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The History of the Future of Education Technology

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  • 06/19/15--11:35: Hack Education Weekly News
  • Education Politics


    The FCC will seek public comments on a proposal to allow the Lifeline program to subsidize broadband, much as it has long subsidized phone service, to low income households.

    Senators Angus King and (I-Maine) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) introduced the Digital Learning Equity Act of 2015, which they say will “support innovative ways to improve student access to the Internet and other digital learning resources outside of the classroom.”

    New York has passed a bill that would require sexual assault charges be included on college transcripts.

    Mark Zuckerberg just announced he'll pay for hundreds of undocumented students to go to college.” (That is, he’ll give $5 million in scholarships to undocumented students in the Bay Area.) Meanwhile… “What’s Left of Zuckerberg’s Gift? $30 Million of Funds Given to City's Schools.” (That’s what remains of his $100 million donation four years ago.)

    PolitiFact Dubs Bush Education Claim ‘Mostly False’

    Via Techcrunch: “Following FTC Complaints, Senator Nelson Asks Google For Answers On YouTube Kids App Content.”

    Testing, Testing…


    Measured Progress, a testing company that managed Common Core exams in North Dakota, Nevada, and Montana, denies a breach of contract occurred because of technical glitches that prompted the states to halt testing earlier this year. Only 37% of Nevada students completed the online test, which means that the state has failed to meet the federal mandate that 95% of students take the test. Oops.

    Via Politico: “Oregon state lawmakers recently passed a bill that would allow parents to opt their children out of state standardized tests. It would also require that school districts notify parents of their ability to do so. The legislation passed despite warnings from the Education Department – officials said it could jeopardize $140 million a year in federal funding.”

    Via Al Jazeera: “Common Core testing points out tech divide in rural, poorer schools.”

    After errors were discovered in two sections of the June 6 SAT, the College Board is waiving the fee for those who want to retake the test.

    “ACT is phasing out Compass,” Inside Higher Ed reports, “a popular but controversial college placement test that colleges use to determine whether students need to take remedial courses.”

    Are the licensing tests for teachers racially biased?

    Man receives fine for impersonating his girlfriend to take exam in her place.”

    Some Australian universities are banning smart watches during finals. #notallwatches

    The staircase at Utah Valley University that’s been painted with three lanes – one for walking, one for running, and one for texting – makes no sense. I mean, why would you run up the middle?

    MOOCs and UnMOOCs


    Hey guys. Remember MOOCs? The University of Pennsylvania has joined edX. (The university was a founding member and investor in Coursera. So that’s interesting.)

    Coursera launches a Chinese language specialization.

    There’s an art school MOOC platform now, called Kadenze.

    Meanwhile on Campus


    Art Levine, a longtime critic of teacher education programs, is launching a teacher education program. “The Woodrow Wilson Academy for Teaching and Learning, will offer master’s degrees entirely through a competency-based program,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

    The AAUP has voted to censure the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for withdrawing its job offer to Steven Salaita. (In other Salaita news, a judge has ordered the university to release donor emails that Salaita argues influenced the university’s decision to revoke his employment.)

    TEx – the “Total Educational Experience.” That’s the name of a new program at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley that will combine “big-data and personalized approaches” to keep students on track. It’s all available on an iPad, so you can be sure it’s terrific.

    Also on the “big data bandwagon,” Virginia Commonwealth University.

    The University of Washington and Tsinghua University are partnering to create a new institute in Bellevue Washington that “will open in fall 2016 with a master’s degree program in technology innovation.”

    For-profit education is booming in Brazil, says Inside Higher Ed.

    McGill University’s medical school has been placed on probation and is at risk of losing its accreditation, says the CBC.

    Bryan Alexander points to a “queen sacrifice” at Kentucky State University, with the president “calling for the elimination of 31 additional campus positions, including 17 faculty and 14–15 staff jobs.”

    Marian Court College will close later this month.

    Bloomberg Philanthropies is donating $100 million to Cornell Tech, Cornell University’s new high tech graduate school to be build in NYC.

    Muslim students banned from fasting during Ramadan at four British schools.”

    A High School for the Homeless.”

    Go, School Sports Team!


    “The University of Texas at Austin has hired an independent investigator following allegations of academic fraud within the men’s basketball program,” says Deadspin.

    How Star Athletes Evade Legal Consequences.”

    From the HR Department


    Nationally recognized LAUSD teacher Rafe Esquith has been removed from his classroom after charges of misconduct.

    HarvardX researcher Justin Reich has a new gig: the Executive Director of the PK12 Initiative at MIT, and as a research scientist in the Office of Digital Learning.

    Rachel Dolezal is no longer an employee of Eastern Washington University. (More via Inside Higher Ed.)

    The University of Cambridge is hiring a professor of Lego.

    “Key Amplify Execs Leave as News Corp. Cuts Staff,” says Edsurge, observing that former New Jersey Education Commissioner Chris Cerf’s name is no longer on the staff page.

    Digital Public Library of America Seeks Educator Advisors.”

    Upgrades and Downgrades


    Messaging app Remind has launched “Remind Chat” so that teachers at the same school can chat. I mean, finally, a way for teachers to communicate with one another!

    Remind is also open-sourcing its platform-as-a-service, Empire.

    A new feature in Federated Wiki: rosters.

    LinkedIn Offers Users Free Lynda.com Courses for the First Time.”

    MakerBot Offers 3-D Printing Resources, Ebook for Educators.”

    Funding and Acquisitions


    Professional development company Fullbridge has raised $15.4 million“through the sale of a series of preferred stock.” The company has raised $27.9 million total.

    LinguaLeo raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Social Discovery Ventures and Runa Capital. It’s previously raised $3 million.

    Brightwheel has raised $2.2 million in seed funding from RRE Ventures, Eniac Ventures, CrossLink Capital, Golden Venture Partners, Red Swan Ventures, and Sherpa Ventures. The startup offers an app that provides a real-time feed – video and photos – from the preschool classroom.

    Tutoring startup Arcterus has raised ¥130 million (about $1 million) from Dentsu Digital Holdings, Startia, and Bon Angels. The company has raised $1.6 million total.

    Actively Learn has raised $1.03 million from 19 unnamed investors.

    Vista Equity will pay $350 million to buy PowerSchool from Pearson.

    Techstars has acquired UP Global and the Startup Weekend franchise for an undisclosed sum.

    gphomestay has acquired Brooks Institute from the Career Education Corporation. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

    Latin American workforce development company Kuepa has acquired language learning provider First Class for an undisclosed sum.

    According to an SEC filing, VC firm Learn Capital is raising $79 million for a new investment fund.

    Privacy and (School-as-) Surveillance


    “A group of 16 California teachers filed formal letters of complaint against online charter schools operated by K12 Inc., alleging violations including misuse of public funds and breaches of student privacy rights,” Bloomberg Business reports.

    Newark Memorial High School in California has become the first high school in the US to install “gunshot-sensing technology” which places microphones and sensors in hallways and classrooms. The $15,000 system isn’t designed to record conversations. LOL. OK. Sure.

    From the EFF: “Who Has Your Back? 2015: Protecting Your Data From Government Requests.” (Who does not have your back? AT&T and WhatsApp.)

    Consumer Groups Back Out of Federal Talks on Face Recognition.”

    Via Edsurge: “Are We Overregulating Student Data Privacy?” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    Data and “Research”


    “Ed Tech Is Booming in China,” CB Insights reports.

    A Quantitative Investigation into the Impacts of 1:1 iPads on Early Learner’s ELA and Math Achievement” by Damian Bebell and Joseph Pedulla.

    Excelencia in Education has released a report on Latino STEM graduates, listing which schools graduate the most Latino students in STEM fields.

    “Our findings, consistent with previous evidence, suggest that passage of state medical marijuana laws does not increase adolescent use of marijuana” according to a study published in The Lancet.

    Green Spaces Make Kids Smarter.”

    Via the Shanker Institute: “How Effective Are Online Credit Recovery Programs?”

    Via Education Week: “U.S. Millennials Know Technology, But Not How to Solve Problems With It, Study Says.”

    Via The Washington Post: “Twenty percent of young women who attended college during the past four years say they were sexually assaulted, according to a Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll.”

    7 billionaires who made their fortunes in education.” (There’s only one American on the list, for what it’s worth: Apollo Group a.k.a. The University of Phoenix’s Peter Sperling.)

    MOOC review site Coursetalk has published a report on “What Reviews Divulge About Online Education.”

    MOOC review site Class Central has published a report on how much studying students in free online classes do.

    Edsurge summarizes a new report from Pearson on “What Doesn't Work in Education.” Shockingly, “giant multinational textbook and testing corporations driving education policy” was not listed.

    Following LEGO Kit Instructions Shown to Reduce Creativity.”

    This teenager discovered a new planet on his third day at work.”


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    On October 4, 1957 news broke that the Soviet Union had successfully launched the first man-made satellite into space. Sputnik prompted a national panic, not simply over a looming Cold War – the possibility of Soviet spying or bombing, for example – but about the purported failures of the US education system.

    “The schools never recovered from Sputnik, ” education researcher Gerald Bracey contends.

    According to historian Robert Divine, President Eisenhower was “not impressed by the Soviet Fear. … He believed that American science and American education were much sounder than critics charged, and, above all, he was confident that the United States held a commanding lead over the Soviet Union in striking power.” But the President couldn’t compromise the military intelligence that reassured him that the US was ahead of the USSR in science and in education. And he failed to reassure the public or politicians or journalists that that was the case either.

    So something had to be done.

    One year later, in 1958, Eisenhower signed into law the National Defense Education Act, a cornerstone of his administration’s response to Sputnik. The law helped reshape education in the US with a massive influx of federal dollars. And it served to give education technology in particular not only funding and legitimacy but its ideological mission: a corrective to progressive education in the name of national security and science.

    “When education becomes completely enmeshed in the petty, surface details of a student’s everyday life, it loses the opportunity of equipping him with the intellectual powers that lie beneath the surface. By frittering time away upon the ‘felt needs’ of adolescents, the school runs the risk of leaving its students helpless in the presence of the real ‘real life’ needs that will come later and that will put to test all the resources of a mature and disciplined intelligence.” - Arthur Bestor. Educational Wastelands

    Progressive education was already under attack in the 1950s, with accusations from scholars and scientists that it was contributing to a growing anti-intellectualism in the US. It was, according to one admiral, making us “soft.” Progressive education, according to its critics, had become an excuse to not teach a huge swath of schoolchildren how to read and write and do arithmetic. Traditional disciplines were not taught well (or not at all), as the emphasis in schools had supposedly turned instead to “life adjustment” and to vocational, “how to” education. The curriculum along with teachers’ training, these critics argued, had to be more rigorous if American society was to survive.

    One of the most popular and prominent critics was Arthur Bestor, professor of history at the University of Illinois and author of Educational Wastelands (1953) and Restoration of Learning (1956). Bestor penned many op-eds in the popular press including “We Are Less Educated Than Fifty Years Ago” in the US News and World Report in 1956. After the launch of Sputnik, Bestor wrote again for the magazine: “What Went Wrong with US Schools?” There he contended that schools were failing to adequately train students and “that’s why the first satellite bears the label ‘Made in Russia.’”

    LIFE magazine also ran a five-part series in 1958, comparing schools in the US and USSR. Moscow student Alexei Kutzkov was depicted, serious-faced, performing advanced experiments in physics and chemistry. Chicago student Stephen Lapekas was shown laughing, retreating to the back of the class after he failed to solve a simple geography problem on the blackboard. In typing class, Lapekas jokes, “I type about a word a minute.” Schools in Russia were “austere.” Schools in the US, “relaxed.” The former were exposing students to complex materials like “Shakespeare and Shaw”; students in the US were years behind academically, and they were distracted, surreptitiously reading magazines in class. Teachers were not in control.

    “It’s time to close our carnival,” LIFE insisted. “To revitalize America’s educational dream, we must stop kowtowing to the mediocre.”

    Schools became a scapegoat as Cold War hysteria kicked in.

    “I recognize, of course, that in this dark hour in our nation’s history, we must pool our thinking and ideas that we may come up with the very best program in our battle for survival” – Senator Lister Hill (D-AL) in a letter to an Alabama educator

    Sputnik also provided an opportunity for two Democratic legislators from Alabama, Lister Hill and Carl Elliott, to forward their educational agenda, as Wayne Urban argues in his comprehensive history of the National Defense Education Act, More Than Science and Sputnik. As that title suggests, the provisions that ended up in the NDEA involved much more than the response proposed by the Eisenhower administration and addressed much more than “national defense.”

    The National Defense Education Act of 1958


    Title I reads in part that “The Congress hereby finds and declares that the security of the Nation requires the fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women. The present emergency demands that additional and more adequate educational opportunities be made available. The defense of this Nation depends upon the mastery of modern techniques developed from complex scientific principles. It depends as well upon the discovery and development of new principles, new techniques, and new knowledge.”

    Title II dealt with student loans, allocating the amounts and specifying how it would be divided among states. (Initially Title II provided scholarships instead.)

    Title III authorized $70 million per year of the NDEA’s four year duration to strengthen science, math, and foreign language education.

    Title IV established a national fellowship program to be awarded for graduate education, with some of the money earmarked for those interested in becoming college professors.

    Title V authorized funding to train guidance counselors and to implement standardized testing programs that would identify “gifted and talented” students.

    Title VI authorized funding for Language Area Centers and Language Institutes.

    Title VII authorized funding for both the research and implementation of new education technologies, including radio, TV, film, and yes, teaching machines.

    Title VIII provided funding for vocational training.

    Title IX established the Science Information Institute and Science Information Council, operating under the National Science Foundation, to advise the government on technical issues.

    Title X provided grants to the states for improving data collection and statistical analysis by state education agencies.

    The Federal Role in Education


    There has long been resistance to federal involvement in education in the US, but pushing for more aid for education was always a cornerstone of Lister Hill’s efforts as a senator – efforts that had failed repeatedly. This was further complicated for the Southern politician by Brown v. Board of Education, prompting Hill to insist that the demand for federal funding was not the same as a call for federal control of education.

    In 1956, the first piece of legislation that would provide federal aid for education came before Congress since the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, an African American representing Harlem, proposed an amendment that would prevent any states that operated segregated schools from receiving federal funding. Indeed, he vowed to attach the amendment to any education-related proposal. That same year, 101 Congressmen signed the “Southern Manifesto,” making clear their opposition to racial integration of public places, including schools.

    Both Carl Elliott and Lister Hill, the sponsors of the National Defense Education Act, signed the manifesto.

    According to Wayne Urban,

    Fortunately for Hill, and for Carl Elliott, the opportunity presented by Sputnik for passage of landmark legislation in federal aid to education was not neutralized by the segregation issue. The federal administration that worked with Hill and Carl Elliott on NDEA was not inclined to support Powell amendments that prohibited racial discrimination, and Hill and Elliott were able to work successfully with the administration to neutralize the Powell amendment in the final version of NDEA that came from a conference committee of the House and Senate. What emerged was a bill that said nothing about racial discrimination but was interpreted to be antidiscriminatory in all its titles.

    Image credits

    Merit versus Equality: Teaching and Testing Machines


    There are many provisions in the NDEA that have had a lingering impact on education policy and politics – the push for standardized testing; the legitimization of education technology; and most significantly perhaps, the authorization of federal funding for schools and for education initiatives. And it’s noteworthy, of course, that it was the launch of Sputnik that crystallized the efforts to pass the legislation – it’s worth considering how, despite the testing and technology and funding, education has been unable to escape from the crisis (rhetoric) since then either.

    Science and technology – then and now, quite arguably – have managed to deflect attention from their own failings onto the school system. And there’s this interesting legacy as well, in scientists’ involvement in shaping the NDEA legislation, in the role of “merit” and “educational excellence.” As Urban argues, the NDEA was

    both a science education and a much-more-than-science education measure, and it broke the dam against federal aid to education through astute use of a national defense metaphor by all its proponents. Further, it had liberal democratic provisions pointing toward equity in some of its titles and excellence oriented policies and practice in other titles. The liberal aspects of NDEA pointed toward its immediate successor measures such as ESEA and two higher education acts, but its excellence titles pointed toward the repudiation of equity in the interests of educational excellence that would be the goal of federal educational policy after 1980.

    Where does education technology, with its roots in the National Defense Education Act, exist on that spectrum?

    Has ed-tech ever furthered equity? Or has it always been about educational measurement and achievement, always wielded to serve arguments about the failures of public education and to stoke fears about Others?


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    Clearly it’s a research paper perfectly titled for widespread circulation, combining everyone’s favorite early childhood TV show with one of the most overhyped acronyms in ed-tech: “Early Childhood Education by MOOC: Lessons from Sesame Street.”

    So no surprise, the recent paper by University of Maryland’s Melissa Kearney and Wellesley College’s Phillip Levine on the educational benefits of Sesame Street has received plenty of media coverage, with many outlets parroting the comparison: Sesame Street as MOOC. “The Original MOOC: Can Sesame Street Replace Preschool?” asks Edsurge. “Sesame Street was the original MOOC,” says the Brookings Institution.

    But Sesame Street was not the first MOOC. And really, it is not a MOOC at all. To argue such – to offer that analogy – is historically flawed, erasing other earlier educational media. Furthermore, the analogy erases important differences between the research and design of Sesame Street and that of MOOCs (particularly those MOOCs that have been popularized by the press).

    The Research


    Here’s the abstract from Kearney and Levine:

    Sesame Street is one of the largest early childhood interventions ever to take place. It was introduced in 1969 as an educational, early childhood program with the explicit goal of preparing preschool age children for school entry. Millions of children watched a typical episode in its early years. Well-designed studies at its inception provided evidence that watching the show generated an immediate and sizeable increase in test scores. In this paper we investigate whether the first cohorts of preschool children exposed to Sesame Street experienced improved outcomes subsequently. We implement an instrumental variables strategy exploiting limitations in television technology generated by distance to a broadcast tower and UHF versus VHF transmission to distinguish counties by Sesame Street reception quality. We relate this geographic variation to outcomes in Census data including grade-for-age status in 1980, educational attainment in 1990, and labor market outcomes in 2000. The results indicate that Sesame Street accomplished its goal of improving school readiness; preschool-aged children in areas with better reception when it was introduced were more likely to advance through school as appropriate for their age. This effect is particularly pronounced for boys and non-Hispanic, black children, as well as children living in economically disadvantaged areas. The evidence regarding the impact on ultimate educational attainment and labor market outcomes is inconclusive.

    OK. So Sesame Street is awesome. It works. We all knew that already. (Pretty much everyone under age 44 has grown up knowing that.)

    But see, there’s no mention of MOOCs in that abstract. In fact, MOOCs are only mentioned briefly in the paper’s introduction and in two footnotes that compare Sesame Street to Khan Academy, with an admission that Khan Academy may or may not be a MOOC. “For our purposes,” write Kearney and Levine, “we are concerned with the general idea of student responses to low cost, electronic educational content and less focused on the specific definition of a MOOC.” That is, the purpose of the research is to ascertain the effectiveness of Sesame Street on educational outcomes in the short- and long-run because Sesame Street is viewed here, like MOOCs, as an ed-tech that “scales” and as such, one that might “provide educational interventions at a fraction of the cost of more traditional classroom settings.”

    Incidentally, the study provides no dollar figures for the cost of developing either MOOCs or Sesame Street. For what it’s worth, the production costs of the former run anywhere from $150,000 to $300,000 per course; the latter costs about $615,000 per episode. "Cheap."

    The Origins of MOOCs


    As I’ve argued elsewhere, one need only look at the “Talk” page on the Wikipedia entry for MOOCs to see the contested history of “massive open online courses.” Debates about the origins of MOOCs stem in part from the media's crowning of Sebastian Thrun as the “godfather of free online education.”

    One version – arguably the most well-known – of MOOCs’ origins goes something like this: in the Fall of 2011, Stanford University artificial intelligence professor (and Google VP) Sebastian Thrun, along with Google’s Director of Research Peter Norvig, decided to allow anyone sign up for a free, online version their computer science course Introduction to Artificial Intelligence. As it was a graduate level course, the two did not anticipate there would be that much interest. But there was, and after a story in The New York Times, enrollment surged to over 150,000 (and according to Thrun, attendance at the “physical class at Stanford… dwindled from 200 students to 30 students because the online course was more intimate and better at teaching than the real-world course on which it was based.”)

