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The History of the Future of Education Technology

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  • 09/20/12--19:24: Ed Startup 101, Week 4
  • Duct Tape on iBook

    It’s Week 4 of Ed Startup 101, and the class is moving on to tackle “The Pain Test.” That is, you might’ve identified your idea for an education startup, but does this idea really address a problem?

    This week’s assignment asks us to write down what we think the problem is — what are its causes; what do people with the problem do (or what are they willing to do) to solve it; what are the current solutions; how long has this been a problem; how easily could something change to make the problem go away?

    The problem that I try to address with Hack Education, to invoke the title of the panel I was on at SXSWedu last year: “ed-tech reporting sucks.”

    The reasons it sucks include: lack of technological expertise among education reporters; lack of education expertise among technology reporters; an over-emphasis on the business of ed-tech rather than on teaching and learning; and a monetization strategy for online writing that focuses on advertising and pageviews, something that in turn often leads to stories like “Top 100 Ed-Tech Tools You Should Use In Your Classroom Right Now” — a great headline for SEO; a lousy way to think critically about the adoption of the right tools or about the future of teaching and learning.

    But here’s the dilemma (or my dilemma, I suppose, if indeed I’m framing Hack Education as the counter to all this): the latter sorts of stories — ones that are link-baity — do generate traffic. Stories in major publications are read by more people. And even though my goal as an education writer isn’t to have the most pageviews, I can’t deny the importance of influence and reach. I’ve opted to stay independent (no advertisers, no sponsorships), to stay small, to maintain my integrity. These are my problems.

    I’ve never actually surveyed my readership here to find out what others face in terms of “the problem” of finding quality education technology news and analysis. (Indeed, this site started as a personal place to write and rant about ed-tech, and it still feels very much like that to me. “This is my blog. I’ll say what I want!” sorta thing.) So when it comes to the “Pain Test,” all the frustrations with ed-tech reporting — the screams at the computer when there’s a ridiculous headline about ed-tech revolutions, when there are silly pronouncements about adaptive standardized gamified disruptive innovations, when there are crownings of math messiahs, when there are cheers when a startup with no revenue, no product, and no traction but a slick slide deck raises a couple of million dollars — well, these could very much be my frustrations alone.

    I don’t think so though. I think people do grow weary/wary of churnalism (marketing that’s passed off as journalism). I think people do want news to be informative, accurate, timely, relevant. I think people like reading smart stuff (although I recognize the 200 million-plus views on the Gangnam Style video are a strong argument for silly stuff, too). Yes, people like list-posts and LOLcats. People like short blurbs and bulleted lists; yet people still read long-form.

    And people do want more education news -- at least that was the finding of a Brookings Institute study from last year that found that parents in particular wanted to see more coverage of their local schools, along with more information about student and teacher performance. That report found that just 1.4% of national news coverage deals with education. I'd sure be curious to know what percentage of tech coverage and education coverage is "ed-tech" too. Because while I realize Hack Education isn't "local," I do think I'm addressing a gap in coverage -- a gap in the amount of coverage and more importantly in its quality.

    The challenge (as I noted when I wrote about this last week): the sustainability of a site like this. (That's next week's class: the "monetizable pain hypothesis.")

    Image credits: Brendan Landis

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    Road to nowhere

    Law and Politics

    The Chicago Teachers Union agreed on Tuesday to end its 8 day strike.

    The government has revised the indictments against activist Aaron Swartz who was charged last year with multiple felonies for hacking into the MIT library to download some 4 million JSTOR articles. 9 more felonies have been added to the charges, and Swartz now faces roughly 35 years in prison and around $4 million in fines if convicted.

    Late last week, a Wisconsin circuit judge overturned the signature law of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker that would have curbed collective bargaining for most public employees (including teachers.)

    Launches, Updates, and Upgrades

    Degreed, a startup that seeks to “jailbreak the degree” — that is, to help people get “credit” for all their learning, whether it happens at a 4 year college or not — opened its doors this week. It’s still in beta, and there are definitely kinks to work out. But the site lets you translate your degrees, transcripts, and badges into a score that recognizes what you know, not just what your diploma says.

    The messaging app Celly launched a new service this week to make it easier for groups to create mobile social networks (or “cells”). The startup, which I chose as one of my favorites of 2011, also released an Android app.

    The Internet Archive, which is already busy digitizing and archiving the world’s books and websites, has launched a new digital archive: all the TV news produced over the course of the last three years from some 20 different channels. As with other materials in the Internet Archive, access is free.

    Coursera announced 17 more schools have signed up to offer courses on its platform. The new partners include: Berklee College of Music, Brown University, Columbia University (hey kids, remember Fathom?), Emory University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Ohio State University, University of British Columbia, University of California at Irvine, University of Florida, University of London, University of Maryland, University of Melbourne, University of Pittsburgh, Vanderbilt University, and Wesleyan University.

    Techcrunch reports that YouTube is testing a feature that would allow multiple choice questions to be embedded on top of videos. Because what the world needs right now is more multiple choice questions alongside video presentations.

    Apple released the latest version of its mobile operating system. Among the new features in iOS6, “guided access,” a way to restrict how a device can be used (for example, limiting usage to just one app).

    Downgrades and Closures

    Emory announced this week its plans to close the Division of Educational Studies; the Department of Physical Education; and the Department of Visual Arts, in addition to the Program in Journalism. It will also suspend graduate student admissions into its Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts. 

    Last week, the English department at Queensborough Community College voted to not adopt a new policy of the City University of New York that would reduce the number of composition credits from four to three, arguing that the change would not address students’ writing needs, would increase faculty work-loads and decrease pay. The college administration responded by dismanting the department, dismissing adjuncts and cancelling job searches.

    On Thursday, IFTTT, the popular Web service that helps users link and automate various applications, announced that it would no longer support Twitter due to recent changes in the latter’s API. (I use IFTTT to archive all my Tweets, sending them automatically to a text file in Dropbox). Twitter is becoming increasingly hostile to third party developers and users — food for thought for all those (like myself) who find it to be an important part of our social learning networks.

    Research and Data

    A study released by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center suggests that good old fashioned print books beat “enhanced e-books” when it comes to kids’ ability to recall story elements.

    Even with the release of the new iPhone this week and all the buzz about smartphones, sales are still brisk for feature phones. According to ComScore, it’s teens who are driving sales in “dumb phones,” although the marketing firm admits that this may be because their parents are getting them these devices as “starter phones” and don’t want to pay for data plans.


    Duolingo, the language learning and translation site founded by reCAPTCHA founder Luis von Ahn, has raised $15 million in funding, reports Techcrunch. (I chose Duolingo as one of my favorite education startups from 2011; here’s my initial write-up of the company.)

    The Department of Labor announced the college and university winners of its second-round grants under the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program. The grants total some $500 million and come with an important OER requirement: “All educational materials developed through the grants will be available for use by the public and other educational providers through a Creative Commons license.” (Is it too much to ask that all publicly funded works have similar licensing requirements, whether for code or for content?)

    The Web design and development education startup Treehouse says it’s giving some $3 million in tech “scholarships” to 2500 college students. The program will allow college students to sign up for Treehouse’s services (which normally cost $50 a month) for free for two years.

    The Shared Learning Collaborative, a Gates Foundation-backed effort to help create a data infrastructure for U.S. schools, is offering $75,000 bounty for developers to create data-oriented applications.

    Classes, Conferences and Competitions

    The Imagination Foundation, a non-profit that was formed in the wake of Caine’s Arcade, is holding a Global Cardboard Challenge to encourage kids (young and old) to build something with cardboard and their imaginations. There will be a special event on October 6, the one year anniversary of the flash mob that visited Caine at his cardboard arcade in LA.

    The Panel Picker for SXSWedu is now available. Here’s your chance to weigh in on what presentations you’d like to see at the 2013 event.

    The Saylor Foundation says that it plans to take advantage of the newly released Google Course Builder to create open enrollment online classes. The Saylor Foundation has created some 200 courses which it will now start offering via the new Google platform.

    The New York Times reports on a new effort to connect students with women working in STEM. “I think of this as a MOOC — a massive open online course — and a big mentor-fest,” said Maria Klawe, the president of Harvey Mudd College and a sponsor of the project. Piazza, a social learning site, is the other sponsor of WitsOn, Women in Technology Sharing Online, which will run its six-week course beginning October 1.

