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- 11/29/16--23:01: _Top Ed-Tech Trends:...
- 11/30/16--23:01: _Education Technolog...
- 12/01/16--23:01: _Hack Education Week...
- 12/02/16--23:01: _The Politics of Edu...
- 12/04/16--23:01: _The Business of Edu...
- 12/06/16--23:01: _Education Technolog...
- 12/08/16--23:01: _Hack Education Week...
- 12/09/16--23:01: _Education Technolog...
- 12/11/16--23:01: _Education Technolog...
- 12/13/16--23:01: _Education Technolog...
- 12/15/16--23:01: _Hack Education Week...
- 12/16/16--23:01: _Education Technolog...
- 12/18/16--23:01: _Education Technolog...
- 12/20/16--23:01: _Education Technolog...
- 12/22/16--23:01: _Hack Education Week...
- 12/26/16--23:01: _The Curse of the Mo...
- 12/29/16--23:01: _Hack Education Week...
- 12/30/16--23:01: _What Happened in Ed...
- 01/05/17--23:01: _Hack Education Week...
- 01/12/17--23:01: _Hack Education Week...
- 11/29/16--23:01: Top Ed-Tech Trends: A Review
- The Politics of Education Technology
- Standardized Testing
- “The Employability Narrative”
- Credits and Credentialing
- The Collapse of For-Profit Higher Education (Or Not)
- Beyond the MOOC
- The Compulsion for Data
- Social Media, Campus Activism, and Free Speech
- Indie Ed-Tech
- The Business of Ed-Tech
- The Business of Ed-tech
- School and “Skills”
- MOOCS, Outsourcing, and Online Education
- Competencies and Certificates
- The Common Core State Standards
- Data and Privacy
- The Indie Web
- Social Justice
- “Zombie Ideas”
- The Politics of Education/Technology
- MOOCs and Anti-MOOCs
- Coding and “Making”
- Data vs Privacy
- The Battle for “Open”
- What Counts “For Credit”
- The Business of Ed-tech
- The Business of Ed-tech
- The Maker Movement
- Learning to Code
- The Flipped Classroom
- The Battle to Open Textbooks
- Education Data and Learning Analytics
- The Platforming of Education
- Automation and Artificial Intelligence
- The Politics of Ed-tech
- The iPad
- Social Media: Adoption and Crackdown
- Data (Which Still Means Mostly “Standardized Testing”)
- The Digital Library
- Khan Academy
- STEM Education’s "Sputnik Moment"
- The Higher Education Bubble
- The Business of Ed-Tech
- US Politics
- Online Learning
- Mobile Learning
- Social Learning, Social Networks
- Investment in Educational Technology
- 11/30/16--23:01: Education Technology and the Year of Wishful Thinking
- 12/01/16--23:01: Hack Education Weekly News
- 12/02/16--23:01: The Politics of Education Technology
- 12/04/16--23:01: The Business of Education Technology
- 12/06/16--23:01: Education Technology and the Promise of 'Free' and 'Open'
- 12/08/16--23:01: Hack Education Weekly News
- 12/09/16--23:01: Education Technology and the 'New' For-Profit Higher Education
- Colorado State University Global Campus working with Guild Education (Quality assurance entity: Tyton Partners)
- Dallas Community College System and StraighterLine (Quality assurance entity: CHEA Quality Platform)
- Marylhurst University and Epicodus (Quality assurance entity: Climb)
- Northeastern University and General Electric (Quality assurance entity: American Council on Education)
- SUNY Empire State College and The Flatiron School (Quality assurance entity: American National Standards Institute)
- Thomas Edison State University and Study.com (Quality assurance entity: Quality Matters)
- University of Texas Austin and MakerSquare (Quality assurance entity: Entangled Solutions and Moody, Famiglietti & Andronico, LLP)
- Wilmington University and Zip Code Wilmington (Quality assurance entity: HackerRank)
- 12/11/16--23:01: Education Technology and the 'New Economy'
- 12/13/16--23:01: Education Technology and the History of the Future of Credentialing
- 12/15/16--23:01: Hack Education Weekly News
- 12/16/16--23:01: Education Technology and Data Insecurity
- 12/18/16--23:01: Education Technology and the Ideology of Personalization
- "Parent usage, measured by total views per week, as well as the percentage of parents who viewed the app at least once each week;
- Teacher adoption, measured by the frequency with which each teacher in each classroom posted updates to the app;
- Personalization, measured by the number of student-specific posts and “highlights” per student shared over the previous two weeks;
- Quality, measured by a review of the content of every single post that every teacher had made to Stream;
- Parent and teacher satisfaction, measured through constant AltSchool surveys of each group."
- Customized learning interface: Invites student to personalize learning experience by selecting colors and avatars, or uses interest, age or geographic indicators to tailor the interface.
- Learning management: Platforms that automate a range of classroom management tasks.
- Data-driven learning: A majority of platforms described as ‘adaptive’ fall into this category of efficient management systems that provide materials appropriate to a students’ proficiency level.
- Adaptive learning: Data-driven learning that potentially moves beyond a pre-determined decision tree and uses machine learning to adapt to a students’ behaviors and competency.
- Intelligent tutor: Instead of providing answers and modular guidance, inspires questions, interacts conversationally and has enough options to move beyond a limited decision tree.
- 12/20/16--23:01: Education Technology's Inequalities
- 12/22/16--23:01: Hack Education Weekly News
- 12/26/16--23:01: The Curse of the Monsters of Education Technology
- 12/29/16--23:01: Hack Education Weekly News
- 12/30/16--23:01: What Happened in Ed-Tech in 2016 (And Who Paid for It)?
- Education Technology and the Year of Wishful Thinking
- The Politics of Education Technology
- The Business of Education Technology
- Education Technology and the Promise of “Free” and “Open”
- Education Technology and the “New” For-Profit Higher Education
- Education Technology and the “New Economy”
- Education Technology and the History of the Future of Credentialing
- Education Technology and Data Insecurity
- Education Technology and the Ideology of Personalization
- Education Technology’s Inequalities
- How Much Venture Capital Did Ed-Tech Raise in 2016?
- Who Were 2016’s Most Active Ed-Tech Investors?
- Who’s Funding Tutoring Startups?
- Who’s Funding Test Prep Startups?
- Who’s Funding Ed-Tech in Africa?
- Who’s Funding Predictive Analytics in Education?
- Who’s Funding ‘Personalized Learning’ Startups?
- Who’s Funding ‘Character Education’ Startups?
- Who’s Funding Testing and Test Monitoring Startups?
- Who’s Funding Startups that ‘Monitor’ Schools and Students?
- Who’s Funding the Blockchain in Education?
- Who’s Funding ‘Credentialing’ Startups?
- Who’s Funding Corporate Training Startups?
- Who’s Funding Job Placement Startups?
- Who’s Funding Learn-to-Code Startups?
- Who’s Funding Student Loan Startups?
- Who’s Funding MOOCs in 2016?
- Who’s Funding Virtual Reality Startups?
- Mark Zuckerberg’s Education Investment Portfolio
- The Emerson Collective’s Education Investment Portfolio
- Who Received Gates Foundation Grants in 2016?
- Education Companies and the Stock Market
- Public Funding for Education in 2016
- The 2016 Ed-Tech Dead Pool
- 01/05/17--23:01: Hack Education Weekly News
- 01/12/17--23:01: Hack Education Weekly News
It’s time once again for my annual review of “the year in education technology,” something I’ve done since 2010. Tomorrow I’ll launch the seventh edition of this massive, maniacal undertaking.
This year feels different, perhaps because it’s the first time that I end the year knowing the new one will bring us a new President, one with quite different goals than the current administration’s. Things feel quite uncertain moving forward, despite all the certainty one can supposedly muster from looking back – from looking at the near-term or long-term history and trends. I’m feeling quite tentative about whether or not the insights that I might be able to glean about the year will have much relevance for the business and politics of education technology under Trump. I’m quite frightened that some of the “worst case scenarios” I’ve imagined for education technology – the normalization of surveillance, algorithmic bias, privatization, radical individualization – are poised to be the new reality.
This year feels different too than the previous years in which I’ve written these reviews because education technology – as an industry – sort of floundered in 2016, as I think my series will show. Investment dollars were down, if nothing else. I suppose some analysts would argue education technology, as an industry, “matured” this year – young startup founders were replaced by old white men as chief executives, young startups were acquired by old, established corporations. But all in all, there just isn’t much to speak of this year when it comes to spectacular “innovation” (whatever you take that to mean). Or even when it comes to remarkable “failure” – which I gather we’re supposed to praise these days.
This year’s “Top Ed-Tech Trends” are mostly the same as previous years’, despite marketing efforts to hype certain (largely consumer) products – 3D printing, virtual reality, Pokemon Go, and so on. I’ve written before about “ed-tech’s zombie ideas” – about how monstrous ideas are repeatedly revived – and this year was no different.
We could ask, I suppose, why ed-tech might be in the doldrums – why no sweeping “revolution” despite all the investment and all the enthusiasm. (We can debate what that revolution would look like: institutional change, improved test scores, more or less job security?) Has education technology, or digital technology more broadly, simply become banal as it has become ubiquitous?
And yet, this moment feels anything if banal. Here we are with a President-Elect – a reality TV star – who has been supported by white nationalists, the KKK, Wikileaks, trolls, and Peter Thiel, who election was facilitated through a massive misinformation campaign spread virally through Facebook. Education technology, and again digital technology more broadly, might not be the progressive, democratizing force that some promised. Go figure.
So we must, I think, look at the more insidious ways in which various technologies are slowly altering our notions of knowledge, expertise, and education (as practices, as institutions, as systems) – and ask who’s invested in the various futures that education technology purports to offer.
A Note on Methodology
Each Friday, I gather all the education and education technology and technology-related news into one article. (I also gather articles that I read about the same topics for a newsletter that I send out each Saturday.) Each month, I calculate all the venture capital investment that’s gone into education technology, noting who’s invested, the type of company, and so on. It’s from these weekly and monthly reports that I start to build my analysis. I listen to stories. I follow the money, and I follow the press releases. I try to verify the wild, wild claims. I look for patterns. It’s based on these patterns that I choose the ten of my “Top Ed-Tech Trends.”
They’re not all “trends,” really. They’re categories. But I’ve purposefully called this series “trends” because I like to imagine it helps defang some of the bulleted list of crap that other publications churn out, claiming that this or that product is going to “change everything” about how we teach and learn.
Education Technology Criticism
A note on the lenses through which I analyze ed-tech: History. Ideology. Labor. Power. Rhetoric. Ethics. Narrative. Networks. Humanities. Culture. Anti-racism. I guess I’ll add anti-fascism from here on out, just to be really clear.
Earlier this fall, Sara M. Watson published a lengthy piece for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, “Toward a Constructive Technology Criticism.” Even though the opening paragraphs that spoke of “loom-smashing Luddites and told-you-so Cassandras,” I didn’t see much of myself in her description of the “technology criticism landscape,” despite the years now that I’ve been a landscaper. Watson’s suggestions for a “constructive technology criticism”: surface ideologies. Ask better questions. Offer alternatives. Be realistic. Be precise. Be generous.
Seven years and hundreds of thousands of words reviewing what’s happening to and through education technology is as generous I can be right now, I think.
Here’s what I’ve written in previous years. You can decide for yourself with how much my criticism has been heeded (hell, even acknowledged):
The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015
The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2014
The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2013
The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012
The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011
The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2010
Icon credits: The Noun Project
This is part one of my annual review of the year in ed-tech
In 2005, Joan Didion published The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicles her husband’s death in December 2003, shortly after their daughter had fallen into septic shock and been placed an induced coma.
I read the book that very year – and honestly, I don’t often buy or read books in hardcover – shortly after my own husband died.
I needed help in understanding grief – my own grief, my son’s grief. “In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control,” Didion writes. “Given that grief remained the most general of afflictions its literature seemed remarkably spare.” I found her book comforting, while its material horrific, in part because it was a book. Didion had found the words to talk about grief and mourning, and she’d written those words down, and she’d published them in a material object I could hold and weep into.
In Didion’s writing, I recognized my own performance of and reliance upon the rituals of “magical thinking,” the omens and interdictions that I believed somehow could undo or stop or assuage the horror of Anthony’s death.
“I opened the door and I seen the man in the dress greens and I knew. I immediately knew.” This was what the mother of a nineteen-year-old killed by a bomb in Kirkuk said on an HBO documentary quoted by Bob Herbert in The New York Times on the morning of November 12, 2004. “But I thought that if, as long as I didn’t let him in, he couldn’t tell me. And then it – none of that would’ve happened. So he kept saying, ‘Ma’am, I need to come in.’ And I kept telling him, ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t come in.’”
This is the rationality of the irrationality of grief. This is the irrationality of the rationality of death.
Mourn and Organize
I want to start this year’s review of education technology acknowledging grief. This has been a terrible, terrible year. I want to start this year’s review of education technology sanctioning, if such a thing is necessary, our mourning. It is not self-indulgent to mourn. We need not hide our feelings.
Until now I had been able only to grieve, not mourn. Grief was passive. Grief happened. Mourning, the act of dealing with grief, required attention. Until now there had been every urgent reason to obliterate any attention that might otherwise have been paid, banish the thought, bring fresh adrenaline to bear on the crisis of the day.
I want to start this year’s review of education recognizing what’s been lost. Not just the loss of Seymour Papert and Prince and David Bowie and Phife Dawg and Harper Lee and Gwen Ifill and Alan Rickman and Gene Wilder and Ursula Franklin and Scott Erik Kaufman and Jerome Bruner and Elie Wiesel and Alvin Toffler and Leonard Cohen (and many more), but the grief and the pain that stems from these and so many other losses. So many losses. It is impossible for me to write about education technology in 2016 without noting their passing, without talking about Brexit, Trump, Duarte, Aleppo, Orlando… I could go on… and acknowledging that many of us have stumbled through this year – from tragedy to tragedy (personal, local, regional, national, global) – in a state of shock, in a state of grief.
Grief clouds your thinking, magical or otherwise.
In a society that considers itself highly rational, highly technological, highly scientific, to call something “magical” often serves to dismiss or diminish it – or to dismiss or diminish those who do not sufficiently understand science or tech. That famous Arthur C. Clarke saying and whatnot. That’s not what Didion meant to do, of course. Indeed, she’s quite methodical with her study – her inspection, introspection – of grief. When she turns to “the literature,” she reads medical and psychiatric texts alongside poetry.
But there’s something about how grief in particular ruptures the rational. It makes us want to believe in – cling to, really – unbelievability. We want to believe that it can’t be true. And in the midst of death and horror and suffering, we often find some small piece of comfort there.
I mean, the Cubs did win the World Series in 2016. Bob Dylan won a Nobel Prize.
Expertise in an Age of Post-Truth
Oxford Dictionaries has declared“post-truth” the word of the year. “Post-truth,” an adjective: “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
It’s been over a decade since comedian Stephen Colbert introduced the word “truthiness” on The Colbert Report– his attempt to describe political arguments, particularly those made by conservatives, that need no facts or evidence because they “just feel right.” In other words, we did not suddenly enter a period of “post-truth” in 2016. But facts, evidence, and expertise have taken blow after blow in recent years (at least since President George W. Bush), and the invocation of facts, evidence, and expertise in political arguments (particularly those arguments on social media) is now interpreted as bias rather objectivity.
On the night of the US Presidential election, sociologist Nathan Jurgenson wondered if there wasn’t an equivalent to “truthiness” embraced by those of different political persuasions:
let’s call it “factiness.” Factiness is the taste for the feel and aesthetic of “facts,” often at the expense of missing the truth. From silly self-help-y TED talks to bad NPR-style neuroscience science updates to wrapping ourselves in the misleading scientisim [sic] of Fivethirtyeight statistics, factiness is obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.
Jurgenson calls “factiness” a belief of the left-wing – one contrary to the “truthiness” on the right. I’m not so sure these fit, quite so neatly, into a political binary. I contend that “factiness” is a core belief of technocracy, which finds a foothold in corporations as often as in academia, in bureaucracy far more often than on the barricades. “Factiness” is, no doubt, a core belief of “elites,” and it’s a core belief of “experts,” and like it or not, these two have become intertwined. Intertwined and despised.
“We now operate in a world in which we can assume neither competence nor good faith from the authorities, and the consequences of this simple, devastating realization is the defining feature of American life at the end of this low, dishonest decade,” Chris Hayes wrote in Twilight of the Elites (2012). “Elite failure and the distrust it has spawned is the most powerful and least understood aspect of current politics and society. It structures and constrains the very process by which we gather facts, form opinions, and execute self-governance.”
And here we are. A loss of faith in governments, governance, globalization, pluralism, polling, pundits, public institutions, private institutions, markets, science, research, journalism, democracy, each other.
“If the experts as a whole are discredited,”Hayes cautions, “we are faced with an inexhaustible supply of quackery.”
Education technology faces an inexhaustible supply of quackery.
Education Technology and (Decades and Decades of) Quackery
Education technology has faced an inexhaustible supply of quackery for quite some time – those selling snake oil, magic pills, and enchanted talismans and promising disruption, efficiency, and higher test scores. The quackery in 2016 wasn’t new, in other words, but it was notable. It is certainly connected to the discrediting of “expertise,” whether that’s teachers-as-experts or researchers-as-experts. (Students, of course, have rarely been recognized as experts – unless they fit the model of “roaming autodidacts” that society so readily lauds.)
What do we believe about education? About learning? How do we know, and who knows “knowing” in a world where expertise is debunked?
Psychology, a field of research whose history is tightly bound to education technology, continued to face a “reproducibility crisis” this year, with challenges to research on “ego depletion,” to claims based on fMRI software, and – of course – to the Reproducibility Project itself, that 2015 report that found that the results in less than 40% of a sample of 100 articles in psychology journals held up to retesting.
So who do you believe? The scientists? The engineers? The advertisers? The media?
In January, “brain-training” company Lumosity agreed to pay $2 million to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it had deceived customers with its claims that its games improved cognitive functions. But despite the settlement and despite what science journalist Ed Yong politely calls “The Weak Evidence Behind Brain Training Games,” “brain training” remains quite a popular product in education technology, with the phrase “brain-based” used to “scientize” all sorts of classroom practices.
Much like “brain training,” “brain scanning” was repeatedly hyped this year as a possible way to improve the efficacy of education software. Hooking up students to headbands to monitor their brain activity has now left the research lab and entered the exhibit hall. Some of the headbands and helmets now on the market deliver electric shocks and promise to boost “performance” or deliver “instant energy or calm.” Some promise to monitor and measure brain activity. “Brain-zapping” is, according to a story in The Observer this spring, a “nascent industry,” even though there’s really no evidence to support it.
No evidence. But a lot of wild claims made in (ed-)tech journalism nonetheless.
“Researchers Create Matrix-Like Instant Learning Through Brain Stimulation,” Techcrunch announced early this year, a re-write of a press release issued by HRL Laboratories, a research center jointly owned by Boeing and General Motors, regarding an article it had published in the February 2016 issue of Frontiers in Human Neuroscience (a pay-to-publish journal). The press release invoked The Matrix. Of course it did. But the press release was misleading; what the researchers had actually discovered about brain simulation: more research is needed. As I wrote then in response,
Whether or not this is science or fiction, let’s consider why “Matrix-style learning” is so compelling. Stories like this seem to emerge withsomefrequency. (We might ask too, why do neuroscientific claims frequently go unchallenged by the press - but then again, so much education/technology journalism is wildly uncritical. Parroting PR is pretty routine.)
Science aside, let’s think about culture and society. What’s the lure of “instant learning” and in particular “instant learning” via a technological manipulation of the brain? This is certainly connected to the push for “efficiency” in education and education technology. But again, why would we want learning to be fast and cheap? What does that say about how we imagine and more importantly how we value the process of learning?
There’s little evidence of how these products or practices will improve teaching or learning. But there’s a ton of snake oil. And a lot of wishful thinking.
Education Technology and (Decades and Decades of) Wishful Thinking
The promise of education technology, like it or not, is mostly wishful thinking. Proponents of ed-tech insist that ed-tech is necessary; that without ed-tech, schools are outmoded and irrelevant; that “the future” demands it. But as I argued in a talk I gave at VCU in November, “the best way to predict the future is to issue a press release.” That is, the steady drumbeat of marketing surrounding the necessity of education technology largely serves to further ideologies of neoliberalism, individualism, late-stage capitalism, outsourcing, surveillance, speed, and commodity fetishism.
I know many of us wished otherwise.
Arguably the business of “predicting the future” took a bit of a hit this year, what with the failure, as some describe it, of polling in the Presidential election. But “predicting the future” – with or without the mantle of science – is often about pointing to and sanctioning a particular vision of the future. Wishful thinking.
Folks have long made predictions about the future of education and education technology. Such-and-such practice or product will die out. Such-and-such practice or product will disrupt. Such-and-such practice or product will revolutionize. Such-and-such practice or product will soon be adopted and will change everything.
Or as the Education Week headline described Bill Gates’ keynote at this year’s annual venture capital gala, the ASU-GSV Summit, “Ed Tech Has Underachieved But Better Days Are Ahead.” They always are.
Hype as Wishful Thinking
There’s a long list of technology products that I’m sure will appear on many “2016 Top Ed-Tech Trends” lists:
Blockchain: “10 amazing ways Blockchain could be used in education” by Donald Clark. (I’ll write more about the blockchain and certification in a forthcoming article in this series.)
Wearables: “Eye-trackers that detect when your mind is wandering. Clothes that let you ‘feel’ what it’s like to be in someone else’s body. Sensors that connect your heart rate to how engaged you are in class. These are the kinds of wearable technologies that could soon impact how we learn,” says Edsurge. Wishful thinking? Quackery? (I’ll be talking more about wearables and surveillance in a forthcoming article in this series.)
Bullshit or not, the marketing of these products continues – often with a breathless description of “revolution” and “transformation” and “disruption” and ever-growing business opportunities– even if few schools or teachers or students buy the product, can afford to buy the product, or want to buy the product.
Fads fade, of course. Hype wanes. Take iPads, for example. Or the flipped classroom. Or MOOCs even.
No doubt, the most wishful of the ed-tech zombies this year was VR.
Virtual Reality as Wishful Thinking
In July, I wrote an article called “(Marketing) Virtual Reality in Education: A History.” The opening paragraphs:
Virtual reality is, once again, being heralded as a technology poised to transform education. I say “once again” because virtual reality has long been associated with such promises. VR appeared in some of the earliest Horizon Reports for example, with the 2007 report positing that virtual worlds would be adopted by higher ed institutions within two to three years' time; funnily enough, the 2016 report offers the same outlook: we’re still two to three years out from widespread adoption of VR.
The history of VR goes back much farther than this – the phrase “virtual reality” was coined in 1987 by Jaron Lanier, but attempts to create the illusion of being somewhere else – through art and/or technology – date back farther still.
“But this time it’s different.” That’s the common response from some quarters to my (repeated) assertion that there’s a substantial history to education technologies – to both the technologies themselves and to the educational purposes for which they’re designed or utilized – that is consistently ignored.
This much is true: augmented reality and virtual reality startups have seen record-setting levels of venture capital in recent years predicated on advancements in the tech (although much of that investment has gone to just a handful of companies, such as Magic Leap). In 2014, Facebook acquired Oculus VR, Google released its Cardboard viewer, and Playstation announced it was working on a VR gaming headset – these have all been interpreted in turn as signs that virtual reality will soon be mainstream.
“Soon.” As the New Media Consortium’s annual reports should serve to remind us, VR has always been “on the horizon.”
In that article – which I’ll refrain from just copy-pasting here – I look at the history of educational uses of stereoscopy, which date back to the Victorian era when a combination of lenses and imagery were used to trick the brain into interpreting two- as three-dimensionality. Many of the products touted as VR today are simplythat: stereoscopy with a fancier viewer. (Say, the Android device in Google’sCardboard Viewer and Expeditions program.)
Virtual reality, at least in its “purest” or strictest sense, requires some very expensive and cumbersome hardware in order to create something more than an “immersive” viewing experience of a 360 degree video. Headsets. Gloves. Sensors. Projectors. Processors. To truly provide a virtual reality, the technology must achieve “sensory immersion in a virtual environment, including a sense of presence,” game developer and VR scholar Brenda Laurel argued in June, listing a series of requisite characteristics almost entirely absent from the multimedia products marketed to schools as VR.
And that marketing, it is worth pointing out, is almost the same as marketing in the early twentieth century urging educators to adopt film as an education technology: “Learn about other cultures.” “Visit faraway lands without leaving the classroom.” “Guided tours of places school buses cannot go.” “Modern pedagogical methods require modern media.” “Pictures speak a universal language.” “This is science.”
(Image credits: Educational Screen, 1924)
So the claims that this is new and revolutionary are dubious. The claims that stereoscopy is VR are dubious. The claims that VR will “reinvent education” are dubious. (According to a report on “The Top 10 Companies Working on Education in Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality,” one of the “top” applications “simulates a lecture hall in virtual reality.”) The claims that VR will expand access to education for everyone are dubious. (Despite headlines claiming, for example, that “Anybody can now buy Microsoft’s $3,000 HoloLens,” not everyone and not every school can afford to do so.) The claims that the technology is finally ready for consumers are dubious. (VR still makes people nauseous.) The claims that the technology will enhance empathy are really dubious, particularly in the light of Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey’s financial support for an unofficial pro-Donald Trump group dedicated to “shitposting” and spreading hateful memes about Hillary Clinton. (I’ll have more to say on Oculus Rift and Facebook in the next post in this series – one that will address the politics of ed-tech – as well as in the final post – one that will talk about discrimination by design.)
But the breathlessness about VR persists, much as it has persisted for decades: it will change education forever. It is the next big thing. It’s the future of school (and it’s the future of Facebook). It is a disruptive innovation.
It is all wishful thinking.
Grief and Loss and Education Technology
Perhaps it’s time to ask why – why this is the ritual and the story that education continues to turn to? It has, after all, for at least one hundred years - the promise of teaching machines. What is the loss that we are suffering? What are we grieving? Why are we in this fog of educational make-believe? Why are we so wrapped up in the magical thinking and wishful thinking of education technology? What do we hope the practices of ed-tech will deliver, will relieve? What are we hoping to preserve? What are we hoping to absolve? What might we afraid to admit has died? Why is wishful thinking, in and through and with education technology, a balm for so many of us?
At what point should we just let go...
Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.
“The Long Game of Betsy DeVos” by Jennifer Berkshire.
Via The 74: “Betsy Devos, Trump’s EdSec Pick, Promoted Virtual Schools Despite Dismal Results.” Her husband is an investor in K12 Inc. (Meanwhile, The 74’s founder Campbell Brown says she won’t write about DeVos since they’re besties.)
Education Week looks at the campaign donationsBetsy DeVos has made to “to Senators who will oversee her confirmation.”
Via Politico: “Trump’s education secretary pick supported anti-gay causes.” Pretty sure that’s the case for every cabinet pick Trump has made so far.
“Anti-Common Core Groups Unhappy About Trump Ed Secretary Pick Betsy DeVos,” says the Sunshine State News.
Via The Columbia Dispatch: “Group once led by Trump education secretary nominee owes $5.3 million to Ohio.” The money owed is by All Children Matter Inc stemming from fines to the Ohio Elections Commission for violating campaign finance law.
“Colleges’ Realities May Curtail DeVos’s Agenda,” says New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey.
“What’s the worst that could happen under New Ed Secretary Betsy DeVos?” asks The Hechinger Report, with the hellish-scenario game we get to play for the next four years. Yay.
Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jrsays Trump offered him the Secretary of Education job first.
“What Is the Future of the Office for Civil Rights?” by The Atlantic’s Melinda D. Anderson.
Via the Sun Sentinel: “Jeb Bush sees hope in Trump’s choice for education secretary.”
The Autistic Self Advocacy Network issued a statement on the nomination of Jeff Sessions as US Attorney General. Among the organization’s reasons for condemning the nomination: “Senator Sessions has suggested increasing the segregation of disabled students in public schools, calling the inclusion of students with significant disabilities ‘the single most irritating problem for teachers throughout America today.’”
More on how Trumpism is affecting schools in the campus and research sections below.
Certainly relevant to the new administration, this via Mother Jones: “Mike Pence’s Voucher Program in Indiana Was a Windfall for Religious Schools.”
Via CNN: “Uganda orders schools funded by Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, to shut down.”
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “In a report released on Wednesday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the federal government would forgive at least $108 billion of student debt in the coming years, an amount higher than expected.” More via NPR and Inside Higher Ed.
Via Politico: “Virginia Foxx wants to dismantle the Education Department and erase Barack Obama’s education legacy – and she’s poised to become one of the Hill’s power players with the authority to do that. The 73-year-old GOP lawmaker and former community college president is poised to assume the leadership of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and she wants to veer far away from what she regards as Obama’s wrongheaded approach. ‘I’m going to push to diminish the role of the federal government in everything it’s in that isn’t in the Constitution,’ Foxx said in an interview in her district in North Carolina. ‘That’s education, health care. All the things that the federal government does that it should not be doing. I’m happy to diminish its role.’”
Via Pacific Standard: “Final Rules Released for Education Law That Relaxes Accountability Demands on States.”
Via the Lexington Herald Leader: “Kentucky university funds may be based in part on number of degrees.”
Via The Dallas Morning News: Texas“Gov. Greg Abbott vows to cut funding to state universities that welcome immigrants here illegally.”
Via Edsurge: “Education Department Expands TechHire Initiative to Build Pipeline for In-Demand Jobs.”
Education in the Courts
Via the AP: “The state of Utah has denied it has anti-gay school laws as it defends itself from a lawsuit challenging restrictions on talk about homosexuality in the classroom.”
“Eighth-grade students across the United States showed some improvement in math and science over the past four years, but fourth-graders' performance was stagnant and students in both groups continued to trail many of their peers in Asia, according to the results of a major international exam released Tuesday,” The Washington Post reports. The test in question: The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) which is administered to students around the world.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “The College Board on Thursday announced a new process for people with disabilities to request test accommodations. Under the new system, most students who have been approved for test accommodations in high school will receive accommodations as long as their high school can answer two questions in the affirmative: ‘Is the requested accommodation(s) in the student's plan?’ and ‘Has the student used the accommodation(s) for school testing?’”
Online Education, Beyond “MOOCs”
Via Mindwire Consulting’s Phil Hill: “The Remarkable Transformation at UF Online.”
Coding Bootcamps and the History of the Future of For-Profit Higher Education
Via The Center for Investigative Reporting: “McCain assails Pentagon for being too harsh on for-profit college.” McCain was angry that the University of Phoenix, one of his biggest donors, was sanctioned for predatory marketing to veterans.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Some U of Phoenix Programs Fail Gainful Employment Standard.”
Via The Intercept: “As Trump Settled University Lawsuit, Top Trump Adviser Newt Gingrich Coached For-Profit College Lobbyists.”
Via the AP: “For-profit colleges expect fortunes to improve under Trump.”
The Center for American Progress examines the enrollments in graduate programs at for-profits, noting that despite a drop in undergraduate loans, the money is still “flowing” for graduate student loans.
Inside Higher Ed’s Paul Fain investigates Udacity’s “money back guarantee” for its nanodegree programs. “Risky Gimmick or Risk Sharing?”
Coding bootcamp Revature is partnering with University of South Florida to offer an online tech training program.
Via Google’s press release: “Google and Bertelsmann launch mobile digital skills initiatives with Udacity– 10,000 Android scholarships available for EU developers.” No mention that Bertelsmann is an investor in Udacity, or that Udacity’s founder is a former Google exec.
Meanwhile on Campus
Via The New York Times: “The student who wounded 11 people this week at Ohio State University, plowing his car into a cluster of pedestrians and then slashing some of them with a butcher knife, may have been inspired by Anwar al-Awlaki, a Qaeda recruiter and propagandist, or by the Islamic State terrorist group, investigators said on Wednesday.”
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “How Colleges Are Responding to Demands That They Become ‘Sanctuary Campuses’.”
“UC won’t assist federal agents in immigration actions against students,” The LA Times reports.
Via The New York Times: “Professor Watchlist Is Seen as Threat to Academic Freedom.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Dowling College filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection Tuesday, moving to sell its two campuses on Long Island after shutting down this summer due to financial problems.”
Colorado Heights University will close, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, after losing recognition by its accreditor.
Inside Higher Ed looks at how Trinity College in Connecticut is changing under its new leadership.
Accreditation and Certification
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Pivotal Year for Accreditation.”
“The first round of accreditation decisions for teacher prep programs under a new set of so-called ‘tougher’ standards is now over,” writes Education Week. “Out of 21 teacher preparation programs from 14 states that were seeking accreditation under the new standards, 17 have met all expectations and gained accreditation.”
Udacity has announced a “the Associate Android Developer Fast Track,” to help people get their Android certification. “This program is a model of efficiency, designed to teach you exactly what you need to know to successfully pass the exam and earn your certification from Google.”
Go, School Sports Team!
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Liberty University has hired Ian McCaw – the former Baylor University athletics director who resigned amid widespread claims that his athletic department mishandled reports of sexual assaults committed by football players – to serve as its new athletics director.”
Via the AP: “A judge on Wednesday awarded more than $5 million to a former Penn State assistant football coach over his treatment by the university following Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on child molestation charges five years ago.”
From the HR Department
This, from Edsurge, is horrifying: “What Universities Can Learn from Udacity‘s ’Gig Economy’ Service.” Can we talk about the “gig economy” and racial and gender bias, please? How its profits mostly go to wealthy executives rather than workers? (More on the “gig economy” from Data & Society.)
Via PRI: “Job retraining classes are offered to Rust Belt workers, but many don’t want them.”
“Blocked Overtime Rule Sows Uncertainty for Colleges,” says The Chronicle of Higher Education.
This Week in Betteridge’s Law of Headlines
Via The Hechinger Report: “Are uncertified teachers better than substitutes?”
(Reminder: according to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”)
Upgrades and Downgrades
Via The Register: “Kids’ Hour of Code turns into a giant corporate infomercial for kids.”
Via the press release: “The Library of Congress today signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the Digital Public Library of America to become a ‘content hub partner’ and will ultimately share a significant portion of its rich digital resources with DPLA's database of digital content records.”
PowerSchool says it’s changed the name of its surveillance elf from the racist frog to “Pete.” Meanwhile, edX ads appear on Breitbart. Making ed-tech great again, as always.
Larry Cuban has another article on AltSchool, which he says marries Dewey and Thorndike. Worst. Marriage. Ever.
Inside Higher Ed looks at an “Anti-Authoritarian Academic Code of Conduct” and MIT faculty’s commitment to “shared values” in response to Trump.
“If You Had $45 Billion, What Would You Do to Improve Education?” The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Goldie Blumenstyk asks Jim Shelton who now heads the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Mark Zuckerberg’s venture philanthropy fund. (I’d probably take it and divvy it up among the 15 million children who live in poverty in the US, but clearly I’d make a terrible venture capitalist.)
Via Edsurge: “How to Combat Fake News Online? Bring Reddit (and Other Online Forums) Into the Classroom.” Uhhhh, this seems to overlook what a cesspool of racism and misogyny Reddit is and how it’s been a key part of misinformation campaigns in the past.
Mozilla is retiring its identity management service Persona. But according to DigitalMe’s Matt Rogers, you shouldn’t worry if this was how you logged into your badge Backpack.
Via Techcrunch: “Google launches App Maker.”
Also via Techcrunch: “Primo Toys rolls out Cubetto, a wooden robot that teaches kids to code.”
The Business of Ed-Tech
Livingtree, a private social network for schools and parents, has been acquired by Dean Drako, CEO of Eagle Eye Networks. The terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Data, Privacy, and Surveillance
Via The Oregonian: “Audit: Oregon’s cyber security shortfalls leave state data vulnerable to hackers.” Among the state agencies that were reviewed and found vulnerable: the Department of Education.
Via Edsurge: “Overcoming Hacking and Cybercrimes– The Next Obstacle to Edtech.”
Speaking of cybercrime, you know it’s bad when hackers use ransomware to attack San Francisco’s public transit system. Good thing all the technologists in the vicinity are out there solving the world’s most pressing problems.
Common Sense Media looks at education applications’ use of encryption. “Our findings indicate that a significant number of vendors do not provide even basic support for encryption. While 52 percent of the 1,221 login URLs we surveyed require encryption, 25 percent do not support encryption at all, and an additional 20 percent do not require an encrypted connection.”
Via The Guardian: “Libraries promise to destroy user data to avoid threat of government surveillance.” One of the libraries in question: The New York Public Library.
Meanwhile, “The Internet Archive is building a Canadian copy to protect itself from Trump,” The Verge reports.
Data and “Research”
Analytics software Tableau offers its report on “The State of Data Education in 2016.”
Via Bryan Alexander: “Demographics and the future of education: lessons from a new study.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Report Projects Impact of Possible New Recession on Public Institutions.” The report comes from New America.
According to research from the National College Access Network, “the percentage of graduating high school seniors who completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in 2015 varied widely by city,” Inside Higher Ed reports.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “After reaching a peak of 14 percent in 2008, the number of undergraduates nationwide who used private student loans declined by roughly half by 2012, to 6 percent, according to a new data report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.” More too from Inside Higher Ed on how Moody’s views student loans.
Via Education Week’s Market Brief: “New Analysis Compares Costs, Effectiveness of K–3 Math Products.” The report comes from Noodle Markets. (This trend of startups releasing research on the efficacy of other startups is one to watch, particularly when they share many of the same investors.) Among the findings: “Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Pearson, and McGraw-Hill account for 85 percent of the market share for K–3 math curriculum.”
A new report from Data & Society: “Online Harassment, Digital Abuse, and Cyberstalking in America.”
“Who Thinks Tech Makes Learning More Fun?” asks Edsurge in a story that looks at the results of a survey by flashcard app maker Quizlet.
A report from Teaching Tolerance: “After Election Day, The Trump Effect: The Impact of the 2016 Presidential Election on Our Nation's Schools.” The report cites more than 2500 incidents of harassment traced directly to campaign rhetoric. “Who thinks tech makes learning more fun” seems like the silliest question to be asking right now.
Icon credits: The Noun Project
This is part two of my annual review of the year in ed-tech
One of the challenges of writing this series – and trust me, there are many – is separating my analysis out into ten articles that name ten distinct “trends.” I mean, yes, I’m totally making up the framing of the “trends” angle here (in the hopes, I confess, to defanging all those ridiculous clickbait articles that just list a bunch of shiny new consumer technology products and predict that they’re poised to “revolutionize school”).