    On the heels of Thrun’s decision to offer his AI class online, two of his colleagues in the Stanford CS Department also made their courses freely available via the Web: Andrew Ng’s Machine Learning and Jennifer Widom’s Introduction to Databases. These classes all featured video-taped lectures (broken down into short five- or six-minute long explanations) and accompanying exercises (often multiple choice).

    In January 2012, Thrun announced his departure from Stanford and the founding of his MOOC startup Udacity. (He has since left Google as well.) After his experience with his online AI class and its enormous reach, Thrun said he’d concluded that “I can't teach at Stanford again.”

    A few months later, Andrew Ng and fellow Stanford AI professor Daphne Koller announced the launch of Coursera, their competing MOOC startup. Udacity and Coursera, and – hot on their heels – Harvard and MIT’s initiative edX kicked off a frenzy in the media, with The New York Times triumphantly declaring 2012 “The Year of the MOOC. The ”original MOOC": Stanford’s.

    There’s a different story, of course, about MOOCs’ origins, one that lacks the venture capital funding and the Stanford University pedigree. It’s a story that involves a different set of technologies and pedagogical practices as well. The acronym “MOOC” was actually coined in 2008 by University of Prince Edward Island’s Dave Cormier and applied to an online experiment, Connectivism and Connective Knowledge (CCK08), led by (then) Athabasca University’s George Siemens and Stephen Downes of the Canadian National Research Council.

    Siemens offered this reflection of CCK08 on his blog:

    It might be helpful to take a quick step back and talk about why Stephen and I started with open online courses. We were both at a Desire2Learn conference in Memphis in 2008. And we were both tired of arguing about connectivism ("is it a theory"). We decided that experiencing networked learning was important to understanding networked learning.


    Instead of talking connectivism, we wanted to create an experience that was essentially connectivist: open, distributed, learner-defined, social, and complex.


    In designing courses, educators often make important decisions on behalf of learners. The educator forms a "boundary" around the knowledge that will be explored in a particular course. Finding your way through, and making sense of, a chaotic landscape is the learning experience. Traditional learning design tries to reduce complexity. We try to increase awareness of complexity. Duplicating what someone else has decided is important is still a type of learning, but not one that exists outside of classroom settings. Real world learning is messy and chaotic.


    We decided that we wanted to do for teaching and learning what MIT had done for content with their OCW initiative.


    In our first open course - CCK08 - we emphasized learner's control in orienting themselves to complex information. Many learners found this very confusing. But, when in an environment of abundant information, they began to adopt new approaches for interacting with information and with each other. Social networks became critical to making sense of readings. Creating and sharing artifacts helped learners to communicate how they had come to understand a topic or concept. Language games - negotiating meanings, naming things - also became an important learner-controlled activity. We provided readings each week to start the conversation, but learners largely defined the domain of knowledge exploration by providing resources and shaping the discussion.


    We weren't the first to offer open courses. We had played around with open online conferences in 2007 (these conferences contributed significantly to the initial design of CCK08). Alec Couros and David Wiley had both offered open courses in 2007. And, if you look at the literature around open universities, open learning, and distance education, you'll find over 40 years of discussions of similar learning approaches.

    Clamoring for “first” misses the point, I’d argue – it certainly ignores the way in which research is built upon previous research, technologies are built upon previous technologies. “Over 40 years of discussions of similar learning approaches.” The similarity that runs through that history, as Siemens makes clear, involves the possibility of open and networked learning. And while PBS is a network, and while Sesame Street is free and openly available to anyone with a television set that can pick up the signal (ostensibly available – not all preschoolers get to decide if or what they watch, of course), I’m not at all convinced that, as Kearney and Levine argue, “In essence, Sesame Street was the first MOOC.”

    The history of educational television predates Sesame Street. The history of educational film and radio predates Sesame Street. The history of teaching machines predates Sesame Street. The history of correspondence courses predates Sesame Street.

    These last two highlight one of the missing elements in the “Sesame Street as MOOC” comparison: students doing something – exercises, assessments – in addition to watching or listening to educational media. (Education researcher Justin Reich has called another TV show Picture Pages“the original toddler proto-MOOC”, for example, as episodes were accompanied by a workbook (available at first from the local supermarket and later through mail-order). “In Picture Pages of course, we see all of the essential elements of contemporary MOOCdom,” Reich argues, “the witty direct instruction lectures from [Bill] Cosby, followed by the more nuanced think-aloud lecture where he demonstrated the assignment, the worksheet where students could complete assignments, and the final function of the video as the answer key.”)

    Image credits

    The History of Sesame Street


    One of the strangest claims in Kearney and Levine’s research isn’t that Sesame Street is “the first MOOC.” It’s that Sesame Street has not been researched, “that perhaps the biggest, yet least costly, early childhood intervention, Sesame Street, has largely gone unnoticed.”

    The opposite is true.

    As Joan Ganz Cooney, founder of the Children’s Television Workshop, writes in the foreword to “G” is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street, “Without research, there would be no Sesame Street.”

    Indeed, Sesame Street is the most researched television show in history– and not just researched after-the-fact to ascertain how it’s affected students’ literacy and numeracy skills, but researched throughout the design and development process. That’s something that makes Sesame Street quite the antithesis of the venture capital-funded MOOCs and their proponents, many of whom have been openly hostile to educational theory and research. (And seemingly hostile to education history.)

    “Don’t think for a minute that we didn’t meet with enormous resistance and worse, ridicule,” Cooney writes.

    “Researchers helping producers design a show? You must be kidding!” came the reaction of practically everyone in TV willing to give an honest opinion. Producers believed exclusively in intuition and experience as the means to a successful show – with luck, always luck, as the sine qua non of any big hit.


    What we were proposing was something altogether different – that material, as it was produced, be tested on the target audience for both appeal and comprehension, that researchers report back to producers, and that producers modify or discard material based on almost continuous reports from the field. In other words, we were suggesting a kind of informed luck, or at the very least, that luck’s role be lessened by something more akin to science.


    Looking back, perhaps it wasn’t the theory of marrying research to production that raised so many doubts as much as it was the thought of the reality – temperamental, creative people working with outside advisors and inside researchers to determine and then accomplish specific educational goals – social scientists telling TV producers what was “good” or “bad” based on the reactions of a small sample, long before the show went on the air where a mass audience would judge it.

    Joan Ganz Cooney had first proposed an educational television show designed for preschoolers in a 1966 report to the Carnegie Foundation, recognizing that “disadvantaged children are inadequately stimulated and motivated during the preschool years and the belief that the right kind of early intervention can provide adequate compensation have done much to create the present ferment in cognitive development research and preschool education.”

    The Children’s Television Workshop was founded two years later in 1968, backed by $8 million in grant funding for a two year project: its “sole initial mandate,” write Edward Palmer and Shalom Fisch in their history of Sesame Street research, “was to create, broadcast, promote, and evaluate an experimental television series of 130 hour-long programs that would seek to advance the school readiness of 3- to 5-year-old children, with special emphasis on the needs of youngsters from low-income and minority backgrounds.” When the series premiered on November 10, 1969, it had been in research and development for nearly 18 months.

    This isn't an example of Silicon Valley's penchant to "move fast and break things." It's a different model altogether.

    As a perspective on the scope and intensity of this collaboration [among researchers, screenwriters, and producers], consider that fact that Sesame Street contains about 40 program segments (skits) in each of its 130 hour-long episodes. Allowing for segment repetition, the in-house research group thus would need to contribute to the creation of approximately 2,400 distinct program segments, each addressed to a preassigned educational goal. To accomplish this marathon task, the researchers met frequently with members of the production team on preliminary scripts and animation planning, reviewed and commented on each draft script's educational approach, and screened each script at the draft stage for mistakes such as stereotypic portrayals and inappropriate use of language.

    There was formative research and summative assessment. There was attention to repetition and sequencing. There was careful consideration of when to use straightforwardness and when to use fantasy, to how dramatic tension and humor affected comprehension. With a mission of reaching preschoolers of color, Sesame Street cast actors of color. The curriculum was relevant and meaningful and age-appropriate. (In other words, all this went far far beyond the simple A/B testing that MOOCs seem to find so innovative.)

    Research informs Sesame Street. Research is not an after-thought. It is constitutive.

    Teachers or Teaching Machines


    I have some questions too about the design of Kearney and Levine’s research here. They’ve mapped the signal strength of Sesame Street broadcasts – who could receive a UHF signal and who could receive the superior VHF signal – with Census and high school attainment data. “Our primary measure of interest is access to Sesame Street broadcasting, not actual viewership of the show,” they write. “In this sense, our approach identifies an ‘intent to treat’ relationship, not a ‘treatment on the treated.’ If we had better ratings data, we could pursue an approach that would help us address the impact on the marginal viewer.” So it’s not watching Sesame Street that they’re analyzing here for an effect on educational outcomes as much as living in a neighborhood where the signal is available.

    In their conclusion, Kearney and Levine compare their findings (positive) to other early childhood education initiatives that originated at the same time, such as Head Start. (This is what The Atlantic picked up on in its coverage: “Sesame Street Is Just As Effective As Head Start.”) But one key significance of Sesame Street, the researchers contend: the television show costs “pennies on the dollar relative to other early childhood interventions.” And as a result, their closing push: we need more “blended learning” in preschool, which I suppose is a sloppy but popular synonym for “MOOC.”

    Notably, their call is not for more rigorously researched and designed educational media for preschoolers; it’s just about broadcasting a signal cheaply (“delivering educational content”) and assuming that access “at scale” to that is enough to move the needle.

    And that’s not the lesson – not the history lesson, not the educational research lesson, not the pedagogical lesson, not the ed-tech lesson, and not the political or funding lesson – we should learn from Sesame Street.


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  • 06/23/15--11:35: Challenging MOOCs
  • I did it! I finished a MOOC.

    I submitted my final project for “POPX1.1x The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture.” I paid for the verified certificate, so – fingers crossed – my project was acceptable. (We had to create a superhero, along with three panels of a comic. The verified certificate includes comic artwork signed by Stan Lee.) Perhaps I should wait until I get my “grade” to leave feedback…

    The course, offered via SmithsonianX, was taught by Michael Uslan, best known as a producer for all the modern Batman movies and, according to his Wikipedia page at least, as the first person to teach an accredited course on “on the serious study of comic books.”

    “The Rise of Superheroes” was enjoyable enough, don’t get me wrong. (I finished after all, right?) It offered a peek into the Smithsonian’s sizable comics archive. And there were lengthy interviews with Stan Lee – who, I confess, I found to be incredibly endearing – on the history of the industry and his own involvement in it.

    But it was not a “serious study of comic books.” It was not academically rigorous; it was not a substitute for or even a version of a college course – not even a 100-level one. (It was offered by the Smithsonian, and I suppose you could argue that, as such, it was never meant to be.) The course provided a pretty straightforward account of “the rise of superheroes” in comics – decade by decade how the industry was born and grew from the Golden Age to the Silver Age, and how it was shaped by The Big Issues of the day. There was no required reading for the course (other than the explanatory text that slightly expanded upon each week’s video lectures). We weren’t even required to read a comic book, let alone any theory or analysis.

    And it’s not that pop culture classes can’t be demanding. (I’d like to think mine were when I taught.) To the contrary, the study of popular culture – “cultural studies” broadly speaking – has its own intellectual history that can be, at times, densely theoretical. It’s actually one of the things that I found quite rewarding about teaching classes on popular culture: you can crack open some pretty challenging ideas because students often already feel quite comfortable talking about media. Cultural studies gives them a richer, deeper vocabulary and analytical and theoretical lenses to do so.

    But my concern isn’t so much that this particular course was pop culture studies “lite.” (For what it’s worth, the syllabus for the SmithsonianX course looks quite similar to this one being offered via Coursera.) Rather, I worry that MOOCs will increasingly deliver all studies in a similarly “lite” version, that MOOCs will be unlikely to provide much critical analysis or equip students to develop any, particularly on topics where there are passionate feelings or entrenched opinions.

    I can’t help but wonder if this particular course treated comics or superheroes carefully (blandly) for fear of upsetting powerful brands and a powerful fandom. But more generally, I wonder if MOOCs will systematically avoid anything controversial for fear of upsetting the Internet.

    I wrote about this briefly in my 2014 review of the year in MOOCs as there were several examples of courses whose discussion forums descended into “flame wars,” as small groups of students tried to hijack the conversation and disrupt the class. Such was the case with the Coursera course “Constitutional Struggles in the Muslim World” for example, where the class discussion“‘very quickly disintegrated into a snakepit of personal venom, religious bigotry and thinly disguised calls for violence.’ But some students have accused [the professor] of abusive and tyrannical behavior in his attempts to restore civility.” In an interview with the Times Higher Education, the professor Ebrahim Afsah said the course ”‘attracted a number of people who…were out there to harm, to insult and to disrupt the learning process.’ Such students were first warned publicly and, if they failed to rectify their behaviour, banned from future discussions. This approach was ‘against the recommendations of Coursera.’"

    As I’ve noted before, some of this is (obviously) the culture of the Internet – racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, jingoistic, etc. But some of this is the technology itself – the design, the mechanisms of discussion forums that serve to augment rage and not inquiry.

    Can you have intellectual vulnerability and/or insurgency in a MOOC? (In a Coursera/Udacity/edX MOOC, to be clear.)

    Back in December, I wondered how these incidents of “flame wars” in MOOCs might be connected to the media’s fascination by “trigger warnings” on syllabus and if all of the latter would have a chilling effect on education online and off-. I still think it’s worth asking: what sorts of topics will the major MOOC providers and their university partners want to explore as, let’s be honest, so many of these classes serve mostly as PR.

    The media has continued to play up trigger warnings this year, and Vox recently ran a ridiculous op-ed lately suggesting that (liberal) professors were “terrified” by their (liberal) students. The media-driven narrative at least: that students don’t want and can’t handle difficult, upsetting, challenging material.

    It’s a narrative that I think is worth unpacking because it involves a notion of seeing students as customers who incredibly fragile and who are always right. It positions the student as all-powerful – and I simply do not think that’s true. (“The student,” to be clear, is not the same as “The Internet.” It’s funny how MOOCs and our desire to frame everyone as a “lifelong learner” muddy this.)

    This narrative involves too this long-running right-wing talking point that higher education is full of liberal professors who want to indoctrinate students with their leftist ideas. (Reminder: David Horowitz – perhaps the best known voice of this argument – is the father of Ben Horowtiz, co-founder of VC firm Andreessen-Horowitz and investor in, among other ed-tech startups, Udacity. See also: “How Online Education Can Save Conservatism” by the right-wing think-tank Heartland Institute.)

    The MOOC feels like an obvious place to introduce a curriculum that’s easier, more popular, more empty – all the while insisting that it’s more democratic. And while some of the hype about MOOCs replacing local course offerings has died down, I still think it’s worth questioning what that replacement would look like, particularly if MOOCs are going to be so intellectually bland.

    I’ve heard, for example, that we only really need one Intro to Shakespeare class – that such a thing could be offered via MOOC by one amazing super-professor. Admittedly, I choose the Bard here because I took an introductory class on Shakespeare (and as I learned later queer theory) from Jonathan Goldberg that blew my mind. It’s one of the few undergraduate classes that I remember vividly several decades later – I think we gave him a standing ovation at the end of the semester because his lectures were that incredible – as the class was deeply deeply challenging. It took material that I thought I knew and that I thought I understood and that I really did love – Shakespeare! – and it pushed me to think and rethink. The graduate teaching assistants were clearly uncomfortable (bless their hearts) and they helped us to understand that, while Professor Goldberg had argued that Romeo and Mercutio might have been bedfellows (lovers?) and that Portia’s sword was a strap-on phallus that there were other, equally valid interpretations. We could do things with history and culture and text as long as we supported our arguments with text and culture and history.

    “The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture” could have done that too. Comics are, as the course alluded to, such an interesting part of American popular culture and history throughout the twentieth century. I recently used Wonder Woman in a talk, for example, about the history of teaching machines and educational psychology. I built on text and culture and history and other scholars’ work. (Jill Lepore’s The Secret History of Wonder Woman is one of the finest examples of popular culture studies I've read in recent years.) And yet, I couldn’t help but notice that every time Wonder Woman was invoked in this MOOC on superheroes, she was a joke; her creator Charles Marston’s psychological experiments and his connection to women’s rights, hardly even worthy of a humorous aside.

    My fear: the treatment of Wonder Woman in “The Rise of Superheroes and Their Impact On Pop Culture” is symbolic of how all topics will be treated by popular MOOCs. We’ll get tittering, but no theory. Lots of tits and ass – if that’s what the Internet wants, right? – but very little critical analysis. And that's what some hope is the future of higher education.


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  • 06/26/15--11:35: Hack Education Weekly News
  • Education Politics


    Texas Governor Greg Abbott has chosen Donna Bahorich to chair the state’s board of education. Bahorich has never sent her children to public school, opting to homeschool her sons.

    Governor Abbott has signed a bill that decriminalizes truancy in Texas.

    Senate Bill 277 has passed in California, which will end the personal belief exemption for vaccination school children.

    I’m not sure there are many prominent Republicans left who have yet to announce their presidential candidacy. (Oh wait. Christie. Palin.) This week: Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. (“Bobby Jindal's Biggest Troll Is His Friend's 21-Year-Old Son.”)

    The Department of Education has decided not to move forward with its plans to create a college ratings system. Instead it’s going to make a “consumer-focused website.”

    The Department of Education has axed the PIN number for FAFSA applications.

    I’ve totally lost track of where we are on the NCLB waiver front, but the Obama Administration extended them to 7 more states and DC this week.

    The White House is boasting about its ConnectEd initiative, which it says is “on track to achieve its goal of connecting students to tools they need for 21st century learning.”

    Chicago Public Schools has released a catalog featuring 74 approved ed-tech vendors. (I haven’t gone through the list to see how many investor and CPS board member Deborah Quazzo has invested in, but I’m hoping Chicago Sun Times reporter Lauren Fitzpatrick, who broke the story last year about Quazzo’s portfolio and CPS contracts, will.)

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau wants search engines to crack down on student loan scams.

    Education in the Courts


    A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a for-profit college trade group, challenging the Department of Education’s “gainful employment” rule. More via Buzzfeed.

    Paperwork was filed this week in the appeal of last year’s Vergara ruling in California, which overturned the state’s tenure laws.

    Via LA School Report: “High-profile attorney Mark Geragos, representing one of the most famous active teachers in the country, Rafe Esquith, told the Los Angeles Times he intends to file a class action lawsuit on behalf of ‘scores’ of district teachers who say they have been denied due process rights. Geragos said he had filed a legal claim on Monday, which is a precursor to a lawsuit.”

    Testing, Testing…


    A story by Motoko Rich in The New York Times notes that those who grade Common Core exams need not be or have been teachers. (USC professor Morgan Polikoff responds on the “Testing tradeoffs.”)

    Oregon Governor Kate Brown has signed legislation that makes it easier for parents in her state to opt their children out of standardized testing.

    Via The New York Times: “There is no easy translation or even a firm concept of the word ‘coping’ in French, so when it turned up last week in a question on the national exam to earn a high school degree, it set off a fracas among the 350,000 or so students who took the test.”

    MOOCs and UnMOOCs


    MOOCs were back in the news – or at least in the op-ed pages – this week. I wrote two MOOC-related stories. (I apologize.) See also: “The (Accidental) Power of MOOCs.”

    Yonsei University joins Coursera.

    "Open edX, the open source platform from MOOC provider EdX, is now available for free from the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Marketplace (AWS usage fees apply)," says Campus Technology.

    Meanwhile on Campus


    "Sweet Briar Survives,"Inside Higher Ed reports. “In a deal announced Saturday evening by Virginia’s attorney general, the college’s current leaders agreed to relinquish control to a new president and a largely new board. Saving Sweet Briar, an organization of alumnae who have fought the planned closure of the college, has agreed to raise $12.5 million to continue operating the college in the 2015–16 academic year. The first $2.5 million would have to be provided by July 2.” More via The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Washington Post.

    Columbia University will divest from private prison companies.

    Apple, IBM, and Coppell ISD (Texas) are partnering to work on a “Student Achievement App.”