    Congratulations to this year’s Ig Nobel Prize winners — “For achievements that first make people laugh, then make them think.” Winning research includes the physics of ponytails and brain activity in dead salmon. A special shout-out to the GAO “for issuing a report about reports about reports that recommends the preparation of a report about the report about reports about reports.” Science is awesome.

    Photo credits: Andrew Basterfield

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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.

    This episode was cut a little short -- firstly by scheduling conflicts that had me rushing out the door and limiting us (ha!) to just an hour to chat, and secondly by technical difficulties that actually screwed up the audio about halfway through, just in time for our look at my weekly news roundup.

    Nevertheless, we do have a really great discussion in this podcast, particularly about my post from last week's Ed Startup 101 class and how thinking about a "pain test" in education might lead to the wrong diagnosis of what's "ill" in education.

    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 21, 2012

    And some bonus content from my appearance on last week's episode of Higher Ed Live with Seth O'Dell.

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    warning: crash test area

    Several months ago, I wrote a post I was boldly silly enough to call “The Audrey Test” — or, “what every techie should know about education.” Out of that post has grown a guide to help engineers and entrepreneurs with a crash course on education theory, research, and pedagogy.

    But lately I’ve been thinking about the other side of the coin. It’s not enough to immerse techies into education theory, research, and practice. Educators need to have a better understanding in turn of the tech. They need to understand a certain amount of the technology itself — the code, the functionality, the software, hardware, the OS, the stack. And they need to understand the industry — its historical underpinnings, its culture, its funding practices, its revenue models, its personalities, its politics.

    It was pretty easy for me to write “The Audrey Test” for technologists. After all, I’ve been thinking about teaching and learning (with technology) for a long, long time. It’s much harder for me to write a test for teachers. I’m neither an engineer or an entrepreneur. I've never done no book learnin' on these topics, and I had to take a crash course in these things when I became a tech blogger. I'm still all "valuation, wait wut?" I confess.

    Nonetheless, here’s my first draft of what educators (particularly those making purchasing decisions -- for themselves, for their schools, their classrooms, their children) should probably know:

    • History of (ed-)tech ("The Internet: We Built That")
    • How is education funded – public sector, private sector, for-profit, not-for-profit 
    • What’s the relationship between philanthrocapitalism and education 
    • Enterprise technology versus consumer technology 
    • Business models (who's making money, and how?)
    • Investors 
    • How does venture capital work? (What does it mean when a company raises investment? What's a seed round? What’s an “exit”?) 
    • Being a smart tech consumer: How to look “under the hood” before buying a brand new technology (e.g. what’s the LAMP Stack, what are basic Web literacies, and why should you care?)
    • The Cloud
    • Entrepreneurs (the “who” behind the company) 
    • The Garage Myth 
    • The Dropout Myth 
    • (CS) Education (and/or what Silicon Valley thinks about “the system”) 
    • Terms of service and the fine print
    • Who owns your data? 
    • What's an API and why should you care?
    • Open v proprietary 
    • Adaptive, personalized, gamified and other marketing and/or tech terms 
    • Define “startups.” Define “entrepreneurship” 
    • The Ed-Tech Press: Who, What, When, Where, Why 
    • Education Research: Stats 101

    What am I missing here? And am I crazy for thinking these things are important for educators to know about?! After all, there was plenty of pushback from entrepreneurs that they didn't want to learn about John Dewey. Why does an educator need to know about John Doerr?

    Photo credits: sethoscope

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    The plain ol’ resume just doesn’t cut it anymore. Nor does the transcript. And nor — please take note here, few remaining fans of standardized testing — do most of our federally-mandated practices of assessment. It’s hard to know what skills students (as students and as potential employees) really possess by looking at these papers, grades, and scores.

    For a long time, folks have argued that portfolios could provide viable alternatives to all of that, showcasing our knowledge, skills, experiences, goals, and growth. Demonstrate what you can do by… well… doing it. And then in the case of a Web-based portfolio, provide your teacher or the HR department with a link.

    But portfolios — digital and otherwise — have faced a number of obstances to adoption: They’re not necessarily that easy to assemble, particularly if you’re pulling in data and artifacts from multiple sources in various formats. And despite their being digital, portfolios aren’t always easy to share — and if you can share them, the default is often “public.”

    And finally, and perhaps most importantly, many digital portfolio tools aren’t designed to follow you from institution from institution. (If you’re a user of Google Apps who’s changed schools or jobs, for example, you probably know the frustrations of having to share all your documents with another email cccount so you can transfer ownership of your stuff to you.)

    Indeed, much like transcripts and testing, portfolios too often reflect the needs of the institution over the needs of the individual. As such, there’s that pesky question that we need to ask time and again when it comes to any (ed-)tech tool: who owns your personal data? Who owns your portfolio? Ideally, the answer here is “you do.” You have a domain of your own — see the well-named A Domain Of One’s Own project at University of Mary Washington as an exemplar.


    But there’s also a startup (no surprise) taking on these challenges too. Pathbrite offers digital portfolios and says that it’s focused on serving individuals’ needs, rather than just institutions’. That means that, ideally, portfolios should be able to extend from kindergarten through lifelong learning; they should be able to capture the “informal” and the “formal” and pull material into one place; and they should allow users to control at a very granular level with whom portfolios are shared.

    “We must own our own data,” says Pathbrite CEO Heather Hiles, who says that the inability to take your materials with you is one of the main challenges that we face — not just in collecting and showcasing our learning data, but in all aspects of the social Web.

    The Pathbrite portfolios can pull in professional and educational data (or whatever sorts of materials you choose to link) from sources like LinkedIn, Google Docs, Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, and regular websites. You can also pull in your badges from Khan Academy, with support for Mozilla’s badge infrastructure coming soon. The company has also recently taken investment from ACT. The tool is being piloted at Stanford, among other institutions, and gives students there an opportunity to pull in their official transcripts and opt to share those with advisors or potential employers as they deem fit.

    Me, I remain a fan of the approach of UWM: giving students a domain of their own, rather than having to rely on any third party service, and working with them to build their portfolios while on campus and make them portable when they graduate. That being said, I do think that the ease-of-use of Pathbrite — in terms of the services it taps into and the templates it offers — might make it a great tool for others to explore.

    (Pathbrite is one of the three startup finalists at this week’s Education Nation Innovation Challenge. The other two are NoRedInk, which I covered here, and ReadImagine.)

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  • 09/26/12--16:13: Ed Startup 101, Week 5
  • Day 9 (improved version)

    Wow! I’ve made it to Week 5 in a MOOC. Also, OMG! Ed Startup 101 lasts 16 weeks so I’m not even a third of the way through yet!

    But if I’ve reached a crisis moment in my participation in this MOOC, it’s not because of its duration, a waning commitment, or my otherwise busy schedule.

    The Pain Test: The Results

    I'm really struggling as I think and write my way through the weekly assignments, as they're all framed in terms of launching a startup. Particularly challenging: last week’s topic of “The Pain Test,” followed by this week’s — how to verify that your “pain” is a pain for others as well, and how to move forward from there with monetization plans.

    Stephen Downes was among the first to push back on my post last week:

    “I encounter this a lot in my day job. “It’ s Week 4 of Ed Startup 101, and the class is moving on to tackle “ The Pain Test.” That is, you might’ve identified your idea for an education startup, but does this idea really address a problem?” The idea of course is that your innovation - your startup - needs to address an area of genuine need. I get that, but the pain test isn’t it. Before the iPod, people didn’t feel the pain of not having an iPod. Before MOOCs, there was no burning need for a MOOC. The best innovations create demands for things people didn’t realize they needed. But these invariably fail the pain test.”

    (With or without the iPod reference) There’s an echo of Steve Jobs’ famous quotation there: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Passing the pain test is not a great advancement or innovation, Downes argues. 

    Mis-diagnosing the Pain

    During the recording of our weekly podcast, Steve Hargadon too wanted to talk about my “Pain Test” post. We made the analogy of medical testing here, and wondered if the pain test's framing could actually lead to incomplete or mis-diagnoses. That is, if we identify a pain and then look to remedy it with a product or service (a bandaid), does that mean that we don't investigate more deeply, that we don't address root causes or systemic issues?

    If the “pain” of a broken education system is that standardized test scores are too low, for example, the “remedy” could very well be more test prep apps — hey, there's a startup idea for ya! And so the disease remains untreated even if one symptom is purportedly addressed.

    Steve also noted that despite my frustrations with much of ed-tech journalism that I had to admit in that post that the problems that I’d identified (such as pageview-chasing and press-release-rewriting) aren’t necessarily pains that other folks experience. Folks still read, retweet, and share on Facebook stories from [fill-in-the-blank with vapid but popular tech news source of your choice].

