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The History of the Future of Education Technology

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    I’m a PhD dropout, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. It’s on my Twitter bio and stuff.

    When people ask me why I quit grad school — particularly two chapters into my dissertation — I usually give them a fairly boilerplate response, one that fits well with some of the current narratives about the failures of higher education:

    A PhD candidate in Comparative Literature. I saw the dearth of tenure track positions in my field. I saw funding for foreign language, literature, theater departments (three of my areas of "expertise") axed. I sat on hiring committees where an opening for an assistant professor position would receive hundreds and hundreds of applicants, all from incredibly qualified job candidates. I saw friends on the job market year after year after year after year. I saw colleagues take jobs in undesirable locations. I saw colleagues take jobs with overwhelming teaching loads. I saw them struggling to make ends meet, often burdened with substantial student loan debt. And more and more frequently, I saw them having to support themselves and their families as adjunct professors, piecing together teaching jobs at community colleges and universities, often commuting lengthy distances to do so. No benefits. No job security. Certainly no tenure track — that modicum of job security and intellectual freedom that’s supposed to come at the end of the whole awful grad school ordeal.

    I saw the handwriting on the wall — the future for academics looked grim. So, I dropped out.

    Even though I had several publications under my belt, had taught for a number of years, had spoken at major conferences — all the “right things” to make my CV stand out to potential employers and make me one of those “incredibly qualified job candidates” — I felt the promise of a professorship was a false one. A false promise to most grad students to be sure, and definitely a false promise to me.

    I was disillusioned by the institution of higher education. I still am. But my disillusionment about grad school involves much more than simply the unhappy prospects for the academic job market. I saw the university care more about sports than learning. I saw undergrads care more about getting their diplomas than learning. I’d once believed I wanted to be part of a scholarly community, but “community” was sorely lacking, as was oftentimes the scholarship. And while I wanted to spend my life immersed in learning and teaching and writing, I just couldn’t reconcile “the life of the mind” with the whims of university administrators, state politicians, state budgets. I couldn’t reconcile “the life of the mind” with the demands of the physical world, the demands of the physical body.

    In the spring of 2004, I’d passed my qualifying exams (with distinction, I’ll brag). I’d submitted a dissertation prospectus that was accepted by my committee. (The prospectus won an award.) But rather than start churning out the chapters right away, I figured I’d make the most of the summer vacation — a summer vacation in which I did very little. I wrote an introduction. I penned a first chapter. I made some notes, sketched out some outlines. I taught summer school — a coveted position in my department as it meant having a little bit of income in the months between the end of spring term and the beginning of the fall one.

    While I did get a small teaching stipend for those summer months, I did not have any health insurance. At the beginning of the 2003–2004 school year, I’d opted to pay for just 9 months of insurance (at a cost for my family of about one full month’s salary, incidentally). So when my husband Anthony began to experience extreme and frequent heartburn and nausea over the summer months, he figured he’d just wait to see a doctor ’til I could pay the family’s insurance bill again when the Fall Term started in September.

    September 15, we again had insurance. September 16, he saw a doctor. The diagnosis: not something that a “little purple pill” could clear up.

    Liver cancer.

    He was 33. Our son, 11.

    I chronicled a lot of my struggles with the medical and health insurance industries back then in blog posts I don’t feel particularly compelled to link to – in no small part because it’s really quite painful to revisit them. 2004 was when I started blogging, and I was relieved to find a supportive readership among fellow grad students, academics early in their careers, and others with loved ones with cancer.

    I found little such community on my own campus. I found little such support from my department. I found little such support from my dissertation committee members — professors that I had considered my mentors.

    There was never any question, it seemed, that I would continue to teach, continue to write the dissertation, and all the while care take my dying husband and our son. Nobody offered me any alternatives; admittedly I never asked. I couldn’t take a leave of absence from school altogether. My family needed the income. My family needed the health insurance.

    On August 29, 2005 — seven years ago today — Anthony died.

    A month later, still in a daze from death and dying, I stumbled back into the classroom to teach. I don’t remember anything about that entire academic year. I don’t remember what I taught (although my CV indicates I did so). I certainly didn’t write a word of my dissertation.

    Then at the end of that school year, I received a note from my department: I’d used up all my funding and there’d be no more teaching appointments available for me. (I was welcome to apply for positions in other departments.) I got a note from the grad school too: I’d have to finish my dissertation ASAP or apply for a special extension as I was coming up against the seven year deadline to complete a PhD.

    So I quit.

    I quit because I’d lost the stomach for being part of the institution of higher education — one that wasn’t sustaining me intellectually, financially or spiritually; one that wanted me to teach classes for very low wages — as a grad student and then likely as an adjunct faculty member. I quit because I was exhausted and couldn’t handle the obstacle course that grad school and the academic job market still required my running through. I quit because I needed to heal from the trauma of watching Anthony die. I quit because far from that so-called Ivory Tower being a place of solace and contemplation, it had become a nightmare of bureaucracy and politics. I quit because I didn’t want to be a cog in that machine. I quit because I felt the system was broken. And at the time, I was broken too.

    Seven years later, I’m healing; I'm stronger than ever. The health and prognosis for the institution of higher education, however, don’t seem quite as good.

    Image credits: Anthony Vanderford

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    In May, I decided to re-institute a new monthly feature here, something that I used to write for MindShift: a post highlighting some of the new and updated educational apps that have been released over the past 30 days or so. Clearly this isn’t an exhaustive list of all the new educational apps – just 3 that I think are pretty interesting. And 1 of them isn’t really “apps” either. Feel free to complain in the comments.

    Hungry Guppy

    This app comes from one of my favorite education startups, Motion Math. It’s their latest in math-related games — this one aimed at the preschool set. Hungry Guppy helps teach number sense and basic addition. The app helps children identify numerals and countable dots. These come in bubbles that can be moved around with the finger and merged with other bubbles — addition! — then “fed” to a fish. The team has also penned a blog post detailing how they so thoughtfully designed this game.

    iOS, $2.99 (iTunes link)


    Learnist, the latest product from the social learning startup Grockit, has been available in beta on the Web since late May, but this week marks the release of the two companion mobile apps — one for iPhone and one for iPad. Tapping into the Pinterest-craze, Learnist allows users to create and share curated digital bulletin boards with others. The new iPhone version of Learnist is designed to make it easier to create boards (using the mobile camera, for example), while the iPad app is designed for “consuming” them. (You can read my initial write-up of its launch here.)

    iOS and Web, free (iTunes link)

    Khan Academy’s Computer Science Curriculum

    I’ve been pretty critical of Khan Academy — mostly the hype about it as some sort of messianic force to change education, but also its heavy reliance on video lectures and multiple choice quizzes. Watching and listening — even with the ability to pause and rewind — doesn’t necessarily mean you’re learning (and nor do the quizzes really measure much). But the newly-launched computer science curriculum at Khan Academy is a different beast and definitely moves the non-profit a little bit closer to learning-by-making. The CS curriculum starts with JavaScript, and as John Resig (creator of the JavaScript library JQuery and Dean of Computer Science at Khan Academy) explains,

    Earlier this year I was working on an iteration of the CS platform which was heavily focused on structured curriculum leading towards exploratory projects.

    Until I saw Bret Victor‘s mind-blowing talk on using a responsive programming environment.

    After watching that video I couldn’t shake the feeling that what he presented was a fundamentally different way of approaching how to interact with, and learn how to, code.

    In an environment that is truly responsive you can completely change the model of how a student learns: rather than following the typical write -> compile -> guess it works -> run tests to see if it worked model you can now immediately see the result and intuit how underlying systems inherently work without ever following an explicit explanation.

    When code is so interactive, and the actual process of interacting with code is in-and-of-itself a learning process, it becomes very important to put code front-and-center to the learning experience.

    Here's hoping that we see more of this sort of thing at Khan Academy, and hoping too that its computer science curriculum continues to be expanded so that learners can move from exploration to building.

    Web, free (link)

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    Politics and Policies

    The Chicago Teachers Union announced this week that they’re set to strike, beginning September 10. The union is at an impasse with Chicago Public Schools over pay, length of the work day, and class size, among other issues. The CPS says that if there is a strike it will still keep schools open for half-days.