    Is Houston’s School District Blocking Pro-Choice Websites?” Saved you a click: Maybe.

    Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Students in China are being recruited in large numbers by their universities as an ‘army’ of online contributors to bolster the official party line, in a new drive by the Communist Youth League of China that will draw universities squarely into the country's attempts to control the internet within its borders.”

    School Scrambles To Preserve Newly Discovered Chalkboards From 1917.”

    Via Buzzfeed: “Baltimore’s Challenge: Buy Tablets For 100,000 Kids, And Don’t Mess It Up.”

    Go, School Sports Team!


    Via Inside Higher Ed: “Police officers at the University of California at Los Angeles on Monday arrested Sean Combs, the music star widely known as Diddy, on three counts of assault with a deadly weapon, one count of making terrorist threats and one count of battery. The weapon referenced was a kettlebell. The university said the arrest took place at the Acosta Athletic Training Complex, where members of the football team work out. Justin Combs, son of Sean Combs, is a member of the UCLA football team.”

    Vanderbilt Rape Case Is Declared a Mistrial.”

    From the HR Department


    LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines says he’s retiring.

    Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson is also stepping down. (“Finally,” says Valerie Strauss in The Washington Post.)

    Princeton University has rescinded its job offer to Michael LaCour, who has been accused of faking the data in his study of gay marriage.

    Apple Insider reports that Apple exec Lisa Jackson is taking on “additional duties beyond company related environmental issues, and is to be responsible for all policy initiatives including worldwide government affairs, education, accessibility and social concerns.”

    E. Chris Summerhill, a Boston history teacher, says he was dismissed following his arrest during a #BlackLivesMatter protest.

    “Writing instructors at Arizona State University, who have since December been protesting a plan to change their compensation in ways they said were unfair and would hurt teaching and learning, have won both a gain in pay and a new option on course load,” Inside Higher Ed reports. I can’t even fathom teaching a 5–5 load in writing. But hey, “New American University.”

    Upgrades and Downgrades


    #Charlestonsyllabus

    Enjoy your Google Apps for Education, people! Via Privacy Online News: “Yesterday, news broke that Google has been stealth downloading audio listeners onto every computer that runs Chrome, and transmits audio data back to Google. Effectively, this means that Google had taken itself the right to listen to every conversation in every room that runs Chrome somewhere, without any kind of consent from the people eavesdropped on.”

    Via eCampusNews: Instructure has released Canvas Data, “a hosted data solution providing fully optimized data to K–12 and higher education institutions capturing online teaching and learning activity.”

    Edsurge has announced a new “concierge” service, whereby companies can pay the publication to promote them to schools’ procurement teams. Edsurge takes a cut of any contracts awarded. Ethical? Disruptive? Ed-tech business-as-usual¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    Apple is adding a new feature to iTunesU to “help teachers communicate with students, handle homework and incorporate educational apps into their course materials,” says Re/code. (A competitor in-the-making to Google Classroom, perhaps.)

    LEGO Adds More Women in Science to Its Lineup.”

    Former CNN host Campbell Brown has launched a new education news site, The Seventy-Four. (Reactions.)

    Amazon has changed the Terms of Service and increased the price for Mechanical Turk, and according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, researchers are upset. It’s funny when and where higher ed cares about labor issues and when it doesn’t, no? (Not that the increase in fees is going to pay Turkers more, of course.)

    The Rework America Connected – a partnership of “LinkedIn, Arizona State University, edX, the Markle Foundation, the State of Colorado, and a number of employers in Phoenix and Colorado,” according to The Chronicle of Higher Education– hopes to make the job search easier for “‘middle skill’ workers, including people who have two-year degrees or did not attend college.”

    Via Jisc: “After 13 years delivering and sharing content to support teaching practitioners across higher education, further education and skills, Jisc will be retiring its Jorum service in September 2016.”

    Some Educational Apps Go Missing as Apple Purges Images of Confederate Flags from the App Store.”

    Funding and Acquisitions


    LittleBits has raised $44.2 million from DFJ Growth, Morgan Stanley, Alternative Investment Partners, Grishin Robotics, Wamda Capital, Foundry Group, True Ventures, VegasTechFund, Two Sigma Ventures, and Khosla Ventures. This brings to $59.8 million total raised by the modular electronics kit company.

    Online learning company Fuse Universal has raised $10 million from Education Growth Partners.

    Andela has raised an undisclosed round of funding – “well over $10 million,” “sources” tell Techcrunch– from Spark Capital, Omidyar Network, and Learn Capital for its “network of top tier computer science education programs across the African continent.” The startup had previously raised $3 million.

    EduKart has raised $1 million from Holostik Group's United Finsec, YouWeCan, 500 Startups, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, Manish Kheterpal, Amit Patni, Arihant Patni, and Stanford Business School's alumni angels. The New Delhi-based “education marketplace” has raised $2 million total.

    Online learning company CareerFoundry has raised an undisclosed round of funding.

    Online learning company Simplilearn has acquired Market Motive for $10 million.

    Level Data has acquired Student Sync. “The new solution automates the creation, deletion, and movement of student accounts, account properties, and home folders within your Active Directory,” says the press release which didn’t disclose any details about the terms of the sale.

    Safari, a tech learning publisher and a subsidiary of O’Reilly Media has acquired the assets of Popforms, which the press release calls “a creator of courses and tools supporting technical leaders looking to advance in their careers.” No details on the terms.

    Data and “Research”


    Via Campus Technology: “More than one third of all malware events in 2014 happened within the education sector.” Congratulations on your leadership, education.

    Here’s Kalief Browder’s Heartbreaking Research Paper On Solitary Confinement.”

    Is Advanced Placement’s Value in the Class or the Test?” Education Week’s Sarah Sparks looks at one study that suggests it’s the latter.

    Via The New York Times: “Unicef warned Monday of what it described as grim trend lines for the world’s poorest children over the next 15 years, saying in a new report that many millions face preventable deaths, diseases, stunted growth and illiteracy.”

    About The D2L Claim Of BrightSpace LeaP And Academic Improvements” by Mindwires Consulting’s Phil Hill. And “68% of Statistics Are Meaningless, D2L Edition,” by his colleague Michael Feldstein.

    I can't remember the last time I read one of D2L's announcements without rolling my eyes. I used to have respect for the company, but now I have to make a conscious effort not to dismiss any of their pronouncements out-of-hand. Not because I think it's impossible that they might be doing good work, but because they force me to dive into a mountain of horseshit in the hopes of finding a nugget of gold at the bottom. Every. Single. Time.


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    This is a version of the talk I gave at ISTE today on a panel titled "Is It Time to Give Up on Computers in Schools?" with Gary Stager, Will Richardson, Martin Levins, David Thornburg, and Wayne D'Orio. It was pretty damn fun.

    Take one step into that massive shit-show called the Expo Hall and it’s hard not to agree: “yes, it is time to give up on computers in schools.”

    Perhaps, once upon a time, we could believe ed-tech would change things. But as Seymour Papert noted in The Children’s Machine,

    Little by little the subversive features of the computer were eroded away: … the computer was now used to reinforce School’s ways. What had started as a subversive instrument of change was neutralized by the system and converted into an instrument of consolidation.

    I think we were naive when we ever thought otherwise.

    Sure, there are subversive features, but I think the computers also involve neoliberalism, imperialism, libertarianism, and environmental destruction. They now involve high stakes investment by the global 1% – it’s going to be a $60 billion market by 2018, we’re told. Computers are implicated in the systematic de-funding and dismantling of a public school system and a devaluation of human labor. They involve the consolidation of corporate and governmental power. They involve scientific management. They are designed by white men for white men. They re-inscribe inequality.

    And so I think it’s time now to recognize that if we want education that is more just and more equitable and more sustainable, that we need to get the ideologies that are hardwired into computers out of the classroom.

    In the early days of educational computing, it was often up to innovative, progressive teachers to put a personal computer in their classroom, even paying for the computer out of their own pocket. These were days of experimentation, and as Seymour teaches us, a re-imagining of what these powerful machines could enable students to do.

    And then came the network and, again, the mainframe.

    You’ll often hear the Internet hailed as one of the greatest inventions of mankind – something that connects us all and that has, thanks to the World Wide Web, enabled the publishing and sharing of ideas at an unprecedented pace and scale.

    What “the network” introduced in educational technology was also a more centralized control of computers. No longer was it up to the individual teacher to have a computer in her classroom. It was up to the district, the Central Office, IT. The sorts of hardware and software that was purchased had to meet those needs – the needs and the desire of the administration, not the needs and the desires of innovative educators, and certainly not the needs and desires of students.

    The mainframe never went away. And now, virtualized, we call it “the cloud.”

    Computers and mainframes and networks are points of control. They are tools of surveillance. Databases and data are how we are disciplined and punished. Quite to the contrary of Seymour’s hopes that computers will liberate learners, this will be how we are monitored and managed. Teachers. Students. Principals. Citizens. All of us.

    If we look at the history of computers, we shouldn’t be that surprised. The computers’ origins are as weapons of war: Alan Turing, Bletchley Park, code-breakers and cryptography. IBM in Germany and its development of machines and databases that it sold to the Nazis in order to efficiently collect the identity and whereabouts of Jews.

    The latter should give us great pause as we tout programs and policies that collect massive amounts of data – “big data.” The algorithms that computers facilitate drive more and more of our lives. We live in what law professor Frank Pasquale calls “the black box society.” We are tracked by technology; we are tracked by companies; we are tracked by our employers; we are tracked by the government, and “we have no clear idea of just how far much of this information can travel, how it is used, or its consequences.” When we compel the use of ed-tech, we are doing this to our students.

    Our access to information is constrained by these algorithms. Our choices, our students’ choices are constrained by these algorithms – and we do not even recognize it, let alone challenge it.

    We have convinced ourselves, for example, that we can trust Google with its mission: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” I call “bullshit.”

    Google is at the heart of two things that computer-using educators should care deeply and think much more critically about: the collection of massive amounts of our personal data and the control over our access to knowledge.

    Neither of these are neutral. Again, these are driven by ideology and by algorithms.

    You’ll hear the ed-tech industry gleefully call this “personalization.” More data collection and analysis, they contend, will mean that the software bends to the student. To the contrary, as Seymour pointed out long ago, instead we find the computer programming the child. If we do not unpack the ideology, if the algorithms are all black-boxed, then “personalization” will be discriminatory. As Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued“a ‘personalized’ platform can never be democratizing when the platform operates in a society defined by inequalities.”

    If we want schools to be democratizing, then we need to stop and consider how computers are likely to entrench the very opposite. Unless we stop them.

    In the 1960s, the punchcard – an older piece of “ed-tech” – had become a symbol of our dehumanization by computers and by a system – an educational system – that was inflexible, impersonal. We were being reduced to numbers. We were becoming alienated. These new machines were increasing the efficiency of a system that was setting us up for a life of drudgery and that were sending us off to war. We could not be trusted with our data or with our freedoms or with the machines themselves, we were told, as the punchcards cautioned: “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.”

    Students fought back.

    Let me quote here from Mario Savio, speaking on the stairs of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley in 1964 – over fifty years ago, yes, but I think still one of the most relevant messages for us as we consider the state and the ideology of education technology:

    We’re human beings!


    There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

    We’ve upgraded from punchcards to iPads. But underneath, a dangerous ideology – a reduction to 1s and 0s – remains. And so we need to stop this ed-tech machine.


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    This post first appeared on Educating Modern Learners

    Do the stories that we tell about education technology demand we ask more questions? Do they prompt us to rethink what teaching and learning looks like? Or does education technology simply re-inscribe older stories, older practices?

    And do the stories that we tell about education technology, particularly when those stories are tinged with judgment, shame, and condemnation, foreclose these sorts of reflective opportunities?

    Education technology is a MacGuffin.

    The "MacGuffin" was a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock to describe the suspense techniques in his films. Among of the best known examples: the $40,000 in cash that Janet Leigh's character steals in Psycho, or the spare key to the apartment in Dial M for Murder. The MacGuffin is the thing that initiates the plot, but it's not the driving force - or, at least, it isn't the driving force for long. Rather, it's the "hook" that the suspense of the film is hung upon, that is until Hitchcock draws us in to care more deeply for the characters. Then, as Hitchcock himself once admitted, the MacGuffin becomes "nothing at all."

    Education technology is a MacGuffin insofar as it's meant to "provoke learning" (or stories about learning); but we err when we expect ed-tech to carry the weight of the whole story. The iPad isn't the story. The Chromebook isn't the story. Big data, algorithms, and personalized learning are not the story. The story - I hope - lies elsewhere: it lies in the transformation of teaching and learning. But not in the objects that initially attract our attention.

    Ed-tech objects do make good MacGuffins. The hardware, the software, the online content - they're all very exciting, very new, very compelling. They generate plenty of that initial intrigue and interest. We want the new iPad, for example, because it's shiny; to own one, desirable.

    But the MacGuffin, remember, is just the thing that draws us in. It isn't what drives the plot forward. That requires people, human connections, processes (and okay, in the case of Hitchcock, things like greed, vengeance, and other complex psychological motives.)

    I should clarify here that I don't want us to confuse MacGuffin with "red herring" - something that occurs quite frequently in common parlance. A MacGuffin isn't a distraction from the story, and as such I don't mean to say that ed-tech is a distraction from learning. The MacGuffin is what compels our interest. It's what draws us into a deeper narrative, but often not directly.

    MOOCs and Khan Academy, for example, are an ed-tech MacGuffin because they prompt us to care about what good pedagogy, what progressive education looks like. (That's not to say that these particular examples aren't also simultaneously "red herrings,"distracting us from asking critical questions.)

    Two Spaces After a Period and Other Red Herrings about Technological Change


    Whether you put two spaces after a period or one and what that says about your readiness for technological change: now, that feels like it's easily a red herring.

    Although Farhad Manjoo's Slate article is over four years old now, it still resurfaces on social media with some frequency. (It did this week, and it prompted this essay.) The argument: "Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period."

    "What galls me about two-spacers isn't just their numbers," Manjoo writes. "It's their certainty that they're right."

    Over Thanksgiving dinner last year, I asked people what they considered to be the "correct" number of spaces between sentences. The diners included doctors, computer programmers, and other highly accomplished professionals. Everyone - everyone! - said it was proper to use two spaces. Some people admitted to slipping sometimes and using a single space - but when writing something formal, they were always careful to use two. Others explained they mostly used a single space but felt guilty for violating the two-space "rule." Still others said they used two spaces all the time, and they were thrilled to be so proper. When I pointed out that they were doing it wrong - that, in fact, the correct way to end a sentence is with a period followed by a single, proud, beautiful space - the table balked. "Who says two spaces is wrong?" they wanted to know.


    Typographers, that's who.

    Manjoo then relates the history of typography - a history, I should say, because his story about the typewriter introducing monospace fonts and the double space at the end of a sentence contains quite a few errors. Today computers (mostly) use proportional fonts, he says, and so two spaces at the end of a sentence are no longer necessary. Manjoo contends that one space at the end of the sentence is totally readable; and, moreover, he says he finds one space more aesthetic.

    One space is simpler, cleaner, and more visually pleasing. (It also requires less work, which isn't nothing.) A page of text with two spaces between every sentence looks riddled with holes; a page of text with an ordinary space looks just as it should.

    To be clear: this is simply an aesthetic preference. What "looks right" to a reader/writer. As such, it's probably not that big of a deal - except that the argument about two spaces fits neatly into other narratives that we like to tell about how certain populations refuse to adjust their practices and habits in the face of technological change. (In this case, the culprit is often "old people.")

    And who does Manjoo blame for perpetuating the two spaces at the end of a sentence? Teachers, of course. Again, this is part of a larger narrative about who affords and who resists change.

    Samantha Jacobs, a reading and journalism teacher at Norwood High School in Norwood, Colo., told me that she requires her students to use two spaces after a period instead of one, even though she acknowledges that style manuals no longer favor that approach. Why? Because that's what she's used to. "Primarily, I base the spacing on the way I learned," she wrote me in an email glutted with extra spaces.


    Several other teachers gave me the same explanation for pushing two spaces on their students. But if you think about it, that's a pretty backward approach: The only reason today's teachers learned to use two spaces is because their teachers were in the grip of old-school technology. We would never accept teachers pushing other outmoded ideas on kids because that's what was popular back when they were in school. The same should go for typing. So, kids, if your teachers force you to use two spaces, send them a link to this article. Use this as your subject line: "If you type two spaces after a period, you're doing it wrong."

    Starting a Story or Foreclosing the Conversation


    What does using two spaces or one space really say about a person? What if it actually tells us nothing? What if it's a red herring.

    Me, I learned typing in Mrs. Walker's ninth grade keyboarding class. We were taught to type two spaces after a period. I left that class knowing how to be a fairly decent touch-typist. I type quickly and pretty accurately. For a long time, that meant hitting the space bar twice at the end of a sentence. (It also influenced how I used the em dash. There's a Slate article that shames writers for using those too.)

    But I've stopped adding two spaces. I can't really explain how or when or why. It wasn't being admonished by Farhad Manjoo, that's for sure. It probably had to do with trying to squeeze my thoughts into 140 characters on Twitter - no room for an extra space there. It also had to do with writing in HTML and Markdown - the editors I use remove the odd extra space for me or translated those into strange characters. I got used to seeing one space; I typed one space.

    So to lambast those who still type two spaces after the period as "Luddites" who refuse to adapt to new technologies - that seems like a red herring, particularly if, as Manjoo's article suggests, typographical choices are really just a matter of aesthetics. This could be a MacGuffin, I suppose. It could be an opportunity to start a conversation about changing technologies and changing practices. But I don't think that's the story that Manjoo himself has decided to tell.

    A MacGuffin pulls us into a story. If we think about typography (or education technology) as a MacGuffin, it provides us with an interesting opportunity to lead people into new narratives. Shaming about technology usage, I would argue - and that is what Manjoo does here - stops the story in its tracks. Red herrings distract us from pursuing the story as well; they lead us down different paths. In the case of this particular Slate story, we're to condemn teachers for perpetuating bad technological habits rather than asking why and how all of us change or don't change in the face of new technologies.

    How much of the storytelling about education technology, reliant so often on red herrings, stands in the way of our rethinking teaching and learning?


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  • 07/03/15--11:35: Hack Education Weekly News
  • Education Politics


    Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that ends California’s personal exemption for vaccination for school children.

    Via Inside Higher Ed: “Education Affiliates, a for-profit chain with 50 campuses, has settled with the federal government over false-claim allegations, the U.S. Department of Justice said. The Maryland-based company agreed to pay $13 million in response to allegations that it received aid payments from unqualified students, some of whom the for-profit admitted by creating false or fraudulent high school diplomas.”

    The US House of Representatives might vote next week on its NCLB re-write. Maybe.

    Via Politico: “Maine’s government watchdog panel has greenlit an investigation into whether Republican Gov. Paul LePage abused his power by pressuring a charter school to fire his political adversary, Maine Public Broadcasting reports. Democratic House Speaker Mark Eves, president of Good Will-Hinckley school, alleges he was fired after LePage threatened to block the transfer of half a million dollars in state funds to the school. LePage says that his office doesn’t qualify as a state agency and is therefore immune to the government watchdog’s probe.”

    Education in the Courts


    Via The New York Times: “ Employers have considerable leeway to use unpaid interns legally when the work serves an educational purpose, a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday, setting aside a lower court decision that the movie studio Fox Searchlight Pictures had improperly classified former workers as unpaid interns rather than employees.”

    The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case challenging public sector union’s ability to compel nonmembers to pay service fees.

    The Supreme Court has also agreed to hear (again) a challenge to affirmative action and admissions at UT Austin.

    Testing, Testing…


    According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “Ohio picks AIR to replace just-ousted PARCC for Common Core tests.”

    MOOCs and UnMOOCs


    Practical Guidance from MOOC Research: Student Diversity,” by Justin Reich.

    MIT Researchers Develop Model To Predict MOOC Dropouts.”

    The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that federal financial aid might be extended to “ed-tech upstarts,” including “edX and Udacity, and coding schools like General Assembly and Pluralsight.” (That means they’d have to respect FERPA and Title IX, right? That’ll be fun to watch.)