    This week's assignment for Ed Startup 101 was to talk to others about this pain, ask them the same questions, compare notes and such. The responses from Downes, Hargadon, and other commenters offered me some insights into that, I suppose. But more importantly, they struck me that, all my frustrations with ed-tech journalism aside, writing for, and talking to, and learning with others about ed-tech is far more interesting to me than solving a problem.

    And so can I prove I have a “monetizable pain” here on Hack Education? Frankly, that doesn’t even feel like the right question to ask.

    Photo credits: Jay Reed

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    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    Degreed, a startup that promises to “jailbreak the transcript” launched into beta this week. Degreed asks users about their formal and informal education — what college did you attend, what major did you pursue, what badges have you earned — and calculates an equivalency score of sorts for certain subject areas. That means that even if you never completed your bachelor’s or associate’s degree, Degreed will vouch for both your credit hours (ish) and your mastery skills (ish).

    I write “ish” because Degreed isn’t fully baked yet. It’s in beta after all. And I think there’s a lot of reason to be excited about this startup, even if all the pieces aren’t yet in place.

    Degreed’s founding team is a strong one, with a lot of experience in education and entrepreneurship. CEO David Blake worked for Zinch, an education startup acquired by Chegg last year, and BYU education professor, and open education evangelist David Wiley sits on the startup’s board.

    But more importantly to the “who” of Degreed is the “what.” The startup is addressing a particularly important issue at a particularly important time: the cost of obtaining a college degree is skyrocketing just as having a college degree become more important. And even though the Internet has helped enable an explosion of learning opportunities, higher education retains a monopoly over accreditation. More precisely even, it’s not the credits that matter; it’s the degree awarded.

    Degreed wants to offer a different way to get “credit” for what you’ve learned. I’m not sure it’s there yet. (I'm not sure we're there yet -- institutions, employers, and the like.)

    In a lot of ways, I’m a good candidate for just this sort of effort. I attended a prestigious university for a couple of years, but then dropped out, got pregnant, and through a variety of then distance-learning, correspondence, and extension classes, pieced together a four-year degree. To make things more complicated, I have a master’s degree in an obscure field. I am a PhD dropout (ABD for life, man). And I worked in a field unrelated to any of these disciplines.

    Of course, I recognize that might make me an edge case in terms of college graduates — and you might not want to build a system around those of us who have cobbled together credits for a degree. And yet if you want to serve a population for whom the current diploma-oriented system doesn’t work, here we are... I recognize too that I don't have a commonly-awarded degree from a well-known university. When you list your schools and your major, Degreed automatically populates a transcript for you and gives you points based on the classes that it’s assumed you’ve taken. (And it’s easy enough to rough that out based on course catalogs and graduation requirements.) But for my undergraduate and graduate and even Coursera-related studies, I couldn’t find the right degrees or classes on Degreed's rather standardized list of majors and classes.

    Somewhere, buried in a file folder somewhere in my apartment, I do have copies (unofficial) of all my transcripts. And I could go through and adjust my Degreed records so as to recalibrate a better score for me. But that’s a lot of data entry.

    More troubling for me is whether or not I should really get “mastery points” for any of the courses I took back in 1990. Heck, even the 228 points I was awarded for mastery in Comp Lit (my doctoral field), feel a little weird. Yes, I have a BS. But is “mastery” how I’d frame it? (I say this, of course, recognizing that despite their gradations, “mastery” could be closely aligned with “competency” — a new model for awarding credits used by Western Governors University, as well as New Charter University, a for-profit for which Degreed founder Blake has worked.)

    And what do I do with these mastery points? (228 mastery points in Comp Lit and $1.75 will buy me a coffee at Starbucks.) Is this a metric that employers are interested in? Can mastery points compete with degrees?

    I don’t think the answers to all these questions are just Degreed’s to answer. As the startup moves through its beta process — particularly alongside all the Coursera, Udacity, and Skillshare classes and the Khan Academy and Codecademy badges — it will be interesting to see whether this startup can help do what it promises: help learners to jailbreak the transcript, wrest accreditation out of the hands of institutions and into their own, where the interface and data is more open and more hackable.

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    Updates and Upgrades

    Bret Victor has responded to Khan Academy’s new computer science curriculum with an amazing essay, Learnable Programming. This is a must-read. My favorite quote: “For fuck’s sake, read ‘Mindstorms’.” Indeed. I’m really really really hoping that, having claimed to have been so inspired by Victor’s Inventing on Principle talk, that everyone who’s now building a learn-to-program startup (whether it’s a for-profit like Codecademy or a not-for-profit like Khan Academy) actually reads some goddamn Seymour Papert. Please.

    Math teacher Dan Meyer has released some updates to 101questions, his math site that lets you explore and respond to videos and photos that in turn prompt math-related questions and, in Meyer’s words, “perplexity.” New features to 101questions include file uploading and downloading and better sharing.

    The publisher Wiley & Sons announced a partnership with the adaptive learning company Knewton, bringing the latter’s “Math Readiness” course to university students in Australia and New Zealand.

    According to The Digital Shift, Macmillan will begin a pilot project to test e-book lending its titles to libraries. As I’ve noted many, many times, the Big Six publishers (of which Macmillan is one) have been very reluctant to work with libraries, restricting access to digital content or limited the number of digital loans. 

    ClassConnect (which I’ve covered here and here) has rebranded as and launched the beta of its “Github for lessons.”

    Storypanda left beta this week, with the release of its iOS app Storypanda Books (iTunes link). The interactive e-reader app lets kids and families create and not just consume e-books.

    In news I missed last week, Smarterer, a Boston-based startup that tests people on their digital skills, has tweaked its product slightly, focusing now on helping users improve those skills rather than just proving them to others. Rather than having a public profile now where people can showcase what they know about SEO, Facebook Page management and the like, Smarterer now offers a private dashboard so people can track their own accomplishments.

    The academic publisher Elsevier announced this week that it will provide for free the required textbook to those students enrolled in the edX class “Circuits & Electronics.” Sounds like great news, right up until you read the fine print: the textbooks is in a PNG form that you can’t even download (not even a PDF, for crying out loud.) You can, of course, still buy the textbook for $99.95 (which was written — what a coincidence — by MIT professor, edX head, and the teacher for this class, Anant Agarwal).

    Edsurge reports that the educational data startup Junyo (founded by former Zynga exec Steve Schoettler) is pivoting and “refocusing its efforts around building tools for analyzing data on student performance.” Details are pretty light here on what exactly that means, but Edsurge suggests that schools might be backing out of partnerships they’d formed with the startup. Vaporware much?


    Early childhood app-maker Duck Duck Moose has raised its first round of funding: $7 million. Duck Duck Moose has released 14 apps, and 14 have won Parents Choice Awards. The funding will help the founders expand its team and its product line.

    Web-based calculator Desmos announced this week that its raised a round of funding from Google Ventures.

    PandoDaily reports on a new investment fund by First Round Capital aimed at funding college students’ startups. The Dorm Room Fund will start at the University of Pennsylvania and expand to other campuses soon.

    The Gates Foundation and Facebook held a hackathon this week as part of the former’s College Knowledge Challenge — building apps to boost college readiness and college completion. The Gates Foundation is offering $2.5 million to developers to solve these challenges... or to build apps, more accurately, I suppose. 

    Research and Data

    The College Board released data about the SAT scores for the Class of 2012, who have the distinction of earning the lowest scores in reading since the Class of 1972. There are lots of reasons for the falling scores besides the “education is broken!” narrative, including the fact that more students (and a more diverse set of students) are taking these tests than ever before. The SAT scores continue to correlate with family income — the wealthier you are, the higher your scores.

    The Department of Education has released data for the first time on three-year federal student loan cohort defaults. The default rate for the 2009 cohort: 13.4%. (The default rate for for-profits: 22.7%. For public institutions: 11%. For private not-for-profits: 7.5%.)

    According to research by Corinne A. Moss-Racusina, John F. Dovidiob, Victoria L. Brescoll, Mark J. Graham, and Jo Handelsman on gender-bias in sciencescience professors rate their male students as smarter than their female students. The study gave professors applications to assess based on competency, hirability, and willingness to mentor — all the applications were the same save one detail: some were labeled as “John” and some as “Jennifer.” Faculty — both men and women — all rated “John” higher for everything.

