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- 11/24/17--04:50: _Hack Education Week...
- 11/29/17--23:30: _The Stories We've B...
- 12/01/17--03:10: _Hack Education Week...
- 12/02/17--00:00: _Education Technolog...
- 12/04/17--00:15: _Education Technolog...
- 12/06/17--00:00: _Education Technolog...
- 12/08/17--04:55: _Hack Education Week...
- 12/09/17--00:20: _Education Technolog...
- 12/10/17--23:30: _The Weaponization o...
- 12/12/17--00:00: _Support Hack Education
- 11/24/17--04:50: Hack Education Weekly News
- 11/29/17--23:30: The Stories We've Been Told (in 2017) about Education Technology
- Wishful Thinking
- The Politics of Education Technology
- The Business of Education Technology
- “Free” and “Open”
- For-Profit Higher Education
- The “New Economy”
- Data Insecurity
- The Politics of Education Technology
- Standardized Testing
- “The Employability Narrative”
- Credits and Credentialing
- The Collapse of For-Profit Higher Education (Or Not)
- Beyond the MOOC
- The Compulsion for Data
- Social Media, Campus Activism, and Free Speech
- Indie Ed-Tech
- The Business of Ed-Tech
- The Business of Ed-tech
- School and “Skills”
- MOOCS, Outsourcing, and Online Education
- Competencies and Certificates
- The Common Core State Standards
- Data and Privacy
- The Indie Web
- Social Justice
- “Zombie Ideas”
- The Politics of Education/Technology
- MOOCs and Anti-MOOCs
- Coding and “Making”
- Data vs Privacy
- The Battle for “Open”
- What Counts “For Credit”
- The Business of Ed-tech
- The Business of Ed-tech
- The Maker Movement
- Learning to Code
- The Flipped Classroom
- The Battle to Open Textbooks
- Education Data and Learning Analytics
- The Platforming of Education
- Automation and Artificial Intelligence
- The Politics of Ed-tech
- The iPad
- Social Media: Adoption and Crackdown
- Data (Which Still Means Mostly “Standardized Testing”)
- The Digital Library
- Khan Academy
- STEM Education’s “Sputnik Moment”
- The Higher Education Bubble
- The Business of Ed-Tech
- US Politics
- Online Learning
- Mobile Learning
- Social Learning, Social Networks
- Investment in Educational Technology
- 12/01/17--03:10: Hack Education Weekly News
- 12/02/17--00:00: Education Technology and 'Fake News'
- 12/04/17--00:15: Education Technology, Betsy DeVos, and the Innovation Gospel
- 12/06/17--00:00: Education Technology and the Business of Student Debt
- In January, NPR reported that “as of 2015, more than 2.8 million Americans over 60 had outstanding student loan debt – up from some 700,000 in 2005.”
- In March, Inside Higher Ed reported that the “number of federal loans in default at the end of 2016 increased 14 percent from 2015.”
- “The number of borrowers with balances over $100,000 has more than quadrupled in the last 10 years,” MarketWatch reported in April.
- “Women currently hold two-thirds of the $1.3 trillion in outstanding student-loan debt in the U.S., but because of the gender pay gap, it takes them far longer to pay off their loans than men,” The Cut reported in May.
- “Students and parents are borrowing more to pay for college, according to the latest installment of a survey by Sallie Mae,” Inside Higher Ed reported in July.
- “The percentage of student loan borrowers leaving college owing $20,000 or more doubled over about a decade,” Inside Higher Ed reported in August.
- “The percentage of borrowers defaulting on their student loans within the first three years of entering repayment ticked up fractionally, from 11.3 percent to 11.5 percent, for those who began repayment in 2013–14,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in September.
- “Students who attended for-profit colleges were twice as likely or more to default on their loans than students who attended public schools,” the AP reported in October.
- “Black students who started college in 2003 had a 50–50 chance of defaulting on their federal student loans, according to a new analysis of government data – a virtual coin-flip of default that stands in stark contrast with a 21% default rate for white borrowers,” Buzzfeed reported in October.
- “7 percent of federal student debt holders are over the age of 50. This group of older borrowers collectively hold $247 billion in student debt, an amount that has roughly tripled since 2003,” Inside Higher Ed reported in November.
- “3.9 million undergraduates with federal student loan debt dropped out during fiscal years 2015 and 2016,” The Hechinger Report reported in November.
- 12/08/17--04:55: Hack Education Weekly News
- 12/09/17--00:20: Education Technology and the Power of Platforms
- How Google Took Over the Classroom
- The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools
- How Silicon Valley Pushed Coding Into American Classrooms
- Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues
- How Silicon Valley Plans to Conquer the Classroom
- 12/10/17--23:30: The Weaponization of Education Data
- 12/12/17--00:00: Support Hack Education
(National) Education Politics
“The Republican War on College,” by The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson.
“Tax bill reflects rift between many Republicans and higher education,” The Washington Post reports. And perhaps it’s not just higher ed. The education reform-minded publication The 74 says that“Educators Warn of ‘Devastating’ Consequences for Charter Schools in New GOP Tax Bill.”
Via Buzzfeed: “Graduate Students Are Freaking Out About The New Tax Bill.”
Via The New York Times: “Net Neutrality Repeal: What Could Happen and How It Could Affect You.”
“Network Neutrality Can’t Fix the Internet,” Ian Bogost argues in The Atlantic.
In other bad news from the FCC, this via The Verge: “FCC begins scaling back internet subsidies for low-income homes.”
“Education Dept. Restores Pell Eligibility to Nearly 300,000 Students,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.
Via Chalkbeat: “To back up claim that schools must change, DeVos cites made-up statistic about the future of work.”
Via Education Week: “DeVos’ Team Hears Criticisms of Obama-Era Guidance on Student Discipline.”
Via The Washington Post: “Education Department withdraws ‘bomb threat checklist’ that used ‘ebonics’ as an identifier.”
(State and Local) Education Politics
Via Fredericksburg.com: “Virginia will require computer science education in high school.”
Via The Detroit Free Press: “Vendor Norman Shy, convicted in Detroit school kickback scheme, cuts $1.5M restitution check.”
Via Carolina Public Press: “Emails shed light on school canceling activist’s appearance.” The activist in question is Bree Newsome, best known for scaling the flag pole at the South Carolina State House to take down the Confederate flag.
Note the completely unbiased headline here. “Despite Startling Achievement Gaps, San Francisco Board Rejects Bid to Bring KIPP School to Poor Neighborhood,” says The 74.
Immigration and Education
“ICE officials have invited tech companies, including Microsoft, to develop algorithms that will track visa holders’ social media activity,” ProPublica reports. Schools should consider the ways in which their own social media surveillance re-inscribes these sorts of violent, nationalist policies.
Via Longreads: “The True Story of Refugees in an American High School.”
Education in the Courts
Via Politico: “The New Mexico Supreme Court will reconsider a case that could end up as voucher proponents’ next best shot at scrapping provisions in most states that prohibit public money from supporting religious schools. That’s especially the case now that another high-profile legal challenge, to a Colorado voucher program, is in question after anti-voucher candidates swept a recent school board race.”
Via The Root: “Virginia Mother Charged With Felony After Putting Recording Device in Daughter’s Backpack to Catch Bullies.”
The Business of Student Loans
Via The New York Times: “When Unpaid Student Loan Bills Mean You Can No Longer Work.”
Via Politico: “The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Tuesday accused Citibank of misleading student loan borrowers about tax benefits, incorrectly charging late fees and other practices it says violated federal consumer protection law. Citibank has agreed to pay a $2.75 million civil penalty, pay $3.75 million in borrower refunds and make changes to its servicing practices to resolve the allegations.”
There’s more research on student loan fraud in the for-profit higher ed section below.
The “New” For-Profit Higher Ed
Via The Chicago Tribune: “Almost all student loan fraud claims involve for-profit colleges, study finds.”
Online Education and the Once and Future “MOOC”
The University of Iceland has joined edX.
Via Chalkbeat: “Policymakers agree virtual schools should get more teachers and less money. Will they make it happen?” Perhaps this headline is better suited for the Betteridge’s Law section below.
Meanwhile on Campus…
Here’s the Mashable headline: “This school plans to create an ‘unsafe space’ and it’s causing controversy.” “This school” is a grammar school in Kent. And it’s “announced plans to create an ‘unsafe space’ to discuss texts including Mein Kampf and topics such as the infamous memo by ex-Google employee James Damore, who claimed there are ‘biological causes’ that prevent more women from getting jobs in tech.” “Unsafe space” is the phrase used by many men of the alt-right to talk about ways in which they can continue to keep people of color and white women out of male-dominated spaces.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “After a special meeting of the University of Michigan Board of Regents, the university announced late Tuesday that it would permit – if certain conditions are met – the white supremacist Richard Spencer to appear on campus.”
“White nationalist Richard Spencer banned from 26 European nations,” The LA Times says. But he’s still welcome on college campuses and Twitter. What a time to be alive.
Via The Washington Post: “ A self-proclaimed Nazi is banned from his college campus in Florida – but allowed to remain a student.” That’s Ken Parker, former KKK grand dragon, who’s banned from the University of North Florida.
“A recording of the way professors at Wilfrid Laurier University questioned a teaching assistant about her use of a debate video in class has set off a major dispute about academic freedom in Canada,” says Inside Higher Ed.
Via The New York Times: “Questioning Evolution: The Push to Change Science Class.”
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Prominent Creative-Writing Professor at UVa Is Accused of Sexually Harassing Students.” The professor in question: John Casey.
This isn’t a “meanwhile on campus story,” but I’m not sure where else to put articles about sexual harassment and sexual assault. So it’ll go here. From The Verge’s Sarah Jeong: “In chatlogs, celebrated hacker and activist confesses countless sexual assaults.” The celebrated hacker in question: Morgan Marquis-Boire.
Oh look. Another story about harassment. Via The Washington Post: “ The TED talks empire has been grappling with sexual harassment, interviews and internal emails show.”
Education Dive profiles Khan Academy’s Khan Lab School. (It will be interesting to compare the success or failure of Khan Lab School with the failure of AltSchool. Or the school below…)
Via The New York Times: “Disrupting the World of Private School With Tech and Guinea Pigs.” That’s the Portfolio School.
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “‘Ring by Spring’: How Christian Colleges Fuel Students’ Rush to Get Engaged.”
Accreditations and Certifications and Competencies (and Dreams of the Blockchain)
“Thanks To Blockchain, You Can See What Your Thanksgiving Turkey Looked Like As A Child,” Buzzfeed tells us. So just imagine the education applications!
From the EU’s JRC: “Blockchain in Education.”
Smartdiploma.io– “Blockchain Anti-Falsification Solution for Academic Diplomas and Certificates.”
“Pearson, WTF? Badges, patents, and the world’s ‘least popular’ education company” by Doug Belshaw.
More research on a GED program – the GED is one of the original competency-based education efforts – in the research section below.
Via Getting Smart: “How Competency-Based Education Can Lead to A More Equitable Classroom.” Just like the GED has done. Cough.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Luna CC Faces Loss of Accreditation.”
Via The Houston Chronicle: “Cancelling STAAR tests in Harvey’s wake could wipe out federal funding, TEA leader says.”
From the HR Department
Via Mindwires Consulting’s Phil Hill: “Big Changes at Unizin: CEO and COO resign after board meeting.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Diane Auer Jones, a former assistant secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration, has joined the U.S. Department of Labor as a senior policy adviser.”
The Business of Job Training
Via The MIT Technology Review: “Finally, a Useful Application for VR: Training Employees.” Starring Walmart. (I don’t understand this at all. Why VR?)
Via Techcrunch: “HBCU.vc trains students become venture capitalists.”
Via the Google blog: “Investing £1 million in training for computing teachers in the U.K.”
“Learning to code will eventually be as useful as learning Ancient Greek,” Quartz claims.
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “A Challenge for Higher Ed: Modernize Manufacturing, but Protect Jobs.”
This Week in Betteridge’s Law of Headlines
“Can Online Credit Recovery Recover?” asks Michael Horn in Edsurge, perpetually hopeful that disruptive innovation will save the day.
“Are Parent-Teacher Conferences Becoming Obsolete?” asks The Atlantic.
(Reminder: according to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”)
Upgrades and Downgrades
“A Silicon Valley startup is quietly taking over U.S. classrooms,” Axios claims. Apparently the startup is Kiddom. And frankly it blows my mind that people want to chastise me for calling out the terrible PR that poses as ed-tech journalism.
Via Edsurge: “Modeled on Zillow, Edmit Wants to Help Families Make Financially Savvier College Decisions.”
More coverage of AltSchool in the tech press – via Business Insider: “Tech billionaires spent $170 million on a new kind of school – now classrooms are shrinking and some parents say their kids are ‘guinea pigs’.” And via Techcrunch: “AltSchool wants to change how kids learn, but fears have surfaced that it’s failing students.” “Fears have surfaced” – LOL. Here’s me, three years ago… “surfacing fears” or something.
Remember how Apple recently claimed that its stores were like “the public square”? Yeah. About that vision of “the public.” As The Outline notes, “Apple only wants to put its stores where white people live.”
“YouTube Is Addressing Its Massive Child Exploitation Problem,” says Buzzfeed. YouTube gets little credit for this clean-up in my book, however, as it took journalists to uncover and talk about the problem.
Speaking of child exploitation, this via The Financial Times: “Apple’s iPhone X assembled by illegal student labour.”
Via ProPublica: “Facebook (Still) Letting Housing Advertisers Exclude Users by Race.” “Personalization.”
(Related, this assignment from Davidson College’s Mark Sample: “Hacking Facebook’s Ad Network for Justice.”)
Via Boing Boing: “Scientist puts his dog on the editorial boards of seven predatory journals as proof of their negligence.”
Mindwires Consulting’s Phil Hill says that“A change in direction and a likely change in culture” is coming. TBH, I still can’t remember what Unizin actually is. There’s more on Unizin in the HR section above.
The business of Peter Thiel. Via Buzzfeed: “Y Combinator Cuts Ties With Peter Thiel After Ending Part-Time Partner Program.” And Buzzfeed reports that “Peter Thiel May Be Looking To Buy Gawker.com.” (Here’s a story from last year I wrote on Thiel’s ed-tech investment portfolio.)
Mindwires Consulting’s Michael Feldstein continues to fight the LMS fight: “Fear and Loathing in the Moodle Community.”
“We Don’t Need More Alternatives to College,” says Edsurge. Or more accurately, the advice here is “don’t market your ‘alternative to college’ business as an alternative to college.”
I don’t always include partnership announcements here because they’re typically much ado about nothing. But consider how well-funded these two startups are, I think it’s noteworthy that that’s what they’re resorting to: the ol’ “partnership” press release. From the Edmodo blog: “We’re Partnering with Clever to Give Districts Automatic Digital Classrooms!”
Robots and Other Ed-Tech SF
Via The Washington Post: “When your kid tries to say ‘Alexa’ before ‘Mama’.”
Via Edsurge: “Educators on Artificial Intelligence: Here’s the One Thing It Can’t Do Well.” Spoiler alert: AI doesn’t care.
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “How Real-World Learning Could Help People Compete With Machines.”
Venture Capital and the Business of Ed-Tech
The student travel abroad company WorldStrides has raised $500 million from Eurazeo and Primavera Capital Group.
HopSkipDrive has raised $7.4 million for its “Uber for kids” business. Investors include Upfront Ventures, FirstMark, and Student Transportation Inc. The company, which isn’t just driving is babysitting on demand too, has raised $21.5 million total. Why anyone would let “Uber for” anything near their kids is sorta beyond me.
Edmit has raised $855,000 from Bessemer Venture Partners, Wan Li Zhu, Rob Biederman, Anthony Accardi, Bill Triant, Peter Temes, and Shereen Shermak. The company, which says it will help students find the cheapest college to attend, is profiled by Edsurge in a story above.
Privacy, Surveillance, and Information Security
A special shout-out to all the people who’ve called for an “Uber for Education.” Really, you couldn’t have picked a worse model. This week’s Uber news, via Bloomberg: “Uber Paid Hackers to Delete Stolen Data on 57 Million People.” More via The NYT: “Uber Hid 2016 Breach, Paying Hackers to Delete Stolen Data.”