But when trying to write about ten “trends,” it’s evident: everything overlaps. The business of education technology overlaps with the politics of ed-tech. The politics overlap with privacy. Privacy overlaps with “personalization,” and surveillance overlaps with data collection and analytics and algorithmic decision-making. Coding bootcamps are related to for-profit higher ed, which is connected to credentialing which is connected to accreditation, which is connected to politics. Challenges to accreditation and certification and the steady drumbeat of “everyone should learn to code” are connected to politics as well as to the business of ed-tech.
Then there’s the question: what counts as “ed-tech”? One of the flaws, I think, of much of the reporting on education technology is that it treats “ed-tech” as a product without a politics and without a practice. It also treats “ed-tech” primarily as a product built by engineers, not for example, constructed through the practices of educators or students themselves – problems with education are, in this framework, engineering problems. This reporting treats “ed-tech” as a product built in and by Silicon Valley, not as something built in and by public institutions around the world. It treats “ed-tech” as the result of markets and industry and “innovation,” and not as the result of policy or history. The reporting often isolates education technology from other developments in the computer technology sector and tends to isolate education technology from education politics and policies more broadly (unless, of course, those policies dovetail with the political interests of ed-tech and ed-reform, which they often do).
There is No Technology Industry (There is Only Ideology)
“There is no ‘technology industry’,” technology writer and entrepreneur Anil Dash wrote in August.
Put simply, every industry and every sector of society is powered by technology today, and being transformed by the choices made by technologists. Marc Andreessen famously said that “software is eating the world,” but it’s far more accurate to say that the neoliberal values of software tycoons are eating the world.
“Facebook Is Not a Technology Company,” media studies professor Ian Bogost also wrote in August.
Every industry uses computers, software, and internet services. If that’s what “technology” means, then every company is in the technology business – a useless distinction. But it’s more likely that “technology” has become so overused, and so carelessly associated with Silicon Valley-style computer software and hardware startups, that the term has lost all meaning. Perhaps finance has exacerbated the problem by insisting on the generic industrial term “technology” as a synonym for computing.
…There are companies that are firmly planted in the computing sector. Microsoft and Apple are two. Intel is another – it makes computer parts for other computer makers. But it’s also time to recognize that some companies – Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook among them – aren’t primarily in the computing business anyway. And that’s no slight, either. The most interesting thing about companies like Alphabet, Amazon, and Facebook is that they are not (computing) technology companies. Instead, they are using computing infrastructure to build new – and enormous – businesses in other sectors. If anything, that’s a fair take on what “technology” might mean as a generic term: manipulating one set of basic materials to realize goals that exceed those materials.
Facebook is, although Mark Zuckerberg denies it, a media company. Facebook, like Google, is an advertising company. Already a key part of many people’s information consumption, Facebook explicitly wants to become an education company, working with a charter school chain to develop education software. Facebook was also one of the most important forces this year in politics; Zuckerberg, as I’ll discuss in the next article in this series, hopes to become one of the most important forces in education-related venture philanthropy.
“Technology, like democracy, includes ideas and practices; it includes myths and various models of reality. And like democracy, technology changes the social and individual relationships between us. It has forced us to examine and redefine our notions of power and of accountability,” physicist Ursula Franklin wrote in her 1990 collection of lectures The Real World of Technology. (Franklin died in July.)
Technology is not the sum of the artifacts, of the wheels and gears, of the rails and electronic transmitters. Technology is a system. It entails far more than its individual material components. Technology involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset.
When I write – here and elsewhere – about the politics of education technology, I am interested in these very things: organizations, practices, relationships, ideologies. The politics of education technology shape and are shaped by, as Franklin argues, our ideas of power. And as Bogost and Dash both caution, it’s a mistake to fetishize the tech as product – in ed-tech and elsewhere – especially at the expense of scrutinizing technology in its ubiquity and as ideology.
So I’m including a lot of events in this article that are not “ed-tech” per se. But they inform and are informed by it, just as education – as institutions and practices – are also being informed by “ed-tech” and its investors.
The US Presidential Campaign
The entire year seemed to revolve around what happened in the lead up to November 8. And now, the final weeks of 2016 revolve around what will happen after January 20, 2017.
In some ways, it felt like a reprise of the 1990s – a Bush and a Clinton running for President, for starters. Newt Gingrich was back in the news again, as were other Republicans involved in investigating and impeaching President Bill Clinton: Dennis Hastert (the former Speaker of the House was sentenced to 15 months in prison for serial child sex abuse during the time he was a teacher) and Kenneth Starr (the former head of the Whitewater investigation resigned as the head of Baylor University following revelations about a coverup of sexual assaults at the school), for example.
And then, at times, it felt like a reality TV show. Or maybe it was a reality TV show. At this point, I’m not sure.
I’m not sure I have the stomach to rehash the entire Presidential campaign, although I will look more closely at both “free college” and for-profit higher ed – as campaign issues, in their current form, and in their future prospects – in subsequent articles in this series.
“Tech” and the Presidential Election
Before I turn to the President-Elect’s campaign promises and potential education and computer technology policies, I want to note that this Presidential election was influenced by digital technologies in ways that make the “digital masterminds” who supposedly helped Obama win re-election pale by comparison:
Hacks – perhaps by Russia– of the Democratic National Committee. Wikileaks– perhaps in cooperation with Russia– releasing stolen emails from the DNC and from Clinton’s campaign. Clinton’s private email server. Potential problems with voting machines.
And then there’s Facebook.
Facebook will appear again and again in this year-end series. Facebook and wishful thinking. Facebook and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s education investments. Facebook and personalization. Facebook and algorithmic discrimination. It is one of the most powerful (and frightening) companies – and it has its eyes on “disrupting” education.
It might’ve “disrupted” the US Presidential election.
In April, Gizmodo reported that “Facebook Employees Asked Mark Zuckerberg If They Should Try to Stop a Donald Trump Presidency.” A few months later, Facebook fired all of its “trending news team,” arguing that its algorithms would be able to better and objectively surface stories. The popularity of “fake news” and misinformation exploded on the site immediately. And while Zuckerberg denied the company had any effect on the election, “top fake election news stories generated more total engagement on Facebook than top election stories from 19 major news outlets combined,” as a Buzzfeed analysis discovered.
I mentioned in the previous article in this series that Palmer Luckey, the founder of the VR company Oculus Rift (acquired by Facebook in 2014), had funded an unofficial pro-Donald Trump group dedicated to “shitposting” and spreading hateful memes about Hillary Clinton. Certainly something worth noting, particularly if you want to argue that VR is going provide “rich life experiences” for students.
Cambridge Analytica, a company on whose board Trump’s campaign manager and now chief strategist Steve Bannon sits, used Facebook“as a tool to build psychological profiles that represent some 230 million adult Americans.” Eschewing “traditional” media advertising buys, the Trump campaign invested in Facebook ads and raised money through the site as well. “We have three major voter suppression operations under way,” a senior Trump official told reporters from Bloomberg in the final days of the campaign. “They’re aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans.” Voter suppression – via Facebook.
And then there’s the role of Facebook Board of Directors member Peter Thiel – not just in the election as a Trump supporter and donor, but in undermining the First Amendment through his legal activities this year.
In May, news broke that Peter Thiel – co-founder of PayPal and the CIA-backed analysis company Palanatir – was bankrolling Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker– revenge against the publication, some surmised, for outing Thiel as gay. Gawker Media sold its assets, shut its doors, and filed for bankruptcy. Thiel’s financing of the lawsuit raised concerns about the influence that the billionaire could have on silencing the press.
Thiel spoke at the Republican Party Convention, the first gay man to take the main stage at that event. Thiel, who lamented women’s suffrage in a 2009 article for the Cato Institute, has been well-known in Silicon Valley as a libertarian, and some observers struggled to explain why Thiel would back an authoritarian for president. (Spoiler alert: capitalism. Thiel’s investment portfolio “has a lot of government ties,” says Fortune’s Dan Primack. I wrote about his education portfolio – it includes Clever, Knewton, and AltSchool – but I’ll revisit this topic when I tackle ed-tech and
surveillance“personalization” in a subsequent article in this series.)
“Facebook is well-positioned for a Trump presidency,” I joked in September. Ha.
President-Elect Donald J. Trump
Although Trump was often accused of being vague about what he would do as President – in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton, who had a detailed policy plan for everything – as Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal argued, “Trump Is Actually Full of Policy.” Trump might not have proposed any solutions, but he’s identified the problems:
Setting up problems is the most important part of policy work. Take criminal justice. For Trump, this is a problem of “law and order,” not of mass incarceration, urban disinvestment, or bad, punitive priorities for policing. It’s a matter of allowing the cops to be “very much tougher than they are right now.”
What are the problems that Trump identified on the campaign trail about education? Political correctness. Foreign students. Tax breaks for wealthy universities’ endowments. Government involvement in student loans. The Common Core. The Department of Education – and federal involvement in education broadly – itself.
Perhaps the best indication of what Trump will do to education as President: his choice for Secretary of Education. Trump has chosen Betsy DeVos. DeVos, who has never worked in a public school or attended a public school or sent her children to a public school, is a billionaire Republican operative from Michigan.
“The DeVoses sit alongside the Kochs, the Bradleys, and the Coorses as founding families of the modern conservative movement,” Mother Jones’ Andy Kroll wrote in 2014.
Since 1970, DeVos family members have invested at least $200 million in a host of right-wing causes – think tanks, media outlets, political committees, evangelical outfits, and a string of advocacy groups. They have helped fund nearly every prominent Republican running for national office and underwritten a laundry list of conservative campaigns on issues ranging from charter schools and vouchers to anti-gay-marriage and anti-tax ballot measures.
Betsy DeVos’s brother, Erik Prince, is the founder of the private military company Blackwater, infamous for its human rights violations, including the murder of 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007 by its employees. Prince and the DeVos family have been major supporters of Indiana Governor and now Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, particularly for his efforts to outlaw gay marriage and criminalize abortion.
DeVos herself sat on the Board of Directors of the Acton Institute from 1995 to 2005, an organization that recently blogged about repealing child labor laws.
But it’s her support for charter schools and vouchers that are the signature of her efforts in Michigan, which has the least regulated charter school system. As The New York Times notes, “The Detroit, Flint and Grand Rapids school districts have among the nation's 10 largest shares of students in charters, and the state sends $1 billion in education funding to charters annually. Of those schools, 80 percent are run by for-profit organizations, a far higher share than anywhere else in the nation.” The choice of DeVos, according to Slate’s Dana Goldstein, would “gut public education.”
This isn’t simply a matter of subverting the value of education as a public good. It’s about attacking education as a vehicle for social justice. Some speculate that Trump might dismantle the Office for Civil Rights, for starters, which enforces the compliance for Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Age Discrimination Act of 1975, and other federal civil rights laws.
And yet. And yet. According to The USA Today, “About one in five American Federation of Teachers (AFT) members who cast a ballot voted for Trump, the union’s leader estimated. Among the larger National Education Association (NEA), which comprises more than 3 million members, more than one in three who voted did so for the billionaire developer, early data show.” You can argue, I suppose, this served as a rejection of the Obama Administration’s education policies. Or perhaps it was a rejection of Hillary Clinton, the candidate-of-choice of union leadership but not of rank-and-file members who said they preferred Bernie Sanders. Or perhaps – and this is something that educators need to confront – it is about white supremacy and an overwhelmingly white teaching profession teaching and increasingly diverse student population without recognizing or addressing deep histories of institutional bias and individual discrimination.
But the effect of the Trump on education technology won’t simply involve his education policies; it will involve his administration’s technology policies and practices too. What will happen to encryption, for example? What will happen to “net neutrality”? What will happen to the NSA and its vast surveillance capabilities? What will happen to all the data that schools and education technology companies have been collecting on students? How might this be used against undocumented immigrants, for example, or against other groups that the administration finds politically suspect?
The Obama Administration (in Its Final Year) and Education
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced in October of last year that he’d step down at the end of 2015. He’s a venture capitalist now – the relationship between the politics and the business of ed-tech will be explored in the next article in this series. Duncan was replaced by John King, the former commissioner of education for New York, who said he planned to make civil rights the cornerstone of his tenure.
I’ll write about the Obama Administration and for-profit higher ed in a subsequent post in this series. (And don’t think for a minute I won’t talk about Trump University in all its gruesome details.) I’ll also cover the various efforts to address college affordability in another post, in part through issuing a “scorecard” to help prospective college students decide which school to attend. And in another post, I will look at the administration’s efforts to promote STEM and CS education via the Computer Science For All initiative launched in January; in yet another I’ll look at its efforts to encourage schools use open educational resources via the GoOpen initiative which it launched last year. I also plan to talk about the administration’s support for charter schools (and how charter school chains act as test-beds for software companies, as well as how their missions dovetail with a push for “personalization”). I’ll talk more elsewhere about how testing, about how testing has and hasn’t changed (and might and not changed) – under Obama and thanks to the “opt-out” movement and because of the re-authorization of ESEA (now known as the “Every Student Succeeds Act” rather than “No Child Left Behind”).
See? It’s all interconnected.
If you’re looking for something to celebrate in what is, I recognize, a fairly grim list of political events this year: The US Senate voted in July to approve the nomination of Dr. Carla Hayden as the new Librarian of Congress. She is the first woman and the first African-American to hold the position. “Dr. Hayden is the first new librarian of Congress since 1987,” The New York Times observed at her swearing in in September, “and brings with her another generation’s ideas about accessibility, technology and the role that libraries play in society.”
Accessibility and Technology (and the Role of Governments and Corporations)
It’s another one of those open questions: what will happen to “access” to the Internet under President Trump? What will happen to “net neutrality”? What will happen to the FCC? (One of his tech advisors wants to “gut” the agency, leaving its only function as handling spectrum licensing.)
Access to the Internet – at home and at school – has, obviously, been key to education technology initiatives. Bandwidth is necessary, and schools still struggle to provide it, particularly in rural areas.
E-Rate has been, since the origin of the fund in 1996, the main way in which schools and libraries were supposedly guaranteed “reasonable rates” on telecommunications services. But it’s been plagued almost from the outset with accusations of fraud and wastefulness. (This year, the Cleveland school district was just one that faced scrutiny for how it failed to collect some $8.5 million in E-Rate rebates.)
Certainly access to the Internet for the purposes of education isn’t just about access at school.
In February, CoSN, the Consortium for School Networking, called broadband access outside of school a “civil right” for students. Under Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper Initiative,” the administration announced in October that some one million high school students from low-income families were poised receive free internet access, thanks to support from Sprint. (Do note: “Tech Companies Expect Free High-Speed Internet for Poorer Americans to Pay Off Later,” The New York Times reported in October.)
In March, the FCC approved a $9.25 monthly broadband subsidy “to help millions of low-income households connect to the Internet, in a move aimed at bridging the digital divide” – “only about 40 percent of people earning less than $25,000 a year can afford broadband while 95 percent of all households making over $150,000 have high-speed Internet at home, the F.C.C. said.” And in June, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that “High-speed internet service can be defined as a utility,” affirming the FCC’s position on “net neutrality.”
“Net neutrality,” a term coined in 2003 by Columbia University law professor Tim Wu, is the principle that all Internet traffic – regardless of source or content or user – should be treated equally. Despite the common invocation of the Internet as a world-wide network, “net neutrality” is not recognized globally. (And again, after January 20, it might not be recognized in the US any longer either – if indeed, you believe that current telecom practices even uphold it.)
One alternative: Facebook-as-Internet. It’s been the goal of the social network since it launched its Internet.org service in 2013– an effort to bring affordable access – as dictated by and through Facebook – to less developed countries. In October, The Washington Post reported that Facebook had been lobbying the Obama Administration to bring the service to the US.
As Facebook has sought to expand its reach via Internet.org, it has faced quite a bit of opposition. This year, India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRAI) blocked Facebook from launching in the country, arguing that “operators cannot ‘charge discriminatory tariffs on the basis of content.’”
Facebook board member Marc Andreessen lashed out on Twitter, arguing that the decision meant that Indian telcos simply wanted to keep poor people off the Internet.
Facebook denounced the tweets, and Zuckerberg called them “deeply upsetting,” but Andreessen remains on the Board of Directors. (As does, let’s remember, Peter Thiel.)
Education Technology and Political Corruption
The word “kleptocracy” is alreadybeing used to describe the incoming administration. And I guess we’ll have to wait-and-see how technology companies and education technology companies will try to benefit from an era of backroom deals and deregulation.
Or, we could look at a couple of dealings – pre-Trump – that occurred this year to see how some in ed-tech operate:
In June, “Alabama House Speaker Michael Hubbard was automatically removed from office Friday after a jury convicted him on 12 felony public-corruption charges, adding to the state’s extraordinary political crisis,” The Atlantic reported. The Atlantic reported, but the ed-tech press did not, even though one of the charges he faced involved a contract with Edgenuity, which hired Hubbard to connect it to legislators in other states where the ed-tech company could sell its digital learning services. (There was a friendly interview in Edsurge with the Edgenuity CEO, but no mention of any impropriety.)
And then, of course, there was the scandal surrounding Mylan and the outrageous price increase of its allergy injector EpiPen. “Members of Congress are in an unusual position as they demand an explanation for Mylan NV's 400 percent price hike for the EpiPen and focus attention squarely on its CEO: Heather Bresch,” Bloomberg reported in August. Bresch, whose father is a senator from West Virginia, had successfully lobbied to have Epipens be purchased by public schools. Brech’s mother, Gayle Manchin, is the head of the National Association of State Boards of Education, and according to The USA Today, “she spearheaded an unprecedented effort that encouraged states to require schools to purchase medical devices that fight life-threatening allergic reactions.”
Yes, Epipens count as “ed-tech.” And yes, this is how the politics of the business of ed-tech works. If anything, the privatization and profiteering that Trump’s election portends is just a difference of speed and degree.
Education and the US Supreme Court
Who stands in the way of the Trump kleptocracy? Perhaps Article I, Section 8, Clause 9 of the US Constitution – the “Emoluments Clause,” which says“No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” The US Supreme Court has never weighed in on the scope or relevance of the clause to a President’s business holdings, and – of course – the Supreme Court seems to be broken, thanks in part to the longest vacancy in its history because of the Senate’s refusal to grant Obama’s nominee Merrick Garland a confirmation hearing.
US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, one of the most conservative justices, died unexpectedly in February, leaving the country’s highest court with only eight members and likely altering the outcome of several major education-related decisions (for this year’s session and perhaps longer).
The Court refused, for example, to re-open the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case (which involved public sector union dues), which it had deadlocked over earlier in the year. It refused to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling surrounding college athletes and the NCAA’s “amateurism model.” (Again, I’ll talk about labor issues in more detail in a subsequent article in this series.)
In June, in what was seen as a “win” for affirmative action, the Supreme Court “upheld the University of Texas at Austin’s consideration of race and ethnicity in college admissions. Some parts of the decision in the case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, related to features unique to that university,” Inside Higher Ed reported, .
The Supreme Court also split 4–4 on the Obama Administration’s immigration reform proposals, “which would have allowed up to 4.5 million immigrants to apply for protection from deportation and work legally in the US.” As Vox reports, “The Court announced Thursday that it was unable to reach a decision in the case United States v. Texas. That means the ruling of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stands – which had kept the programs (known as DAPA and DACA+) from going into effect.” (The decision raised some questions about educational benefits extended to “Dreamers” – questions that are far more pressing now under a President Trump who says he will round up and deport every undocumented immigrant in the country. Again we must ask: what role will education technology play in this?)
Again, the potential fallout of these two decisions – United States v. Texas and Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin– will come up again and again as I explore privacy, surveillance, and discrimination in software, algorithms, and educational institution’s decision-making.
The Politics of Education Technology Elsewhere
Every year I write about 75,000 words in this year-end series and some smart-ass writes to me chastising me for leaving out international politics. Hey, write your own goddamn year-in-review, okay?!
Yes, we’re all interconnected. Networked. What have you.
For education and education technology, this isn’t simply a matter of imperialism (although let’s do please recognize how much it is precisely that). But it’s also about global finance. Global interests. Geopolitics.
Perhaps the oddest example of that this year was the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July. It was used by the Erdoğan government as a justification for a purge. In its wake, some 15,000 education staff were suspended, the BBC reported. The Chronicle of Higher Education added that, “The Turkish government’s post-coup demand for the resignations of 1,500 university deans appears to be a blanket measure that will allow for case-by-case examinations of political loyalty.”
President Erdoğan accused Fethullah Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania and among other things runs a large charter school chain in the US, of plotting the coup. And so in conjunction with the growing anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment in the US, several states began investigating the charter school chain.
I would be remiss, of course, if I did not note one of the other shocking elections this year: the decision in June by voters in the UK to leave the European Union. There have been many predictions that the decision will devastate higher education and scientific research in the UK. But venture capitalists seemed pleased. (It’s funny how often ed-tech publications wrote about how leaving the EU could hurt British ed-tech startups with little attention to how it might hurt teachers and students.)
Of course, “Brexit” might not ever actually happen. In November, the British high court ruled that, “Parliament alone has the power to trigger Brexit by notifying Brussels of the UK’s intention to leave the European Union.” Instead of a decision, there is uncertainty and, in all likelihood, a lengthy parliamentary battle.
The British government also backed away this year from the Tories’ call to end local control of schools and force them all to become academies. (Academies are modeled, in part, on US charter schools.)
But privatization of state-run education systems moved forward in many parts of Africa. (Experimenting on the least vulnerable – that is, far too often, how education technology works as well.) And Silicon Valley tech investors, as well as large education corporations like Pearson, are behind this. Many schools in the developing world do struggle to hire trained teachers, to educate students, and to keep their doors open, no doubt. The response from sources like The Economist: the private sector needs to step in in countries where the governments are failing to provide decent education. “The fix” is always privatization.
In March, the The Mail and Guardian Africa wrote: “An Africa first! Liberia outsources entire education system to a private American firm. Why all should pay attention.” The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to education, Kishore Singh, has said that “Such arrangements are a blatant violation of Liberia’s international obligations under the right to education, and have no justification under Liberia’s constitution.” The company in question: Bridge International Academies, which has received funding from the Gates Foundation and Mark Zuckerberg’s investment company the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (among others). Families must pay that tuition – this isn’t free public education – and the cost is wildly prohibitive for most. Moreover, outsourcing to scripted lesson delivery does not build the capacity – in terms of infrastructure or human resources – that a struggling African nation might need.
In August, Education International reported that the Ugandan parliament had ordered Bridge International Academies to close all its schools in the country: “In a sweeping move, the for-profit school chain has been told to lock its doors after parliament demanded it halt operations in response to its failure to meet educational and infrastructure standards.” The company said it would remain open. But in November, Uganda’s High Court ordered the immediate closure of its 63 schools. The company said it would appeal the decision.
Ed-tech, Civil Rights, and Academic Freedom
Who stands in the way of education’s horrors?
Well, students for starters.
Last year, I chose “Social Media, Campus Activism, and Free Speech” as one of my “Top Ed-Tech Trends.” That I haven’t done so this year doesn’t mean that students were silent or that campuses free of unrest. Oh, I’m sure college presidents wish they were – they think “race relations” on campus are just fine. There were protests and occupations across the US, protests in Brazil, protests in India (the largest in over 25 years), protests in South Africa) – and that’s just a small sample.
And these protests were not just at universities. Middle school and high school students in the US, inspired by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem, also “took a knee” in protest of police violence, often facing threats of violence and expulsion as a result.
Middle school and high school students allovertheUS walked out of school in protest of Trump’s election too. Many said held signs condemning bullying, racially-motivated harassment, and hate crimes, incidents of which have risen dramatically during the presidential campaign and since the election.
This year, dozens of groups associated with Black Lives Matter released a policy platform that called for the end of the privatization of schools and the “school-to-prison pipeline” and for the return of “real community control” to school systems. The NAACP, for its part, called for a moratorium on charter schools, demanding they have the same accountability and standards as public schools.
These moves, along with Trump's choice for Secretary of Education, portend a fracturing among education reform and civil rights groups. Where are education technology's alliances?
Education technology has become inextricable from education reform in recent years – from efforts to improve test scores and bust unions and built charter schools to those that reframe the civic responsibility of education as an individual, “personalized” product.
Who benefits? Who benefits when public education is dismantled and “disrupted”? And who benefits when entrepreneurs and investors get to define “equity”? Who do their policies and who do their rhetoric really serve?
At the end of 2016, the most pressing question is not, as a recent Edsurge headline asked, “Who Thinks Tech Makes Learning More Fun?” Let me suggest some better ones: what role does education technology play in spreading hate and harassment? What role does education technology play in undermining equity and democracy? Can education technology play any role in resistance?
This is part three of my annual review of the year in ed-tech
In previous years, when I’ve written about this topic, I’ve saved “The Business of Ed-tech” for one of the last articles in my “Top Ed-Tech Trends" series. If nothing else, I’ve wanted as many days in December to pass as possible so that my calculations for the total amount of venture funding invested during the year were as accurate as I could get them to be when I hit ”publish.“ This year, however, I’ve scheduled this topic earlier, which means I can’t really offer a finalized list of the year’s ”Most Well-Funded Startups“ or ”Most Active Investors." I will do that in a separate article at the end of the year.
But even without knowing the funding data for the month of December, I can say a lot.
I think it’s safe to say, for example, that venture capital investment has fallen off rather precipitously this year. True, 2015 was a record-breaking year for ed-tech funding– over $4 billion by my calculations. But it appears that the massive growth that the sector has experienced since 2010 stopped this year. Funding has shrunk. A lot. The total dollars invested in 2016 are off by about $2 billion from this time last year; the number of deals are down by a third; and the number of acquisitions are off by about 20%.
To the entrepreneur who wrote the Techcrunch op-ed in August that ed-tech is “2017's big, untapped and safe investor opportunity.” You are a fool. A dangerous, exploitative one at that.
“This Tech Bubble Is Bursting,” The Wall Street Journal pronounced back in May. That’s not a new prediction, by any means. We’ve heard this for years now. “The Tech Bubble Didn’t Burst This Year,” Bloomberg cautioned in October, “Just Wait” – suggesting that what the future might hold instead of an outright bust is “several years of relative stagnation.” (But who knows what shape tech investment will take under a President Trump.)
Bust or not, companies across the tech sector, particularly those with high “burn rates”, faced tough choices in 2016: “cut costs drastically to become self-sustaining, or seek additional capital on ever-more-onerous terms,” as The WSJ put it – that is, if they were able to raise additional capital at all.
Even without providing you the final tally of funding for 2016, I can point to other signals about what’s happened to ed-tech startups over the course of the last twelve months – their sustainability, their viability. (Or lack thereof – see “The 2016 Ed-Tech Dead Pool.”)
You can read these signals in the phrases used by Edsurge and other publications to describe startups’ press and product releases. “Tweaking the business model.” “Crossing the chasm to profitability.” “A path to profitability.” “A path to revenue.” “Focus turns to money.” Phrases like these were repeated again and again and again this year, as many ed-tech companies have, for years now, relied on venture capital as their primary source of revenue – a source that’s no longer readily available.
You might read the signals of the health of ed-tech startups in the departure of their founders – both from leadership positions and from their companies altogether. Daphne Koller left Coursera this year. Sebastian Thrun stepped down as Udacity’s CEO. Jen Medbery stepped down as CEO of Kickboard. Remind co-founder Brett Kopf was replaced as CEO by Brian Grey, formerly CEO of the Bleacher Report. NovoEd co-founder Amin Saberi was replaced by Ed Miller, a former Blackboard exec. That’s what happens when you raise millions of dollars in venture capital: venture capitalists have a greater say in how your company is run, in who runs your company.
You might read the signals of the health of ed-tech startups – how they’re “cutting costs drastically to become self-sustaining” – in their downsizing. Layoffs at MasteryConnect (30% of staff). Layoffs at Noodle.com (80% of its marketing and editorial teams). Layoffs at Treehouse (20% of staff). Layoffs at General Assembly (7% of staff). (These are just the ones that were reported by the press, of course.)
In fairness, startups weren’t the only education companies experiencing this sort of upheaval this year: Amplify, News Corps’ education division, continued to sell offvarious parts of its failed business. Blackboard replaced its CEO. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s CEO resigned. ISTE’s CEO left “unexpectedly.” Dale Dougherty returned as the CEO of Maker Media, following layoffs there. The CEO of Safari Books left the company “amidst massive layoffs.” Pearson cut 4000 jobs– 10% of its staff. K12 Inc got a new CEO. DeVry Education Group got a new CEO." (I’ll chronicle the layoffs at for-profit universities in more detail in the next article in this series.)
Clearly ed-tech startups weren’t the only ones facing financial struggles in their quest for profitability, as neither testing nor textbooks nor online education nor for-profit educationhas proven to be as wildly lucrative as the hype of “the digital” promised.
You can find stock market data about publicly-traded education companies at funding.hackeducation.com.
Who’s to blame that companies aren’t selling enough stuff to schools? Why, schools of course.
What Do Venture Capitalists Want?
Here are the areas that have seen the most ed-tech investment activity so far this year:
Learning to code: Investments include Galvanize ($45,000,000), Codecademy ($30,000,000), Andela ($24,000,000), Wonder Workshop ($20,000,000), Revature ($20,000,000).
Tutoring and test prep: Investments include Byju’s ($125,000,000), Zuoyebang ($60,000,000), Jerry Education ($40,000,000), Smartstudy ($29,540,000), Entstudy ($18,210,000), Brainly ($15,000,000), Zhiyou Education ($9,200,000).
Private student loans: Investments include Affirm ($100,000,000), Incred ($75,000,000, CommonBond ($30,000,000), College Ave ($20,000,000), Indian School Finance Company ($6,000,000).
Online education (admittedly, a very generic category): Investments include Udemy ($60,000,000), DigiSchool ($15,700,000), MasterClass ($15,000,000), UNICAF ($12,000,000), OpenClassroom ($6,740,000).
I maintain a dataset of all education technology investments and all education technology investors. Again, I’ll publish a finalized list of “who,” “what,” and “how much” at the end of the year.
Some of these areas that are popular for investment do coincide with the popular narratives about “the future of education” – “everyone should learn to code,” for example. But some of them, like the explosion in startups offering private student loans, suggest something is happening quite contrary to the narratives of “free and open,” not to mention to a tradition of publicly funded education or the policies of federal financial aid.
Glaring in its absence from this list: “personalization,” one of the most trumpeted technology “solutions” this year. (I’ll look at “personalization” in more detail in a forthcoming article in this series.) Certainly “personal” and “personalized” showed up in lots of funding announcements, as it’s an adjective that gets inserted quite easily into almost any press release. Even without funding data to underscore its importance, “personalization” can’t be dismissed.
The word is a crystallization of ed-tech ideology: through technology, teaching will become radically individualized as learners’ lessons are reduced to the smallest possible piece of content, then presented to them algorithmically. Moreover, per this ideology, without the aid of algorithms and “personalization” technology, human educators and traditional institutions have historically failed to meet the needs of individuals as individuals. The responsibility for education therefore must shift to technology, away from the institution, to the individual, away from the public or civic.
The ideological and financial shift from public to private is exemplified by venture philanthropy – that is, venture capital investments framed as charity.
Last year, Mark Zuckerberg made headlines when he announced he would donate 99% of his Facebook shares to his philanthropic LLC, the Chan Zuckerberg initiative. This investment vehicle is often described as a charity; it’s not. As political science professor Rob Reich recently told Buzzfeed’s Nitasha Tiku in her story on "free market philanthropy,
Wealthy individuals often assume that philanthropic donations should be received in gratitude, Reich said, because it’s better for the public than purchasing another house or another boat. “That’s just false to me,” he said. “It’s an exercise of power aimed at the public, and in a democratic society, power deserves attention and scrutiny, not gratitude.”
The Gates Foundation is perhaps the best known organization for furthering political advocacy through its funding mechanisms. It is a profoundly undemocratic force whereby unelected billionaires funnel money into efforts to reshape public education policies – expanding charter schools, pursuing alternative forms of teacher certification, promoting the Common Core State Standards, encouraging merit-based pay for teachers, and popularizing the narrative that education technology is the key to “personalization.” The agendas of other foundations – big and small – often echo those of Gates. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is no exception.
You can find the list of education technology companies the Chan Zuckerberg has invested in this year at funding.hackeducation.com. The list of recipients of Gates Foundation grants can be found on its website.
In May, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced that Jim Shelton would head its education investment endeavors. Shelton had been named president of the online education company 2U earlier in the year. Previously, he’d been the deputy secretary of the Department of Education. Before that, he’d been at the Gates Foundation. Before that, he’d been at NewSchools Venture Fund. Before that, he’d run a school management company acquired by the charter school chain Edison Schools.
“If You Had $45 Billion, What Would You Do to Improve Education?” The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Goldie Blumenstyk recently asked Shelton. Me, I’d probably take it and divvy it up among the 15 million children who live in poverty in the US, but clearly I’d make a terrible venture capitalist.
Shelton’s hardly the only person who’s gone through the revolving door from the Gates Foundation to the Department of Education to venture capital and back again. Ted Mitchell, the current Under Secretary of Education, was the president of NewSchools Venture Fund. And former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who stepped down from his position at the end of 2015, joined the venture philanthropy firm Emerson Collective – founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow – as a partner in March. (A former basketball star, Duncan also joined the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics this year.)
Among its investments this year, the Emerson Collective funded a $100 million contest this year to “rethink high school,” perpetuating the old and tired narrative that “high school hasn’t changed in 100 years.” Of course, schools have changed – in both substantial and incremental ways– over the last century, while many recent reformers efforts to radically reshape public school have failed. But, as New York Magazine quipped, “Laurene Powell Jobs is undaunted by these facts.”
You can find the list of education technology companies the Emerson Collective has invested in this year at funding.hackeducation.com.
The Elephants in the Ed-Tech Room
For the last five or six years, education technology has been largely talked about in terms of “startups,” something that helps position the industry as an outsider and an underdog. Of course, most of ed-tech is neither. It’s built and sold by giant corporations.
These are the companies that sell the textbooks; these are the companies that sell the tests.
But as I noted above, these two products haven’t been as lucrative in recent years as companies had hoped, and their to “digital” hasn’t been smooth. In part, their struggles are a result of controversies surrounding the Common Core State Standards, which were supposed to streamline and procurement the development of curriculum and assessment. Pushback against Common Core tests specifically and against standardized testing more generally have also prompted states and districts to rethink the kind and frequency of assessments they buy. “The number of states planning to use the new tests dropped from 45 in 2011 to 20 in 2016,” Education Next observed this fall, and many states and districts have opted to use the SAT or ACTinstead of those assessments created by the Common Core consortia, SBAC and PARCC.
Schools, for their part, also continued this year to experience difficulties with the move to computer-based testing, some having to revert to paper-and-pen assessments when online systems went down. In turn, states including Tennessee, Texas, Nevada, Indiana, and New Jersey fined their testing vendors, froze their contracts with testing vendors, or claimed their vendors were in breach of contract.
In response to all these ongoing problems with testing, the Obama Administration said in April it would “take action” in order to “ensure fewer and better tests for students.” “Taking action,” in this case, meant releasing some case studies and posting a notice on the Federal Register about how a competitive grant program could provide a more “innovative” way to build assessments.
Everything’s a business opportunity.
The move away from the Common Core consortia for assessment and towards the (Common Core-aligned) SAT has been a boon for the College Board, no surprise, which reported over $840 million in revenue in 2014 (the last year it’s tax forms are available online).
The College Board released an updated version of the SAT this year that it claimed would make the test more equitable – I’ll look at this claim more closely in the final article in this series. The College Board also boasted about its partnership with Khan Academy, which would make SAT test prep materials freely available online. The College Board insisted that this move – free test prep – would also serve to make the assessment better reflect student capacity rather than parental income, something probably belied by the fact that test prep remains one of the most active areas for education technology investment.
The pressure to move towards digital assessments has fueled schools’ investments in hardware and software more than any other argument about the importance of ed-tech. (According to Edsurge, changes to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act will soon be another “win for ed-tech vendors.” So congrats, ed-tech vendors.) Schools do continue to turn away from the iPad as the tablet hasn’t proven to be quite as revolutionary as some predicted. Surprise, surprise. But the rationale for choosing a certain type of computing device is almost always about testing, not about any other benefit the device might offer teaching and learning.
“Personal Computer Sales to K–12 Education Continue to Rise as OS War Hots Up,” FutureSource Consulting pronounced in March. By June, the same market research firm said that the K–12 market was in decline. (In ed-tech, never forget: “The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Issue a Press Release.”)
But this notion of an “OS War” shouldn’t be too quickly dismissed. “Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google Are Fighting a War for the Classroom,” Edutechnica wrote in June, with a look at how many colleges have adopted their competing “pseudo-LMSes.” The “war” extends beyond the productivity suite of tech tools and it extends beyond operating system in the classroom. It’s about building brand allegiance with students and/as workers, and it’s about building data profiles to sell ads and other products.
Although Amazon has provided the infrastructure for many education companies for quite some time now with Amazon Web Services, its cloud-based offering, it attempted to make more inroads into education this year: trying to lure college students to become Prime members, reaching a deal whereby Prime would be the exclusive streaming service for PBS for Kids content, toying briefly with the idea of getting into the student loan business with Wells Fargo, becoming the e-book platform for New York City school system, and launching a digital marketplace for K–12 instructional materials (which I’ll look at more closely in the next article in this series).
It’s probably a stretch to argue, however, that – even with their deep pockets and engineering talent – these big technology corporations are, as Edsurge implied this fall, on a “march to replace learning management systems.” Or if it’s a march, it’s a very very slow one – one that I’m going to leave in the capable hands of Mindwires Consulting’s Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein to monitor. If those two say “the LMS market glacier is melting,” it’s probably melting. (I’m not sure how that changes the march, to be honest. Metaphors in ed-tech are so confusing.) Throughout the year, Hill and Feldstein dutifully chronicled all the updates (or lack of updates) to Blackboard, Pearson, Instructure, Schoology, D2L, and the like. (So thankfully, I didn’t have to.) In May, their company began offering a subscription service for a report on the LMS market – a signal, perhaps, that “the march to replace the learning management system” won’t be over anytime soon.
The LMS, of course, needn’t be a permanent line item in schools’ budgets. And its supposed primacy might actually overlook that there’s a great deal of “shadow” technology utilized by instructors who eschew the official LMS for something they find better suited to their classroom needs and goals.
The Procurement Problem
The learning management system is a piece of “enterprise” software after all. That is, it’s built and bought to satisfy the needs of the institution rather than the needs of individual. Purchasing an LMS – or more correctly, signing a contract to license an LMS – requires its own enterprise-level bureaucracy.
For the last couple of years – at the very least since the resurgence in venture-back ed-tech startups – there’s been a steadydrumbeat of complaints that the procurement process at both the K–12 and college levels is broken. It’s inefficient. It’s “dysfunctional.” I’ve heard the complaint from entrepreneurs. I’ve heard it from their investors, many of whom argue that the challenges of selling to schools is one of the things that makes education a difficult market to crack (and in turn ed-tech startups a poor investment).