    “School choice” was part of many of this week’s speeches at the Republican Party Convention, as Jeb Bush, Condoleeza Rice, Chris Christie, Michelle Rhee, and others all decried the education system, particularly teachers’ unions and student loan debt. The full text of Bush’s speech — he’s rumored to be Romney’s choice for Education Secretary – is here.

    Public school students at Jay High School and Jones Middle School in San Antonio, Texas will be required as part of a pilot program to wear ID badges containing RFID (radio frequency identification) chips, enabling the schools to track their movements while on campus. Civil rights and privacy organizations are blasting the plan as dehumanizing if not unconstitional.

    Several states have passed laws lifting the caps on the number of students that can be enrolled in virtual schools, reports Education Week.

    Cheating Scandals

    Harvard University is investigating 125 students — about half of one particular class and approximately 2% of undergraduates — for reportedly cheating on a take-home exam.

    Updates and Upgrades

    Learnist, the latest project (pivot?) from social learning startup Grockit, launched its iPhone and iPad apps this week (iTunes link).

    Video lesson startup LearnZillion, a company I covered here, released the videos created by the “Dream Team” of teachers it assembled this summer — a project that earned the startup accolades from Bill Gates as something he’s looking forward to with back-to-school season.

    Sifteo, a gaming-meets-block-building system, announced this week the latest version of its product. The new cube system expands the numbers of that can be in place at once — up to 12 from the original 6. There are new games and puzzles, as well as new partners for content. Sifteo Cubes — while cool lookin’ — remain pretty expensive: $129.95 for a starter kit and $29.95 for additional cubes.

    Online tutoring startup InstaEDU rolled out some new features this week, including the ability to find and schedule tutors in advance, a way for parents to set up accounts for their children, and a separate SAT tutoring offering.

    Investor Tom Vander Ark, writing for Education Week, covers the newly released Version 1.1 of Ed-Fi, a data “standard” sponsored by the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.


    Ed-tech startup news site EdSurge announced this week that it’s raised $400,000 in funding from the Washington Post Company (owner of the for-profit education company Kaplan) and NewSchools Venture Fund (investors in many of the education startups that EdSurge itself covers), as well as from Allen & Co. executivess Nancy Peretsman and Gillian Munson, O’Reilly Media co-founder Dale Dougherty, and Judy Estrin. 

    Research and Data

    Who’s skipping school, asks Emily Richmond writing in The Atlantic. Turns out just about everyone. According to research from Get Schooled, there is no typical truant. In other words, it’s not just poor kids or kids with jobs who are ditching classes, and most of these kids insist that neither schools nor their parents really notice.

    Research published in the journal Child Development says that students who stay up late to study are more likely to do poorly on tests and/or do poorly in school the next day. Wired has more details about this research and drawbacks it points to to cramming.

    According to a study by student loan provider Sallie Mae, spending on college by traditional-aged students and their families “dropped over the past two years, a 13 percent decrease between 2009–10 and 2011–12.” Inside Higher Ed has more details on the study and explanations for the dip in spending.

    “Headline Fail of the Week” might go to the Hechinger Report for this story: “Study: Voucher students more likely to go to college.” The study, conducted by the Brookings Institution, tracked students “who received privately-funded vouchers in the late 1990s. African-American students in that group were 24 percent more likely than those in a control group to attend college and 58 percent more likely to attend private four-year colleges. Hispanic students who received vouchers were also more likely to enroll in college, but only by a small, statistically insignificant, amount.” Rutgers professor Bruce Baker penned a response noting that there are many other factors here besides vouchers that could have influenced these students’ college-going track.

    Classes and Competitions

    Newt Gingrich held a MOOC — dubbed Newt U — as part of the Republican Party’s National Convention. The course was run on a Kaplan platform and included 4 two-hour classes on various policy issues, reports Inside Higher Ed.

    The winners of the MTT2K (Mystery Teacher Theater 2000) contest, sponsored by Justin Reich and Dan Meyer, were announced this week. The Grand Prize for Khan critiques went to Michael Pershan’s What If Khan Academy Was Made in Japan? The People’s Choice went to Dr. Tae’s The History of the Korean War brought to you by UniversiTae and presented by Dr. Tae.

    Last week, I mentioned Chegg’s back-to-school contest — a chance to win a concert by Taylor Swift for your school. I failed to make a funny Kanye West-related joke, but it looks like I wasn’t the only person searching for a punchline here, as 4chan’s “lulz seekers” are trying to garner enough votes to send Swift to the Horace Mann School of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing.

    There’s some hullaballo at Florida State University where a marketing class at the school is using students’ Klout score as part of their grade. Klout, which purports to mention online social media “influence,” is a pretty flawed measurement, but hey, so are letter grades.

    Image credits: Jelle

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    As a Teach for America teacher in New York City, Tess Brustein felt she needed more feedback on what she was doing in her classroom. And while I suppose it’s easy to dismiss that as an indictment on the very brief training that TFA participants receive, I think it’s actually a problem that many teachers face: how do you cultivate support from mentors and coaches in the service of improving your teaching practices? How do you get meaningful feedback from your peers?

    Of course there are plenty of professional development sessions that purport to do this. But they’re frequently divorced from actual classroom practices. And when someone does come into the classroom to observe you as a teacher, it’s often a supervisor and as such can greatly influence the way both teachers and students respond.

    So Brustein has co-founded SmarterCookie, which launched last week, to help tackle this problem. It’s a fairly simple and obvious solution: record a short video of your lesson, upload the video to the SmarterCookie site, and then invite other teachers (or coaches or principals or professors…) to view the video. “Teachers have full control over who sees this,” Brustein stresses.

    These videos are viewed on the SmarterCookie website, where viewers can give feedback. The point isn’t just vague or overarching compliments or critiques — “good job” or “needs to be explained more clearly.” Indeed, SmarterCookie has a guide to help teachers think about the kind of feedback they should leave for their peers (i.e. feedback that’s direct, that’s actionable). To that end, comments are all timestamped so that they can reference a specific point in the video.

    I do wonder how/if the availability of Mozilla’s Popcorn.js,, which similarly allows timestamped markup and commentary of online videos (among other things), particularly with its easy-to-use Popcorn Maker tool (coming soon), will impact SmarterCookie’s development and adoption. In other words, is this something that teachers will do and build for themselves and/or is this a viable business?

    Yet with calls for more teacher “accountability,” there is likely going to be increasing demand for classroom observation tools, and so SmarterCookie might be well-positioned to tap into that market. More interesting — to me at least — are the ways in which video can be utilized to help teachers reflect and improve their own practice by sharing with and learning from their peers. So unlike tools that are intertwined with the more disciplinary mechanisms of surveillance and “accountability,” SmarterCookie is building this tool as a way for teachers to help teachers, and not for administrators to monitor and assess their staff — an important difference that hopefully this startup will be able to retain as it develops.

    SmarterCookie, while still in its early stages, is part of the latest cohort of ImagineK12-incubated startups.

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    Every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to talk about the latest ed-tech news. I always find our conversation to be one of the most thought-provoking exchanges I have all week.

    We recorded this podcast yesterday -- Labor Day here in the U.S., but hey, no rest for the wicked. In this week's episode, we discuss the bundling of digital textbooks with tuition, peer review, death and dropping out, and more.

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

    September 3, 2012

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    School Bus

    For the last couple of years, I’ve been asking teachers to tell me the one new tool that they’re most looking forwarding to taking back into the classroom with them this fall. With Labor Day now behind us and with most schools back in session, I’m happy to share the results of my latest survey.

    The Top 3

    Instructure Canvas

    The Rest

    A couple of things that struck me about this year’s results:

    1.  As in the past, there was a diverse set of responses. Many of the tools mentioned were just mentioned once. There was excitement for both hardware (LED projectors, piano keyboards) and software (apps galore), with a definite nod towards mobile devices (with iPads, text-messaging apps, apps in general). However, unlike previous back-to-school seasons, where there was a clear trendy product — oh, say, iPads — there was an even wider range of tools mentioned this fall. More responses; more tools. An excitement about education technology in general, perhaps.