Via Techcrunch: “Germany bans smartwatches for kids over spying concerns.”
This seems to fly in the face of the library profession’s belief in privacy. But hey. Big data!
Via Quartz: “Google collects Android users’ locations even when location services are disabled.”
Via EdTech Strategies’ Doug Levin: “The COPPA Rule, FERPA, and the Security of Student Data.”
More on surveillance in the courts section above.
Research, “Research,” and Reports
From investors Chian Gong and Jennifer Carolan, writing in Edsurge: “Spotting the 2017 Trends That Fuel Edtech Innovation and Investments.” (No surprise, my review of “2017 trends” will be very different.)
A report funded by Amazonfrom the Family Online Safety Institute: “Connected Families: How Parents Think & Feel about Wearables, Toys, and the Internet of Things.”
Via Education Week: “What 150 Years of Education Statistics Say About Schools Today.”
More from the Paradise Papers, via ICIJ: “More than 100 universities and colleges included in Offshore Leaks Database.”
Via Education Dive: “Study shows Bridge GED programs help students continue on to college.”
There’s more research on student loan fraud in the for-profit higher ed section above.
“When people move to different jobs, here’s where they go” – as visualized by Flowing Data.
“Where Do Ideas of ‘Success’ and ‘Failure’ in Schooling Come From?” asks Stanford’s Larry Cuban.
Variations on this argument. Again. Via The 74: “New Study Shows American Kids Do Better on Tests If You Pay for Answers.”
This, via The Guardian, isn’t necessarily ed-tech. But my goodness, with all the “brain training” products and neurobollocks that schools are being told they should buy, pay attention nonetheless: “Can brain training reduce dementia risk? Despite new research, the jury is still out.”
“New Research Answers Whether Technology is Good or Bad for Learning,” Michael Horn claims. No. No it doesn’t.
Via FOX News: “Rocket launch will prove Earth is flat, California man says.” Project-based learning, FTW.
Via The NYT: “Cockatoos Rival Children in Shape Recognition.” Clearly they also rival people who refuse to believe the Earth is round.
Icon credits: The Noun Project
Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2017: The Stories We’ve Been Told
At the end of every year since I founded Hack Education in 2010, I’ve reviewed what I think are the most important and influential trends in education technology. I’ve called this “the Top Ed-Tech Trends,” but this has never been an SEO-optimized list of products that the ed-tech industry wants schools or parents or companies to buy (or that it claims schools and parents and companies are buying). No, fidget spinners were not a “top ed-tech trend” this year.
“Trends” is certainly a misnomer, and I’m going to start moving away from that word this year. This is about the stories we’re told about education, about technology, and about education technology. (No doubt, some people hope these stories fuel markets and lead to trends.)
This series is meant to serve in-depth exploration of the events of the past year and an analysis of how these events shape the way in which we imagine and prepare for the future of teaching and learning. We must think more critically about education technology – its technologies and its stories – and I believe that comes in part from scrutinizing its history. The world is not changing more rapidly than ever before– don’t let that story convince you to throw the past into a memory hole.
This series always ends up being incredibly lengthy – I apologize in advance – and this year, it threatens to be even more so. 2017 has been an extraordinary year for education news and for technology news – two areas that provide crucial context for everything that happens with education technology.
It’s the first year, of course, of the Trump Administration, and its attempts to change education policy and funding have been profound: the nomination of his most controversial and unpopular Cabinet member, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos; a budget proposal that would have slashed $9 billion from the Department of Education (not to mention steep cuts to other education-related programs and services, including funding for scientific research); battles with HBCUs; the revocation of DACA and changes to immigration and visa policies, including an increase in deportations; the withdrawal from UNESCO, the UN’s cultural and educational organization; Justice Department investigations into college admissions and free speech on campuses; the rollback of regulations relating to the rights of students with disabilities; the rollback of Obama-era guidance on Title IX and sexual assault policies on college campuses; the delay of Obama-era regulations on for-profit higher ed and reneging on promises of debt relief for the students defrauded by these institutions; the rollback of Obama-era protections for transgender students; the rollback of Obama-era rules on school lunch standards (are you sensing a trend yet?); and the scaling back of investigations into civil rights violations in schools.
All this happened in the larger context of news from the US school system itself. And again, what a year: changing demographics of teachers and students (and the US population overall); changing enrollments; desegregation turning to resegregation; hate crimes; lead poisoning; “adjunct-ification”; school shootings (including those by school police officers); bullying; hazing; hurricanes; fraud; money laundering; FBI investigations; illicit campaign contributions; corruption charges; drug-fueled parties; white nationalists on campus; student protests; (ongoing) racial disparities in school discipline; the opioid crisis; school closures and mergers; rising poverty levels and growing income inequality; increasing student loan debt; food insecurity; “lunch shaming”; homelessness; and my god, somanystories of sexualassault and sexualharassment at school – stories that emerged well before the revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein have emboldened more victims to come forward and speak up.
And I haven’t even touched on any news from the tech sector yet. There were scores of stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment in that industry too: accusations regarding the ride-sharing company Uber– Susan Fowler really should be credited for kicking off much of the discussion of sexism and Silicon Valley culture this year; the student loan startup SoFi; venture capitalist Frank Artale; venture capitalist Dave McClure; venture capitalist Chris Sacca; venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck; and venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson. Then there was the infamous anti-diversity memo distributed by Google engineer James Damore and leaked to the press this summer that charged that efforts the company (and the industry more broadly) had taken to address diversity were misguided as women are biologically ill-suited to computer science – which is, of course, totally bullshit. And then there were the revelations – although, to be fair, many people had already noticed this last year– that the Internet had played a played a major role in a concerted dis-information campaign during the 2016 Presidential Election, that Twitter, Facebook, and Google were (and still are) ongoing sources of misinformation, that the major technology companies have become powerful monopolies and in the process serve to undermine democracy and reshape public institutions to suit their needs and visions for the future.
One of the challenges of this end-of-year series has always been determining what is really within the purview of “education technology.” This isn’t a review of “the year in education” or “the year in tech,” after all. And yet it is naive and even misleading to pretend as though education technology exists separately from either of those – from the politics of DC, the politics of local school boards, or the politics of Silicon Valley, for example. The latter’s influence permeates education – politically, financially, and culturally; via venture capital, venture philanthropy, and lobbying efforts, and increasingly through algorithms that govern schools’ and teachers’ decision-making. As concerns about “fake news” make clear, Silicon Valley’s influence also extends to how we access information and build knowledge; it extends to the stories we hear and share.
So that’s my focus of this project this year: analyzing the stories that we have told and were told in 2017 about and by education technologies.
The series kicks off on Saturday, 2 December. (You can receive updates from Hack Education via email if you prefer to read articles that way.)
Stories From Previous Years:
Here are some of the stories that got us to where we are today:
The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2016
The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015
The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2014
The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2013
The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012
The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011
The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2010
I’m fortunate to be a recipient of a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship this year. But as a reminder, Hack Education is a completely independent publication. The stories I write here are not backed by venture capital or venture philanthropy or consulting dollars. Readers can support my work in a number of ways, but what would be awesome is if everyone took the time to think more critically about the stories they’re telling about the future of education. It’s getting pretty dystopian out there…
Icon credits: The Noun Project
(National) Education Politics
Via Chalkbeat: “DeVos calls America still ‘a nation at risk,’ cheers GOP tax plan.”
As I type this up, the Senate has not yet voted, but it does appear to have enough votes to pass the measure.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “How the Tax Bills Would Hit Higher Ed.”
Via The Washington Post: “Taxing college endowments will hurt red-state kids more than coastal elites.”
Via NPR: “Graduate Students Across The Country Protest GOP Tax Plan.”
Via The Washington Post: “Universities are also to blame for the GOP’s ‘grad student tax’.” That is, writes Yale University’s Sarah Arveson, "Charging us tuition, only to waive it, helps to define us as students instead of the essential workers we are.
Republicans in Congress are also working on a re-authorization of the Higher Education Act. From The Wall Street Journal, “Five Things on the House’s Higher Education Bill.” It’s good news for for-profits, says the WSJ and also moves towards “simplifying FAFSA.”
From the Department of Education press release: “Secretary DeVos Praises Senate Action on FAFSA Simplification.”
Also from the Department of Education’s press office: “U.S. Department of Education Announces Vision to Transform Federal Student Aid, Improve Customer Service.” Apparently the FAFSA will soon be available on mobile devices.
Via The Wall Street Journal: “Trump Administration Looks Beyond Traditional Servicers for Student-Lending Help.” A. Wayne Johnson, the head of the department’s financial aid division and a former executive at a student loan company, says that those “non-traditional” servicers could include companies like Visa, Amazon, or Goldman Sachs.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Education Department Signals Possible Changes to Gainful-Employment Rule.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Education secretary calls for more emphasis on work-force training. Many experts – including those focused on careers – say general education matters more than she suggests.”
Via The Washington Post: “Elitists, crybabies and junky degrees – A Trump supporter explains rising conservative anger at American universities.”
Via Politico: “ Victorious Trump moves to reshape consumer bureau.” That’s the CFPB, whose new leader is also addressed in this story from NPR: “What The Upheaval At A Federal Consumer Watchdog Could Mean For Students.”
Via Education Week: “U.S. House Hearing on Algorithms& Big Data: 5 Takeaways for Schools.”
More on the FCC’s plans to end “net neutrality.” Via Wired: “Ajit Pai’s Shell Game.” From Education Dive: “ How repealing net neutrality will disrupt higher education.” Via Education Week: “FCC Plans to Weaken ‘Net Neutrality’ Provisions, Raising Questions for K–12.”
Via USA Today: “Lunchroom bosses across the nation are getting a bit more flexibility in what they serve under a new federal rule unveiled Wednesday amid criticism that easing restrictions means less healthy young Americans.”
(State and Local) Education Politics
Via Education Week: “K–12 Spending in Most States Still Far Below Pre-Recession Levels, Report Says.”
Via Chalkbeat’s Colorado outlet: “Fate of Douglas County’s high-profile voucher program to be weighed at special meeting.”
Man, the offers that cities have made to lure Amazon HQ2 to their municipalities. So much for democracy, I guess.
More on California’s lawsuit against Bridgepoint Education in the for-profit higher ed section below.
Education in the Courts
Via Boing Boing: “Epic Games is suing a 14 year old for making a cheat tutorial and his brilliant mother is PISSED.”
More on lawsuits in the for-profit higher ed section below.
The Business of Student Loans (and Financial Aid)
There’s been quite a bit of news this about potential changes to FAFSA and financial aid. That’s all in the national politics section above.
Via The Washington Post: “Colleges puzzled by surge in FAFSA verification requests.”
The “New” For-Profit Higher Ed
Via Buzzfeed: “California Is Suing A Giant For-Profit College For Allegedly Misleading Students.” That’s Bridgepoint Education, which runs Ashford University.
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “3 Startling Claims From California’s Lawsuit Against a For-Profit College.”
The Wall Street Journal profiles InfiniLaw, a company that runs for-profit law schools. According to the article, it’s looking to sell off its two remaining schools, Arizona Summit Law School and Florida Law School. Its third school, Charlotte School of Law shut down this summer.
Commentary via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Selling Swampland: For-Profit Colleges in the Age of Trump.”
“Why Betsy DeVos Just Might Be A Cosmetology School’s Savior” – Buzzfeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy profilesPro Way Hair School in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
More on the politics of higher education in the national politics section above.
Online Education and the Once and Future “MOOC”
These headlines just kill me. Via The 74: “How an Online Personalized Preschool Experiment Could Change the Way Rural America Does Early Education.”
More MOOC data in the “research” section below. And an update from Udacity in “the business of job training” section.
Meanwhile on Campus…
Via NPR: “What Really Happened At The School Where Every Graduate Got Into College.” The school in question: Ballou High School in DC.
An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School’s administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. We reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou’s attendance records, class rosters and emails after a district employee shared the private documents. Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present – missing more than 90 days of school.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Anthony Scaramucci resigned Tuesday from his position on an advisory board at a Tufts University graduate school.” Disclosure: the Mooch now follows me on Twitter.
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Fresh Off Failed ‘Washington Post’ Sting, James O’Keefe Will Speak at SMU.”
Via Inside Higher Ed: “A controversial speech at the University of Connecticut Tuesday night ended up in chaos, with students in the audience shouting at the speaker and the speaker arrested over an altercation with an audience member who appeared to take his notes.” The speaker was Lucian Wintrich, whose presentation was titled “It’s Okay to Be White.”
Via The Houston Chronicle: “Male students‘uncomfortable’ on Texas campuses, education official says.” Really.
Via NPR: “Parents Allege Sexual Abuse At Chinese Kindergarten.” The kindergarten is run by a private school chain, RYB Kindergarten, which incidentally was one of the handful of education IPOs this year.
Via Buzzfeed: “Cornell University Is Investigating This Controversial Research About Eating Behaviors.” That’s Brian Wansink, about whom Retraction Watch has counted eight corrections to published work so far this year.
From the OECD: “PISA 2015 Results.”
Via The Hechinger Report: “U.S. ranks No. 13 in new collaborative problem-solving test.”
Go, School Sports Team!
The University of Tennessee dropped its plans to hire Greg Schiano as its new football coach following outcry about Schiano’s role in covering up – or at least turning a blind eye to – the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse while Schiano was at Penn State.
Via USA Today: “College football coaches owed more than $70 million in buyouts after run of firings.”
“Lawsuits could lead to changes in the NCAA’s concussion rules and threaten some athletic conferences, while broader questions about college football’s viability begin to emerge,” says Inside Higher Ed.
From the HR Department
Via Education Week’s Market Brief: “Scholastic Education Revamps Its Executive Leadership Team.”
The Business of Job Training
“Udacity’s Blitz.com, A Freelancing Platform for Nanodegree Alumni, Shuts Down,” Class Central reports.
In their ongoing quest to convince people that VR is really going to be a thing, we get stories like this: “College teachers-in-training prep with virtual students.”
This Week in Betteridge’s Law of Headlines
“Can Fan Fiction Bridge the Gaps in Sex Education for Marginalized Communities?” asks Pacific Standard.
(Reminder: according to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”)
Upgrades and Downgrades
Although much of the focus of ed-tech involves what happens at school, it’s important to remember that the corporate and consumer markets for “learning technologies” are much larger. This sort of thing, from Buzzfeed – “Here’s What Baby Food Of The Future Looks Like” – or this from from Techcrunch– “12 of the best baby tech gifts for the little ones in your life” – is pretty pervasive and should help remind us of how ed-tech (and tech more generally) serves to exacerbate inequality.
Speaking of ed-tech exacerbating inequality, Edsurge looks atPowerMyLearning’s plans to give parents homework– “family playlists” – to do alongside their children. (No disclosure that Edsurge shares funding – from the Gates Foundation – with this organization.)
Seems like most people spent the last couple of weeks talking about this op-ed. Articles about laptop bans– for or against– are not quite the worst. (The worst is definitely the Beloit Mindset List.) But stop anyway. Stop.
Grovo has apparently secured the trademark for “microlearning.”
Via Vice: “YouTube kills ads on 50,000 channels as advertisers flee over disturbing child content.”
Via Techcrunch: “Jellies is a kid-friendly, parent-approved alternative to YouTube Kids.”
According to Edsurge, Knewton is now a courseware company and not a “robot tutor in the sky.” Knewton has raised some $157 million in venture capital. (No disclosure that Edsurge shares investors – GSV Capital – with Knewton.)
Via Think Progress: “Textbook co-authored by Roy Moore in 2011 says women shouldn’t run for office.” Moore is Alabama’s Republican Senate candidate.
Via Edsurge: “New Company Says by Using Its Service, Students Can Test Classroom Tech Before Arriving on Campus.” The company is called TechReady.io, and it scans your computer to make sure it meets all the requirements for an LMS and so on. No discussion of privacy or security, which would sure be nice.
Via Bloomberg: “Uber Investor Shervin Pishevar Accused of Sexual Misconduct by Multiple Women.” It’s just the latest in a long line of venture capitalists who’ve been accused of harassment this year.
Via The New York Times: “Andy Rubin, Android Creator, Steps Away From Firm Amid Misconduct Report.” The Information reported that Rubin was “involved in an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate while he was at Google.”