There’s a lot that’s wrong with the process, no doubt. For starters, the hefty RFP requirements almost by design tilt purchasing decisions towards big companies and incumbent players. The folks who make the decisions about what to buy typically aren’t the people who are using the products in the classroom.
There’s not a lot of transparency in the procurement process; nor is it easy to find out afterwards which products schools bought or use – although that’s not something you hear companies moan about, funnily enough. You’re just supposed to trust them when they brag they’re used in 90% of schools. (USC professor Morgan Polikoff’s research on textbook adoption, for example, has made this painfully clear. He’s sent FOIA requests to school districts, and in many cases they have been unwilling or unable to share their textbook data. And when they do, the data is often a mess.)
In the last few years, lots of consulting firms and organizations have offered their suggested solutions for fixing (what they see as) procurement problems. Last year Edsurgelaunched a “concierge” service in which it said it would help schools identify its tech needs and then buy things based on those needs (and then take a cut of the contracts, of course), and it continues to position itself as a liaison between startups and schools.
This spring, Harold O. Levy, executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, launched the Technology for Education Consortium in order to offer “price transparency” around procurement. The organization’s first target was Apple, which it found charged different districts different prices for identical iPads. (Apple disputed the organization’s assertions.)
This fall, the EducationSuperHighway released a price comparison tool so that districts could see neighbors’ broadband costs and ideally leverage that information to get a better deal.
(All of these organizations – Edsurge, EducationSuperHighway, the Technology for Education Consortium – are funded by the Gates Foundation. And the beat goes on.)
Some schools made efforts to tackle procurements problems too. UNC, for example, launched a Yelp-like review site for ed-tech tools, where, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “it is asking professors to review and comment on how useful various digital services were in their classrooms.”
But by and large, procurement issues are a problem identified by companies that companies decide they will “fix” in turn: “Try Before You Buy,” Edsurge reported in June. “Clever’s ‘Co-Pilot’ Aims to Help Schools Pilot and Purchase.” Indeed, an increasingly popular service offered by ed-tech companies and ed-tech investors is “research” into how to buy ed-tech and into which ed-tech products are best, which “work” (whatever that means).
(These companies almost all share the same investors too. And the beat goes on.)
One of the ways in which ed-tech startups have found success in getting their products widely adopted is to sell to charter schools, particularly charter school chains. (Again, they often share the same investors.) Charter school chains, in turn, have started to license their products and franchise their models to others. As such, it’s difficult to separate“the business of education technology” from “the business of charter schools” – and why it’s difficult, as I noted in the previous article in this series, “the politics of education technology” from “the politics of education reform.”
It’s a business that, much like the business of for-profit higher education, seems to be poised for growth with the election of President Trump. Shares in K12 Inc, a virtual charter school with notoriously poor performance, are up rather dramatically from this time last year. (The history of the future of ed-tech and venture capital: Oracle’s Larry Ellison was one of the first investors in the company.)
In July, California Attorney General Kamala Harris announced a $168 million settlement with K12 Inc over charges the company had published misleading advertisements about the academic performance of students, among other things. “As part of the agreement,” The Wall Street Journal reported, “the attorney general’s office maintains that K12 will forgive about $160 million in debt accrued by the nonprofit schools it manages, which was a result of the fee structure in the K12 contract. The company also will pay $8.5 million to address all claims.” K12 denied any wrongdoing.
California’s virtual charter schools weren’t the only ones that found themselves in trouble legally and/or academically. There were problems in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Idaho with virtual charters. And yet, despite the poor performance, these remain in business.
It’s the business of funneling taxpayer money into private companies. And that is, at the end of the day, the business of education technology.
Disrupting the Culture of Public Education
I’ve argued elsewhere that education technology serves as a “Trojan horse” of sorts, carrying with it into public institutions the practices, politics, and a culture of private business and the ideology of Silicon Valley. This is evident in the ways in which you hear many investors and entrepreneurs talk about what needs to happen to schools – that they need to become more efficient; they need to be more like “lean startups” and redesign themselves as a “minimum viable product”; they need to “unbundle,” “unbundle,” “unbundle”; they need to rename job titles and rethink job roles – “learning engineers” or “entrepreneurs-in-residence,” for example; they need to turn to markets, not politics or publics, for solutions.
Edsurge wrote in March about how schools could bring “Shark Tanks” to their schools. Shark Tank is a reality TV show featuring investor Mark Cuban in which entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a panel of judges, hoping to win some investment. The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a “Shark Tank” contest at SXSWedu this year. One of the entrants was a startup that made it easier to hire adjunct instructors. For what it’s worth,“Shark Tank funds fewer women than men, with less money,” Mashable observed earlier this year, but I’m sure things’ll be swell if schools adopt the practice.
If you’re looking for a quick read – one that’s hilariously awful – about the culture of startups in order to convince yourself this is the last thing we should bring to public education, I recommend Dan Lyon’s book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, published this spring.
What VC Spells for Sesame Street
Last year, Sesame Streetmade the sad and surprising announcement that it had struck a five-year deal with HBO, giving the premium cable channel the first-run rights to new episodes of the beloved television show. As media scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan wrote at the time, “The Sesame Street move is not a horrible thing in itself. After all, the new episodes will show up for free on Public Broadcasting Service stations nine months after HBO viewers got them. Instead, the move is a symptom of how Americans view our collective obligations to each other – especially to our poorest children.” The mission of Sesame Street had, since its founding been to serve underprivileged children, offering them a televised educational enrichment free of charge, free of advertising.
“New money has ruined Sesame Street,” The Guardian wrote in January. "In its new format the show’s theme tune is a little brighter and the street scene a little ritzier than one remembers from earlier versions.
The charm of Sesame Street was always in its scruffiness and allegiance to the theory that kids like dirt – or rather, don’t dislike it the way adults do – and Sesame Street’s row of brownstones was clearly the pre-gentrified version."
Now, as the camera pans over Big Bird’s new-look neighbourhood, and in keeping with the times, those houses seem to have been remodelled by developers
Elmo has a new apartment. Oscar the Grouch no longer lives in a trash can. The puppets that are featured the most are the ones with the best-selling product lines. And then there are the humans. Some of those humans – those most dearly beloved humans of Sesame Street, Gordon, Luis, and Bob – were fired (and then brought back due to the uproar).
In February, Sesame Workshop, the maker of Sesame Street, announced it was launching a venture capital arm in order to invest in startups because everything is terrible. It’s first startup investment – a tutoring app. It also invested $53 million in a VC fund run by Reach Capital, formerly NewSchools Venture Fund.
Of course, what drives the programming on Sesame Street now isn’t education research; it’s market research. It isn’t “equity” as in social justice; it’s “equity” as in the financial stake a VC takes in a company.
And that’s what “the business of education technology” gets us.
This is part four of my annual review of the year in ed-tech
The Rebranding of MOOCs
Remember in 2012 when Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun predicted that in fifty years, “there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them”?
Remember in 2012 when edX head Anant Agarwal predicted that “a year from now, campuses will give credit for people with edX certificates”?
Remember in 2012 when Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller said in her TED Talk that her company’s goal was to “take the best courses from the best instructors at the best universities and provide it to everyone around the world for free”?
Remember in 2012 when the media wrote about MOOCs with such frenzy, parroting all these marketing claims and more and predicting that MOOCs were poised to “end the era of expensive higher education”?
Remember? Or, with its penchant for amnesia, has education technology already forgotten?
MOOCs were, for a year or two at least, able to dominate conversations about the future of education and the future of education technology, often invoking the words “free” and “open” as a rallying cry against institutions and practices that were, in contrast, “expensive” and “closed.” But now it seems as though most – althoughcertainlynotall– of the hype has died down. Along the way, most of the predictions and promises have been broken:
Attending a MOOC now often costs money; receiving a certificate certainlycosts money. Coursera began charging for certificates in January and launched a subscription service in October. In January, Udacity unveiled the “Nanodegree Plus,” a $299/month nanodegree that comes with “a money-back guarantee.” edX’s “Introduction to Philosophy” course began in September, with a $300 fee in order to have an MIT grad student grade one’s work.
MOOCs are not particularly "open." The sustainability of these courses – including the persistence of students’ own work – is precarious at best, as Coursera students discovered when the company informed them it would remove hundreds of old courses, along with their access to their coursework, from its site.
The founders of the most well-known MOOC startups have largely “have abandoned ship,” as historian Jonathan Rees put it. Daphne Koller announced her departure from Coursera in August; she’s now working for Alphabet (a.k.a. Google)’s biotech company, Calico. (Andrew Ng, left the startup several years ago to join the Chinese search engine Baidu.) And Sebastian Thrun, who founded the rival Udacity, left that startup and is rumored to be back in the self-driving car business.
Enrollments in many MOOC programs were not as high as hoped (or as budgeted). The cost of developing courses, for universities, remains incredibly high – $350,000 for each course that was part of the Georgia Tech and Udacity partnership, for example.
“Democratizing college,” it turns out, is hard work.
And today most MOOC companies have pivoted away from that to offer corporate training, professional development, and job placement services instead. Coursera launched “Coursera for Business” in August, for example, just a few weeks after Koller announced her departure from the company.
So “MOOCs Are Dead,” Mindwire Consulting’s Phil Hill pronounced. “Long Live Online Higher Education.”
I’m sure MOOC proponents would love to take credit for a legitimization of online higher education, as if the history of online higher education began at Stanford or MIT in 2012.
According to the Babson Survey Research Group, which released the last of its annual surveys of online education this year, “more than one in four students (28%) now take at least one distance education course (a total of 5,828,826 students, a year-to-year increase of 217,275).” But while universities might be more accepting of online education, the Babson Survey also found that the number of chief academic leaders who say that online education is critical to their schools’ long-term strategy actually fell this year – from 70.8% last year to 63.3% this year. For their part, many faculty remain skeptical of online education. And many students – in high school, in community college, and at the university level– still say they prefer face-to-face classes, particularly when the course material is interesting or challenging.
The core promise of MOOCs, remember, was to “democratize access,” increase affordability, and as such to allow people all over the world to experience the benefits of formal education, even if informally. “Online Delivery Increases Pipeline of Students Pursuing Formal Education,” Edsurge pronounced in October, describing an NBER working paper. An amazing discovery by researchers: expanding enrollment options found to expand potential enrollments.
But another NBER research paper underscores how little MOOCs specifically and online education more broadly have moved the needle on college affordability, again despite all those proclamations that MOOCs specifically and ed-tech more broadly would solve higher ed’s “cost disease.” (A sidenote: RIP William Bowen, who defined this problem of productivity with William Baumol and who passed away this year.) “A federal rule change that opened the door to more fully online degree programs has not made college tuition more affordable.” (emphasis mine)
Perhaps, in the end, “MOOCs were much more the signifier of sociocultural phenomenon than they were an educational salvation,” as Seattle Pacific University’s Rolin Moe has argued.
Because MOOCs have now largely pivoted to corporate training and because they continue to push for alternative credentialing (rather than simply for MOOCs for college credit), I will – sadly – have to talk about MOOCs again in subsequent articles in this series.
Financial data for Coursera, Udacity, edX, and other MOOC-related companies, along with the list of MOOCs’ new academic partners, can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.
The College Affordability Crisis
“From January 2006 to July 2016,” wrote the Bureau of Labor Statistics in August, “the Consumer Price Index for college tuition and fees increased 63 percent, compared with an increase of 21 percent for all items.” ProPublica, also writing in August, observed that “from 2000 to 2014, the average cost of in-state tuition and fees for public colleges in America rose 80 percent. During that same time period, the median American household income dropped by 7 percent.” Tuition keeps going up and up and up, although as The Wall Street Journal noted this fall, published tuition rates only rose 2.4% during the 2016–17 academic year, “slowing from 2.9% last year.”
Growth could slow to zero, and tuition would still be out-of-reach for many, many students.
(Highly recommended: Temple University’s Sara Goldrick Rab’s 2016 book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Bretrayal of the American Dream.)
To blame for the soaring cost of college? Pick your culprit to confirm your bias: Bloated administration or luxury dorms or climbing walls and other student amenities or tenured faculty salaries or the reduction in public funding or the growth in student aid.
According to the Delta Cost Project, which tracks college spending, spending has increased across all types of college. The spending at public four-year colleges and universities rose, on average, by 2 to 3%, “the largest such increase since the start of the recession in 2008.” Operating costs are no longer being shifted onto students, but as the Delta Cost Project points out, “tuition revenue still financed a majority of education-related spending at public and private four-year institutions,” covering about 63% of educational costs (up from 50% in 2008).
Again, even as things get a little better, they’re still really bad.
Data on government funding for education can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.
State support for higher education was up 4.1% this year, according to the annual Grapevine Report – 39 states reported an increase and 9 reported a decrease in funding. But it’s worth noting that funding varied widely from state to state and that that increase in spending does not mean that per pupil spending has also risen, particularly as enrollment figures change. Another report – this one from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities– claimed that “states are collectively investing 17 percent less in their public colleges and universities, or $1,525 less per student, since 2007.”
The system for funding American flagship public universities is “gradually breaking down,” Robert J. Birgeneau, a former chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, cautioned. Many institutions face financial difficulties– laying off staff and faculty– and in July The Wall Street Journal reported that some five hundred schools are on the Department of Education’s financial watchlist. “Public universities have ‘really lost our focus’,” says UC Santa Barbara professor Chris Newfield, who also published a book this year on the future of higher education: The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them.
Meanwhile, donations to various capital campaigns for sports facilities and aid to student athletes clocked in at over $1.2 billion. Go team.
According to a report released this fall by the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, “More Americans are attending college than ever before – nearly 90 percent of millennials who graduate from high school attend college within eight years.” But attendance does not equal completion, and one of the major reasons that students do not finish their education: finances.
Students’ financial situations are precarious, and this exacerbates the growing – unmanageable – cost of college attendance. According to a report from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab,
Three in four undergraduates defy traditional stereotypes. Just 13% live on college campuses, and nearly half attend community colleges. One in four students is a parent, juggling childcare responsibilities with class assignments. About 75% work for pay while in school, including significant number of full-time workers. The number of students qualified for the federal Pell Grant – a proxy for low-income status – grew from about 6 million in 2007–2008 to about 8.5 million in 2013–14. This is unsurprising given that participation in the [National School Lunch Program] grew by 3.7 million students during that With more than one in five children living in poverty, college-going rates at a national high, and the price of higher education continuing to rise, food insecurity among undergraduates is probably more common than ever.
The National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homeless found that 48% of college students reported food insecurity in the last 30 days, something far more prevalent for students of color. Indeed, contrary to the stereotypes about providing luxury dorms, many colleges are now starting to provide food pantries for hungry students and their families.
Data “Solutionism” and the College Scorecard
In the light of these figures, the Department of Education’s effort to address affordability through its College Scorecard feels rather pathetic. In an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education this summer, the Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell (formerly a venture capitalist at NewSchools Venture Fund) claimed that the scorecard was one of the “greatest victories” for the Obama administration. When questioned by CHE’s Goldie Blumenstyk about whether or not the scorecard addresses schools’ accountability in the affordability crisis, Mitchell says,
The kind of accountability that matters on the ground is the kind of accountability that allows an individual user to identify what’s important to them, to get reliable information about that, and then to make decisions about it.
In other words, the burden is on students, on individuals, not on schools or government systems and structure – a reflection, as I’ve argued again and again, of the Silicon Valley ideology and its neoliberal, individualist approach to education.
Mindwire Consulting’s Phil Hill has repeatedlypointed out that the data that informs the scorecard is limited and flawed. But even with new and improved data, it’s this underlying assumption by Mitchell that is perhaps most troubling: college affordability is simply about individual consumers making the “right” choice.
So who does the College Scoreboard really serve? According to a study conducted by College Board researchers, “The subgroups of students expected to enter the college-search process with the most information and most cultural capital are exactly the students who responded most strongly to the Scorecard.” Cultural capital and financial capital – these help explain why wealthy students are still much more likely to receive a Bachelor’s Degree.
The Promise of “Free College”
“Free college” was an issue in the US Presidential Election this year, thanks in no small part to Senator Bernie Sanders, who made “tuition free and debt free” college a cornerstone of his campaign. Both Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party adopted some of Sanders’ language, proposing free, in-state public college tuition for those with incomes up to $125,000.
Free community college has also been an initiative supported by Second Lady Jill Biden, a community college instructor herself.
After Clinton’s defeat, The Washington Post asked, “Did the idea of free public higher education go down with the Democrats?” But “free college” hasn’t been the purview solely of Democrats, and much has happened at the state and local level to try to move this direction.
The Detroit Promise Zone program, for example, which launched in March, would make community college in the city free for its graduating high school seniors. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, in his April “State of the City” speech, committed to “giving every hardworking graduate of the Los Angeles Unified School District one free year of community college.” San Francisco Board of Supervisor member Jane Kim also proposed eliminating tuition at the City College of San Francisco for the city’s residents. The state of Washington plans to pilot a program that would cover the cost of degree completion for students who are fifteen or fewer credits away from graduation – “free to finish.”
There were setbacks, however, in the push for free college (beyond, of course, the election of Donald Trump and a Republican Senate and House of Representatives): Kentucky’s governor Matt Bevin vetoed a bill that would have given free community college to students in the state. And while the state of Oregon launched its free community college program this fall, several college leaders in the state said that they thought the program was “underfunded and too exclusive.”
Some individual schools did take steps to make tuition free or deeply discounted, in part by seeking financial support from private businesses and organizations. Portland State University, for example, said it would offer four years of free tuition to qualifying students. In North Carolina, Elizabeth City State University, UNC Pembroke, and Western Carolina University said they would begin offering $500 in-state tuition starting in fall 2018. Stanford said it would pay for the MBA of students– provided they go work in an “underserved region.” (That region, what journalist Sarah Kendzior calls “flyover country”: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, or Wisconsin. Keep flying, Stanford MBAs. Please.)
Harvard also opted to use its $38 billion endowment to make its tuition free. Hahahahahaha. Who am I kidding? Harvard wouldn’t even pay its food services workers the $35,000 salary they demanded, prompting them to strike this fall.
In other news, the University of Cambridge plans to offer a $332,000 doctorate degree.
The Market for Student Loans
The topic of student loans could probably be its own article in this series, and I have written again and again and again this year that we need to be paying much closer attention to investor interest in the private student loan market. This is the most well-funded subsection of ed-tech (although it’s rarely discussed by most ed-tech publications, who dismiss it as “financial tech”). But I’m including loans here not only because the burden of student of loan debt is helping spur conversations about college affordability. I want to point out that education technology investment is not interested in “free and open” when it comes to higher education. It is interested in new markets to profit from. And the private student loan market and Wall Street, particularly under President Trump, are now very well positioned to do just that.
Investment data for private loan companies can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.
From 2007 to 2015, total outstanding federal student loan debt doubled from $516 billion to $1.2 trillion, according to the U.S. Department of Education, with individuals who borrowed money for school owing, on average, over $30,000.
According to an SEC filing, student loan provider Navient reported that delinquency rates reached their lowest levels this year since 2005 for the Federal Family Education Loan Program and for private education loans. The Department of Education echoed that data, announcing in September that “the three-year federal student loan cohort default rate dropped from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent for students who entered repayment between fiscal years 2012 and 2013” – the lowest default rate in three years. Nonetheless, as Wall Street Journal reported in April, more than 40% of student borrowers are not making their loan repayments. (Some of that, in all fairness, is due to deferment.)
The interest rates on student loans are poised to drop again for the 2016–2017 academic year – but that is, let’s remember, for federal student loans, which (for now) constitute about 90% of all loans taken to pay for school. (Credit card debt, which is often used to pay for tuition, textbooks, and living expenses, does not count towards this statistic.)
The burden of student loan debt falls disproportionately on Black students, as student loan disbursement, student loan collection, and job opportunities are racially biased. (This is a topic I will explore more in the final article in this series on education, education technology, and “discrimination by design.”) A study published in the journal Race and Social Problems found “that black young adults have 68.2 percent more student loan debt, on average, than do white young adults.” This debt also connected to the rates at which Black students enroll in for-profit higher education– again, another topic for a subsequent article in this series.
Image credits: Mapping Student Debt
In February, a news station in Houston reported that “US Marshals arresting people for not paying their federal student loans.” The story quickly went viral, and although authorities insisted that the video footage of armed agents at someone’s door was “not what it seems.” But the story’s popularity probably underscores the fear and uncertainty that people do live in because of their debt. Those with student loan debt report higher rates of stress and lower wealth. They may be reluctant to enter into relationships (and people are reluctant to enter into relationships with borrowers in turn). They may be more reluctant to start businesses or buy houses. Reluctant or unable.
The problem with student loan debt isn’t simply it’s amount or the burden that it places on borrowers individually or the economy as a whole. It’s that many students who take loans do not graduate. They have debt but no degree.
Nevertheless, some education analysts (particularly those from conservative think tanks) have contended that the student loan crisis is “overblown.” But they’re still willing to suggest ways to address the not-problem: tying loans to specific majors, to grades, or to “student outcomes,” making loans in exchange for a cut of students’ future incomes, or privatizing the public student loan market altogether.
The Cato Institute’s Neal McCluskey argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that we should restrict access to student loans to those deemed “college ready.” “Dean Dad” Matt Reed weighed in in response, calling the proposal “as offensive an argument as I’ve seen in major media in a long, long time.” Sociology professor Tressie McMillan Cottom added that“privatizing access without an equal public option is absurdly racist.”
The Department of Education certainly could make it easier for borrowers to pursue deferment, income-based repayments, or loan forgiveness. Both the DoE and schools could offer better loan counseling. And perhaps bankruptcy laws could be changed so that government-issued student loans could be forgiven. (Interestingly, a judge ruled this year that bankrupt law school graduates could have their bar loans canceled.)
This isn’t simply a federal issue, of course. New Jersey, whose state student loan system has been described as “state-sanctioned loan-sharking,” does not offer any reprieve for borrowers who are unemployed, disabled, or face financial struggles – something that legislators finallydecided to address.
There remains, instead of federal reform based on equity, a push for privatization, despite a number of scandals surrounding companies which have mishandled applications for income-based repayments and perpetrated debt-relief scams.
There’s a long list of new startups entering the private loan market, with substantial venture backing. But incumbent banks and financial companies are clearly interested in this market too, many offering refinancing and consolidation services. Goldman Sachs will now offer loans “for the little guy,” for example. And Amazon briefly partnered with Wells Fargo to offer discounted student loans – or rather, Amazon Prime Student subscribers were to be eligible for half a percentage point reduction on their interest rate for private student loans. Wells Fargo was forced to pay $4 million fine to settle a CFPB probe into its loans, and eventually the deal with Amazon was scuttled– because of “political obstacles,” according to The Wall Street Journal. (This was hardly the only scandal) Wells Fargo faced this year.)
Another new market for these sorts of loan services: marketing loans directly to companies, which are increasingly offering education benefits, including student loan aid, as a perk alongside medical insurance and 401Ks. Again, it’s worth considering how efforts like these exacerbate rather than address education inequalities.
This is the confluence of trends – from this year and onward: the privatization of the student loan market, the continued pressure by employers for employees to have some sort of credential or certification, the ongoing expansion of for-profit higher education into coding bootcamps and other short-term certification programs, the potential for a more deregulated for-profit industry under Trump. So when a publication writes a headline like this – “Could Computer Coding Academies Ease the Student Loan Crisis?” – it isn’t just Betteridge’s Law that tells us the answer is “no.” It’s history.
Rethinking Federal Financial Aid
Student loans are just one part of financial aid. But because of the increasing cost of tuition and associated living expenses, loans have become necessary for most students and their families.
There were several attempts to improve the federal financial aid program this year. President Obama called for the reinstatement of year-round Pell Grants, for example, which would allow students to receive aid dollars for summer school and ideally help students graduate faster with less debt. But the House of Representatives rejected that. Forty-four colleges will participate in a new program that extends Pell Grant eligibility to high school students in dual enrollment programs. Sixty-seven schools will participate in a pilot program that will provide Pell Grants to incarcerated students working on their college degrees. Stuck in committee: a proposal by Senators Bob Casey and Orrin Hatch to eliminate the FAFSA’s drug conviction question and prevent students convicted of drug offenses from losing their financial aid.
And then there’s EQUIP, a pilot program that will extend financial aid to “alternative providers,” including MOOCs and bootcamps. I’ll look at EQUIP and the history of the future of for-profit higher education in the next article in this series.
The Department of Education did promise to simplify the financial aid application. But the changes, including ditching the 4-digit PIN for a username and password log-in, actually made it harder for some students, particularly low-income ones, to complete the form. POLITICO reported in March that those who’d finished the form dropped by 7% from the previous year.
The New America think tank issued a plan in February to scrap the current financial aid system and re-start from scratch. Perhaps, under Trump, New America will get its wish.
One small, but noteworthy effort to rethink financial aid comes from Sara Goldrick-Rab. (Again. Read her new book.) This year, she launched “The FAST Fund,” a grassroots effort – a micro-scholarship of sorts– to meet the emergency financial needs of college students. These needs don’t always have large price tags. But the needs are immediate. And the FAST Fund reflects Goldrick-Rab’s research and a recognition that we must rethink how funding is calculated and distributed to students in need.
Textbooks (Open or Otherwise)
In previous years, I’ve carved out open educational resources into their own section, but again, I want to connect the continued high price of textbooks, as well as the false promises for a digital “fix,” to these larger conversations about college affordability. As with MOOCs and with student loans, I want to point out the political and corporate players.
If, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics has reported, tuition has increased 63% over the last decade, that’s still a much slower climb than the cost of college textbooks – up 88% over the same period. And research shows, not surprisingly, that the high cost hurts student achievement (at the K–12 and at the higher ed levels.) Students are actually spending less on textbooks, but as Mindwire Consulting’s Phil Hill observes, that’s not necessarily good news: “first-generation students spend 10 percent more, acquire 6-percent-fewer textbooks, and end up paying 17 percent more per textbook than do non-first-generation students.”
There have been efforts to push for free and openly licensed educational materials instead of expensive, proprietary textbooks for some time now; and these might be gaining momentum, in part from a boost from the Obama Administration – its #GoOpen campaign, unveiled last year, and the Open eBooks program, launched in February. The former is a Department of Education initiative encouraging schools to adopt OER; the latter, which launched with a video message from First Lady Michelle Obama as part of the administration’s ConnectEd initiative, is a partnership between the Digital Public Library of America, the New York Public Library, and First Book to offer free e-books (although, to be clear, not openly licensed e-books) to low-income children.
There have also been efforts to expand college degree programs that rely entirely on OER. Achieving the Dream, an education reform group funded by Blackboard, Cengage Learning, the College Board, the Lumina Foundation, and others, for example, announced in June an initiative develop OER-based degree programs at thirty-eight community colleges in thirteen states. “As a result of this program,” Lumen Learning’s David Wiley wrote, “by fall of 2017 somewhere between 3% and 4% of all community colleges in the US will have at least one all-OER degree program.”
Despite this and other efforts, many faculty remain skeptical about digital materials and are unfamiliar with open educational resources. Or at least, that’s what a report issued by the very objective I’m sure Independent College Bookstore Association says. TES Education, a British digital education company, says that it found teachers use OER more than they use textbooks. The Babson Survey Research Group’s survey found that just 5.3% of courses use OER. Cengage Learning claims that OER usage has the potential to triple in the next five years – that’s code for “invest! invest!” – but of course, when companies predict the future of education technology, markets are always, always expanding.
Open-Washing and Weaponized Openness
Openwashing: n., having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices.— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) March 26, 2012
This remains one of my most popular tweets, and no doubt it continues to resonate with people – four years after “The Year of the MOOC” – because “open” continues to reflect ed-tech PR more than praxis.
The giant of online retail, Amazon, entered the education technology market in June of this year with “Amazon Inspire.” The launch was first rumored earlier in the year when Education Week leaked that the company was working on an OER platform. I was skeptical then; I am skeptical now. There’s a long history of failed attempts to create OER portals and OER markets, and it’s never been clear to me that Amazon’s engineers learned from any of those.
Indeed, just one day later after its big launch, The New York Times reported that Amazon had had to remove content over copyright issues. The content in question was lifted from rival site TeachersPayTeachers. “The fact that this happened so early in the process (literally, screenshots distributed to media contained content encumbered by copyright),” Common Sense Media’s Bill FItzgerald wrote, “suggests a few things”:
At least some of the people uploading content didn’t understand the basics of copyright and/or fair use;
At least some of the members of the team uploading or creating content didn’t understand the basics of Creative Commons licenses;
The review process was either nonexistent, or not staffed by people who understand copyright, fair use, and/or Creative Commons licenses.
“I don’t see OER as a threat,” the president of McGraw-Hill’s K–12 division said in March– and that speaks volumes. Perhaps it’s that proprietary textbook companies continue to argue that openly licensed content is “inferior.” Or perhaps it’s that these companies have already integrated OER into their offerings, hoping that they can maintain customers in “free and open” as well as in “paid and proprietary.”
Yes, there was plenty of business activity this year surrounding the word “open,” much cramming as many variations of the word into the press release as possible: “OpenStax partnered with panOpen to expand OER access,” for example. And there were plenty of eyebrow-raising legal actions taken by those who’ve embraced the term – attempts to trademark a MOOC and MOOC-related certificates, along with a lawsuit by Great Minds against FedEx, contending that former’s stores are in violation of the Creative Commons non-commercial licensing of Great Minds’ materials when they charge for photocopies of its curriculum. With patents filed by Khan Academy and Coursera, two of the many organizations that have embraced “open,” it seems as though IP rights could again be wielded by ed-tech startups in order to to obtain a business edge.
So yes, “open-washing” continues to be a problem. But it’s the second part of the title final section I want to end with: “weaponized openness.”
How can those who’ve embraced the mantra of “openness” reconcile their demands for transparency with those made by an organization like Wikileaks this year, for example, which actively wielded stolen data under those very auspices during the US Presidential Election? Indeed, education analyst David Kernohan has raised a number of important questions about the similarities between the rhetoric of “open” embraced by those in open education and that promoted by the neo-reactionary factions of the technology industry.
The last thing I was expecting was that these guys were me. Us. Tonally, structurally – the same tools and tropes I’d use here to talk about education technology or whatever the hell else are used to talk about this…stuff. …If you go to any random ‘radical education technology’ conference – say, perhaps, #opened16 – none of these tropes [of neo-reactionism or tech accelerationism] would seem out of place. After I’d stopped being shocked, I started wondering why I was shocked. … They are us. They are us.
These might be uncomfortable insights for many in education technology, particularly those who do not see themselves reflected in the politics of neoliberalism or techno-libertarianism. And yet. And yet, the embrace by the technology industry – by its investors, by its entrepreneurs, by the Peter Thiels and the Marc Andreessens – of MOOCs as a neoliberal, techno-libertarian vehicle should have been a hint that there were dangerous affinities there. Blinded by its insistence on an imagined progressivism, education technology has refused to recognize its actual politics.
And as such, education technology has helped further stories about education as “free” and “open”, stories that have promoted a particular version of that very phrase: education as an expensive and privatized risk (one that's profitable for industry) rather than as an accessible, equitable public good.
Presidential-Elect Donald Trump
“Trump Education Secretary Pick Has Indirect Stake in Student Lender,” The Wall Street Journal reports. That’s Betsy DeVos, of course, and Social Finance a.k.a. SoFi.
Via Politico: “Trump‘s education pick says reform can ’advance God’s Kingdom’.”
Via NPR: “Trump’s Pick For Education: A Free Market Approach To School Choice.”
Via OpenSecrets.org: “Betsy DeVos and her big-giving relatives: Family qualifies as GOP royalty.”
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Dreamers in Jeopardy.” Trump for his part says he’ll “work something out” for them. Mmmm, I bet he will.
This Q&A with the free market fans at Reason and an attorney who represents students accused of sexual assault is, no surprise, truly awful: “Will President Trump Fire the College Sex Police.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “How Sessions Tried to Block Gay University Event.” That’s Jeff Sessions, Trump’s pick for Attorney General who tried in 1996 to prevent the Southeastern Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual College Conference from holding its conference at the University of Alabama.
More on Trump University in the for-profit section below.
“Obama Administration Mistakes Threaten Student Loan Relief Programs,” Buzzfeed reports.
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Rep. Virginia A. Foxx, a North Carolina Republican who just won election to her seventh term in Congress, was named on Friday as the new chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the main policy-making panel for higher education in the chamber.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Chinese President Xi Jinping called for strengthening ideological and political education in universities and charged Communist Party of China officials with prioritizing their work in this area, according to an account of a speech he gave at a two-day meeting on ‘ideological and political work in China’s universities and colleges’ published in the state-run media outlet Xinhua.”
Via ProPublica: “New Jersey Will No Longer Collect Loans From Families of Dead Students.”
Via The Hechinger Report: “Mississippi defies national trend; decreases scrutiny of early child care quality.”
In a move that should surprise no one, Jeb Bush has joined a lobbying firm.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, introduced a bill Thursday that would require academic transcripts to show that a student has violated campus policies involving sexual violence.”
Via EdSource: “The big burden of charter school oversight.”
“Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner‘s veto of a bill that would have eased Chicago Public Schools’ massive pension burden threatened to blow a $215 million hole into a budget that has been criticized by bankers and civic groups for its reliance on uncertain state assistance,” Governing reports.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “The number of complaints filed last year with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights soared to a record 16,720, according to a report the department released Thursday. The number of complaints was a 61 percent increase over the previous year’s total.”
Education in the Courts
Via The New York Times: “In the latest episode over the proliferation of fake news and the people who believe it, a Tampa woman who thinks the Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Conn., was staged has been charged with threatening a parent of one of the slain children.”
Via The New Yorker: “Gavin Grimm’s Transgender-Rights Case and the Problem with Informal Executive Action.”
Via The Washington Post: “Rolling Stone asks judge to overrule jury in U-Va. defamation case.”
Via Chalkbeat: “Colorado Supreme Court weighs challenge to law governing job protections for teachers.”
Via The New York Times: “Campus Press vs. Colleges: Kentucky Suit Highlights Free-Speech Fight.”
More on court cases in the for-profit higher education and the accreditation sections below.
It’s time once again for one of my least favorite events in education journalism: the release of PISA scores. “The 2015 PISA Results: What Do They Mean?” asks Education Week. “U.S. now ranks near the bottom among 35 industrialized nations in math,” The Hechinger Report frets. Via the same publication: “Why America should care about its students’ lackluster performance on the global PISA tests.” “How Do American Students Compare to Their International Peers?” asks The Atlantic. “U.S. Schools May Not Have Quite the ‘Math Problem’ We Think They Do,” says Pacific Standard. Learning theorist Roger Schank says“OECD should be ashamed; PISA scores announced; doing more damage.” Education professor Yong Zhao has severalblogposts on the results of PISA and TIMSS and what we can (and can’t) learn from them.
Via NJ Spotlight: “Few Class of 2016 Graduates Manage to Pass PARCC Tests.” That’s 1 in 10 students in New Jersey, to be clear. In four years time, the test will be required in order to graduate high school in the state.
Via Education Week: “The Iowa Department of Education is disputing $1.6 million in charges from a Minnesota company over a software system that repeatedly failed during mandatory statewide elementary school testing.”
Via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: “Former Pitt student, key figure in Chinese-U.S. college testing scam, to be deported.”
Online Education and The Once and Future “MOOC”
“Deakin University in Australia will next year offer graduate degrees and certificate programs through FutureLearn, the online learning platform owned by the Open University in the U.K.,” Inside Higher Ed reports.
Via Mindwire Consulting’s Phil Hill: “UT Austin and SMOCs: What these synchronous courses look like and cost.”
Via Edsurge: “Online Learning Consortium Releases New Scorecards to Evaluate Digital Classes.”
“Coursera Monthly Subscriptions Channel Lynda and Pluralsight,” says EduKwest’s Kirsten Winkler.
Coding Bootcamps and the Once and Future “For-Profit Higher Ed”
Via Bloomberg: “Want a Job in Silicon Valley? Keep Away From Coding Schools.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “After months of review, the U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday approved the proposed $1.14 billion sale of Apollo Education Group, which owns the University of Phoenix, to a group of three private equity firms.” The sale comes with conditions, including: 1) the Department of Education demands a letter of credit valued at 25% of the company’s federal funding allocation; 2) the company cannot add or change its educational offerings or open new locations until 2018; and 3) enrollment must be maintained at or beneath current levels. More via The Chronicle of Higher Education and via Bloomberg.
The Department of Education will deny federal financial aid to the for-profit Globe University and the Minnesota School of Business.
Via NPR: “What Former Employees Say ITT Tech Did To Scam Its Students.”
Via The Washington Post: “For-profit college students make a last-ditch attempt at faster debt relief.”
Rebecca Schuman explains“Why For-Profit Colleges Are Undaunted by the Trump University Case.”
Via NBC News: “Student Sues Walden University: ‘I Wasted Six Years of My Life’.”
More on court battles over accreditation of for-profits in the accreditation section below.
Meanwhile on Campus
“UNLV Instructor Apologizes for Saying He Would Report Undocumented Students,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
No more tenure in the University of Wisconsin system. “University of Wisconsin system regents on Thursday approved a new policy mandating that administrators conduct “independent, substantive reviews” of tenured faculty members every five years,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
Via The Guardian: “ To Kill a Mockingbird removed from Virginia schools for racist language.”
Inside Higher Ed profiles the MasterCard Foundation, “an $828 Million Private Scholarship Program.”
White nationalism: coming soon to a campus near you. Via The Daily Dot: “University Wi-Fi named racist slur during white nationalist event.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “The faculty union at Rutgers University on Friday escalated its criticism of how the university is handling faculty members’ communication, urging its members to opt of the university’s new email system or risk compromising their academic freedom.”
“Should children get to have cellphones in elementary school?” asks The Washington Post.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “The ‘Computerless’ Computer Lab.”
Via BoingBoing: “University student gets a zero because her art project violated dress code.” The student in question attends BYU.
A graduate student has been arrested for allegedly stabbing and killing USC professor Bosco Tjan.
Accreditation and Certification
Via Inside Higher Ed: “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed an amicus brief in the D.C. Court of Appeals this week arguing that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau doesn’t have the authority to investigate college accreditors.” The CFPB has been blocked by a DC District Court ruling from investigating the ACICS, the accreditor for many for-profit colleges.
“A regional accreditor has placed Baylor University on warning and the University of Louisville on probation for 12 months,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
Go, School Sports Team!
There’s more news about Baylor University and the fallout from its sexual assault scandal in the accreditation section above.
From the HR Department
Via The Verge: “Yik Yak lays off 60 percent of employees as growth collapses.” Not sure how anyone thought that an anonymous messaging app for college campuses was a good idea, let alone a money-making one. But it has raised $73.5 million in VC funding.