    Politics and The Law

    California governor Jerry Brown signed two bills yesterday that call for the establishment of an online library of digital, openly-licensed textbooks for 50 of the most popular courses at the state’s public universities and community colleges.

    College students in Quebec took to the streets this past spring to protest tuition hikes (among other things), and in one of the first moves by the newly-elected provincial government, that fee increase is history. Tuition will go back down to $2,168, the lowest in Canada.

    Earlier this month, Toys R Us announced that it would be launching a kid-oriented tablet. Now the company is being sued by rival tablet-maker Fuhu Inc for stealing trade secrets.

    UC Davis has reached a settlement with 21 students as a result of the pepper-spraying incident on campus last fall. The university will pay out $1 million and will also work with the ACLU to develop policies on student demonstrations.

    Hires and Fires

    Andreessen Horowitz, the Silicon Valley venture capital fund, has hired former DC mayor Adrian Fenty as a special advisor, reports The Wall Street Journal. Just think of it! The folks who claim that “software is eating the world” are teaming up with the guy who hired Michelle Rhee to restructure the DC schools and who claimed at this spring’s Education Innovation Summit that if he just could’ve fired more teacher, the city could’ve purchased more technology for the classroom. I don’t know about you guys, but golly gee is Fenty plus Andreessen Horowitz ever going to be exciting for Silicon Valley and ed-tech.

    Classes and Competitions

    10gen, the company behind the open source NoSQL database MongoDB, announced that it’s going to be offering a course on the edX platform. It's an interesting move to see new technologies take to the MOOCs as, arguably, this sort of subject (MongoDB, let alone NoSQL) is not part of many schools' traditional CS curriculum.

    Congratulations to NoRedInk, the winner of the 2012 Citi Innovation Challenge, part of NBC’s Education Nation. The grammar-boosting startup (which I covered here) walked away with a $75,000 check.

    Photo credits: Su Neko

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    Every week, Steve Hargadon and I sit down (virtually) to talk about the latest ed-tech news. Apologies (once again!) for the quality of this recording. This time, it's the fault of Google Voice and Verizon -- the former is responsible for no Internet at Steve's location; the latter for the poor sound quality of our conversation. Ah, technology.

    This week, Steve and I discuss what educators should know about Silicon Valley, as well as my continuing struggles to fit the square peg of Hack Education into the round hole of Ed Startup 101. That particular discussion has prompted Steve to write about this over on his own blog too:  "Reframing Ed-Tech Ventures: From the 'Pain Test' to 'Value.'"

    The link to the MP3 of the latest episode of our 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 28, 2012

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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 things that I think are pretty interesting (one of which isn't even an "app").


    "Bullying is for people with no imagination," reads Dandelion, an interactive e-book app that was released earlier this month, following a successful Kickstarter campaign this summer. The e-book follows Benjamin Brewster to school, where he's bullied and beaten. Benjamin escapes into his imagination, where summons the help of dandelions to protect him. And while, yes, it does feel silly for just a moment to blow on your iPad and onto the seeds of the dandelion globe, when they sail away it's still pretty fantastic. It's hard to say if "wish away the bullies" is quite the right message, but this is a sweet story nonetheless and the app offers lots of interactivity.

    iOS, $4.99 (iTunes link)

    Bad Piggies

    I covered the last game by Rovio a couple of months ago when I named Amazing Alex one of my favorites for the month of July. Too bad that game didn't really take off. Now Rovio has repackaged the same concept -- contraption-building, for a lack of a better explanation. But this time, rather than introducing the new character of Alex, Rovio has utilized some old and beloved characters -- the bad piggies from Angry Birds. I liked Amazing Alex a lot (I guess I was an exception though), but I'll admit that Bad Piggies seems even more of a draw to play. Compelling characters matter, I guess. How sad that I find "compelling characters" to be green pigs. But that's just me...

    iOS, Android, Mac, and PC, free - $4.99 depending on platform (link)

    Learnable Programming

    Not an app, but this is this month's must-read and must-consider. This is Bret Victor's response to Khan Academy's recently-released computer science curriculum -- curriculum that Khan Academy's John Resig noted was inspired in part by Victor's talk earlier this year on Inventing on Principle. In this essay (I guess that's the right word to use here), Victor responds with an argument for "learnable programming" -- that is, programming languages in the spirit of learning and creative exploration, and not simply learning programming languages in the spirit of rote thinking. Bonus points here for admonishing those who haven't read Seymour Papert.

    Web, free (link)

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    Does education technology need its own Consumer Reports — that is, a publication that independently reviews products and services? That’s the argument made by two economists in a recently-released paper for the Hamilton Project (funded by the Brookings Institution) which argues that without one, teachers, parents, and schools just don’t know what to buy and entrepreneurs don’t know what to build.

    To that end, the two have proposed an EDU STAR system — a way to evaluate learning technologies and report the results to the public. “Coupling Internet-based real-time evaluation systems (demonstrated daily by many leading companies) with trusted reporting (modeled by Consumer Reports and others), the proposed EDU STAR platform will help schools make informed learning technology decisions and substantially reduce entry barriers for innovators.”

    Of course, there are already several similar efforts like this, including the Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse, which is meant to help educators answer just that: when it comes to education products, programs, and policies, what works? What does research tell us about certain technology tools and their promise of having a positive impact on student learning?

    Unfortunately, the What Works Clearinghouse doesn’t work. As I wrote last year in a story for KQED Mindshift, problems with the WWC include the kinds of research that the site accepts; the kinds of products that that research tends to evaluate (that is, the products of large corporations and university-driven ventures); delays in academic publishing that mean there is little up-to-date research on recently-released products; missing details in product descriptions (including, most crucially, costs); and just a general lack of awareness among educators about the existence of the site itself.

    So on the surface then, a better Consumer Reports for education technology -- one that can respond to the explosion in new tools that are being built and bought -- might seem like a good and timely idea. After all, the more information we can equip consumers with, so the argument goes, the better decisions they’ll make and the industry will be pressured to respond in turn.

    But part of the problem with the EDU STAR evaluation system — at least as it’s proposed by Aaron Chatterji and Benjamin Jones — is the very definition of “what works.” In this case, EDU STAR bases this on testing students’ competency on Common Core State Standard skills, before and after using the ed-tech product in question.

    Ah, educational research. Ah, test scores. Ah, Common Core. Ah, what a very limited definition of “learning” (and by extension then, a very limited set of tech tools that would even be eligible for review).

    No doubt, the Common Core is poised to be a huge boon for education companies, with schools in the 45 states that have approved the standards now busily acquiring new CCSS-aligned textbooks, assessments, and software. With the flurry of purchasing decisions, it’s not surprising really to see folks eyeing the opportunity to become the "seal of approval" for the industry. That boon for ed-tech companies can translate into a boon for ed-tech review sites.

    Chatterji and Jones say that the EDU STAR review system could be launched as a 501(c)3, with a staff of 5 employees and an initial budget of $5 million. They plan to approach the Department of Education, the Gates Foundation, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google for seed funding. So in other words, not vendor-neutral. Not independent. Not free of financial and political interests. Not much like Consumer Reports at all.

    Of course, such a thing would be pretty hard to build for ed-tech, as the What Works Clearinghouse already demonstrates. Consumer Reports for its part relies a lot on testing in the lab; technology usage in the classroom introduces a helluva lot more variables. It's a lot simpler for the magazine to list all the features in a camera — megapixels, zoom, screen size, battery life, storage capacity, and so on -- and compare it to its rivals, than it is to evaluate whether an educational app "works."

    And remember, even if you’ve purchased the best camera at the best price based on that Consumer Reports recommendation, it doesn’t mean you’ll be a great photographer. It doesn’t mean you’ll take great photos. The same caution holds true for ed-tech, except maybe moreso. So EDU STAR says an app made some kids' test scores go up. Does that really mean the software is worth using? Is that really how we're going to measure and count "what works" in education technology?

    Image credits: Omer Wazir

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  • 10/02/12--22:31: Enlisted
  • I have chronicled my son’s graduation from high school, his opting to not go to college, his struggles to find work with no job history and no university diploma. But the decision he’s made for “what next” — he enlisted in the U.S. Army today — feels too personal and my reactions too raw for me to write about here on this site. I have a longer story over on my personal blog.

    I do want to say this:

    I think that we are making a grave mistake by corralling all our children into college. It’s not good for our kids. It’s not good for the institution of higher ed.

    And while I do believe that every kid who wants to attend should have the opportunity to do so — whether that means financial or academic support in getting them there — I simply do not think that college is the right choice for everyone. I think we need to keep other doors open, again with the right funding and the right programs throughout K–12.