“Bitcoin Hype is Ushering in Demand for Cryptocurrency Education,” says MIT Technology Review. Let’s hope this education includes some of the underlying conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism that fuels the “anti-banking” rhetoric among cryptocurrency supporters.
Speaking of terrible ideas, “It Takes a Village: Parenting on the Blockchain,” says The Coin Telegraph.
Robots and Other Ed-Tech SF
“How AI and Eye Tracking Could Soon Help Schools Screen for Dyslexia,” according to Edsurge, profiling one company, Lexplore.
Via Getting Smart: “Ask About AI: The** Future of Learning and Work**.”
Maha Bali writing for Prof Hacker: “Against the 3A’s of EdTech: AI, Analytics, and Adaptive Technologies in Education.”
Via the CBC: “Virtual infant BabyX prompts question: how do we feel about AI that looks so much like us?”
There’s some robot news in the privacy section below. I’m putting it there because it’s not “LOL, robots” it’s more “holy shit, Facebook why are you so consistently terrible.”
(Venture) Philanthropy, “Dark Money,” and the Business of Ed Reform
It’s not “venture philanthropy,” so I’ve added “dark money” to the header this week. But it is worth following Robert Mercer’s investments, as several involve education (funding Milo to wreak havoc on college campuses, for example) or technology (backing Cambridge Analytica). This week, on the heels of a failed attempt by James O’Keefe’s media company to conduct a “sting” on The Washington Post, we learn from Buzzfeed that“Conservative Megadonor Robert Mercer Funded Project Veritas.”
Via International Business Times: “Who Funds Conservative Campus Group Turning Point USA? Donors Revealed.” Funders include the Ed Uihlein Foundation, the family foundation of Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, the family foundation of healthcare products company CEO Vince Foglia, Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus’ foundation, and the Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation. Gee, that last name seems familiar.
Via Foreign Policy: “This Beijing-Linked Billionaire Is Funding Policy Research at Washington’s Most Influential Institutions.” Think tanks. The Chinese Communist Party. Etc.
Venture Capital and the Business of Ed-Tech
Pearson is selling its language learning company Wall Street English to Baring Private Equity Asia and CITIC Capital for $300 million (although Pearson will get about $100 million of that as the rest goes to debt relief).
Noodle Partners has raised $14 million from Owl Ventures. The company, founded by former Princeton Review and 2U exec John Katzman, has raised $18 million. Noodle Partners helps universities set up online degree programs. (Sorta like what 2U does, I guess.)
BetterLesson has raised $10 million from Owl Ventures, The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, New Markets Venture Partners, and Reach Capital. The professional development company has raised $21.3 million total.
Private school chain Fusion Education Group has raised an undisclosed amount of money from Leeds Equity Partners.
Tech Edventures has raised an unknown amount of money from unknown investors. The after-school coding program has previously raised $775,000.
WeWork, which recently acquired the coding bootcamp Flatiron School and has plans to launch a private K–12 school to teach kids how to be entrepreneurs, is buying the meet-up company Meetup.
European private equity firm IK Investment Partners has acquired acquire the tutoring company Studienkreis GmbH.
Via The Scholarly Kitchen: “PLOS Reports $1.7M Loss In 2016.”
Privacy, Surveillance, and Information Security
“Oxford and Cambridge are said to be illegally spying on students for money,” says Quartz.
Via Education Week: “Schools Struggle to Keep Pace With Hackings, Other Cyber Threats.”
Via THE Journal: “Report: Ed Tech Startups Stink at Student Data Privacy.” The report comes from Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College.
Via The Hechinger Report: “Fitbit for education: Turning school into a data-tracking game.” That’s horrific.
Via Techcrunch: “Facebook rolls out AI to detect suicidal posts before they’re reported.” There’s no way to opt out apparently. This from a company that was found earlier this year to be enabling advertisers to target teens who felt “worthless.”
Research, “Research,” and Reports
Via CNBC: “This start-up raised millions to sell ‘brain hacking’ pills, but its own study found coffee works better.” The company isn question is called HVMN (formerly Nootrobox). Its backers include Marc Andreessen.
“How to Get Your Mind to Read” – an op-ed by UVA’s Daniel Willingham. (Spoiler alert: it does not involve taking venture capital-backed “brain hacking” pills.)
I’ve calculated the numbers for “the business of education technology” – investments, acquisitions, mergers, IPOs, and so on – for the month of November.
Via Campus Technology: “Study Uncovers How Ed Tech Decision-Making Works.” The study was conducted by the EdTech Efficacy Research Academic Symposium, which is housed at the University of Virginia.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “The work of research institutions led to the formation of 1,024 start-up companies in 2016 as invention disclosures and patent applications also rose, according to an annual survey from the Association of University Technology Managers.” Well good thing the GOP tax plan will kill that off.
Via The Washington Post: “Private school enrollment contributes to school segregation, study finds.”
Class Central surveyed its users: “MOOC Users Highly Educated, Have Experienced Career Benefits.”
Predictions! This one via The 74: “By 2022, America Will Need 1 Million More College Grads With STEM Training Than We Are on Track to Produce.”
The Hechinger Report and Columbia Journalism School’s Teacher Project have a new research project out on “The Terrible Twos.”
I love it when people list “collaboration” as a top ed-tech trend– as though until this very moment in the history of technology, humans have been utterly unable to work together.
Icon credits: The Noun Project
This is part one of my annual look at the year’s “top ed-tech stories”
Last year, I started this series – my annual review of the year in education technology– with an article on wishful thinking. It was a nod, in part, to Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, a book that I’ve found useful in understanding how grief clouds our thinking, how grief makes use want to believe the unbelievable, how it “ruptures the rational,” as I wrote then. 2016 was such a terrible, terrible year, and as I composed my reflections on it for this annual series, I wanted to start by recognizing the pain and the loss.
But I wanted to consider too why the stories we repeatedly tell about education and education technology were so fanciful – stories about impending disruptions and revolutions and robot teachers and brain zappers and so on. Why was so much ed-tech “fake news”?
I didn’t use the phrase “fake news” in that article, although I’d like to think it was implied. The image above from Google Trends helps demonstrate how popular the phrase has become in the intervening months. It’s taken on multiple meanings too: first used to identify the misinformation that had occurred online surrounding the 2016 election, it was later embraced by President Trump to denigrate and dismiss “the mainstream media.”
“Fake news” is partly a crisis of journalism and a crisis of civics; but it is also a crisis of education and technology. It’s a crisis of knowledge and expertise and science. (It’s also an opportunity – surprise, surprise – for lots of folks to try sell us some sort of “digital literacy” product.)
Here Lies the President of the United States
The lying did not start on Inauguration Day – 20 January 2017. Indeed, some 70% of the statements Donald Trump made on the campaign trail, as fact-checked by Politifact , have been deemed to be false; just 4% deemed true. But I suppose we should talk about Inauguration Day nonetheless, since that’s when this administration officially began.
On his first full day in office, the President used a speech at CIA headquarters to call journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” chastising the media for reports that there had been low turnout at his inauguration. Trump claimed that 1.5 million people had attended the event. And at the new administration’s first press briefing the same day, then Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted that“it was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.”
The photographic evidence clearly showed otherwise – the crowds on the mall were visibly smaller than those gathered for the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January 2009. And even if those photographs were somehow misleading, the 1.5 million people that Trump claimed would have still been a smaller crowd than Obama’s.
The photographic evidence clearly showed otherwise. And yet the Trump Administration insisted that what we saw and what we knew was untrue.
Gaslight– that wonderful 1944 George Cukor film starring a very very young Angela Lansbury – has resurfaced as part of our vocabulary. To gaslight: to psychologically manipulate someone into doubting the truth that they have seen or experienced first-hand.
Lying and exaggerating has long been a signature tactic of the real estate mogul turned politician. It is now a key feature of his presidency. The New York Times tried to keep track of all the 45th President’s falsehoods this year, but it seems to have abandoned its “definitive list” some time in July. When questioned by reporters from The New York Times and elsewhere, Trump has repeated his accusation that these journalists constitute “fake news.” Their reporting should not be trusted.
Who Do We Trust?
There’s been plenty of ink spilled this year on why Donald Trump won the election. There’s no way I’m going to re-hash that here (even though the length of this article might suggest I’ve tried). But I will say that, among the various appeals that he made to voters, Trump was able to tap into a strain of populism that’s been fomenting in this country for a while – one that seeks to dismiss and dismantle various political and cultural institutions, including the government, science, the media, universities, and the K–12 school system. These institutions – their practices, their research, their statements – cannot be trusted, this story tells us.
This deep mistrust involves a rejection of expertise – something that has emboldened flat earthers and anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers and chemtrail conspiracy theorists and school shooting truthers and “deep state” conspiracy theorists and pizzagate believers, to name a few of the most popular story-lines. And in today’s information environment, all these stories have seemingly become a lot less “fringe.” These beliefs are readily amplified and shared by the very “network effects” baked into the infrastructure of social media platforms.
But blaming social media is too easy and too simplistic.
Blame Schools… “Government Schools”
In July, famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted that “The rise of flat-Earthers in society provides some of the best evidence for the failure of our educational system.” Many educators were angered, insisting that this wasn’t their fault.
Nobody wants to take responsibility, which is fine. I get that. Whatever. But at some point, we have to figure out how to clean up this mess. Teachers. Educators. Journalists. I’m talking to you.
No doubt, there’s long been hand-wringing about Americans’ knowledge of science. “A Nation at Risk” and such. Indeed, Americans don’t actively seek out scientific information, one survey found this year, relying on their general news source – “mainstream journalism,” if you will – to provide them with irregular updates on the latest research.
And that’s a problem right there, no doubt, as journalism regularly gets scientific research wrong, often repeating the synopses from paywalled articles or the stories that industry hopes it will share: Is chocolate good for your health? Are standing desks? Is ESP real? Do cellphones cause brain cancer? Should you ban laptops? What does the science say?!
But, to be fair to journalists, a lot of the time we do get it right. So what happens when, for example, we share the research that demonstrates that vouchers do not improve student achievement? Can we expect that – the science or the journalism – to alter public policy in an administration that does not believe in either science or journalism?
See, what might be even more significant than how frequently (or infrequently) Americans learn about science news (or how well that science is explained) is how their personal beliefs influence whether or not they believe that science to be valid.
That is, accepting science is not necessarily a function of education or scientific knowledge – parents who are anti-vaccine are often affluent and highly-educated, for example. It’s a function of politics. Or rather, according to research from Pew released this year, “how much people know about science only modestly and inconsistently correlates with their attitudes about climate and energy issues, while partisanship is a stronger factor in people’s beliefs.” (Emphasis mine.)
But let’s be honest, industry and political groups do still try mightily to shape the science curriculum in American schools, challenging the teaching of evolution, subsidizing science lessons that promote fracking, suggesting everyone should learn to code, and promoting climate change skepticism, for example. Curriculum battles are going to be increasingly fraught as Americans’ beliefs – and beliefs in academic freedom – are increasingly polarized. (That’s another story for another article.)
But the challenges to the expertise of science and schools are even more insidious than the Heartland Institute or Discovery Institute or Code.org pamphleteering. And Americans don’t just struggle with facts about science. They struggle with facts about social studies. This too has been a long time in the making. As Kristina Rizga wrote in Mother Jones this year,
In 2011, all federal funding for civics and social studies was eliminated. Some state and local funding dropped, too, forcing many cash-strapped districts to prioritize math and English – the subjects most prominently featured in standardized tests. A study by George Washington University’s Center on Education Policy found that between 2001 and 2007, 36 percent of districts decreased elementary classroom time spent on social studies, including civics – a drop that most affected underfunded schools serving working-class, poor, rural, and inner-city kids."
We do not know our rights. We do not understand democracy. Many of us do not understand this moment – how it augurs authoritarianism. “Nearly one in three Americans cannot name a single branch of government,” Timothy Egan lamented in an op-ed in The New York Times this fall. “When NPR tweeted out sections of the Declaration of Independence last year, many people were outraged. They mistook Thomas Jefferson’s fighting words for anti-Trump propaganda.”
It’s hard to know what’s “fake news” if you don’t know what’s “real news.” And many Americans do seemingly lack the content knowledge to tell the difference. Add to that, “content knowledge” is increasingly politicized and up-for-debate, as Americans live in a highly polarized society – a highly polarized information economy, one where one pole blasts public education as irretrievably corrupt and frighteningly collectivist. “Government schools.” Sites of indoctrination, not learning. It’s “fake news” all the way down.
The annual Gallup poll gauging the public’s confidence in public schools did reach its highest level this year since 2009. But even with that uptick, just 36% of Americans polled say they are confident in US public schools. While the Gallup poll found just an 11 point difference between Republicans’ and Democrats’ opinions on K–12 schools, the picture at the university level is quite different. According to a survey released by the Pew Research Center in July, 58% of Republicans now say that higher education has a negative effect on the country. (By comparison, just 19% of Democrats believe that colleges’ and universities’ effect is negative.)
What are the implications – on knowledge-making and knowledge dissemination – of that divide?
And why has public opinion about education shifted in recent years? (The Pew survey shows dramatic downward shifts in Republicans’ opinions on higher ed just since 2015.) Pundits have offered a variety of explanations for the distrust in universities: the rising cost of college (something I’ll examine in a subsequent article in this series); an economy that, according to one poll, has led some workers to feel like a college education is more of “a gamble” than a gain (another forthcoming topic); “identity politics” and protests on campuses (yet another forthcoming topic) and the ongoing “culture wars” that posit that colleges – and public schools at the K–12 level – are bastions of liberal indoctrination.
Those “culture wars” are, of course, not new. Ronald Reagan, for example, ran for Governor of California in 1966 with a promise to “clean up that mess in Berkeley.” That is to say, the anti-college drumbeat has been played for and by conservatives for quite some time.
What Does the FOX Say?
While political polarization might not be new – case in point, Ronald Reagan’s campaign slogans in 1966 – the gap between the beliefs of political parties appears to be widening. This affects beliefs in things we typically think of as “political” – one’s stance on immigration, for example – but it also extends more generally, to our information diets – to the news and information we digest – and to what we know and think we know and who we trust to help us gain and build knowledge.
In the same survey cited above, Pew found this year a pronounced divide between conservatives and liberals when it comes to their stance on how the media affects the country. 85% of Republicans now believe the national news media has a negative effect; 46% of Democrats say that the news media has a negative effect. That’s almost half of both parties. “Fake news” has become a powerful rallying cry among many Americans, 46% of whom believe that the news media invents stories just to make President Trump look bad.
One of the most important media outlets for conservatives, FOX News, has been accused for years now – decades, even – of a right-wing slant that veers towards misinformation. Jon Stewart famously accused FOX of having the most misinformed viewers– something that became even more disconcerting this year as it’s clear the President gets much of his news and information from that outlet.
The CEO of FOX, Roger Ailes, resigned last July amidst a sexual harassment scandal, and Ailes died in May of this year. His death prompted a number of reflections on his role in reshaping (and denigrating) public discourse in America. As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi put it, “Roger Ailes Was One of the Worst Americans Ever.”
The problem of misinformation and “fake news” is not a recent one. And to be fair, nor is it simply the fault of FOX News.
Rolling Stone, for its part, settled a libel lawsuit in April with a former administrator at the University of Virginia who claimed she was portrayed in the now-debunked magazine article about an alleged rape at a UVA fraternity as the “‘chief villain,’ indifferent to sexual assault on campus.” In June, Rolling Stone agreed to pay $1.65 million to the fraternity in question as part of its defamation lawsuit. In September, the magazine announced it was up for sale, but it appears as though the fallout from the retracted article – the ongoing court cases, that is – might stymy efforts to sell.
Journalism is far from perfect. It was far from perfect during the election. (The gendered dimension of the treatment of the first female Presidential candidate to receive a mainstream party’s nomination is particularly noteworthy now that so many high profile male journalists are being accused of sexual assault.) It has been far from perfect in responding to the Trump Administration and “fake news” this year. Indeed, I’d contend that ed-tech journalism in particular – admittedly (supposedly) my focus here – has peddled “fake news” – “the best way to predict the future is to issue a press release,” as I like to say – repeating all sorts of specious marketing claims:
School hasn’t changed in 100 years. Half of American colleges will be bankrupt in 10 to 15 years. Half of high school classes will be taught online by 2019. 65% of primary school students will end up in jobs that don’t exist yet. The college lecture is dying. Flying cars are coming, and you’ll be able to get a nanodegree from Udacity in the subject by 2018. Self-driving cars for everyone! Thermal imaging can now tell how hard you’re thinking. We can monitor students’ brainwaves to see if they’re sufficiently “engaged” in class. Virtual reality will be used to teach empathy. VR will revolutionize education. Second Life will revolutionize education. Khan Academy will revolutionize education. And on and on and on and on and on and on.