    Slate goes with the headline“Can an Online Teaching Tool Solve One of Higher Education's Biggest Headaches?” And I’m going to go with the answer “No.”

    Meanwhile on Campus


    The University of Phoenix is making massive layoffs and cutting degree programs. It let go 600 people on Monday, after revealing that it had already laid off 900 employees this year. MindWires Consulting’s Phil Hill also observes that the university is “Losing hundreds of millions of dollars on adaptive-learning LMS bet.”

    Via Inside Higher Ed: “The messy dismantling of Corinthian Colleges is moving through a federal bankruptcy court, as a judge mulls whether to halt loan repayments for up to 350,000 former students and the defunct for-profit chain seeks the court’s approval for the fire sale of its remaining assets - including trademarks, furniture and even old diplomas and typewriters.”

    Community Care College, a for-profit college in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has switched to being a not-for-profit.

    Glued to the screen: A third grade class where kids spend 75% of the day on iPads.”

    ASU Is No Longer Using Khan Academy In Developmental Math Program.”

    Go, School Sports Team!


    NCAA’s Mark Emmert made more than $1.8 million in 2013.”

    From the HR Department


    Sonia Manzano is retiring from Sesame Street at the end of this season, having played Maria for 44 years.

    No, Zandria Robinson was not fired by the University of Memphis.

    ISTE


    There was a big ed-tech conference in Philadelphia this week. ISTE says about 21K people attended – but remember, (roughly) for every two teachers present, there’s one exhibitor. Edsurge has a round-up of some of the company news announced onsite.

    Upgrades and Downgrades


    Microsoft has launched an education portal for Minecraft. (There’s really nothing there.)

    Google Classroom now has an API.

    “Rupert Murdoch’s Education Company Will Stop Making Tablets,” reports Buzzfeed. Ciao, Amplify.

    Vicki Davis and Angela Maiers Sign Brand Management Contracts with SyndicatED.” I honestly do not understand why someone would want to be a brand or to have their brand managed. People > products. Elsewhere: “Angela Maiers and Choose2Matter, Inc. collaborate with Microsoft for authentic, passion-driven learning.”

    The American Federation of Teachers will now operate its lesson marketplace ShareMyLesson on its own. It had developed the site in partnership with TES Global, who now plans to launch a competing service.

    Via Edsurge: “International nonprofits Camfed and Worldreader will partner to provide eBooks to female students in sub-Saharan Africa.”

    Messaging app Celly has launched a crowdfunding platform for schools.

    Funding and Acquisitions


    McGraw-Hill Education is selling most of its testing business to Data Recognition Corporation. “DRC will acquire ‘key assets’ of McGraw-Hill Education’s CTB assessment business, the organizations said. Those assets include McGraw-Hill’s existing state testing contracts, as well as a lineup of other assessment products, including TerraNova, LAS Links, and the Test Assessing Secondary Completion, or TASC, a high school equivalency exam,” says Education Week. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

    Lost My Name has raised $9 million from Google Ventures, Greycroft, The Chernin Group, Allen & Co, and Cris Conde. The “personalized storytelling” company has raised $9.8 million.

    Bloomboard has raised $7.2 million from Birchmere Ventures, the Gates Foundation, Learn Capital, Dell Foundation, and Gera Ventures. The professional-development-for-teachers startup has raised $12.2 million total.

    PowerToFly has raised $6.5 million from Crosslink Capital, Hearst Ventures, and Lerer Hippeau Ventures. The site, which offers “an online marketplace connecting women to jobs, focusing on positions that allow mothers to work remotely,” has raised $7.5 million total.

    The test prep company ScoreBeyond has raised $2.8 million from Khosla Ventures. This is a great quote from the CEO: “These tests exist because they are an amazing way to test students' masteries of a subject. The SAT is designed to measure skills you would use in college–math, writing, and understanding grammar.” Riiiight. $2.8 million to a guy who doesn't even understand psychometrics. Awesome work, venture capitalists.

    One Month has raised $1.9 million from Arena Ventures, Idea Bulb Ventures, and Cornerstone OnDemand. The startup, which launched promising to teach people to code in one month, has raised $2.7 million total.

    Calolo has raised $100,000 from friends and family for its app “to help students get organized around applying to college.”

    Apollo Education Group, the parent company of the University of Pheonix, has acquired the coding bootcamp Iron Yard.

    Data, Privacy, and Surveillance


    Via Techcrunch: “Harvard Reveals It Had An IT Breach In June Impacting 8 Colleges And Administrations.”

    Via The New York Times: “When a Company Is Put Up for Sale, in Many Cases, Your Personal Data Is, Too.”

    No Child Left Un-Mined? Student Privacy at Risk in the Age of Big Data.”

    Data and “Research”


    MindWires Consulting’s Phil Hill says that, “D2L Again Misusing Academic Data For Brightspace Marketing Claims.”

    According to a report produced by the Software and Information Industry Association, “Educational institutions in higher ed and K–12 are making slow but steady progress toward instructional and operational goals, such as improved use of student data, through use of technology.” Thank goodness for industry organizations, otherwise how would we ever know that.

    Professor Says Facebook Can Help Informal Learning.”

    The latest from the Pew Research Center: “Americans, Politics and Science Issues” and “Americans’ Internet Access: 2000–2015.”

    The Horizon Report: 2015 K–12 Edition. On the horizon in one year or less, according to the report: BYOD and makerspaces.


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  • 07/10/15--11:35: Hack Education Weekly News
  • Education Politics


    The US House of Representatives voted to reauthorize/rewrite No Child Left Behind.

    Via Inside Higher Ed: “Oregon now is poised to follow Tennessee as the second state with a plan on the books to provide free two-year college. And Democrats in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives introduced bills Wednesday that seek to make Obama's federal proposal a reality. The proposed legislation lacks any Republican support, however, so the bills are unlikely to go anywhere.” (More on the latter in The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

    Democratic Presidential candidate and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley unveiled his plan for debt-free college.

    Education Department to Propose Expanded Student-Loan Repayment Program.”

    New Jersey’s Board of Education has named former education commissioner Chris Cerf as the superintendent of the Newark school district.

    Texas’ New History Textbooks Are a Disaster.” “Louisiana schools gain greater oversight, can now select textbooks.” Gee, what could go wrong. Elsewhere in textbooks: “The Great Common Core Textbook Swindle.”

    The US Army will no longer embed scholars with military units in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Testing, Testing…


    Pearson Loses Another Major Testing Contract.” This time, a $44 million contract in New York state.

    The Arkansas Board of Education has voted to drop PARCC and use ACT Aspire tests instead.

    How Standardized Tests Are Scored (Hint: Humans Are Involved)

    MOOCs and UnMOOCs


    Udacity will soon give all Nanodegree graduates half of their tuition back.”

    Via Justin Reich: “Practical Guidance from MOOC Research: Flexibility and Stickiness.”

    Why Did Learners Enroll in Duke U MOOCs?

    Four Ways Universities Make Money From Online Courses.” Shockingly, actually charging for the courses is one quite popular way.

    Meanwhile on Campus


    [Florida] “School Libraries: Closed For Business, Open For Testing

    Institutions Receiving the Most Graduate-Student Loan Disbursements, 2013–14.”

    Staffordshire school bans short skirts because they’re ‘distracting’ to male teachers and pupils.” Because not hiring perverts wasn’t an option I guess.

    Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The average amount that college students spend on course materials appears to be declining. But not necessarily because textbooks are cheaper. A growing number of students, surveys show, simply skip buying required course materials.”

    Go, School Sports Team!


    The NCAA will lift its ban on basketball tournaments in South Carolina now that the Confederate flag has been removed from the state capitol grounds.

    From the HR Department


    Nate Otto will be joining the Badge Alliance as Interim Director.

    Science Leadership Academy principal Chris Lehmann is taking on additional duties with the Philadelphia School District – he’ll also serve as Assistant Superintendent of the Innovative Schools Network.

    Upgrades and Downgrades


    Moodle introduces “MoodleCloud.” LMS in "the cloud" - by golly all the ed-tech innovation these days!

    Mindwires Consulting’s Phil Hill has obtained a copy of the Unizin contract and “There is nothing to see here.”

    Edsurge reports that one of its investors, NewSchools Venture Fund, has “announced the launch of ‘NewSchools Catapult,’ a program that provides school model development teams with direct financial investment, a cohort experience and targeted assistance. The goal? For all teams to launch new school models in the fall of 2016.”

    The recent explosion of an unmanned SpaceX rocket headed for the International Space Station meant “Loss of Outer Space Experiments For Ed. Nonprofit,” Education Week reports.

    “LegalZoom Wants To Be ‘The Good Guys’ In Shady World Of Student Debt Relief,” says Buzzfeed.

    Vortex Is A Toy Robot That Teaches Kids How To Code.”

    Jewelbots, programmable friendship bracelets, prompted this headline: “Will ‘Girly’ Tech Attract More Girls to Computer Programming?

    The BBC reports that “The BBC has revealed the final design of the Micro Bit, a pocket-sized computer set to be given to about one million UK-based children in October.”

    Funding and Acquisitions


    Language learning company Babbel has raised $22 million from Scottish Equity Partners, Reed Elsevier Ventures, Nokia Growth Partners, and VC Fonds Technology Berlin. It has raised $32 million total.

    Language learning company CultureAlley has raised $6.5 million from Tiger Global Management, KAE Capital, and 500 Startups. It has raised $6.8 million total.

    CampusLogic has raised $4.1 million from University Ventures, Continental Investors, Matt Pittinsky (Blackboard co-founder and CEO of Parchment), Deborah Quazzo, and others. The startup promises to help students navigate financial aid; its funding round is a convertible note – that is, a loan.

    Copley Retention Systems has raised $1.5 million from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, Tom DiBenedetto (a limited partner in the Boston Red Sox), Bob Dowdell, Steve Fireng, Jack Larson, and Education Ventures LLC. The startup, which as the name suggests promises to alert college officials when they might not retain a student, has raised $2.2 million total.

    Blackboard has acquired predictive analytics tool X-Ray Analytics.

    Edsurge rewrites the news from TechCrunch Japan which says that “Recruit Holdings, the largest recruiting and staffing company in Japan, has acquired London-based Quipper for ¥4.77 billion (approximately US $39 million).”

    Uversity, a recruitment tool formerly known as Inigral, has been acquired by CRM company TargetX. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

    Data, Privacy, and Surveillance


    A school district in Iowa will put body cameras on principals. “The district spent about $1,100 to purchase 13 cameras at about $85 each. They record with a date and time stamp, can be clipped onto ties or lanyards, and can be turned on and off as needed. For now, they won't be used to record all interactions with adults,” says The Atlantic. Body cameras on cops and body cameras on principals – go ahead and make the connection about what that makes schools…

    Carnegie Mellon University plans to install sensors all over its campus, thanks to $500,000 in funding from Google. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “campus could be wired with temperature sensors, cameras, microphones, humidity sensors, vibration sensors, and more in order to provide people with information about the physical world around them. Students could determine whether their professors were in their offices, or see what friends were available for lunch.” Gee, how did universities ever survive without this.

    Data and “Research”


    According to Edsurge, US ed-tech companies raised $240 million in June. (I haven’t run my numbers yet for the first half of the year; look for them soon.)

    Why Education Does Not Need Marc Andreessen.” (I can think of other reasons in addition to this analysis of investment in ed-tech startups.)

    Televisions Are No Longer the Screen of Choice for Kids.”

    Intelligent tutoring systems – decades after their introduction, ed-tech folks are still insisting these are “promising.”

    “Moody’s is considering changing the approach it uses to rate the financial health of more than 500 colleges and universities,” Inside Higher Ed reports. Meanwhile, Moody’s also reported that universities’ financial health seems to be stabilizing. Elsewhere in investor servicing, Moody’s downgraded for-profit chain and Coursera investor Laureate Education.

    “Colorado’s Effort Against Teenage Pregnancies Is a Startling Success,” says The New York Times. (It’s really only startling if you thought abstinence-only education was a good idea, I reckon.)

    From iNACOL: “Blending Learning: The Evolution of Online and Face-to-Face Education from 2008-2015.” Because nothing happened in ed-tech before 2008.


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  • 07/16/15--11:35: How Teens Use Social Media
  • This article first appeared on Educating Modern Learners in April 2015

    Earlier this year, an article "written by an actual teen" made the rounds on social media. The article promised "A Teenager's View of Social Media," and the author's pronouncements were taken as gospel:

    • "Facebook is dead to us."
    • "Instagram is by far the most used social media outlet for my age group."
    • "To be honest, a lot of us simply do not understand the point of Twitter."
    • "Snapchat is quickly becoming the most used social media network."
    • "Tumblr is like a secret society that everyone is in, but no one talks about."

    Internet researcher danah boyd responded to the article with "An Old Fogey's Analysis of a Teenager's View on Social Media," cautioning that "What [the author is] sharing is not indicative of all teens. More significantly, what he's sharing reinforces existing biases in the tech industry and journalism that worry me tremendously." As boyd pointed out, the author is a 19-year-old white male, attending the University of Texas, Austin. "Let me put this bluntly," she wrote, "teens' use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background."

    Not surprisingly, boyd's arguments are echoed in the latest Pew Research Center report on teens and social media, which highlights (among other things) "a distinct pattern in social media use by socio-economic status."

    Across demographics - race, ethnicity, class, gender - the report makes clear that teens are online a lot: 92% of teens say they go online daily. 24% of teens report they're online "almost constantly."

    Much of this is due to the ubiquity of mobile phones. Based on Pew's survey (a nationally representative sample of 1,060 teens ages 13 to 17), 88% of American teens have (or have access to) a mobile phone of some kind; and the majority of teens (73%) have smartphones. That's up from 78% teens who reported having mobile phones in the previous Pew survey of teens and technology in 2013. Then, just 47% had smartphones.

    85% of African-American teens have a smartphone, compared with 71% of white and Latino teens. (12% of teens say they have no access to a mobile phone of any kind.) But African-American and Latino teens are less likely to have access to other mobile computing devices. According to the survey,

    White teens are more likely to report having a desktop or laptop computer - with 91% of white teens owning a desktop or laptop compared with 82% of Hispanic youth and 79% of African- American youth. Household income and parents' educational level are also factors in teens' access to desktops or laptops. Teens whose families earn less than $50,000 a year are less likely to have access to a desktop or laptop, though even among these groups, eight out of ten teens (80%) have these machines. And among more well-to-do teens, 91% own or have access to desktops or laptops.

    This difference is important for educators to recognize, particularly if they expect students to have Internet access at home. What you can accomplish with Internet access and a laptop is quite different from what you can accomplish with Internet access and a phone.

    How teens use social media - which social media platforms they use - is also something that educators should be aware of.

    This seems particularly important if, as recent news has suggested, schools are surveilling social media for signs of cheating and other infractions. That is, which teens are likely to be caught up in that sort of dragnet? If it's Twitter that's being monitored, for example, it's worth noting that, according to Pew, 45% of African-American teens use Twitter; 34% of Latino; 31% of white teens.

    Despite all the media reports that teens are abandoning Facebook, the site remains the most popular and most frequently used social media platform for their age group. 71% of teens say they use Facebook. (That is down from 77% in the 2013 Pew report, for what it's worth.)

    Usage of Facebook differs based on socio-economic status. Teens from households with an annual income less than $50,000 are more likely to say they use Facebook. Teens from affluent homes lean towards Snapchat and Instagram.

    Social media usage also differs based on gender:

    Boys are more likely than girls to report that they visit Facebook most often (45% of boys vs. 36% of girls). Girls are more likely than boys to say they use Instagram (23% of girls vs. 17% of boys) and Tumblr (6% of girls compared with less than 1% of boys).

    According to Pew, teenage girls are most apt to use "visually-oriented" social media platforms such as Tumblr or Pinterest. Boys are more likely to own gaming consoles and play video games - 91% of boys say they own consoles; just 71% of girls say that have or have access to one. Girls send and receive more texts (~40 per day). They're more likely to use Snapchat. And girls are a little bit more likely to use anonymous apps. Only 11% of teens use these currently - 13% of girls, and 8% of boys.

    But again, when it comes to usage of anonymous apps, there are other differences based on demographics:

    Hispanic teens are nearly twice as likely as white teens to use these platforms, with 16% of Hispanic youth using anonymous sharing or question platforms compared with 9% of whites. And just 6% of the least well-off teens (those whose parents earn less $30,000 a year) visit anonymous sites, compared with 12% of teens from more well-to-do homes."

    The Pew report shows the complexities of teens' social media usage, and as such it should caution us against sweeping generalizations about what certain generations do or do not do with technology.


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  • 07/17/15--11:35: Hack Education Weekly News
  • Education Politics


    No Child Left Behind looks to be replaced by another set of meaningless words: “the Every Child Achieves Act,” which passed the Senate this week. The House’s version, “the Student Success Act” passed last week, so it’s on to committee. “The Senate’s plan to replace No Child Left Behind, explained.” A related explainer also from Vox’s Libby Nelson: “The bizarre alliance between Republicans and teachers unions, explained.”

    (Yet Another) Federal Student-Data-Privacy Bill Introduced”: “The SAFE KIDS Act would prohibit ed-tech companies and operators from selling student data, using that information to target advertising to students, or disclosing such information to unapproved third parties.”

    ConnectHome: a new Obama Administration initiative to expand access to broadband to low-income families in order to address the “homework gap.”

    Wisconsin governor (and presidential candidate) Scott Walker signed a budget bill this week that, among other things, weakened tenure protections for professors at the state’s public universities. (More via Politico and Inside Higher Ed.) University of Wisconsin professor Sara Goldrick-Rab has angered conservatives (and some university officials) by being outspoken and highly critical about Walker’s policies.

    The state of Missouri has banned college aid for undocumented students.

    The US Department of Education will delay some loan collection for former Corinthian College students.

    28 primary school teachers were killed in Nigeria in an attack by Boko Haram.

    Education in the Courts


    Students Matter, an advocacy group that sued California over its teacher tenure laws, is now suing 13 school districts in the state for not using test scores in teacher evaluations.

    Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Two doctoral students at the University of California at Los Angeles who say they were sexually harassed and assaulted by a history professor over a period of years have sued the university for allegedly doing little to help them.”

    Testing, Testing…


    A New Mexico district court judge has “found that the American Institutes for Research lacked proper legal standing to appeal a decision by the states belonging to the consortium, PARCC, to award an enormously lucrative contract to Pearson,” Education Week reports.

    Massachusetts might be the next state to ditch PARCC.

    Why big civil rights groups think standardized testing is good for kids.”

    Testing Revolt In Washington State Brings Feds Into Uncharted Waters” – more than 42,000 11th graders did not take their mandated standardized tests this year, NPR reports.

    MOOCs and UnMOOCs


    Chinese MOOC students no longer need to use a credit card to pay for their Coursera certificates now that the company has partnered with the Chinese online payment platform Alipay.

    Practical Guidance from MOOC Research: Helping Busy Students Stick to Plans” and “Practical Guidance from MOOC Research: Persistence and Activity” by Justin Reich.

    Updates on Unizin from Mindwire Consulting’s Phil Hill. (I’m still not clear on what exactly Unizin is but Hill’s updates make it clear that there’s probably no point in worrying too much about that.)

    Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Stirring Fear and Hope, U. of Akron Mulls an Aggressive Move Online.”

    Meanwhile on Campus


    Mount St. Clare College will close its doors in 2016. Bridgepoint Education bought the college in order to secure accreditation for its for-profit Ashford University, but apparently it has now served its purpose.

    The University of Toronto has canceled a class on alternative medicine that was to be taught by a homeopath/anti-vaxxer.

    According to Mother Jones, “At least 28 students have been seriously injured – and one killed – in the past 5 years” by school police.

    Go, School Sports Team!


    The University of Michigan is going Nike with “a deal valued at $169 million that begins Aug. 1, 2016 and runs through 2027, with a school option to extend it to 2031. Nike will supply uniforms, footwear, apparel and equipment for all 31 varsity athletic teams. The financial terms total $122.3 million guaranteed, with Michigan receiving $12 million cash up front (due Thursday), $56.8 million in equipment and apparel and $53.5 million total in cash, paid annually.”

    Florida State Vows to Improve Conduct of Athletes.”

    The University of Akron is scrapping its baseball team.

    From the HR Department


    A job posting for “Volunteer Professor.”