    We need to give kids the opportunity to learn a trade (that means offering not axing shop classes, for example). We need to encourage apprenticeships and mentorships. We need to encourage service — and by that I don’t mean just military service.

    We need to encourage children to take the reins of their own learning and recognize that it needn’t happen in a classroom. We need to provide a host of options for them to find their voice, to follow their dreams, to learn (a) discipline (with all the definitions that word can mean), and to learn to resist in turn the very forces that expect certain choices, paths, and disciplines.

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    Cross-posted at Inside Higher Ed

    Digital course materials were supposed to make things easier for students. Rather than purchasing photocopied packets assembled from journal articles, book excerpts and the like, students could get PDFs — downloadable and readable online across multiple platforms, printable for offline studying. Of course, students haven’t really flocked to digital materials, whether they’re textbooks or course packets, even though many companies are working on tech solutions aimed at them. The obstacles to adoption remain the format (the PDF) and the cost.

    A new startup launching today is taking a different approach to the digital course packet, one that’s focused on making its assembly easier for instructors — with the hope, of course, that by building a beautiful (and ideally cost-saving) solution for professors, that the student business (and, of course, the students actually buying and reading those course materials) will follow.

    Ginkgotree has built a (device agnostic) Web app to help professors build and distribute their course packets.

    The process of creating a course packet is incredibly easy and works for print and other media types. Just search for the title you want, list the page numbers you want included, and the app will create a PDF so that you don’t need to. The app also checks copyright clearance (using the Copyright Clearance Center’s API) and lists the price that students will have to pay for copyright fees. There’s also a book-scanning service — if you don’t have a digital copy of the materials you want to utilize, Ginkgotree will generate a shipping label for you to send your book(s) where they’ll be scanned and (hopefully) OCRed.

    If you’ve ever stood and made photocopies yourself from books and journals and then handed the copies over to your campus’s copyright clearance office, you know how much time this saves.

    Ginkgotree has other plans in the works too, including building out a tagging system so that classes can have a private social network of sorts around materials. Analytics — what’s been read, scrolled through and clicked on around these tags — are also being developed.

    Ginkgotree is free for instructors. Students pay a per month fee (currently set at around $10), regardless of how many courses they’re in, for access to the materials. The launch today was only a private beta, but you can request an invite on the site.

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    Union Square Ventures, a New York City-based venture capital firm, announced yesterday that it was opening up its research and sharing some of its hypotheses about tech startup markets and by extension its investment-making decisions. Kudos to USV because as is the case in many, many sectors, there are plenty of folks who argue that you must keep this sort of knowledge locked up and proprietary.

    Of course, the investment firm already bucks the propensity towards “closed” with the prolific blogging of partner Fred Wilson, whose AVC blog offers insights into the business of technology startups.

    Why should educators and ed-tech folks care about USV’s openness? For starters, because the firm has made a number of key investments into education startups, including Codecademy, Duolingo, Edmodo, and Skillshare. (USV’s portfolio also includes Tumblr, Etsy, Kickstarter, Zynga, and Twitter.) And in no small part due to Wilson’s thoughtful blogging, USV is incredibly well-respected in the tech industry.

    But educators also need to pay attention here as the philosophies and practices of investors are a crucial part of “The Audrey Test, Part 2” — what every educator needs to know about tech. VCs own a stake in the companies they invest in; they sit on Boards of Directors; they can dictate -- or at least push -- those companies’ directions. With the explosion of interest in ed-tech entrepreneurship, the investors’ role shouldn’t be overlooked.

    And most importantly in this case, educators should pay attention here because the first sector that USV has opted to open its research into is education.

    USV’s Hypotheses about the Business of Online Education

    USV has published both a Google Doc with its “overview of online education” as well as a list of its hypotheses about the sector. These are:

    1.  We’re skeptical a business model that charges for content will work at scale and in the long run.

    2. We expect education platforms that offer vertical content and/or specific education experiences will be more successful than horizontal platforms, though we think credentials and careers offer two opportunities for horizontal aggregation

    3. Without credentialing or careers, online education seems aspirational and removed from the day-to-day of many people.

    I think there’s plenty to question here with these 3 hypotheses. Will people really not pay for (educational) content? If we are to rely on free (user-generated?) content then (instead monetizing the platform it’s shared on, for example), what do those business models look like? (We can look to two USV investments — Tumblr and Twitter — for possible answers there.) How does that business model impact users’ ownership of their data, their content, their learning?

    What does an investor’s interest in specific verticals — say, computer science education — and not in education in general mean for, well, education in general? Why no mention of learning here? What does USV see as the purpose of education, particularly as it’s dismissive of education as “aspiration”?

    Are we still fetishizing credentials, right at the moment where the monopoly that higher education has over them seems the shakiest? In other words, as that monopoly starts to crumble, rather than broadly re-examining our demand for credentials, are we just going to have new providers and new markets rise up, competing for a slice of that old idea of degrees and diplomas?

    And finally, how do we reconcile these three hypotheses with the USV portfolio? Do investments in Codecademy (no credentials, but WOOHOO! badges), Skillshare (no credentials), and Edmodo (a horizontal platform) make sense? With these hypotheses, what other startups will get (or could get) funded? What's being left out?

    The “Research”

    More troubling here — much more troubling — is the Google Doc with the firm’s “research” into online education. I’m using the scare quotes intentionally here because what USV has shared in it is shockingly bad. The "research" is a dozen or so blog posts and articles from the popular press, along with a handful of TED Talks. The closest thing to research included in the document is a Stanford University report on charter school performance in Pennsylvania. As Greg Wilson notes, “It appears USV doesn’t know there are people who actually study this stuff carefully, rather than just have opinions about it.”

    I can’t help but invoke the blistering book review that Stephen Downes penned last year of Anya Kamenetz’s The Edupunk’s Guide to DIY Credentials in which he posits that she confuses "research" with doing a search on the Web. Indeed, what Union Square Ventures has published isn’t “research.” It’s not a literature review. It’s not a history. There's no explanation of the problem(s) of education -- their causes and what online education can solve. It’s not even a particularly good overview of online education in terms of potentials for learning (LOL "learning") or making money. It feels like the results of Googling “online education" -- maybe "education technology disruptive innovation." 

    The author of the report, Christina Cacioppo, commented on Greg Wilson’s blog, echoing his complaint that part of the problem with the sector is that a lot of academic research on online education remains paywalled. I do recognize that the traditional research and publishing practices are a major problem in higher education; but I’d love to see one example of a resource that Cacioppo opted to not include in her document because it wasn’t available on the open Web. Those still could’ve been included in the document, you know, with the suggestion you visit your local university library to read more.

    She writes, “we do know people study pedagogy, online and off, and publish their research. Much of the research is paywall’d, as you point out; we’d love if more academics kept blogs, but they’re few and far between. If there are specific people we should be following, we’d love to hear about them.”

    That feels pretty disingenuous to me, and not just because I know a heckuva lot of educators who blog (although yes, not nearly enough). But that statement neglects the history of open education and the decades of work by those in education (and in ed-tech) who have made their work publicly and openly and freely available. It also overlooks the history of the Web itself — that initial move by Tim Berners-Lee to make scholarly research more easily sharable. Of course, the future, as Fred Wilson has argued, isn't the Web, it's mobile. But I digress...

    Educating Investors

    Once upon a time, someone asked me why I don’t offer my services to investors, and I laughed. I figured, heck, they can read my blog. (Well, if they can stomach it when I use expletives to describe their investments. Ooops. My bad.) And it's free (see USV hypothesis #1). But I figured too that with the money at their disposal and with the risk they were assuming that investors could (and they would) hire researchers and experts to help them make informed decisions -- not just about the markets and potential for return on investment. I guess that’s my naïveté. (It's also part of the inspiration for these Audrey Tests.)

    If USV is any indication, there’s not a lot of research being conducted by investors into education and technology. (And again, this is a firm that is known for making smart tech investments, so make of that what you will). There’s a lot of interest. There’s a lot of deal flow. But if it’s based on TED Talks and articles in The New York Times and The Atlantic, then it’s a bit like the decisions made by the business folks who sit on the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors, who read a David Brooks op-ed and fired the university president because they felt as though the school wasn’t jumping on the MOOC bandwagon with enough gusto. And we all know how well that turned out.

    Of course, the decision-making process of the Board of Visitors wasn't done openly. We know about the thought-processes that went into firing Teresa Sullivan because emails were leaked, not because Google Docs were posted online.