    2.  And yet, little has changed over the last couple of years in terms of the most popular tools mentioned. Folks are still excited for Google+ and Edmodo (broadly speaking, social networking in schools). And everyone still is gaga for iPads.

    3.  Wait, what? A learning management system? What is Instructure doing on the list this year?! Everyone hates their LMS, right? Except, it looks like, not really. This is the part where I have to interject here that this is a pretty informal survey circulated to my social networks, and so maybe Instructure retweeted the story and an overwhelming number of happy clients answered. But that’s the thing, right? A bunch of happy LMS clients answered. People are excited about an LMS.

    4. Thankfully, the Maker Movement is penetrating the classroom. 3D printers, the Kickstarter-ed project Makey Makey (“the invention kit for everyone”), Lego robotics kits — lots of teachers are excitedly planning hands-on learning experiences with their students (which I interpret as lots of teachers who’ve spent the summer making — awesome).

    5. Google’s education product line is fragmented, but much-beloved. Google+ was one of the most frequently mentioned tools in this survey (particularly popular among followers who responded on G+, I should note). But there were lots of mentions of other Google products too: Google Hangouts. The Nexus. Google Apps for Education. It’s clear that Apple has a lot of education’s hardware mindshare with the iPad. And that comes with an app ecosystem too, of course. But Google is right there too with its cloud-based offerings. What are Google’s plans for EDU? (No one mentioned Chromebooks!)

    Last Years’ Results


    1. iPad
    2. Twitter
    3. Google Apps for Education
    4. Blogs


    1. Google+
    2. Edmodo
    3. iPad

    Photo credits: Bruno Grin

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  • 09/05/12--10:26: Ed Startup 101, Week 2
  • The Space

    This week’s Ed Startup 101 class examines “the ed-tech startup space.” That phrase — that particular way to describe education technology, not overtly as an "industry" or "market" but increasingly meaning just that  — prompted me to revisit a blog post written almost a year ago by Australian media historian and professor Kate Bowles:

    “The education space” is an imprecise sort of street address that’s beginning to bother me. It seems to mean something more than itself: not the precise space within which teaching or learning actually occurs, but the larger territory of business operations that brings together all those with an eye on the profits to be had from the future of education as a peculiar hybrid of market and service.

    Space Tourists (2009)Her post is an interesting, albeit painful one for me to revisit, because it chronicles a bit of a back-and-forth between myself and an ed-tech entrepreneur who’d penned a really vitriolic piece blasting teachers when his startup failed. I took him to task; he responded angrily in turn.

    And so it goes in this “space,” where there’s still today a lot of hostility and assumptions and misfires among entrepreneurs, engineers and educators. Some of those misunderstandings are about education markets, some about education systems, and many about education theories, research, and practices.

    And that’s to Bowles’ point, I think, that this “education space” isn’t (necessarily) a space for teaching and learning. Heck, it’s not (necessarily) a space for all teachers or all learners. It is, however, a “space” with blossoming investment and market opportunities. These are opportunities I hear many entrepreneurs talk about gleefully, without much recognition that while private dollars flow in, public funding for education is being slashed.

    So where is this “ed-tech space”? In Silicon Valley? Online? If so, what about all the elsewheres, on- and offline? And who does this “space” belong to? If the conversations therein end up being about individual consumers and private capital, how does this shape the future of learning and the future of learning communities? What happens to the polis? What happens to public education, and what happens to public spaces?

    Image credits: Christian Frei

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    I've been working today on another post in my series on open education resources, tackling the issue of confusion around licensing and usage that I'd like to argue has some bearing on the adoption of OER. So it was fairly timely, I'd say, to have the mis-appropriation ("mis-aggregation") of a bunch of education blogs' posts noticed, blasted, attributed, then yanked from the Web. I decided to Storify things -- and shelve the longer story on licensing challenges 'til tomorrow.

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  • 09/06/12--12:58: Elsewhere...
  • Here are a couple of videos from Google Hangouts (do we still call these “webinars”?) I participated in this week. They make for an interesting compare-and-contrast, I think:

    Steve Hargadon and the Future of Education

    Connected Learning held this chat this morning, and I was thrilled to join Steve Hargadon, Bryan Alexander, Monika Hardy, and Jeff Brazil for an hour long look at some of the prevailing narratives (and some of the things we wish were the prevailing narratives!) in education.

    Ed-Tech Fireside Chat

    Inigral’s Michael Staton, Edsurge’s Nick Punt, MindSnacks’ Jessie Pickard, and TeacherSquare’s Jessie Arora, along with Founder Dating’s Jessica’s Alter talked about education technology startups on Tuesday evening.

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    I’ve already written one post this week about Ed Startup 101 — that one addressing the notion of an “ed-tech space.” But that post doesn’t really answer this week’s assignment for the class. Nor does what I’ve written below really, (oh well!) but it gets a little bit closer.

    The Assignment

    Here’s this week’s Ed Startup 101 assignment:

    In writing, in video, or in an image (or in a combination of media!) tell us what you thought about these companies [ClassDojo, Clever, Codecademy, Coursera, Degreed, Dreambox, Goalbook, Instructure, Knewton] and emerging trends [from the Horizon Report]. Which ones were the most exciting to you? How do they relate to your idea for a startup? What did you see or hear that you hadn’t expected? What had you expected to see or hear that you didn’t?

    Those 9 startups are described as “some startups we love,” but there’s no real explanation about why they were chosen or what makes them so lovable. Great idea? Great execution? Great founders? Game-changers? Big bucks? Wide adoption? Politically influential? It’s not clear.

    So rather than go through these 9 and say what I love (or not), I'm cheating. I'm sidestepping this list altogether and returning to one that I made late last year: my picks for the Top 10 Ed-Tech Startups of 2011.

    That list only included startups founded in 2011 (after all, how do you define “startup”? how do you decide what counts as an "education" startup?), and in it, I tried to explain why I chose those as my favorites. I’ve reprinted that post below but with updates about what’s happened to these 10 since December 2011 (after all, things move pretty fast in startup world, even if educational institutions are notoriously slow-moving).

    My Top 10 Ed-Tech Startups of 2011: Updated

    1. Launchpad Toys

    I've had a lot of meetings with educators and entrepreneurs this year. But just one person has ever cited Seymour Papert in a casual conversation over coffee, and that's Launchpad Toys' co-founder Andy Russell. It wasn't just a passing mention either. I think Papert's work and ideas about constructionism permeate a lot of what the startup does, and Launchpad Toys is committed to creating a learning experience with and through digital storytelling that I've not see elsewhere. The company is also committed to building high quality yet affordable educational apps (See The Children's App Manifesto, which Russell co-authored).

    Launchpad Toys' first app Toontastic is a cartoon creation tool. Toontastic helps children think through story elements: the characters, the conflict, setting, scenes and so on. Then, when they are ready to animate their story, they press record. The microphone captures kids' narration, as they use their fingers to animate the characters on the storyboard.

    Launchpad Toys launched in August, a graduate of the summer Y Combinator batch. The startup has won numerous awards and accolades this year, most recently selected by Apple as one of its top education iOS apps of the year.

    Updates:  So far in 2012, LaunchPad Toys has raised a funding round (led by General Catalyst, Obvious Corp. (Evan Williams, Biz Stone), and Reece Duca), released its second app MonkeyGram (which I covered here), released some 30 new playsets for Toontastic, grew to 600,000 storytellers using the ap (with over 2 million cartoons created in 150 countries), and like many of the startups I reached out to this week said that "more stuff is coming soon" -- as in, like, Monday.

    2. Desmos

    Desmos is building software that will address one of the major problems that classrooms are going to face: hardware fragmentation. Some schools have invested in interactive whiteboards. Some have bought netbooks or tablets. Some provide iPod Touches, and some let students bring their own devices. With all these various hardware options, it's becoming increasingly important to have software that's platform agnostic -- something that students and teachers can use at home and at school, something that works and is still full-featured on any device.