“Contract negotiations between Long Island University and its faculty union are again stalled, just three months after the parties came to a temporary agreement that ended a 12-day faculty lockout,” Inside Higher Ed reports.
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Executive Compensation at Private and Public Colleges.”
Via the AP: “Private university graduate students begin unionization vote.”
“Teacher Hiring Poised to Rise After Years in the Doldrums,” according to EdWeek’s Market Brief. Edsource has a slightly different take on the problem: “As charter schools grow, they face challenge of hiring amid a teacher shortage.”
This Week in Betteridge’s Law of Headlines
Via the Udacity blog: “Will Artificial Intelligence Destroy Our Jobs, or Empower Us to Unfold Our True Creative Powers?”
(Reminder: according to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”)
Upgrades and Downgrades
Reuters continues its investigative series on various education (technology) scandals. The latest looks at New Oriental Education Group and college admissions fraud.
Also via Edsurge: “Meet Intel Education Accelerator’s Newest Cohort of Edtech Visionaries.”
“ClassDojo Is Teaching Kids Empathy In 90% Of K–8 Schools Nationwide,” says Fast Company. It’s apparently teaching empathy with five-minute animated videos. Good luck with that.
It’s CS Week, featuring an Hour of Code and a lot of branded content and PR opportunities. “ Computer science education expands with new AP courses,” says Education Dive, arguing that schools should do more than just an “Hour of Code” – they should enrich the College Board. EdWeek’s Market Brief reports that “Tech Giant Oracle Makes Billion-Dollar Pledge for Coding Education in Europe.”
Pay attention to student loan companies! “USA Funds, which has played a growing role in education philanthropy and investing in the last few years, announced on Wednesday that it would shed its loan-guarantee affiliates,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
Here’s another trend to watch: how jail tech and ed-tech will merge. Via NPR: “Video Calls Replace In-Person Visits In Some Jails.”
“What If We Stopped Calling Them Classrooms?” asks Edsurge. Whoa. What if.
From Mike Caulfield, the American Democracy Project’s first “civic fellow”: “Announcing the Digital Polarization Initiative, an Open Pedagogy Project.” Among the things the initiative will research: “The impact of algorithmic filters and user behavior on what we see in platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which tend to limit our exposure to opinions and lifestyles different than our own.”
“Artificial Intelligence Could Help Colleges Better Plan What Courses They Should Offer,” says Edsurge. More promoting the wonders of AI in this Edsurge story: “A Siri for Higher Ed Aims to Boost Student Engagement.”
Funding and Acquisitions (The Business of Ed-Tech)
Peergrade has raised $300,000 from Emerge Education and Nordic Makers.
VoLT, a vocabulary app, has raised an undisclosed amount of funding from YMS Mobitech.
PowerSchool will buySunGuard K–12.
The Waterford Institute will acquire now defunct Curriculet.
Data, Privacy, and Surveillance
“Talking Dolls May Spread Children’s Secrets, Privacy Groups Allege,” The Wall Street Journal reports. Buzzfeed has more on the FTC complaint filed over the My Friend Cayla doll and the I-Que robot: these toys “collect personal information from children and send it to a software company that contracts with military and intelligence agencies.”
“So-So Social Media Privacy? State Legislators Should Reject New Model Bill and Stick With ACLU’s Gold Standard,” says the ACLU. The model bill in question has been drafted by the Uniform Law Commission (ULC), an association of lawyers, and the ACLU has several concerns about who and how it would protect.
Via The Guardian: “Facebook, Twitter, Google and Microsoft team up to tackle extremist content.”
The companies are to create a shared database of unique digital fingerprints – known as “hashes” – for images and videos that promote terrorism. This could include recruitment videos or violent terrorist imagery or memes. When one company identifies and removes such a piece of content, the others will be able to use the hash to identify and remove the same piece of content from their own network.
Via the BBC: “French privacy row over mass ID database.”
More on surveillance in the campus section above.
Data and “Research”
Common Sense Media surveyed parents on their own digital media habits. “On any given day, parents of American tweens and teens average more than nine hours with screen media each day.”
Corporate-backed “privacy” organization, the Future of Privacy Forum, has released its latest survey on what “public school parents actually know and want concerning the use of technology and collection of data in their children’s schools, as well as their perspectives on the benefits and risks of student data use within the educational system.”
“Does Your State Provide Good Data On Your Schools? Probably Not,” says NPR.
Via The Hechinger Report: “Touted as the next big solution, competency ed programs that stress skills aren’t always a ‘quick and easy moneymaker,’ study finds.”
Via Pacific Standard: “Which States Have More School Shootings, and Why?”
“A Population in Flux Forces Colleges to Adapt,” says The Chronicle of Higher Education, drawing on a recent report on shifting demographics from WICHE.
Via Bryan Alexander: “New findings on income inequality, and there’s very little good news.”
Via Bloomberg: “Rich-Poor Achievement Gap Is Narrowing in American Education.”
Data from the Survey of Earned Doctorates: “American universities awarded a record number of doctorates in 2015 – although the rate of growth in the number of Ph.D. recipients continued a several-year decline. And the 55,006 recipients were more likely to be men and to be American citizens or permanent residents than they were the year before.”
“After falling, college graduation rates begin to rebound,” The Hechinger Report reports.
“For College Students With Kids, Getting Cheap Child Care Is A Challenge,” NPR reports, drawing on a study from Child Care Aware of America.
The Wall Street Journal ranks schools and finds “Midwest Colleges Rated Highest by Students for Career Preparation.”
Edsurge has released the final article in its AT&T-funded research report on “the state of ed-tech.”
“Is Ed-Tech research nearing its ’Big Tobacco’ moment?” ask Neil Selwyn, Thomas Hillman, and Jonas Linderoth.
Icon credits: The Noun Project
This is part five of my annual review of the year in ed-tech
Trump University and the History of the Future of For-Profit Higher Education
On November 19, just eleven days after being elected President of the United States of America, real estate mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump settled a class-action lawsuit, agreeing to pay $25 million to put to rest fraud allegations from his now-defunct for-profit education venture, Trump University.
The President-Elect refused to accept any wrongdoing. But the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman certainly saw otherwise, as was clear in his statement:
In 2013, my office sued Donald Trump for swindling thousands of innocent Americans out of millions of dollars through a scheme known as Trump University. Donald Trump fought us every step of the way, filing baseless charges and fruitless appeals and refusing to settle for even modest amounts of compensation for the victims of his phony university.
When I included for-profit higher ed as one of last year’s “Top Ed-Tech Trends,” I suggested that, despite predictions that “the for-profit-education bubble is deflating” and despite events like the closure of Corinthian Colleges, it was unclear to me that we were really witnessing a collapse of the industry. If nothing else, it seemed as though for-profit higher ed was poised to rebrand itself, embracing “coding bootcamps” as the new vocational education and career training. I briefly mentioned the ongoing Trump University lawsuits in that article. But little did I imagine that one year later, the savior of for-profit higher education might just be Donald Trump, whose administration seems likely to roll back many of the regulations put in place over the past eight years in order to curb the predatory behaviors of these businesses.
There were several points in the presidential campaign that some pundits argued the Trump University scandal would torpedo Trump’s political aspirations: when news broke that Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi had sought a donation from Trump before nixing a fraud investigation into Trump University in her state, for example. Or when Trump had to pay an IRS penalty because his foundation violated tax law by making a $25,000 campaign contribution to a campaign group connected to Bondi. Or when Trump said that the federal judge overseeing the Trump University lawsuit had an “absolute conflict” in handling the case because he is “of Mexican heritage.” But none of these controversies – the accusations of fraud with the Trump University lawsuit specifically or the unprecedented number of lawsuits involving the candidate more generally – were enough to stop voters from supporting him.
In February, Slate sneered that“The People Donald Trump Allegedly Ripped Off Through Trump University Look a Lot Like Trump Voters.” I say “sneer” because that’s often been the media’s attitude towards students who pursue their education at for-profit universities, those who – for a variety of reasons – might not understand the way in which the prestige market or “signaling” works. The headline echoes too the media’s attitude towards some imaginary Trump voter – the one who’s been fooled by a con-artist making wild promises about a path to economic prosperity.
Court filings from the fraud trial did provide some insights into how Trump University operated – high-pressure sales tactics detailed in the the company’s “playbooks” that revealed how Trump University employees sold its course packages – these cost up to $35,000 – targeting vulnerable populations in particular and feeding on their socioeconomic anxieties. Students were encouraged to use their credit cards to pay for classes – a terrible idea– and to sign up for as many credit cards as possible in the process. “Based upon my personal experience and employment, I believe that Trump University was a fraudulent scheme, and that it preyed upon the elderly and uneducated to separate them from their money,” Ronald Schnackenberg, a one-time sales manager at Trump University, testified.
Throughout the presidential campaign, Trump insisted that students consistently gave the seminars positive reviews and that the Better Business Bureau had given Trump University an A+ rating – a claim that the BBB clarified, pointing out that when it was in operation, there were multiple complaints by consumers and the rating dropped as low as D-. Students say they were pressured to give good reviews.
Trump University promised that the instructors for the real-estate and business seminars were “hand-picked” by Trump. According to an investigation by The Associated Press, “dozens of those hired by the company had checkered pasts – including serious financial problems and even convictions for cocaine trafficking or child molestation.” There were some high-profile academic hires however, including John Vogel (Dartmouth), Don Sexton (Columbia), Jack Kaplan (Columbia), and Roger Schank (Carnegie Mellon).
Vogel was one of the professors who stood with Trump at the press conference in 2005 announcing the launch of Trump University. “He was proud of the video lectures he recorded on topics such as variable versus fixed-rate mortgages and how to weigh pros and cons of different properties for an online course directed at would-be real-estate investors.” The Wall Street Journal reported in April. “‘There were some pretty legitimate people involved at the beginning,’ said Mr. Vogel.” But by mid–2007 much of the work that had gone into creating high quality online business courses – by Vogel and other professors – had been ditched to focus on “get rich quick” schemes.
In March, learning scientist Roger Schank published some samples of the courses that he had built for Trump University, prompting WSU’s Mike Caulfield to add that “Trump University’s Online Materials Are a Lot Better Than Your University’s Online Materials.” “It certainly makes a mockery of what Silicon Valley darlings Coursera and Udacity call courses,” Caulfield argued. Funnily enough, many of the very publications who consistently made fun of the offerings from Trump University rarely offer any critical analysis of the structure or content of MOOCs or coding bootcamps. Nor do they reflect on why for-profit higher education – with or without a degree– has such appeal.
In June, Trump promised that he would re-open Trump University when he won the court case. He didn’t win, of course; he settled the lawsuit. But he’ll be President of the United States of America, and the future of for-profit higher education is now the brightest it’s been in quite some time.
For-Profit Higher Education and the Presidential Campaign
Donald Trump wasn’t the only presidential candidate with ties to for-profit higher ed, of course. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, for example, had asked the Department of Education last year to be “demonstrate leniency” during its investigation of the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges.
Hillary Clinton also had connections to the for-profit education industry: President Bill Clinton had been an honorary chancellor of Laureate International Universities, part of Laureate Education, the world’s largest chain of for-profit colleges. According to the Clinton’s tax forms, he’d earned $16.5 million from the company between 2010 and 2015 before he stepped down from his role there. During the campaign, Trump accused Clinton of using her position as US Secretary of State to funnel money to Laureate Education – some $55.2 million in grant dollars. The Washington Post said it found no evidence that that much money had been awarded to Laureate Education. (The State Department did partner with Coursera– Laureate Education is an investor– to promote MOOCs globally. But again, it’s not clear this was any sort of pay-to-play deal.) In an op-ed, The Wall Street Journal described the relationship between the Clintons and Laureate Education as “case study in modern crony capitalism,” alleging that the company had avoided the scrutiny faced by other for-profit universities because of these powerful political connections. (Inside Higher Ed quickly pointed out how dubious these claims were.)
In an effort, perhaps, to demonstrate her commitment to the Obama Administration’s policies surrounding for-profits, Clinton named Rohit Chopra to her transition team. Chopra had previously worked at the CFPB and, while there, had sued ITT and Corinthian Colleges, accusing them of abusive lending practices.
But no matter. Instead of a Clinton transition, we’re in a Trump transition. And the for-profit industry is gleeful. Shares in publicly-traded for-profits shot up with word of Trump’s election – they were all pointing downwards when I looked at this topic this time last year– and observers now predict “regulatory relief” and renewed profitability under the new administration.
The Obama Administration versus For-Profit Higher Ed
When Barack Obama took office, America’s seven largest publicly traded college operators were worth a combined $51 billion, with more than 815,000 students enrolled at campuses spread across the country. The schools were flooded with with people seeking shelter from the recession, returning to school to pick up new skills.
Almost eight years later, the industry has been decimated. The seven largest listed operators are worth just over $6 billion, and the most valuable company in the sector has spent the last two years desperately trying to become a non-profit. Two of the largest companies in 2009 are now bankrupt, and two more are in the process of being taken private.
A withering war on for-profit schools by federal and state authorities, combined with an improving economy that made trade schools less lucrative, has left the industry a shadow of its former self. It could be one of the defining legacies of the Obama era.
But the industry, despite the tone and headline of that Buzzfeed piece, has hardly been “crushed.” It has, as The Hechinger Report puts it, stayed “quietly on offense,” continuing to spend millions of dollars lobbying Congress, with donations overwhelmingly favoring Republicans. The industry has steadily fought back – in the courts and in the press – against the regulations the Obama administration has attempted to put in place to protect students.
How well these measures have protected students, of course, is up for debate. According to a report by student debt expert Chris Hicks, the Department of Education has consistently treated for-profit higher education as “too big to fail,” despite all the indicators that some of the largest chains are struggling financially and academically (let alone their students struggling financially and academically).
Among the efforts taken by the Obama Administration this year: challenges to the accreditation of for-profit universities, including the move to terminate the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools’s powers; attempts to limitmandatory arbitration agreements that prevent students at for-profit universities from suing; the restriction of access to federal financial aid, including GI Bill money, to schools in violation of various regulations, such as misstating job placement rates; the creation of new regulations allowing borrowers to have their student loan debt discharged if they were defrauded by their school; the implementation of “gainful employment” regulations– this spring, a federal appeals court rejected for-profits’ challenge to the latest version of the rules.
Corinthian Colleges, Continued
In April of last year, Corinthian Colleges announced it was closing its doors, leaving some 16,000 students at its Everest, Heald, and Wyotech Colleges without a school to attend. The chain had been under fire for some time, accused of predatory lending and fined for defrauding students.
The fallout continued into the new year.
In March, the state of California won a $1.2 billion judgment against the for-profit for lying and defrauding students. “The judgment includes $800 million in compensation to former students,” Buzzfeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy wrote, “an amount that the shuttered and bankrupt Corinthian will almost certainly never pay. The little money that was left in the company’s coffers has been doled out to hungry creditors.”
Revealed in emails and testimony in that court case: that Corinthian had actively recruited the homeless and kids with “low-self esteem and few base hits.” Materials in other court cases against Corinthian showed that the school paid recruiters based on meeting enrollment quotas.
Also in March, the Department of Education announced “a path to loan forgiveness” for the former Corinthian students. By June, the department reported that it had approved 11,000 claims for debt relief, totaling more than $170 million. (11,000 out of 26,603 claims filed. There were as many as 80,000 former Corinthian students eligible.) In September, a former student sued the department, demanding that it stop collecting debt payments from all former Corinthian students. As the Obama Administration nears its end, these students are still hoping for immediate debt relief.
Déjà Vu: ITT Tech
In August, the Department of Education announced that it was banning ITT Educational Services from enrolling new students who use federal financial aid. The for-profit would have to pay Title IV aid to current students out of its own pocket first, before being reimbursed by the government. And it would have to disclose to its current students that it was not in compliance with its accreditor.
In 2015, ITT had reported $850 million in revenue, with almost 70% of that – about $580 million – coming from financial aid.
Less than a week after the Department of Education’s announcement, ITT said it was ceasing all enrollments. A few days later, on September 6, ITT closed nearly all its campuses. Some 35,000 students and 8000 employees were, in the words of The New York Times, “left in the lurch.”
The Department of Education posted “A Message from the Secretary of Education to ITT Students” on its website, informing students that they had two choices as to how to proceed: 1) ask for loan forgiveness or 2) transfer their credits elsewhere.
That’s a raw deal right there. Some California community colleges, KPCC reported, would not accept transfer credits. (Edsurge, for one, promoted coding bootcamps as an alternative, suggesting that former ITT students pursue their education there instead.) Because of the structure of their education benefits, veterans were not eligible for loan forgiveness and feared they’d lose other benefits if they could not continue their education. For many former ITT students, their path to graduation was now unclear. And as the company also owned a chain of charter schools, it wasn’t only college students who had to figure out how to complete their education.
Executives from the company, of course, will be fine – they “walked away after the company collapsed into chapter 7 bankruptcy.” ITT officially filed for bankruptcy in mid-September. Its various campuses went up for sale, and a judge barred regulators like the CFPB and SEC from pursuing litigation against the company while the bankruptcy proceedings were underway.
One might think, based on the headlines, that the bankruptcy of ITT and Corinthians had put a nail in the coffin of for-profit higher education. But there remain over 3400 (Title IV-eligible) for-profit colleges in operation in the United States alone (and still more, like coding bootcamps, that do not currently receive financial aid; there are still more outside the US as well). And there were plenty of other problems this year:
Accreditation: In June, the Department of Education announced that it “recommended that the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (or ACICS) should no longer be recognized by the Department as an agency that can provide schools with an accreditation that makes them eligible for participation in federal aid.” This would send a lot of schools – around 900 – and thousands of students scrambling. In September, the Senate passed a VA bill that included a provision that would allow student veterans to continue to receive GI Bill educational benefits for up to eighteen months after their school’s accreditor loses its federal recognition. (Under current law, student veterans would immediately lose access to their GI Bill benefits, including housing.) The loss – or potential loss – of ACICS’s accreditation would have a major impact on the for-profit sector obviously. But the process to remove accrediting authority is lengthy, and there are bound to be not only legal challenges but, under a President Trump, perhaps a different set of priorities for the new Department of Education. I’ll look in more detail at accreditation in a subsequent article in this series.
Restricting Federal Financial Aid: In September, DeVry University announced it planned to decrease its reliance on financial aid for generating revenue. Zenith Education Group, which acquired some of Corinthian Colleges’ schools, said it would put in place a new financial aid process that included financial literacy counseling. In December, the Department of Education said it would deny federal financial aid to the for-profit Globe University and the Minnesota School of Business.
Targeting Veterans: In January, the US Defense Department lifted its suspension of the University of Phoenix as part of the federal Tuition Assistance Program that provides financial aid to active-duty service members. In March, the Department of Veterans Affairs suspended DeVry University’s participation in program aimed at highlighting colleges that are friendly to veterans on the heels of allegations from the Department of Education and FTC that the for-profit had engaged in deceptive marketing practices. Bridgepoint Education, the parent company of Ashford University, was notified by the state of Iowa that it would no longer approve its programs for GI Bill benefits. At a Senate Armed Forces committee meeting in November, Senator John McCain accused the accusing the Pentagon of a “gross abuse of power” when it placed the for-profit University of Phoenix on probation last year. (Its owner, the Apollo Education Group is one of McCain’s top donors.)
Complaints Filed and Investigations Launched: The Justice Department launched a probe into Bridgepoint Education, which runs Ashford University and the University of the Rockies, to see if it had violated a law that prohibits for-profits from getting more than 90% of their revenue from financial aid. Minnesota education officials said they would review the for-profit Walden University, owned by Laureate Education, following complaints about the school’s marketing practices.
Criminal Charges and Prison Sentences: Three senior for-profit college executives of the Micropower Career Institute were sentenced in January on charges related to student financial aid and student visa fraud. The founder of the for-profit college FastTrain, was sentenced in May to eight years in federal prison for fraud. In October, the owner of the Dade Medical College was charged with improperly closing the for-profit school. He’d already pleaded guilty to charges relating to improper campaign contributions.
Fines Issued and Settlements Reached: DeVry University reached a settlement with the Department of Education and FTC over allegations that the for-profit had made unsubstantiated job placement claims. Now defunct American Career Institute admitted to engaging in deceptive marketing and violating state law in a settlement reached with the Massachusetts Attorney General. (The AG wanted some $25 million in fines levied against the school, but it’s now insolvent.) A judge in Minnesota ruled that Globe University and the Minnesota School of Business would have to close after the schools were found to have committed fraud. The Department of Education fined Bridgepoint Education $137,695 for a handful of financial aid violations. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also ordered Bridgepoint Education to forgive all private student loans and to refund all payments made on those debts – some $23 million in total.
Switch to Non-Profit: Non-profits, of course, are not subject to “gainful employment” regulations, and several schools sought to change their tax status. The Department of Education denied such a request from the Center for Excellence in Higher Education, a Utah-based chain of for-profits. Grand Canyon University briefly sought to change its tax status, but its accreditor would not support the move.
Layoffs: In January, the University of Phoenix and its parent company Apollo Education, said it had laid off 70 employees. In April, the University of Phoenix said it was laying off another 470 employees, about 8% of its workforce. In May, Education Management Corporation said it would lay off some 200 employees. In October, EMC announced it was laying off another 130 Art Institutes employees.
Closures: Education Management Corp said it would close 22 out of 26 of its Brown Mackie College locations. Marinello Schools of Beauty, announced it would shut its doors. Zenith Education Group, which bought some of Corinthian Colleges’ campuses, said it would consolidate or close at least ten of them. Brooks Institute, once owned by Career Education Corporation, closed. Cambria-Rowe Business College Career closed. Westwood College closed. Heritage College, a for-profit chain with ten campuses around the US, shut down. Mattia College closed. Point College in San Antonio closed. Colorado Heights University will close next year. These closures were due to a variety of factors, including losing accreditation and losing access to federal financial aid.
For Sale (Or Not): In January, news broke that the Apollo Education Group was seeking a buyer. Apollo is the parent company of the University of Phoenix, the largest for-profit university in the US but one whose enrollments have dropped dramatically over the last few years – from 460,000 in 2009 to 176,000 in 2015. The company had said last year that it would reorganize in order to be in better compliance with new Obama Administration regulations, including ending programs that would not not meet the new “gainful employment” rules. (It appears that some still do not.) The move would take Apollo Global Management off the stock market (meaning that publicly-available quarterly reports– one way that journalists have been able to scrutinize the school’s expenditures on, say, marketing versus instruction – would not longer be required). There was immediately speculation of who the buyer might be – Apollo Global Management, the owner of McGraw-Hill Education and Hostess Twinkies perhaps. Turns out, the new buyers would be a group of investors, including some with ties to the Obama Administration, including former Deputy Education Secretary Tony Miller. Their bid “raised questions,” as Politico put it. “There is at least a taste of unseemliness involved in this,” said one Department of Education official. Some shareholders were less-than-pleased with the potential sale (and/or sale price) – the largest shareholder opposed it, suing to stop the sale. Although shareholders finally okayed the sale in May, the Department of Education was slow to review it, finally doing so but with a list of conditions that might still torpedo the deal. The University of Phoenix’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, still needs to approve the deal as well.
Financial data about publicly-traded for-profits can be found at funding.hackeducation.com.
The History of the Future of Career Education
I plan to devote a whole article to the ongoing attempts to define (or redefine or codify or narrow) education as “job training” – what George Siemens has called “the employability narrative” – particularly around certain ideas of what constitutes “highly skilled.” And I plan to devote another one to efforts to rethink credentialing.
It is impossible to separate both of these issues – careers and credentialing – from for-profit higher education, past, present, or future. The origins of the industry can be traced back to the 19th century, to early “career colleges” established specifically to teach “commerce.” The curriculum of these commercial colleges was largely based around the demands of local employers alongside an economy that was changing due to the Industrial Revolution. Schools offered courses in bookkeeping, accounting, penmanship, surveying, and stenography. This was in marketed contrast to those universities built on a European model, which tended to teach topics like theology, philosophy, and classical language and literature. If these universities were “elitist,” the commercial colleges were “popular” – there were over 70,000 students enrolled in them in 1897, compared to just 5800 in colleges and universities – something that underscores what’s become a familiar refrain today: that “traditional” higher ed institutions do not meet everyone’s needs.
This long history of for-profit higher education – much longer than the heyday of its financialization in the 1990s – suggests that the industry is quite resilient, perhaps because it has so successfully for so long told a story about the promises of career training and credentials.
“Everyone should learn bookkeeping,” early career colleges urged. “Everyone should learn the real estate business,” Trump University insisted. And now, it’s “everyone should learn to code.”
Coding Bootcamps and the History of the Future of For-Profit Higher Education
According to Course Report, a Yelp-like review site for coding bootcamps, in its “2016 Coding Bootcamp Market Size Study” (released in June), the number of full-time coding bootcamps increased to 91, up from 67 the previous year. Course Report predicted that the market would almost double to an estimated 17,900 graduates, up from 10,300 in 2015. (Just so you get an idea of how accurate these predictions might be, however, Course Report was completely wrong about its projections in its 2015 report.) As the popularity of coding programs grew, so did their tuition rates, with the average tuition price hitting $11,451 and an average program length of around 13 weeks – that’s up from $11,063 in 2015 when the average program length was roughly 11 weeks. Remember: averages can be deceiving. Many programs are free, skewing the average tuition number down.
Coding bootcamps did open in new cities, and venture capital investment in the sector continued. (The two largest investments were $45,000,000 to Galvanize and $24,000,000 to Andela.) Acquisitions, often by for-profit universities, continued as well. Capella Education acquired Hackbright Academy for $18 million and Dev Mountain for $20,000,000. Strayer Education bought the New York Code and Design Academy for an undisclosed sum. (The for-profit Kaplan bought Dev Bootcamp and the University of Phoenix’s parent company bought The Iron Yard last year.) Fullstack Academy acquired Chicago-based coding bootcamp The Starter League. Bloc acquired DevBridge. General Assembly bought Bitmaker.
Financial data about coding bootcamps can be found at funding.hackeducation.com.
But it wasn’t all rosy. There were layoffs. And there was at least one major scandal:
In October, Inc published“The Strange and Sudden Disappearance of a Coding Bootcamp Founder.” The bootcamp in question was Devschool, whose founder disappeared with some $100,000 in tuition, according to students. Devschool had four stars on Course Report– something to think about when assessing the data that it touts about the size and success of the coding bootcamp market.
Are coding bootcamps worth it? Do they teach the skills they promise? Are those skills enough for a career as a programmer? How do we know? (There were several competing “standards” released this year, created by bootcamps themselves, that promise to measure “student outcomes.”) Do employers value coding bootcamps? Or are these programs just another, new for-profit scam? (A recent story in Bloomberg offers a hint: “Want a Job in Silicon Valley? Keep Away From Coding Schools.”) These questions – ones that echo those raised about the value of certificates from for-profit colleges – remain largely unanswered, particularly without independent evaluation.
Federal Financial Aid, Déjà Vu
“Should for-profit crash courses get federal funds?” The Economist asked in June in an article about coding bootcamps, forgetting, of course that for-profit crash courses already do. But we forget the history; we rewrite it.
In August, the Department of Education announced the selection of eight partnerships between higher ed institutions and “non-traditional providers” as part of its EQUIP (Educational Quality through Innovation Partnerships) experiment. These programs will be eligible for federal financial aid.
Considering the history of for-profit higher education and federal financial aid, particularly student loans, what could possibly go wrong?!
The selected sites:
The “quality assurance entities” are supposed to be the independent evaluators of the program – accreditors of sorts. In August, Edsurge wrote about “How to Reduce Conflict of Interest in Higher-Ed Quality Assurance,” covering a report written by one of these overseers, Entangled Solutions. Edsurge did not go into any detail about the background of this organization, a venture fund run by Paul Freedman, who was himself investigated by the Justice Department in 2013 regarding a partnership between his for-profit company and a university. Entangled Solutions now employs Michael Horn, formerly of the Clayton Christensen Institute and an Edsurge columnist. Golly, hardly any conflicts of interest there at all.
Beyond the EQUIP program, coding bootcamps are also being approved to accept GI Bill money, again perhaps replicating the history of veterans’ educational benefit dollars flowing disproportionately to for-profits. The Nashville Software School was approved by the Tennessee State Approving Agency for Veterans Education and Training; Code Fellows received approval from the VA and the Washington state government to accept GI Bill funds for its coding bootcamp.
“Why Don’t Universities offer money back guarantees?” Roger Schank asked in March, responding to the ongoing Trump University case and questions about his involvement with it. “Does this make them as ‘fraudulent’ as Trump U?”
In fact, there are regulations surrounding these sorts of promises, as Inside Higher Ed’s Paul Fain recently wrote, “State and federal agencies … tend to take a dim view of money-back guarantees in higher education. After cracking down in past decades on colleges that made fraudulent promises of high-paying jobs for graduates, regulators generally prohibit colleges and even nonaccredited providers from offering such guarantees.”
Fain’s article was a response to MOOC startup Udacity’s promises that it first unveiled in January: “Earn a nanodegree credential and we will guarantee you a job within six months of graduation or give you 100 percent of your tuition back.” Udacity seems to have escaped regulatory scrutiny here – perhaps because it charges less than the minimum threshold to have licensing requirements kick in.
As I noted above, I’ll turn to “the history of the future of work” in a subsequent article in this series, but it’s worth underscoring here how powerful these promises can be – powerful marketing to students as well as powerful narratives that might serve to boost the legitimacy of these “alternative providers,” who can ask as Schank does “Why don’t all colleges do this?”
In part, many do not recognize this distinction – for-profit or not-for-profit. There’s little counseling – career or college counseling – particularly for students in low-income and racially segregated schools. There’s a lot of advertising – sigh, Maya Angelou – and after a while, a familiarity with the names you hear in ads on TV, see in ads on the subway. There’s high pressure marketing. There are also incentives – the requirements of other government assistance programs – welfare, GI Bill benefits, for example – that have pushed students towards short-term certificate programs and towards for-profit schools. For-profits were, in the US at least, quick to offer online courses, something that appeals to working students’ schedules.
Mocking these students – those who’ve gone into debt for degrees from the University of Phoenix or for webinars at Trump University – helps no one. Understanding why these schools – including coding bootcamps – are appealing is crucial, even if we know that appeal can be deceptive.
For-profits, as education professor Susan Dynarski has written, “enroll a disproportionate share of disadvantaged students, who are more likely to drop out and default on their loans. But research shows that these schools perform even worse than we would expect, given the characteristics of their students.” Research published this year also suggested that those who enroll in for-profits see a decline in earnings and an increase in debt compared to their earnings before enrollment. That is, students are worse off for attending for-profits. Worse off.
Pre-order Tressie McMillan Cottom’s forthcoming book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, for a sociological ethnography of educational inequalities that these schools and their accompanying narratives rely upon.
In the meantime, here’s what one venture capitalist sees as the future of higher education:
So you know where ed-tech's money is gonna be.
Financial data – including lobbying and funding figures – can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.
This is part six of my annual review of the year in ed-tech
One of education technologies’s greatest luminaries passed away this year. Seymour Papert died at his home in Blue Hill, Maine in August (yes, that’s the site of the Blue Hill Fair, where Charlotte the spider saved Wilbur the pig). Seymour was 88; or, as he was born on February 29 – a Leap Year baby – he was just 22. Either way, he’s gone too soon; we’ve lost too much, too many in 2016.
Seymour, as my friend Gary Stager has described him, was the “inventor of everything (good) in education.” He developed “constructionism,” a theory of learning based on Jean Piaget’s “constructivism”; he co-invented the programming language LOGO; he was the inspiration for Lego’s Mindstorms; he co-founded the MIT Media Lab; he’s been called the father of the “maker” movement; he authored two books that everyone in education should read: Mindstorms and The Children’s Machine (he authored more than that, but you really must read these books, particularly if you work in ed-tech); and he was a mentor and friend to many.
Read Mindstorms. pic.twitter.com/BBhsgwY2FZ— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) August 1, 2016
There were many remembrances penned for Seymour this year. I’d hardly know where to begin in writing one, but I want to open this particular article – one that focuses, in part, on the whole “everyone should learn to code” craze – recognizing his great contribution to educational computing as well as his loss. It’s all of our loss, really, as too many in education technology happily reduce the potential of computer programming as an epistemological endeavor to a market for new products.
I worry that we’ll see a lot of fights over Seymour’s legacy in the coming years – attempts to claim affinity and accordance with his work where there really is none. (Never forget: Bill Gates once called constructionism “bullshit.”)
I first read an article by Seymour Papert in a Women’s Studies class in the mid 1990s – “Epistemological Pluralism,” which he co-wrote with Sherry Turkle. I’m pleased to say that my first introduction to Papert's work was through “feminist epistemology” and not through “tech” or “ed-tech.” But of course, that’s not quite true: my first introduction to Papert's work was actually a decade earlier, when I sat at an Apple II and taught a Turtle how to move about the screen. My work as a thinker and writer about tech and ed-tech – and one explicitly committed to social justice– has been profoundly affected by Seymour. I am so grateful for his work, grateful of the little time I got to spend with him.
I am committed to fighting for a world in which technologies – educational and otherwise – are not built for control and compliance. I do so in Seymour’s memory. I do so because thinking and building a more just and equitable future demands it.
“You can’t think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something” – Seymour Papert
Seymour’s arguments for why children should use powerful “thinking machines” to develop their own powerful thinking in turn stand in stark contrast to many of the arguments (and the accompanying commercial products) for computer science education – those that Globaloria’s Idit Harel has described as “pop computing.”
Note the significant difference in language in this headline from The Verge, for example – “Harvard’s Root robot teaches kids how to code” – and the way in which Seymour would describe the LOGO Turtle – that students would using programming to teach the robot.
Perhaps, as developmental psychologist Edith Ackermann argued this year, the “maker” movementwill serve as “Papert’s Perestroika,” thawing the school system’s reluctance to embrace constructionist practices. Perhaps.
Or perhaps, as Seymour himself once described the school system’s reaction to LOGO,
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 exited live exploration by students, 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.
One might recognize that very trajectory in Minecraft, once heralded as a sandbox for playful, open-ended exploration and programming. Now, Minecraft, as educational games scholar Dean Groom pointed out this year, is often used to “advance unproven and sensationalist discourses about imagination and creativity – with no regard for the value of games as a broader phenomenon.”
Microsoft acquired Minecraft in 2015 – which probably speaks volumes right there about its progressive potential – and in January of this year, Microsoft bought TeacherGaming, the maker of a Minecraft version aimed at classroom usage. In turn, Microsoft released an educational version of the popular block-building game this fall.
“Microsoft Weaponizes Minecraft in the War Over Classrooms” was how the technology publication Backchannel described the move – that is to say, this isn’t a signal of “Papert’s Perestroika” as much as it is a push by Microsoft for market- and mindshare. The educational version requires an Office 365 account, for starters, making Minecraft part of vendor lock-in much more than any imaginative openness or pedagogical transformation.
Funding data about “learn to code” startups can be found at funding.hackeducation.com.
Computer Science For All
Although there is some lip service paid to learning computer programming in order to deepen students’ thinking and expand their creativity, much of the conversation about computer science is framed in terms of developing students who are “job ready” – the rationale for teaching computer science President Obama gave in his final State of the Union address in January.
More schools are teaching computer science – although many still see an “Hour of Code” as a sufficient commitment to that end. Some cities and states are considering making computer science compulsory – in Chicago, Virginia, Queensland, for example. For their part, Florida legislators debated in February whether or not computer science classes might fulfill a foreign language requirement – a terribly wrong-headed idea.
To that end, the Computer Science Teachers Association proposed CS standards for K–12 this year – curricular guidelines written by a “coalition of industry and education organizations,” as Edsurge, always happy to plug those “public-private partnerships,” put it: “Code.org, Cyber Innovation Center, National Math and Science Initiative, the Association for Computing Machinery and Computer Science Teachers Association. The work is also supported by companies including Apple, Google and Expedia, as well as education organizations including the CollegeBoard, Teach For America and STEMx.”
Industry, not the child’s imagination as Seymour would have it, largely dictates the shape and direction of the CS trend.
With or without these CS standards, questions remain about “who’s going to teach America’s kids to code,” as TakePart’s Liz Dwyer wondered in April. Another key question, this one from Kathi Fisler, Shriram Krishnamurthi, and Emmanuel Schanzer: “exactly who all” is Computer Science for All? I’ll turn to this issue of equity – what are the demographics of the computer science industry, who benefits from how we frame the “skills gap” – in the next section in this article. After all, we know from the history of “career and technical education,” that these “opportunities” tend to be limited to certain types of students and carry with them a legacy of discriminatory tracking practices.
Nevertheless, computer science education, along with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) continued to be promoted this year, often framed as something students should pursue instead of “liberal arts.” This argument is, of course, ridiculously daft, as “the liberal arts” has historically included math and science.
“Hardly Anyone Wants to Take a Liberal Arts MOOC,” Edsurge informed its readers in February. Only “1.86 unique users have enrolled 4.1 million times in edX’s liberal arts course.” So hardly anyone at all, I guess. Just one person enrolling over and over and over and over again. (Maybe the word “million” was left out. Who knows. “Hardly anyone,” either way.)
There seems to be a real distaste for “liberal arts” among many Silicon Valley it seems – funny since that’s what many of tech execs studied in college, several of whom now prominently advocate computer science as utterly necessary while subjects like ethics or aesthetics or history are a waste of time, both intellectually and professionally.
Despite all the investment and marketing surrounding CS and STEM education, the results – enrollments and graduation rates – have been mixed at best. The demand for CS classes is up, for example, at some universities, and it’s down significantly at others. The perceived importance of CS, however, has led many universities to partner with coding bootcamps and to continue to outsource technical competencies to (largely) for-profit companies. Prevailing narratives about the importance of computer science and STEM education has also prompted some politicians to call for cutbacks in funding for liberal arts education.
Despite the drumbeat that their focus should be “coding,” student do continue to sign up for courses in the humanities – which, again, are different from the “liberal arts” – even in the face of predictions about “troubled job markets” for academics in the field and the long-running “myth of the English major barista.” Yes, the number of Bachelor’s Degrees granted in humanities has fallen, but that’s partly due to STEM majors becoming more appealing to (although not necessarily more welcoming of) women.
“Everyone should learn to code.” Once upon a time, the chant was “everyone should go to law school.” That hasn’t really worked out that well, nor has the mantra “everyone learn to buy and sell real estate” – although that one was a hell of a powerful lure for Trump University, wasn’t it.
And then there’s the advice from Pearson. “Which major is the best?” the education giant asked in June. “Try marketing,” it suggested. Someone’s got to write all these education technology press releases, after all.