    Maria Andersen is the new Director of Learning Design at Western Governors University.

    Education giant Pearson lays off 208 Texas employees, mostly in Austin.”

    For-profit Devry University is laying off 90 employees and closing its Chicago office.

    Via Boing Boing: “With faked degrees, U.S. tech official ran law enforcement data systems for years. Then he resigned, got a new gov job.”

    Upgrades and Downgrades


    TurnItIn remains terrible.

    Via Education Week: “Microsoft Server 2003’s Demise Could Bring Tech Woes for Unprepared Schools.”

    The Boy Scouts of America voted to end its ban on gay scout leaders.

    4.0 Schools will take over the administration of Startup Weekend EDUs.

    The latest in robots-replacing-teachers, via Edsurge: “Watson Beat Jeopardy – Can It Beat Teacher Burnout and Fix Education?

    Instructure: Accelerating growth in 3 parallel markets,” says Mindwire Consulting’s Phil Hill. “Instructure Is Truly Anomalous,” says Mindwire Consulting’s Michael Feldstein.

    Funding, Acquisitions, and Spinoffs


    Corporate training platform XanEdu has raised $8.1 million from Superior Capital Partners and Plymouth Ventures. The company has raised $12.8 million total.

    McGraw-Hill has invested $6.7 million in the language learning company Busuu. Busuu has raised $11.4 million total.

    Corporate training platform mLevel has raised $5.3 million from BIP Capital.

    ThirdSpaceLearning has raised $2.3 million from Ananda - Social Venture Fund and Nesta. The tutoring company has raised $3.6 million total.

    ClassWallet has raised $1.9 million from NewSchools Venture Seed Fund, Kaplan Ventures, William Gutman, Accelerated Growth Partners, and MaverixLab. The company, which helps schools manage classroom spending, has raised $3.1 million total.

    Feedback tool Kaizena has raised $900,000 in seed funding from NewsSchools Venture Fund Seed, Horizons Ventures, Umang Gupta, LinkedIn’s CEO Jeff Weiner, Tom Williams, and Victor Alcantara.

    Pluralsight has acquired live instructor help site HackHands for an undisclosed sum.

    “Barnes & Noble Inc. said Tuesday its board has approved the spinoff of its education business, which is expected to begin regular trading on the New York Stock Exchange Aug. 3,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

    Chinese gaming company NetDragon has acquired interactive whiteboard maker Promethean for $130 million.

    Atomic Learning has acquired Versifit Technologies, which according to the press release is “a leading provider of data warehousing and analytic reporting platforms in education.” Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

    Data and Surveillance


    Software that UK schools are using to monitor students’ Internet use has a major security flaw: “a flaw in the company’s encryption protocols which could allow almost anyone to gain full access to computers running the Impero software, run software such as spyware on the systems, or access files and records stored on them.”

    Data and “Research”


    It’s always depressing and a little embarrassing to read what tech investors think about education. Here’s Edsurge with “5 Questions With Mark Cuban on Higher Education and His Newest Edtech Investment.”

    Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The American Psychological Association gave psychologists involved in the often-brutal interrogation of detainees at Guantánamo Bay and elsewhere a free pass. The association tweaked its ethics code for the convenience of the U.S. military. For years it failed to investigate serious complaints of unethical conduct – and when it did investigate, its efforts were laughable.”

    From the Pew Research Center: “Parents and Social Media.”

    According to a study from the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy (as reported in The Atlantic), “dual-enrollment programs, where students take classes simultaneously in high school and at a local college, have proven especially successful at getting less-affluent and first-generation students into college – and through it.”

    Brain Waves May Help Diagnose Reading Problems Early,” says Pacific Standard. My brain waves help me to be skeptical of neuro-bollocks.

    New study finds that one in 10 male college students have committed rape.”

    Only tangentially related to ed-tech, I suppose, but I’m including it here anyway: “Study: Low status men more likely to bully women online.”


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  • 07/24/15--11:35: Hack Education Weekly News
  • Education Politics


    Presidential candidate and clown Donald Trump “criticized the federal government for earning a profit on the federal student loan program,” Inside Higher Ed reports. (Remember that time Trump ran a for-profit “university” that got fined by New York state because it wasn’t accredited and was making false claims? Good times.)

    Defunct for-profit Corinthian Colleges has donated over $27,000 to presidential candidate Marco Rubio’s various campaigns over the last five years.

    “The U.S. Department of Education continues to work on its plan to grant experimental federal aid eligibility to partnerships between accredited colleges and alternative providers, such as job skills boot camps, coding academies and MOOCs,” Inside Higher Ed reports. I bet the ed-tech industry is pretty stoked to have former VC Ted Mitchell there as the undersecretary of education, eh.

    Oregon Governor Kate Brown has signed legislation creating a free community college program in the state. (Related: Who’s against tuition-free education?)

    Federal Accreditation Advisory Panel Seeks More Power.”

    College ratings system proposed by Obama is scrapped.”

    Scaled-Back FERPA Overhaul Introduced in U.S. House.”

    Via Buzzfeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy: “One of the country’s largest private student loan servicers, Discover Bank, was fined $18.5 million Wednesday by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau for a host of illegal practices. The action is Bureau’s first action against a student loan servicer, the latest step in the government’s attempts to ferret out bad practices by banks and nonprofits that service private student loans.” Hensley-Clancy also reports on the bad practices of USA Funds: “A student loan guarantor run by a former Bush administration official has sued the Education Department for the right to impose thousands of dollars in fines on struggling borrowers who default on their student loans, but immediately make efforts to repay them.”

    Education in the Courts


    ProPublica reports that an appeals court in DC has revived a case against AT&T that claims that the company overcharged schools for their Internet service – “a decision that could lead to the disclosure of AT&T’s internal records about the federal program known as E-Rate.”

    Judge Rules That University Did Not Hold Fair Trial In Sexual Assault Case.”

    Testing, Testing…


    Nevada will cut ties with Measured Progress, its standardized testing vendor, after troubles with online testing this spring.

    “Congress might end No Child Left Behind, but your kids will still take standardized tests,” says Vox’s Libby Nelson.

    MOOCs and UnMOOCs


    Davidson College has launched Davidson Next, its Advanced Placement test prep-as-a-MOOC modules.

    The latest in Justin Reich’s series on “Practical Guidance from MOOC Research”: “Students Learn by Doing.”

    When One State Required Online Learning in High School, Colleges Saw Changes, Too.” Shocking, I know.

    Meanwhile on Campus


    The number of for-profit colleges is shrinking, according to data released by the National Center for Education Statistics. (But I’m working on a story on how this sector is now co-opting the “everyone should learn to code” mantra and acquiring coding bootcamps. Boy, it'll sure help when financial aid is available for these, eh? Thanks, Department of Education!)

    Who’s actually running America's charter schools?” Great data, maps, and charts from Rutgers professor Bruce Baker.

    The Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual list of “Great Colleges to Work For.”

    A professor tried to warn incoming freshmen about the gutting of their education. It didn't go well” – Slate’s Rebecca Schuman on University of Wisconsin professor Sara Goldrick-Rab.

    Only 85 out of the UK’s 18,5000 professors are black.

    The Search for Vanderbilt’s Elusive Red-Tape Study.”

    Go, School Sports Team!


    A team of American high-school students has won the International Mathematical Olympiad. OK. It’s not sports news.

    From the HR Department


    Thomas C. Leppert, the CEO of Kaplan, is stepping down.

    Sharon van Wyk is the new head of Princeton Review / Tutor.com.

    Upgrades and Downgrades


    Blackboard has a new UI. More on this ever-so-exciting development via Wired, Buzzfeed, and Inside Higher Ed.

    Ed-tech for prisoners.

    The Library Digital Privacy Pledge.”

    A couple of years ago, hardly a week would go by without the announcement of a new ed-tech startup incubator. The trend has died down a bit recently (I think – I’m not seeing as many headlines, at least). However, this week Edsurge notes two new incubators in Southeast Asia: Topica EdTechLab in Hanoi and Lithan EdTech Accelerator in Singapore.

    Funding, Mergers, and Acquisitions


    Pearson has sold the Financial Times to Japanese media company Nikkei for $1.3 billion. Pearson will now be “be 100 percent focused on our global education strategy,” CEO John Fallon says. (More via Bloomberg Business.) Wheeee.

    Higher ed consortium Unizin has acquired digital textbook software company Courseload. Terms of the deal were not disclosed. (More on the implications via Mindwire Consulting’s Phil Hill.)

    Handsfree Learning will merge with ApprenNet. Terms of the deal weren’t disclosed. More details on the companies’ backgrounds via Edsurge.

    Predictive analytics company Civitas Learning has acquired“student engagement platform” BlikBook. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

    Catapult Learning has merged with Specialized Education Services, Inc., which according to its own PR, will make it “the nation’s largest provider of contracted instructional services.”

    BrightBytes has raised $33 million from Insight Venture Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners, Learn Capital, and Rethink Education. The company, which measures learning outcomes of ed-tech, has raised $51.5 million total.

    DataCamp has raised $1 million in seed funding from Chris Lynch “to develop a data science learning platform.”

    Montessorium has raised $1 million from Bluestem Capital Appreciation Fund for its Montessori-branded apps.

    Remember how earlier this summer Techcrunch claimed that investment in ed-tech was drying up? Not so fast! Inside Higher Ed reports on “a record-setting year for investments in ed tech.” Education Week writes about the “ed-tech venture capital boom.” Investment analysts CB Insights say that “Funding To VC-Backed Education Technology Startups Soars 96%.”

    Data, Privacy, and Surveillance


    Via The New York Times: “Information on as many as 4.5 million people was stored on servers that were breached during online attacks beginning last year against UCLA Health, the hospital system of the University of California, Los Angeles.”

    ShotSpotter: gunshot detection system raises privacy concerns on campuses.”

    The unsurprising response to privacy concerns and proposed privacy legislation from Michael Horn et al: “Privacy Push Must Not Prevent Personalized Learning.”

    NSA summer camps: “More hacking than hiking.”

    Data and “Research”


    Via Edsurge: “Will Teaching New Computer Science Principles Level the Playing Field?” (Me: No. Not until the culture of CS and the tech industry changes.)

    Meanwhile: “Is Silicon Valley Driving Teachers Out?” The Atlantic reports that, “As housing costs in America’s tech hub continue to soar, local educators are finding it tough to stay and work in the area.” Level the playing field lulz.

    Slate reports that the poverty rate for children in the US is up – some 22% of children live in poverty. And “66 percent of students – 55 percent of non-Hispanic white kids, and more than 80 percent of black and Latino kid – [are] not reading proficiently by fourth grade.”

    Via The Washington Post: “This is where your child is most likely to get suspended from school.” (“This” in the headline refers to states in the southeast.)

    CREDO has found that charter school students in Texas are making less progress in math and reading than their peers in traditional public schools.

    Seattle kids are less likely to get polio vaccine than kids in Rwanda, and rates continue to drop.”

    Study of colleges shows ‘encouraging’ texts dramatically cut dropout rates.”

    Moody’s Revises Higher Ed Outlook to ‘Stable.’

    Stanford University professor Robert Jackler has found the names of his fellow researchers who repeatedly testify that there is no link between cigarettes and disease.

    Via Education Week: “Back-to-School Spending Dips, Even as Consumer Confidence Rises.” Edsurge, however, reports that spending on ed-tech will grow.


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    There aren’t many ed-tech products that have developed a cult following, a phrase that appears at the foot of the Wikipedia entry for AlphaSmart, a “smart keyboard” first marketed to schools in the 1990s. Indeed, while the AlphaSmart product line was discontinued a couple of years ago, aftermarket sales of the devices continue, accompanied by blog posts like these: “4 sucky things about this $19 piece of junk that make it AMAZING for writing” and “Is Alphasmart STILL the ultimate writers’ tool?

    The word-processing keyboard was designed to be just that – a device that would strip away the distractions that had come to accompany writing on a computer – fonts, colors, layout. Instead, says one of the AlphaSmart inventors Ketan Kothari, students should be able to “focus on the words.” So should writers, of course, which goes a long way in explaining why this remains such a beloved product in certain circles.

    An Ed-Tech “Garage” Story


    Kothari was, at the time, an engineer at Apple. He along with fellow engineer Joe Barrus had heard the demands of educators who would visit Cupertino: desktop publishing on Macs meant that students were spending a lot of time on, well, publishing and not on the writing process itself.

    So Barrus built a prototype of a portable word-processor that would enable more focus on that. Kothari posted the idea onto an ed-tech discussion board on FidoNet and got an immediate response from teachers in Seattle. The two traveled to Seattle to demo the keyboard to a small group. The feedback: it would need to be smaller, it would need to be battery-operated, and the 10-key Barrus had initially included was unnecessary. One of the teachers at the demo suggested that the two hold a workshop at the upcoming NCCE (Northwest Council for Computer Education) conference and pitch their idea to more local ed-tech enthusiasts. They did; it was standing room only, and teachers were ready to buy, pulling out their personal checkbooks to do so, Kothari jokes.

    But first, Barrus and Kothari had to move from prototype to production. And they had to figure out what rights, if any, their employer Apple was going to claim to the idea.

    But Apple, it seemed, viewed the machine as a peripheral – not really an accurate or even imaginative categorization. (This was the Sculley era, not known as one of Apple’s most innovative.) While Barrus and Kothari’s prototype wasn’t really a computer, it wasn’t a dumb keyboard either. Apple eventually decided that it wasn’t interested in producing the device – “people didn’t really get it” in a pre-Palm OS world, says Kothari – and the company gave the two engineers a release to work on their idea. (Other Apple engineers helped with designing the plastics.)

    Unlike today’s education technology startups that rush to obtain venture capital at the first inkling of an idea, AlphaSmart was largely bootstrapped. (The company’s original name was Intelligent Peripheral Devices.) The team tried, but failed, to obtain an SBA loan. They pooled all their savings, kept their day jobs, and recruited Ketan Kothari’s brother, Manish, to head up marketing efforts, working out of Ketan’s spare bedroom – one of ed-tech’s few “garage” origin stories. After several points when the company almost folded due to financial and production issues, AlphaSmart started shipping in the fall of 1993. It couldn’t build a lot of inventory simply because it had little capital. However the devices were in high demand, and within six months, AlphaSmart found itself cash-flow positive (again, unlike today’s education technology startups, even if they’ve raised venture capital).

    Image credits

    “It Just Works”


    With their connections to Apple and its education distributors and resellers, AlphaSmart’s founders had access to several key inroads into schools. But the company decided to build direct sales channels. That gave them a closer relationship to customers, they said. So AlphaSmart decided to use its limited marketing dollars to focus on trade-shows, which enabled them to cut out the middle-man and, of course, helped them get feedback directly from teachers, both new and existing customers alike.

    “Is that all it does?” a teacher asked Barrus when he was demoing the smart keyboard’s word-processing functionality. He replied sheepishly, “Yes.” And her response: “That’s wonderful!”

    That anecdote underscores one of the great appeals of the AlphaSmart device: it was plug-and-play and, as such, incredibly easy to use – “a word processing toaster,” in Barrus’ words. From Apple, AlphaSmart had borrowed the mantra “it just works” as a design principle – more specifically “it just works in the elementary school classroom.”

    That principle hasn’t been the guiding one for much of education technology, as a case study about AlphaSmart published by the Innosight Institute notes:

    The elementary school teachers had made an important distinction that had helped guide Joe, Ketan, and Manish in developing the product. The teachers did not view the device they had requested as a computer in the traditional sense; they were asking for a “smart keyboard.” Manish stressed the importance of that distinction: “The key innovation in my mind … was that they turned it from being a computer substitute or a ‘low-end laptop’ to being a ‘smart keyboard,’ and there’s a big difference between the two.”


    That difference is exemplified by the “low-end laptops” that a few desktop computer manufacturers had begun to offer. In the team’s view, these products were still not addressing the teachers’ needs well. The laptops sold in the $300 to $500 range, but they did not feature full-size keyboards, adequate durability, or suitable battery life. Additionally, they were complicated to deploy. One low-end laptop, the Tandy WP–2, had a manual that was 150 pages long, whereas the AlphaSmart manual was only 11 pages. Using such devices required downloading and configuring software, which often caused compatibility issues. They required drivers and configuration of the serial port’s baud rate and other settings. They also included extra software, such as a terminal emulator and calendar that was a distraction. “In our minds, low-end laptops were clearly way too complicated,” Ketan said.

    Personal computers were not only seen as too complex (and more than a little intimidating) to teachers; they were expensive. The early AlphaSmart devices sold for about $270 – cheaper than either laptop or desktop computers, which ostensibly meant that classrooms could distribute one per student.

    They were also quite rugged, with a lengthy battery life (the importance of which cannot be overstated in schools) and no internal moving parts, something that Barrus would demonstrate – pretty memorably for anyone that ever saw AlphaSmart in a tradeshow – by dropkicking a keyboard.

    The product line specs:

    The Complexification of Ed-Tech


    “The arc of the technology universe is long and it bends towards bloat.”

    Although AlphaSmart had successfully found a niche selling its simple, smart keyboard to elementary school teachers, it soon began to explore other markets. In 2002, for example, it released the “Dana,” a higher-end product that functioned much more like a lower-end laptop. The Dana ran the Palm OS mobile operating system, had 8 MB of memory and a touchscreen, and was not only WiFi enabled but had infrared “beaming” capabilities to move your text from the AlphaSmart to another PC. The Dana’s battery life suffered with these advancements – the device only 25 hours worth of life. It retailed for about $400 or more. And that meant that it was beyond the budget of many schools.

    In addition to feeling pressured to produce devices that met new demands for mobile computing, AlphaSmart also heard from teachers that the smart keyboards should offer more writing and editing curriculum. In other words, there were pressures on the AlphaSmart to become more complex and more robust in terms of hardware and software.

    The company had its IPO in 2004, raising $24 million with a market cap of about $90 million; and a little over a year later, it was acquired by Renaissance Learning for $57 million (which itself was bought by a private equity firm last year). In 2013, the AlphaSmart product line was discontinued. Ketan and Manish Kothari continue to work in education technology; their startup Root–1 was acquired by Edmodo in 2013.

    Disruptive Innovation: The Wrong Lesson?


    Perhaps it’s no surprise that the Innosight Institute, formerly known as the Clayton Christensen Institute, has penned a case study on AlphaSmart. It argues that the company fits into its model/myth/mantra of “disruptive innovation,” a phrase coined by Clayton Christensen – that is, whereby a low price entrant in the market eventually displaces a more expensive, established competitor:

    When a large set of consumers becomes over-served by existing products, the door is opened for disruptive products to enter the market and serve those consumers better. Such a disruptive product is more likely to be successful at capturing the market if it is focused on a specific job those consumers need to get done. This focus allows development of a product that has the right performance metrics at the right cost, and it allows the producer to target the right customer base with a clear message.

    The founders of AlphaSmart, Inc. created one such product and followed several key tenets of disruptive innovation in the process. Their product targeted customers trying to do a specific job, but for whom a simple, inexpensive solution was unattainable.

    With this “disruptive innovation” analysis in mind, it is probably worth considering here how the end of the AlphaSmart product line coincided with the introduction of the Google Chromebook – another low-end, low-cost, low-functionality device that has also taken the education market by storm and which is, let’s be honest, little more than a “smart keyboard” centered on the Google Apps productivity suite.

    But there’s more to the story of ed-tech adoption here than how AlphaSmart fits into some business school model about how entrants on the low-end of the market come to displace those on the high-end. Indeed, this highlights the flaws of looking at education technology simply through the lens of “the market.” Remember: neither the AlphaSmart nor the Chromebook can even remotely replace a laptop – no, not even for elementary school students. Choosing a “smart keyboard” (or tablet) over a laptop means choosing a device with less functionality; and in turn, students will be able to do less.

    It’s a trade-off that education seems to have readily made: efforts to give every student a computer – Seymour Papert’s vision for powerful machines enabling powerful learning – are reduced to giving every student a word-processing (or increasingly these days, online standardized testing) gadget.