    Desmos launched onstage at Techcrunch Disrupt in May. But when I chatted with founder Eli Luberoff a few weeks later, he showed me something that made me even more excited about this company's potential (and I say this as a person who is deeply committed to technologies that work across platforms).

    See, Desmos has built a web-based graphing calculator. Ah, the graphing calculator, that one piece of computing hardware that -- despite all the handwringing about BYOD -- kids are required to buy and bring to class. A low-end graphing calculator will cost you about $70. Desmos' calculator is free, and it contains features that you won't find elsewhere (such as dotted lines for inequalities).

    Sometimes it seems as though education companies think they just deserve customers (Texas Instruments, I'm looking at you) without doing much to improve or innovate, without really thinking about their users as learners. Desmos' graphing calculator wasn't built to prop up revenue for an outmoded company; it's a cool product (a side project, true, but part of a much larger Web-based effort), built by math geeks who want awesome, affordable, and accessible math tools.

    I covered Desmos here.

    Updates: I try not to pick favorites. It feels weird and awkward. But truth be told,I sure do like Desmos a ton. As far as I know, there's just one picture of me and a founder in an exhibit hall booth, and oh man, is it a great one -- the expression on my face reflects my thoughts on math (and photos in exhibit hall booths more accurately) -- not on Desmos, of course. Desmos kicked the new year off in January with a move from Flash (boo!) to HTML5 (win!).  (Here's my coverage.) But "future of the Web" aside, I think the thing that excites me most about this company is that while it does still fulfill all the functionality of a free online graphing calculator, what it's enabling is project-based assignments in math class. Desmos users continue to draw amazing, beautiful things with the graphing calculator, and teachers are assigning these sorts of math/art problems to students. "We've gone beyond replicating Texas Instruments," says founder Eli Luberoff.

    3. LittleBits

    While I love the way in which the Maker Movement has blossomed this year, I sometimes worry that interest in science, engineering and tech will continue to leave girls out of the loop, particularly when it does to hardware tinkering. It doesn't help when organizations say things like "Arduino: so easy your mom could do it."

    So yes, it matters to me that the founder of littleBits is a woman.Ayah Bdeir is also an engineer and an artist, and I think that sensibility -- STEM + the Arts -- shines through in her company.

    LittleBits offers a library of pre-assembled circuit boards that snap together with tiny magnets. There's no soldering, no wiring and no programming required. The circuit boards in a littleBits kit have unique functions -- a power component, a pressure sensor, a button, for example -- that can simply be snapped together. Soldering is fun, I won't lie, but it's intimidating, and as such littleBits lowers the barrier to entry for those interested in working with electronics.

    And okay, I'm fudging a bit on my "founded in 2011" rule here, as this idea has been a work-in-progress for several years. But you can now buy littleBits kits, and the startup did raise its first round of funding this year. I covered the littleBits here.

    Updates:  littleBits has raised $3.65 million in funding this year and has signed a manufacturing deal with PCH International to help boost production and distribution. A 2012 TED Fellow, founder Ayah Bdeir spoke at TED in February.

    4. General Assembly

    New York City's General Assembly sits at the nexus of several important education/technology trends (See: "STEM Education's Sputnik Moment" and "The Higher Education Bubble".) New York City is building a vibrant tech community -- [insert obligatory comparison to Silicon Valley here. Roll eyes and mutter that New York's different, bigger, better, faster, stronger]. As such, there's a high demand in New York for talent, and in turn, a high demand for learning opportunities (formal and informal), instruction, and mentorship about what exactly it entails to build a technology startup. Coding, design, marketing, CEOing, and stuff.

    General Assembly uses the word "campus" to describe its facilities. And that's the sense you get too: a library, a communal work- and learning space. General Assembly, which opened its doors at the beginning of the year, offers classes on engineering and entrepreneurship. The site also offers workspace to rent, and several startups who do so help teach some of the classes that are offered.

    With all the hullaballoo of online education and online work, having a physical location to go to to learn and work still matters. It matters for building skills; it matters for building community.

    I covered General Assembly here.

    Updates:  General Assembly has continued to expand, outgrowing its New York City offices and moving to a larger space there. It's also opened campuses overseas in London and Berlin.

    5. Highlighter

    I remember the very first time a teacher gave me permission to write in a book. Highlight important passages, she said. Make notes in the margins. No way, I thought. You can write in books?!

    Since then, I've read every book with a pencil in hand -- underlining and annotating. That's something that makes the move to digital books both terrifying and wonderful. It's terrifying if indeed it means the end of marginalia. And it's wonderful if someone can build a tool that integrates marginalia with the Web, and makes our notes and highlights sharable and social.

    The Seattle-based startup Highlighter has done just this, with some easy-to-implement Javascript that enables commenting "in the margins" of websites. While there were a number of new social reading startups this year, Highlighter is targeting academic communities in particular, working closely with college professors to build a reading tool that's useful for both teachers and learners (with features like groups for classes and discussions.)

    One of the problems about reading and annotating digital content is that much is locked down, in proprietary formats. Highlighter is building an HTML 5 e-reader and supports OER and open platforms for reading and note-taking.

    Highlighter was part of the Seattle-based Techstars incubator and launched this summer. I covered Highlighter herehere, and here.

    Updates:  Highlighter has rolled out its e-reading tools to a number of campuses, including Penn State, RIT, CSUN, Santarosa City College, Highline Community College, and Olympic College. Recently the startup also partnered with the 20 Million Minds Foundation to produce a free and openly licensed Intro to Sociology textbook (my coverage is here).

    6. Celly

    Here's the thing: the technology matters. I mean, it matters in general. Yes of course. But when it comes to ed-tech, damn, I think we should set our standards pretty high. And frankly, we need to be better about looking under the hood, if you will, of the tools we adopt.

    Looking under the hood makes me like Celly a lot. Its co-founders Russell Okamoto and Greg Passmore, both former software architects at VMWare, have both the technical chops and the smarts to think about building networks in a new way.

    I say this, of course, in a year in which "group messaging startups" were hot -- good grief, you say, another mobile messaging network?! But Celly was part of a different kind of messaging trend, one that I called out as one of the most important ed-tech trends of the year: text-messaging. SMS.

    SMS is important in education, I would argue, because it's the best tool we have right now to bridge the digital divide. Most people have access to SMS via their cellphones. Most people. Most parents. Most students. SMS can be a powerful communication device between school and home, between teacher and student, between students and class, between classes and the community.

    We saw an explosion in the number of ed-tech startups this year that moved to address opportunities with text-messaging apps (hence the trends post). But I feel as though Celly might just have the technological edge here. Celly offers a communication tool, sure. It builds community, yes. But it's not just teachers broadcasting messages to home. There are multiple ways in which the "cells" can be configured -- curating messages (from RSS as well as from people's text messages) to spread out to others in the community or to filter up the chain of command.

    I wrote about text-messaging a lot this year, but I specifically covered Celly here.

    Updates:  Celly has received a number of accolades, and the messaging tool continues to be used in many community-building and community-action settings. Like many of the startups I asked about updates, Celly says that there's news "coming soon." So stay tuned.

    7. GoalBook

    Don't make me pick a favorite piece of technology journalism from 2011, folks. I'm getting sick of writing "Best of" stories. But one of my favorite pieces was Tim Carmody's response to the death of Steve Jobs: "This Stuff Doesn't Change the World." As Tim makes clear, this stuff does change our worlds -- his autistic son's usage of the touchscreen iOS devices case in point. Tim's tweet -- "I'm on my way to PHL to see my son, who uses a device Steve Jobs invented to help him talk. He will never know. He will never know." -- sits in my heart every day when I think about our obligations to build accessible, affordable, world-changing technology.

    You hear a lot about the ways in which mobile, touchscreen devices open up new worlds for those with disabilities. But despite the great promise, software and hardware development for assistive technology and for special education doesn't get a lot of attention. It doesn't get sufficient attention in consumer tech or in classroom tech.

    One of the things I love about Goalbook then, is that it is addressing something that's tough and complicated and bureaucratic and frustrating about special education in schools -- just the sort of thing that technology should help address, but quite frankly, often fails to. So Goalbook founders Daniel Yoo and Justin Su have taken on an important challenge.

