is corporate punishment not tracked? What student characteristics really matter, and what’s the educational goal (versus the administrative goal, perhaps) of tracking some of this data?

    So in an attempt to get some clarity over what inBloom will gather, how long it will store it, and what recourse parents have who want to opt out, I sent the following questions to the company. Comments from inBloom’s spokesperson are below:

    1) Is this one database? Or does each state, district, school have a separate database? Will inBloom ever allow researchers to access datasets across unrelated states, districts, or schools? If so, how will these proposals be vetted, and will students and parents within affected schools be notified/given a choice to participate?

    inBloom is not creating a national database. It is providing a secure data service to help school districts manage the information needed for learning, and to support local educational goals. Only school districts decide who has access to that information and for what purpose. Student data will not be combined across states; each participating state and district will have its own protected space in the inBloom service, and they will continue to manage and control access to their student data based on local policies. There is no public or third-party access to data unless it is authorized by a school district or state educational agency to support a local priority. inBloom does not offer any research or aggregated reporting beyond what school districts or state educational agencies implement.

    2) What is the delay on open sourcing the infrastructure?

    inBloom is committed to making its technology open, and code for a number of applications is already available to developers. inBloom is planning to deliver full source code in the third quarter of 2013. There are two areas of work that are taking longer than we expected. The first is the restructuring of our internal development teams and processes to support and accept code contribution from the community. We want to get there as quickly as possible, and we are adding resources to the team to be able to move faster. The second is developing the business relationships and ensuring interoperability of any resulting new instances of services that result from our code. Our core mission is about interoperability, so while code will be available, we need business structures with potential partners to ensure we can deliver on that goal. As an aside, it’s important to note that the open sourcing of code does not in any way impact the security of student data stored in the inBloom service. The management of the open source code-base and the operation of the production service are completely separate.

    3) inBloom states that it needs to agree to store SSNs. What circumstances would lead inBloom to refuse to store SSN’s if a school, district, or state wanted to use them as identifiers?

    inBloom discourages using social security numbers as student IDs. It’s best practice to use unique student IDs that are not social security numbers. Not all states and districts have made this transition yet, so we would not refuse such a request (but we would want to be aware that this info is being stored).

    4) How long will students’ data be stored? How long will educators’ data be stored?

    The inBloom service is able to store multiple years of data, so states and districts can choose what data they want to store and for how long. Some will choose to store historical achievement and enrollment information to power reporting applications that help make sense of a student’s entire academic career.

    5) What is the business model for inBloom?

    inBloom is an independent, nonprofit organization that is committed to keeping its operating costs and service fees low to support sustainable, cost-effective personalized learning. Thanks to initial funding from the Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, we are able to offer our 9 pilot states and districts the secure data service and Learning Registry Index for free until 2015. Later in 2013 we will begin working with additional state and district customers, who will pay a nominal per-student license for our services. inBloom has done significant cost benefit analysis, and we project that states and districts who invest in three or more personalized learning tools per year will typically save $5–10 per student on application integration costs, easily recouping inBloom’s license fees. We are also exploring approaches to recover costs from providers who benefit from using our service to serve their customers.

    6) Much of the focus has been on standardizing the data – are you standardizing data-related policies too? Does inBloom plan to help states/districts negotiate the permissions that companies might want granted in order to access to data (that is, those who want to collect or use or store student data)?

    inBloom is providing states and districts with tools to make data management easier, but the districts retain ownership and control of their data and their data policies. Our security model was designed around the core belief that school districts have the responsibility and authority to manage student records and determine legitimate educational need through their own policies and processes.

    7) Can parents opt out? Or, has inBloom considered an opt-in model? If not, why not?

    Under the law and as reaffirmed in our policies, only school districts can determine who has access to student data and for what purposes. inBloom is not authorized to alter or remove student records from its data store; those records are owned and controlled solely by the school districts. Parents should contact their child’s school district to inquire about their policies.

    8) What data is being collected by inBloom that is different than states are currently collecting? For new data fields, how has inBloom decided which student characteristics to track?

    While many states tend to collect year-end data for policy and research purposes, districts store a variety of classroom-level learning data created by instructional tool such as local quiz and assessment applications, online games for learning, student portfolios, and teacher daily grade books. States and districts will store the same data with inBloom that they were previously collecting and storing in other places. The inBloom data model is based on CEDS, which means it’s capable of storing a wide variety of information, but school districts don’t have to populate all the fields of the data store – they will store only the information that is relevant for their learning or administrative purposes, and districts will control who sees what information and for what purposes.

    I’ll follow up in a separate post with some thoughts on these responses and further questions they prompt me to ask — and not just ask inBloom, I should add, but ask all states and districts and schools about their data tracking plans (and the transparency surrounding them).