The “Skills Gap”
The “skills gap” is repeatedly invoked as a rallying cry for more computer science education. But much like the phrase “learn to code,” the meaning of “skills gap” is unclear.
As education reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year,
a loud chorus of researchers in education and labor markets question the notion that workers are unqualified for the growing sophistication of tech jobs. For several years some academics have pushed back against concern the U.S. labor market has a dearth of employees for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM), citing data that shows positions in those fields aren’t experiencing spikes in wages – something economists say would need to happen in a labor shortage because it shows employers are willing to pay more to attract the talent they need.
Michael Teitelbaum, a scholar on the history of STEM, said in 2014 to an audience of education reporters that the post-war U.S. period is dotted with “repeated cycles of alarm, boom, and bust.” He went on to say that “many of the people who were attracted in during the boom phase into majors and graduate degrees in these fields … end up graduating and finding there’s no attractive career path.”
Ron Hira, a scholar at Howard University who studies labor and technology, has been one of the most vocal skeptics about shortages in the informational technology fields. He argues that employers want to saturate the labor market with foreign employees – who are here on work visas and typically earn less than their American counterparts – with the goal of, driving down wages in the IT sector. Others have argued the recent rash of layoffs at tech companies belies concerns there’s a worker shortage in that sector.
If there is a gap, it’s perhaps the one that persists in STEM education and in the technology industry more broadly – that is, these remain overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male. Women and people of color are underrepresented in CS classes, STEM degree programs, and technical and scientific careers.
A couple of notable exceptions: Harvey Mudd College in California where 55% of its CS grads are women. (The rate nationally: 16%.) As Quartz reported in August, Harvey Mudd “has done it by removing obstacles that have typically barred women – including at the faculty level. The school emphasizes teaching over research, hiring and rewarding professors on the basis of their classroom performance, says Maria Klawe, Harvey Mudd’s president since 2006. And it places women in leadership positions throughout the school. Next year, six of the school's seven department chairs, and 38% of its professors school-wide, will be women.” And HBCUs“are more than pulling their weight in preparing African-American students for STEM careers,” The Chronicle of Higher Education argued in February in response to a Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce study that found that Black students are “underrepresented in the college majors that tend to lead to higher-income occupations and overrepresented in majors that tend to lead to lower salaries.”
For its part, the technology industry has been under fire for several years now for its woeful lack of diversity – a problem that, despite these companies’ highly publicized diversity initiatives, seems to have left their employee demographics largely unchanged. Or, in some cases, evenless diverse.
It’s commonplace to hear Silicon Valley executives blame the problem on “the pipeline,” but it’s certainly more complicated that that. It’s a problem of pay and promotion and culture. A study released in January found, for example, that “sexism is rampant in the tech industry, with almost two-thirds of women reporting sexual harassment and nearly 90 percent reporting demeaning comments from male colleagues.”
This problem extends to startups and investors too: “In the Bay Area, 16 companies that received A funding in 2015 were led by a female CEO, or 8% of the total. This represents a 30% year-over-year decrease in the number of female-led companies that raised an A in the Bay Area compared with 2014,” as Female Founders Fund’s Claire Burke wrote in January. And it extends to education and education technology as well.
In light of all this, it’s fair to ask, as Melinda D. Anderson did in The Atlantic in February, “Will the Push for Coding Lead to ‘Technical Ghettos’?” What can we learn from the history of discriminatory practices in vocational education at the K–12 level, in for-profit higher education, in recruitment, in hiring, in pay, and in retention? How can address a “skills gap” as an equity issue not simply as a “skills” issue? (And can we even do so without some understanding of the humanities, not just of “coding”?)
(In fairness: education also suffers from a lack of diversity at both the K–12 and college level. The Department of Education pointed out in a report on racial diversity (or the lack thereof) in the teaching profession that recruiting and retaining teachers of color is crucial because these educators are “are more likely to (1) have higher expectations of students of color (as measured by higher numbers of referrals to gifted programs); (2) confront issues of racism; (3) serve as advocates and cultural brokers; and (4) develop more trusting relationships with students, particularly those with whom they share a cultural background.”)
The New Economy and the History of the Future of Work
Donald Trump did not campaign on a platform that “everyone should learn to code.” (Hillary Clinton did.) But among Trump’s many campaign promises: bringing back jobs in manufacturing and mining. It was an obvious appeal to nostalgia for a prosperous post-war America and the comforts it provided – real or imagined – the middle class, to a time when factory jobs paid well, when a college degree wasn’t necessary in order to earn a good salary.
There have been a lot of opinion pieces written since the election about whether or not Trump’s support reflected voters’ economic anxieties and about whether or not economic recovery has been experienced by all Americans.
According to the latest jobs report, unemployment in the US is at 4.6%, the lowest since 2007. But that figure obscures the fact that some 95 million workers are no longer counted as part of the labor force. There are several reasons why, but as Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich observed, “The American economy isn’t providing nearly as many good jobs as are needed.” “Trump’s neo industrial policies won’t create these jobs,” he added.
Nor, I’d argue, will a fixation on simply “learning to code.”
There have long been efforts to “retrain” displaced workers – with varying success. (Although job training is something that companies have been unwilling to pay for – or at least that they pay for quite unevenly.) So, will “learning to code” in particular provide much needed job opportunity and job security?
Probably not. For as The Wall Street Journal cautioned in October, “America’s Dazzling Tech Boom Has a Downside: Not Enough Jobs.”
The technology revolution has delivered Google searches, Facebook friends, iPhone apps, Twitter rants and shopping for almost anything on Amazon, all in the past decade and a half.
What it hasn’t delivered are many jobs. Google’s Alphabet Inc. and Facebook Inc. had at the end of last year a total of 74,505 employees, about one-third fewer than Microsoft Corp. even though their combined stock-market value is twice as big. Photo-sharing service Instagram had 13 employees when it was acquired for $1 billion by Facebook in 2012.
Hiring in the computer and chip sectors dove after companies shifted hardware production outside the U.S., and the newest tech giants needed relatively few workers. The number of technology startups fizzled. Growth in productivity and wages slowed, and income inequality rose as machines replaced routine, low- and middle-income, human-powered work.
There are several employment trends here that might suggest that simply “learning to code” is an insufficient response to today’s economic realities: the technology industry’s own practices of outsourcing, offshoring, subcontracting, anti-unionism, use of volunteer labor, and automation, for starters.
Machines are coming for our jobs, we’ve been told. (Indeed, many economists agree that it’s automation and not the target of Trump’s ire – trade – that has prompted the elimination of US manufacturing jobs in recent years.) The threat of impending automation, so the story goes, now extends beyond the factory floor. “Nearly half of young people fear jobs will be automated in 10 years,” The Guardian reported in January.
Perhaps the more immediate concern regarding what’s coming for our jobs should not be robots, but rather an ideology and accompanying economy that praise “precarity.” Silicon Valley has actively pushed the notion of a “gig economy” – exemplified by companies like AirBnB and Uber – where, instead of full-time employment, workers must piece together various freelance “gigs.” Reflecting, perhaps, its Silicon Valley roots, the gig economy has been found to be rife with gender and racial bias and to benefit those with the greatest social and financial capital. (The Awl summarizes a Pew Research study, noting that “The Sharing Economy Is Only For People Who Can Afford To Not Share.”) As Data & Society wrote in November,
Pay attention to online gig work because it is dramatically reshaping our society. Labor economists Lawrence Katz and Al Krueger estimate that conventional temp and alternative contract-driven work rose from 10 to 16%, accounting for all net employment growth in the US economy in the past decade. Assuming Pew’s trends continue at the current rate, by the year 2027, nearly 1 in 3 American adults will transition to online platforms to support themselves with on-demand gig work. This is only bad news if we do nothing to change the outdated laws and structures in place to support working people. Ignoring corporate and consumer dependency on an on-demand gig workforce is not a sustainable strategy.
How are workers supposed to respond to the new economy? “Adapt, or Else” – that’s what AT&T told its employees. Stay in “perpetual beta,” as workplace analyst Harold Jarche puts it. Be a “lifelong learner.” Train and retrain.
And I’d add too: be quite suspicious of Silicon Valley’s support for a universal basic income. After all, Silicon Valley ideology rests upon neoliberalism and libertarianism; it furthers the dismantling of public institutions, moving responsibility and risk onto the individual.
All this – a gig economy, an emphasis on “learning to code,” a demand for job training – will be a boon for education technology. (Or that’s what entrepreneurs and investors hope, at least.)
Education Technology and the Business of Job Training
As I argued in the previous article in this series, it is impossible to separate for-profit higher education from the narrative that insists on a need for specialized technical and business training– a narrative that has, for over a century now, contended that traditional colleges and universities fail to provide this sort of education. [Universities can’t solve our skills gap problem,“ as Degreed’s Jonathan Munk argued in a Techcrunch op-ed in May, ”because they caused it."
Education technology companies like Degreed have identified a problem that they claim they alone can fix. “Are Bootcamps the Answer to the ‘Skills Standoff?’” asked a venture capitalist in an op-ed published by Pearson. “Could Computer Coding Academies Ease the Student Loan Crisis?” asked the stock market news site The Street.
Coding bootcamps are just one manifestation of a resurgent for-profit higher education industry. These unaccredited schools argue they’re best positioned to “close the skills gap.” MOOC startups like Udacity and Coursera have also rebranded to target this particular post-secondary technical training market. Both Udacity and Coursera now work closely with corporations, providing curriculum designed by companies and industries, aimed at professional developmentforemployees and potential) employees – and freelance workers, of course.
No surprise, some of these bootcamps also replicate the discriminatory employment practices of Silicon Valley. 42, for example, is a new teacher-less bootcamp that only allows students under the age 30.
These bootcamps echo the narrative that Silicon Valley pushes about “the new economy.” Udacity, for example, which has touted itself in the past as “Uber for education,” offers piecework in lieu of full-time employment for its graduates. And yet, this freelance work “counts” towards Udacity’s money-back guarantee for job placement. As The New York Times describes it,
The program, called Blitz, provides what is essentially a brief contract assignment, much like an internship. Employers tell Udacity the skills they need, and Udacity suggests a single candidate or a few. For the contract assignment, which usually lasts about three months, Udacity takes a fee worth 10 to 20 percent of the worker's salary. If the person is then hired, Udacity does not collect any other fees, such as a finder’s fee.
Edsurge, always there to hype the Silicon Valley’s “disruptive innovations,” suggests that there’s much that universities can learn from the Udacity offering– ignoring, of course, the pervasive issues of racial, gender, and economic bias in the “gig economy.”
“Who’s Playing Matchmaker Between Students and Employers?” Edsurge asked this summer. Why, startups of course. Job placement services are poised to be a growth area for startups, particularly as counseling services get slashed at public schools and as workers are perpetually in search of a new “gig.”
Funding data about job placement startups and for corporate training startups can be found at funding.hackeducation.com.
But all these startups are going to have to battle another technology giant in the hunt for job-hunters: Microsoft. It announced in June that it would make its largest acquisition ever, buying LinkedIn for $26.2 billion. LinkedIn, of course, had acquired online job training company Lynda.com last year for $1.5 billion.
That acquisition prompted Mindwires Consulting’s Michael Feldstein to call LinkedIn“the most interesting – and possibly the most consequential – company in ed tech,” in no small part because of its massive dataset about people’s professional and educational histories and the skills they attach to their profiles.
LinkedIn/Microsoft launched several education-related services this year that signal its ongoing interest in education and professional development – “Learning Paths” in March and “LinkedIn Learning” in September. The price tag for this particular, productized version of “lifelong learning” is $29.99 per month. Thirty bucks will get you recommendations for courses and connections that other professionals have followed in order to achieve their position.
Writing this fall, Feldstein seemed quite a bit more skeptical of Linkedin’s radical ed-tech potential:
LinkedIn Learning has the look of an effort to be another Netflix of education. If we can just create consumable content chunks and then apply data science to deliver the right chunk at the right time to the right person, the thinking goes, then we'll achieve nirvana.
We’ve seen this before in the MOOC world. We also see it in many instances of adaptive-learning software. That software, which attempts to respond to the needs of individual students, often winds up turning the platform into yet another recommendation engine for content and playlists. LinkedIn Learning, despite the best of intentions, has fallen prey to the Netflix concept without questioning the underlying assumptions – without first trying to understand how learning occurs and how best to support it.
Feldstein’s work aside, little of the analysis about LinkedIn’s ed-tech interests seem to take into account its position now as a Microsoft subsidiary. (We come full circle here to how I started this article: the subversive potential of Minecraft deadened by the hype and by its acquisition.) But let’s note what Randall Stross wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times: “Why LinkedIn Will Make You Hate Microsoft Word” – an invocation of Clippy and social graphs and, once again, this belief that the problems of employment and education are simply a matter of faulty code or insufficient engineering.
Education Technology and Education Labor
Perhaps one of the most important questions that educators need to ask themselves – particularly those who see ed-tech as a benign or even progressive force: how is education technology changing “the work” of teaching and learning? How is it changing work for educators? How it is changing it for administrators? How is it changing it for students?
Because, of course, the values that I’ve chronicled in this article – an embrace of “learning to code” at the expense of liberal arts education, the promotion of a “gig economy,” the pressures for “lifelong learning,” the elimination of services like career counseling at schools and their productization in turn – will all have profound implications on education institutions.
Schools have already demonstrated that they’d rather outsource many technical functions than build capacity in-house. See: the LMS, the MOOC. That also seems to be what’s happening with computer science education too, as many universities announced this year they were partnering with coding bootcamps: University of California, Berkeley Extension partnered with Trilogy Education Services. CUNY partnered with Revature. Davidson College partnered with Revature. Bellevue College partnered with Coding Dojo. Sierra College partnered with Hacker Lab. Rather than develop their own faculty’s ability to teach programming, the teaching of CS gets outsourced. “What Happens When Universities and Bootcamps Join Forces?” Edsurge asked in May. Why, nothing but amazingness, as if there’s no history of exploitation in technical training and career education.
Funding data for coding bootcamps can be found at funding.hackeducation.com.
Educators are also experiencing their own fair share of precarity, despite the stereotype of teaching as a “job for life.” The majority of college instructors are “off the tenure track” and more than half are adjuncts– the latter, Phillip Magness suggested this year, a result of the expansion of for-profit higher education.
At the K–12 level, pay for teachers has stagnated. According to the Economic Policy Institute, “In 1994, teachers earned on average 1.8 percent less than other comparable workers; by 2015, they earned 17 percent less, adjusted for inflation. Factoring in total compensation, including health benefits and pensions, teachers earned the same as other workers with college degrees in 1994 but 11 percent less by 2015, the report found.” Many teachers cannot afford to live in the cities in which they teach – teachers in communities experiencing a “tech boom” are particularly hard hit. And as the “gig economy” spreads, “ Teachers Are Working for Uber Just to Keep a Foothold in the Middle Class,” The Nation reported in September.
Low pay and challenging working conditions are contributing to a teacher shortage – a staffing shortage that could reach more than 100,000 teachers annually by 2025, according to a report by the Learning Policy Institute, issued this fall. States have taken different approaches to this problem – some increasing compensation and benefits, some using the H1-B visa program to hire teachers from elsewhere, some increasing recruitment efforts at the college level, and some reducing standards for who can be hired as a classroom teacher. Utah, for example, started hiring teachers with no teaching experience or education degree, as did Georgia and New York. (I’ll look at new teacher certification rules in the next article in this series.)
There’s a mistaken belief that teachers, once hired, are almost impossible to fire. But job protections for teachers have been systemically dismantled in recent years. There were a few victories for teachers’ unions this year: A California appeals court ruled that the state’s job protection rules did not deprive poor and minority students of a quality education or violate their civil rights, overturning a lower court’s decision that would have altered California’s tenure rules. The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that a state law that had phased out teacher tenure was in fact unconstitutional. The Supreme Court in Kansas is now weighing a similar case. The US Supreme Court refused to re-open the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case, which involved public sector union dues, after deadlocking on it earlier this year. But education reform organizations continue to file similar sorts of lawsuits and legislators continue to introduce tenure-changing legislation around the country, challenging teachers’ job protections – in Minnesota, in California (again) for example. At the higher education level, Wisconsin continued to steadily dismantle tenure protections for its public university faculty.
There were wins (partial wins, more accurately) for graduate student unions – the NLRB ruled in August that Columbia University grad student instructors were employees, not merely students as the school contended – and wins (partial wins, more accurately) for college athletes. The NLRB ruled in October that “Northwestern University must eliminate ‘unlawful’ rules governing football players and allow them greater freedom to express themselves,” as ESPN reported. “The ruling, which referred to players as employees, found that they must be freely allowed to post on social media, discuss issues of their health and safety, and speak with the media.” For its part, the US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of O’Bannon v NCAA, leaving questions surrounding college athletes, their employment status, and possible pay unresolved.
A unionized workforce – one with job protections like tenure that demands academic freedom in its teaching and in its research – is, no surprise, a fine target for automation. Robots are coming for education jobs, the Brookings Institution insisted in January. Once again, Edsurge serves as a bellwether for this narrative, publishing three stories in one week alone in April touting robo-essay writers, robo-essay graders, and their various marketing claims.
The defeat by Google’s artificial intelligence system of the best human Go player in the world, South Korea’s Lee Sodel, prompted plenty of speculation this year that we were on the cusp of automating education. “Will this new ‘socially assistive robot’ from MIT Media Lab (or its progeny) replace teachers?” the Kurzweil AI Network’s newsletter asked in March. “Imagine Discovering That Your Teaching Assistant Really Is a Robot,” The Wall Street Journal said in May, in a story about “Jill Watson” (of course it’s a female name), an automated teaching assistant at Georgia Tech. (It doesn’t look as though students knew they were being experimented upon, but who cares about ethics. This is ed-tech!)
Arguments in for automation in education often insist that it’s preferable for machines to handle boring, repetitive tasks – say, robots replacing the low-wage workers who have traditionally been hired by assessment companies to score standardized tests. But it’s worth asking how much of teaching – correctly or not – is viewed as “boring” and “repetitive”? Why do these practices continue? That is, why automate them? Why not eliminate “boring” and “repetitive” work altogether? How much of educational labor is already devalued, with or without technological intervention? How, with or without innovations in artificial intelligence, does our current political and economic climate support an elimination of one of the last bastions of unionized labor in the US, a dismantling of protections for teachers’ jobs and as well as of their academic freedom?
During his Senate campaign, Ron Johnson (R-WI) suggested that high quality documentaries like those made by Ken Burns could replace many teachers. “We’ve got the internet,” Johnson said in an appearance this summer, “you have so much information available. Why do you have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to that knowledge for a whole lot cheaper? But that doesn’t play very well to tenured professors in the higher education cartel. So again, we need disruptive technology for our higher education system.”
The disruptions of education technology always have a political bent to them, and rarely is that bent a progressive one. What shape does education technology, in its current manifestation, want the “new economy” to take? What products and services and stories is it selling to that end?
This is part seven of my annual review of the year in ed-tech
What Counts as a “Real College”?
In April, the Department of Homeland Security arrested 21 people, charging them with conspiracy to commit visa fraud. These individuals were alleged to have helped some one thousand foreign nationals maintain their student visas through a “pay to stay” college in New Jersey.
The college – the University of Northern New Jersey – was a scam, one created by Homeland Security itself. The school employed no professors and held no classes. Its sole purpose was to lure recruiters in turn into convincing foreign nationals to enroll – all this in exchange for a Form I–20 which allows full-time students to apply for a F–1 student visa.
It was an elaborate scam, dating back to 2012, but one that gave out many online signals that the school was “real.” The University of Northern New Jersey had a website – one with a .edu domain, to boot – as well as several active social media profiles. There was a regularly updated Facebook page, a Twitter account, as well as a LinkedIn profile for its supposed president.
Students who’d obtained their visas through the University of Northern New Jersey claimed they were victims of the government’s sting; the government said they were complicit. According to one student interviewed by Buzzfeed, he had asked why he wasn’t required to take any classes, and he’d been told by the recruiter that he could still earn credits through working. “Thinking back, it’s suspicious in hindsight, but I’m not really familiar with immigration law,” the student told Buzzfeed. “And I’d never gotten my Ph.D. before. So I thought maybe this is the way it works.”
“I thought maybe this is the way it works.”
With all the charges of fraud and deceptive marketing levied against post-secondary institutions this year – from the University of Northern New Jersey too ITT, from Trump University to DevSchool– we might ask if, indeed, this is the way it works.
What’s a scam, what’s a crime, and – despite increasing tuition rates and growing student loan debt– what’s a “real university”?
New America’s higher education analyst Kevin Carey wrote an op-ed in The New York Times in March arguing that “Donald Trump Isn’t Alone in Exploiting the Word ‘University’.” Carey blasts both for-profit universities and not for-profit technical colleges for wielding that word “university” when they can’t deliver on the “august” promises he believes that word implies. “These institutions are not overtly trying to rip off anyone,” he writes. “But nor do they tend to have the full features we associate with universities: multiple schools and departments with a heavy focus on research, scholarship and training new Ph.Ds. Instead, they are mostly what they used to be called and have always been: colleges, with a few small master’s degree programs added in order to edge over the unofficial university line.” Too many schools call themselves a “university,” Carey argues. These schools don’t deserve the title, and “all of this creates exploitable confusion among prospective students, who have been taught by schooling and popular culture to trust any place called a university.”
Utah Valley University’s Jeffrey Alan Johnson, whose school was invoked in Carey’s piece to exemplify this problem of an unduly inflated name, responded forcefully to the NYT op-ed: “Kevin Carey isn’t Alone in Exploiting the Word ‘University,’ Either”:
Carey’s problem with UVU extends to any “public university with a compass point or city designation in its name.” Schools that evolved from teacher-training oriented “normal schools” are systematically to be denied designation as a university – schools that Carey is clear to note were designed “to train women to become public schoolteachers.” Women, and especially women who will be teachers, must certainly not be allowed to attend Carey University!
Indeed, here we start to see Carey’s problem. This piece (you can decide what it is a piece of) is about what constitutes a “real” university. And any attempt to stratify on legitimacy should immediately raise deep concerns, as they are usually about protecting someone's privilege. The pity Carey has for those who can’t tell the difference between George Washington University and Argosy University rings hollow when he says that primary and secondary education programs saw name inflation just by being called teachers colleges rather than normal schools. That’s a profession that just doesn’t deserve to be at a university. Neither, apparently, do associate’s degrees, which aren’t real degrees at Carey University.
Who might benefit from such a restrictive definition of universities? Who is harmed by calling Cal State Fullerton a university rather than Fullerton State Normal School? Interestingly, it isn’t students who think they are attending a research university. In his recent book The End of College Carey is quite supportive of other non-university universities: The University of Everywhere is his touchstone in the book precisely because it is not a traditional research university. But it does serve an emerging elite, students that Tressie McMillan Cottom has rightly called “roving autodidacts.” Those students are apparently not confused by the name.
So the non-university university is a problem when it is appropriated by institutions serving the masses but when elite-serving institutions do that it is innovation. I think we now know what Kevin Carey’s problem is. It isn’t a word. It is a class.
What is a “real college”? What is a “real university”? How and why do we recognize them as such? What are the signals that these schools send that assure us they’re legitimate? How are these signals interpreted – by students, by governments, by employers, by the general public? What are promises that – legally – post-secondary institutions can or must make? What is the implied promise?
How might new technologies – education or otherwise – and new economies reshape “what counts” as a credential, “what counts” as credit? What are the stories that education technology entrepreneurs and investors and ed-tech’s proponents tell about the need or demand to “disrupt the degree”?
Agents of Accreditation
2016 was, as the president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation wrote earlier this month in Inside Higher Ed, a “Pivotal Year for Accreditation.”
Things have building towards “pivotal” for quitesome time now, not only with concerns about the questionable oversight that accreditors have provided for for-profit universities but with the push to alter accrediting rules surrounding online and competency-based degrees.
One of the longstanding complaints about accrediting agencies is that, as The Wall Street Journal reported this fall, “College Accreditors Largely Staffed by Employees of Schools They Oversee.” The WSJ article points to a report by the free market Manhattan Institute which claimed that two out of every three officials who work as commissioners for accreditors are employed by schools that their accrediting agencies oversee – a “potential conflicts of interest.” Those agencies responsible for monitoring for-profit universities have come under particularly close scrutiny, particularly in light of their low rates of graduation and high rates of student loan defaults.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was not successful in its attempts to force the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS) to hand over records as part of its investigation into possible unlawful practices in granting for-profit universities their accreditation. (The ACICS is the accrediting agency for many for-profits. Or it was.)
Throughout the year, the Department of Education also took steps to strengthen the oversight of accreditors, adding requirements regarding data that they had to report to the government and to the public as well as pressuring accreditors to do more to improve “student outcomes” at the schools they monitored.
In May, Buzzfeed reported that the ACICS had held a training session at its annual conference in which it explained to for-profit universities how to avoid scrutiny and lawsuits from states’ attorneys general. A few days later, California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris slammed the organization, insisting the ACICS had “greatly harmed Californian students and consumers” by continuing to grant schools like the now-defunct Corinthian Colleges accreditation. In June, the Center for American Progress issued a report that found that “ACICS is incapable of acting as a sufficient assessor of college quality and that its repeated poor judgment leaves millions of students and billions of taxpayer dollars at risk.”
In September, the Department of Education announced that it would move to strip ACICS, the largest accrediting body in the US, of its accrediting power. Although the ACICS has appealed the decision (and will keep appealing it says), the news has prompted hundreds of for-profit schools around the country to begin looking for a new accreditor. Students at these schools will not immediately lose access to financial aid – that’s one of the implications of an institution’s loss of accreditation – but many students are rightly concerned about their ability to finish their degrees.
ACICS wasn’t the only accrediting agency in trouble this year. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior College (ACCJC), the accreditor for California’s community colleges, lost its appeal to the Department of Education in January and will have a year to resolve the issues surrounding its not meeting federal accreditation standards. In March, the majority of community college presidents in California voted to pull away from ACCJC, something that had been in the works since it had sanctioned the City College of San Francisco back in 2012.
Meanwhile… while cracking down on one of the agencies responsible for overseeing for-profit universities, the Department of Education also launched a pilot project to allow “alternative providers” to be eligible for financial aid. I wrote about this program in more detail in the article in this series on “The ‘New’ For-Profit Higher Education.” So I’ll just say this here: those “quality assurance providers” for that program – accreditors-of-sorts – are deeply invested (some quite literally) in reshaping higher education to suit their particular vision of credentialing’s future.
“Conflicts of interest” persist, needless to say, and there are multiple think-tanks and companies eager to have a role in deciding “who counts” as an accreditor and “what counts” as a “real” post-secondary education.
Jobs for Grads
One of the ways in which we define a “real college”– and perhaps punish those which might not be sufficiently “real” – is by assessing the employability of its graduates. That’s been the impetus, in part, behind “gainful employment” rules for for-profits.
The question of employability matters to not-for-profits too. We assume that’s part of the deal that comes with a college diploma. But there has been a growing chorus of voices in recent years – many emanating from Silicon Valley – that college isn’t “worth it.”
Despite this narrative, workers with college degrees are still in high demand. Yes, graduates have struggled during the recent economic downturn, but contrary to popular belief, most aren’t unemployed or stuck in low-skilled, low-wage service jobs. According to a report released in June by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “Of the 11.6 million jobs added since the rebound took hold in 2010, about 99 percent – or 11.5 million jobs – were filled by people with either at least some college education, a bachelor’s degree or better.”
For those without a college degree, however, it’s a tough job market. According to a survey by the career search engine Career Builder, “Nearly a third of employers say they have increased their educational requirements over the past five years. … Thirty-seven percent of companies say they hire college graduates for positions that in the past were primarily held by people with only high school degrees, and 26 percent say they hire people with master’s degrees for jobs that used to go to candidates with bachelor’s degrees.”
And this is true for Silicon Valley too, despite all the lip service it has payed to “meritocracy” in hiring and promotion. If you want a job as a software developer in the technology industry, you’ll need a college degree. (Preferably from Stanford.) As The Wall Street Journal reported in March,
Seventy-five percent of job ads for those roles at technology companies specify an educational requirement, compared with 58% of openings posted by the full universe of employers that are hiring software developers, according to Burning Glass Technologies, a labor-market data firm that analyzed 1.6 million ads for software-developer jobs nationwide. And in 95% of the tech-sector job ads that list a minimum credential, the employer calls for a bachelor’s degree or higher, versus 92% of the ads from all employers seeking developers. … Nationally, 68% of adults over age 25 don’t have bachelor’s degrees. Burning Glass found employers in Silicon Valley were the most exacting in terms of credentials, listing education requirements in 77% of developer job postings, and in those ads, demanding a bachelor’s or advanced degree 98% of the time. (emphasis mine)
This should give us pause. It should perhaps make us question what’s going on with all those Silicon Valley companies who are actively peddling their alternative credentials as a substitute for a college degree. Because despite their marketing copy, it remains important to ask: how do employers, in and out of Silicon Valley, respond to these alt-credentials – to MOOC certificates and nanodegrees and microcredentials and badges?
There’s a hint, perhaps, in this Bloomberg headline: “Want a Job in Silicon Valley? Keep Away From Coding Schools.” As I’ve argued repeatedly, coding bootcamps are simply the latest manifestation of for-profit universities, as career and technical colleges have rebranded themselves in order to solve the problem of the so-called “skills gap.” Based on what we know about for-profit higher ed, graduates of these programs will have more student loan debt and fewer job opportunities. Bloomberg’s recent reporting on bootcamps seems to confirm this.
Yet investors in bootcamps continue to hype their investment portfolios. Writing in Edsurge, University Ventures’ Ryan Craig, whose firm has backed the bootcamp Revature, argued “Why Free Bootcamps + Inexpensive Bachelor’s Degrees Make Sense.” In other words, you should do both, according to Craig: get a degree and earn a bootcamp certificate.
Credential creep doesn’t solve the problem of credentialing at all, of course. But it’s great business for all these new credential providers and their investors (or so they hope).
Financial data on coding bootcamps can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.
What Counts as a Credential?
One of the organizations most heavily invested in promoting alternative credentialing is the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based non-profit whose endowment is worth over $1 billion. The Lumina Foundation was founded in 2000 using proceeds of the sale of USA Group, a private guarantor of student loans, to Sallie Mae. The foundation says it’s committed to boosting the number of Americans who have some “quality postsecondary credential” to 60% by 2025. (According to its later report from the Lumina Foundation, more than 45% of Americans between age 25 and 64 did in 2014.)
But again, what count as a “quality postsecondary credential”? How is “quality” defined? (Spoiler alert: mostly “skills” and “jobs” not “happiness” or “equity.”)
“It’s Time to Change What We Mean by ‘Credential’,” Northeastern University’s Sean Gallagher argued in The Chronicle of Higher Education. (He’s also the author of The Future of University Credentials: New Developments at the Intersection of Higher Education and Hiring, published this year.) “Colleges would be wise,” Gallagher argues, “not to cede their market position and their employer relationships to start-up companies or emerging degree substitutes.”
But startup companies and alt-degree providers have incredibly deep pockets, and the Lumina Foundation is just one of the many organizations that’s reframing the definition of the credential in the language of “marketplace.” (It’s also an investor in the alt-credential startup Credly, for what it’s worth.) In doing so, this language positions education squarely in the realm of business-speak and implies, by extension, that other reasons for a degree or credential – be they moral or civic or intellectual – are irrelevant at best, elitist at worst.
What does this look like in practice? In September, as Edsurge reported, a “New Lumina-Backed Registry Aims to Bring Transparency to the ’Credentialing Marketplace’.” As the press release from the The Credential Transparency Initiative described it, “Using web 3.0 technologies, the registry enables job seekers, students, workers, and employers to easily search for and compare credentials, similar to the way travel apps are used to compare flights, rental cars, and hotels.” Because credentialing works just like transportation.
More accurately, credentials work as signals. They signal knowledge attainment and task completion, for starters. They signal who you know or might know, not just what you know. They signal socio-economic class. They signal status. And that holds true for college degrees as well as alternative certificate programs. “The Thiel Fellowship was created to prove that a college degree doesn’t matter,” as Backchannel recently reported. “It became one of the most elite credentials for young entrepreneurs.” Prestige networks replicate prestige.
Credentials can also help legitimize institutions and industries. The technology industry has been doing this for quite some time – take Microsoft’s own certification program that it launched back in 1992. (This is still the most popular certification listed on Microsoft’s professional network, LinkedIn.) Udacity has taken a page from this playbook, offering certificates this year in a number of nascent fields, including artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and autonomous vehicle engineering.
This process of legitimization through credentialing is worth thinking about in terms of the teaching profession too. Education degrees have long been viewed as an inferior degree issued by less prestigious post-secondary institutions. (This relates to Jeffrey Alan Johnson’s response to Kevin Carey that I mentioned above.) Teach for America, which turned 25 this year, was one attempt to attract students from more prestigious schools into the teaching profession by bypassing the traditional certification process. There were several attempts this year – from the Department of Education and others – to alter teacher preparation programs. New federal rules, for example, were poised to raise the standards for these graduates. Other organizationsandcompanies began offering “micro-credentials” for educators. (So, on one hand, as I noted in the previous article in this series, we find states and districts hiring teachers without teaching certifications; and on the other, we see this push for alternative certification programs.)
According to research published in the American Educational Research Journal and reported by Education Week, “Alternative-certification programs are bringing in scores more teachers of color, male teachers, and teachers who attended selective colleges than traditional programs. But teachers who enter the profession through such programs also appear to leave it at higher rates – and that gap has been growing since 1999.”
At the risk of extrapolating too much from this particular research, we do need to ask, in general, whether or not alternative certification programs tackle or exacerbate the diversity issues that many industries and institutions face. What sorts of credentials “count,” and which ones count against women and people of color?
“My hypothesis,” venture capitalist Ryan Craig wrote in Edsurge in March, "is that degree exceptionalism will abate and degrees –starting with master’s, but continuing with bachelor’s – will be one credential among many. They’ll be on a leveling playing field with a plethora of novel credentials offered in blended and online modalities by colleges, universities, new postsecondary providers, bootcamps, not-for-profit organizations, museums, libraries, enterprises and solo practitioners seeking to disintermediate all of the above. For fun, let’s call these novel credentials microdegrees.
Take your pick. For fun. (For a price):
“Alternative paths to degrees.” “Alternative paths to credit.” “Flexible, stackable courses.” “Stackable degrees.” “Stackable credentials.” “Stackable credential pathways.” “Connected credentials.” MOOCs for credit. Microcredentials. The MicroDegree™. The MicroMasters™. The Nanodegree™. The Nanodegree Plus– it comes with a money-back guarantee. The Techdegree. Badges. Badges. Badges. Open badges and not-open badges. Short-term certificate programs. Fast track certification. Diplomas issued by Facebook. By Google. By Khan Academy.
And if all this pressure to “up-credential” so you can signal you’ve “up-skilled,” gets you down, perhaps you can try what Zenefits did. The human resources startup – which has raised some $580 million in venture capital – created software to allow insurance brokers to cheat on their licensing requirements by bypassing a legally required 52-hour online course. “Bypass.” “Disrupt.” “Innovate.”
Education technology startups certainly hope that the pressure for more credentials – “real” or “fake,” either way – will be provide a much needed revenue stream.
Funding data for startups offering “alt-credentials” can be found at funding.hackeducation.com.
The History of the Future of Competency-Based Education
What counts as a credit?
For the last hundred years or so, the notion of “credit” has been largely based on the Carnegie Unit– that is, based on a fixed amount of time that a student must spend in a classroom, in contact with an instructor. And for the past few years (at least), “competency-based education” (CBE) has been heralded – once again– as the “next big thing,” a way to move beyond the Carnegie Unit. Instead of requiring “seat time,” competency-based education demands students pass assessments– on their own schedule rather than, say, a semester schedule – in order to demonstrate their understanding or competency.
No surprise, with the built-in necessity of testing, competency-based education is lauded by assessment companies. Often described as a more “technical” solution than what a human teacher has traditionally provided, it’s been embraced too by ed-tech companies, by venture capitalists, by for-profit universities, and by education reform organizations.
This year, the for-profit Rasmussen College was approved by the Department of Education to offer competency-based degrees in business management and accounting. The for-profit Walden University will offer an online competency-based master’s degree in early childhood education. Purdue University will offer a competency-based bachelor’s degree in technology. Brandman University will offer an online competency-based bachelor’s degree in information technology. The Department of Education’s Inspector General announced in January that it was auditing Western Governors University over the role faculty have in its competency-based programs. Should these actually be considered “correspondence courses,” the Inspector General wondered? What’s the difference?
We must ask, as with all of the promises of ed-tech innovation, if alternative credentialing programs like CBE address or exacerbate educational inequalities. As sociology professor Steven Ward wrote in an op-ed in Inside Higher Ed,
Despite the rhetoric of “serving the underserved” and “closing the skills gap,” [CBE programs] are responsible for generating new hierarchies between those who receive a cheap, fast food-style or “good enough” education from those who receive a quality one. They are forging new barriers and strata in an already highly stratified higher education system, not removing them as they often claim.
CBE stands in marked contrast to a past emphasis on quality, across-the-board liberal learning to be acquired regardless of the type of student or institution that was at the heart of general liberal education. This was partly what a Dewey-style social democratic vision of liberal arts education was supposed to be about – general knowledge available to and shared by all – a kindergarten for adults.
There is no technological solution to prestige and status.
Let’s remember: competency-based education is not new. The General Educational Development test, better known by its initials the GED, is over 70 years old. Initially designed to help soldiers who’d joined the military without finishing high school demonstrate that they had academic skills equivalent to those with a HS diploma, the GED has been a significant, albeit highly flawed, competency-based assessment and alt-credential. It’s an assessment now administered by Pearson, and since the education giant took over the GED in 2014, pass rates have plummeted. Pearson did lower the pass score this year, “to better measure student performance” it claimed. In doing so, some 20,000 additional students were able to receive their GEDs. Pearson also added a new, optional scoring level to the test that would allow students to signal they were “college ready” and to earn ACE recommendations for college credits – another one of those “alternative paths to credit.”
A Chain of Blocks and Badges
In February, Sony issued a press release, “vowing” to bring the blockchain to education in the form of a new testing platform. Although I’d been casually following developments around the blockchain and Bitcoin, the cryptocurrency associated with it, I hadn’t really been paying that close of attention to the potential for the blockchain as an education product. But knowing how much education technology loves a buzzword, I figured I’d better do some research.
Research I did, publishing two articles on the blockchain in education – its technology and its ideology. I wrote then that there were (at least) three elements of blockchain discourse “relevant to discussions about “the future of education” – that is, these elements are particularly instructive about the ideological shape of an imagined future. These are the anti-institutional bent of the blockchain; its reliance on decentralization (as a technology and as a metaphor); and its invocation of trust (and mistrust) as the key social behavior mediated by the technology.” Mostly, I concluded, the blockchain’s a bad idea.