    This happens in part, as Papert observed, because of the conservative tendencies of school:

    Thus, little by little the subversive features of the computer were eroded away: Instead of cutting across and so challenging the very idea of subject boundaries, the computer now defined a new subject; instead of changing the emphasis from impersonal curriculum to excited live exploration by students, the computer was now used to reinforce School’s ways. – Seymour Papert, The Children’s Machine

    That is to say, machines are not “disruptive innovations” in schools; rather schools often simply look to replicate traditional practices with these new devices. Thus, “writing” becomes simply “word processing” – the processing of words via machine rather than paper and pencil – and perhaps as such, the appeal of the AlphaSmart smart keyboard becomes pretty clear.

    Image credits

    Yet the ongoing appeal of the keyboard to writers reveals something else about technology writ large. There is this tendency, thanks to “markets” of course, for constantly upgraded iterations of increasingly overly complicated tools that never succeed in meeting users' needs (because as Steve Jobs famously said, why bother to ask). And all that make writing – already a painful and challenging process – even harder to actually accomplish. The elementary school teachers that inspired AlphaSmart were right: writing isn’t editing, and writing isn’t publishing. Writing is writing, and the computer - particularly one connected to the Internet – can be a quite lousy machine for aiding that.

    Long live the AlphaSmart.


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  • 07/27/15--11:35: Rethinking 'What Counts'
  • This article first appeared on Educating Modern Learners in April 2015

    "Learning is not a counting noun,"says Dave Cormier, "so what should we count?"

    His question - a writing prompt, if you will - comes from Week 2 of his latest MOOC on "Rhizomatic Learning." It's an incredibly provocative question as I think it recognizes that we cannot really count learning and that, at the same time, we find ourselves having to do just that. We do so not simply because of policy demands (although, goodness there is that) but because we do want to learn something and we want to know that we're making progress, whatever it is that might look like.

    But what does it look like?

    Some Background on #Rhizo15


    An early advocate for open online learning, Dave Cormier is credited for coining the term "MOOC." His work, broadly speaking, involves this question of "rhizomatic learning." It drawing on the work of philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and the idea of the "rhizome" - that there's a multiplicity to knowledge, information, and data, with a wide array of access points, interpretations, and influences on it.

    A connectivist MOOC, "Rhizomatic Learning: A Practical View" - #rhizo15 for short - is something worth paying attention to as it both enacts and explores modern learning for educators-as-learners. Anyone can participate. You can sign up for the mailing list here.

    The course description:

    Rhizomatic learning is a story for learning that starts from the idea that this standard doesn't exist. It posits a learning experience where the curriculum of the course is the people that are in it. Given access to an abundance of content, how can we design a learning experience that celebrates complexity and creativity, rather than an artificial standard of knowing? A course experience where each student is encouraged to map their own learning?


    This open course will tackle the practical realities of teaching this way. The participants of this course will be the curriculum.

    The participants are the curriculum, and as Week 1's discussion made clear, the goal is to think about "learning subjectives" rather than "learning objectives." Learning is something developed by and for the self - with influence from others to be sure; but it means something quite different to have a stake in saying what that learning will entail than in having someone else's dictates about what you must learn imposed upon you.

    What Counts?


    So what counts?

    We can reject our society's obsession with education data and try to construct alternatives that are much less fixated on quantification. Indeed, we should. But that's a lot easier said than done. We still are faced - practically, if not philosophically - with the question that Cormier himself is frequently asked when he advocates for tossing aside rigid goals and "outcomes": "How will we measure this?"

    Of course, that question demands we think about what "this" is. What can we measure? And how does the ability to measure something tend to give that thing priority? (Easy to measure: attendance, the score on a quiz where answers can be marked "right" or "wrong." Harder to measure: curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, passion.)

    Even if we reject our society's maniacal focus on the quantifiable signals of schooling - that word "counts" in the phrase "what counts" probably does make us look to numbers - how do we identify what matters? And how then do we cultivate and then assess what matters in learners?

    Even if we believe learners should do this for themselves, how do we help them - particularly novice learners - think through a framework to do just that? How can we design a "framework" with the least amount of restriction but paradoxically the most amount of support? How do we help learners decide "what matters" - that is, help them develop their own learning interests and goals? How do we guide them so that their goals remain theirs? How do we ensure they have the necessary resources to reach these goals without being too heavy-handed in imposing our notions of "what matters"? (And how do we support learners when and if they change their mind about "what counts"?)

    Counting for Yourself


    from Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself":

    Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much?

    Have you practis'd so long to learn to read?

    Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?


    Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,

    You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)

    You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,

    You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

    You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

    "What counts" for you, when you think about your own personal learning? In what ways - subtle or overt - is "what counts" to you been skewed by an obsession with quantification? How can you best help students think through these questions?


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  • 07/31/15--11:35: Hack Education Weekly News
  • Education Politics


    The Obama administration will announce today that it will offer Pell Grants to some prisoners, “the first adult inmates to be eligible for the grants since Congress barred prisoners from receiving them more than 20 years ago,” says The Chronicle of Higher Education. More via Politico.

    Meanwhile, in a policy speech, Education Secretary Arne Duncan says the administration plans to focus on higher education accountability and outcomes and not costs or debt during its final 18 months.

    Via Buzzfeed: “The University Of Phoenix Is Being Investigated By The FTC.” “Regulators are looking into allegations of ‘deceptive or unfair’ marketing practices at the school, which is struggling to turn its reputation around.”

    A campaign in the UK is pushing for the right for young people to be able to delete and edit content they post online. According to the BBC, Baroness Shields, the Minister for Internet Safety and Security, backs the idea.

    “Legislation working its way through the New Jersey Senate would require colleges to disclose the number of students who die from suicide each year,” Inside Higher Ed reports. Via The New York Times: “Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection.”

    The Debate Over Free Community College.”

    Education in the Courts


    University of Cincinnati police officer Raymond Tensing has been indicted on a murder charge for fatally shooting Samuel Dubose two minutes into a traffic stop. Prosecutor Joe Deter, who described the shooting as “senseless, asinine,” has called for the university’s campus police force to be dismantled. Via The Atlantic: “How One Campus Cop Undid a City’s Police Reforms.” Via Vox: “Why nearly all colleges have an armed police force.”

    Via The New York Times: “Three former members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia filed a lawsuit against Rolling Stone on Wednesday for defamation and infliction of emotional distress, saying the magazine’s discredited article on a campus gang rape had a ‘devastating effect’ on their reputations.”

    Kaplan Career Institute and Lincoln Technical Institute will pay $2.4 million in a settlement with the state of Massachusetts over allegations that the for-profits had inflated job placement numbers.

    Via Inside Higher Ed: “A California judge said Friday that she was issuing a temporary injunction to restore control over a massive database of research on Alzheimer’s disease to the University of California at San Diego. UCSD sought the injunction after the scholar who has led the project announced he would move to the University of Southern California and take the research with him.”

    Testing, Testing…


    Caving to pressure from conservatives, the College Board is revising its AP US History curriculum in order to include more about the founding fathers, less about dead Native Americans, and to make Ronald Reagan and Manifest Destiny sound less horrible. As Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson suggested, after taking the previous new version of the AP, “I think most people, when they finish that course, they’d be ready to sign up for ISIS.”

    Via The New York Times: “The principal of a popular elementary school in Harlem acknowledged that she forged answers on students’ state English exams in April because the students had not finished the tests, according to a memorandum released Monday by the New York City Education Department. On April 17, the same day that someone made a complaint about the cheating, the principal, Jeanene Worrell-Breeden, of Teachers College Community School, jumped in front of a subway train. She died on April 25.”

    More colleges are dropping the requirement that applicants submit their SAT or ACT scores.

    MOOCs and UnMOOCs


    I’m guessing that Udacity is pounding the pavement, trying to drum up interest in a new round of investment. Why? Because a number of articles about the company published this week, all using the phrase “Uber for Education” – an analogy that venture capitalists understand about a company that currently boasts a very high valuation. Of course, I’d ask why the hell we’d want Uber in education – unethical practices, privacy issues, refusal to accommodate people with disabilities, a dismantling of legal and labor protections (“Mr Thrun knows what he doesn't want for his company; professors in tenure”) and of public infrastructure. But hey. You won’t find any tough questions in this MIT Technology Review or Financial Times write-up.

    Facebook is publishing its course on how to manage bias in the workplace so that other tech companies can learn from it. LOL as Facebook’s workplace diversity is pathetic: “Last year, 31 percent of staffers were women. This year, it’s 32. Last year, 2 percent of its employees were black. This year, it’s exactly the same. The number of women filling tech jobs at the company slid slightly, from the already paltry 16 percent to 15 percent.”

    Trump University: How Donald Trump persuaded students to pay $35,000 to become just like him.”

    Meanwhile on Campus


    This Woman Gets Students Accused Of Rape Back Into School – For A Price.”

    The Most Popular High School Plays And Musicals.”

    Academic Freedom Concerns Plague UW-Madison’s Handling of Professor’s Twitter Controversy.”

    San Francisco Middle Schools No Longer Teaching ‘Algebra 1’.”

    Spelman College is discontinuing The William and Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Endowed Professorship.

    Leopard injures 3 in a school in India. (Video!)

    Go, School Sports Team!


    Sports-Medicine Staffs Report Pressure to Clear Concussed Athletes Prematurely.”

    From the HR Department


    Bryan Alexander continues to chronicle universities’ decisions to make the “queen sacrifice,” but notes that the University of Akron has “hacked around” that by cutting (161) staff not faculty positions.

    Upgrades and Downgrades


    Anonymous messaging app Yik Yak has introduced photos. What could possibly go wrong.

    Via Education Week: “Amazon Digital Services Inc. would create a comprehensive online shopping source for e-books and digital content available for New York City schools, under a $30 million contract that is expected to be approved next month, the city’s department of education confirmed Thursday.” Teachers (well, and Amazon of course) will be able to see what their students are reading and how quickly they’re doing so. Gee, no privacy concerns here.

    The venture capital fund NewSchool Venture Fund is launching NewSchools Ignite, an accelerator program to support startups “that will support entrepreneurs tackling the most pressing gaps in K–12 education technology.” The first gap: science education.

    Here’s the headline from the CK–12 Foundation blog: “Announcing: CK–12’s new partnership with Google Classroom.” It’s not really a partnership, from what I can gather however. It’s a “share” button that lets you share CK–12 materials into Google Classroom.

    Via the Getting Smart blog: “Global Personalized Academics, a new Orlando based education venture launched last week aiming to provide virtual classroom learning to help students across the globe transform the way they learn. The company is headed by Julie Young, a virtual learning pioneer and former Founding President and CEO at Florida Virtual School.”

    ‘Code Can Save Lives:’ Inside One Techie’s Mission to Bring Programming Skills to Kids in Watts.”

    The Common Core Explained.

    Funding and Acquisitions


    According to a report from Reuters, Blackboard is going up for sale. The company, currently owned by a private equity firm, is looking for a buyer who’ll pay up to $3.4 billion. More speculation via The Chronicle of Higher Education and Mindwires Consulting's Phil Hill. Pre-sale analysis from Mindwires Consulting’s Michael Feldstein.

    On the heels of reports that it would sell The Financial Times, it looks like Pearson is offloading The Economist too. “All the better to eat you with,” said the Wolf springing up to eat Little Red Riding Edu-Hood.

    The adaptive learning startup Acrobatiq has raised $9.7 million from Draper Triangle Ventures, Hearst Ventures, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

    Noodle has acquired AllClasses.com.

    Via Edsurge: “Village Capital has announced a $13.2 million fund that will make 100 investments in 75 companies around the globe tackling tough social problems including education.”

    Also via Edsurge: “Here’s a $5M Seed Fund to Support Higher-Ed Innovations Besides MOOCs.” The fund comes from the VC firm University Ventures.

    The controversial chain of charter schools Success Academy announced that it has received a gift of $8.5 million from hedge fund manager John Paulson in order to open more schools in NYC.

    Data, Privacy, and Surveillance


    The inBloom dream is back, revived by Carnegie Mellon University, thanks to $5 million in funding from the feds to build “the biggest open repository of education data” in the world, says The Hechinger Report. In charge of the project, Ken Koedinger of Carnegie Learning, “cognitive tutor” fame. Ah, the zombies of ed-tech.

    FERPA dictates that students (and until they’re 18, their parents) can access their education records. According to Reason, the Goodrich Area Schools in Michigan initially billed a mom $77,718.75 when she demanded access to her son’s records.

    Google Glass is coming back, says Wired, this time pitched as a workplace tool. I can’t wait to see if Google plans to market this surveillance device to schools.

    Two trends you just know ed-tech will pick up on: “App Used 23andMe’s DNA Database To Block People From Sites Based On Race And Gender.” And “Using Algorithms to Determine Character.”

    Tony Bates on “Privacy and the use of learning analytics.”

    Data and “Research”


    The Jefferson Education Accelerator will partner with Echo360 in order to “test and showcare” its tech platform. And that sort of partnership is why I put “research” here in this section in quotation marks.

    Well-timed “research” from G2 Crowd, which claims to have found Blackboard topping overall satisfaction ratings for LMSes.

    Here’s the latest calculations from Edsurge on ed-tech investment for the first half of this year. (Many publications are noting the boom in investment in online learning from China.)

    And here’s the latest research from the API Evangelist on universities with APIs.

    Via Inside Higher Ed: “How Unemployment Rates Shift Choices of Majors.”

    From the Pew Research Center: “15% of Americans don't use the internet. Who are they?

    A round-up from the World Bank’s Michael Trucano on various global initiatives regarding “tablets in education.”

    What the New Education Buzzwords Actually Mean.”

    My nominee for the worst education-related graphs of the week.


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    Earlier this summer, the tech blog Techcrunch pronounced that “Investors Rethink EdTech As Dealflow Declines.” No one likes tech blog gaffes more than other tech blogs, so there’s been a lot of crowing in the last few weeks as the investment figures from the first half of 2015 have been calculated. It looks like Techcrunch was wrong. According to investment analysis firm CB Insights at least, “Funding To VC-Backed Education Technology Startups Soars 96%.” Investments in ed-tech are at a record high, Inside Higher Ed and Education Week (among others) have observed. Whee.

    This week, Edsurge published its report on ed-tech investments in the first half of the year. According to its figures, there were some $1.6 billion in deals from January to June.

    Edsurge rightly notes that there are substantial discrepancies between its calculations and those of its competitors.

    The Numbers
    Source Deals Dollars
    Crunchbase 111 $686 million
    CB Insights 127 $1.4 billion
    Ambient Insights 262 $2.5 billion
    Edsurge 161 $1.6 billion
    Hack Education 142 $1.5 billion

    As Edsurge points out, much of this difference stems from the various definitions of “what counts” as ed-tech. (Is SoFi ed-tech? Is AltSchool? Does Fifty Three's funding round count since it says it plans to use the money to enter the education market?)

    Some of the difference too comes from the challenges in tracking on this data. Despite rules requiring investments be made public via an SEC filing, investors and entrepreneurs are not always very forthcoming about their funding. Furthermore, Crunchbase, which is a crowdsourced database, is full of errors – incorrectly applied keywords, for example, that put startups in the education category when they shouldn’t be. So everyone's numbers are iffy; what matters is the analysis, right?

    Me, I'm not particularly interested in the right numbers or whether or not this will be a blockbuster year for the 1%. Record-breaking investment does not mean ed-tech is now awesome or innovative. It means there are investors who think they can get rich(er) - or maybe at least see a nice return - on what they currently deem a lucrative market.

    But I do want to identify some of the dominant trends in ed-tech, and looking at funding is one way to do so. (Test prep: still going strong.) I want to know who’s getting the dollars – new startups or established companies? It's worth noting that much of this year’s record numbers are a result of several whopping investments in Series B and beyond rounds – rounds whose size isn’t really in line with the “typical” funding. (Over half the funding rounds I’ve tracked so far this year were $3 million or less.)

    According to my calculations, here are the largest investments of 2015 (that is, those greater than $40 million):

    1. Social Finance $200 million
    2. Lynda.com $186 million
    3. 17zuoye $100 million
    4. AltSchool $100 million
    5. Udemy $65 million
    6. Yuantiku $60 million
    7. NetDragon $52.5 million
    8. Genshuixue $50 million
    9. Orbotix $45 million
    10. Duolingo $45 million
    11. LittleBits $44.2 million
    12. Instructure $40 million

    As this list indicates and as many industry observers have noticed as well, there is immense investor interest in Chinese ed-tech companies - a trend to watch, no doubt.

    Of course, venture capital funding is just one side of the investment equation. On the other side: the anticipated return on investment: the exit. By my count, there have been over 60 acquisitions in ed-tech so far this year. Again, some of these are pretty notable: LinkedIn buying Lynda.com; NetDragon buying Promethean; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt buying Scholastic’s ed-tech business; Pearson selling The Financial Times. Rarely are the dollar figures disclosed in these deals, but they're important deals to watch nonetheless.

    The steady drumbeat of acquisitions, along with some of these sizable funding rounds for established startups, suggests that the ed-tech startup world is consolidating. (I really hate the description that it’s “maturing.” FFS, ed-tech is over a century old. It's already mature; folks just don't like the shape it's taken.)

    When we think about the consolidation of the industry, we should reflect on it in terms of politics and power, not just finances and funding. Which investors and investment firms are intertwined most closely with education policy and with the call for education reform? Why did AltSchool get so much money, for example?

    I’ve updated the Google Spreadsheet where I’m tracking on investments, acquisitions, and mergers. I have also made the data available in JSON format for your machine-readable pleasure:

    See, it’s not enough to read someone else’s report and trust that they’ve got it right; you should be able to crunch the data yourself. You can find all of this in a GitHub repo (for free!), which you’re welcome to contribute to or fork.

    (Reminder: this is the first year I’ve tracked on this, and next year I do plan on adding more fields so that it’s easier to see if the money is going to K–12, higher education, corporate training, and the like. I’d also like to track which investors are funding startups with diverse founders. Other suggestions welcome.)


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  • 08/07/15--11:35: Hack Education Weekly News
  • Education Politics


    The Republican Presidential candidates had their first debate this week, and education was actually a topic. “Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio get in a fight about Common Core,” Vox’s Libby Nelson reports.

    Via The Washington Post: “analysis, done by the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit liberal watchdog and advocacy agency based in Wisconsin that tracks corporate influence on public policy, says that four companies – Pearson Education, ETS (Educational Testing Service), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill – collectively spent more than $20 million lobbying in states and on Capitol Hill from 2009 to 2014.”

    The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is reportedly investigating Citigroup’s student loan practices.

    Education in the Courts


    The ACLU has filed a lawsuit in Kentucky, highlighting the use of restraints in school and releasing a video of an 8 year old boy crying as a school police office handcuffs his arms behind his back. The ACLU claims that the schools’ practice of shackling students (this boy and a girl, age 9) violated the ADA. More via The Guardian and the AP.

    A federal judge ruled against the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, which had sought dismissal of the lawsuit brought against it by Steven Salaita, a tenured professor fired for tweets criticizing Israel. More via The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    “A civil lawsuit filed against the University of Oregon by a student who said she had been raped by three basketball players has been settled, the university announced on Tuesday. According to the settlement agreement, the woman, who remains unnamed, and her lawyers will be paid $800,000. She will also have her tuition, housing, and student fees waived for four more years,” The Chronicle of Higher Education says. There are still concerns that the university violated her privacy by accessing her counseling records, something that is apparently not illegal.

    “Northwest Christian University in Eugene faces a $650,000 lawsuit filed by an assistant professor who alleges that she was fired two weeks ago for becoming pregnant out of wedlock,” The Register Guard reports.

    Via CBS Detroit: “A teenager who was locked up for nearly 40 days in a dispute over a snowball has filed a lawsuit against the Detroit school district after a judge dismissed the criminal case.”

    Testing, Testing…


    Pearson is shaving $1 million off its contract with the state of Minnesota because of glitches in the online testing system.

    MOOCs and UnMOOCs


    How Nanodegrees Are Disrupting Higher Education.” LOL.

    Coursera is renaming its verified certificates “Course Certificates.”

    Why Employers Are Joining Coursera's Global Skills Initiative.”

    FutureLearn adds new partners: Complutense University, Durham University, University of Manchester, Keio University, and the University of New South Wales.

    Via Justin Reich: “Practical Guidance from MOOC Research: Learning Beyond the Platform.”