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    Rock Em Sock Em Robots

    Happy 30th anniversary to A Nation at Risk, and congratulations to all the reformers who’ve managed to maintain the chant that “schools are broken” with such steady determination for three decades!

    Law and Politics

    A new bill proposed in the California state legislature would create a fourth division of the state’s higher education system. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, it would establish the “New University of California,” “an institution with no faculty and no tuition that, like the University of California, would be governed by a board of 11 trustees and one chancellor.” No teachers. Lots of administrators. Sounds like a revolution to me.

    The North Carolina State House voted unanimously this week to require elementary students be taught cursive and memorize their multiplication tables. The sponsor of the bill said that cursive is "a skill that’s needed in the larger world and is thought to be a requirement for a well-rounded educated person.”

    Oregon governor John Kitzhaber signed into law this week a bill that grants in-state tuition to undocumented Oregon high school graduates. Eligible students must have attended school in the US for at least five years; studied at an Oregon high school for at least three years, and graduated; and show intention to become a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.

    Great headline from the Electronic Frontier Foundation highlighting the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a piece of legislation that’s been used by the Department of Justice to prosecute folks like Aaron Swartz. According to some interpretations, violating a website’s Terms of Service is a crime. Hence the headline: “Are You A Teenager Who Reads News Online? According to the Justice Department, You May Be a Criminal.” After all, many news sites state in their TOS that they cannot be used by those under 18.

    Launches and Upgrades

    Check out Episode 1 of Adafruit’s new science series for kids, Circuit Playground. Adafruit Industries is a DIY electronics marketplace. Founder “Ladyada” Limor Fried is featured in the first video — “A is for Ampere” — along with a friendly robot Adabot.

    The open-access publishing startup (one of my picks for the best education startups of 2012) announced this week that textbook publisher De Gruyter will offer 100 of its titles on the crowdfunding platform. Books that raise $2100 will be “unglued” — released in a DRM-free digital format under a Creative Commons license.


    Texas high school student Kyron Birdine was suspended this week for writing YOLO on a state-mandated standardized test and tweeting about it. As Gawker reports, Birdine and his peers “are being forced to take both the new State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) test and the old Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test, even though only the TAKS will count.”

    Obligatory MOOC Section

    Stanford isn’t joining edX, but it is planning to work with the MOOC initiative on the code-base for the edX platform. EdX announced this week its timeline for open-sourcing that platform (June 1), and Stanford says it will contribute features from its Class2Go platform. Among the projects that will be open-sourced: code for the edX LMS; Studio, a course authoring tool; xBlock, an API for integrating third-party learning objects; and machine grading API’s.

    The Saylor Foundationannounced that it’s made agreements with 7 colleges and universities that will offer transfer credits to students who pass exams after taking Saylor’s free online courses. The institutions: Charter Oak State College, The City University of New York (CUNY) Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies, Colorado Technical University, Excelsior College, Granite State College, Thomas Edison State College, and the University of Maryland - University College; and the classes are Corporate Communications, Western Political Thought, and Business Law & Ethics.

    Non-MOOC Classes and Course Materials

    George Mason University history professor Mills Kelly will no longer offer his infamous “Lying About the Past” course after a undergraduate committee rejected a proposal to make the course part of the history department’s core curriculum. “Lying About the Past” has received a lot of notoriety as one of the projects involved students creating a historical hoax and releasing it online (for example, via a Wikipedia entry). That made Jimmy Wales angry. And no one likes Jimmy Wales when he’s angry…

    Phoenix College math instructor James Sousa has posted some 2,600 video tutorials online, all under a CC BY-NC-SA license. Sousa, who has been teaching math for 15+ years, has posted all the work on YouTube as well as on More details via the Creative Commons blog.

    Funding and Acquisitions

    Rosetta Stone has acquired the Seattle-based language learning community Livemocha for $8.5 million, reports Techcrunch. Rosetta Stone remains the giant in the language learning industry, but it’s moving slowly to transition away from boxed software (sold at airports). Livemocha’s 16 million member community is one step in that direction.

    The reference and information services company Credo has, which the company contends will help it boost its services by connecting “students to on-staff, state-certified tutors at their point of need.”

    Haiku Deck, an iPad presentation app, has raised $3 million in Series A funding led by Trilogy Partnership and including existing investors Madrona Venture Group and Founders Co-Op, reports Techcrunch.

    The Australian textbook startup Zookal has raised $1.2 million in funding. Zookal buys university textbooks, then rents them to students.

    Hires and Fires and Other HR News

    No, McDonalds is not requiring cashiers to have a Bachelors Degree. Reports to that effect circulated this week, coinciding quite nicely with the narrative that college degrees are oversold. The AP clarifies that a third party job search site added the requirements, not the fast food giant.