    Goalbook is building a system to help schools handle IEPs (individualized education programs). These can become incredibly complex when a student has special needs, so much so that it's easy to fumble with communication and lose track of student's goals. Goalbook allows the team that works with a student (and that team can include parents, primary teachers, behavioral specialists, administrators, speech therapists, and so on) to better communicate and collaborate in helping support the student's personal learning goals.

    The Goalbook founders are both educators and engineers -- and they're building this startup to address a real need they've experienced in their teaching careers. Goalbook is still in beta with a few pilot schools.

    Updates:  Goalbook is the one startup on my list that matches the Ed Startup 101 "startups we love" list. In fact, I bet Goalbook is on almost everyone's list. It's hard not to love the founders, love the vision. Since December, Goalbook has rolled out new features and has found itself being used by those outside special education and beyond those with IEPs. I think this points to a good trend insofar as more teachers, parents, students, administrators recognizing we all should have individualized learning plans. Founder Daniel Yoo tells me that there will also be news in the near future out of Goalbook. Again, stay tuned.

    8. DuoLingo

    Even before the startup launched, Techcrunch's MG Siegler headlined his story on it Meet Duolingo, Google's Next Acquisition Target. His confidence is hardly unfounded, based on the track record of Duolingo founderLuis von Ahn whose research has already been acquired by Google twice: the ESP Game and reCAPTCHA.

    Duolingo is very much in the same spirit as these projects insofar as it utilizes human micro-tasks "for good" -- in order to help identify and verify information that computers cannot yet process.

    We creatures of the Web fill out a lot of CAPTCHAs, and some 750 million users have helped Google's book digitization efforts by using reCAPTCHA to help correct OCR misreads. Now, with Duolingo, von Ahn hopes to be able to use a similar sort labor in the wonderful and mammoth goal of translating the Web into all major languages.

    Duolingo is couched in terms of language learning, and I'm not quite sure that's the right description for the project -- in other words, using Duolingo alone is unlikely to be your path to German fluency. (Although maybe more will come of the language-learning component -- Duolingo is still in beta). Nevertheless I love the idea of this type of crowdsourced effort, and I think the possibilities for learning through micro-tasks is fascinating.

    I covered Duolingo here.

    Updates:  Duolingo was still in private beta when I wrote about it late last year. In June, it opened to the public and now offers translation-as-you-explore-language-learning in Spanish, French, English, and German. Siegler was wrong, however, and this startup has yet to be acquired by Google.

    9. Raspberry Pi

    The dream of putting a low cost computer in the hands of every kid is hardly a new one. But what the British non-profit Raspberry Pi has in mind does one better than simply giving kids a $200 laptop.

    Raspberry Pi has build a $35 single-board computer.

    A what, you ask?

    Yeah. Exactly. See, that's part of the problem.

    Raspberry Pi isn't really a hardware manufacturing startup (although yes it's manufacturing hardware). It's an educational non-profit based in the UK, one that "exists to promote the study of computer science and related topics, especially at school level, and to put the fun back into learning computing."

    What Raspberry Pi has built is an ultra-small, ultra-low cost device: a board the size of a credit card that contains a fully functional computer system. Some 700 MHz of processing power, 256 MB of RAM, OpenGL and Blu-ray-grade playback (1080p), HDMI and audio outputs, a USB port, a Flash memory car slot, 100MB Ethernet. That's all on a card that's powered by a 5V supply. And for a cost of just $25-35.

    And what do you do with something like that, you ask? You hack.

    The Raspberry Pi computer will run Linux... and from there, Scratch... and from there, well, the possibilities for computer education are endless. The first of the Raspberry Pi cards are hitting shelves this month.

    Updates:  In retrospect, I must confess that I chose Raspberry Pi as one my favorite startups based solely on potential and not on substance. But in 2012, the devices finally started shipping, so unlike a lot of low cost educational computing promises, this isn't vaporware. The $35 Linux computer is very much a reality. There have been some manufacturing hiccups along the way (the company announced this week it was bringing the manufacturing to the UK). But that's in no small part because demand has been incredibly high (crashing its website on launch day). What's great about that demand is that, in turn, the open source community has been actively tributing code and guides and lessons for the Raspberry Pi. After all, it isn't just the "tech" that makes this educational; it's learning (tech) with and from others.

    10. LessonCast

    If there was one question I asked education startups repeatedly this year, it was "Have you talked to any teachers?" (You'd be surprised -- perhaps -- by how often the answer was "No.") No doubt, it might be easier to do so and it might be easier to recognize both problems and solutions, when the founding team is comprised of educators.

    I met the LessonCast founding team at a Startup Weekend EDU in San Francisco this summer. Nicole Smith and Katrina Stevens are both Baltimore-area educators, and Khalid Smith, Nicole's husband, an engineer (he has since become the education director for Startup Weekend's new EDU vertical).

    When Nicole pitched the idea of Lessoncast at Startup Weekend EDU, I loved it: it's a tool to help teachers quickly create and easily share lesson ideas and classroom management tips in a video format. Indeed, with all the fuss about Khan Academy, making video lessons is still fairly complicated and time-intensive. But LessonCast isn't really hopping onto the "flipped classroom" bandwagon. This isn't (necessarily) about teaching students; it's about teachers teaching each other, sharing tips and tricks and advice and ideas. The tool is about building and sharing PD -- a process that is about teaching and learning for the creator of the lesson as much as the viewer.

    I covered the startup here.

    Updates:  LessonCast has continued to refine its focus, now offering schools provide differentiated PD to help the needs of their specific teachers and specific students. But beyond the LessonCast product itself, I'd recommend to any educator wanting to learn about entrepreneurship to read the blog written by co-founders Nicole Smith and Katrina Stevens. Both women have taken "the leap" this year: Smith leaving her position as an assistant principal and Stevens leaving her dsitrict office role to pursue LessonCast full-time.

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    Banksy Girl Balloon

    Politics and Policies

    Last week, the Republicans laid out their vision for education; this week, it was the Democrats’ turn. Lots of rhetoric — “You can’t be pro-business unless you’re pro-education,” said San Antonio mayor Julian Castro. But many of the key parts of Obama’s education policies went unmentioned at the Democratic Party National Convention, including Race to the Top.

    The California State Senate passed an open textbook bill this week — it now heads to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk — that would create an OER library for the textbooks in the most popular undergraduate classes at the state’s public universities.

    There’s been some back-and-forth among the education punditry over the last few weeks about the state of Virginia’s NCLB waiver, in part because it establishes different target levels of proficiency for students of different races and ethnic backgrounds. Virginia says it will amend its application in response to some of the criticisms, and as usual the Shanker Blog has a great analysis of what the proposals and measurements mean.

    From the “Are You Friggin’ Serious” Department: the conservative education think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a report this week suggesting that the country could save $10 billion a year annually by cutting staffing levels for special education.

    From the “I’m Not Making This Up” Department: British authorities froze the stake that the Libyan Investment Authority holds in Pearson — about a 3.01% stake in the company. The actions were taken as part of the government’s attempts to “ block the assets of Muammar Gaddafi and five members of his family,” reports The Guardian.

    Launches, Updates, and Upgrades

    The Estonian Tiger Leap Foundation launched a new program called “ProgeTiger” aimed at teaching computer programming to all kids from grades 1 through 12.

    Amazon unveiled updates to its Kindle e-reader line this week with a bunch of new devices, including a Kindle Fire HD, at a range of prices.

    Low-cost Linux computer-maker Raspberry Pi announced plans for version 2.0 of its boards. The non-profit also said that it was moving manufacturing to the UK.

    Digital textbook app-maker Inkling made available a set of O’Reilly Media books this week. The learn-to-program guides include an interactive coding widget. (As with all the O'Reilly books, it's hard to not make a purchasing decision based on the animal on the cover. So hey, it looks like I'm gonna learn JavaScript!)

    Social network Edmodo released a new version of its platform with a cleaner UI and new features, including “insights,” a way for teachers (and others) to get more data about students’ interaction with content.