Honestly, I was hoping that was the last time I’d have to mention the blockchain, particularly as the technology and the Bitcoin cryptocurrency itself have ties to the alt-right. I guess 2016 didn’t really turn out the way I wanted though. As one Bitcoin-related publication boasted in February, “Why Donald Trump and Bitcoin Are Both Unstoppable.”
The blockchain was hyped by the World Economic Forum– remember when it thought MOOCs were the next big thing? – and it was hyped at SXSWedu – “Imagine a future in which learning is earning.” MIT Media Lab explored using the blockchain as part of a new credentialing system. It’ll power “Uber-U,” Contact North proclaimed. The blockchain could power badges, said one group comprised of several former Mozilla employees. (Mozilla officially gave up its role in its Open Badges initiative this year.) The blockchain will make credentials more secure– because remember, at the end of the day, most ed-tech sees students (and job applicants) as cheats. It’s “the most important tech invention of our age,” several claimed. And thus, there were TED Talks.
It’s still not clear to me what problem(s) with credentials the blockchain might actually solve. The same can be said for many of the products in this article, no doubt. But when something’s a product, education technology seems duty-bound to embrace it, not with any deep critical analysis but with its typically superficial hype and hope.
Edsurge, in its description of “What Blockchain Means for Higher Education” wrote that “blockchain is literally a chain of blocks.” I assure you, it literally is not. What it is: a complex technology, one that, if nothing else, comes with steep financial and energy costs and with a particular set of Silicon Valley ideologies – neoliberalism, libertarianism, and global capitalism – hard-coded into its transactions.
In a quest to “fix” the problems with credentials – problems that are social and structural – the blockchain puts technology’s fantasies before human needs. No you can’t simply put “social capital” on the blockchain. Prestige – a fundamental part of “what counts” in credentialing – is really not an engineering problem, no matter how many education technology companies invest in the idea that it is.
The Trump Administration
Inside Higher Ed asks what might happen to Title IX and investigations into campus sexual assaults under the Trump Administration.
Via The Washington Post: “Democratic senators press Trump’s education pick Betsy DeVos to pay years-old $5.3 million fine.”
Via The Detroit Free Press: “Betsy DeVos’ trouble with data.”
Via Education Week: “Who Is Part of Ed. Sec. Nominee Betsy DeVos’ Policy Circle?”
Via The New York Times: “Betsy DeVos and God’s Plan for Schools.”
Jennifer Berkshire looks atBetsy DeVos and her connection to the fringes of the Christian Right: “Culture Warrior Princess.”
Via The New York Times: “How Trump’s Education Nominee Bent Detroit to Her Will on Charter Schools.”
Via Politico: “DeVos’ Michigan schools experiment gets poor grades.”
Via The New Yorker: “Betsy DeVos and the Plan to Break Public Schools.”
Via the AP: “Fearing Trump crackdown, ‘dreamers’ advised to end travel.”
“Trump launches war on unions,” according to Politico.
Via The Intercept: “Transition Adviser Peter Thiel Could Directly Profit From Mass Deportations.”
“Elon Musk and the chief executive of Uber are now advising Donald Trump,” The Washington Post reports.
“As Trumplethinskin lets down his hair for tech, shame on Silicon Valley for climbing the Tower in silence,” Recode Kara Swisher writes.
When Donald met Kanye:
These issues included bullying, supporting teachers, modernizing curriculums, and violence in Chicago.— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) December 13, 2016
On Wednesday, the fourth anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre, the Hanover School District 28 school board in Coloradovoted to allow its teachers to carry concealed handguns in school.
Elsewhere in guns on campus, this via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Campus Concealed-Carry Bill Awaits Ohio Governor’s Approval.”
Via Edsurge: “Minnesota Higher Ed Office Says Udacity’s Nanodegrees Might Violate State Law.”
“Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler will step down next month, leaving a significant legacy on issues of concern to K–12 educators and creating uncertainty about what direction the commission might take under new Republican leadership,” Education Week reports. Wheeler supported e-Rate reform and “net neutrality.” The Trump administration? Not so much.
Via Education Week: “GOP Lawmakers Put ESSA Accountability, Teacher-Prep Regulations on Hit List.”
Via The New York Times: “Google Effect Rubs Off on Schools in One Rural Oklahoma Town.”
“The Education of Barack Obama,” by The Nation’s Dana Goldstein.
Via The Hechinger Report: “Mississippi’s early ed shakeup: State reorganizes key child care services, launches new family tracking system.”
“Having unexpectedly found itself handing off the baton to a Republican administration in January, the U.S. Department of Education is racing to finish a slate of Obama administration priorities. But few of the department’s remaining tasks are as daunting as processing thousands of debt-relief claims filed by former students of closed for-profit colleges,” writes Inside Higher Ed. The Department of Education has also announced“an experiment to find the best loan counseling services for student borrowers,” Inside Higher Ed reports, as well as the names of new loan collector contracts.
Via Reuters: “College Board faces rocky path after CEO pushes new vision for SAT.”
“Students with disabilities will soon have an easier time requesting test accommodations from the College Board,” Education Week reports.
“What countries can learn from PISA tests” – at least, according to The Economist.
Online Education and the Once and Future “MOOC”
“A judge will allow Ohio’s education department to review attendance records that could force Ohio’s largest online charter to return millions of its funding,” says the AP.
Via Chalkbeat: “The broken promise of Indiana’s online schools.”
“Some shareholders in K12 Inc., the largest for-profit operator of online schools in the country, are calling on the company to disclose how much it spends on lobbying and advertising,” Education Week reports.
edXlists its most popular courses of the year.
“UT Austin and SMOCs: What do we know about whether they work?” asks Mindwire Consulting’s Phil Hill.
“Online Education Pioneer Boots Up a Jobs Program for the Tech Industry,” the MIT Technology Review reports. That “online education pioneer” is Sebastian Thrun. More on the possible legal troubles this program faces in the politics section above.
Coding Bootcamps and the “New” “For-Profit Higher Ed”)
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “DeVry University and its parent company will pay $100 million to settle a lawsuit, brought by the Federal Trade Commission, that claimed the for-profit institution had misled prospective students. A news release from the commission says the settlement ‘secures significant financial redress for tens of thousands of students harmed by DeVry’s conduct.’” More via The New York Times and from the FTC.
Via The Huffington Post: “Two former high-ranking executives of Trump University are now two of the top executives at a Florida-based career college, Ultimate Medical Academy, that has 13,000 students enrolled, has been receiving more than $150 million annually in federal student aid, and is accredited by the imperiled agency ACICS.”
More on possible debt relief for students of for-profit colleges in the politics section above.
Meanwhile on Campus
“There Have Been Over 200 School Shooting Incidents Since The Sandy Hook Massacre,” The Huffington Post reminds us. This week marked the fourth anniversary of the shootings at the Newton elementary school.
Via The New York Times: “On Campus, Trump Fans Say They Need ‘Safe Spaces’.”
Via New York Magazine: “Alt-Right Troll Milo Yiannopoulos Uses Campus Visit to Openly Mock a Transgender Student.”
“CCSF can’t prove it taught 16,000 students, must pay $39 million,” The San Francisco Chronicle reports. Mindwires Consulting’s Phil Hill says this is the “price of faculty not using LMS.” Rather, it’s the price of deciding that “proof” of online education requires the LMS.
Via The New York Times: “Success Academy Buys Space in Manhattan Tower for 2 New Schools.” (It’s not Trump Tower, don’t worry, Eva Moskowitz fans.)
Also via The New York Times: “New York Charters Enroll Fewer Homeless Pupils Than City Schools.”
Via The Times-Picayune: “Last 5 New Orleans public schools expected to become charter operations.”
Via The Houston Chronicle: “Facing pressure to cut special education, Texas schools shut out English Language Learners.”
“Are Colleges Engines of Inequality?” – a new report from The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Via KQED: “Homeless U: First Shelter Just for College Students Opens Its Doors.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Colby-Sawyer College, a private college in New Hampshire, has announced cuts in staff positions and is also eliminating some majors.” One of the majors cut: English. Can you be a SLAC if you don’t offer a degree in English?
The War on Xmas Will Be Fought in Schools
A school in Texas made a teacher take down a decoration that read “For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord … That’s what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.” WWJD: she sued. A federal judge issued an injunction and so the decoration can remain.
Accreditation and Credentialing
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “John B. King Jr., the secretary of education, on Monday upheld the U.S. Department of Education's decision to revoke the federal recognition of the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, an agency that had accredited for-profit colleges that suffered recent high-profile collapses.”
Barbara Beno, the president of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior College, has been placed on leave, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.
“What does a high school diploma prove?” asks The Connecticut Mirror.
More on MOOC “degrees” and possible legal troubles in the politics section above.
Go, School Sports Team!
Via IndyStar: “A 20-year toll: 368 gymnasts allege sexual exploitation.”
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “The University of Minnesota’s football players announced on Thursday that the entire team would boycott practices and other team activities – even a December 27 appearance in the Holiday Bowl, if need be – to protest the university’s suspension of 10 players from the team in connection with a campus investigation of a sexual-assault complaint.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Following similar scandals involving sexist, racist and homophobic online communication among some male athletes at Harvard and Columbia Universities and Amherst College, Princeton University on Thursday announced that it was suspending its men’s swimming and diving team.”
Via The Casper Star Tribune: “University of Wyoming athletics director Tom Burman said Wednesday he’s confident the university can cover the recent contract extension for football coach Craig Bohl without any additional financial aid from the state. Bohl is getting a pay raise to $1.4 million a year, starting next year. He is currently guaranteed $850,000 a year.” The University of Wyoming has lost some $41 million in funding from the state over the past two years, and as a result it has slashed departments and staff. But the football team is a priority, clearly.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Citing high-profile cases of academic fraud at some of the country’s most visible universities, the American Council on Education released a report today urging colleges and universities to better align their athletics departments with their academic mission and to ‘ensure a culture of integrity.’”
From the HR Department
Heather Hiles, formerly the CEO of portfolio company Pathbrite (which was sold to Cengage Learning in 2015) will be the new “deputy director of postsecondary success” at the Gates Foundation.
The Sacramento Bee reports that former UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi is being considered to lead the school’s Feminist Research Institute. Maybe she can do for the online reputation of white feminism what she did to obscure the university’s pepper-spray incident.
Via The New York Times: “Columbia Graduate Students Vote Overwhelmingly to Unionize.”
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Most Colleges Will Change Overtime Policies Despite Judge’s Blocking of New Rule.”
“A Gadsden City Schools principal has been suspended after coming under fire for a social media post he made following Trump’s election,” the AP reports. His Facebook post: “All I can say is, Trump was elected two days ago and we already have actual white flour American rolls in the lunchroom instead of the Communist wheat bread that’s been served for the past few years.”
Upgrades and Downgrades
Via Backchannel: “Inside Peter Thiel’s Genius Factory.”
Also via Backchannel: “A Secret Ops AI Aims to Save Education.” Oh goody. Secret ops and AI.
The BBC reports that “Cuba signs deal for faster internet access to Google content.” Think again if you believe Google supports “net neutrality.”
In other “don’t believe ‘don’t be evil’” news: “Google Won’t Alter the Holocaust-Denying Results For ‘Did the Holocaust Happen’,” says Gizmodo. Google search is fundamentally broken if this is the first result you get. Broken.
“Google Tackles Graduation with Two New Features,” according to Edsurge. That is, you can get emails about what’s going on in Google Classroom. Google’s gonna “fix” graduation problems but you can’t even search for “Is Elvis still alive” without getting a wrong answer.
Via CNBC: “Pearson’s marketing chief on the company’s virtual tutors and digital education transformation.”
Via the press release: “Pearson Releases Research-Based Learning Design Principles for Public Use.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education looks at how 50 years of technology“transformed education forever.” What’s so great about technology is that it has “transformed education forever” and yet you still hear ed-tech advocates insisting that education has not changed in hundreds of years. Both/and, I guess.
Campus Technology reports that “Elsevier Debuts Metrics Tracking Journal Performance.” Meanwhile, “Germany-wide consortium of research libraries announce boycott of Elsevier journals over open access,” according to BoingBoing.
Via Techcrunch: “Family friendly streaming service VidAngel found to be in violation of law, ordered to shut down.”
Via NPR: “Kids In Spain Rebel Against Homework, And Parents Are Their Biggest Boosters.”
The latest from Stanford history professor on Larry Cuban on “personalized learning” in Silicon Valley area schools.
Augmented reality startup Magic Leap is unbelievable. (Because it’s “smoke and mirrors.”)
The Business of Ed-Tech
Podotree has raised $107 million from Anchor Equity Partners and GIC. The Korean educational app-maker has raised $116.93 million total.
Pluralsight has raised $30 million “En Route to IPO,” says Edsurge, rewriting CNBC’s reporting and not even bothering to add value. Like, say, remind folks that former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan joined the skills-training company’s board this summer. Pluralsight has raised $192.5 million total. This latest round came from investors Insight Venture Partners and Iconiq Capital.
Inkling probably doesn’t “count” as ed-tech any longer since it’s pivoted away from the digital textbook business. But it’s raised $25 million from Sapphire Ventures, Sequoia Capital, and Tenaya Capital. The startup has raised $102.12 million total.
Curriculum maker XSEED Education has raised $10 million from Verlinvest.
MasteryConnect has raised $4.5 million“to refocus on core product and profits.” Investors in this round include Catamount Ventures, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Dell Foundation, Pelion Ventures, and Trinity Ventures. The testing company has raised $33.63 million.
Knowledgehook has raised $902,810 from Sayan Navaratnam, Steve Case, and John Abele. The startup uses “real-time student data to improve teacher instruction.”
Math education startup Math Buddy has raised $438,000 from Menterra Venture Advisors.
Next Education has acquiredXolvr.
“Investors See Promise in Ed-Tech Sector Despite Challenges,” says Education Week. Of course they do.
Data, Privacy, and Surveillance
Via NBC Washington: “Public Schools Data Breach Affects 1,000 Former Frederick County Students.”
Inside Higher Ed reports that a student filmed a psychology instructor at Orange Coast College as she made comments in class about Donald Trump and posted the video to the College Republicans’ Facebook page. She’s had to flee the state because of threats.
And I guess that’s why I’m a little skeptical about professors clamoring to be on “the watchlist.” A better tactic, I’d argue, is to make sure your department and institution have concrete steps they’ll take in order to protect academic freedom and – quite literally – protect academics’ lives when these sorts of threats occur.
The Washington Post asks, “When every moment of childhood can be recorded and shared, what happens to childhood?”
Via Slate: “Wrongful Arrest by Software.” No, it isn’t about education directly, but predictive analytics are supposedly “the next big thing,” and let’s be honest about how discriminatory and flawed this software is.
Via The Telegraph: “Test predicts which children will grow up to be drain on society– when they are just three years old.” “A drain on society.”
There’s more on surveillance and predictive analytics in the research section below.
Data and “Research”
Via Edsurge: “New Research From Civitas Learning Asks, ‘Who’s Likely to Succeed in College?’”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Language education is dwindling at every level, from K–12 to postsecondary, and a diminishing share of U.S. residents speak languages other than English, according to a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.”
“Cuts in Spending for Research Worldwide May Threaten Innovation,” the OECD contends.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Recent college graduates were more likely than those in prior decades to visit a career center while in college but are less likely to view their interactions as ‘very helpful,’ according to the newest data from an annual Gallup-Purdue University study of college graduates.”
Via The Guardian: “Gendered toys could deter girls from career in engineering, report says.”
“Older Americans Went Back To School During The Recession. Did It Pay Off?” FiveThirtyEight asks.
Via NPR: “After 50 Years, Head Start Struggles With Uneven Quality.”
The Hechinger Report looks at campus policing: “Data shows that just having a school-based police officer makes it more likely that a child will be referred to law enforcement for even minor infractions — potentially pushing kids into the justice system for misdeeds like vandalism, more generally known as the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Via The Awl: “America’s Worst Schools, Ranked.” (By tweets.)
Icon credits: The Noun Project
This is part eight of my annual review of the year in ed-tech
Pokémon Go, a free augmented reality game developed by Niantic (a company spun out of Google in 2015), became the most popular mobile game in US history this year. The game was launched in July and despite mixed reviews, was downloaded some 10 million times the first week it was released. Pokémon Go generated more than $160 million by the end of July, hitting $600 million in revenue within its first 90 days on the market – the fastest mobile game to do so.
Always eager to associate itself with the latest tech craze, education technology embraced Pokémon Go with great gusto: “Why Pokemon Go shows the future of learning gamification.” “The Educational Potential of Pokémon Go.” “Why Pokémon Go marks a new step forward in education.” “14 Reasons Why Pokémon Go Is The Future Of Learning.”
But these wild proclamations – wishful thinking, no doubt – tended to overlook the realities of mobile technology and education. Many students cannot afford the heavy data usage required by geofencing apps, for starters. And Pokémon Go’s PokéStops and Gyms were rarely found in low-income neighborhoods and in areas where the population was not overwhelmingly white. (I’ll look more closely at discrimination by design – in software and in algorithms – in the final article in this series.) Furthermore, at launch, Pokémon Go demanded users sign over a great deal of personal data and grant permissions to the app that, for a time, gave it access to a user’s entire Google account.
Handing over data, often quite thoughtlessly, has become par for the course – in education and in society more generally. Although privacy expertshave urged parents and educators to be more proactive about protecting children’s data and privacy) – while using Pokémon Go and other data-hungry apps – we now live in a culture of surveillance, where data collection and data extraction have become normalized.
Surveillance starts early. “Quantified babies” and “Surveillance Barbie” and such. Rather than actively opting children out of a world of tracking and marketing, parents increasingly opt them in– almost always without their children’s consent.
Many of us have become quite lackadaisical about the data we share. “It doesn’t matter.” “I have nothing to hide.” Schools, operating under longstanding mandates to track and to measure as much as possible, have been more than willing to expand the amount and types of data they’re collecting on students. Fears of FERPA are frequently stoked to stymy certain projects – perhaps unnecessarily in some cases – but schools have not always been cautious about who has access to student data.
Has our confidence that we or our students have “nothing to hide” changed now under President-Elect Trump?
Under a Trump administration: I very much want ed-tech companies and schools to reconsider collecting so much data about students— Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) November 10, 2016
What will happen to the massive amounts of data that education has collected? To data about students’ immigration status? To data about students’ sexual identity? To data about students’ intellectual, academic, and political preferences? What sorts of insights can we glean or will we glean from this data anyway? Who, if anyone, might these insights benefit? Is all that data secure? Is students’ privacy being protected? Is students’ privacy and personal integrity being considered at all?
Education’s Obsession with Data
Why collect data? “To keep schools accountable,” in part.
“Accountability rhetoric echoes a broader turn toward data-driven decision-making and resource allocation across sectors. As a tool of power, accountability processes shift authority and control to policymakers, bureaucrats, and test makers over professional educators,” Data & Society’s Claire Fontaine wrote in a working paper released this summer on the use of data in education.
Today, measurements of school performance have become so commonplace that they are an assumed part of education debates. As new forms of data are easier to collect and analyze, drawing on and interacting with information to measure the impact of programs and to inform decision-making and policy has emerged as a key strategy to foster improvement in public schools.
…The accountability movement reflects the application of free market economics to public education, a legacy of the Chicago School of Economics in the post-World War II era. As a set of policies, accountability was instantiated in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, reauthorized as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, and reinforced by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015. ESSA gives more autonomy and flexibility to states than they had under NCLB through competency-based assessments, which could drive the development of personalized learning technologies. ESSA’s accountability processes also require new types of data collection and disaggregation, including of non-academic indicators of school quality. Significantly, ESSA mandates the collection and reporting of per pupil expenditure data at the school level. Teaching and learning are increasingly being measured and quantified to enable analysis of the relationship between inputs (e.g., funding) and outputs (e.g., student performance) with the goal of maximizing economic growth and productivity and increasing human capital.
The accountability movement is built on a long history of standardized testing and data collection that privileges quantification and statistical analysis as ways of knowing. An underlying assumption is that learning can be measured and is an effect of instruction. This is an empiricist perspective descended from John Locke and the doctrine that knowledge derives primarily from experience. Accountability in education also holds that schools are fundamentally responsible for student performance, as opposed to families, neighborhoods, communities, or society at large. This premise lacks a solid evidentiary basis, as research shows that student performance is more closely linked to socioeconomic status. Finally, efforts to achieve accountability presume that market-based solutions can effectively protect the interests of society’s most vulnerable.
While the collection of data– enrollment data, attendance data, graduation data, disciplinary data, standardized test data – has been mandated for some time now, new digital technologies bring with them an expanded capacity for data-mining as well as an underlying ideology that more data necessarily means better measurement, better “outcomes” and better “solutions.”
There is, however, little evidence that collecting more data improves teaching or learning. Nevertheless, education technology continues to insist that its software and algorithms can identify students who are struggling – academically or emotionally.
With all this data collection and analysis come major issues surrounding ethics and privacy and substantial risks surrounding information security. What purports to work in the service of helping students may actually function to shame, demotivate, alienate, and endanger them. It certainly undermines trust. And too often, students do not know the extent to which their data is being mined and activities being surveilled.
Students as Cheats
Much of the surveillance of students – in the classroom, on their computers, on the playground, online, offline, at school, at home – is based on a suspicion that they’re cheating.
(The scrutiny always falls disproportionately on low income students, students of color, and foreign students. “Foreign Students Seen Cheating More Than Domestic Ones,” The Wall Street Journal reported. “Seen” cheating.)
Students cheat, we’re repeatedly told. They use cheat sheets and Google Search during exams. They cheat with smartwatches. They cheat and they lie. They lie about their skills and lie about their degrees. (That’s part of the rationale for adopting the blockchain for transcripts.) In response to all this deceit, there’s a “new cheating economy,” The Chronicle of Education reported in August. Implied: students are lazy; students are conniving; students are academically unprepared.
As such, there’s a growing market for ed-tech products that assure schools they can curb cheating, particularly during testing. ProctorFree, for example, raised an undisclosed amount of funding in January for “an automated service that uses biometric and machine learning technologies to eliminate the need for human oversight in online exams” which doesn’t sound horrifying at all.
Details about the investments in test monitoring software can be found at funding.hackeducation.com.
No longer is it simply a matter of buying software specifically designed or marketed to stop cheating or plagiarism. The metadata from students’ everyday activities – in online classes and in learning management systems and in personal tech usage – can now be used to investigate those suspected of cheating, as it was, for example, in an NCAA investigation this spring into the former head coach of the men’s basketball team at University of Southern Mississippi. IP addresses, online aliases, and edits were all analyzed to confirm that graduate assistants were completing athletes’ school work for them.
Sports-related cheating aside, arguably the biggest cheating scandals this year involved two of the most well-known standardized tests – the ACT and the SAT. That’s probably no surprise, considering the significance placed on these exams in college admissions (and in some cases, high school graduation). As Campbell’s Law tells us, “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
Reuters has led the way with investigative reporting on this. From March: “As SAT was hit by security breaches, College Board went ahead with tests that had leaked.” “How Asian test-prep companies swiftly exposed the brand-new SAT.” From April: “U.S. students given SATs that were online before exam.” From July: “Students and teachers detail pervasive cheating in a program owned by test giant ACT.” From August: “‘Massive’ breach exposes hundreds of questions for upcoming SAT exams.” “ACT shakes up security unit, plans audit after cheating reports.” “FBI raids home of ex-College Board official in probe of SAT leak.” From September: “College Board says upcoming SATs won’t contain questions exposed in breach.”
The College Board, which owns the SAT, had a rather anemic response to news of the breaches: “Throughout the 90-year history of the SAT, the College Board has faced the issue of cheating. The sad truth is that cheating is as old as testing. But the internet age brings new challenges that are in no way unique to the College Board. Every testing organization – including all of the major undergraduate and graduate program admissions tests – reuse some test questions or forms. Targeted reuse is one way testing organizations ensure quality and comparability of tests over time.” The College Board urged the media to pay attention to students who “work hard” and “play by the rules” instead of the ongoing security issues.
But the number of breaches and vulnerabilities – whether as part of cheating rings or other sorts of scams – are too important and too frequent to simply brush off as an “old” problem.
How Secure is Education Data?
A partial list of security breaches at schools this year: Social Security numbers, names and birth dates of some 78,000 students and staff at Katy ISD in Texas. W–2s of about 1400 employees and the direct deposit banking information of another 40 at the University of Virginia. The names, names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth of about 1000 students in the Frederick County Public Schools in Virginia. The student identification number, race, age, school, and disabilities of about 12,000 students in the DC school system. The Social Security numbers of about 4100 University of Mary Washington students and staff. Personal information, including Social Security numbers of about 63,000 student athletes, former student athletes, current employees, and former employees at the University of Central Florida. The personal data of about 2000 students in the Lewis-Palmer School District 38 in Colorado. Social Security and bank account numbers of some 80,000 students, alumni, employees and former employees at the University of California, Berkeley. The personal data and banking information of 51 El Paso Independent School District employees. The banking information of 13 employees of Illinois State University. The personal information of “thousands” of current and former employees of Holley Central School District in New York. The personal information, including Social Security numbers, of about 450 staff and students at Michigan State University.
The latter was discovered when an email was sent to the school attempting to extort money. This is becoming an increasingly common tactic among cyber-criminals: ransomware, a malicious software that can hold an entire computer system and all its data “hostage” until a fee is paid. That’s what happened to the Horry County Schools in South Carolina earlier this year; it had to pay $10,000 to get access to its system back. The University of Calgary paid $20,000 that was demanded after an attack this spring on its email system. Bournemouth University, which funnily enough actually boasts a cybersecurity center, was hit by ransomware twenty-one times in the past year.
Clearly schools and school systems are unprepared for cybercrime and unable to protect the basic personal information kept in student and employee information systems. (This will be an obstacle to ed-tech, Edsurge laments.)
The US Department of Education itself is also incredibly vulnerable to cyber threats. As The Hill reported in January, “House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is warning that a hack on the Department of Education would dwarf last year’s massive breach at the Office of Personnel Management. ‘Almost half of America's records are sitting at the Department of Education,’ Chaffetz said. … ‘I think ultimately that’s going to be the largest data breach that we’ve ever seen in the history of our nation.’” In February, the Department of Education’s chief information officer Danny Harris was “hammered” at a committee hearing meeting for the ongoing vulnerabilities in the agency’s information systems. Harris resigned shortly afterwards.
2016 underscored that security flaws aren’t solely a problem of educational institutions and government agencies. In September, the tech giant Yahoo confirmed that some 500 million users’ accounts had been compromised in the largest breach ever. (You know what’s cooler than a million hacked Yahoo accounts?) Education technologies and digital technologies that cater to students, teens, and children experienced several breaches and vulnerabilities of their own: Blackboard, Code.org, i-Dressup, OurTeenNetwork, OKCupid, and UKnowKids.com, for example.
Although it didn’t say it was an explicit response to the compromise it experienced earlier in the year, Code.org announced in July that it was changing how students would log into its Code Studio and that it was deleting some 10 million student email addresses from its system and would not collect that information any longer. “The data we don’t store cannot be stolen from us,” founder Hadi Partovi wrote in a blog post.
That’s an incredibly important point – “the data we don’t store cannot be stolen from us.” And yet education technology companies, in conjunction with schools, collect so much data – much of it utterly unnecessary.
Just how secure is that data? And even if it is “secure,” are there still terrible privacy practices involved? Are the Terms of Service, for example, onerous and their data-sharing practices sketchy, absolving themselves of all responsibility, for example, for leaking the personal data of some 6.3 million children? Are log-ins encrypted? (A recent study by Common Sense Media found that some 25% of ed-tech products it evaluated do not support encryption at all, and only a paltry few education organizations and companies offer two-factor authentication to protect log-in credentials.)
In order to help schools and parents make “informed decisions” about privacy and security, Common Sense Media released an “Information Security Primer for Evaluating Educational Software” this year. With the help of some forty school districts, the organization has also launched a multi-year initiative to evaluate educational software, rating these in terms of privacy, security, and safety.
According to one market research firm, security and cybersecurity are among the products that K–12 schools have expressed the most interest in buying. To clarify, however, what many schools count as “safety” procurements: “gun detectors when you walk into a school, security guards or patrol officers who hang out at schools, or the equipment [schools] buy like security cameras.” Yes, gun-detectors are ed-tech.
This interest in cybersecurity has prompted a handful of education technology companies to take steps to improve their own security practices. Instructure, for example, undertook its fifth annual security audit this year to identify possible vulnerabilities in its LMS Canvas. Cybersecurity for schools will also likely become a product in its own right – poised to be a boon for those companies that charge other companies to verify their privacy and security bonafides in exchange for a “seal of approval.”
Unfortunately, too often education technology companies and educators are willing to trade security and privacy for the sake of convenience in the classroom. One of the best examples of this might be Clever’s release of a QR code badge that students can use to automatically enter their username and password into school software. QR codes are, of course, notoriously bad security and a way for malicious code to be executed. Education infosec expert Jessy Irwin examined Clever’s product launch, arguing that that “what they’re doing with this new product is not a security upgrade or a major privacy coup for schools.” Indeed, using these badges creates a host of other security problems: what happens when students swap badges, for instance? What sorts of lessons about insecure digital practices are students being taught? Will this be effective in any way in keeping students’ data safe? Or is this simply about classroom management and efficiency – making it as simple as possible to log students into their machines? “There is no basis upon which schools can evaluate Clever’s claims or trust Clever’s product with the data of the young children,” Irwin concludes, “especially given the unsubstantiated claims made in its marketing materials and the insecure practices it has modeled for educators everywhere.”
Federal and state laws do dictate what kinds of data must be collected about students and what kinds of privacy protections must be in place. The best known of these are the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). First passed in 1974 and 1998 respectively, these laws are often criticized for not keeping pace with new digital technologies.
High profile lawmakers questioned education companies about their privacy practices this year – Senator Al Franken, for example, demanded Google clarify its collection of student data, and California Attorney General Kamala Harris urged ed-tech companies to do more to protect student privacy. According to the Data Quality Campaign, “Student data privacy was a priority issue in state legislatures in 2016.” The DQC reports that 49 states and the District of Columbia have introduced some 410 bills addressing student data privacy since 2013, with 73 of these bills actually becoming law. 11 states introduced bills modeled on language from the ACLU. Among the provisions in new legislation: Connecticut requires local education agencies to electronically notify parents every time districts sign a new contract, while Colorado requires districts to develop policies for dealing with misuse of data or breaches by contractors.
There were a number of privacy-related lawsuits this year too: In January, students and alumni from the University of Berkeley filed a lawsuit against Google, claiming that the search engine “misled Berkeley and other institutions into believing that school email accounts would not be subject to scanning for commercial purposes.” University of Zurich professor Paul-Olivier Dehaye continued his case against Coursera, questioning the authority that the MOOC startup had to transfer European student data. And in August, following widespread outcry, a federal judge backtracked on an earlier ruling that the California Department of Education would have to release a database containing the records of some 10 million students to plaintiffs suing the state over special education provisions.
Do these laws and lawsuits reflect a shift in the public’s attitude towards privacy?
“Nearly one in two Internet users say privacy and security concerns have now stopped them from doing basic things online – such as posting to social networks, expressing opinions in forums or even buying things from websites,” according to a survey administered by the Department of Commerce and released in May. 86% of Internet users told the Pew Research Center in a survey released this fall that they “have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints.” In that same survey, 74% said it was “very important” to them that they be in control of who can get information about them, and 65% said it was “very important” to them to control what information is collected about them. And yet almost half of those surveyed admitted they weren’t certain what kind of data was being collected about them or how it was being used.
Another survey by Pew earlier in the year also found that the majority of Americans were willing to share their personal data or permit surveillance if they felt they benefited from it. This is the justification for surveillance at school – a decision that schools make for students (often without their knowledge or consent): that the collection of personal data will be beneficial.
Education Technology and School Surveillance
Imagine classrooms outfitted with cameras that run constantly, capturing each child’s every facial expression, fidget, and social interaction, every day, all year long. Then imagine on the ceilings of those rooms infrared cameras, documenting the objects that every student touches throughout the day, and microphones, recording every word that each person utters. Picture now the children themselves wearing Fitbit-like devices that track everything from their heart rates to their time between meals.
“Eye-trackers that detect when your mind is wandering. Clothes that let you ‘feel’ what it’s like to be in someone else’s body. Sensors that connect your heart rate to how engaged you are in class. These are the kinds of wearable technologies that could soon impact how we learn,” Edsurge wrote excitedly in November.
Surveilling students, so we’re told by this sort of ed-tech futurist PR, will help instructors “monitor learning.” It will facilitate feedback. It will improve student health. It will keep students on track for graduation. It will keep schools safe from violence. It will be able to ascertain which student did what during “group work.” It will identify students who are potential political extremists. It will identify students who are suicidal. It will offer researchers a giant trove of data to study. It will “personalize education.” (More on this in the next article in this series.) Tracking biometrics and keystrokes will make education technology more secure. (Spoiler alert: this is simply not true.)
“Big Brother is coming to universities,” The Guardian pronounced in January, although arguably this culture of surveillance has been a part of education for quite some time. But undoubtedly new digital technologies exacerbate this. The monitoring of students is undertaken to identify “problem behaviors” and in turn to provide a revenue source for companies willing to monetize the data they collect about all sorts of student behaviors. “Enabled by Schools, Students Are Under Constant Surveillance by Marketers,” as the National Education Policy Center cautioned in May.
Under surveillance by marketers. Under surveillance by companies. Under surveillance by schools. Under surveillance by police. Under surveillance by governments. Under surveillance by gadgets. Under surveillance when they use school software. Under surveillance when they use social media. And again, it’s all justified with a narrative about “success” and “safety.”
Some 2016 school surveillance highlights:
The Christian college Oral Roberts University required all its incoming students this year to wear a Fitbit. “It appears as though school staff and instructors will be able to access the fitness tracking information gathered by the students’ devices. ‘The Fitbit trackers will feed into the D2L gradebook, automatically logging aerobics points,’” according to the university’s website," local news reported. The university promised it wouldn’t track their having sex – but then again, the school’s honor code already prohibits sex.
The University of Michigan signed a $170 million deal with Nike. The contract included a clause that “could, in the future, allow Nike to harvest personal data from Michigan athletes through the use of wearable technology like heart-rate monitors, GPS trackers and other devices that log myriad biological activities.”
It’s not just students who are being surveilled; it’s faculty and staff too. Faculty at Rutgers expressed concern this fall over the monitoring of their email. The University of California system prompted an outcry when it installed a monitoring system on its network and told IT staff not to inform faculty. Western Sydney University was accused of snooping on faculty emails. Faculty in Minnesota protested when a new rule allowed colleges to inspect their cellphones. Faculty at Our Lady of the Lake University discovered they were being monitored by administrators who added themselves to online course rosters. It’s not just administrative software either that’s monitoring what teachers write and say; students are filming teachers as well. (Some professors apparently like this idea of surveilling their classrooms very much.)
This Will Go Down on Your Permanent Record (But Not Ours)
“UC Davis spent thousands to scrub pepper-spray references from Internet,” The Sacramento Bee reported in April. Thousands as in at least $175,000. The university hired “reputation management companies” to improve search results for the school, so that stories and images of Lt. Pike unleashing pepper spray into the face of peaceful protesters in 2011 weren’t the first thing that people found about the school online.
Laugh all you want about the Streisand Effect, but it’s quite chilling that a public institution would do this, removing from its own websites many of the reports that it had commissioned on the incident.
What data gets collected? What data gets preserved? What data gets analyzed? What data gets shared? What data gets scrubbed? Whose privacy and reputation are protected?
Resisting the Culture of Surveillance
At home, at work, and at school, we are surrounded by computing devices that track our location, our keystrokes, our browsing habits, our clicks, our shopping preferences, our energy consumption, our conversations. In the last two articles in this series, I’m going to look at two “trends” connected to this obsession with data collection: the promise of “personalization” and the dangers of “discrimination by design.”
Although there have been some efforts to extend privacy protections, there are many voices in education technology that insist data-mining is necessary and that concerns about privacy and security are overblown. “‘Freakouts’ Over Student Privacy Hamper Innovation,” says Mindwires Consulting’s Michael Feldstein wrote in February, for example. Tracy Mitrano, Academic Dean of the University of Massachusetts Cybersecurity Certificate Programs, responded that “Vendor motivations for profit hardly qualify as freedom for a student.” But it sure seems to count as “innovation” these days.
For its part, Edsurge has suggested that it might not be possible to balance academic freedom and privacy. Yik Yak, the anonymous messaging network marketed to college students, has proven to be one such challenge to campuses and free speech protections there, as the app has been used to harass and harangue. (It appears, however, that Yik Yak might headed to the ed-tech dead pool, laying off 60% of its staff earlier this month.)
How will education and education technology balance data collection – accountability and transparency– and information security? In light of Wikileaks and the DNC hacks – all those who combed through this stolen data looking to confirm, for example, their suspicions about Hillary Clinton and the Common Core – how might education data be further weaponized?
It’s weaponized already, of course. None of this surveillance plays out equitably. None of the surveillance and none of the punishment.
We could ask: it really necessary to collect all this education data on students? (We might want to rethink how much of our own personal data we store across various companies’ servers as well.)
What can schools learn from libraries, several of which have announced that they’ll be destroying user data in order to avoid surveillance under the Trump administration.
What are education technology proponents doing, if anything, to minimize, rather than exacerbate, risk?
This is part nine of my annual review of the year in ed-tech
Facebook’s Plans to “Personalize” Education
Facebook, like many digital technology companies, promises that in exchange for collecting your personal data – your name, your age, your gender, your photos, metadata on your photos, your location, your preferences, your browsing and clicking habits, your friends’ names – it will deliver “personalization.” A personalized news feed, for example. Personalized ads.
“Personalization” is also the cornerstone of the investment strategy for Mark Zuckerberg’s new venture philanthropy firm, the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. And “personalization” is the underlying promise of the new education software Facebook is itself building.
Facebook worked with the Summit Public Schools charter chain in order to develop this “personalized learning platform,” which it released last year and now licenses to other schools under the product name “Basecamp.” Some 20 Facebook engineers work on the software, and according to The Washington Post, the student information it tracks and stores is not housed on Facebook servers, although Facebook does have access to the data.
Parents must sign away the privacy rights for their children who use Basecamp, as is required under COPPA. But in this case, they must also sign away their right to sue Facebook or Summit Public Schools in case of a problem (like, say, a data breach). Basecamp’s Terms of Service“require disputes to be resolved through arbitration, essentially barring a student’s family from suing if they think data has been misused. In other realms, including banking and health care, such binding arbitration clauses have been criticized as stripping consumers of their rights.” Data can be shared with any company that Facebook deems necessary. “A truly terrible deal,” says Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction.