    Rutgers University has fired its basketball coach Mike Rice after video surfaced of him physically and verbally abusing his players — shoving them, throwing basketballs at them, calling them gay slurs. The team’s assistant coach has resigned, the university’s athletic director is out too, and there are rumors that the Rutgers president might be the next to go.

    But in some awesome Rutgers news, Joyce Valenza — blogger, librarian, champion of kids’ digital literacy, and all around nice person — is joining the faculty of the university’s School of Communication and Information.

    Techcrunch reports that “Aardvark Co-Founder Max Ventilla Departs Google To Read A Lot Of Books On Education.” The Q&A site Aardvark was acquired by Google in 2010. And apparently, based on a photo that his wife posted to Twitter, Ventilla is reading about education. Journalism.

    Research and Data

    President Obama has proposed a new $100 million initiative — the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies, or BRAIN for short. Pretty clever, huh. The plan is to map the human brain. Many scientists are non-plussed.

    The data journalists at The Guardian have launched the US Student Debt Project, a series on… well… US student debt. Drilling down into the data is important as many people throw around numbers without much thought or criticism: take for example the difference between the average student loan debt owed in the US ($24,301) — this is the number you hear most folks cite — and the size of the median student loan debt in the US ($13,600). And all those students who are saddled with “hundreds of thousands in student loan debt”? Just 3% of borrowers take out more than $100,000 in loans. Debt still sucks though. Trust me. I know.

    Education Journalism “Digs Deep”

    UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton and Chapman University will pay $275,000 apiece to the OC Register for “a half-page ad in each of 45 sections over the next year, along with feature stories, events coverage, personality profiles and other light fare produced by Register staffers.”

    In other totally non-biased education news, tune in all month for a special series on online education in the pages of PandoDaily— sponsored by the venture capital firm Accel Partners. “Education is broken,” writes founder Sarah Lacey, so her tech blog is going to “dig deep” into the online education trend. Wheee!

    Photo credits: Chris Christian

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  • 04/11/13--16:57: On "Hacking" Education
  • Johnson's camp

    Facebook and the Gates Foundation have teamed up (again) to hold education hackathons at the social networking giant’s Menlo Park and London offices this month. The name of the event: HackEd.

    Needless to say, nobody from this similarly named blog was invited. I’m not surprised. I fit into neither the organizations’ agenda(s) nor their guest list of of those “ed-tech advocates, top-shelf technologists, and education experts” working to “solve mission-critical problems in education systems around the world” — if for no other reason than I’m not convinced there’s a Facebook app for that.

    Despite the similarities in the names HackEd and Hack Education, I’m not terribly concerned about branding confusion. The differences between us, I'm confident, are fairly obvious. And for me to claim a trademark (now or ever) on those two terms side-by-side would surely run counter to my vision of “hacking education.”

    But what do others mean by that phrase?

    Indeed, what interests me far more than a Gates Foundation/Facebook-sponsored app-building challenge is the increasing usage of the word “hack” to talk about what folks are planning to do to education: there’s Dale Stephens’ new book Hacking Your Education, for example. Steve Hargadon’s recent tour “Hack Your Education.”’s “Hacking Education” contest from a few years ago. VC Fred Wilson has also written about “hacking education,” and his firm Union Square Ventures has held a conference with the same name. You can “hack your dissertation, “hack schooling,” “hack college,” and, of course, “hack into your school computer network” and change your grades. A headline in PandoDaily yesterday read “Education is a hack, in a good way.”

    So what exactly do we mean when we use the word “hack”?

    Here’s the blurb on my personal blog that describes my naming of this site and gestures towards a definition:

    “To ‘hack’ can mean a lot of things: To break in and break down. To cut to the core. To chop roughly. To be playful and clever. To be mediocre. To solve a problem, but to do so rather inelegantly. To pull systems apart. To ‘MacGyver’ things back together. To re-code. To rebuild. To ‘Hack Education,’ in turn, has multiple interpretations: a technological solution, a technology intrusion, a technological possibility, a technological disaster.”

    I think there’s much to like about the ambiguity of the term “hack.” But, as Zac Chase argued in a recent blog post, there’s still reason to pause and consider how it might be misused when applied to education. “We might not be hacking when we say we’re hacking," he writes, "and we might not be hacking what we say we’re hacking."

    “Saying we are hacking a subsection of education like classroom management when we mean questioning classroom management approaches, researching proven effective practices of classroom management, and developing plans for the implementation of those practices of classroom management misleads others about what we hope to accomplish and makes it more difficult to call hacking hacking when we truly intend to do it.”

    Is every proposed change to the education system — or even just those changes that involve technology — a “hack”? Does every educational app “hack” how we learn? Is anyone who agitates for change, particularly anyone who uses technology for teaching and learning, a “hacker” (or “hackademic,” or “hacktivist” or what have you)? If so, it does seem likely that, as Chase contends, we’ve purged all meaning from the term.