    The act of opening up the USV research is certainly a commendable one, and one of the benefits, if nothing else, is that it can prompt some discussions among educators and technologists alike about the substance (or lack thereof) of this research and about the future of online education and ed-tech. Because as it stands, this is pretty troubling for the future of online education and ed-tech.

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    Politics and Policies

    Wednesday night was the first of the 2012 Presidential Debates. I didn’t watch, but thankfully folks who did posted their running commentary onto Twitter. As the debate covered domestic issues, the topic of education did come up, and the Hechinger Report looks at what the candidates said. The key takeaway, if you trust the Internet memes, that is: Mitt Romney wants to fire Big Bird. And frankly, that has as much potential to damage education in this country as just about any policy decision I can think of.

    In a move that should shock no one, Facebook has written a 20-page letter to the Obama Administration arguing that the newly-proposed COPPA rules shouldn’t apply to the “Like” button. “A “like” counts as free speech, the company has repeatedly argued,” writes The New York Times, “and muzzling a user’s ability to ‘like’ something on Facebook would infringe on a user’s constitutional rights.” Well thank goodness Facebook is looking out for our rights.


    Live in Minnesota? Well then I hope you’re not taking classes through Coursera. Doing so violates the startup’s Terms of Service, as Barry Dahl has noted: “If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.” The restriction comes from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that has informed the startup that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university can’t offer online classes to the state’s residents without getting approval from the state. As Dahl quips, those who are looking for an education startup idea might consider setting up a coffee shop with free wifi just across the border where students can do their Coursera homework offline and legally together.

    The Assocation of American Publishers and Google reached a settlement this week on the long-running Google Books lawsuit, resulting from the tech company’s scanning of in-copyright books and journals. The deal lets publishers choose whether or not Google can digitize their work. The Authors Guild, which is also suing Google for copyright infringement, has not resoved its lawsuit.


    Wired GeekDad writer and early childhood education expert Daniel Donahoo launched his new startup this week. BetterApps offers assessment and consulting services to education app developers, asking them a series of questions about the products’ design all in the service of helping them build better educational apps. Donahoo was the co-author of the Children’s App Manifesto which was published last year and called for high quality and affordable apps for kids.

    Recruiting site Entelo, founded by long-time education entrepreneur Jon Bischke, had its official launch this week. Techcrunch’s Rip Empson has a lengthy write-up on the startup.

    Ginkgotree, a web app that makes it easy for professors to build and share digital course packets with students, launched this week. Read my write-up in Inside Higher Ed.

    Updates and Upgrades

    Skype’s education initiative, Skype in the Classroom, has added several new partners, including NASA, expanding the sorts of visitors that can virtually visit classes.

    Online gradebook and lesson plan tool LearnBoost has rolled out support for several new languages, including German, Lithuanian, Greek and Russian. As these translations come from users themselves (i.e. LearnBoost crowdsources the translation of its Web app), it’s a good indication of the startup’s global growth.


    “The road to ‘free’ is paved with misinformation,” says the Assocation of American Publishers, who released a statement this week about the recently signed legislation in California that would create a digital library of OER textbooks. Why, these aren’t free textbooks at all, the AAP argues, contending that taxpayers will have to foot the bill (about $5 million). Good thing the AAP is looking out for taxpayers. Perhaps they'll protest next the $200 million dollars spent on the taxpayer-financed Cal Grant B funding which is used primarily for -- you guessed it -- textbooks. 

    Research and Data

    Research sponsored by the National Science Foundation has found that young children think like scientists. Alison Gopnik, a professor at UC Berkeley, says that “young children, in their play and interactions with their surroundings, learn from statistics, experiments and from the actions of others in much the same way that scientists do.” The research suggests that play and exploration promote scientific thinking better than direct instruction.

    On Monday, the hacking group Team GhostShell posted data — some 120,000 records — they claimed came from some 100 major universities, including Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and Cambridge Universities. A “conversation starter,” the group called it, about the future of education — because I know nothing makes me want to talk about the future of education with someone than having my school email address and password posted onto Pastebin.

    Kudos to Dr. Chuck for making available some of the demographics data from his recent Coursera course on Internet History — namely, where the students come from. A look at the maps he’s built suggests the answer is primarily the developed world.

    Google announced this week that its Apps for Education offering now boasts some 20 million users in schools — K–12 and higher ed — around the world.


    The publisher Wiley & Sons has acquired, a company that helps colleges and universities offer online classes. According to the company press release, the acquisition price was $220 million and will “significantly accelerate Wiley’s digital learning strategy and diversify the company’s service offerings to include operational and academic solutions for higher education institutions.”

    HR Changes

    Leadership changes at online study group site OpenStudy, as Chris Sprague moves over to CTO and co-founder Preetha Ram takes the CEO role.

    And Marjorie Scardino, the CEO of Pearson, will be stepping down at the end of the year. The new CEO will be John Fallon, who currently runs the company’s international education division. There’s talk that the publishing giant will be selling off some of its assets, including The Financial Times, and the leadership change certainly suggests that Pearson will remain committed to colonizing global education.


    The University of California plans to launch an online academy for high school students this fall. “The Academy is a collaborative effort between UC Santa Cruz and the UC Office of the President, and its curriculum is well-proven.” As Gas Station Without Pumps wonders, what does “well-proven” mean for brand new online effort? Is this a rebranding of a commercial effort? A revival of the older UC College Prep materials?

    The University of Southern Queensland announced the first OERu course, which will provide a way for learners to achieve formal academic credit for free learning opportunities.


    The Hewlett Foundation has awarded the next $100,000 in its robo-grader contests, this time for the software that can best grade students' short answers. The winner: University of New Orleans student Luis Tandalla (who had never actually done any data science work until he took Andrew Ng's Machine Learning MOOC last fall). Robots teaching students to grade students with robots... or something like that.


    Image credits vis @FiredBigBird

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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. I think we managed to record this week's show without any technical difficulties -- thank you, Google Voice!

    During this show, we discuss my son's decision to enlist (and what's changed since I wrote a blog post about that), Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino's resignation, the Presidential Debates, a proposal for an ed-tech Consumer Reports, and Union Square Ventures' research on online education... 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.

    October 5, 2012

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    (Part of my “What Educators Should Know About Tech” series)

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

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

    ALEC and Education Legislation

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

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

    More broadly, ALEC helps encourage what’s become the prevailing narrative that the American public school system — at both the K–12 and university level — is failing. How in this case is failure defined? The ALEC report card for schools, which gives the country a D- as a whole, helps to make clear the organization’s priorities: Vermont is listed as the #2 state in terms of performance (on standardized test scores, a dubious measurement in its own right), but it’s second-to-last according to ALEC in terms of policy, earning its D+ grade not because of student achievement but because the teachers there are unionized and the state does not allow charter schools. Missouri, on the other hand, ranks 47th in terms of students’ performance on tests, but the state gets an A- grade from ALEC.

    ALEC Exposed offers some details about the education-oriented “model legislation” that the organization has authored and promoted.

    ALEC and Education/Technology Companies

    According to ALEC Exposed, the following education and technology corporations and special interest groups are currently or have been members of ALEC.

    Note: Some companies claim they have severed ties, particularly following the attention that the organization received after the Trayvon Martin shooting. So the ones that are known to currently be involved are listed in bold below. I’ve also put asterisks next to the companies that have participated in ALEC’s Education Task Force.

    * Alliance for School Choice
    American Association of Christian Schools
    American Federation for Children
    American Principles Project
    Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities
    Better Education for Kids
    Bridgepoint Education
    Center for Education Reform
    * Connections Academy (owned by Pearson)
    Corinthian Colleges
    * Dell
    Entertainment Software Association
    Foundation for the Excellence in Education 
    Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice
    * Gates Foundation (not a formal member, but a one-time financial backer)
    Goldwater Institute
    Hewlett-Packard (HP)
    Imagine Learning  
    Innosight Institute
    Insight Schools
    * International Association for K–12 Online Learning (iNACOL) 
    K12 Inc
    * Kaplan Higher Education
    * Lumina Foundation for Education
    National Association of Charter School Authorizers 
    * National Board for Professional Teaching Standards 
    National Council for Private School Accreditation
    National Independent Private Schools Association
    National Heritage Academies
    News Corp 
    * Ohio University  
    Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs  
    Reed Elsevier
    * Scantron 
    Time Warner Cable
    * U.S. English Foundation  
    Walton Family Foundation
    Wireless Generation

    ALEC Exposed also offers a list of politicians who belong to the Education Task Force.