Why would you ever trust ed-tech journalism?! (Unless you were politically aligned with the very forces spreading those narratives. Unless, that is, you want desperately for these things to be true.)
Kill Your Television
Our information ecosystem extends well beyond “journalism,” of course – beyond fact-checkers and sources on- or off-the-record and editors and legal departments, all of which ideally make sure the news is truly “fit to print.” It includes documentary filmmaking, for example, and it includes school curriculum. The latter was hardly foolproof this year either when it came to “getting things right.” (Yes, another year, another set of textbooks that had to be retracted because of misinformation and other “inadvertent errors.”)
The History Channel aired a documentary in July – Amelia Earhart: The Lost Evidence– that claimed that the famous aviator, whose disappearance remains (somewhat of) a mystery, had actually been taken prisoner by the Japanese. The film showed a photograph that supposedly showed Earhart and her navigator at a harbor on one of the Marshall Islands. This claim was debunked after a 30-minute search online by military history blogger Kota Yamano. A 30-minute search.
It’s easy to blame social media for the rise of “fake news” – certainly that’s what’s received the most attention this year – but television broadcasting is at least partly responsible for what seems to be this deep societal confusion about “what we know.” (It’s still where most Americans get their news. Although just barely.) The problem with television is not just the propaganda machine of FOX News; it’s also channels like History that show historical and scientific documentaries full of unsubstantiated historical and scientific claims.
I wrote about the history of The Learning Channel a couple of years ago – how it moved away from its roots in educational TV. It’s a much more interesting story than the History Channel’s, which once focused almost exclusively on (US-focused) WWII military documentaries but that pivoted in the last decade or so to ridiculous shows like Ancient Aliens and Bigfoot Captured. The History Channel’s pivot to bullshit would suggest that we’ve been cultivating media misinformation for a very long time. Indeed, Kevin Young’s new book on the history of hoaxes, Bunk, which has just been released, suggests that America might just be, at its core, a post-fact nation. A racist post-fact nation, to be clear.
If there is something profoundly appealing to Americans about P. T. Barnum types – “I’m a bit of a P. T. Barnum,” Donald Trump once claimed– then the media seems to quite keen to capitalize on their message, particularly when the truth can be sacrificed for business models, when it can be bent to generate more eyeballs, more clicks, more advertising revenue, more money.
The Internet as Agitprop
Here’s the Fortune headline from 11 November 2016 – two days after the Presidential election: “Mark Zuckerberg Says Fake News on Facebook Affecting the Election Is a ‘Crazy Idea’.” A year and a bit later, it’s not such a crazy idea after all – even Zuck has admitted as much.
Executives from Google, Facebook, and Twitter testified before Congress in October, responding to questions about the role these Internet companies had played in the election, particularly as related to allegations of Russian interference. Initially Facebook had claimed that fake Russian accounts had purchased just $100,000 in ads on its platform – how bad could that be?! One month later, it admitted that 10 million people had seen the ads. A few weeks later, that figure was adjusted upward again: some 126 million people had been exposed to Russian-linked content via Facebook. Various protests, organized via the social media site, were linked to Russian accounts, including the most popular Texas secession page. Twitter too revealed it had sold ads to Russian accounts and the platform was (is) full of bots promoting and retweeting divisive messaging. Even Pokemon Go was purportedly used in the Russian mis- and disinformation campaign. (Phew. Good thing no one in education has penned stories predicting that any of these platforms are going to “disrupt education forever.”)
To focus solely on Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election via social media is, in many ways, to misconstrue the problem – its origins, its impact. But to ignore Silicon Valley’s role is also to dismiss its powerful role now, one in which it increasingly controls the public sphere. And to be clear, this isn’t simply about the relationship of these companies to “the news” – although my god, they’re so terrible at handling that. It’s the relationship of these companies to information and to education. (A subsequent article in this series will look at the role – and the power – of platforms in education.)
“Google’s featured snippets are worse than fake news,” Adrienne Jeffries wrote in The Outline in March, pointing to highlighted content that was not just wrong but often racist. These search results, as we have seen so clearly this year, have been disastrous. As Safiya Noble wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in January,
That misinformation can be debilitating for a democracy – and in some instances deadly for its citizens. Such was the case with the 2015 killings of nine African-American worshipers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., who were victims of a vicious hate crime. In a manifesto, the convicted gunman, Dylann Roof, wrote that his radicalization on race began following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, an African-American teen, and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman. Roof typed “black on White crime” in a Google search; he says the results confirmed (a patently false notion) that black violence on white Americans is a crisis. His source? The Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “unrepentantly racist.” As Roof himself writes of his race education via Google, “I have never been the same since that day.”
In her GQ profile of Roof this summer, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah underscores too how much of his “education” – his radicalization is, I suppose, how people would rather frame it – occurred online. But what are Americans learning online? And what are they learning in school to help them make sense of the information they find online?
Buy My Media Literacy Product, Said the Moose Diarrhea Salesman
Facebook and Google both launched (PR) efforts this year to try to address the “fake news” problems on their platforms. Google announced in April it was adding fact-checking sites to search and news results. Of course, it also ran ads for fake news on fact-checking sites. Facebook said it would beef up its content moderation staff and help users identify fake news on its platform. The latter backfired when Facebook’s algorithms simply promoted comments containing the word “fake.”
Facebook also hired journalist Campbell Brown to run its news partnership efforts. (Incidentally, Brown, a former CNN anchor, also founded a pro-education reform publication called The 74. Small world, I guess.)
So Google and Facebook – and a whole raft of other companies – have decided to get into the “digital literacy” business. Google launched a “Be Internet Awesome” digital citizenship campaign. Facebook said it would work with the ed-tech advocacy group Digital Promise to teach digital skills. The promise of all this industry PR: the solution to problems with social media is solved through more social media. Naturally.
In April, Facebook launched what some called the largest media literacy campaign ever, publishing a list of “tips to spot false news.” Pity, the largest was also the worst. Or, as Washington State University’s Mike Caulfield put it, “Facebook’s News Literacy Advice Is Harmful to News Literacy.”
Facebook’s list of tips are readily recognizable from many news literacy curricula: be wary of headlines, investigate the source, and so on. But this model “gets the Web wrong,” Caulfield has argued. And as he points out,
There’s actually no evidence that this approach works. And conversely, there’s quite a lot history that shows this model does not work. We actually already trained a generation of students with variants of this method. Sometimes we called it CRAAP. In K–12, it often went by the name of RADCAB.
Not only has media literacy not worked, it appears these efforts, as danah boyd worried this year, have backfired.
But that sure hasn’t stopped the money flowing into media and information literacy products. “‘Fake News,’ Media Literacy Become Business Opportunities in Rush to Educate Students,” Education Week’s Market Brief reported in February. “Millions of Dollars Pour into New Literacy Initiatives,” Edsurge echoed in April. Various education organizations have released frameworks and guidelines and curricula (and, of course, press releases announcing that they were “on it”): Teaching Tolerance, UNESCO, and the New Media Consortium, for example.
For his part, Mike Caulfield published a (free) textbook in February, Web Literacy for Student Fact- Checkers. But Caulfield’s work is more process than product – that’s a key difference. Writing in the Educause Review this fall, he says that
Now is the time for an info-environmentalism curriculum. It’s true that information pollution has been a longstanding problem in mass media. But unlike the nightly news, the web is still a collectively maintained and produced environment. We can clean it up. We can pull those televisions and shopping carts and plastic bags out of our shared information streams and Google results.
Caulfield’s textbook – and, more broadly, his work with the Digital Polarization Initiative of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities’s American Democracy Project, on his own campus and elsewhere – enlists college students in improving the information environment by not just understanding but by improving information online: editing Wikipedia, annotating news articles, creating video or written content. His guidance is designed for college classrooms, sure, but really the impulse is about an online, information civics in general.
What Do We Believe? (And Why?)
“Critical thinking is at the foundation of information literacy, but those selling it are not necessarily in a position to actually supply it. They may be hampered by an inability to think critically about their own practices and proposals.” That was the provocation from Seattle Pacific University’s Rolin Moe in an article in the publication Real Life. Moe blasts “information literacy” and the larger institutions that it supports – schools, libraries, the media – institutions that purport to want criticality, but only insofar as that criticality creates consumers and producers of content and information.
It’s one of my favorite articles written this year. But it’s complicated…
Real Life (the publication, that is) is funded by the technology company Snapchat. Maybe that helps hint at some of the problems we face with our current information ecosystem: it’s a mess. We’re all deeply implicated in its messiness. Not just students. And not just scholars. All of us. There is no responding to Neil deGrasse Tyson that it’s not your fault there are flat-earthers – particularly if you’re a teacher or a journalist or a person who has ever shared a story online that you didn’t read but really thought the headline was really-right-fucking-on.
If you’re going to decry “fake news,” or the President’s version of “fake news,” then you best not be sharing “fake news” yourself. If you’re going to talk about the importance of digital literacy or information literacy or media literacy or what have you, then you best practice it. Did you share this Raw Story story– “Education officials expect ‘ineffective’ Betsy DeVos to step down as her agenda collapses: report” – or this Salon story– “Expert: Expect DeVos to resign from Trump administration”? Why? Did you read the Politico profile of Betsy DeVos that these (and many other) pieces of clickbait were based on? Did you see evidence in that well-reported story that a resignation was imminent? Or did you just want a story to confirm your gut feelings that she should hit the road? Because, going with your “gut feeling” on a story part of the problem. It’s not just that “fake news,” (or incorrect news) get written. It’s that folks share these stories so quickly and uncritically. Anyway, as Matt Barnum writes, “No, there’s no reason to think DeVos is planning to resign, contrary to viral news stories.”
But that’s what people wanted to believe. That’s how “fake news” works.More facts might not actually save us.
And maybe, just maybe, many of those who peddle education technology products and tell us stories about the future of education are banking on that.
Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on funding.hackeducation.com. And yes, this article is over 6000 words. But there are things I left out. You can find them in the supplemental reading section at 2017trends.hackeducation.com.
This is part two of my annual look at the year’s “top ed-tech stories”
I confess: most of my social media networks are focused on education. I’m friends with educators. I follow educators and education journalists. I pay incredibly close attention to education news, and as such I expect my news feed to be full of education stories. But I’ve never seen anything quite like this year when it comes to the public’s interest in – and horror at – education politics.
We have Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to thank for that.
Betsy DeVos is the most unpopular cabinet member in the Trump Administration, with a September poll finding that 40% of voters view her unfavorably and one in March finding that 52% disapprove or strongly disapprove of her.
What’s striking about this isn’t simply that the Secretary of Education is unpopular. It’s not just that the Secretary of Education has become a part of popular culture, mocked on Saturday Night Live– although that’s something, for sure. It’s that Americans even know who the Secretary of Education is; that she’s known well enough to become a punchline, .
When President Trump nominated the billionaire for the position in late November, DeVos was not a name known much outside of education reform efforts in her home state of Michigan, where she had funded the expansion of charter schools and donated extensively to the GOP and various conservative and religious groups. Her nomination, while supported by the likes of former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who called her an “outstanding pick,” was denounced teachers unions and Democrats – that’s no surprise. More surprising: that she was immediately socontroversial to so many members of the public who reportedly jammed Senate phone lines voicing their opposition.
DeVos’s nomination hearing proved to be high drama – even that she had a confirmation hearing at all felt rather scandalous in some circles, after not completing all her ethics paperwork, failing to disclose political donations, and not paying off election-related fines. (Fascinating how "accountability" applies to only some in education.)
One of the “highlights” of her hearing: her insistence that schools need guns to protect against grizzly bears. And that’s just one example of how incredibly ill-prepared DeVos seemed for the questions she received from Senators, appearing to not grasp some of the basics of education policy– the difference between “proficiency” and “growth,” for example – misstating graduation rates for online charter schools (something she’s long advocated, a key piece of her policy efforts as Secretary, and a separate article in this series), and seeming to not know there were federal rules surrounding disability rights and education.
Nevertheless, she was confirmed on 7 February as the Secretary of Education. The vote was split 50–50, with all Democrats and two Republicans – Susan Collins (ME) and Lisa Murkowski (AK) voting in opposition and Vice President Mike Pence stepping in to cast the deciding “yes.” (The Senate had scheduled Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions’ confirmation vote for the position of US Attorney General after DeVos’s so he could support her in this one.) It was the first time that a Vice President had to break a tie in the Senate to approve a Cabinet member.
Arguably, her tenure as Secretary of Education has been as rocky as her confirmation hearing.
Some of the problems have come from statements she’s made (and where she’s made them – speaking, for example, at a multitude of corporate and education reform events but declining an invitation to speak to education journalists, a traditional venue for the Secretary to appear.) DeVos has found herself in hot water by stating that Historically Black Colleges and Universities – schools founded because Black students were barred from attending white institutions – were the “real pioneers” of “school choice.” (Not a good look, especially as racial segregation in schools has been exacerbated in recent years, in part through the kinds of policies – “school choice” – DeVos advocates.) In response, no doubt, students at the HBCU Bethune-Cookman booed and turned their backs on her in May when she spoke at their commencement. DeVos earned the ire of educators when she told Town Hall in a February interview that she’d visited a school where the teachers were in “a ‘receive mode.’ They’re waiting to be told what they have to do.” She irritated politicians when, during testimony on Capitol Hill, she repeated 14 times that “schools that receive federal funds must follow federal law” when she was asked about discrimination and her plans for a federal voucher program. She decried an Obama era policy forgive the loans of students defrauded by for-profit schools: “all one had to do,” she told a group of Republicans in September, “was raise his or her hands to be entitled to so-called free money.” DeVos also raised eyebrows by issuing a statement of support following Trump’s announcement that he was withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Accord– all while remaining silent on other issues more directly related to her department, such as the revocation of DACA protections.
But it’s likely the actions and the threat of actions – of the Department of Education and the Trump Administration more broadly – and not just the words and status updates that have made DeVos so incredibly unpopular. The rollback of Obama-era guidance on Title IX and sexual assault. The reversal of Obama-era guidance on transgender policies. The rescinding of documents outlining the rights of students with disabilities. The reversal of Obama-era policies designed to protect students from predatory for-profits, particularly with a series of decisions about student loans– enough that this warrants its own article in this series.
(And I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t note somewhere that, while DeVos is attempting to shrink the size of the Department of Education workforce by offering buyouts to staffers, taxpayers aren’t seeing much of a financial break when it comes to the Secretary herself: “Federal marshals are protecting Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at a cost to her agency of nearly $8 million over nearly eight months, according to the U.S. Marshals Service,” The Washington Post reported in April. The previous four Secretaries have not used the Marshals, but rather the Department of Education’s own security service.)
The Business of Betsy DeVos
As with many departments and agencies in the Trump Administration, many positions in DeVos’s Department of Education – particularly those requiring Senate confirmation – remain unfilled. Many of the jobs that have been filled underscore the deep ties that this Presidency has with industry: Taylor Hansen, a former lobbyist for the for-profit higher ed group Career Education Colleges and Universities, was hired (and subsequently quit) as part of the administration’s “beachhead” team; Julian Schmoke, a former DeVry University administrator, was tapped to lead the Education Department’s Student Aid Enforcement Unit; A. Wayne Johnson, the head of a student loan refinancing company, was chosen to run the department’s student loan division; Robert Eitel, a former executive at the for-profit Bridgepoint Education, was pegged as senior counselor to the secretary; and Stanley Buchesky, a venture capitalist with The EdTechFund, was selected as the department’s interim CFO, for example. (And has also occurred repeatedly in this administration, several of the Department of Education hires have had to step down or remove their names for consideration because of their penchant for makingoffensivecommentsonline.)