    The non-profit Worldreader announced that it has secured partnerships with several major publishers, a move that will greatly expand its library of digital content. Worldreader provides e-book libraries via Kindles to children in Africa.

    Downgrades, Closures, and Scandals

    I guess this should go in the “update” category, but frankly I’m sticking it squarely in the “downgrade” category as I think it’s bad news for students: EDUCAUSE and Internet2 are teaming up for a series of digital textbook pilot program that will bundle materials with college tuition. (I just covered this last week, noting that it was a growing trend.)

    Due to funding cuts, some 470,000 students in California will not be able to get into the classes they need at the state’s community colleges. In numbers from a blog post by Tony Bates: “California’s community college system, the nation’s largest, has suffered about $809 million in state funding cuts since 2008. It faces another $338-million hit midyear if voters reject a tax measure on the November ballot supported by Gov. Jerry Brown.”

    In an embarassing blow to a tool once touted as one of the ten best inventions of 2009 and heralded as a savior of education, two of the three NYC schools piloting the School of One math software (since rebranded to New Classrooms) have abandoned the program, finding it did nothing to improve student achievement. The software, designed by a former DOE employee with secret-sauce algorithms from Wireless Generation was championed by former NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein (Wireless Generation and Joel Klein are now part of News Corp — and wow, doesn’t this bode well for its new education plans, eh?). The School of One program has cost the city $9 million over the past 3 years, and the DOE was planning to spend $45 million to expand the program.

    Responding to last week’s news that about half of a Harvard undergrad history class had been busted for cheating on their take-home exam, the students now insist that collaboration was allowed. Slate’s Farhad Manjoo argues these students should be praised not punished for learning how to work together.


    The learning management system Desire2Learn, once best known for being sued by Blackboard for infringing on its virtual learning system patent, can now be known as the startup that raised the largest seed round in Canadian history: $80 million from OMERS Ventures (a Canadian pension fund) and New Enterprise Associates (NEA) (who’ve recently invested in Edmodo and Coursera).

    The Next Web reports that Fingerprint Digital, a maker of digital learning games for kids, has raised $7 million.

    iPad educational app directory eSpark Learning has raised $5.7 million in its Series A round, according to Techcrunch.

    Techcrunch also reports $5 million invested into the Russian education platform

    Education app-store-plus-LMS Chalkable has raised $1.3 million. (My story about the startup is here.)

    The Chicago-based design company 37signals announced that it has bought a stake in the Starter League, the learn-to-code startup formerly known as Code Academy. (My coverage here.)

    Classes, Credits, and Tours

    Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok from the blog Marginal Revolution are starting an online education platform — Marginal Revolution University. The first class is on Development Economics.

    Steve Hargadon is going on the road with the “Hack Your Education” tour. (You can see the dates on the calendar here.) His plans are for local conversations about education and learning — our kids’, our own. There are likely some cities that I’ll head to too, and we’ll record our weekly podcast in front of an audience.

    And so it begins: Colorado State University’s Global Campus will accept transfer credit for online education startup Udacity's CS 101.

    edX, the MIT and Harvard MOOC initiative, will now offered proctored final exams to the students that sign up for its open enrollment online classes, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education. These tests will be given by Pearson (which also provides testing for Udacity). Vive la revolution.

    Image credits: Banksy, photo by Dominic Robinson

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    Every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to talk about the latest ed-tech news. I always find our conversation to be one of the most thought-provoking exchanges I have all week. Luckily for me then, we actually chatted several times this week, recording a podcast on Monday, participating in a webinar together on Thursday, and recording another podcast episode yesterday.

    We spend a lot of time in this one talking about education startups -- the Ed Startup 101 class I'm taking, the startups that I "love," whether or not Hack Education itself is a startup, and how I plan to make this venture a financially sustainable one. 

    We also talk about the national party conventions and their rhetoric about education, contrasting that with Steve's plans for a "Hack Your Education" tour which he kicks off this week.

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

    September 7, 2012

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    The Reading Room, Public Library of NSW, 1942, by Sam Hood

    I've already penned two posts for this week's Ed Startup 101 assignment (1 and 2), but here's a third. Someone just emailed me asking if I had a list of "recommended resources" for folks who want to get up to speed on ed-tech, and so I figured I'd write this post and tag it so that it appeared in the Ed Startup 101 RSS feed.

    Ed-Tech Resources

    Ed Startup 101 recommeded Edsurge and the Horizon Report for keeping up-to-date with ed-tech news and trends. It recommends Techcrunch for keeping up with tech. That's a good start, and I'd add to that and to your RSS reader -- if you're looking for industry stuff -- the things that Tim Carmody writes for The Verge, Steve Kolowich writes for Inside Higher EdKi Mae Huessner writes for GigaOm, Jason Tomassini writes for Education Week, and the writers of Wired Campus pen for The Chronicle of Higher Education.

    A few other blog posts, videos, guides, and (admittedly) personal favorites that I think should inform anyone's "intro to ed-tech":

    19 Bold Ideas for Change
    Applying Lean Methodology to K-12
    "The Audrey Test" -- What Every Techie Should Know About Education
    Edtech Handbook: Launch an Education Startup
    Ed-Tech Primer
    The Evaluation
    History of Virtual Learning Environments
    My Thoughts on Codecademy
    The Race to Platform Education
    The Seductive Allure of Ed-Tech Reform
    Unbundling Education
    What If Khan Academy Was Made in Japan
    What Silicon Valley Gets Wrong About Math Education Again and Again

    I'm missing a lot here, aren't I.  Comments welcome...

    Photo credits: State Library of New South Wales via Flickr

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  • 09/13/12--16:01: Ed Startup 101, Week 3
  • Strange Filament

    I’m a little behind on my work this week, what with a fun-filled trip to San Francisco on Monday that somehow led to two days of feverishness and bed. Go figure. Unfortunately that’s meant I had to cancel travel plans to MIT Media’s Lab Education Nation event — I guess there was only so much critiquing powerful ed-reform narratives that I could handle this week. And what a shame since that’s part of the argument I make for what I do in this week’s assignment for Ed Startup 101.

    The Idea

    This week’s assignment for Ed Startup 101 asks students to write about their idea for an education startup.

    It’s actually a topic that Steve Hargadon and I discussed in the last few minutes of our latest weekly podcast, when Steve asked me how I work (in other words, the process I go through in finding and writing stories) and how I plan to make my work at Hack Education sustainable. “I’m not sure Hack Education is a startup,” I said, but he insisted that it was. “Independent education technology journalism,” he argued. “No one else is doing that but you.”

    I’m not sure that’s true. I mean, there are a lot of indie bloggers that write about education and education technology. Hack Education is easily just another one of those, but since writing (and speaking) is how I make my living, it seems right that this site become more professional than just past-time.

    That being said, what I value most about this site is that I can say what I want here. I can question those who dominate education and ed-tech narratives. I don’t have to kowtow to sponsors or editors or advertisers or investors or companies or their PR firms.

    And really, that’s what much of the technology blogs do. It really struck me — no surprise — at Techcrunch Disrupt, watching speakers be handled with kid gloves by the moderators on stage as well as by the bloggers who wrote up the proceedings of each session. There were no tough questions. There was no context. No critique. It’s not journalism. It’s marketing.

    Maybe that’s just what trade magazines like Techcrunch do — frame press releases as stories; market new products to a niche audience in a particular industry; target readers with advertisements and stories.

    The twist with Techcrunch and its tech blogging kin is that interest in the technology industry now has a larger appeal than just those who work in the sector. Many readers are tech entrepreneurs and tech investors; many are tech enthusiasts and tech consumers. I bet we could say the same about education — it matters to everyone and not just teachers and students. But I doubt very many people would bother reading an education trade publication if they weren’t “in” education. And yet there’s a sudden zeal for ed-tech among the tech trade publications (and among tech industry folks). But what gets written about mostly, I’ll repeat: it’s not journalism; it’s marketing.