    ALEC and Ed-Tech

    The participation of education and technology companies along with certain special interest groups in ALEC probably -- and unfortunately -- isn’t that surprising. We are, as Harvard Law professor Lawrence Lessig has argued, a “republic lost” because of the ways in which corporate money influences our politics.

    But still, we must ask: What role do ALEC and similar organizations play in shaping ed-tech’s development and adoption? And what role does education technology — the technology, the companies which build it, the schools that adopt it, the legislation that promotes it — play in the future of public education in this country?

    We must ask these questions of the corporations and organizations that support ALEC (and/or support their legislative efforts). But we must also ask ourselves these questions when we advocate for products and policies that dovetail neatly with ALEC's larger anti-democratic initiatives.

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    [326/365]  Lottery Money

    (Another post in my series on what educators should know about the business of (ed-)tech.)

    I confess: before I became a technology journalist, I’d never thought twice about the funding process for startups. Sure, I’d heard plenty about investors in general — that Warren Buffett fellow, for example; but I knew nothing about the workings of venture capital — how technology startups received investment, what that investment meant, who the investors were, and so on. I’m guessing that many folks are in the same boat. Hence this post…

    What is venture capital?

    Unlike other businesses that rely on bank loans in order to fund their growth and expansion, technology startups rely on a different investment model.

    At their early stages, many startups opt for “seed funding,” which as the name suggests gives them the seed to get started and growing. That funding can come from “friends and family” or, more likely, from angel investors -- wealthy individuals who invest a “small” amount of initial financial capital. Seed investment is generally under a million dollars.

    It has become a lot cheaper in recent years to launch a technology startup, due to cloud computing (low or no infrastructure costs) and free, open source software. But even with those lower initial costs, it often takes technology startups more than that first seed investment to keep growing (or, heck, keep existing, as the case may be).

    After raising seed investment, many startups then turn to venture capitalists for their next rounds of funding. Unlike angel investors who invest their own money, venture capitalists manage funds of other people’s (and organizations’) money. As such, the size of VC investment is often much larger.

    What are the expectations when a startup takes investment?

    When you take out a loan from the bank — whether for a car or for your business — the bank will get its money back (under most circumstances, of course). Typically, you pay monthly interest on the money that’s lent, and there’s a set time period over the course of which you make re-payments.

    Venture capital doesn’t work that way. Technology startups are seen as high-risk investments — most startups fail after all and so there's no guarantee that investors will get their money back. Instead of making repayments on the money that they’re given as with a bank loan, startups give over an equity stake in their company to investors.

    That means that investors’ return on their investment is based on how big and how profitable the startup eventually becomes. Typically, investors expect a return on their investment in about 3 to 7 years.

    That return comes with an “exit.” Typically that involves an IPO (an “initial public offering” or becoming a publicly traded company on the stock market) or an acquisition by a larger company.

    Who are some of the prominent investors in education technology?

    Below is by no means a complete list of technology investors who have education companies in their portfolio. Nor is it a list of the “top” or the “best” or the “most profitable” or “most active” ones, although for what it’s worth the list does match closely the answer on Quora to “Who are the top (active) VCs in the education technology space?”

    NewSchools Venture Fund: Education-focused "non-profit venture philanthropy firm" that invests in tech startups and charter schools. Investments include Edsurge, BetterLesson, ClassDojo, Goalbook, Grockit, Junyo, NoRedInk, and Rocketship Education. CEO is Ted Mitchell. Investors in the fund include AOL founder Steve Case, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, investor John Doerr, the Gates Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation.

    Learn Capital: Investments include BloomBoard, Chromatik, ClassDojo, Desmos, Edmodo, General Assembly, LearnZillion, Mastery Connect, and ShowMe. Partners include Rob Hutter and Tom Vander Ark. Pearson is the largest limited partner in Learn Capital.

    Union Square Ventures: Education investments include Codecademy, Duolingo, Edmodo, and Skillshare. Partners include Fred Wilson and Albert Wenger.

    Kapor Capital: Education investments include Desmos, ePals, Fidelis, Inkling, Internmatch, MindSnacks, Motion Math, Piazza, and New Charter University. Partners are Mitch Kapor and Freida Klein.

    NEA: Education investments include Coursera, Desire2Learn, Edmodo, and EverFi.

    Sequoia Capital: Education investments include DuckDuckMoose, Inkling, and MindSnacks.

    Benchmark Capital: Education investments include Edmodo. Grockit, the Minerva Project, and ResearchGate.

    Greylock Partners: Education investments include Edmodo. Partners include Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn’s CEO).

    Macmillan New Ventures: Investments include PrepU and EBI MAP-Works. This is an investment wing of the publisher Macmillan.

    Novak Biddle: Education investments include Blackboard, 2tor, Fidelis, New Charter University, and Parchment.

    Andreessen Horowitz: Education investments include Kno and Learnsprout. Partners include Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen.

    Accel Partners: Education investments include Fidelis and Knewton.

    Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers: Education investments include Chegg and Codecademy. Partners include John Doerr and Mary Meeker.

    500 Startups: Education investments include Kidblog, Chalkable, MindSnacks, Magoosh, Motion Math, StoryPanda, and Timbuktu. 500 Startups’ founding partner is Dave McClure.

    Charles River Ventures: Education investments include Udacity.

    Spark Capital: Education investments include, Altius Education, DIY, and Skillshare.

    Lightspeed Venture Partners: Education investments include DuckDuckMoose, TutorVista, and Orbis Education.

    First Round Capital: Education investments include Kno, KiwiCrate, Knewton, and Mightybell.

    Maveron: Education investments include Capella University, Altius Education, Course Hero, General Assembly, and Livemocha.

    Bessemer Venture Partners: Education investments include Knewton, Flat World Knowledge, 2tor, and Piazza.

    Atlas Venture: Education investments include Grockit, LearnBoost, SimpleTuition, and English Central.

    O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures: Education investments include Codecademy, Fidelis, and littlebits. 

    Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: Certainly not an venture capital fund per se, but the Gates Foundation’s financial backing is widespread across the education sector (including its support for NewSchools Venture Fund), and the non-profit has made grants and investments in multiple ed-tech companies including Inigral, Edsurge, and Startup Weekend EDU.

    Who cares?

    Why should educators care about the investment models that technology startups pursue? Hopefully, there are clues above. In a nutshell, investors are drawn to certain kinds of startups, shaping in turns the kinds of companies that get that funding to get to the next level. (It is definitely possible to bootstrap or crowdfund your company, of course, but that remains the exception in technology startup-land.)

    Venture capital goes to high-risk, high-growth companies — that is, investors (often, not always — depending on their investment priorities) choose the companies that they think have the potential for the biggest growth, biggest return, fastest exit. The next Google, if you will. And that exit is important — that is the “happy ending” for investors (and entrepreneurs). That ending might not be so happy for users, particularly if an acquisition results in the tech tool being scrapped by the new corporate owners, but such is the circle of startup life.

    The path to that exit isn’t always easy or obvious for any technology startup, but education companies haven’t had a lot of success pursuing IPOs. Blackboard, for example, went public in 2004, but went private again in 2011 when the company was purchased by an equity firm. K12 is a publicly traded company, but concerns about its academic track record have dampened investors’ interest in the stock.

    The more likely exit for ed-tech startups once that investment clock starts ticking is acquisition. But as Business Insider noted with slight exaggeration this year, there are problems there too. “There are a million education startups and no one to acquire them.” BI points to Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Apollo Group (owners of the University of Phoenix), Apple, Texas Instruments, Devry, and The Washington Post (a.k.a. Kaplan), News Corp, and Google as possible buyers for the latest crop of new ed-tech startups.

    One interesting thing to note with the list of investors above: many of the most prominent venture capital firms do not currently have a deep education portfolio. Indeed, if you visit their websites, you’ll find that they have special pages dedicated to other sectors, such as biotech, or information tech, or cleantech, but no mention of the education vertical. I think that’s a reflection of how recent their (renewed) interest is in ed-tech as a potentially profitable investment.

    The lack of depth and expertise among some of these VCs also means that those firms with more of an education focus are likely to be the leaders in the early rounds of funding, with other investors then following on in later rounds. That gives enormous power and influence to Pearson-backed Learn Capital and to charter-school focused NewSchools Venture Fund in particular in establishing who gets out of the gate with strong, initial seed funding.

    (For more information on education technology investments, see Crunchbase.)