DeVos’s own ties to industry are noteworthy as well, as detailed in the disclosure forms that she had to file as part of her nomination. “For A Glimpse At The Billionaire Class,” as Buzzfeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy put it in February, “Check Out Betsy DeVos’s Finances.”
To be honest, Betsy DeVos and her family have so many investments, her finances need much more than a glimpse. The Center for American Progress also took a look“Inside the Financial Holdings of Billionaire Betsy DeVos,” and the list of education- and tech-related investments is long: KinderCare Education, the childcare company. MCF CLO IV LLC, a private equity firm with investments in – among other things – Caldwell & Gregory LLC, a company that makes laundry machines for university dorms. Theranos, the troubled blood-testing company. Discovery Communications, maker of education curriculum. The for-profit college company Sextant Education. Performant Financial Corp, a student loan debt collection agency that’s done business with the Department of Education. Avery Point VII CLO, which loaned money to for-profit college company Laureate Education. Apollo Investment Corp, whose subsidiary Apollo Global Management recently acquired the University of Phoenix. SoFi, the student loan company. n2y, a company that makes educational software for people with disabilities. Media Source, a company with several library-related products, including the publication School Library Journal. Neurocore, a “brain training” company under investigation for making misleading claims. (“Brain training” and related neuro-bollocks have become so pervasive this year that I’ll write about that in its own, separate article.) DeVos has divested from some, but not all of these. (Not Neurocore, for example.)
There are other family connections too, least of all DeVos’ brother Erik Prince, founder of the private military company Blackwater who’s been trying to convince Trump to privatize the war in Afghanistan. (DeVos has also made investments in military contractors since being in office, incidentally.) DeVos’s son Rick DeVos sits on the board of The College Fix, a right-wing college publication that, among other things, has helped stir up controversy about “free speech” on campus. DeVos’s husband Dick DeVos was appointed by Trump to a civilian FAA panel. (His political contributions to two Michigan political action committees this fall run afoul of DeVos’s promise that she and her husband would not make campaign donations during her stint in the Trump Administration.)
There are other powerful relationships too – as I’m investigating as part of my Spencer Education Fellowship, education technology’s political and financial networks are vast. Kevin Chavous, for example, a co-founder and board member of the American Federation for Children – a conservative “school choice” group co-founded chaired by DeVos until her nomination – joined the board of K12 Inc, the online virtual charter school company. (K12 Inc’s stock rallied after DeVos’s confirmation– notable considering how far it had fallen in recent years with repeated news about its academic failures.) But much of the billions that the DeVos family funnels into its networks is “dark money,” and as such is more challenging to track than the billions that, say, venture capital funnels into ed-tech.
From the outset, the ed-tech industry has been bullish on Betsy DeVos (even though the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology still does not have an official nominee to head it.) Edsurge, which described her as a “mainstream outsider,” reassured its readers that DeVos “believes that technology has a role to play in the classroom.” “Her articulated commitment to trying different approaches to teaching and learning may bode well for the field of edtech,” Penn GSE’s Barbara Kurshan said in Forbes. “DeVos could be an ed tech champion as education secretary,” the trade publication Education Dive suggested hopefully. Venture capitalist Ryan Craig wrote in Techcrunch following her confirmation that that“By supporting charter schools and changing student financing for college, Secretary DeVos will usher in a new era of technology innovation in education.”
What exactly do ed-tech’s proponents mean when they gush excitedly about Betsy DeVos and “innovation”? And what exactly might DeVos herself mean by “innovation”?
The Cult of Innovation
Many journalists have pointed to one core element of DeVos’s faith in “innovation,” and that’s the powerful alliance she represents among education reformers, education businesses, and conservative Christians: “The Privatization Prophets,” Jennifer Berkshire called them in an article in Jacobin, describing them as “Holy Warriors Against the Welfare State” in an article in The Baffler. “Betsy DeVos’ Holy War” was how Janet Reitman described the Secretary’s policies in Rolling Stone. “Betsy DeVos Wants to Use America’s Schools to Build ‘God’s Kingdom,’” Mother Jones’s Kristina Rizga argued.
That goal – building “God’s Kingdom” – appeared in a 2001 interview that DeVos and her husband gave with a Christian philanthropic interview in which she argued “Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.” Her husband added that it is “certainly our hope that more and more churches will get more and more active and engaged in education.” Other organizations that DeVos has led or funded share similar agenda– reshaping curricula and softening the divide between Church and State.
Of course, there are many obstacles to public funding for religious schools in the US, least of which being the Constitution – although the US Supreme Court did rule this year that a Christian school in Missouri could use taxpayer money to upgrade its playground, a move that was cheered by DeVos and one that some observers say could open up the possibility that vouchers be used to pay tuition at parochial schools.
It’s an expansion of the meaning of “school choice,” perhaps, which has typically been used to describe efforts to expand charter schools and increasingly to allow taxpayer money to follow students to private schools via vouchers. It’s now part of a larger effort, some contend, to weaken “government schools,” to strengthen “Judeo-Christian values,” and to refute the public education system’s liberal and secular biases.
“Choice” has been described by some, including historian Diane Ravitch, for some time now as part of an effort to privatize the public school system. DeVos’s commitment seems to go farther: “the merger of free-market ideology and the religious right.”
But, as I’ve noted for years now, there’s long been an eschatological bent to the calls for “disruptive innovation.” Perhaps DeVos is closer to the mainstream investor class after all…
An Uber for Education
There have been some murmurs this year of a fracturing of the “charter school coalition” in light of the Trump Administration’s policies and statements; but it seems as though education technology’s support for Betsy DeVos has remained strong. She spoke at the annual ASU-GSV investor event in May to a friendly audience, where she told the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in attendance she was committed to “get the federal government out of the way so you can do your job.” She also likened the ed-tech industry to a thousand flowers blooming, but I’m guessing she didn’t really mean to give a nod to Mao.
A more common analogy in DeVos’s repertoire is likening “school choice” and school reform to Uber. She told the Brookings Institution in March that “Just like the traditional taxi service revolted against ride-sharing, so too does the education establishment feel threatened by the rise of school choice.”
Nobody mandates that you take an Uber over a taxi, nor should they. But if you think ridesharing is the best option for you, the government shouldn’t get in your way.
The truth is that in practice, people like having more options. They like being able to choose between Uber Pool, Uber X, Lyft Line, Lyft Plus, and many others. Or when it comes to taking a family trip, many like options such as Airbnb.
We celebrate the benefits of choices in transportation and lodging. But doesn’t that pale in comparison to the importance of educating the future of our country? Why do we not allow parents to exercise that same right to choice in the education of their child?
But it’s a bad analogy for plenty of other reasons, not merely because it underscores how little DeVos understands the public school system.
DeVos, to be fair, probably does understand “the gig economy” fairly well – her billions come, in part, from her family’s business, Amway, and the similarities between Amway and Uber’s business model are notable. We just don’t call Uber a pyramid scheme, I guess, because it has venture capital funding and a nice app. Uber is infamous for its terrible labor practices, relying on freelance drivers who must shoulder the cost of providing and maintaining their vehicles. Uber – and the gig economy more generally – is marketed as a path towards financial liberation, but really it’s simply a tool of survival in an increasingly precarious world. Uber has also found itself in hot water this year for a corporate culture rife with sexual harassment. And in March, The New York Times broke a story that showed how Uber had used a tool called “Greyball” to circumvent regulators trying to crack down on the ride-sharing service. (I’ll have more to say about this in the forthcoming article on “personalization” – because yes, that’s precisely what “greyballing” is.) In April, The NYT wrote about the company again, this time documenting “How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons.” (And yeah, there’s an ed-tech angle to that story too.) Founder Travis Kalanick stepped down from his position as CEO in June (although he remains on the board). But that hasn’t stopped the controversies. In November, Bloomberg reported that hackers had stolen the personal information of some 57 million Uber customers and drivers. The company had kept the breach secret for over a year, paying the hackers $100,000 to delete the stolen data.
At this stage, if you think “Uber for education” is a good idea, you’re either not paying attention or you’re some sort of cartoon villain. (Or both.)
Running Your School Like a (Silicon Valley) Business
Despite all the evidence that it’s a bad idea, the argument that schools should be run more like a business remains a pervasive one in American culture – and it has been for over a century.
This agenda takes many forms: it includes efforts to dismantle unions; it prioritizes talk (and measurements) of “efficiency”; it praises “unbundling” and outsourcing; it privileges “entrepreneurship” as a core value; it fetishizes technology as a vehicle for change.
And so you get a lot of headlines like this: “Your Guide to Running a School Like Disney World.” “Bridging the School-to-Business Gap: What Public Schools Can Learn From Industry.” “How Boundaries Between Colleges and Companies Will Continue to Blur.” What higher education can learn from American Express. “Tesla’s Ride-Sharing Network and Our Higher Ed Futures.” “What Christian Slater’s HP Videos Tell Us About the Future of Higher Ed Communications.” “Supercuts and the Future of (Too Many) Jobs.” “‘Grocery’, the Amazon-Whole Foods Deal and Higher Ed.” “If teachers think like managers, they could make happier classrooms.” “Schools Take a Page From Silicon Valley With ‘Scrum’ Approach.” “The Decline of the Laundromat and the Future of Higher Education.” “Is Your Edtech Product a Refrigerator or Washing Machine?” and so on.
By adopting its technology products– and more importantly, by adopting Silicon Valley’s culture and its obsession with “innovation” – schools have found themselves embracing values that run afoul of schools’ civic and social mission (whether they’re public institutions or not); values that posit students merely as objects of experimentation; that ignore research in order to further a political agenda (and that in turn tend to further inequality); that co-opt history, to borrow from John Patrick Leary, to suit the industry’s autocratic ends; that privilege a largely invented story about “the Great White Innovator”; that tout the slogan “move fast and break things” without thinking about the implications on the lives five- to twelve-year-olds, without thinking about the implications for civil society, .
Because of his embrace of that practice – “move fast and break things” – The New York Times declared in March that Trump was the first Silicon Valley President. Thanks, Silicon Valley. Thanks a lot.
Innovation and “New U”
Arguably, the university most closely associated with the Trump administration this year is Liberty University, a religious college in Lynchburg, Virginia founded by Jerry Falwell and now headed by his son Jerry Falwell Jr.
Falwell Jr. was an early proponent of Donald Trump and has stuck by him after his repeated racist and sexist statements. Trump apparently promised Falwell Jr a position on a new higher education task force, but as of yet, no task force has materialized.
Liberty University’s online offerings have helped the school to expand dramatically – it boasts some 94,000 students online and is now the largest Christian university in the world. According to a profile of Falwell Jr in Inside Higher Ed this fall,
Liberty’s net assets, measured in the tens of millions of dollars a dozen years ago, exceeded $1.8 billion in 2016. Next year it will move to the top division in college football, realizing a key vision of Jerry Falwell Sr. by becoming the evangelical equivalent of the University of Notre Dame or Brigham Young University – a nationally recognized religious institution of higher learning that uses its football program to capture hearts and minds on national television.
For several years now, Arizona State University has been one of the most high profile schools to embrace the ideology of “innovation,” describing itself in a book penned by its president Michael Crow as “The New American University.” In September, the school issued a press release– as one does when one is an innovator – boasting that, for the third year in a row, it had been named as the most innovative school in the US by US News & World Report.
How does one become the most innovative school in the country? According to the US News & World Report’s own methodology, “College presidents, provosts and admissions deans were asked to nominate up to 10 colleges or universities in their U.S. News Best Colleges ranking category that are making the most innovative improvements in terms of curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology or facilities.” You become the most innovative school by innovating. Duh.
“We now know that because of our innovation platform and our innovation culture, we’re just getting started,” President Crow said in the university’s press release. “Our pace of innovation is not just continuing, it’s accelerating.” And that, dear readers, is nonsense. It’s silly talk. “Innovation” – or the work that particular word does in those particular sentences, at least – is meaningless.
The implications of “innovation,” of course, come from looking more closely at the kinds of policies and programs that ASU has adopted: using software to teach freshman math courses, for example, and hosting the annual ASU-GSV Summit (where all the innovative “thought leaders” apparently gather). It partnered this year with Draper University– not a real university – to offer students credits for spending a semester working for Silicon Valley companies.
Related – a story from Politico this fall: “How U.S. News college rankings promote economic inequality on campus.”
While initiatives like its Global Freshman Academy and its partnership with Starbucks have had ASU and its president in the news in previous years, in 2017 it was a different public university and a different university president that perhaps tried to capture the innovation flag. That’s Mitch Daniels, former Republican Governor of Indiana and now the President of Purdue University.
Daniels – as governor and as university president – has pushed for a number of education policies that probably count as “innovation” on some score-cards: income-sharing agreements, for example, and competency-based degrees.
In April, he orchestrated something else altogether. Purdue, Indiana’s most prestigious public university, announced it was buying the for-profit college company Kaplan University, one part of the larger Kaplan brand (which runs tutoring and test prep services and has invested as itself or under its owner Graham Holdings in many education technology ventures) and one of the many for-profit universities who has found itself in hot water in recent years for misleading students with deceptive recruiting practices (and in Kaplan’s case specifically, hiring unqualified instructors).
The move was unprecedented – the first time a public university would acquire a for-profit college (a for-profit college whose classes are mostly conducted online) – and to many industry lookers, a total surprise. “Innovation,” right? The Chronicle of Higher Education described it as “a sign of the times.” A “bold move,” said Inside Higher Ed. “It’s kind of a head-spinner,” Edsurge admitted, bless its heart. “In the long-term Purdue risks inheriting all the problems of for-profit higher education and architects of the deal demonstrate little awareness of what that means for public higher education,” sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote with the most astute observations about the legitimacy and quality of the brand – what’s been dubbed “New U.”
Mitch Daniels described the acquisition as “so much in the public interest,” arguing that it would expand access to higher education – a core part of a public university’s mission. The sale price: just $1. The fine print: Kaplan’s current owner, Graham Holdings, would continue to take some of the revenue from the school as it would serve as an OPM, of sorts (an online program management company), with a contract lasting 30 years.
While Purdue’s trustees approved the deal, faculty at the university, who said they were not informed of the deal until one hour before it was publicly announced, passed a resolution rebuking the acquisition. There were many questions about the faculty of Kaplan too – would they become employees of the state of Indiana? Would they have access to the same sorts of tenure protections? And while Mitch Daniels pronounced Kaplan a public university, legislation passed in Indiana shielded Kaplan from certain open meetings and public records laws.
In August, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education okayed the deal. In September, the Department of Education signed off on the acquisition. In October, there was “a hiccup,” as The Washington Post put it: “The U.S. Education Department wants Purdue University to absorb the debts and liabilities of Kaplan University as a condition for approving the state school’s controversial purchase of the for-profit college, a request that critics say could place Indiana taxpayers at risk.” There’s still one more hoop too: the school’s accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, still must approve the deal. A decision is expected in February or March.
Can faculty stop Mitch Daniels? (There’s a petition.)
Innovation and the End-Times
It’s never so much that educators or others are against “innovation” per se. Please, schools are not as moribund as their critics (or ed-tech salespeople) would have you believe. It’s that “innovation” has come to mean a specific set of practices – political practices, financial practices, and ecclesiastical ones. (Yes, Betsy.)
Wayne State University professor wrote about “innovation” in his “Keywords for the Austerity” series back in 2014. (I get to include it in this year’s series because he just announced he’s secured a book deal for the project.) “Innovation,” Leary chronicles, is intertwined with “Yankee ingenuity” – although that’s certainly part of the reason why the Silicon Valley story plays so well in the US, no doubt. And “innovation” has become a fundamental mantra for the twenty-first century, whereby genius entrepreneurs are suddenly struck with ideas that will help them gadgetize and productize something miraculous. “Innovation” is opportunity; “innovation” is speculation. And there is a religious element to all of it too.
“The verb ”to innovate“ has… seen a resurgence in recent years,” Leary writes.
The verb’s intransitive meaning is “To bring in or introduce novelties; to make changes in something established; to introduce innovations.” Its earlier transitive meaning, “To change (a thing) into something new; to alter; to renew” is considered obsolete by the OED, but this meaning has seen something of a revival. “Who’s the Best at Innovating Innovation?” asks the Harvard Business Review; the same publication sponsors a lucrative prize called the “Innovating Innovation Challenge.” The transitive construction “innovating innovation” thus uses the word in a form that was last common in the 18th century. Then, the word referred to a process of transformation or renewal that often carried religious implications: the salvation promised through Christ, but importantly also that offered though deceit by false prophets. (emphasis mine)
“Innovation” as salvation. Or “innovation” as deception by false prophets. It’s “innovation” either way. Whether or not it’s just or fair or good is a very, very different moral question.
Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.
This is part three of my annual look at the year’s “top ed-tech stories”
As an education technology writer, I’m often chastised for considering student loan companies as part of my analysis. Certain folks try to explain “that’s financial tech, Audrey” as though I hadn’t realized that student loans involve money. Student loan companies are “not really ed-tech,” some people still try to insist. What counts as ed-tech are only “technology companies whose primary purpose is to improve learning outcomes for all learners, regardless of age,” one ed-tech publication has argued. Of course, this is a silly delineation as much of what people count as ed-tech doesn’t improve learning at all, and many individuals who are actively seeking to improve themselves – their “learning outcomes” – require financial assistance in order to do so.
Here’s why I insist that student loans are ed-tech: if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on with student loan companies – among the most well-funded venture-backed education-oriented companies for the last threeyears now – then you’re really only painting a partial picture of what investors and what industry is up to. If you pretend like student loans don’t matter, you don’t just get investors’ interests wrong; you cannot fully grasp what most students’ lives (past and present) are actually like.
I mean, even John Grisham’s new novel is about student loans. Don’t try to tell me the topic of student loans matters for pop literature but the business of student loans doesn’t matter for ed-tech.
Why are student loan companies so popular among investors and entrepreneurs? In part, this reflects the state of the industry overall right now: personal loans, commercial loans, industrial loans are booming. Investor interest in loan companies also reflects the promise of new technologies – AI and analytics, for example – that lead both established financial institutions as well as upstarts to think that this will continue to be a lucrative market. (One loan startup that recently raised $200 million from Credit Suisse boasts no human decision-making in its application process, for example. It’s all machine learning and algorithms.)
Americans are deep in debt– credit card debt, auto loan debt, student loan debt. According to a CFPB survey released in January, one out of three Americans had been contacted by a debt collected in the previous twelve months. So that’s also a business opportunity, of course.
Investors and entrepreneurs are not only interested in the business of issuing loans: they’re interested in the business of consolidating loans, collecting on loans.
Education and Indebtedness
The message has long been – whether during economic boom or bust – that education is a key way to expand one’s opportunities: Go to school. Borrow money if need be.
And borrow students must. As Sara Goldrick-Rab demonstrated in her 2016 book Paying the Price, financial aid often does not cover tuition, let alone living expenses. This year, tuition and fees continued to rise faster than financial aid (although the increase was the slowest it’s been in decades).
The push for free college, a central part of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ Presidential campaign message in 2016, did continue in some cities and states this year: Tennessee, Rhode Island, Oregon, New York state, New Hampshire, Pasadena, San Francisco, and Boston, for example– with varying degrees of success (and various strings attached). And that push is, no doubt, partially a response to the growing problem of student loan debt.
The amount of student loan debt owed by Americans is staggering – over $1.31 trillion. (And again, this is all part of the appeal of debt financing and refinancing startups for investors.)
Some numbers from the year:
The Politics of the Business of Student Loans
In early January, Rohit Chopra, formerly the student loan ombudsman at the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, observed that stocks in student loan companies had risen– in some cases quite dramatically – since November of the previous year:
After Election Day, a slew of student loan outfits scored big gains before 2016 came to a close. Nelnet, which collects payments from 5 million borrowers, climbed 39 percent. Discover, the credit card company that has bet big on student loans, rose 29 percent.
But the biggest haul belongs to Sallie Mae, whose investors saw their stock surge 64 percent – just one month after Election Day.
Chopra sounded hopeful at the time that, under President Trump, investors would not see the financial windfall that they and the loan industry were wanting. “I’m crossing my fingers that a sweetheart deal for Sallie Mae and the student loan industry that soaks Americans with more debt won’t be high on Trump’s list,” he wrote.
Crossing his fingers hasn’t worked so well.
Reforming student loan policies has been near the top of Trump’s policies – and not in a positive or progressive way. The new administration is – quite literally – invested in the business. As I noted in the previous article in this series, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has personally invested in the student loan industry. She’s hired student loan industry executives to manage the federal student loan program.
For its part, Chopra’s agency, the CFPB, has faced the ire of the new administration. (Of course, it’s been a target of Republicans’ ire for quite some time.) And that’s despite (or because of, perhaps) the work that the CFPB has done to help consumers address their complaints with the financial industry. According to a press statement from the agency in October, the CFPB received some 20,000 complaints from student loan borrowers in the last year alone, and these complains have “driven actions that have produced more than $750 million in relief for student loan borrowers and strengthened the student loan repayment process for millions more.” In January, for example, the CFPB filed a lawsuit against the largest student loan company Navient“for failing borrowers during every stage of repayment.” The agency said in April that it was investigating discrimination in the industry and “whether loan servicing companies are making it difficult for people with past-due student debt to work out a solution because of their race, ethnicity, gender or age.” In September, it reached a $21.6 million settlement with National Collegiate Student Loan Trusts for making false and misleading claims. In November, it fined Citibank $6.5 million for illegal student loan practices. But good work never goes unpunished in the Trump administration. The Department of Education announced in September that it was ending an agreement with the CFPB to share information about the businesses involved in the student loan program. And in October, Senate Republicans voted to strike down a rule, written by the CFPB, that would allow consumers to file class-action lawsuits against financial institutions. In November, Richard Cordray, the head of the CFPB, announced he was stepping down. Trump’s pick to replace him: Mick Mulvaney, a long-time critic of the agency, who’s frozen all hiring and rule-making.
Dismantling the CFPB is just the tip of the iceberg.
There were concerns this spring that the Trump Administration was going to end loan forgiveness for public servants– a move that would affect some 400,000 borrowers. (That threat seems to be back on the table in legislation the House GOP is currently drafting that would re-authorize the Higher Education Act.) In March, the Department of Education revoked an Obama-era policy that had prevented some student loan collection programs from collecting fees. In April, the Secretary of Education withdrew three Obama-era memos aimed at streamlining the student loan process. In May, the Department of Education rehired two debt collection agencies that had had their contracts canceled by the previous administration. Trump also announced his budget in May, which called for large budget cuts to federal financial aid programs. James Runcie, who’d led the Federal Student Aid office under Obama, abruptly left his position the day after that budget was announced. This spring, the Department of Education began to ramp up a program to sue borrowers who were in default on their loans. In May, debt collection ground to a halt when a judge issued a restraining order against the system as part of a pending legal case. If all this doesn’t sound chaotic or frightening enough for borrowers, the administration also toyed with the idea of moving the loan program from the Department of Education to the Treasury. The Department of Education also indicated in the spring it planned to give the contract to handle the entire student loan program to one single vendor. (After an outcry, the department changed its mind.) Oh and meanwhile, the interest rate on student loans went up.
But that’s not all– there’s also the ongoing issue of the hundreds of thousands of student loan borrowers who were defrauded by for-profit colleges and who were promised a chance at loan forgiveness.
It’s hard to separate the business (and politics) of student loans from the business (and politics) of for-profit higher ed. Some elements of the latter I’ll cover in more detail in a subsequent article in this series on the future of work and “the new economy.” For-profits have been limited by the “90–10” rule from receiving more than 90% of their revenue from federal financial aid – that includes loans, grants, and work-studies. But as a Brookings report found in January, “a sizable percentage of for-profit colleges get between 80 percent and 90 percent of their revenue from federal financial aid.” And as in previousyears, there were many stories in 2017 about for-profits losing their aid eligibility, for one reason or another: The Charlotte School of Law, perhaps most notably.
The Department of Education did initially make some moves this year to help those student defrauded by for-profits. In January (before the Trump inauguration, to be fair), it announced that those who’d attended the now-defunct American Career Institute would have their loans discharged. The department reached a settlement in August with the Wilfred American Educational Corporation to wipe away the debt of the (mostly low-income, immigrant) women who’d attended its beauty and secretarial schools. But for most of the students who have filed claims that their schools misled them, the wait for loan forgiveness continues. Indeed, it’s not clear whether these students will ever have their loans erased.
The “borrower defense” rules, negotiated by the Obama Administration, were set to take effect in July. The Department of Education’s website explains those rules like this: “Borrowers may be eligible for forgiveness of the federal student loans used to attend a school if that school misled them or engaged in other misconduct in violation of certain laws.” But under Trump, the Department of Education froze the rules before they could be implemented. (Eighteen states responded with lawsuits, as have some individual borrowers.) In a speech to the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference this fall, Secretary DeVos described the borrower-defense policy this way: “Under the previous rules,” she said, “all one had to do was raise his or her hands to be entitled to so-called free money.” (The application process is actually quite burdensome, Betsy.)
Perhaps one reason why student loans have become a focus for the Trump administration: efforts to curtail fraud by the for-profit higher education sector was seen as one of the Obama Administration’s key higher ed “wins.” And undoing anything “Obama” seems to be the impetus for much of what happens under the current President. Furthermore, many Republicans seem to believe too that Obama had nationalized the student loan industry in order to pay for Obamacare. In an interview with Politico this fall, DeVos said as much.
More likely: student loans are simply too big a business opportunity (and too powerful a lobbying force).
Interlude: The FAFSA
Federal student loans are, of course, just one part of federal financial aid. There are other forms of federal aid – grants and work-study, for example. In order to qualify for assistance, students must complete the dreaded FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). (Don’t think that it’s dreaded? Try searching on Twitter to see what students are saying about it.) The form is notoriously long and difficult to complete, in no small part because it requires students provide not only their own tax information but that of both their parents.
In early March, the tool that lets students autocomplete their FAFSA with tax return data pulled from IRS suddenly went offline. There had been no announcement from either the Department of Education or the IRS that there was a planned outage, and it took the agencies six days to issue a joint statement: “The IRS Data Retrieval Tool on fafsa.gov and StudentLoans.gov is currently unavailable. We are working to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. However, at this time, the IRS anticipates the online data tool will be unavailable for several weeks.” March, as anyone who’s completed the form knows, is near the height of FAFSA season, as many states’ financial aid deadlines loom. The timing was terrible; the lack of communication made things worse, as many observers feared that students would miss out on aid opportunities. (No doubt many students, because of the difficulties with completing FAFSA under “normal” circumstances, already do.) The tool’s removal didn’t just affect current students; its shutdown also complicated the application process for those students enrolling in income-based repayment programs for their existing loans.
Eventually, the IRS revealed that the tool was taken down because of “criminal activity,” as hackers had used the tool to gain access to the tax records of some 100,000 people. The information security analyst Brian Krebs called the IRS tool“a terrific resource to help identity thieves successfully file fraudulent tax refund requests with the agency.” That was March. In November, Krebs wrote about the FAFSA again: “Name+DOB+SSN=FAFSA Data Gold Mine,” detailing the 100+ pieces of data one could learn by logging into the system with a student name, date of birth, and Social Security Number. Even with the IRS data retrieval tool offline, “this post shows how easy it remains,” Krebs wrote, “for identity thieves to gather this same information directly from the FAFSA Web site.”
Students’ data is a commodity– that’s a theme that runs through almost all the stories in this series.
Student Debt “Innovations”
It was SoFi’s two enormous rounds of funding in 2015 – one for $1 billion and one for $200 million – that first made me take note of the student loan industry as a key part of “the business of ed-tech.” That year, several other companies offering student loans raised venture capital: Earnest raised $275 million; Affirm raised $275 million. CommonBond raised over $600 million in 2016.
These companies have continued to grow and evolve since then. CommonBond began issuing student loans directly this year rather than simply being in the debt refinancing business. Earnest was acquired by Navient.
Despite their pitch of being “good guy student loan companies” – this is in opposition to the “bad guys” who service loans for the Department of Education, I guess – a Buzzfeed investigation found that these startups, with their reliance on student data and algorithms, tend to only serve an affluent population, cherrypicking the “best borrowers”:
In their buzzy ad campaigns, SoFi, Earnest and other fintech startups say they want to help fix the student loan crisis by bringing Silicon Valley-style meritocracy to one of the oldest financial instruments in the world, the loan. In practice, however, private student loan refinancing looks more like an updated version of the same wealth management services that have always catered to the rich – except these startups capture customers while they’re still young.
Initially, it looked like SoFi would spend 2017 using all that venture capital it had raised to expand its reach and its offerings. “SoFi buys Zenbanx to offer banking and money transfer services to its users,” Techcrunch reported in February. “SoFi plans to apply for a bank charter in the next month,” Techcrunch reported in May. “SoFi gets into wealth management,” Techcrunch reported that same month, detailing the startup’s plans to expand from student loans into low-cost wealth management services.
Then mid-year the headlines shifted. (Perhaps we should have anticipated this when The Wall Street Journal called SoFi“the Uberization of Banking.”) “Another Silicon Valley Start-Up Faces Sexual Harassment Claims,” The New York Times reported in August. From The NYT in September: “‘It Was a Frat House’: Inside the Sex Scandal That Toppled SoFi’s C.E.O.” And from Reuters in September: “SoFi withdraws U.S. banking application, citing leadership change.”
This doesn’t really map onto Gartner’s “Hype Cycle,” does it?
In August, The Outline published a story headlined“You can now buy $400 pants with a subprime loan.” The subhead: “Affirm is trying to convince millennials that taking out loans for things you don’t need is cool.” And on one hand, this accusation of predatory lending runs counter to the arguments made by that Buzzfeed piece that claims these loan startups tend to carefully (and algorithmically) target a more affluent clientele. But there’s something to this incredible marketing push to take on more debt; and it’s no surprise that all these loan providers work quite closely with the bourgeoning coding bootcamp industry – the incredibly socio-economic push to take on more credentials.
I’ll look at this industry’s promises about career opportunities and advancement – promises that certainly echo those long made by for-profit higher ed– in a subsequent article in this series. But I’ll note here that the trend to watch in the coming months and years – one that the loan industry, coding bootcamps, and their investors all started pushing this year: income-sharing agreements.
Income-sharing agreements typically involve some sort of deferred tuition in exchange for a cut of a student’s future income. Some schools in the news this year for offering this financing option:: Purdue (didn’t I just mention how hard it was trying to be run like a business), New York Code and Design Academy, and Revature. As the student loan industry moves towards a more pervasive data-mining of students’ history in order to identify who has the “best potential” for repayment, these sorts of new funding agreements raise all sorts of questions about both overt and algorithmic discrimination.
Edsurge, a good indicator of the sorts of stories investors want to hear, wrote about ISAs eight times this year (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8). One of those, I’ll note, was with sociology professor Sara Goldrick-Rab who called them “a dangerous trend.” Goldrick-Rab argues that these agreements move all the risk of financial aid and student loans) onto individuals’ backs, and as such are steps towards privatizing funding for education.
Of course, those are exactly the reasons why many are hoping student loan and financial aid startups will be profitable investments.
Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.
(National) Education Politics
Late last Friday, the US Senate did pass its version of a tax reform bill, one with scribbles in the margins and handwritten addenda because everyone now thinks “move fast and break things” is a genius tactic. Thanks, Zuck.
Via The Washington Post: “ After a high-drama vote, here’s what the Senate tax bill means for schools, parents and students.”
“8 Grad Students Are Arrested Protesting the GOP Tax Bill on Capitol Hill,” The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Adam Harris reported on Tuesday. But now “House Republicans May Be Backing Away From Taxing Grad-Student Tuition Waivers,” Harris says.
Via The Hill: “GOP bill would eliminate student loan forgiveness for public service.” That bill: the move to re-authorize the Higher Education Act.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “A graduation rate requirement for access to special funds for minority-serving institutions in a proposed House Republican rewrite of the Higher Education Act would exempt historically black colleges and universities.” HBCUs would be exempted.
“Higher-Ed Lobbyists Are Told to Make Peace With Republicans,” according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Via Edsurge: “How a ‘New’ GI Bill May Shape Tomorrow’s Education-to-Employment Pipeline.” Let’s watch how the “new” for-profit higher ed takes advantage of this, shall we?
“Without Net Neutrality, How Would Internet Companies Treat K–12 Districts?” asks Education Week’s Market Brief.