Basecamp is essentially a learning management system (with the adjective “personalized” appended to it). According to The New York Times, “The software gives students a full view of their academic responsibilities for the year in each class and breaks them down into customizable lesson modules they can tackle at their own pace. A student working on a science assignment, for example, may choose to create a project using video, text or audio files. Students may also work asynchronously, tackling different sections of the year’s work at the same time.” I’ll discuss some of the competing definitions of what “personalization” might mean, but in this case, it’s the emphasis on working “at your own pace” on school assignments.
According to Summit’s own reports on those piloting the Basecamp software, “student growth has been positive amongst the cohort schools thus far. Specifically, students who were the furthest behind (in that lowest [Measure of Academic Progress] testing bracket) outperformed the national U.S. average by 1.23 in math and 1.95 in reading, shown below. Translation: if the average American student grew by 1 point in math, the average Basecamp student grew by 1.23 points.” It’s a meager growth, but as the CEO of Summit Public Schools contends, it’s better than what traditional schools are doing. (Stanford historian Larry Cuban has also written a number of articles this year on his observations of the instructional practices and technology usage at the charter school chain.)
Charter schools have been a core part of Mark Zuckerberg’s investment in education reform since the Facebook founder famously donated $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey school system – well, not to the Newark school system, but rather to a local foundation in charge of handling the money. Despite the press coverage – the funding announcement was made on Oprah– things didn’t really go as planned, as journalist Dale Russakoff has recounted in her 2015 book The Prize.
Since his Newark fumbles, Zuckerberg has continued to fund charter school chains, but most of his investment has gone towards software companies that he hopes will help bring about structural changes in the education system, specifically through personalization. Perhaps the most high-profile of these: AltSchool.
More details on Mark Zuckerberg’s education investment portfolio can be found at funding.hackeducation.com.
Personalized Surveillance at AltSchool
AltSchool, a private school startup, was founded in 2014 by Max Ventilla, a former Google executive. AltSchool has raised $133 million in venture funding from Zuckerberg Education Ventures, the Emerson Collective (the venture philanthropy firm founded by Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell Jobs), Founders Fund (Peter Thiel’s investment firm), Andreessen Horowitz, and others.
None of that funding came in 2015; and there were rumors of layoffs at the startup, as it pivoted towards a focus on selling its “personalized learning” software to other schools– the seat license will cost $1000 per student – rather than opening more schools of its own. Or “Phase 2,” as Techcrunch politely called it.
In April, Edsurgereported that AltSchool had hired a new chief operating officer, Coddy Johnson, a former executive at Activision who’d been in charge of the Call of Duty video game line. Call of Duty is often touted for its ultra-violence, but hey! Max Ventilla told Edsurge that “There aren’t a lot of people who have multiple times, managed a thousand-plus organization and done it in a way where anyone you talked to says they're absolutely incredible from a leadership perspective.” (Of course, AltSchool is nowhere near a thousand-plus person organization, even if you count the students as workers, which perhaps you should.) Johnson’s management of education-focused companies includes his seat on the board of Twigtale, a “personalized” children’s book startup. That’s his wife Carrie Southworth’s company, and its investors include Ivanka Trump and Rupert Murdoch’s ex-wife Wendi Deng. Johnson himself is the godson of George W. Bush. (Johnson’s dad was roommates with the former President while at Yale.) It’s a small world, I guess, when one is disrupting education via “personalization.”
Everything at AltSchool is driven by data. As Education Week’s Benjamin Herold observed in January at a product team meeting for the startup school’s software, Stream, the following information was analyzed by developers:
The AltSchool classroom is one of total surveillance: cameras and microphones and sensors track students and teachers – their conversations, their body language, their facial expressions, their activities. The software – students are all issued computing devices – track the clicks. Everything is viewed as a transaction that can be monitored and analyzed and then re-engineered.
AltSchool has attempted to brand this personalized surveillance as progressive education– alternately Montessori or Reggio Emilia (because apparently neither Silicon Valley tech executives nor education technology marketers know the difference between their Italian learning theories).
Defining Personalization (and Insisting It “Works”)
There isn’t one agreed-upon definition of “personalization” – although there were lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of articles published this year that tried to define it (and at least one that said “stop trying”).
That fuzziness – “moving goalposts” as math educator Dan Meyer has called it – does not stop the word “personalization” from being used all the time in policy documents and press releases: “personalized test prep” and “personalized CliffNotes” and the like. These two examples highlight quite well the mental gymnastics necessary to believe that a “personalized” product is actually personalized. This isn’t about a student pursuing her own curiosity – the topics covered by both CliffNotes and standardized tests are utterly constrained. Personalization is not about the personal; it does not involve students controlling the direction or depth of their inquiry.
It’s just the latest way to describe what B. F. Skinner called “programmed instruction” back in the 1950s.
There were several attempts this year to link the history of “personalized learning” to recent education reforms (but not surprisingly, not to Skinner). “The hottest trend in education actually started in special-ed classrooms 40 years ago,” as Business Insider contended in October. These sorts of articles, many parroting the quite paltry historical knowledge of ed-tech investors, tend to argue that personalization has its roots in the 1970s, in the work of educational psychologists like Benjamin Bloom, for example. Alas, no one reads Rousseau anymore, do they? Or more likely, Rousseau’s vision of education is harder to systematize and monetize and turn into “personalized” flashcards. “Can Venture Capital Put Personalized Learning Within Reach of All Students?” Edsurge asked in June. Poor Rousseau. Without NewSchools Venture Fund, he never had a chance.
Many of the discussions about “personalized learning” insist that technology is necessary for “personalization,” often invoking stereotypes of whole class instruction and denying the myriad of ways that teachers have long tailored what they do in the classroom to the individual students in it. Teachers look for interpersonal cues; they walk around the classroom and check on students’ progress; they adjust their lessons and their assignments in both subtle and conspicuous ways. In other words, “personalization” need not rely on technology or on data-mining; it does, however, demand that teachers attend to students’ needs and to students’ interests.
But “personalization” – at least as it’s promoted by education technology companies and their proponents – requires data collection, and it requires algorithms and analytics. The former, as a practice, is already in place in education. Indeed, in April, the Data Quality Campaign issued a report claiming that schools have collected plenty of data, and now it’s time to use it to “personalize learning.”
But again, what does that phrase “personalize learning” mean?
Education technology companies hope it means that schools buy their products. In a Data & Society report on personalized learning– probably the most helpful guide on the topic – Monica Bulger has identified five types of products that market themselves as “personalized”:
Bulger’s report also underscores one of the most important caveats for “personalized learning” products: they aren’t very good.
While the responsiveness of personalized learning systems hold promise for timely feedback, scaffolding, and deliberate practice, the quality of many systems are low. Most product websites describe the input of teachers or learning scientists into development as minimal and after the fact. Products are not field tested before adoption in schools and offer limited to no research on the efficacy of personalized learning systems beyond testimonials and anecdotes. In 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt commissioned independent randomized studies of its Algebra 1 program: Harcourt Fuse. The headline findings reported significant gains for a school in Riverside, California. The publicity did not mention that Riverside was one of four schools studied, the other three showed no impact, and in Riverside, teachers who frequently used technologies were selected for the study, rather than being randomly assigned. In short, very little is known about the quality of these systems or their generalizability.
Nevertheless, Knewton claims Knewton’s personalized learning products work. Pearson claims Pearson’s personalized learning products work. Blackboard claims Blackboard’s personalized learning products work. McGraw-Hill claims McGraw-Hill’s personalized learning products work. Front Row claims Front Row’s personalized learning products work. Organizations in the business of lobbying for and investing in “personalized” ed-techclaim personalized ed-tech works. And so on.
IBM Watson and the “Cognitive Era”
Perhaps the company with the biggest advertising budget for promoting its version of “personalized learning” is IBM, which has been running TV spots for about a year now touting the capabilities of Watson, its artificial intelligence product. Watson famously won Jeopardy! in 2011, a PR stunt that the company hoped would demonstrate how well it could handle Q&A. Since then, IBM has moved to commercialize Watson, particularly in healthcare and education.
This year, IBM announced Watson would be used to power an advising system at the University of Michigan. IBM released a Watson-powered iPad app. IBM partnered with the American Federation of Teachers. It partnered with Sesame Street. It partnered with Blackboard. It partnered with Pearson.
University of Stirling’s Ben Williamson has described the partnership between IBM and Pearson as “part of a serious aspiration to govern the entire infrastructure of education systems through real-time analytics and machine intelligences, rather than through the infrastructure of test-based accountability that currently dominates. … IBM and Pearson are seeking to sink a cognitive infrastructure of accountability into the background of education – an automated, data-driven, decision-making system which is intended to measure, compare, reorganize and optimize whole systems, institutions and individuals alike.”
For its part, IBM says that, with Watson, it will bring education into the “cognitive era” through personalization: “Cognitive solutions that understand, reason and learn help educators gain insights into learning styles, preferences, and aptitude of every student. The results are holistic learning paths, for every learner, through their lifelong learning journey.” Its product, Watson Element, “is designed to transform the classroom by providing critical insights about each student – demographics, strengths, challenges, optimal learning styles, and more – which the educator can use to create targeted instructional plans, in real-time.”
Roger Schank, a pioneer of “cognitive computing,” doesn’t buy it. “Could IBM stop lying about Watson already? I guess not,” he wrote in April. “Is IBM trying to kill off AI research by misusing the word ‘cognitive?’” he wrote in May. The word “cognitive,” he argues, no longer has any meaning.
I am trying to understand what IBM could possibly mean when it uses the word cognitive and announces that we are now in the “cognitive era”. Do they think they Watson is actually thinking? I certainly hope not.
Do they think that Watson is imitating how people think in some way? I can’t believe that they think that either. No one has ever proposed that machines that can search millions of pages of text are smart. Matching key words, no matter how well you do it, is not even a human capability much less one that underlies the human ability to think.
The use of Watson at Georgia Tech to create a “robot teaching assistant” garnered lots of headlines about the possibilities for automation and artificial intelligence to “save education.” But it also confirms some of Schank’s arguments about how truly overrated Watson is as any sort of pedagogical agent. Jill Watson, as the program was called (of course it’s a woman’s name), answered students’ questions on a course website – or rather, answered those questions when it had a confidence rate of 97% it could respond correctly. “Most chatbots operate at the level of a novice,” Ashok Goel, the CS professor who built the program told The Wall Street Journal. “Jill operates at the level of an expert.” What Jill demonstrates isn’t really “smarts” or “intelligence,” and it isn’t “pedagogical”; it’s just a more efficient (and expensive) Q&A system.
Nevertheless, how IBM imagines intelligence – how it imagines the human brain works and how the brain learns – will shape the cognitive systems it builds. And the marketing – all those TV ads – will shape our understanding of “intelligence” in turn.
The goal, says IBM: to “achieve the utopia of personalised learning.”
Marketing the Mindsets
Intertwined with the push for “personalization” in education are arguments for embracing a “growth mindset.” The phrase, coined by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, appears frequently alongside talk of “personalized learning” as students are encouraged to see their skills and competencies as flexible rather than fixed. (Adaptive teaching software. Adaptive students.)
The marketing of mindsets was everywhere this year: “How to Develop Mindsets for Compassion and Caring in Students.” “Building A Tinkering Mindset In Young Students Through Making.” “6 Must-Haves for Developing a Maker Mindset.” The college president mindset. Help wanted: must have an entrepreneurial mindset. The project-based learning mindset. (There’s also Gorilla Mindset, a book written by alt-right meme-maker Mike Cernovich, just to show how terrible the concept can get.)
“Mindset” joins “grit” as a concept that’s quickly jumped from the psychology department to (TED Talk to) product. Indeed, Angela Duckworth, who popularized the latter (and had a new book out this year on grit), now offers an app to measure “character growth.”“Don’t Grade Schools on Grit,” she wrote in an op-ed in The New York Times. But there are now calls that students should be tested– and in turn, of course, schools graded– on “social emotional skills.”
Promising to measure and develop these skills are, of course, ed-tech companies. Pearson even has a product called GRIT™. But it’s probably ClassDojo, a behavior tracking app, that’s been most effective in marketing itself as a “mindset” product, even partnering with Carol Dweck’s research center at Stanford.
The startup, which has raised $31.1 million in venture funding ($21 million of that this year), is “teaching kids empathy in 90% of K–8 schools nationwide,” according to Fast Company. Edsurge says ClassDojo is used by two-thirds of schools, and Inc says it’s used by one out of four students, but hey. What’s wrong with a little exaggeration, right? It’s only “character education.”
More details on who’s funding “character education” startups are available at funding.hackeducation.com.
Ben Williamson argues that ClassDojo exemplifies the particularly Silicon Valley bent of “mindset” management:
The emphasis … is on fixing people, rather than fixing social structures. It prioritizes the design of interventions that seek to modify behaviours to make people perform as optimally as possible according to new behavioural and psychological norms. Within this mix, new technologies of psychological measurement and behaviour management such as ClassDojo have a significant role to play in schools that are under pressure to demonstrate their performance according to such norms.
In doing so, ClassDojo – and other initiatives and products – are enmeshed both in the technocratic project of making people innovative and entrepreneurial, and in the controversial governmental agenda of psychological measurement. ClassDojo is situated in this context as a vehicle for promoting the kind of growth mindsets and character qualities that are seen as desirable behavioural norms by Silicon Valley and government alike.
ClassDojo’s popularity is down to its meeting of teachers’ concerns about behaviour management. But, it has fast become part of a loose network of governmental, academic and entrepreneurial agendas focused on behavioural measurement and modification.
ClassDojo is, Williamson argues, “prototypical of how education is being reshaped in a ‘platform society.’”
Personalization in a Platform Society
Media scholars José van Dijck and Thomas Poell have argued that “Over the past decade, social media platforms have penetrated deeply into the mechanics of everyday life, affecting people’s informal interactions, as well as institutional structures and professional routines. Far from being neutral platforms for everyone, social media have changed the conditions and rules of social interaction.” In this new social order – “the platform society” – “social, economic and interpersonal traffic is largely channeled by an (overwhelmingly corporate) global online infrastructure that is driven by algorithms and fueled by data.”
We readily recognize Facebook and Twitter as these sorts of platforms; but I’d argue that they’re more pervasive and more insidious, particularly in education. There, platforms include the learning management systems and student information systems, which fundamentally define how teachers and students and administrators interact. They define how we conceive of “learning”. They define what “counts” and what’s important.
They do so, in part, through this promise of “personalization.” Platforms insist that, through data mining and analytics, they offer an improvement over existing practices, existing institutions, existing social and political mechanisms. This has profound implications for public education in a democratic society. More accurately perhaps, the “platform society” offers merely an entrenchment of surveillance capitalism, and education technologies, along with the ideology of “personalization”, work to normalize and rationalize that.
This is part ten of my annual review of the year in ed-tech
The richest 1% now possess as much wealth as the rest of the world combined.
That was the conclusion of an Oxfam report issued in January. It was a slogan of the Occupy Movement too, of course, one reprised this year in the Presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders, who would frequently repeat that “Now is the time to create a government which represents all Americans and not just the 1%.”
It doesn’t look as though we’ve done that, sadly. “Trump’s 17 cabinet-level picks have more money than a third of American households combined,” according to Quartz.
The American Dream, a phrase invented during the Great Depression, feels more and more out of reach for more and more Americans, as increasingly people are making less money than their parents did.
One of the mantras of that dream – the idea that economic success is possible if not inevitable – involves the necessity of education. “Education can be the difference, that education can save lives, that education can put folks on a path to opportunity,” Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. told the students at Milwaukee Area Technical College’s graduation ceremony in May. But it’s a “false promise,” Jacobin’s David I. Backer contends. As economic inequality has grown, so has schooling: “United States citizens are more educated than they ever have been. More people have graduated from more kinds of schools than at any point in history.”
Indeed, rather than a “silver bullet,” education often serves to reinforce inequalities. Sixty-two years after Brown v Board of Education, segregation is worsening– in neighborhood schools, at elite schools, at charters. This comes as the majority of students in the US public school system are now students of color. (The majority of teachers are still white.)
Data released in June by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights highlighting the ongoing disparities– between the experiences of white students and students of color, between the experiences of affluent students and low-income students, and between the experiences of students with disabilities and those without – serves to underscore the systematic failure to provide equitable education at the preschool and K–12 levels in the US.
Black preschool children, for example, are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than white preschool children. Black K–12 students are 3.8 times more likely to be suspended than white students. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended than students without disabilities. Black students are 1.9 times more likely to be expelled than white students. Black students are 2.2 times more likely to be referred to law enforcement than white students. Charter schools, according to a study based on this OCR data, have an even higher rate of suspending Black students and students with disabilities. And some charters have been charged with purposefully refusing to enroll certain students – a violation of the law.
Black, Latino, and Native students are less likely to have access to high-level math and science courses. They are underrepresented in gifted and talented programs. They are underrepresented in AP courses. Black, Latino, and Native students are more likely to attend schools with high concentrations of inexperienced teachers. They’re more likely to attend schools where teachers have not met all state certification requirements. 87% of white students graduate on time; 76% of Latino students and 73% of Black students do. Native American students have the worst graduation rates in the country, particularly those attending schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And while white, Black, and Latino students enroll in college after graduation at roughly the same rate, students of color are much less likely to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in six years or less. “That disparity hints at the large enduring difference in the quality of the K–12 preparation many minority students are receiving,” writes Ronald Brownstein in The Atlantic.
The inequalities of K–12 education extend into higher ed, exacerbated by high tuition, inadequate financial aid, and admissions policies that privilege white and affluent students. (Take, for example, ProPublica’s article on Donald Trump’s son-in-law and “consigliere”: “The Story Behind Jared Kushner’s Curious Acceptance into Harvard.”)
This fall, Georgetown University announced its plans to “atone for its slave past” – like many universities, the Jesuit-run institution had a long connection to the slave trade, selling 272 men, women, and children in 1838 to pay off its debts. The university said it would begin offering preferential admission status – like the children of alumna already receive – to the descendants of the slaves owned by the university. It was a gesture that The Atlantic’s Adrienne Green said “falls short,” and it certainly does not count as reparations according to sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom, which she argues must contain three components: “acknowledgement, restitution, and closure.”
The idea that preferred admission equals payment stems from the American ideology that opportunity, especially educational opportunity, is a “fair” form of recompense. Opportunity has a moral basis: It will only be valuable for those who deserve it and will not inconvenience or harm those who already have the opportunity (whether they deserve it or not). Our society likes opportunity because it does not demand redistribution of resources acquired through harm. As you can tell, I’m not a fan of this logic. But even if I were, preferred admission doesn’t equate to much of an opportunity.
Preferred admissions gives a narrowly defined group of black descendants a chance to compete for achievements that are defined by accumulated disadvantage. The chance to be preferred in admissions to Georgetown still relies on racial differences in college preparation, racial wealth, and income gaps that condition the ability to pay college tuition, and racial gaps in knowledge about competitive college admissions. Preferential admissions says if you somehow manage to navigate all those other legacies of slavery – wealth disparities, income disparities, information disparities – then we will give you additional consideration in admissions. That is generous when judged by how little other universities have done but it is not much of an opportunity and it isn’t a form of payment at all.
College campuses have become much more diverse over the past few decades, true, but these institutions remain insensitive, unwelcoming, and hostile to students and faculty of color, to students and faculty with disabilities, to queer students and faculty, and to women.
The Office for Civil Rights said it received a record number of complaints this year – a 61% increase from last year. The number of reports regarding sexual assault on college campuses increased 831%; complaints regarding web accessibility for persons with disabilities was up 511%; complaints involving the restraint or seclusion of students with disabilities increased 100%; and complaints involving harassment on the basis of race or national origin increased by 17%. Teaching Tolerance released a report on the increased harassment and bullying witnessed this year – something it tied directly to the Trump campaign: 90% of K–12 educators that the organization surveyed said that their school climate had been adversely affected by the racist, nationalist, sexist rhetoric of the Presidential campaign. Reports of hate crimes and racist graffiti spiked on school campuses across the country following Trump’s election.
Will President Trump make all these educational inequalities worse? Certainly there are serious concerns about his choice for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and the overwhelmingly negative impact that her political influence has had on Michigan schools, particularly for students in low-income urban schools. There are also fears that the Trump administration will be less likely to enforce Title IX and might scrap the Office for Civil Rights altogether. Furthermore, his promise to deport undocumented immigrants has schools scrambling to plan for how they will protect their students.
I also want to consider that, with or without a President Trump, education technology also might make things worse, might also contribute to these ongoing inequalities – and not simply because many in ed-tech seemquiteeager to work with the new administration.
Don’t Believe “Don’t Be Evil”
My own concerns about the direction of education technology cannot be separated from my concerns with digital technologies more broadly. I’ve written repeatedly about the ideologies of Silicon Valley: neoliberalism, libertarianism, imperialism, late stage capitalism. These ideologies permeate education technology too, as often the same investors and same entrepreneurs and the same engineers are involved.
As I wrote in my article on “the ‘new’ economy,” automation, so we’re told, is poised to reshape “work.” It has reshaped work. None of this has played out equitably, as the benefits have accrued in management and not by labor. Indeed, the World Bank issued a report in January arguing that digital technologies – not just robots in factories – stand to widen inequalities as well, “and even hasten the hollowing out of middle-class employment.” While new technologies are spreading rapidly, the “digital dividends – growth, jobs and services – have lagged behind.” As venture capitalist Om Malik wrote on the eve of 2016, “In Silicon Valley Now, It’s Almost Always Winner Takes All.” Money and data – they’re intertwined for technology companies – are monopolized in a handful of corporate giants.
The technology industry – its products and its politics – furthers inequality, particularly in its own backyard in the Bay Area. Its high profile executives then have the audacity to claim that reality – human suffering – is merely a simulation. Or they say they’re prepared to leave Earth and colonize Mars. Or they back Donald Trump.
Trump, for his part, indicated on the campaign trail he might be interested in creating a registry to track Muslims’ whereabouts in the country; and while some technology companies and tech workers have sworn they would never participate in building a database to do this, no doubt, the metadata to identify us and track us – by our religion, by our sexual identity, by our race, by our political preferences –already exists in these companies’ and in the government’s hands. Trump will soon have vast surveillance powers – thanks in part to technology companies like Palantir, thanks in part to expanded NSA surveillance, authorized by President Obama– under his control.
Meanwhile, schools and education companies have also expanded their surveillance of students and faculty, with little concern, it seems, to how politically regressive all this data-mining and algorithmic decision-making might actually be.
Inequality and the “Top Ed-Tech Trends”
The inequalities that I’ve chronicled above – income inequality, wealth inequality, information inequality – have been part of our education system for generations, and these are now being hard-coded into our education technologies. This is apparent in every topic in every article I’ve written in this years’ year-end series: for-profit higher education, surveillance in the classroom, and so on.
These inequalities are apparent in the longstanding biases that are found in standardized testing, for example, often proxies for “are you rich?” and “are you white?” and “are you male?” Despite all the Common Core-aligned revisions and all the headlines to the contrary, “The New SAT Won’t Close the Achievement Gap.” (Shocking, I know.) In fact, according to Reuters, the College Board has redesigned the SAT in ways “that may hurt neediest students.”
Ed-tech’s inequalities are evident too in the results, in many cases, of moving standardized testing from pencil-and-paper to computer. Scores for some students who took their PARCC exams on computers were lower– lower in Rhode Island and lower in Maryland, for example.
There were also significant gaps on a new NAEP exam administered this year, one measuring “technology and engineering literacy”: “Students whose families are so poor that they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch scored 28 points lower, on average, than students from more affluent families. The gap between black and white students was even more pronounced, with 56 percent of white students scoring at or above ‘proficient’ and just 18 percent of black students meeting that bar,” Chalkbeat reported in May. (Girls, for what it’s worth, out-performed boys.) Another study conducted by the Department of Education found that using computers widens the “achievement gap” between high-performing and low-performing students. The latter group, which is more likely to be comprised of Black, Latino, and low-income students, performed better on writing assessments when writing with pencil and paper.
This “gap” seems to extend to online courses too. A study from Northwestern University, for example, found that “high-achieving North Carolina 8th graders who took Algebra 1 online performed worse than similar students who took the course in a traditional classroom.” A study from the American Institutes of Research found that “students working online were 10 percentage points less likely to pass than the students randomly assigned to take the course face-to-face – 66 percent compared with 76 percent.” A report issued by the National Education Policy Center confirmed what we’ve known for some time now – that students at virtual schools fare very poorly – but added that students at blended schools (those that combine face-to-face and online instruction) are struggling as well, with 77% of the blended schools the NEPC reviewed performing below state averages. And this problem exists at the college level too. Research from California’s Public Policy Institute found that students in the state’s community college system are 10 to 14% less likely to pass a class when they take it online. – but there’s an “online paradox,” according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, because students who successfully complete at least one online course are 25% more likely to graduate than those who only take classes face-to-face.
Despite the serious flaws in online and blended learning, many education technology advocates continue to push for more and more education technology, and Silicon Valley investors in turn continue to fund the expansion of use of these products, particularly in low-income schools, in the US as well as in the developing world.
As I wrote in the first article in this series, one of the latter companies, Bridge International Academies, was poised to take over Liberia’s public school system. Bridge International – funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Gates Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and others – is a private school startup that hires teachers to read scripted lessons from a tablet that in turn tracks students’ assessments and attendance – as well as teachers’ own attendance. Expansion of Bridge International Academies has been controversial, and the Ugandan government ordered all BIA schools there to close their doors. Other companies with similar models: Spark Schools, which raised $9 million this year from the Omidyar Network and Pearson, and APEC, also funded by Pearson. In April, journalist Anya Kamenetz looked closely at “Pearson’s Quest to Cover the Planet in Company-Run Schools”: "Pearson would like to become education’s first major conglomerate, serving as the largest private provider of standardized tests, software, materials, and now the schools themselves.
Whether it’s selling schools or MOOCs or access to the Internet itself, technology companies and education companies are, as Edsurge put it, “Building Effective Edtech Business Models to Reach the Global Poor.” Whether or not the education itself is “effective,” let alone equitable, is another question altogether.
Data about who’s funding the expansion of private schools in the developing world can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.
From the “Digital Divide” to “Digital Redlining”
Discussions about education technology (and new digital technologies more generally) were, for many years, framed in terms of the “digital divide” – that is, the gap between those who have access to computers and to the Internet and those who do not. It’s a gap resulting from a variety of factors, including socioeconomic status, race, age, and geographic location.
Community college professors Chris Gilliard and Hugh Culik contend that there’s a “growing sense that digital justice isn’t only about who has access but also about what kind of access they have, how it’s regulated, and how good it is.”
We need to understand how the shape of information access controls the intellectual (and, ultimately, financial) opportunities of some college students. If we emphasize the consequences of differential access, we see one facet of the digital divide; if we ask about how these consequences are produced, we are asking about digital redlining. The comfortable elision in “edtech” is dangerous; it needs to be undone by emphasizing the contexts, origins, aims, and ideologies of technologies.
Sociologist Tressie McMiillan Cottom, briefly banned from Facebook for not using her real name on the site, argues that,
This kind of stratified access to information and participation in digitally-mediated social interactions isn’t just about who can post cat memes and who is denied.
As Facebook itself had to admit this week, its platform has become a central means for distributing access to favorable information about jobs, housing, banking, and financial resources.
Being othered on Facebook increasingly means being relegated to unfavorable information schemes that shape the quality of your life.
How do digital redlining and these “unfavorable information schemes” permeate education technology – in its implementation and in its very design?
Discrimination by Design
Discriminatory practices can be “hard-coded” into education technologies through the data they collect and how they label and model that data. Information systems that offer only two choices for sex or gender, for example, fail to accommodate transgender students – and violate Title IX, according to the Department of Education. This year, the Department of Education also encouraged schools to stop asking applicants about their criminal histories, and while some researchers have sought the collection of data about students’ sexual orientation– ostensibly to identify discrimination – there are concerns about how this information might easily be used against LGBTQ students.
Harassment is pervasive online, but harassment and cyberstalking are not experienced equally by everyone. A report by Data & Society issued this fall found that 47% of American Internet users say they’ve personally experienced online harassment or abuse. 72% say they’ve witnessed online harassment or abuse. “Internet users ages 15–29, Black internet users, and those who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual are all more likely to witness online harassment,” and LGB Internet users are more than twice as likely to experience harassment online than their straight peers. Black and LBG Internet users were more likely to say that people online are “mostly unkind.”
“Mostly unkind” – and yet education technology (and digital technologies more generally) demands students and faculty be online.
Discriminatory practices online are certainly a reflection of discriminatory practices offline, but it’s important to recognize how these become part of the technological infrastructure, part of the code, in ways that are both subtle and overt. Harassment in virtual reality. Harassment using annotation tools.
These new technologies are designed (predominantly) by white, able-bodied, English-speaking heterosexual men from the global north – designed by men for men.
“Just use your initials online instead of your name,” was one venture capitalist’s advice to women this year.
I don’t want to overlook two of those descriptors above: English-speaking and able-bodied. 53% of the World Wide Web is in English. The majority of programming languages are in English. (English-language learning software has long had a large market globally, and venture capitalists seem keen to fund companies that offer these products to K–12 schools as the number of ELL students grows.) What sorts of biases are built into digital technologies because of this?
What sorts of discriminatory practices are we reinstating and reinforcing online?
Despite the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act, much education technology remains in accessible. This includes software, digital content, and websites. There were several lawsuits this year demanding schools and their technology vendors comply with the law.
UC Berkeley, on the other hand, announced in September that “may eliminate free online content rather than comply with a U.S. Justice Department order that it make the content accessible to those with disabilities.” The material involved MOOCs that it had produced with edX as well as videos posted to iTunes and YouTube. MOOCs. “Free and open.” “In many cases,” the university said, “the requirements proposed by the department would require the university to implement extremely expensive measures to continue to make these resources available to the public for free.”
So instead, it opted to pull them offline altogether.
Predictive Analytics and Algorithmic Discrimination
In January, the student newspaper at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland reported that the school’s president had a plan to push out students at risk of dropping out in the first few weeks of class. Doing so early in the semester would mean these students would not count against the university’s retention rate. The paper recounted a conversation the president reportedly had with faculty, encouraging them to rethink their approach to struggling students: “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies ... put a Glock to their heads.” President Simon Newman, a former private equity CEO, said it was “immoral” to keep struggling students enrolled.
Education technology companies now promise that they can help schools identify these struggling students, through an algorithmic assessment of who’s at risk. These systems weigh a variety of data: standardized test scores, grades, attendance, gender, marital status, age, military service, learning management system log-ins, and “digital footprint.” “Digital footprint” – that is, all manner of students’ online behaviors might be tracked by this software, purportedly “for their own good.”
Predictive analytics like this are supposed help to guide schools so they can offer support services – ideally, better and more responsive services – to struggling students, keeping them enrolled and on a path to graduation. Or, no doubt, predictive analytics can help identify those “drowning bunnies” that must be eliminated.
In a report released this fall titled“The Promise and Peril of Predictive Analytics in Higher Education,” New America’s Manuela Ekowo and Iris Palmer cautioned that,
Predictive models can discriminate against historically underserved groups because demographic data, such as age, race, gender, and socioeconomic status are often central to their analyses. Predictive tools can also produce discriminatory results because they include demographic data that can mirror past discrimination included in historical data. For example, it is possible that the algorithms used in enrollment management always favor recruiting wealthier students over their less affluent peers simply because those are the students the college has always enrolled?
Discrimination, labeling, and stigma can manifest in different ways depending on how colleges use these algorithms. For instance, colleges that use predictive analytics in the enrollment management process run a serious risk of disfavoring low-income and minority students, no matter how qualified these individuals are for enrollment. Predictive models that rely on demographic data like race, class, and gender or do not take into account disparate outcomes based on demographics may entrench disparities in college access among these groups.
Furthermore, predictive analytics, recommendation engines, and other analytics software might keep some students enrolled – and that’s a boon to schools’ bottom lines– but it might also steer them into courses that are less intellectually challenging.
Data about who’s funding predictive analytics in education can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.
“We will literally predict their life outcomes,” claims one scientist. Another group of researchers says they can predict“which children will grow up to be drain on society – when they are just three years old.” Others say they’re working on the nascent field of “educational genomics,” to predict students strengths and weakness and, of course, “personalize” their education.
While much of this sounds like (dystopian) futuristic science fiction, predictive analytics are currently being used to identify students who might be suicidal and those who might develop “extremist” political beliefs or are at risk for “radicalization.”
Law enforcement increasingly uses predictive analytics to identify future criminals, and courts are using predictive analytics to determine sentencing. These have a demonstrable bias against African-Americans, and some of these systems admitting they use facial features to identify criminality. Phrenology 2.0. Schools work with these companies, handing over student data in the process. This relationship between schools and law enforcement cannot be understated, and a study released this fall found that “campuses with larger populations of students of color are more likely to use harsh surveillance techniques.”
In China, credit scores will be determined using people’s Web browsing history, and again, we shouldn’t just dismiss this as something from another time or another place. In the US, loan companies are already starting to use analytics to determine loan eligibility, and there’s talk of expanding the type of data that’s used to determine student loan eligibility as well.
Predictive analytics are being utilized in hiring decisions, testing job candidates for “culture fit.” (Code for “white guy.”) MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and John Silbert have called for “moneyball for professors,” using analytics to determine tenure. One education technology startup claims it’s devised a proprietary screening tool that can “accurately predict whether a prospective hire will be an effective teacher, and more specifically whether they will be able to boost students’ test scores.”
There’s no research to back up these claims. And when the software is proprietary, there’s little chance one can examine the algorithms in play.
That’s a problem with all these algorithms – we can’t see them, we can’t evaluate them, and we can’t verify their “accuracy.” In April, high school students in France demanded to know what powers the algorithm that’s used to dictate their post-baccalaureate education options. Everyone should know how these sorts of decisions are being made for them. ProPublica, for its part, has published a series of stories this year “breaking the black box” and investigating algorithmic decision-making, noting how these often function as “discrimination by design.”
There remains very little insight and very little accountability in these algorithms, particularly in education. And, based on what we know about institutional and corporate biases, there is every reason to believe that these algorithms are exacerbating educational inequalities.
Education Technology and Digital Polarization
We trust algorithms to make more and more decisions for us, often quite uncritically. Whose values and interests are actually reflected in these algorithms?
Algorithms dictate much of what we see (and what we don’t see and who sees what) online, the news and media we consume – whether on Facebook, or Google, or Amazon, or Twitter, or Netflix. How algorithms shape new information technologies will have profound effects on education, on knowledge– and on democracy.
We saw hints of this, no doubt, in this year’s US Presidential election, although the malaise is much deeper and broader than one electoral event. “Fake news.” Red feeds versus blue feeds. “Post-truth.” Information warfare. The fragmentation of knowledge. Distraction. Expertise, trumped. Digital polarization. It’s “personalization,” we’re told, and we’re supposed to like it.
I’ll close here with words from Maciej Cegłowski, who runs the bookmarking site Pinboard, speaking at the SASE conference in June on “The Moral Economy of Tech”:
The first step towards a better tech economy is humility and recognition of limits. It’s time to hold technology politically accountable for its promises. I am very suspicious of attempts to change the world that can’t first work on a local scale. If after decades we can’t improve quality of life in places where the tech élite actually lives, why would we possibly make life better anywhere else?
We should not listen to people who promise to make Mars safe for human habitation, until we have seen them make Oakland safe for human habitation. We should be skeptical of promises to revolutionize transportation from people who can’t fix BART, or have never taken BART. And if Google offers to make us immortal, we should check first to make sure we’ll have someplace to live.
Techies will complain that trivial problems of life in the Bay Area are hard because they involve politics. But they should involve politics. Politics is the thing we do to keep ourselves from murdering each other. In a world where everyone uses computers and software, we need to exercise democratic control over that software.
I recognize that many people are committed to the belief that the adoption of education technology means “progress.” But it isn’t necessarily politically progressive. At all. We must understand how education technology, in its current manifestation, might actually to reinforce education’s longstanding inequalities.
We must consider too, as we move into a new year with a new President, that it might also be – algorithmically, financially, culturally – profoundly anti-democratic.
Via The New York Times: “Obama to Dismantle Visitor Registry Before Trump Can Revive It.” “The registry, created after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has not been in use since 2011, so the move is largely symbolic and appeared to be aimed at distancing the departing administration from any effort by the new president to revive the program, known as the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or Nseers.”
More on the technology industry’s role in building a Muslim registry in the surveillance section below.
A repeal of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” failed this week, as that state’s Republicans continue to play dirty. Supposedly a deal had been reached that, if Charlotte repealed its own anti-discrimination law, the state would do the same for HB2. The former went through; the latter did not.
Elsewhere in NC politics: “North Carolina Legislators Cut Governor’s Power to Appoint Campus Trustees.” All this because the Republican governor lost his re-election bid.
The state of Missouri has passed a law that would “grease” the school-to-prison pipeline. The law will treat fights in school as felonies.
Via Bloomberg: “The U.S. Government Is Collecting Student Loans It Promised to Forgive.”
“Two Wisconsin Republican legislators have threatened to withhold state funds from the University of Wisconsin at Madison in relation to a planned course on racism called The Problem of Whiteness,” Inside Higher Ed reports, hence demonstrating the problem of whiteness.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Ohio Governor John Kasich, a Republican, on Wednesday signed into law legislation – opposed by faculty groups – to lift the state’s ban on guns at colleges and universities. The legislation also lifts a ban on guns in other locations, such as day care centers, leading critics to call the legislation the ‘guns everywhere’ bill.”
Via Buzzfeed: “Senators Push For Mass Student Loan Forgiveness Before Trump Takes Office.”
Via KJZZ: “Arizona Board Of Education Replaces Common Core State Standards.”
The Trump Administration
Via Eclectablog: “Billionaire Betsy DeVos, Trump’s pick for Sec of Education, has even found a way to profit from the #FlintWaterCrisis.”
“Could after-school programs take a hit under the Trump administration?” asks Education Dive.
Via Education Week: “Will Trump Try to Dismantle ‘Net Neutrality?’”
Via Vox: “Trump’s budget director pick: ‘Do we really need government-funded research at all’” – bad news for research universities and bad news for research period.
Education in the Courts
Via Inside Higher Ed: “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled Thursday, 9–2, that the State Technical College of Missouri may not require all students to submit to drug testing prior to enrollment.”
Via The Traverse City Record Eagle: “The founder of Grand Traverse Academy will serve 41 months in federal prison for his convictions on tax evasion charges.”
Via The Wall Street Journal: “A California judicial disciplinary panel found no grounds to sanction the Santa Clara County judge who earlier this year sentenced Brock Turner, a former Stanford University student convicted of felony sexual assault, to months behind bars.”