    I spend a lot of time stewing about the Venn Diagram of education and technology —and how the overlap isn’t always a good one, and a fair amount of time thinking about the relationship between education journalism and technology journalism (or “blogging” or “PR”) — and how there’s a need for much better ed-tech reporting and analysis. That’s the niche I try to fill here at Hack Education.

    Here’s how I describe this site on my “About” page. I think it explains "my idea" (as part of the Ed Startup 101 assignment) and the problem(s) I’m tackling here.

    I created Hack Education in June 2010 shortly after I became a technology journalist. No surprise, I was frustrated by the lack of coverage of education technology – by both technology and education publications. I did my day job (the freelance writing I get paid for) but devoted as much attention as possible to Hack Education, trying to create the sort of blog that (admittedly) I’d want to read: one that’s smart and snarky, one that’s free of advertising and investor influence (See: Disclosures), one that’s tracking new technologies but not just because of some hyperbolic “revolution.” Hack Education isn’t just about how ed-tech changes “the system.” It is about the future of learning. (Yes, there’s a distinction there.)

    I think Hack Education provides an important counter-balance to “business of education” or “tech-related business of education” slant that a lot of the tech and ed-tech trade publications take. To me, the question isn’t “how much venture capital did you raise?” but “how does this shape power relations in the education system?” It’s not so interesting to know “how many users have you signed up?” but far more important to understand “how does this shape learning?”

    I think it’s crucial that this site is independent — no Gates Foundation or Pearson Foundation funding, no corporate sponsorship, no ads. I ask for donations, true, because I'd rather have the support of the community than the investment of influencers. (Thankfully, figuring out the business model for all this can wait ’til the end of term.)

    And I think that it's important this is me here, writing as honestly and openly and as skeptically as possible. There's so much "insider versus outsider" conflict going on right now in education too -- accusations that insiders can't or won't change the system; accusations that outsiders are only motivated by profit. I feel like I'm both an insider and an outsider in education. I'm both and neither.

    I think we need to have a far more nuanced way of talking about how power, influence, expertise, experience, and vision work in ed-tech (and more broadly, in education). Because right now, with very little in the way of independent ed-tech journalism, we mostly get PR.

    Photo credits: Jack Newton

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    The teachers in the third largest school district in the United States went on strike on Monday for the first time in 25 years after failing to reach an agreement with the Chicago Public Schools. The issues at stake here aren’t simply matters of pay or benefits, although that’s how some in the media are portraying it, noting that the average salary for teachers in the city is $71,000. (In fact, Chicago is among the least well-funded large urban school districts in the country, and there is alarming inequity among those schools.) The strike is, in many ways, trying to put the brakes on a neoliberal future of education as envisioned by Democrats like Barack Obama, Arne Duncan, and Rahm Emanuel — all Chicagoans — and Republicans like Jeb Bush and Chris Christie: fewer unions, more charter schools, and more standardized testing used as a stick to punish teachers and schools. A recent poll says 55% of Chicagoans support the strike.


    Google released Course-Builder this week, an open source platform that it utilized for its “Power Searching with Google” online course. I haven’t had a chance to dive into the code, but I really do like the analysis offered by Phil Hill who argues that this is less about open-sourcing a MOOC platform and more about offering a competitive service (that is, Google App Engine) to Amazon Web Services, the cloud infrastructure that most ed-tech is currently being built upon.

    Not to be outdone by all the other big box retail toy stores (LOL), Toys R Us announced it would be launching its own tablet this week: the $149,99 Tabeo is a 7” Android 4.0 tablet with a soft, removable bumper case.

    The Education Superhighway, a non-profit focusing on broadband speeds in U.S. schools, had its official launch this week with a “National Speed Test” so that schools (and the FCC) can identify the need for Internet upgrades. While 99% of K–12 schools in the country do have Internet access, some 80% have Internet that’s less than 100Mbps. You can test your school’s Internet speed here:

    Updates and Upgrades

    EverFi, a company that offers schools software to help teach “life skills,” announced this week that it’s releasing the first open-source badging platform, called “Sash.” Sash uses the protocols and metadata formats laid out by the Mozilla Open Badges Infrastructure. The GitHub repository for EverFi Sash can be found here., a startup that helps crowdfund the “ungluing” of books (that is, releasing digital versions in openly licensed and DRM-free formats) has made available the book from its first successful campaign: Oral Literature in Africa. (See my coverage of the startup here for more details.)

    Version 129 of MIT App Inventor (formerly Google’s Android App Inventor) has been released. Improvements include new gesture-based events.

    TechYES, a student technology literacy program that focuses on peer mentoring and project-based learning, unveiled several changes including better project-tracking and e-portfolio management. “Management” doesn’t really feel like the right word here actually, because what TechYES and GenYES offer feels more authentic and less administrative than most programs.

    Europe’s digital library Europeana opened up the data on some 20 million cultural items from its collections this week. The Guardian calls it “a coup d’etat for advocates of open cultural data.”

    OER site Curriki has launched a free Algebra 1 course. I had a demo of the site last week, and wow, I’m really behind on writing up my OER research, huh.

    Digital textbook app-maker Kno announced that it’s reached an agreement with Wiley & Sons and will soon carry the publisher’s textbooks in business, engineering, mechanics, organic chemistry, physics, and trigonometry.

    Downgrades and Closures

    This “update” from Hachette is a downgrade: Overdrive informed its customers this week (libraries and schools that utilize its e-book rental platform) that Hachette was raising the prices on approximately 3500 by an average of 220%. As The Digital Reader’s Nate Hoffelder points out, that leaves the current e-lending-to-library market looking like: “2 major publishers which charge high prices (Hachette, Random House); 2 major publishers which won’t sell at all (Macmillan, Simon & Schuster); Penguin, which is only selling ebooks to ibraries grudgingly and with support for the Kindle explicitly blocked; HarperCollins, which imposed a 26 checkout limit for library ebooks.”

    Job openings are good news. Universities looking to hire tenure track faculty in English, also good news. But bad news out of Colorado State University: Old PhDs Need Not Apply. Rather, if you’ve received your degree before 2010, you’re sorta a has-been, your smarts have expired, or something. More on this in Inside Higher Ed.

    The State of Georgia plans to close its archives to walk-ins as of November 1, making it the only state not to offer publicly accessible archives. There’s a petition being circulated. Georgia’s Secretary of State cites budget cuts as forcing the move.


    Publishers plan to appeal a recent court decision that favored the Georgia State University library system’s e-reserves policy, reports The Chronicle of Higher Education. Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press USA, and SAGE Publications had sued the university for copyright infringement, but of the 99 some odd claims, the judge found the university had only violated copyright in 5 cases.

    Research and Data

    The OECD released its latest round of education data this week. As usual, The Guardian’s Data Blog is the best place to go for visualizations as well as easy access to the data for you to download and play with on your own. The OECD “Education at a Glance” report is an interesting look at education spending, class sizes, and teacher pay. As The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann points out, these figures highlight “the glaring lack of education mobility” in the U.S. That is, if you were born to parents who didn’t make it through high school, chances are you won’t either. Furthermore, there are serious downward mobility trends in this country too, with many children being less educated than their parents. How is this related to economic mobility, which despite all the promises of the American Dream, seems to be missing in the U.S. as well?

    Inside Higher Ed looks at some early data from MITx’s Circuits and Electronics class and finds that 80% of respondents said they’d already taken a comparable course at a traditional university before signing up for the MOOC.

    A recent survey by the LEAD Commission has found that parents and teachers believe we should spend more money on classroom technology. Some 60% said they felt that the U.S. was “behind the curve” when it came to technology integration in the classroom.

    Dell also released results from a survey it undertook with some 1500 students, parents, and teachers in the U.S., Germany, and China this week. (PDF) The results aren’t terribly surprising: much like the LEAD Commission, they suggest people don’t believe we’re using enough technology in the classroom. One interesting finding: Chinese respondents were more positive than others about the use of social media in the classroom. Of course, social media is strictly controlled in China, so I’m not sure how that shaped the responses.

    Check out the interesting, interactive visualization in The New York Times about student loan debt and college costs.