I’m not sticking this story in “the Betteridge’s Law of Headlines” section even though the headline is in the form of a question, and that’s because I very much hope that we can get to the answer “yes” here. Indeed, our future depends on it. From Rachel Cohen and Will Stancil, “Will America’s Schools Ever Be Desegregated?”
“How Education Reform Ate the Democratic Party” by Jennifer Berkshire in The Baffler.
Hey, what’s Betsy DeVos’s brother up to these days? Oh.
(State and Local) Education Politics
A couple of profiles of Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz this week – good to read side-by-side. “Success Academy’s Radical Educational Experiment” by The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead. “The Charter-School Crusader” by Elizabeth Green in The Atlantic. (Green also penned a piece in Chalkbeat: “Why my Eva Moskowitz story is the scariest one I’ve ever written.”)
“A ‘portfolio’ of schools? How a nationwide effort to disrupt urban school districts is gaining traction” by Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum. Any time you hear that word “disrupt,” taxpayers, get out your wallets.
Via the AP: “Colorado school board votes to end voucher program.” Specifically, the Douglas County school board, in the suburbs outside of Denver.
Via Chalkbeat: “Gov. Eric Holcomb says Indiana’s low-rated online charter schools need ‘immediate attention and action’.”
Via Motherboard: “Half of West Virginia has Applied for Broadband Assistance.”
Via the Bangor Daily News: “White Maine students are least likely in nation to see kids of another race at school.”
Via ProPublica: “How Students Get Banished to Alternative Schools.”
Education in the Courts
“As lawsuits mount over access to learning technologies for people with disabilities, universities consider banding together to share accessibility reviews of vendor products,” Inside Higher Ed reports.
Via The New York Times: “Brock Turner Is Appealing His Sexual Assault Conviction.” Of course he is.
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Supreme Court Allows Travel Ban to Go Into Effect.”
Via The New York Times: “Too Many Children in California Can’t Read, Lawsuit Claims.”
Via The New York Times: “Harvard Agrees to Turn Over Records Amid Discrimination Inquiry.”
The “New” For-Profit Higher Ed
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Adtalem Global Education, the company that owns DeVry University, announced Monday that ownership of the for-profit institution would transfer to Cogswell Education LLC.” “Troubled DeVry University Gets Sold Off For A Pittance,” Buzzfeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy reports. “Huh?” says “Dean Dad” Matt Reed.
Online Education (and the Once and Future “MOOC”)
Via The Columbus Dispatch: “ECOT again fights repaying millions in taxpayer money.” ECOT is the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, an online charter school company that has been battling Ohio for quite some time now.
Meanwhile on Campus…
Via The Huffington Post: “Voucher Schools Championed By Betsy DeVos Can Teach Whatever They Want. Turns Out They Teach Lies.”
Via the AP: “US charter schools put growing numbers in racial isolation.” “Racial isolation” here is a nice way, I guess, of saying “segregation.” Even with the euphemism, this story made education reform folks mad mad mad.
Via The New York Times: “Now on Oracle’s Campus, a $43 Million Public High School.” Curious if students are allowed to use any tech products made by Oracle’s arch-nemesis, Google.
Via The Richmond Times-Dispatch: “In CodeRVA, a high school experiment with hopes for a diverse region.” CodeRVA is a new high school in Richmond, Virgina focused on computer science.
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Steve Kolowich: “Spotted at a White-Power Rally, but Still Popular With Campus Republicans.” Popular with campus Republicans at Washington State University, that is, who just re-elected him their president.
Via The Chicago Tribune: “Bus company serving University of Illinois criticized for ’racist and bigoted’ ad.”
Via Teen Vogue: “School Shooting in New Mexico Leaves Three Dead.” It’s heartbreaking that this was hardly news at all this week.
Via The Atlantic: “The Two Clashing Meanings of ‘Free Speech’.”
Via the BBC: “Oxford University raises £750m from biggest bond issue.” Phew! I was so worried about its financial wellbeing and ability to stay afloat.
Accreditations and Certifications and Competencies
Via Edsurge: “Why New Jersey is Banking on a Credential Registry to Boost its Middle Class.” I hope the state isn’t really banking on it. Seems like there are some other things one might do to boost the middle class other than create a database that lists all available higher ed credential. But what do I know.
“Worried about the drop in U.S. scores on international literacy test? Well, stop it,” says Valerie Strauss.
Go, School Sports Team!
Via Inside Higher Ed: “University of Mississippi has been punished yet again by the NCAA for giving cash to recruits, its third such violation since 1986.”
From the HR Department
Via The Washington Post: “Georgetown University refuses to recognize graduate student union.”
The Business of Job Training
Via Motherboard: “To Solve the Diversity Drought in Software Engineering, Look to Community Colleges.”
Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Everyone Agrees on Value of Apprenticeships. The Question Is How to Pay for Them.”
This Week in Betteridge’s Law of Headlines
“Is Protesting a Privilege?” asks The Chronicle of Higher Education.
“Is Private Education in Africa the Solution to Failing Education Aid?” asks the Stanford Social Innovation Review.
“Can Entrepreneurs Balance Educational and Financial Returns?” asks Edsurge.
“Should Children Form Emotional Bonds With Robots?” asks The Atlantic.
“Will Open Online Education Disrupt the Master’s Admissions Funnel?” asks IHE blogger Josh Kim.
(Reminder: according to Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”)
Upgrades and Downgrades
It’s Computer Science Education Week, which means everyone had to crank out articles on why, to prepare for the future of work, “everyone should learn to code” (or not): Edsurge. Techcrunch. Edsurge again. Mashable. And many others but I got bored of jotting down the links. So much industry-driven fun fun fun. “Should Teachers Get $100 For Steering Kids To Google‘s ’Hour of Code’ Lesson?” asks a poster on Slashdot. More details about more industry money for Code.org in the venture philanthropy section below.
“Silicon Valley Takes Over Classrooms: Yes and No (Part 1)” by Stanford University’s Larry Cuban.
This is my new favorite analogy for “personalized learning” and “algorithmic, predictive, adaptive blah blah blah” in education:
"The Los Angeles Police Department asked drivers to avoid navigation apps, which are steering users onto more open routes — in this case, streets in the neighborhoods that are on fire." https://t.co/I3sICDIF4A— Joel Rubin (@joelrubin) December 7, 2017
Via Inside Higher Ed: “Cengage, the publisher and technology company, is introducing a subscription service that will enable students to access Cengage’s entire digital portfolio for one set price, no matter how many products they use.” The price tag: $179.99/year. Just what ever college student wanted.
“Dubai Private School Market Presents Opportunities for Curriculum Providers,” says Education Week’s Market Brief.
Via David Perry in The Atlantic: “The Futile Resistance Against Classroom Tech.” I’m cited in this but I strongly disagree that “classroom tech” is inevitable and that resistance is futile. I just have zero time right now to weigh in on the “ban laptops” debates.
Via NPR: “A Tech-Based Tool To Address Campus Sexual Assault.”
Via Mic: “Neo-Nazi wealth is rapidly growing. Why? Bitcoin.” Enjoy those blockchain transcripts, everyone.
Evicted gave Bill Gates "a better sense of what it is like to be poor in this country than anything else [he has] read." Also, his house is worth 150 million dollars. https://t.co/9jtgUPiQYo— Zach Griffen (@runzach) December 5, 2017
Robots and Other Ed-Tech SF
“Robot Learning Improves Student Engagement,” the Communications of the ACM claims.
“If the Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Work is Unclear, What Can Schools Do?” asks Education Week.
Kiwicampus: a robot delivery service on campus.
(Venture) Philanthropy and the Business of Ed Reform
Via The Verge: “Code.org gets $12 million in funding from the Gates Foundation and others.” Here’s a list of the other companies backing this “learn to code” initiative.
Via The Chicago Tribune: Google gave $1.5 million to the Chicago Public Schools and to Chance the Rapper’s education foundation.
Venture Capital and the Business of Ed-Tech
ALO7 has raised $37.5 million in Series D funding from Legend Capital, GuoHe Capital, UG Investment, Qualcomm, New Oriental, and Vickers Venture Partners. The language learning company has raised $45.7 million total.
Early childhood education company Kinedu has raised $1.1 million from Dila Capital, Promotora Social Mexico, Social + Capital, Advenio, Stella Maris, and the Stanford-StartX Fund.
Instructure has acquired the video-based assessment platform Practice. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
VitalSource has acquired corporate learning company Intrepid Learning. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
I guess I’ll take TechShop off my list of startups in the “ed-tech deadpool,” as The Washington Business Journal reports“TechShop to be acquired, reopen maker space locations.” The new company will be TechShop 2.0 LLC, and while it’s not quite clear who the new owners all are, I’m sure the “2.0” insures this is all gonna work out great.
More acquisition news in the for-profit higher ed section above.
Privacy, Surveillance, and Information Security
Via The Chicago Tribune: “Data mining program designed to predict child abuse proves unreliable, DCFS says.” “Unreliable” is an understatement here. This story is just layers and layers of awful solutionism.
Rutgers has suffered a data breach, exposing some 1700 students’ information.
Via The San Francisco Chronicle: “Stanford University data glitch exposes truth about scholarships.” Spoiler alert: Stanford University is not a meritocracy.
Research, “Research,” and Reports
The best way to predict the future is to issue a press release. Or maybe a slide deck that includes the products you’ve invested in, and then get the folks at Fast Company to cover it…
Via The Outline: “How brands secretly buy their way into Forbes, Fast Company, and HuffPost stories.”
FutureSource is out with its latest report on trends in the education mobile OS market.
“There’s an implosion of early-stage VC funding,” says Techcrunch, “and no one’s talking about it.”
“Educators are ill-equipped to help victims of dating violence,” writes Melinda D. Anderson in The Atlantic, pointing to research about the lack of training and preparedness among teachers and administrators to address the issue.
“Self-Affirmation Gets Minority Students on a College Track,” says Pacific Standard. What a great example of placing the expectation of change on the individual and not on the structure.
Via Vox: “Groundbreaking empirical research shows where innovation really comes from.”
Via Education Week: “U.S. Graduation Rate Hits New All-Time High, With Gains in All Student Groups.”
This story. Again. “The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone,” Bryan Caplan argues in The Atlantic. Of course, we don’t have “college for everyone.” Caplan, for those keeping score at home, is an economics professor at George Mason University, a Cato Institute scholar, and the author of a new book The Case Against Education. This is what Koch money buys you, folks.
Icon credits: The Noun Project
This is part four of my annual look at the year’s “top ed-tech stories”
Way back in 2012, I chose “The Platforming of Education” as one of my “Top Ed-Tech Trends.” Re-reading that article now makes me cringe. I have learned so much in the intervening years, and my analysis then strikes me as incredibly naive and shallow.
At the time, I wrote about the importance of APIs; the issues surrounding data security and privacy; the appeal of platforms for users and businesses; and the education and tech companies who were well-positioned (or at least wanting) to become education platforms. I was inspired, I think, to select that topic because talk of “platforms” was incredibly popular in Silicon Valley – it had been for a while – as companies strove to become “the next Facebook.” And I wondered at the time if that would be the outcome for MOOCs. (2012, you will recall, was “the year of the MOOC.”) It was certainly the outcome that investors were hoping for Edmodo, which raised $25 million in 2012, boasting that it had 15 million users.
Edmodo was back in the news this year when Vice broke the story this spring that hackers had stolen millions of account details, including usernames, email addresses, and hashed passwords. 70+ million users’ account details. I’ll look in more details at the insecurity of education data in the next article in the series – but recognize, this is one of the grave problems with digital technologies currently, whether they’re platforms or not: they rely on data as the central element of their business model – extracting data, controlling data, selling data… and far too often losing data during security breaches.
It wasn’t a good look for Edmodo, which was discovered by privacy researcher Bill Fitzgerald that same week to be targeting users – students and teachers – with a range of ad trackers.
Edmodo was one of the early stars of the most recent resurgence in ed-tech startup founding and funding (circa 2008 onward, that is). The company has raised some $77.5 million in venture capital from high profile names like LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and from firms active in ed-tech investing such as Learn Capital. Investors surely hoped that Edmodo would become a “social learning platform” – a central place for classroom assignments, assessments, and readings; a place for student and teacher collaboration in and out of the classroom; a site that third party developers (you know, other startups in investors’ portfolios) could install their apps and expand their reach; a system where student and teacher data could be collected, integrated, analyzed. Edmodo did garner a lot of sign-ups – all those millions of stolen usernames underscores that, no doubt – but it has struggled to do much more. It has struggled, most importantly, to find a reliable revenue stream or a “path to profitability.” As such, I think it’s fair to say that Edmodo hasn’t really become a powerful education platform, despite all the hope and hype.
It’s not even an LMS, quite frankly – something Edmodo tried to use as a selling point for a little while.
One might ask, I suppose, if LMSes are platforms. Are any education technologies, for that matter? But first, a definition (or two) might be helpful.
What is a “Platform”?
If you look for a definition of “platform” online, you’re likely to get something along the lines of Wikipedia’s– fairly straightforward, although quite technical:
A computing platform is the environment in which a piece of software is executed. It may be the hardware or the operating system (OS), even a web browser or other underlying software, as long as the program code is executed in it. Computing platforms have different abstraction levels, including a computer architecture, an OS, or runtime libraries. A computing platform is the stage on which computer programs can run.
Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen offered the following definition in 2007:
A “platform” is a system that can be programmed and therefore customized by outside developers – users – and in that way, adapted to countless needs and niches that the platform’s original developers could not have possibly contemplated, much less had time to accommodate.
I’d love to provide a link but Andreessen deleted his blog in 2009. Someone generously re-posted all the content from that blog to a Posterous site. But Posterous, if you’ll recall, was acquired by Twitter in 2012 and shut down one year later. Platforms. They’re amazing.
Andreessen’s definition does begin to get at some of the reasons why platforms have been so appealing to investors – ideologically as much as technologically. They’re supposedly “engines of innovation.” Those “countless needs and niches” can be met thanks to all the data generation and data collection that happens on them.
In his 2017 book Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek posits that platforms are poised to become the fundamental business model of our digital world – key to the new economy, clearly, but also key to political and social systems (and what these will become under the control of these powerful technology companies). “At the most general level,” Srnicek writes
platforms are digital infrastructures that enable two or more groups to interact. They therefore position themselves as intermediaries that bring together different users: customers, advertisers, service providers, producers, suppliers, and even physical objects. More often than not, these platforms also come with a series of tools that enable their users to build their own products, services, and marketplaces. …This is key to its advantage over traditional business models when it comes to data, since a platform positions itself (1) between users, and (2) as the ground upon which their activities occur, which thus gives it privileged access to record them.
He argues that platforms can be characterized by their reliance on “network effects” – that is, the more people who use a platform, the more valuable and important the platform becomes. Think Facebook. As platforms gain more users, they tend towards monopolization. It’s a cycle, Srnicek argues, that then encourages more usage, which in turn generates more data.
Platforms are “an extractive apparatus for data.”
In reviewing Srnicek’s book in March, New York Times media journalist John Hermann wrote,
Platforms are, in a sense, capitalism distilled to its essence. They are proudly experimental and maximally consequential, prone to creating externalities and especially disinclined to address or even acknowledge what happens beyond their rising walls. And accordingly, platforms are the underlying trend that ties together popular narratives about technology and the economy in general. Platforms provide the substructure for the “gig economy” and the “sharing economy”; they’re the economic engine of social media; they’re the architecture of the “attention economy” and the inspiration for claims about the “end of ownership.”
In his book, Srnicek identifies five kinds of platforms: advertising platforms (like Google and Facebook), cloud platforms (like Salesforce and Amazon Web Services), industrial platforms (like GE and Siemens), product platforms (like Spotify), and lean platforms (like Uber and AirBnB). In light of Hermann’s ominous description, one might feel inclined to celebrate that there really aren’t any powerful education platforms described in Platform Capitalism. To believe that would require, of course, that we overlook the role that the major technology platforms – Google, Facebook, and Amazon – play in education.
So again: are there any platforms in or specific to education? If so, what are they?