Via Pacific Standard: “Another Victory for the Youth Suing the Government on Climate Change.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “The U.S. Justice Department on Monday announced an agreement with Princeton University under which the institution agreed to revise or explain in new ways some policies with regard to students with disabilities.”
Via Education Week: “An Inside Look at Plans to Overhaul the PARCC Testing Consortium.”
Online Education and the Once and Future “MOOC”
Via Buzzfeed: “Online Charter Schools Prepare For A Trump-Era Boom.”
“The Most Popular Courses of 2016” on Coursera. Edsurge rewrites Coursera’s infographic– because journalism – about which classes are popular in “red states” and which ones are popular in “blue states.”
Victoria University of Wellington has joinededX.
The “New” For-Profit Higher Ed
The Dallas Business Journal reports that the Texas Workforce Commission is cracking down on coding bootcamps. DevMountain and Coding Dojo are two which have received warning letters for being out of compliance with state regulations governing career schools.
Via The Wall Street Journal: “Education Department Amends Terms of Approval for Apollo Education Privatization.” That is, it’s lowering the amount it requires the buyers to post in a letter of credit.
Via WaPo: “Education Department denies federal student aid to for-profit N.C. law school.” That is, the Charlotte School of Law.
Globe University and the Minnesota School of Business will close, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
From the Department of Education’s press release: “New analysis released today by the U.S. Department of Education reveals many for-profit schools would likely exceed the 90/10 federal funding limits if revenue from Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Department of Defense (DOD) programs were included in the 90/10 calculation the same way Title IV funds are included. The annual 90/10 report also released today finds 17 for-profit colleges out of compliance with existing federal funding limits.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Last week the U.S. Department of Education announced a delay in the release of an updated template colleges are required to use next year to make gainful employment disclosures. The gainful employment regulations, which went into effect last year, set performance standards for the ability of graduates of vocational programs to repay their federal student loans. The rule applies to for-profits and non-degree programs at community colleges and other nonprofit institutions.”
“How to Stop For-Profit Colleges” – an interview in The New Republic with sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom.
Meanwhile on Campus
Via Philly.com: “Cancellation of Lancaster Co. Christmas play goes viral.” Why the play was cancelled is disputed: the school district says it needed more time for standardized test prep; Breitbart and Fox News blamed a Jewish family.
Via the BBC: “Anti-gay campaign drives out Russian teacher in Krasnoyarsk.”
Via The Guardian: “ Ex-Stanford professor: I was pushed out after reporting sexual harassment.”
Via Mindwire Consulting’s Phil Hill: “Digging Deeper Into CCSF Story: $39 million for non-usage of LMS not really about DE.” Acronym assistance: CCSF is the City College of San Francisco. LMS is learning management system. DE is distance education. tl;dr initial headlines and pronouncements might have been wrong.
Inside Higher Ed covers Billy Willson’s viral “I’m quitting school” rant on Facebook, in which he claimed he was leaving Kansas State University with a 4.0 because he was being made to take too many general ed classes.
Via the NPR: “England’s Cap On College Tuition Rises To Nearly $11,400, Riling Critics.”
Via Chalkbeat: “Success Academy audit turns up ‘irregularities,’ New York City comptroller says.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “University of Kentucky professor says he was found guilty of sexual harassment for singing ‘California Girls’ at a Chinese educational event, but the institution says the charges against him are more serious.”
Alaska Pacific University has announced plans to become a tribal college.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Anger Over Accused Rapist on Campus for 3 Years.” The school in question: Loyola University Chicago.
UC Irvine is launching a coding bootcamp.
“These Universities Are Training the World’s Top Coders,” according to Fast Company, which claims the best “coders” (whatever the hell that means) come from the Russian Federation College, ITMO University (Russia), Sun Yat-sen Memorial Middle School (China), and Ho Chi Minh City University of Science (Vietnam).
Accreditation and Certification
Via The Hechinger Report: “Veterans continue to battle for their military training to count as college credit.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Under pressure from its accreditor, the Alamo Colleges community college district in San Antonio has dropped a controversial initiative to replace one of two required humanities courses in its core curriculum with a primer on Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change.”
“Figures Simmons provided U.S. News about a nursing program were so wrong it was declared ‘unranked,’ but the college kept badge of honor on its website,” says Inside Higher Ed. Yay! Badges!
Go, School Sports Team!
The University of Minnesota football team briefly planned a boycott of their bowl game over a suspension of 10 players related to a sexual assault investigation. (A “boycott”? Isn’t it a “strike,” fellows, when you refuse to work?)
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “NCAA Makes Third Round of Allegations Against Chapel Hill in Fraud Case.”
Via The Wall Street Journal: “Kenneth Starr’s Baylor Exit Followed Years of Hidden Turmoil.” “Hidden turmoil” here is code for reinstating a football player accused of sexual assault.
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Washington U. in St. Louis Suspends Men’s Soccer Team Over ‘Degrading’ Comments.”
Via The New York Times: “Louisville Suspends Coordinator Who Received Wake Forest Game Plan.”
From the HR Department
Via The New York Times: “Columbia Challenges Vote by Graduate Students to Unionize.”
“Harvard Vote on TA Union is Inconclusive,” says Inside Higher Ed.
Tenured faculty at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville have voted to unionize.
Via NPR: “Why Aren’t There More Women In Tech? A Tour Of Silicon Valley’s Leaky Pipeline.”
Contests and Conferences
Gary Stager has penned“An Open Letter to the ISTE Interim CEO and Board re: Seymour Papert.”
Upgrades and Downgrades
“Why are students still using calculators?” asks William Pang in The Atlantic. I think we all know the answer to that question: so that people always have fodder to write these sorts of op-eds, debating the advantages and disadvantages of calculators in the classroom.
“Could robots be marking your homework?” asks the BBC.
Hate read: “Why paying $6,000 for a college adviser is a bargain.”
I really hate the racist stereotype in this headline, by the way, but via Bloomberg: “China’s Tiger Moms Are Spending Big on Tech Classes for Their Kids.” – “China’s STEM learning industry may reach $15 billion by 2020.”
The Business of Ed-Tech
Explain Everything has raised $3.7 million from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Credo Ventures, New Europe Ventures, and RTAventures. The whiteboard app has raised $5.7 million total.
EnglishCentral has raised $1.3 million from Japanese publisher Kirihara Shoten K.K. The English-language learning company has raised $15.25 million.
Selected, a hiring platform, has raised $20,000 from the coding bootcamp Fullstack Academy.
Reclaim Hosting has acquired co-working space The Foundry.
Final Site has acquiredSchool Website.
Data, Privacy, and Surveillance
Via Venture Beat: “LinkedIn resets some Lynda.com users’ passwords following data leak.”
NPR was really touting the benefits of surveillance in schools this week: Story 1: “When A School’s Online Eavesdropping Can Prevent A Suicide.” Story 2: “Students: Colleges Are Tracking You Online. It Can Help You Graduate.”
Via the Harrison Daily News: “Superintendent says hack was an inconvenience and no ransom paid.” (This news is from the Alpena Schools in Michigan.)
“Piazza Makes Three Significant Changes To Deal With Privacy Issues,” says Mindwire Consulting’s Phil Hill.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “MIT management professors push data-based model they say is more predictive of an academic’s future research success than traditional methods of peer review in tenure.” Predictive analytics and tenure– gee, what could go wrong.
Via Buzzfeed: “Google, Apple, Uber, IBM Say They Would Not Help Build A Muslim Registry.”
Via Ars Technica: “Facebook already has a Muslim registry– and it should be deleted.”
More on the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System in the politics section above.
Data and “Research”
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Older Americans who defaulted on their federal student loans are increasingly having to repay them with portions of their Social Security benefits, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.” More via Inside Higher Ed.
“Nearly 95% of all new jobs during Obama era were part-time, or contract,” according to research by economists Harvard’s Lawrence Katz and Princeton’s Alan Krueger.
Via The Wall Street Journal: “Many Americans Live in ‘Education Deserts,’ New Research Shows.”
Bryan Alexander looks atincome inequality and changes to charitable giving.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “The wage gap between college degree holders and workers without a degree has not grown in recent years, and a new study says the culprit is information technology’s displacement of ‘routine’ jobs.”
Via NPR: “Alabama Admits Its High School Graduation Rate Was Inflated.”
Via The Wall Street Journal: “College Enrollment Drops 1.4% as Adults Head Back to Work.”
Research from NEPC: “Review of Segregation, Race, and Charter Schools: What Do We Know?”
Via Education Week: “Majority of English-Learner Students Are Born in the United States, Analysis Finds.”
Via NPR: “Harvard Survey Highlights Attitudes About Campus Sexual Assault.”
Via Duolingo: “How we learn how you learn.” – “At the core of Duolingo is a student model that tracks statistics about every word we’ve ever taught you: for example, how often you’ve seen a word, remembered it correctly, and so on. (This is a huge database with billions of entries that get updated 3,000 times per second!) We use these stats to predict how likely you are to remember any given word at any time.”
“Ed-Tech Research That Mattered in 2016,” according to Education Week.
Royal Roads University’s George Veletsianos onPearson’s release of its learning design principles.
Via The Awl: “Letting Kids Use Social Media Is One More Way We Show Them We Don’t Care About Them.”
Icon credits: The Noun Project
My latest book is now available for purchase.
The Curse of the Monsters of Education Technology is the latest in my “monsters of ed-tech” series – a sequel to The Monsters of Education Technology (2014) and The Revenge of the Monsters of Education Technology (2015). Like those two books, this new one is a collection of all the keynotes and talks I delivered in 2016 – seven altogether.
Coming soon: print and audio versions.
As always, thanks for supporting my work.
Via The New York Times: “The Buffalo Board of Education on Thursday demanded that Carl Paladino resign from his post on the board after making racist comments about President and Michelle Obama last week. If he refuses to step down, the board will ask the state education commissioner to remove him, it said in a resolution.” Paladino was the co-chair of Donald Trump’s New York campaign.
Via The Post and Courier: “All South Carolina public school students in kindergarten through eighth grade would be required to learn computer science beginning in 2018 under new standards proposed by the state Department of Education.”
Via the Charlotte News Observer: “The Republican-dominated State Board of Education will sue over a new law transferring many of its powers to newly-elected Republican state Superintendent of Public Instruction Mark Johnson.” (This is a result of the North Carolina legislature’s move to change how executive power in the state works following the election of a Democratic governor.)
Education in the Courts
Via Inside Higher Ed: “The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York has charged an executive with the Pakistani company, Axact, in connection to an alleged diploma mill scheme. Umair Hamid has been charged with wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud, and aggravated identity theft in connection with what the U.S. Attorney’s Office press release describes as a ‘a worldwide “diploma mill” scheme that collected at least approximately $140 million from tens of thousands of consumers.’”
Via The Wall Street Journal: “Bankruptcy Becomes an Option for Some Borrowers Burdened by Student Loans.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Montclair State University is an arm of the State of New Jersey and is therefore immune from a former employee’s employment discrimination lawsuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled Tuesday.”
Via Techcrunch: “Oculus engineer Dov Katz arrested in sting after allegedly soliciting sex from a 15-year-old girl.” Enjoy your VR in education, folks. I’m sure it’ll be incredible.
Reuters continues its investigative reporting on standardized testing: “Chinese education giant helps its students game the SAT.” The company in question: New Oriental Education & Technology Group.
Online Education and the Once and Future MOOC
Class Central’s Dhawal Shah has a post on Edsurge with “MOOCs by the Numbers in 2016.”
Meanwhile on Campus
Come for the investigation into the business of Ohio charter school chains. Stay for the Ayn Rand references.
“Drexel University issued a statement on Christmas Day to condemn a tweet by one of its professors on Christmas Eve that said that ‘all I want for Christmas is white genocide.’” Inside Higher Ed reports. Now, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Drexel Calls Professor’s Controversial Tweets Protected Speech.”
“At the University of Oregon, no more free speech for professors on subjects such as race, religion, sexual orientation,” says WaPo’s Eugene Volokh.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Duke warns professors about emails from someone claiming to be a student, seeking information about their courses – many in fields criticized by some on the right.”
Kevin Carey’s NYT op-ed“Fake Academe, Looking Much Like the Real Thing” does not mention The University of Everywhere, funnily enough. Do watch for who’s deciding what’s “fake” and “what counts” when “disrupting higher ed.”
Accreditation and Certification
Via The Cointelegraph: “Kenyan Government Uses IBM Blockchain to Prevent Academic Certificate Fraud.”
Go, School Sports Team!
Via The New York Times: “A Majority Agreed She Was Raped by a Stanford Football Player. That Wasn’t Enough.”
From the HR Department
Via NPR: “Outsourced: In A Twist, Some San Francisco IT Jobs Are Moving To India.” Those jobs: in the University of California system.
This Week in Betteridge’s Law of Headlines
Via The Guardian: “Could online tutors and artificial intelligence be the future of teaching?”
(Reminder: according to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”)
Upgrades and Downgrades
“Duolingo gets social,” says Techcrunch– that means you can add friends on the app.
Via Education Week: “Pokemon Go Helps Teachers Develop a Growth Mindset.” ORLY.
Via Engadget: “Second Life’s creator is building a ‘WordPress for social VR’.”
Via Business Insider: “How IoT in education is changing the way we learn.” My favorite part: this puff piece is actually about interactive whiteboards.
Via Techcrunch: “The broken edtech ecosystem investors once avoided is changing.” No. It’s not. But keep churning out these op-eds, entrepreneurs. You manage to keep yourselves convinced of your revolution: “What we are effectively seeing is the radical democratization of the edtech market.” LOL. No. Stop.
Funding the Business of Ed-Tech
Fundraising and messaging app School Notices has raised $775,190 in equity crowdfunding.
Campus Student Communities has raised an undisclosed amount of Series A funding from undisclosed investors. The Indian startup helps students find hostel housing.
Frontline Education has acquiredeSPED.com. (This is Frontline Education’s fifth acquisition this year.)
Data, Privacy, and Surveillance
Via ProPublica: “Facebook Doesn’t Tell Users Everything It Really Knows About Them.” But I’m sure its development of a learning management system for schools will be stellar.
Via Engadget: “Police seek Amazon Echo data in murder case.”
Via The Intercept: “The Dark Side of VR” – “Virtual Reality Allows the Most Detailed, Intimate Digital Surveillance Yet.” No wonder ed-tech folks love it, right?
Via the EFF: “Defending Student Data from Classrooms to the Cloud: 2016 in Review.”
Data and “Research”
Via funding.hackeducation.com: “Who Were 2016’s Most Active Ed-Tech Investors?”
Via Education Week: “K–12 Dealmaking: Stand-Out Deals and Dealmakers of 2016.”
Via Edsurge: “Ka'Ching! 2016 US Edtech Funding Totals $1 Billion.” (My calculations of the year in ed-tech investing, which I’ll publish today, are far less sunny.)
Via Social Times: “Facebook, 17 Universities Announce Sponsored Academic Research Agreement.”
According to a report from the Center for American Progress, “School Districts’ Hiring Practices Need an Upgrade.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Jobs for economics Ph.D.s– whether they wish to work in or outside of academe – are plentiful, according to new data from the American Economic Association.”
Via Education Week: “Districts whose 3rd graders had low test scores in reading spent 50 percent more per student for K–3 English/language arts instructional resources than districts with average and higher scores did in recent years, according to a new report from Noodle Markets.”
Via The Guardian: “More than one-third of schoolchildren are homeless in shadow of Silicon Valley.” So next time you hear one of tech startups insist they’re going to “fix” education…
MIT professor developmental psychologist Edith Ackermannpassed away this week.
Icon credits: The Noun Project
Here is a list of all the articles I wrote as part of my look at the “Top Ed-Tech Trends” of the year.
“Trends” is perhaps the wrong word here. These are my observations about what’s happened in education technology (and education more broadly) over the course of the past 12 months. This project – something I’ve done every year since 2010– aims to serve as an in-depth analysis of the noteworthy events and products and politics and financing and tries to piece together the narratives and ideologies that drive ed-tech.
This year, I also published a number of supplemental articles detailing the funding for each of these “trends”:
No one else writes these sorts of reviews of ed-tech. No one. A reminder: this site is not funded by ads or venture capitalists or corporations or philanthropic organizations – it’s supported by individual readers. You can donate via PayPal or support me via Patreon.
Icon credits: The Noun Project
“The Free-College Dream Didn’t End With Trump’s Election,” The Atlantic pronounces, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his plan for tuition-free degrees at the state’s public colleges and universities. More details on the proposal, which would extend to families earning $125,000 or less, from Inside Higher Ed. Some have scoffed at the proposal, including Matthew Chingos who says it won’t really benefit low-income students, to which Sara Goldrick-Rab responds, “Of course, low-income students win with free tuition.” “Is Free College Really Free?” asks NPR’s Anya Kamenetz.
Politico has the paperworkBetsy DeVos, President-Elect Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, has filed for her Senate approval process. In addition to all the campaign donations, do note all the yacht clubs and country clubs she’s a member of.
Via The Washington Post: “‘School choice’ or ‘privatization’? A guide to loaded education lingo in the Trump era.”
Via Politico: “Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson stressed Tuesday that federal authorities should not use private information of so-called Dreamers to deport them – an implicit warning to President-elect Donald Trump, who has pledged to unravel executive actions that have granted key benefits to more than 740,000 young undocumented immigrants.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick on Thursday introduced and said he would push legislation – similar to a controversial North Carolina law– that would bar public colleges and universities from letting transgender people use multiple-unit bathrooms other than those associated with their biological gender at birth.” More via The Pacific Standard.
“Title IX Protects Identities But Can Complicate Justice,” says NPR.
Via The Guardian: “Government plans to fast-track degree-awarding powers to new startup institutions as part of its controversial higher education proposals are ‘a risk too far’, experts in the sector are warning.”
“Republicans Should Rethink Plans to Privatize Student Lending” say Beth Akers and Matthew M. Chingos writing for Real Clear Education.
Via Education Week: “Trump Taps Rob Goad as White House Education Adviser.” Goad was once the top aide to Congressman Luke Messer (R-Ind.).
Education in the Courts
Next week, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments about IEPs and what benefits these must provide under The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The SCOTUSblog has a preview.
Via the AP: “A fired Kentucky high school principal has admitted to seizing students’ phones so that he could steal pornographic images and trade them online, investigators said.”
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Chicago State U. Settles Whistle-Blower’s Lawsuit for $1.3 Million.”
Via the CBC: “Student charged with cyber crimes in U of A malware breach.” U of A here, for non-Canadians, is the University of Alberta.
Via Reuters: “Judge blocks law limiting incoming North Carolina governor’s power.”
More legal maneuvering in the for-profit higher ed section below.
Online Education and the Once and Future “MOOC”
“CSU signs deal to record, broadcast classroom lectures,” says the San Francisco Examiner. (The deal was signed with Sonic Foundry.)
“The Future is Artificial Intelligence,” says edX.
Star Pubs and Bars launch“free e-learning for all” about how to run a pub.
Coding Bootcamps and the “New” For-Profit Higher Ed
Via Inside Higher Ed: “A Minnesota judge this week ruled that Globe University and the Minnesota School of Business, two embattled for-profits, must pay restitution to more than 1,200 defrauded students.”
Furniture, fixtures, and equipment from the bankrupt ITT are up for auction online.
“A group of five former ITT Technical Institute students have filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of Indiana seeking to be named creditors in the defunct for-profit chain’s bankruptcy proceedings,” Inside Higher Ed reports.
Via the BBC: “Fake university degree websites shut down.”
The coding bootcamp Springboard will guarantee jobs for its graduates, Edsurge reports. (This prompts a “disclosure alert” – a new feature I’m starting this year to call out the financial ties between ed-tech companies. Edsurge shares an investor with Springboard– John Katzman. The story included no disclosure of that relationship.)
Meanwhile on Campus
The University of California system is proposing the first tuition increase in six years.
Via NPR: “Fisk University Works To Move Past Cash-Strapped History.”
Via Willamette Week: “‘Sanctuary’ Designation Prompts Portland Community College Board Chairman to Quit.”
Via WRAL.com: “Enrollment doubles in North Carolina charter schools.”
Via Education Week: “As two girls fought in the cafeteria area of a North Carolina high school, another student raised her cellphone to make a video, sparking a furor when she captured a police officer picking up and slamming a student to the floor.”
Go, School Sports Team!
Via Bloomberg: “College Football’s Top Teams Are Built on Crippling Debt.”
The University of Minnesota has fired its football coach Tracy Claeys. The Star Tribune reports that “Gophers football has been roiling since Dec. 13, when [athletic director Mark] Coyle suspended 10 players in connection with an alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault. The players responded with a two-day boycott, and Claeys publicly supported their stance, pitting him against the administration.”
Via Politico: “According to new research by the Centers for Disease Control, brain and spinal injuries killed about three high school or college football players a year between 2005 and 2014.”
From the HR Department
Via The New York Times: “Facebook Hires Campbell Brown to Lead News Partnerships Team.” Brown founded the education reform site The 74 and is close friends with Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos. Facebook’s contempt for public education continues.
Via Education Week: “Ruth Neild to Step Down as Head of Education Department’s Research Agency.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “NLRB Won’t Halt Adjunct Union Vote at Southern Cal.”
This Week in Betteridge’s Law of Headlines
Pearson execs writing in Edsurge ask, “Can Edtech Support – and Even Save – Educational Research?”
Upgrades and Downgrades
There’s a rush of crap out of the Consumer Electronic Show this week – it’s all about surveilling children under the guise of innovation and such.
Via Engadget: “Lego Boost teaches kids how to bring blocks to life with code.” It’s like Mindstorms except not.
“Facebook is donating 500 virtual reality kits to Arkansas schools under a first-of-its-kind partnership between the social media giant and the state,” says the AP. But I’m sure there are zero privacy concerns.
Ev Williams says his Web publishing company Medium is “renewing its focus.” That means firing 50 staff, closing several offices, and looking for another business model. Third time’s the charm, Ev. Or something. Meanwhile, this is a good reminder that you should never write for free for a venture-backed startup.
Google is closing down the Hangouts API. Hope no educators were building anything important with it.
School districts in Colorado are acting as landlords, subsidizing housing for educators so they can afford to live there. Company housing has long been a great way to make sure your employees are compliant.
“PLOS ONE, the largest scholarly journal in the world, continues to shrink,” says Inside Higher Ed.
Via Boing Boing: “Automated book-culling software drives librarians to create fake patrons to ‘check out’ endangered titles.” This is the future of algorithmic everything, you know.
Via The Atlantic: “How Design Thinking Became a Buzzword at School.”
The Business of Ed-Tech
Show My Homework has raised $2.95 million in seed funding from LocalGlobe.
JOY has raised $1.5 million in seed funding from undisclosed investors for Octopus, an “interactive scheduling watch” which you can strap on your child to remind them to do tasks. They get a badge. Sounds awesome.
“Student engagement platform” ClearScholar has raised $1.25 million in seed funding from High Alpha Capital, Elevate Ventures, Butler University, Cindy and Paul Skjodt, and Stephen Simon.
Study-abroad program GradTrain has raised $500,000 in seed funding from undisclosed investors.
Educational app maker Tinybop received an undisclosed amount of funding from Sandbox Partners.
BYU has received $527,112 from the Department of Homeland Security to build a Web authentication tool.
LivingTree has acquiredClassMessenger.
Data, Privacy, and Surveillance
Via NBC 41 in Macon, Georgia: “Bibb schools installs new classroom cameras, microphones to help teachers.”
“Baby’s First Virtual Assistant” is how Bloomberg describesMattel’s new Amazon Echo / baby monitor / surveillance tool. “Baby’s First Panopticon.” “It’s an AI to help raise your child,” says Fast Company, without a shred of horror at the possibility.
Via The Guardian: “ Children in England sign over digital rights‘regularly and unknowingly’.” How much of this happens because they’re compelled to do so at school?
Meanwhile, via Pearson: “Personalized learning and student privacy.”
More on surveillance and cybersecurity in the “courts” section above and “research” section below.
Data and “Research”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Older Americans are the fastest-growing group in the student loan market and nearly 40 percent of borrowers over 65 were in default in 2015, according to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report released Thursday.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “When Colleges Rely on Adjuncts, Where Does the Money Go?”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “A study released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research (abstract available here) finds variation in the effectiveness of instructors at the University of Phoenix, using a required college algebra course to measure results.”
“Internet of Things Spending to Reach $1.29 Trillion by 2020,” says Campus Technology. “The ‘internet of things’ is going to invade your home, whether you like it or not,” says Business Insider. It’s inevitable, insist tech marketers. Inevitable.
Via Education Week: “Pre-K–12 Education Companies’ Status Falls on 2016 Inc. 5000 List.”
My year-end review of ed-tech funding: “How Much Venture Capital Did Ed-Tech Raise in 2016?” Spoiler alert: funding was down – way down – in 2016.
Icon credits: The Noun Project
Coming at you from the “fashion” section of The New York Times, a profile on Peter Thiel: “Peter Thiel, Trump’s Tech Pal, Explains Himself.” Highlights include his thoughts on Star Wars, corruption, and sex. OK, maybe “highlights” is the wrong word.
“Silicon Valley Takes a Right Turn,” according to an op-ed in The New York Times. But frankly, it’s always leaned to the right.
Via WaPo’s Valerie Strauss: “Yes, Bill Gates really compared Donald Trump to JFK– and said Trump could help education.”
Via The New York Daily News: “A conservative Arizona lawmaker, Rep. Bob Thorpe, is proposing a far-reaching law in Arizona, House Bill 2120, banning virtually every college event, activity or course which discusses social justice, skin privilege, or racial equality. Violating the law would allow the state of Arizona to levy multimillion-dollar fines and penalties against universities – removing at least 10% of their state aid.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Lawmakers in two states this week introduced legislation that would eliminate tenure for public college and university professors. A bill in Missouri would end tenure for all new faculty hires starting in 2018 and require more student access to information about the job market for majors. Legislation in Iowa would end tenure even for those who already have it.” (“If colleges keep killing academic freedom, civilization will die, too,” says Judge José A. Cabranes in a WaPo op-ed. So that’s fun.)
Via Newsweek: “Texas Among States With Anti-Transgender ‘Bathroom Bills’ on the Horizon.”
Via Boston.gov: “Mayor Walsh launches tuition-free community college for BPS graduates.” (BPS equals Boston Public Schools.)
“Edushyster” Jennifer Berkshire has another profile of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education.
Via The New York Times: “Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Pick, Plays Hardball With Her Wealth.”
Via The New York Times: “Trump’s Pick for Education Could Face Unusually Stiff Resistance.”
Elsewhere in Trumplandia: “Columbia University has declined to comment on recent reports that Monica Crowley, an appointee of President-elect Donald J. Trump, plagiarized portions of her 2000 Ph.D. dissertation at the university,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
Via Buzzfeed: “Trump Moves To Challenge Vaccine Science.”
The Chronicle of Higher Education on news from the Department of Labor: “New Federal Guidance Is Hailed as Helping Adjuncts Collect Unemployment.”
The Thurgood Marshall College Fund, a national group supporting public and private HBCUs, announced a $25.6 million gift from the Charles Koch Foundation and Koch Industries, a well-known opponent of government spending on things like public education (among other things). More via Inside Higher Ed.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “The Department of Education has released data showing there were 539 institutions placed on heightened cash monitoring as of Dec. 1, meaning they are subject to greater financial oversight than other institutions participating in federal aid programs.”
Via The Guardian: “Peers have defeated controversial government reforms of higher education that would have made it easier for new profit-making colleges to award degrees and become universities.” (Peers are members of the House of Lords for those not up-to-date on UK government titles.) EDITED TO ADD: Apparently, The Guardian article is not quite right. "Defeated" is too strong a word here. Rather, an amendment has been added to define "university," something that is a blow to this particular piece of legislation.
More about the politics of education data – particularly regarding undocumented students – in the data and surveillance section below. More news on the Department of Education, student loans, and for-profit higher ed in the for-profit higher ed section below.
Education in the Courts
Via The Washington Post: “Teachers sue student loan servicer for converting their grants to loans.”
Via The Huffington Post: “Native American Students Sue The U.S. Government Over Dismal Education.”
Via McClatchy DC: “Forced to watch child porn for their job, Microsoft employees developed PTSD, they say.” They’re suing the company.
Online Education and the Once and Future “MOOC”
edX is offering an online master’s degree with Georgia Tech: an OMS (online master’s in science) in Analytics.
edX has partnered with the World Bank Group.
The Economist on“The Return of the MOOC.” As The Dead Kennedys would say,
MOOC’s not dead It just deserves to die When it becomes another stale cartoon A close-minded, self-centered social club Ideas don’t matter It’s who you know If the MOOC’s gotten boring It’s because of the people who want everyone to sound the same Who drive the bright people out of our so-called scene Till all that’s left is a meaningless fad
Via Zion Market Research: “Massive Open Online Course Market: Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends, and Forecasts 2016-2024.” Price tag for the report: $3599.
“ The growth of online learning: How universities must adjust to the new norm” is sponsored content on Education Dive.
Via Salon: “Noam Chomsky: You can’t educate yourself by looking things up online.”
Via Mindwire Consulting’s Phil Hill: “The Intended Consequences of California’s Online Education Initiative.”
The “New” For-Profit Higher Ed
Via Buzzfeed: “Hundreds Of College Programs Could Be Shut Down For Breaking Student Debt Rules.” “Over 800 Programs Fail Education Dept.’s Gainful-Employment Rule,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. More via Bloomberg. Here’s the gainful employment data from the Department of Education itself. A reaction from Robert Kelchen. Kevin Carey also has thoughts about Harvard's appearance on the "predatory program" list.
From the press release: “The U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced today plans to grant borrower defense relief for federal student loan borrowers who attended the now-defunct American Career Institute (ACI) in Massachusetts.” More via Inside Higher Ed.
“Race, student debt, and for-profit graduate schools” – a report from The Brookings Institution.
Also via The Brookings Institution: “How much do for-profit colleges rely on federal funds?”
Via the ABA Journal: “Charlotte School of Law students reportedly will receive spring loan money.”
More on accreditation of for-profits in the accreditation section below.
Meanwhile on Campus…
The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on more university mergers in Georgia: “Armstrong State University, in Savannah, and Georgia Southern University, in Statesboro, will merge under the Georgia Southern name, bringing the total number of students at the university to around 27,000. And Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College, in Tifton, will be merged with Bainbridge State College. Both campuses will use the Abraham Baldwin name and have a total of about 6,000 students.”
Via The Mercury News: “In Apple’s backyard, iPads ignite furor in schools.” Parents in the affluent school district are pushing back on the mandate that middle schoolers use iPads.
Via Edsurge: “Mountain View District Cuts Digital Program in Half After Parent Backlash.” The program: Teach to One.
(Fascinating how affluent parents in the shadow of Google and Apple HQs respond to ed-tech, no?)
“The University of California, San Francisco, has announced a $500 million grant from the Helen Diller Foundation, one of the largest gifts ever to American higher education,” Inside Higher Ed reports.
Via NPR: “Activists Fear Reversal Of Strict Rules On Campus Sexual Assault.”
Via Infodocket: “University of Delaware Library Joins Open Textbook Network.”
Accreditation and Certification
Via Inside Higher Ed: “ACICS-Accredited Colleges Meet Federal Deadline.” That is, they met the deadline to maintain their financial aid eligibility for the next 18 months while they look for a new accreditor.
“The ‘poor man’s MBA’ can boost salaries by 20%,” says CNN in a puff piece about LinkedIn, Lynda.com, and project management certificates.
Go, School Sports Team!
Via The New York Times: “Clemson Upsets Alabama to Win the College Football Championship.” Coach Dabo Swinney thanked God for taking such good care of the Tigers – which probably explains why the rest of the world has gone to shit this football season.
Via The Denver Post: “ New pro football league aims to be a college alternative for players.”
Via the AP: “Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal has cost Penn State nearly a quarter-billion dollars.”
Via The Undefeated: “Spending gap for football players vs. nonathletes by bowl-eligible schools is enormous.”
Via The Washington Post: “College athletic directors bring gala business to Trump International Hotel.”
From the HR Department
Via The LA Times: “How the University of California exploited a visa loophole to move tech jobs to India.”
Via CNBC: “Uber’s David Plouffe to join Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.” Before joining Uber, Plouffe was President Obama’s campaign manager. Let’s keep an eye on Zuck’s political aspirations.
Upgrades and Downgrades
Via Techcrunch: “Nickelodeon gets into e-books with new reading app for kids, Nick Jr. Books.”
“Google’s Toontastic storytelling app for kids goes 3D,” says Techcrunch. (Well, you’re still moving your cartoons around in a two-dimensional space, but it’s a great headline.)
Google boasts that “New Google Classroom features make it easier to learn, teach, manage and build” – that is, by adding notifications and metrics. Good god, the bar is low, isn’t it. More on the Classroom API via the G Suite Developers Blog. (LOL. “G Suite.”)
Via the ALA press release: “Equipping librarians to code: ALA, Google launch ready to code university pilot program.” “This work will culminate in graduate level course models that equip MLIS students to deliver coding programs through public and school libraries and foster computational thinking skills among the nation’s youth.”
Nothing says “progressive education” like shilling for Unilever.
Education Week has a Q&A with Stanford professor Larry Cuban on personalized learning and progressive education.
Robots and Other (Ed-Tech) Science Fiction
I’m adding this subsection to the Hack Education Weekly News this year, as I am fascinated by the narratives surrounding artificial intelligence and robots– if not the “fake news” of the (ed-) tech sector, certainly some of the most hyped and unsubstantiated crap you’ll read…
Via Edsurge: “What Makes a Smart Course ‘Smart’?” I believe the answer is “adding the adjective ‘smart’ to your press release or headline.”
Via Geekwire: “New $27 million fund backs research into artificial intelligence for the public interest.” The money comes from LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, the Omidyar Network, the Knight Foundation, and others.
Via Edsurge: “Are False Connections with AI Robots Putting Your Student’s Emotional Health at Risk?”
Via The New York Times: “Robots Will Take Jobs, but Not as Fast as Some Fear, New Report Says.”
Via Campus Technology: “Carnegie Mellon AI Ups the Ante in 20-Day Poker Fest.”
“A.I. Is the New T.A. in the Classroom” – by Rose Luckin and Wayne Holmes and sponsored by Pearson, of course.
“Ten Questions about AI” from Roger Schank, who remains the best person to follow on puncturing the AI hype both in and out of the classroom.
A chatbot startup received funding – more details in the business of ed-tech section below.
Venture Capital and the Business of Ed-Tech
“Sallie Mae’s stock has soared since the election,” notes Rohit Chopra. For-profit higher and student loan companies. The future of ed-tech.
Unacademy has raised $4.5 million in Series A funding from Blume Ventures, Nexus Venture Partners, Ananth Narayanan, Binny Bansal, Girish Mathrubootham, Kunal Shah, Sachin Bansal, Sandeep Tandon, Stanford Angels and Entrepreneurs, Tashish Tulsian, Tracxn Labs, Vijay Shekhar Sharma, and Waterbridge Ventures. The online education platform has raised $6 million total.
AdmitHub has raised $2.95 million in seed funding from Reach Capital, Relay Ventures, Bisk Ventures , Charlie Cheever, Chris Gabrieli, FundersClub, Kevin Morgan, The Yard Ventures, and University Ventures. According to Edsurge, AdmitHub is “creating conversational artificial intelligence (AI) to guide students to and through college.” It’s raised $3.68 million total.
ClassWallet has raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Brentwood Associates.
“Blended learning” company Learntron has raised an undisclosed amount of funding from Kae Capital.
Via Techcrunch: “Salesforce’s Marc Benioff joins Valley notables backing Gaza’s first ever coding academy.” The funding is part of a crowdfunding campaign, also backed by Paul Graham, Brad Feld, Dave McClure, Fadi Ghandour, Samih Toukan, the Skoll Foundation, and Freada Kapor Klein.
Via Edsurge: “Curriculum Associates to Be Owned by Iowa State University– For Now.”
Via Edsurge: “Rethink Education Re-Ups Commitment to Edtech With $107.5 Million Fund.”
Privacy, Surveillance, and Information Security
Via NPR: “The Higher Ed Learning Revolution: Tracking Each Student’s Every Move.”
The LA Times reports that Los Angeles Valley College has paid $28,000 in Bitcoin to ransomware hackers.
Via The Register: “TV anchor says live on-air ‘Alexa, order me a dollhouse’ – guess what happens next.”
Via The New York Times: “N.S.A. Gets More Latitude to Share Intercepted Communications.”
Via Education Week: “Trump’s Anti-Immigration Rhetoric Fuels Data Concerns.”
Data and “Research”
“American higher ed enrollment declines, again,” says Bryan Alexander, drawing on data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Some of this come from the “collapse” – we wish, right? – of for-profit higher ed.
Also via Bryan Alexander: “How academia adjunctified faculty and mainstreamed the queen sacrifice.”
Still more from Bryan Alexander: “The next 15 years of high school graduates.”
Via Medical Xpress: “Parents’ presence when TV viewing with child affects learning ability.”
It’s always worth noting the scholars that Rick Hess does not see when he calculates his “RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings.” Not Tressie McMillan Cottom, for example.
Inside Higher Ed covers a new study, published in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Ed comparing RateMyProfessors and institutional evaluations: :Study of millions of online ratings of professors suggests scores vary with an instructor’s gender, discipline and perceived ‘easiness.’"
Via The New York Times: “For Young Entrepreneurs, College Debts Can Snuff Out Start-Up Hopes.” (Let’s add that ditching the ACA will also damage these hopes.)
Via teachonline.ca: “Directory of Vendors of Online Learning Products and Services.” (I’d be curious in how this 2500 entry database compares with Edsurge’s.)
Via EdTech Magazine: “How Learning Analytics Can Help Inform K–12 Decisions.”
Via The Hechinger Report: “School of Me: Letting students study what they want, when they want is the latest education trend.” Not entirely what they want, of course. Let’s be clear.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Students at for-profit institutions achieve learning results that are similar to those of students who attend comparable nonprofit colleges, according to a new study by the Council for Aid to Education. The study was funded by the for-profits that participated in the research.” (And the methodology is pretty LOL.)
Via The New York Times: “Sticker Shock, and Maybe Nausea, Hamper Sales of Virtual Reality Gear.” But I’m sure ed-tech evangelists still believe VR is the future of education.
Via Mark Guzdial: “Computer Science added to US Dept of Ed Civil Rights Data Collection.” (As long as the Department of Education still collects this data, of course.)
“How Should We Measure the Impact of Makerspaces?” is a depressing, but probably inevitable question posed by Edsurge.
More research on MOOCs in the MOOC section above. More research on for-profit higher ed in the for-profit higher ed section above.
Icon credits: The Noun Project