    Meanwhile on Campus


    Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Christina E. Whitfield, vice chancellor for research and analysis at the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, … has designed a ‘social-utility index’ to calculate the social good of degree programs that lead to low-paying jobs that may nevertheless be important to communities.”

    The University of Akron is “drawing scrutiny,” says Inside Higher Ed, for hiring a startup for $840,000 to provide “success coaches” while at the same time eliminating “dozens of jobs” from its student success department.

    The University of Michigan’s North Campus was “terrorized” by a turkey.

    Go, School Sports Team!


    “One day before a district court ruling was to go into effect that would force the NCAA to allow colleges to pay student-athletes $5,000 per year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has placed a stay on that order,” says NPR.

    Via Inside Higher Ed: “Vanderbilt University’s football program tweeted an image Thursday declaring that its players ‘don’t need your permission,’ prompting a backlash on Twitter. Earlier this year two Vanderbilt football players were found guilty of gang-raping another student. The trial was later ruled a mistrial on a technicality, and the case will go to trial again at a later date. ‘We are relentless, tough and intelligent, and …’ the since-deleted tweeted read, followed by an image that stated, ‘we don’t need your permission.’”

    Youth Basketball Team Disqualified From Tournament For Having A Girl On The Roster.”

    From the HR Department


    Following news that Steven Salaita’s lawsuit against the university could move forward, UI chancellor Phyllis Wise announced her resignation.

    PBS NewsHour’s education reporter John Merrow is retiring.

    Via Inside Higher Ed: “Bergen Community College has eliminated the positions of 64 full-time lecturers, who taught full course loads off the tenure track, NorthJerey.com reported. Those who lost their full-time positions are being asked to apply for course-by-course adjunct posts, for which the pay per course is lower. The individual course positions, unlike the full-time lecturer jobs, have no benefits.”

    Upgrades and Downgrades


    Mitch Kapor and Freada Klein announced $40 million in funding for diversity initiatives to “fix the leaky tech pipeline.”

    Meanwhile, the Ada Initiative, a non-profit aimed at improving diversity in tech, is shutting down.

    Second Life’s original inventor Philip Rosedale says “he and his team are big believers that kids will one day go to school through a VR headset.” More on the promise of “The Metaverse” here.

    Via Inside Higher Ed: The language of learning analytics, as decreed by the LMS vendors. “Blackboard, Instructure and the more than 320 other vendors and universities that make up the IMS Global Learning Consortium have for years been working to agree on which words go into that vocabulary, and their work is finally nearing its version 1.0 release. Known as Caliper, the vocabulary – called metric profiles – and the mechanisms to detect the words in it – sensors – will serve as a framework for tracking and reporting learning analytics.”

    Google announced the 20 finalists for its latest science fair.

    Khan Academy has announced the winners of its talent search.

    Chegg plans to launch a test prep service.

    Versal is launching a new site to allow teachers to share lesson plans and other materials.

    Sphero is marketing one of its programmable robots to education. According to EduKwest, “The robot is called SPRK and comes with a series of apps and lessons that aim to teach coding and spark interest in science.”

    I imagine this is a growing trend: private loans – “with interest rates from 6% to 20% APR” – for coding bootcamp enrollees.

    Speaking of loans: “Facebook patents technology to help lenders discriminate against borrowers based on social connections.” Imagine the ed-tech possibilities!

    Education news site notes that there are lots of education news sites.

    Funding and Acquisitions


    Panorama Education, a startup that helps schools administer surveys, has raised $12 million from Owl Ventures and Spark Capital. The company has raised $16 million total.

    AdmitSee has raised $1.5 million in seed funding from The Social+Capital Partnership, ImagineK12, and FOUNDER.org. The startup “offers a marketplace where verified college students can share and sell their application materials.” Sounds legit.

    LearnTrials, which rates ed-tech products, has raised $800,000 from Edovate Capital, Inception Mirco Angel Fund, Jean Hammond, Gregg Burt, and Walt Winshall.

    Merger and IPO glee: “Why Edtech Exits Will Defy Historical Trends” from Edsurge. “Education Sector Hot for Merger, Acquisition Deals, Investment Banker Says,” says Education Week. “Following the Money in Ed-Tech Investment: Number of Mergers Grows,” via The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    No buyer yet for Blackboard, but the speculation continues. Blackboard suffers from messaging problems according to Mindwire Consulting’s Michael Feldstein and a far worse problem, IMHO, “complexity problems” according to former Bb employee George Kroner.

    In other speculation news, now that it’s officially its own company, “Barnes & Noble Education to Consider Digital Takeovers.”

    Quarterly financials were reported this week from 2U (whose revenue is up), Bridgepoint Education (which posted a net loss), and ITT (which admitted to precipitously declining enrollments, prompting its stock to fall 40%).

    Via CB Insights: “Who’s Who In Ed Tech? Top Investors And Their Board Seats.”

    Data, Privacy, and Surveillance


    Two school districts are adopting bodycams, THE Journal reports.

    The University of Connecticut reported a “criminal cyberintrusion” of its engineering college, blaming Chinese hackers.

    Windows 10 defaults to keylogging, harvesting browser history, purchases, and covert listening.”

    Sorry, the way you type is exposing your identity online even if you're browsing anonymously.”

    Data and “Research”


    The latest report from the Pew Research Center: “Teens, Technology and Friendships.”

    A study of 10,000 by TNTP“found that professional development – the teacher workshops and training that cost taxpayers billions of dollars each year – is largely a waste.”

    According to a report by MDR, schools’ instructional spending went up 9% in the 2013–2014 school year. “Remarkable,” says Edsurge.

    PE teachers biased against fat kids, study finds.”

    More made-up data from ed-tech companies: “IBM’s Misleading or Just Incorrect National Ad on Student Retention” by MindWire Consulting’s Phil Hill.

    From the Future of Privacy Forum (a think tank supported by companies like true friends of privacy AT&T, Facebook, and Google): “De-Identification and Student Data” (PDF).

    The Gartner Hype Cycle for Education, 2015 edition.


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    This talk was delivered today at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Summer Institute at UW Madison

    Thank you very much for inviting me here today. Once upon a time, as a graduate student, I imagined the University of Wisconsin Madison to be “a dream job.” And so I chuckle that it likely took me dropping out of a PhD program to end up here, speaking to you today. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t touch on the anger I feel at the attempts to decimate the University of Wisconsin system, not simply because attacks on tenure and academic freedom crush any semblance of “a dream job,” but because I feel across the board, academia hasn’t really responded to questions of labor and learning – not really, not well – and now other forces – not just the political forces of education reform or Scott Walker, but the political forces of Silicon Valley and venture capital too want to reshape systems to their own ideological and financial needs. The losers will be labor and learning.

    With that in mind, I’ve changed the title of my talk slightly…

    In 1913, Thomas Edison predicted that “Books will soon be obsolete in schools.” He wasn’t the only person at the time imagining how emergent technologies might change education. Columbia University educational psychology professor Edward Thorndike – behaviorist and creator of the multiple choice test – also imagined “what if” printed books would be replaced. He said in 1912 that

    If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print.

    Edison expanded on his prediction a decade later: “I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” “I should say,” he continued, “that on the average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture… where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency.”

    What’s interesting to me about these quotations isn’t that Edison or Thorndike got it wrong. Thorndike’s remarks sound an awful lot like Neal Stephenson’s science fiction novel The Diamond Age; and indeed they’re fairly prescient of what ed-tech marketers now call “adaptive textbooks.” (That education today looks like Thorndike’s vision shouldn’t be a surprise considering, as historian Ellen Lagemann and others have described the history of US education, “Edward Thorndike won and John Dewey lost.”)

    History is full of faulty proclamations about the future of education and technology. (No doubt, Silicon Valley and education reformers continue to churn out these predictions – many prophesying doom for universities, many actively working to bring that doom about.)

    What’s striking about these early 20th century predictions is that Thorndike set the tone, over one hundred years ago, for machines taking over instruction. And while he was wrong about films replacing textbooks, Edison was largely right that the arguments in support of education technology, of instructional technology would frequently be made in terms of “efficiency.” Much of the history of education technology, indeed the history of education itself, in the twentieth century onward involves this push for “efficiency.” To replace, to supplant – to move from textbooks to film or from chalkboards to interactive whiteboards or from face-to-face lecture halls to MOOCs or from human teachers to robots – comes in the name of “progress,” where progress demands “efficiency.”

    Of course, “efficiency” is the language of business. We – and I use that plural first person pronoun quite loosely here – want education to be faster, cheaper, and less wasteful. As such, we want the system to be measurable, more managed, and in turn, increasingly mechanized. We want education to run more like a business; we want education to run more like a machine.

    I use the verb “mechanized” and not “computerized” or “digitized” deliberately – even though, here we are at a Digital Pedagogy Lab – because I want us to think about the history of education technology and, more broadly, about technology itself. This pressure to mechanize isn’t something new, even if “to digitize” is a new way of doing it; as Edison and Thorndike’s quotations remind us, ed-tech predates the iPad, the Internet, the personal computer. We get so caught up, however, in the perceived novelty of the technology; we are so enthralled by its marketing – always “new and improved”; we are so willing to buy into obsolescence – “buy” being the operative behavior; we’re so hopeful about upgrades that we rarely look at the practices that technology does not change, those that it changes for the worse, those that it re-inscribes, and how all of these reflect the demands of politics and power much more often than they reflect progressive pedagogical concerns or teachers’ or learners’ needs.

    I want to talk to you today about the history and the future of teaching machines. I want to talk about teaching machines and teaching labor, specifically the belief that machines are necessary because they are efficient, labor-saving. Here at the University of Wisconsin, these questions are all the more imperative: what labor, whose labor is saved, is replaced in this, an age of economic precarity, adjunct-ification, anti-unionism, automation? What is the role of education technology in pedagogy, in scholarly labor, in the labor of learning and of love? And again, whose labor is saved, and whose is replaced?

    Many people insist that technology will not replace teachers; indeed they doth protest too much methinks. Often, they re-state what science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke pronounced: that if a teacher can be replaced by a machine, she or he should be. That’s an awfully slippery slope. “Can be replaced” gives politicians and investors and entrepreneurs and administrators a lot of room to maneuver, to re-inscribe or redefine what teaching – by humans or machines – should look like. “Can be replaced” is not a solid place to launch a resistance to machines; it acquiesces to machines – to the ideology of labor-saving devices – from the outset.

    Much like the flawed predictions about what education technology will “revolutionize,” the pronouncements about replacing teachers (or not) with machines are also quite old, made by the earliest of educational psychologists, a legacy we can trace back again to Edward Thorndike and the earliest of teaching machines. People have been working to replace, streamline, render more efficient education labor with machines for a century.

    Ohio State University professor Sidney Pressey, for example, said in 1933 that

    There must be an ‘industrial revolution’ in education, in which educational science and the ingenuity of educational technology combine to modernize the grossly inefficient and clumsy procedures of conventional education. Work in the schools of the future will be marvelously though simply organized, so as to adjust almost automatically to individual differences and the characteristics of the learning process. There will be many labor-saving schemes and devices, and even machines – not at all for the mechanizing of education, but for the freeing of teacher and pupil from educational drudgery and incompetence.

    Oh not replace you, teacher. Replace just some your labor, the bits of it we’ve deemed repetitive, menial, unimportant, and let’s be honest, those bits that are too radical. Not stop students from having to do menial tasks, oh no. Replace the efforts where you, teacher, have been labeled incompetent. Replace not so as to enable a more just and progressive education through technology, but rather to hard-code some high standards of instruction.

    As Harvard psychology professor (and the name most readily associated with teaching machines) B. F. Skinner wrote in the 1950s:

    Will machines replace teachers? On the contrary, they are capital equipment to be used by teachers to save time and labor. In assigning certain mechanizable functions to machines, the teacher emerges in his proper role as an indispensable human being. He may teach more students than heretofore – that is probably inevitable if the worldwide demand for education is to be satisfied – but he will do so in fewer hours and with fewer burdensome chores. In return for his greater productivity he can ask society to improve his economic condition.

    Greater productivity. Larger classes. Global demand met through mechanization. Sound familiar?

    Skinner said elsewhere, “There is no reason why the schoolroom should be any less mechanized than, for example, the kitchen.” Ah, the very gendered nature of post-War gadgetry that promised to automate and alleviate the drudgery of “women’s work.” (Women of a certain class, of course. And tasks of a certain kind.)

    Keep this in mind: how robots taking over our jobs might be gendered.

    The mid–1950s also marked the founding of a new field of research, artificial intelligence, that promised us better machines – not just more efficient machines, but smarter machines. And once again, sweeping predictions were made: Carnegie Mellon professor Herbert Simon then boasted that “machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work a man can do,” (note: a man’s work) and MIT professor Marvin Minsky said “within a generation … the problem of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will substantially be solved.”

    As with Edison, we can chuckle at the foolish bravado of these forecasts; but I think we err to simply laugh off the miscalculations of early AI, because they reveal a great deal about what people want to see come to pass. Then and now. Indeed, we find ourselves again – this happens every decade or so it seems – in the midst of a hype cycle full of promises of smart machines and artificial intelligence and frenzied speculation about the impact they will have on the future of work.

    “We are entering a new phase in world history – one in which fewer and fewer workers will be needed to produce the goods and services for the global population,” write Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in their book Race Against the Machine. “Before the end of this century,” says Wired Magazine’s Kevin Kelly, ”70 percent of today’s occupations will … be replaced by automation.“ The Economist offers a more rapid timeline: ”Nearly half of American jobs could be automated in a decade or two,“ it contends. Predictably contrarian, Vox’s Matt Iglesias laments that ”Robots aren’t taking your jobs – and that’s the problem.“ ”Be terrified," he cautions, that robots aren’t replacing you. Humans are just not productive enough. We’re not efficient enough.

    The rise of the machines we are told, as all predictions purport to be, whether religious, secular, or scientific, is inevitable. It is, to echo the title of Kevin Kelly’s book, “what technology wants.” And there in that title we can see a convenient erasure of the machinations of investors or entrepreneurs or engineers, an ignorance of ideology; instead in that framing the machines have the agency – agency and will to which the rest of us should bend.

    What will happen when robots replace us looks quite different depending on who is telling the story. And in some ways replacing us is, from their earliest origins, what robots have always been conceptualized to do.

    In 1920, the playwright Karel Čapek coined the term “robot” for his play Rossum’s Universal Robots or R.U.R. The word comes from the Czech roboti which meant “serf labor.” “Drudgery,” another translation offers. Or, according to Wikipedia, “the amount of hours a serf owed his master in a given day.”

    The robots in Čapek’s play aren’t the metallic machines that the word likely conjures for us today. They’re more biological, assembled out of a protoplasm-like substance.

    In the play’s first act, a young woman named Helena, daughter of an industry mogul, comes to the island factory where the robots are built. She’s there as part of the League of Humanity, there to argue that the robots have souls and that they should be freed. The robots, which work faster and cheaper than humans (actually, the robots aren’t paid at all), have quickly taken over almost all aspects of work. They remember everything, but they do not like anything. “They make great university professors,” says Harry Domin, the general manager of the robot factory.

    As the play progresses, as robots dominate all aspects of the economy, the human birth rate falls. The robots stage a rebellion, a global rebellion as, unlike humans, robots share a universal language and recognize the universality of their labor struggles. Hoping to stop the economic and political crisis, Helena burns the formula for building robots. The robots kill all the humans, save one man in the factory who still works with his hands.

    But then the robots discover that without the formula that Helena has destroyed, they cannot re-produce. “The machines are turning out nothing but bloody chunks of meat.”

    Čapek’s play was translated into over thirty languages and performed all over the world. The success of the play occurred no doubt as, in the 1920s, it struck a nerve – fears of automation, industrialization, war, revolution. The play demands the audience consider what is happening to our humanity as a result of these forces.

    Indeed that’s the question that robots always seem to raise: what is happening to our humanity? As we mechanize and now digitize the world around us, what happens to our labor, our love, our soul? Are we poised to find ourselves exterminated like the humans in Rossum’s Universal Robots, or like the robots themselves, will we reduced to “bloody chunks of meat”?

    We see headline after headline lately about the coming age of AI, but as Čapek’s work suggests, this has been an ongoing threat – psychological, I would argue, ideological as much as technological.

    No doubt, we have seen a major impact on employment due to machines – computers, photocopiers, telephones, ATMs, online commerce. And in the last few decades, the US economy has lost millions of manufacturing jobs – although in fairness, the connection to automation here is likely one of correlation not simply causation. But robots offer a simple explanation: human labor was not sufficiently efficient. Robots increase productivity.

    At the same time as the drop in manufacturing, the US economy has seen an explosion in jobs in the service sector, which now amounts to 84% of employment in the country. Although the service sector does include doctors and lawyers and university professors, it is mostly comprised of low-wage workers. Since 2010, the top five fastest growing occupations have been in the service sector, and four of these jobs have a median wage of $21,000 a year or less.

    Coincidentally I’m sure, workers today are less organized than they were at the height of manufacturing (and in the US, of course, union members were never close to the majority of the workforce). In 2014, the percentage of workers in unions was 11.1%, down from 20.1% in 1983. Workers in education, as I’m sure this audience knows, now have the highest unionization rate of any profession in the US – 35.3% are union members; the rate of unionization of public sector workers in general, 35.7%. The largest union in the US: the National Education Association. The target of many recent education reforms, backed strongly by many in the technology industry: unions. Something is coming to take unionized teaching jobs: robots or otherwise.

    Generally speaking, as employment has moved from manufacturing to service, work has become contingent, “casualized,” “adjunctified.” It has become femininized.

    We can see the feminization of teaching labor is, as Dana Goldstein underscores in her recent history of the teaching profession Teacher Wars, deeply intertwined with a hope for a placated labor force, one with a missionary zeal that is angelic and loving in its demand for discipline from students – behaviorally, intellectually – but that makes few demands from administrators for things like equal pay, job stability, or academic freedom.

    In all things, all tasks, all jobs, women are expected to perform affective labor – caring, listening, smiling, reassuring, comforting, supporting. This work is not valued; often it is unpaid. But affective labor has become a core part of the teaching profession – even though it is, no doubt, “inefficient.” It is what we expect – stereotypically, perhaps – teachers to do. (We can debate, I think, if it’s what we reward professors for doing. We can interrogate too whether all students receive care and support; some get “no excuses,” depending on race and class.)

    What happens to affective teaching labor when it runs up against robots, against automation? Even the tasks that education technology purports to now be able to automate – teaching, testing, grading – are shot through with emotion when done by humans, or at least when done by a person who’s supposed to have a caring, supportive relationship with their students. Grading essays isn’t necessarily burdensome because it’s menial, for example; grading essays is burdensome because it is affective labor; it is emotionally and intellectually exhausting.

    This is part of our conundrum: teaching labor is affective not simply intellectual. Affective labor is not valued. Intellectual labor is valued in research. At both the K12 and college level, teaching of content is often seen as menial, routine, and as such replaceable by machine. Intelligent machines will soon handle the task of cultivating human intellect, or so we’re told.

    Of course, we should ask what happens when we remove care from education – this is a question about labor and learning. What happens to thinking and writing when robots grade students’ essays, for example. What happens when testing is standardized, automated? What happens when the whole educational process is offloaded to the machines – to “intelligent tutoring systems,” “adaptive learning systems,” or whatever the latest description may be? What sorts of signals are we sending students?

    And what sorts of signals are the machines gathering in turn? What are they learning to do?

    Often, of course, we do not know the answer to those last two questions, as the code and the algorithms in education technologies (most technologies, truth be told) are hidden from us. We are becoming as law professor Frank Pasquale argues a “black box society.” And the irony is hardly lost on me that one of the promises of massive collection of student data under the guise of education technology and learning analytics is to crack open the “black box” of the human brain.

    We still know so little about how the brain works, and yet, we’ve adopted a number of metaphors from our understanding of that organ to explain how computers operate: memory, language, intelligence. Of course, our notion of intelligence – its measurability – has its own history, one wrapped up in eugenics and, of course, testing (and teaching) machines. Machines now both frame and are framed by this question of intelligence, with little reflection on the intellectual and ideological baggage that we carry forward and hard-code into them.