    Photo credits: Lisa Brewster

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    “As long as I live under the capitalistic system I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp. This, sir, is my resignation.” — William Faulkner

    Jim Groom, the director of the Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies (DTLT) at the University of Mary Washington, invoked Faulkner yesterday during his guest appearance in the Ed Startup 101 class. Specifically, he invoked it during the discussion of the successful DS106 Kickstarter campaign he ran earlier this year, and you could, I suppose, interpret it as Groom’s growling promise that y’all will get your Kickstarter rewards in the mail eventually.

    But the Faulkner quotation speaks to other exigencies surrounding the relationship between education and money, many of which Groom highlights in his conversation with Professor David Wiley: the massive cuts to public education, the out-sourcing of ed-tech expertise to for-profit companies, and the question of whether or not profit motivates Groom, DTLT, or the DS106 community. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.)

    Groom’s talk stands in sharp contrast to an op-ed posted to Edsurge late Tuesday night arguing that profit as a motive is necessary for innovation to take place in education.

    In it, venture capitalist Tom Segal argues that “You can’t have high-quality digital tools without the profit motive (heck, you certainly can’t have that computer without the profit motive, and I imagine even the most ardent haters of private sector in the classroom would agree that a computer is a useful educational tool).” As FunnyMonkey’s Bill Fitzgerald points out in his response, this assertion is clearly ignorant of the $35 educational computing device Raspberry Pi which was built by a British non-profit.

    But that's not the only counterfactual claim Segal makes. “The single greatest innovation in education in our lifetime has been the opportunity created to leverage computers, tablets, and smartphones as delivery systems with myriad applications – and none of these devices were developed by schools or philanthropies,” writes Segal.

    He’s wrong. I mean, he’s wrong about thinking of education as apps and “delivery systems” but more to the point he’s wrong about who developed the computer.

    Even a cursory review of the history of technology shows that computers, along with the Internet and the World Wide Web, were developed through a combination of public and private efforts, with military, academic, philanthropic, and corporate involvement. The motivations for these innovations were never solely profit. Some people wanted scientific advancement. Some wanted to win wars. Some wanted a better calculator. Some wanted to facilitate communication and information-sharing.

    Bombe Machine, Bletchley Park

    Innovation comes from a community in the service of building a community and reflects that community's values and vision, whether in military technology, bio-tech, or ed-tech. If the community values profit, then perhaps profit will spur innovation. But as it stands, the education community doesn't particularly value profit. It is motivated by other things — the sharing of ideas, the care and nurturing of young minds, and the construction of knowledge.

    But in Segal’s a-historic formulation, without the motivation of profit, those who work in education do not innovate. Nor do they construct technology. They merely consume it. And if the products they consume are lousy (which often they are, despite profit supposedly spurring innovation. See: Blackboard), then it’s educators’ fault for buying them.

    “When I hear people crying foul and pointing fingers at a few bad apples (like, say, K12 Inc.) souring the space, I have an easy answer for them: don’t buy those products,” he writes. “Don’t pay for those services. Find an alternative that better suits your needs. That is the beauty of a free market: once a company has been exposed as a fraud or a problem-child, there goes their business. Choice—it keeps the chosen honest, and it keeps the chooser in control.”

    The free market isn’t actually that beautiful. Nor is it particularly free or honest, as I noted when I wrote about the connections between ed-tech and ALEC.

    And finally the “choice” here, at least in Segal’s formulation is, I’d argue, a false one. Choosing to buy iPad app A or iPad app B doesn’t give you “control.” Control — a better word, I think is “agency” — comes when learners seize the reins of their own learning and build with the technologies necessary to connect with the rest of the world, peers and experts alike. That is why the UWM pilot project of a Domain of One’s Own initiated by Groom and others to give domains and Web hosting to faculty and students is so important and so innovative.

    It’s not that there aren’t financial issues surrounding the Domain of One’s Own project, as Groom makes clear in his talk. When good projects take off, finding the resources to support them can be difficult, particularly when the budgets for public education have been cut so very deeply and when your staff hasn’t seen pay raises in years. But we know — we all know — that there is no escaping the question of money, in education or elsewhere, as Faulkner points out.

    But again, the money isn’t what motivates most people who work in education. Frankly, I don’t think it what motivates a lot of the ed-tech entrepreneurs that Segal hopes to rally with his pro-profit screed.

    “Haters can keep hating, but the train has left the station. You can either get on board and help streamline its direction, or you can stand in its way and incrementally slow it down as it plows right through you,” threatens Segal.

    And that’s not actually how things work either. In education, when we ask critical questions, we aren’t “haters.” We ask questions because we care. We ask questions because we know what it means to be part of a discourse community, where debate and disagreement and intellectual (and political) exchange foster new ideas, realizations, and yes innovations.

    It isn’t simply that the for-profit motivations in Segal's Edsurge article run counter to much of the culture and values of education. It’s the distortions of the truth and the threats of violence here are utterly antithetical to it as well. No matter how much you wrap these in the rhetoric of innovation, that train isn't going anywhere.

    Photo credits: Brandon Danieland mendhak

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    Law and Politics

    The Pakistani Taliban has claimed responsibility for the shooting of 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai. Malala has been an outspoken advocate for girls’ rights to education, blogging for the BBC about the growing influence of the Taliban in her hometown of Mingora. Malala was shot in the head and neck while on the bus on her way home from school this week. She remains in critical condition.

    The CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, Jean-Claude Brizard, is out after only 17 months on the job. Brizard was hired by Rahm Emanuel to help push through the mayor’s education agenda — an agenda which culminated in the recent teachers’ strike.

    The Supreme Court heard arguments this week about affirmative action and college admissions. The case, Fisher v University of Texas, stems from a white woman’s lawsuit that she was discriminated against and denied admission to the university because of her race. The decision is expected next year and could have a major impact on college admissions processes.

    A huge victory for universities this week as a federal judge threw out a lawsuit against the University of California, University of Wisconsin, Indiana University, Cornell University and University of Michigan by the Authors Guild who had claimed copyright infringement for scanning and digitizing books (with Google’s help) as part of the Hathi Trust. Judge Harold Baer said that the universities had a fair use defense in doing so. Read more about the decision in Wired.

    A federal judge sentenced Lorenzo Garcia, the former superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District, to three and a half years in prison for his role in a conspiracy to fraudulently improve the district’s test scores by prevent students predicted to score poorly from taking the required NCLB assessments.

    Education historian Diane Ravitch has posted on her a blog a list of the financial contributors to the campaign in Washington State to legalize charter schools (a measure that voters have rejected twice in the past). The big donations come from Bill Gates and the Bezos family (the parents of Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO).


    Go Go Games’ iPad game for kids with autism arrived in the iTunes App Store this week (iTunes link). I met the founding team earlier this year at Stanford’s LDT Expo, and I’ll repeat what I said then: this is an incredibly thoughtfully designed game.


    Education Week’s Jason Tomassini interviews the newly appointed CEO of Promethean, Jim Marshall, who says that the company is considering open-sourcing its platform in order to help counteract what has been a downward spiral for the interactive whiteboard-maker's profits.

    Research and Data

    College enrollment dropped last year, according to the Department of Education. About 18.62 million undergraduates were enrolled in colleges and universities in 2011, down from 18.65 million in 2010.

    According to a recent survey by Piper Jaffray, 40% of American teens own an iPhone (up from 34% this spring), and 62% say they plan to buy an iPhone (for whatever that’s worth).

    Funding and Acquisitions

    PandoDaily reports that CourseHorse, a New York-based startup that offers a directory of offline classes, has raised $500,000.

    CreativeLIVE, another video-based online teaching platform, raised $7.5 million from Greylock Partners this week, reports Techcrunch.

    Thomson Reuters has acquired the e-learning business Knowledge Platform, which provides risk and compliance learning programs for financial businesses in Asia and the Middle East.

    The University of Texas, Austin will pilot a program next year it hopes will boost graduation rates by offering to forgive some of the the student loans of those who can graduate in a four year time period.

    Classes (Or Not)

    Cardale Jones, a quarterback at Ohio State University tweeted last week that college athletes shouldn’t have academic requirements. “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL, we ain’t come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS.” He later deleted his tweet, and the university suspended him for one game.


    Congratulations to all the Nobel Prize winners announced this week. And a special shout-out to Sir John Gurdon who won the prize in medicine this week and noted that his biology teacher in school (Eton College namely) said on his school report that his plans to study biology and become a scientist would be a “sheer waste of time.”

    Photo credits: Reuters

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