    But it could be too that, in addition to a dilution of meaning, we’re seeing something else: a purposeful appropriation of elements of a subculture— or at least a noun and a verb that describe it — by corporate forces. Let us note, for example, the great irony of Mark Zuckerberg invoking “The Hacker Way” as part of his IPO filing. And today too, Zuckerberg officially announced he has formed SuperPAC with other technology investors and CEOs which will focus on education and immigration reform. Will Facebook's powerful branding message of "hacking education" be there too?

    No doubt many of these sorts of projects — and they are political, not merely technological — to “hack education” are intertwined with what Evgeny Morozov calls “technological solutionism” — the notion there's a quick and easy “solution” (a “hack”?) that will make society shinier, more efficient, and ah! more perfect, all while failing to really recognize the messiness of problems and the great value in deliberating about them. And as I recently argued when I reviewed Morozov's latest book, it’s quite easy to see how “solutionism” underlies much of the tech industry’s efforts in education. It’s quite easy to see how “hacking education” easily veers towards "ed-tech solutionism."

    Not for me. Not here. I’ll keep the contested slipperiness of the term “hack” (grumbling about it some days, for sure) but I’ll ask questions about the intentions and technologies and power and politics of what that means. And when some folks say they’re “hacking education,” damn, I’ll (yak and) hack right back.

    Photo credits: Rick Philipps

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    I spent last weekend at the MIT Media Lab, thanks to an invitation from P2PU’s Philipp Schmidt, for an “open learning hackathon.”

    When I think of “open learning,” I think about the “open Web.” And for me, it isn’t simply a matter of what’s becoming a rather tired cliché that “you can learn anything you want online.” (You can’t. Lots of great stuff isn’t available there, or it's behind a paywall.) Rather, the open Web has allowed me to write and share and learn and collaborate with others — in public, in open and informal spaces, with openly licensed content, with open-ended and unscripted inquiry.

    But there’s a sense for many of us, I think, that while one of the most talked about trends in online learning, the MOOC, contains the word “open,” that that use of the adjective — to borrow from Gardner Campbell’s keynote at last year’s OpenEd— “is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.”

    Add to some of the uneasiness about an “open” education that was or could be but isn’t, the notion that there’s also a “Web We Lost.” As Anil Dash writes,

    ”In the early days of the social web, there was a broad expectation that regular people might own their own identities by having their own websites, instead of being dependent on a few big sites to host their online identity. In this vision, you would own your own domain name and have complete control over its contents, rather than having a handle tacked on to the end of a huge company’s site. This was a sensible reaction to the realization that big sites rise and fall in popularity, but that regular people need an identity that persists longer than those sites do.”

    I believe this is something we should reclaim -- particularly when it comes to learning.

    I’ve been incredibly inspired lately by what I think is among the most important projects in education technology — the Domain of One’s Own initiative at the University of Mary Washington. This gives students and faculty, as the name suggests, their own domain name and Web space, along with the open source tools and skills to run it: their own blog, storage, and so on. When the students graduate and/or faculty leave, all that content and data is theirs to keep. They control it. They own it.

    Indeed, I’ve been asking the question a lot lately — “who owns your education data?” — because far too often, the answer isn’t the learner herself.

    So knowing that the UMW’s Jim Groom would be at the Open Learning Hackathon, I was pretty sure that anything I worked on over the weekend would be in the service of the “Domain of One’s Own” vision.

    I didn’t do much, truth be told, but thanks to my boyfriend “the API EvangelistKin Lane who worked with Groom over the weekend, we've got a wireframe and an early beta build of the “Reclaim Your Domain” site.

    This isn’t simply about an easy button to launch a Wordpress blog on your own domain (although it’ll do that eventually). It’s a recognition and hopefully a first stab at building a simpler way for folks to be able to take control more of their digital identity and digital footprint. A place for your videos. A place for your photos. A place for your writing. A place for your feeds. A place for you to experiment. A place you control.

    The Reclaim Your Domain site will offer a wizard, but will also have explanations along the way. What is a domain? What is a subdomain? What is DNS? Where can you host your resources? What’s the difference between a local server and Amazon Web Services? What are your options for a blogging tool and what considerations should you make when choosing one? The costs? The benefits? What are the Terms of Service?

    And hopefully — hopefully— once more folks have the know-how to answer these questions and to make more informed decisions as they live and learn online, we can reclaim the open Web for us.

    More thoughts from Jim Groom here. And, of course, a big shout out to Boone Gorges and D'Arcy Norman and Martin Hawksey and Anil Dash (and others who I've forgotten as I type this up on the plane ride home) for the inspiration.

    Photo credits: Luc Viatour

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