    Funding and Acquisitions

    It’s not really a “funding” story per se, but oh well: The New York Times reports it’s boom times for the debt collection agencies going after those who’ve defaulted on student loans.

    But wait, this is funding news, right? We should be tracking on things like ed-tech startup investment alongside things like the fact that Pell Grant spending fell by $2.2 billion in the last year. One reason for the decline: the elimination of summer funding.

    And in related news, Venture Beat reports that SoFi, a startup that connects student borrowers with alumni investors, has raised $77 million in investment. I guess I don’t see how this, as the headline reads, “solves the student debt crisis,” but what do I know.

    News from two companies I’ve never heard of, I confess, but according to Techcrunch SimpleTuition, a student loan comparison site, has acquired ValoreBooks, an online textbook marketplace.

    Never one to pass up on anything trendy in education, the Gates Foundation has announced that it’ll be offering grants of up to $50,000 for institutions that offer MOOCs in “high-enrollment, low-success introductory-level courses.” Because clearly the way you tackle low-success introductory courses is throw students into a scenario where the going rate of completion is about 10%.

    Classes and Competitions

    Stanford University announced 16 new online classes that it’s offering this fall. Interesting to note: they’re spread across a couple of platforms — Coursera, the startup founded by Stanford professors Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, and Class2Go, a platform created by some other Stanford engineers (and open-sourced this week), and Venture Lab, a third Stanford-created platform, this one focused on students working in teams.

    Virginia Tech professor and “Plaid Avenger” John Boyer have requested President Obama to visit his massive offline course. Roughly 3000 students take his World Geography course, which I covered here when the class brought Aung San Suu Kyi in (via Skype).

    YouTube is teaming up with Khan Academy to hold a competition to identify the “Next EDU Gurus,” that is talented video educators. The search begins now to find “10 super talented and engaging content creators who we’ll support with training, promotion, and a $1000 B&H gift card for production equipment, so they can take the next step in their YouTube - and education - careers,” says Google, and the contest closes October 1. I hope everyone who created a MTT2K video applies. 

    Image credits: Margaret Haley via AFT History & Chicago Teachers

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    Each week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to discuss the latest ed-tech news. This week's podcast was recorded "live in front of a studio audience" -- or something like that. Steve was in Portland for the kick-off of his "Hack Your Education" tour, so a handful of folks got to listen in on our conversation before the rest of y'all get to hear the podcast.

    I didn't write much this past week, as I was sick and my work schedule disrupted (har har har), but that hardly stopped Steve and me from filling an hour with discussions on startups, Silicon Valley, and strikes.

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

    September 14, 2012

    (And for a little bonus audio, here the link to my recent appearance on the "back-to-school" edition of the Digital Campus podcast.)

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    Google wrapped up its eighth Summer of Code a couple of weeks ago, with over 1200 college students — its largest cohort yet — participating in the three-month-long program. The Summer of Code puts these students to work in real world, open source development projects. While most program participants are computer science and engineering majors, the breadth of their backgrounds — academic and otherwise — is quite large, says Google, with students from over 66 countries taking part in the online program.

    The purpose, according to Google, is to give students an opportunity (and a small stipend) to write code for various open source projects and more broadly help connect student programmers with the open source community — with organizations and with other developers. These organizations include the Apache Software Foundation, Creative Commons, Mozilla, OpenStreetMap, the Wikimedia Foundation, and CERN. There are other, less well-known organizations with which students can work too, and Google says that while some students are drawn to working with some of the high profile ones, many choose the organization they work with because of their own programming interests and because of the specific project they get to undertake.

    Such is the case with Eamon Ford, a junior at the University of Chicago, who spent the summer working on iOS apps for CERN.

    Read the rest of the story over on Inside Higher Ed

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  • 09/18/12--21:59: What Do We Mean By "Open"?
  • The adjective “open” ostensibly makes educational resources more easily accessible. But “open” can mean a lot of things: resources that are free; research that is publicly available on the Web and indexed by search engines; courses that offer open enrollment; materials that are openly licensed; content and code that can be copied and modified and redistributed. “Open” can mean “transparent.” Open versus proprietary. Open versus closed.

    Licenses like Creative Commons and the various open source software options are supposed to codify what we mean by “open.” Or at least, these licenses provide a framework for openness and for restrictions on content or code. Can you reuse it? Can you modify it? Can you share it? Can you sell it?

    There’s the problem, of course, if you can only answer “yes” to a couple of those questions above. Does the resource still count then as “open”?

    Here’s where licenses don’t necessarily help clarify things, and in my recent research into OER, confusion over copyright, fair use, and Creative Commons is one of things that makes many educators hesitant about adopting any new resources, licensing be damned.

    The recently-launched Creative Commons License Generator is an unfortunate example of how confusing this can be. The tool walks you through questions to help you pick your CC license (Allow modifcations? Allow commercial usage?) Straightforward enough. It generates HTML with the appropriate license to paste onto your website. Even better. Ostensibly there to make it easier to know which is “the right license” for you, the generator also gives you the warning, based on some of the answers you give, that “This is not a Free Culture License” — and that’s a whole other can of worms, a judgmental one at that.

    But if this an effort to narrow the definition of what we mean by open by the "free culture" movement, more often, I feel, we find its definition is stretched beyond meaning. I wonder about some of the recent MOOCs this way, for example. Sure, anyone can sign up so they're "open" in that sense. But the materials themselves often aren't openly licensed.

    There’s a lot of slippage in the term “open.” Some earnestness; some marketing spin; plenty of confusion, a lot of which licensing decisions won’t alleviate. Even if something is openly licensed, for example, there still may be technical restrictions or barriers: DRM, file format, a lengthy registration process, inequitable access, and so on. 

    I’m not sure we could (or should) really nail down a strict definition of "open." Rather, I think the important thing is to recognize a continuum of openness and restrictions -- licensing, access, source code, transparency, reusability -- and to think about the context in which "open" is invoked. 

    Disclosure: This article is part of a larger research and writing project I’m undertaking to examine the adoption (and obstacles to adoption) of OER. The research is funded by FunnyMonkey, a Drupal-based development shop out of Portland, Oregon. You can read other posts in this series here, here, here, and here.

    Image credits: Ivy Dawned

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    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    It’s that feeling of anxiety that you get when you look on Twitter and see all your colleagues are headed out to conferences, concerts, parties, or movies. If you don’t go, you worry, if you don’t do something, if you don’t have your own status updates and Instagram photos to share, opportunities are going to pass you by.

    It’s the “fear of missing out” or FOMO, the social pressure that Sherry Turkle and others argue is an increasingly powerful side effect of our increasingly “connected” worlds.

    17 new universities announced partnerships with the online education startup Coursera today, doubling the number of institutions now offering courses on the platform. And I can’t help but wonder if this is another form of FOMO.

    You can certainly sense it in The New York Times write-up of the news:

    The caliber of Coursera’s partners — Princeton, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania were among the original partners — has given it credibility and cachet in higher education circles, so much so that some university presidents have begun to fret that it will reflect badly on them if they fail to sign on.

    “You’re known by your partners, and this is the College of Cardinals,” said E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State, one of the new partners. “It’s some of the best universities in the country.”

    Mr. Gee, whose university will offer two courses from its College of Pharmacy, said he had some concerns about giving away content with no revenue stream in sight.

    “That does keep me up at night,” he said. “We’re doing this in the hope and expectation that we’ll be able to build a financial model, but I don’t know what it is. But we can’t be too far behind in an area that’s growing and changing as fast as this one.” (emphasis mine)

    We can’t fall behind. We can’t be left out.

    This isn’t to suggest that fear is the only thing motivating universities to hop on the MOOC bandwagon. It’s not to say that the experiments with massive online education aren’t something that universities should explore.

    But it does feel as though the rush for institutions to join Coursera isn’t just a matter of their recognizing potential for these kinds of classes to reshape higher education. In the midst of all the hype and the hoopla, it’s FOMO. The fear of missing out. Indeed as Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng tells Inside Higher Ed, the startup will "probably double its university partnerships at least one more time before it stops recruiting new institutions.” So hurry, folks. You don’t want to miss out…

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