    “Can a machine think?” Alan Turing famously asked in 1950. But rather than answer that question, Turing proposed “the imitation game,” something we’ve come to know since as the Turing Test. Contrary to popular belief, the test as conceived by Turing isn’t really about a machine that can pass based on “thinking.” Rather, Turing’s original contrivance was based on a parlor game – a gendered parlor game involving three people: a man, a woman, and an interrogator.

    The game is played as follows: the interrogator cannot see the man or woman but asks them questions in order to identify their sex. The man and woman respond via typewritten answers. The goal of the man is to fool the interrogator. Turing’s twist: replace the man with a machine. “Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman?”

    The question is therefore not “can a machine think?” but “can a machine fool someone into thinking it is a woman?”

    What we know today as the Turing Test is not nearly as fascinating or as fraught – I mean, what does it imply that the bar for intelligent machinery is, for Turing, to be better at pretending to be a woman than a man is? What would it mean for a machine to win that imitation game? What would it mean for a machine to fool us into thinking, for example, that it could perform affective labor not just computational tasks?

    Today, the Turing Test is often just a marketing ploy. The Loebner Prize, an annual competition based on the Turing Test for example, asks entrants to create a chat-bot that can fool the judges after a 5 minute conversation into thinking it, and not another human interlocutor, is the human. “The most human chat-bot” is awarded a prize, as is, in an award that should give us all pause as we move into a more mechanized future, one for “the most human human.”

    Turing, for his part, was not seen as fully human because he was gay. Homosexuality was, at the time, against the law in Britain, and Turing was charged with gross indecency in 1952. He was convicted, opting for hormonal “treatment” rather than imprisonment. He committed suicide in 1954.

    Identity. Performance. Deception. Passing. Secrets. Labor. Algorithms. These are Turing’s legacy, deeply embedded into the code-breaking, computing machine. We carry these forward into today’s education technologies.

    Turing died before the term “artificial intelligence” was coined, but we can see his influence in particular in two areas in which AI has been developed, performed, and judged: chess and the chat-bot.

    Turing wrote by hand an algorithm – pre-computer – for one of the very first computer programs in which a machine could play chess against a human. This was a predecessor for IBM’s Deep Blue which famously defeated chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1996. That research in turn was the predecessor for IBM’s Watson which defeated Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings on the TV game show Jeopardy in 2011. Men versus machine. It’s a tangent to a discussion about the future of teaching and learning and labor, you might think – except that these reflect what we think of as “smart.” Performances of “smartness” matter to education. Moreover, IBM is now exploring using Watson in schools, specifically to teach teachers. “The classroom will learn you,” the IBM website about the program boasts, perhaps unaware that it’s echoing the speech pattern of a well-known meme: “In Soviet Russia….”

    Aspirations for IBM Watson in teacher training aside, it’s the development of chat-bots that has long been most closely associated with AI, modeled in part on what we expect AI to do to pass the Turing Test.

    One of the earliest and best known chat-bots was developed by MIT computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid–1960s. Its name: ELIZA – yes, named after Eliza Doolittle in a working-class character in George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, who is taught to speak with an upper-class accent so she can “pass.”

    ELIZA ran a “doctor” script, simulating a Rogerian psychiatrist. “Hello,” you might type. “Hi,” ELIZA responds. “What is your problem?” “I’m angry,” you type. Or perhaps “I’m sad.” “I am sorry to hear you are sad,” ELIZA says. “My dad died,” you continue. “Tell me more about your family,” ELIZA answers. The script always eventually asks about family, no matter what you type. It’s been programmed to do so. That is, ELIZA was programmed to analyze the input for key words and to respond with a number of canned phrases, that contained therapeutical language of care and support – a performance of “smart,” I suppose, but more importantly a performance of “care.”

    Weizenbaum’s students knew the program did not actually care. Yet they still were eager to chat with it and to divulge personal information to it. Weizenbaum became incredibly frustrated by the ease with which this simple program could deceive people. When he introduced ELIZA to the non-technical staff at MIT, according to one story at least, they treated the program as a “real” therapist. When he told a secretary that he had access to the chat logs, she was furious that Weizenbaum would violate her privacy – doctor-patient confidentiality – by reading them. Weizenbaum eventually became one of the leading critics of artificial intelligence, cautioning about the implications of AI research and arguing that no matter the claims that AI would make about powerful thinking machines, computers would never be caring machines. Computers would never have compassion.

    And yet that doesn’t seem to matter. In some ways, we believe – we want to believe – that they are.

    Many chat-bots were developed in the late twentieth century for use in education. These are often referred to as “pedagogical agents,” – agents, not teachers – programs that were part of early intelligent tutoring systems and that, like ELIZA, were designed to respond helpfully, encouragingly when a student stumbled. The effectiveness of these chat-bots is debated in the research (what do we even mean by “effectiveness”), and there is little understanding in how students respond to these programs, particularly when it comes to vulnerability and trust, such core elements of learning.

    Are chat-bots sophisticated enough to pass some sort of pedagogical Turing Test? (Is that test, like Turing’s imitation game, fundamentally gendered?) Or rather is it, as I fear, that we’ve decided we just don’t care. We do not care that the machines do not really care for students; indeed, perhaps education, particularly at the university level, has never really cared about caring at all. Students do not care that the machines do not really care because they do not expect to be cared for by their teachers. “We expect more from technology and less from each other,” as Sherry Turkle has observed. Caring labor is a vulnerability, a political liability, a weakness, not an efficiency.

    So what does it mean then if we offload affective labor – the substantive and the performative – to technology, to ed-tech? It might seem counterintuitive that we’d do so. After all, we’re often reassured that computers will never be able to do that sort of work. They’re better at repetitive, menial tasks, we’re told – at physical labor. “Men’s work.” “The Age of the Robot Worker Will Be Worse for Men,” The Atlantic recently argued.

    And yet at the same time, we seem so happy to bear our souls, trust our secrets, be vulnerable with and to and by computers. What does that mean for teaching and learning? What does it mean for the work educators do – work that is, as it has been for centuries, under attack – insufficient and inefficient.

    We’re told by some automation proponents that instead of a future of work, we will find ourselves with a future of leisure. Once the robots replace us, we will have immense personal freedom, so they say – the freedom to pursue “unproductive” tasks, the freedom to do nothing at all even, except I imagine, to continue to buy things.

    On one hand that means that we must address questions of unemployment. What will we do without work? How will we make ends meet? How will this affect identity, intellectual development?

    Yet despite predictions about the end of work, we are all working more. As games theorist Ian Bogost and others have observed, we seem to be in a period of hyper-employment, where we find ourselves not only working numerous jobs, but working all the time on and for technology platforms. There is no escaping email, no escaping social media. Professionally, personally – no matter what you say in your Twitter bio that your Tweets do not represent the opinions of your employer – we are always working. Computers and AI do not (yet) mark the end of work. Indeed, they may mark the opposite: we are overworked by and for machines (for, to be clear, their corporate owners).

    Often, we volunteer to do this work. We are not paid for our status updates on Twitter. We are not compensated for our check-in’s in Foursquare. We don’t get kick-backs for leaving a review on Yelp. We don’t get royalties from our photos on Flickr.

    We ask our students to do this volunteer labor too. They are not compensated for the data and content that they generate that is used in turn to feed the algorithms that run TurnItIn, Blackboard, Knewton, Pearson, Google, and the like. Free labor fuels our technologies: Forum moderation on Reddit – done by volunteers. Translation of the courses on Coursera and of the videos on Khan Academy – done by volunteers. The content on pretty much every “Web 2.0” platform – done by volunteers.

    We are working all the time; we are working for free.

    It’s being framed, as of late, as the “gig economy,” the “freelance economy,” the “sharing economy” – but mostly it’s the service economy that now comes with an app and that’s creeping into our personal not just professional lives thanks to billions of dollars in venture capital. Work is still precarious. It is low-prestige. It remains unpaid or underpaid. It is short-term. It is feminized.

    We all do affective labor now, cultivating and caring for our networks. We respond to the machines, the latest version of ELIZA, typing and chatting away hoping that someone or something responds, that someone or something cares. It’s a performance of care, disguising what is the extraction of our personal data.

    A year ago, in the midst of frustration about freelancing and data collection and digital hyperemployment, I wrote an article called “Maggie’s Digital Content Farm.” I borrowed from Bob Dylan’s song, which he’d in turn borrowed from the Bentley Brother's 1929 recording of “Down on Penny's Farm,” which criticized rural landlords who systematically exploited their day-laborers. I felt as though that’s what we’d become, working away on someone else’s space – someone else’s digital land – for a boss that disrespected us, lied to us, extracted value from us, handed us over to the law enforcement if we appeared to have become radicalized.

    Dylan’s performance of “Maggie’s Farm” at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 was, of course, part of his controversial electric set. He plugged in to boos and hisses from the crowd. I asked in my article “Maggie’s Digital Content Farm” if it was time for us to unplug, to refuse to labor on the digital content farms and certainly not to conscript our students to labor there for us and with us.

    But I think this refusal cannot simply be one of us, two of us, a handful of us individually unplugging. We have to strike en masse. We have to embrace our radical inefficiencies. We have to re-discover our collectivity in an age that is luring us with an ideology of individualism. We have to tell different stories about what the robots will do.

    We are told that the future of machines – teaching machines and intelligent machines – will be personalized. That is the original promise, if we think back to Edward Thorndike in 1912:

    If, by a miracle of mechanical ingenuity, a book could be so arranged that only to him who had done what was directed on page one would page two become visible, and so on, much that now requires personal instruction could be managed by print.

    Personalization. Automation. Management. The algorithms will be crafted, based on our data, ostensibly to suit us individually, more likely to suit power structures in turn that are increasingly opaque.

    Programmatically, the world’s interfaces will be crafted for each of us, individually, alone. As such, I fear, we will lose our capacity to experience collectivity and resist together. I do not know what the future of unions looks like – pretty grim, I fear; but I do know that we must enhance collective action in order to resist a future of technological exploitation, dehumanization, and economic precarity. We must fight at the level of infrastructure – political infrastructure, social infrastructure, and yes technical infrastructure.

    It isn’t simply that we need to resist “robots taking our jobs,” but we need to challenge the ideologies, the systems that loath collectivity, care, and creativity, and that champion some sort of Randian individual. And I think the three strands at this event – networks, identity, and praxis – can and should be leveraged to precisely those ends.

    A future of teaching humans not teaching machines depends on how we respond, how we design a critical ethos for ed-tech, one that recognizes, for example, the very gendered questions at the heart of the Turing Machine’s imagined capabilities, a parlor game that tricks us into believing that machines can actually love, learn, or care.


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  • 08/14/15--11:35: Hack Education Weekly News
  • Education Politics


    “Does Online Ed Lack ‘Integrity’?” asks Inside Higher Ed, responding to a line suggesting such in Hillary Clinton’s higher ed plan. Clinton also exaggerated the student loan crisis, says “experts.” “Hillary Clinton’s student debt video misses the biggest problem with paying for college,” according to Vox’s Libby Nelson.

    Lawrence Lessig’s Presidential Bid.”

    California Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that would allow children of nannies and nannies and other live-in workers to attend schools in the districts where their parents work.

    California’s attorney general is investigating the University of Phoenix for deceptive marketing practices aimed at veterans.

    Whatever Happened to the Department's Competency-Based Education Experiments?” asks Amy Laitinen. (“We’re flooring the accelerator and the brake at the same time,” “Dean Dad” Matt Reed observes.)

    Education in the Courts


    Pearson, Cengage, and McGraw-Hill have filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against a company called Information Recyclers, accusing it of selling pirated textbooks.

    Via The Guardian: “Lawyers representing Virginia Wesleyan College in Norfolk have filed a motion demanding the entire sexual history of a student who is suing the school after reporting being drugged and raped on her third day of freshman orientation.”

    Via The New York Times: “A federal judge on Friday ruled that a new licensing exam for teachers given by New York State did not discriminate against minorities, saying that even though they tended to score poorly, the test evaluated skills necessary to do the job.”

    Testing, Testing…


    The New York Times reports that “20% of New York State Students Opted Out of Standardized Testing This Year.”

    Via Education Week: “Nevada Hires Data Recognition Corp. as New Test Vendor.” And the Nevada Appeal says that the state has hired CTB/McGraw-Hill to run its tests.

    MOOCs and UnMOOCs


    MOOC development more expensive than many think.”

    “Are Employers Key to the Success – and Relevance – of MOOCs?” asks Edsurge. Well, certainly that’s the new spin, one that I identified last year as the tech industry and politicians try to reframe the purpose of education as “job skills.”

    “Five retired NBA players are receiving scholarships to attend Kaplan University and study online to earn certificates, bachelor’s or master’s degrees,” says Inside Higher Ed.

    Meanwhile on Campus


    The University of Illinois released some 1100 pages of emails pertaining to the hiring/firing last year of professor Steven Salaita. It turns out that Chancellor Phyllis Wise used her personal email account in order to – she hoped, eh – avoid scrutiny. “Email scandal plunges U. of Illinois into turmoil.” The university’s board of trustees voted to reject a deal in which Wise would receive $400,000 after resigning as chancellor. More legal battles to follow

    And continuing its moves to be the terrifying “new American university,” Arizona State University becomes the first of the country’s ten largest public universities to not offer psychiatric services to students. Oh yeah, feel the disruptive innovation!

    The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges has upheld its decision to terminate the accreditation for the City College of San Francisco.

    Watch John Oliver Blast Subpar Sex Education in U.S. Schools.”

    Go, School Sports Team!


    Via The New York Times: “The University of Minnesota will begin an outside investigation of its athletic department and its former director, Norwood Teague, who resigned because of sexual harassment complaints, a school official said.”

    From the HR Department


    Minerva is expanding its faculty and administration.

    Upgrades and Downgrades


    “The letters of the day on ‘Sesame Street’ are H, B and O,” says The New York Times, reporting on the deal struck this week between the Sesame Workshop and HBO that would give the latter first-run episodes of the children’s television show. 9 months after premiering on HBO, Sesame Street episodes will be available on PBS. Another blow for ed-tech and equity.

    “The team behind ClassOwl has found a new nest and the founders are looking for a new home for the school planning tool that they’ve built for students,” Edsurge reports. And another ed-tech startup – this one having raised $900,000– enters the dead pool.

    Harvard student loses Facebook internship after pointing out privacy flaws.”

    Google released an upgrade to its Course Builder tool.

    Elsewhere in Google: the company restructures. Sundar Pichai will be the new CEO of Google. Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergei Brin will run its new holding company, Alphabet.

    Edsurge profiles Slate, the open source SIS created by Science Leadership Academy. Via Vice: “Why Google is Restructuring Now.”

    Funding, IPOs, and Acquisitions


    Via the San Jose Mercury News: “Zuckerberg education fund expands reach of $120 million grant to help Bay Area schools.”

    Front Row Education has raised $5.3 million in funding from Amasia, Harrison Metal, and Baseline Ventures. The company, which makes math practice software, has raised $6.6 million total.

    Quad Learning has raised $4.8 million in debt financing. The company, which helps students complete community college, has raised $25.8 million total.

    Crescerance has raised an undisclosed amount of funding from BIP Capital.

    News Corp plans to sell off its unprofitable and unpopular education unit, The New York Times reports: “News Corporation, controlled by Rupert Murdoch, said on Wednesday that it would take a $371 million write-down on the education division and would move to wind down the production of tablets for schoolchildren, a key part of the unit's offering.” More via The Wall Street Journal and Buzzfeed.

    Pearson sells its stake in The Economist to the company’s other shareholders for about $730 million. Why? Edsurge notes that “After Selling Stake in The Economist Group, Pearson Now Has Extra $2 Billion for Education Efforts.” Wheee.

    School financial software provider Blackbaud will acquire Smart Tuition for $190 million.

    Blackboard has acquired Nivel Siete, a Latin American Moodle provider. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, although Blackboard used the press release to tout its commitment to open source. Side eye.

    Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has acquired the assets of MeeGenius, an e-book subscription service for kids 8 and under. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.

    On the heels of news last week that John Merrow is retiring, Education Week has acquired his show Learning Matters, which run on PBS News Hour.

    Reuters reports that TPG Capital is close to buying Ellucian for $3.5 billion. Among Ellucian’s products, the higher ed admin system Banner. (Eww.)

    Reuters also reports that Instruction plans to IPO (which we all knew would happen soon, right?) and has hired Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley in order to prepare.

    Via Buzzfeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy: “Career Education Corporation's plan to transform its business was simple: stop providing career education. And so far, it seems to be working: in the first quarter of the company's ‘transformation plan,’ it beat analyst estimates, sending its stock shooting up more than 30% on Friday after results were announced.”

    Data and “Research”


    Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison say they are getting closer to designing a system to deliver the ideal lesson plan for each student, through a process they call ‘machine teaching.’” LOL.

    CNN cites a study that says “early elementary school years are getting significantly more homework than is recommended by education leaders, in some cases nearly three times as much homework as is recommended.” Others cite other studies.

    “A Peek at a ‘Smart’ Classroom Powered by the Internet of Things,” via Edsurge, which looks at a study from the University of Belgrade about sensors in the lecture hall. “The researchers used sensors to measure different aspects of the classroom environment – including temperature, humidity and carbon dioxide levels – and attempted to link these factors to student focus.”

    Campus Technology goes with the headline “Three-Quarters of Students Say More Tech Would Improve Their Learning” for its write-up of a survey sponsored by an e-learning platform.


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    This post first appeared on Educating Modern Learners in May 2015

    The debate about standardized testing has hit the mainstream. Or at least, it hit HBO last weekend, when John Oliver offered a segment on the topic on his comedy news show Last Week Tonight.

    Oliver talked about the policies that mandate increasingly pervasive standardized testing in the US, along with the companies that profit from the mandate. He discussed too students' stressful reactions to them, noting that kids throw up during tests so often that there are instructions on what to do if a child vomits on a test booklet. "Something is wrong with our system when we just assume a certain number of kids will vomit," he said. "Tests are supposed to be assessments of skills, not a rap battle on 8 Mile Road."

    Although it's far from an accurate count of how many people have seen the segment, the video has 2.8 million views on YouTube [note: three months later, it's now at 4.8 million views], and the reaction - at least according to YouTube's "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" metric - has been overwhelmingly positive.

    No surprise, education industry giant Pearson was not amused at finding itself at the center of the Last Week Tonight bit. In Oliver's words, Pearson is "the educational equivalent of Time Warner Cable: Either you've never had an interaction with them and don't care, or they've ruined your f------g life."

    The Washington Post's education blog gave Pearson space to respond. The op-ed, written by Pearson's managing director of assessment and direct delivery, Alfred G. Binford, does not address John Oliver's segment directly. (It does not mention it at all, in fact.) Rather, it's a loosely framed argument that standardized testing is a scientific undertaking, necessary in order to ascertain how well students are doing.

    Pearson invests in the research and design of fair, rigorous tests that help teachers, parents, students, colleges and employers see how well students are progressing in their learning, and where there are areas for improvement. New annual state tests based on higher standards have introduced a potential game-changer: performance tasks that enable us to see how well students can apply what they have learned in the classroom to solve real-world problems.

    This argument is hardly new. But as the growing "Opt Out" movement suggests, it's one that seems to be less and less convincing to students, parents, and educators alike.

    And I think it's totally fair to call it a "movement." Some schools and districts are reporting half (or more) of their students are opting out of standardized tests this year. And while some proponents of testing and "accountability" have tried to dismiss it as actions that only white, affluent, suburban parents are pushing their children to do, framing the movement like that ignores communities like Chicago, for example, where communities of color - and just as importantly, students - are leading the charge.

    It's this last element that seems to be particularly crucial to build upon. That is, how can we help magnify students' voice and agency in shaping their own education, and at the same time, reshape education policy?

    How do we seize the opportunity of all this media attention to the problems with standardized testing to do more than talk about testing? How do we seize the opportunity of all this parent and student frustration with standardized testing to talk, more broadly, about rethinking schooling?

    I don't mean to suggest that standardized testing is not an important issue, but it's one that could arguably be used to crack open other discussions: about what we want school to look like, about what we want assessment to look like, about what is studied and what is learned.

    If the current testing regime collapses - I'm not sure it will, but the John Oliver segment certainly highlights some of the frustrations of those who hope it will - what will appear in its place? Can we articulate that now so that Pearson and other testing companies don't replace the old model with simply a re-branded, repackaged one?


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