Arguably, one of the best candidates is the learning management system. The LMS has long positioned itself as an “operating system,” of sorts for higher education. The LMS constructs (and, I’d argue, circumscribes) “digital pedagogy,” and it has come to define the ways in which professors and students interact online. Indeed, while there are handful who work arduously to undermine its privileged position in education technology– god bless them – to many more, it is simply impossible to imagine a future of teaching and learning without the LMS.
The LMS predates the “platform economy” by several decades – five decades if you date its history to PLATO. The LMS giant Blackboard celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. (I mean, one of its founders celebrated. Not sure anyone else did.) The earliest learning management systems were portals of sorts, offering Internet access to and a browser-based interface for the student information system (SIS) and the data it stored on students and courses: student records, rosters, class schedules, and the like. But LMS providers have sought to extend the functionality of their products, acquiring other companies that offered administratively adjacent features and extracting more data from students’ and professors’ activities online than was contained in the original SIS. (Would there even be “learning analytics” without the LMS, I wonder?)
A couple of years ago, I was part of a year-end webinar with MindWires’ Consulting’s Phil Hill and Michael Feldstein and one or other of them – I don’t remember now – predicted that 2016 would be a big year for the LMS. I’m not sure it was, but then again, understanding the LMS industry is really their thing and not mine (something for which I am eternally grateful). It seems to me as though this year was pretty momentous too, if for no other reason than the open source LMS Moodle – first released 15 years ago and by far the most popular LMS in the world – raised its very first round of venture capital in October.
Raising venture capital isn’t (necessarily) good news. Indeed, a few weeks after the funding news, Feldstein wrote about “Why Moodle Supporters Should be Concerned,” questioning the sustainability of the project. Perhaps that seems counter-intuitive to those not familiar with the machinations of investors and their expectations of an ROI. But raising venture capital can make a company’s prospects of sustainability worse. VCs, remember, are looking for “high growth” and “high returns.” And how much growth can we really expect in the size of the LMS market?
For updates on the other major LMS providers – or at least, dispatches from their annual conferences, read Mindwires’ Consulting on Instructure, Blackboard, and D2L. Subscribe to their blog. Buy them a beer when you see them at an event and thank them for covering the LMS industry so I don’t have to.
Investors, it appears, do still expect quite a lot of growth in the market, as learning management systems were among the types of companies raising the most venture capital this year. (Okay, okay. That’s because I now count AltSchool as an LMS. For more details on who invested in LMSes this year, see funding.hackeducation.com.) Perhaps this is simply because of investors’ long-running faith in the profitability of platforms – in these types of companies’ “funneling of data extraction into siloed platforms,” as Nick Srnicek puts it in Platform Capitalism.
But for education entrepreneurs too, the LMS is an obvious product to build and sell (and brand oneself as). There’s an existing market there. No need to convince anyone of that. There’s an understanding – even if it’s a disgruntled one – among those in the classroom and those making procurement decisions of what the LMS is for, what it should do, and so on.
I’ve joked before that “the arc of ed-tech history is long and it bends towards the LMS.” MOOCs looked – for a short while, at least – like they were going to pivot to become LMSes. (Instead, they’ve re-branded as job training sites. More on that in a subsequent article in this series.) Facebook’s partnership with the charter school chain Summit Public Schools to build “software that puts students in charge of their lesson plans” resulted in an LMS. (Product development was officially handed over to Mark Zuckerberg’s investment company the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative this year.) AltSchool, that high-profile darling of the Silicon Valley set– initially a private school promising “personalization” through a pervasive (invasive, even) collection and analysis of student data – also announced this year it would pivot to selling its software to schools. It’s now an LMS too.
Perhaps these last two hint at ways in which platforms might also infiltrate education: tech-oriented charter schools as platforms; tech-oriented private schools as platforms. Corporate platforms attempting to control if not monopolize what has been (or should be) public institutions. (Think the private school startup Bridge International Academies that operates in Africa, for example, which Peg Tyre documented so devastatingly in The New York Times Magazine this summer.)
How technology companies are increasingly shaping the public sphere to suit their needs is one of the most important developments we must start paying closer attention to – particularly in education. It’s a theme that runs throughout almost every article in this series.“Fake news,” “robots coming for our jobs,” “the new economy,” “surveillance capitalism,” “personalization,” “the cult of innovation,” and so on – these are all narratives intertwined in the power of major technology companies, platforms, data, and algorithms. “They want to overhaul the entire chain of culture production,” former New Republic editor Franklin Foer cautions in his 2017 book World Without Mind:The Existential Threat of Big Tech. As such these companies – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and the like – are the most significant education companies.
Education’s attention – and its anger – I think, has been focused elsewhere.
Pearson is Not a Platform
I’m not sure if we can still call Pearson “the world’s largest education company.” The last few years haven’t been good, with repeatedscandals, job cuts, corporate losses, and ongoing attempts to convince us that the latest “restructure” is really going to fix things this time ’round.
That restructuring has involved shedding some of the products and subsidiaries unrelated to education, Pearson executives have said. The company sold The Financial Times and its stake in The Economist in 2015, for example.
And I’ll note here because it suits my argument about platforms so neatly: Pearson announced last year that it was leaving the learning management system market. Pearson does not have a platform. It has a lot of content – it’s still one of the largest textbook publishers. It still runs testing centers and has testing contracts. But Pearson is not a platform.
Pearson represents an older business model – the conglomerate. Pearson was founded in 1856 in Yorkshire, England as a construction company but expanded throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to own newspapers, book publishers, airline companies, oil companies, electric companies – the information and infrastructure of the material world. Pearson has been – until recently, that is – an active acquirer of education technology companies. That’s how it’s attempted to make a move from the material world to the digital one.
Pearson has not made any acquisitions this year. Rather it has continued to divest itself of products. It sold a 22% stake in Penguin Random House to the publisher Bertelsmann for about $1 billion. It sold its tutoring companies TutorVista and Edurite to the tutoring company BYJUs. (The terms of the deals were not disclosed.) It also sold its adult language learning company Wall Street English to two private investment firms. (The deal was for $300 million, but Pearson said its proceeds would be only a third of that – after taxes and paying off debts.) As The New York Times noted this summer, “Pearson Is Running Out of Assets to Sell.”
In February, Pearson announced a record loss – £2.6 billion for 2016, the largest loss in its history. In August, it announced another round of layoffs – 3000 more jobs cut. It is all part of the plan, according to CEO John Fallon, to become “a simpler and more digital company.”
But it’s a content company. It’s a curriculum company.
We can scoff, I suppose, that that’s what Pearson believes will help it remain viable – “sustainable,” or dare we say “profitable” – particularly in a platform economy. But I’m reminded here of what I wrote in my weekly newsletter back in early July. The Thrillist had just published an article on “The Netflix Prize: How a $1 Million Contest Changed Binge-Watching Forever.” Education journalist Alexander Russo quipped that this was what the XQ Prize and similar contests were trying to replicate in education. But Washington State University’s Mike Caulfield argued that a focus on Netflix’s algorithm was misplaced:
Since Netflix is a business and needs to survive, they decided not to pour the majority of their money into newer algorithms to better match people with the version of Big Momma’s House they would hate the least. Instead, they poured their money into making and obtaining things people actually wanted to watch, and as a result Netflix is actually useful now.
In other words, it’s not the prize-winning algorithm and it’s not the recommendation engine and it’s not the predictive analytics that makes Netflix so vaunted lately. It’s the high quality content– “something that education technologists would do well to keep in mind,” I wrote then.
Of course, for this to apply to Pearson, it would have to turn out high quality content.
I don’t emphasize the importance of content to diminish the importance of algorithms in education. Not at all. And data is still crucial to Netflix’s business, as a content creator and content provider – let’s be clear. In education, both algorithms and data are integral to the push for “personalization.” But “personalization” doesn’t (necessarily) require a platform. Pearson promises “personalization” through its “adaptive learning” products, for example. (It announced this year it was “phasing out” its reliance on Knewton provide those algorithms.)
But how will content creators compete in a platform economy – particularly when the platform has exponentially more data? How will Pearson specifically compete if one of the most powerful platforms in the world is also in the book business?
That’s Amazon, of course, whose interests in education remain perhaps less well-known than the other technology behemoths.
Big Tech’s Bets
I won’t detail everything that happened with regards to the tech giants this year. I can’t. They issue a lot of press releases; technology journalists happily rewrite them. But here’s a brief summary of some of the education-related updates (those noted by the ed-/tech press):
Facebook: I addressed Facebook’s role in the building (or dismantling, rather) of knowledge in the first article in this series. The organization has also been, as I mentioned above, working with Summit Public Schools to build its LMS. And then there’s Mark Zuckerberg’s venture philanthropy firm and its commitment to fund “personalized learning.” But what did Facebook do? “New Facebook features intended for developers could, if expanded, turn the social networking site into an online learning platform,” Inside Higher Ed reported in June. “Facebook Giving Virtual-Reality Kits to Every Arkansas High School,” Education Week reported in August. “Facebook rolls out AI to detect suicidal posts before they’re reported,” Techcrunch reported in November. There’s no way to opt out apparently. This from a company that was found earlier this year to be enabling advertisers to target teens who felt “worthless.” In December, Techcrunch reported that Facebook would be launching a Messenger service for kids– those under the age of 13.
Microsoft: “Microsoft launches Intune for Education to counter Google’s Chromebooks in schools,” Techcrunch reported in January. “Some colleges cancel their contracts with online education provider Lynda.com after double-digit price hikes, saying the company is pricing itself out of the higher education market,” Inside Higher Ed reported in January. “Microsoft’s new education push plays to its strengths, the cheap and familiar,” Techcrunch reported in May. “As LinkedIn’s Video Library Grows, Company Says It Has No Plans to Compete With Colleges,” Edsurge reported in June. “Now Any Organization Can Create Content for LinkedIn Learning,” Edsurge reported in June. “‘Schoolifying’ Minecraft Without Ruining It,” NPR reported in June. “Microsoft is really scared of Chromebooks in businesses and schools,” The Verge reported in June. “Microsoft Moves to Enable Streamlined Purchasing of Bundled Products for Education,” Education Week’s Market Brief reported in September.
Apple: “Apple iPad Sales to Schools Jump 32%, Selling 1M Tablets in Fiscal Q3 2017,” Edsurge reported in August. “Ohio State collaborates with Apple to launch digital learning initiative,” the university announced in October. Students will receive iPads.
Amazon: “Amazon Education GM leaves; company says it ‘remains committed’ to K–12 technology,” GeekWire reported in March. That’s Rohit Agarwal who headed the K–12 education division after his math company TenMarks was acquired by Amazon in 2013. “What Happened to Amazon Inspire, the Tech Giant’s Education Marketplace?” Edsurge asked in June, following up in July with the announcement“Amazon Inspire Goes Live (But Without Controversial Share Feature).” (Amazon Inspire is the company’s OER platform.) From the Amazon press release in August: “Amazon Announces TenMarks Writing – New Online Curriculum for Teachers That Combines Rigor and Fun to Unlock the Writer in Every Student.”
Google: No surprise, the company with the mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” has the largest footprint in education. Google extended the availability of its pseudo-LMS, Classroom, to those without G Suite for Education accounts in April. Google launched a “Be Internet Awesome” digital citizenship campaign in June. “Google Launches $50 Million Effort on the Future of Work,” Education Week reported in July. “Forget ‘US News’ Rankings. For Online College Programs, Google Is Kingmaker,” Edsurge reported in September. “Google Unveils Job Training Initiative With $1 Billion Pledge,” The New York Times reported in October. “YouTube Kids update gives kids their own profiles, expands controls,” Techcrunch reported in November. (I will look at YouTube and the dangers of algorithmic content delivery in more detail in an upcoming article in this series.)
Dear Jack: stop providing a platform for Nazis and maybe I’ll include you in a list of “powerful tech companies” some day.
While there were obviously a variety of software releases and updates, the major efforts of Apple, Microsoft, and Google still involve wooing schools to buy their hardware. These devices, to be clear, provide the gateway to their respective platforms – offering access to software and also gaining in return a privileged sort of access to users’ activities – to users’ data.
The Battle for the Educational OS
Updates from the ongoing battle for the K–12 market came this year with headlines like this: “Microsoft Looks to Regain Lost Ground in the Classroom.” “Apple’s Devices Lose Luster in American Classrooms.” “Apple’s Bid To Reclaim The Classroom From Chromebooks May Be Too Late.” “How Google Chromebooks conquered schools.” “How Google Took Over the Classroom.”
According to a report released by the market research firm Futuresource, Google’s Chromebooks accounted for 58% of the 12.6 million devices shipped to primary and secondary schools in the US last year – that’s up from 50% in 2015. Apple’s share of the market – which includes its sales of both iPads and Mac laptops – fell to 19% – down from about a quarter of the market. Microsoft Windows devices – again, that’s laptops and tablets – remained at about 22%.
Google offers plenty of PR as to why it’s become so popular. It heavily courts educators through its certification programs, for example. (The company doesn’t actually run these itself anymore. They’ve been outsourced to other companies such as EdTechTeam. But teachers still readily pursue the credentialing – and the branding– opportunity.)
The most important feature of Google for schools – despite all its talk of “collaboration” and whatnot – is undoubtedly that its software suite is free. Or “free,” rather. You pay with your data. Schools pay with their data. Schools pay with their students’ data. (Google might not sell advertising against student data, but it does still utilize this information to fuel its product development and its algorithms. More on algorithms and surveillance capitalism in the next article in this series.)
And certainly the appeal of Chromebooks is their low cost – some are available for less than $200 a pop. (Google doesn’t make money directly on Chromebooks. The device manufacturers, Samsung and Acer, do. But Google does charge schools a per device management fee.) But there are trade-offs. The Chromebooks are not fully-functioning laptops. They cannot perform many tasks that require more than a browser-based interface, and they’re quite reliant on Internet-connectivity in order to function. (In fairness, Google has added some offline capabilities to its productivity suite.)
As long-time educator Gary Stager argued this fall, “The Chromebook might be sufficient if you believe that the primary purpose of school to be taking notes, looking stuff up, completing forms, and communication. I find this to be an impoverished view of both learning and computing. Children need and deserve more. If you find such uses compelling, kids already own cellphones capable of performing such tasks.”
The problem might be more than simply limiting what students can do on their devices to note- and test-taking. It’s that these limitations in turn start to dictate what schools imagine students can and should do. How we imagine the future of teaching and learning is shaped by the constraints and affordances of a technology platform. By the data we surrender.
I plan to discuss Alexa and “voice assistants” in more detail in a subsequent article in this series, but I do want to note briefly here that Amazon is taking a slightly different approach to its move to platform education. While some schools have adopted Kindles and other Amazon tablets – I’m kidding. No one really uses the Amazon Fire, right? – Amazon has not heavily marketed its devices in education. (Librarians have long complained that these devices are terrible to manage.)
But Amazon has begun marketing Alexa to schools, making a high profile donation to – you guessed it– ASU to place the devices in college dorms. “In a ‘first-of-its-kind’ partnership, Amazon is working with Arizona State University to create a voice technology engineering program, which includes an option for students to get customized Alexa-powered Echo Dots in their dorm rooms,” GeekWire reported in August. “ASU’s main motivation was to develop an opportunity for its engineering students to gain skills in voice technology, an emerging field,” a university spokesperson told Edsurge. Amazon’s motivation: to establish its voice-activated platform as the way in which people interact with the digital world. This isn’t simply about how the voice commands will be used in educational settings, of course – although you can now talk to Alexa and get some information in response about the Canvas learning management system, which I am certain is the ed-tech breakthrough everyone’s just been dying for. But it’s also an indication that the move towards a platform economy will increasingly implicate education in the practices of surveillance and in a pervasive culture of commercialism.
Education Disrupted: How Silicon Valley is Shaping Public School
To understand the power of these technology platforms – power that goes well beyond any product feature or press release, read the articles that The New York Times reporter Natasha Singer has published this year in her series “Education Disrupted – A series examining how Silicon Valley is gaining influence in public schools.”
Technology Platforms and the Future of Democracy
As I detailed in the first article in this series, these technology platforms have an incredible amount of influence on knowledge and information – shaping what we see, what we know. As such, these platforms threaten not only to re-shape journalism, but to re-shape education.
Their positions are already incredibly politically powerful. The tendency of platforms, as Nick Srnicek has argued, is towards monopolization: control of data and control of the governance.
Google, for its part invests heavily in political lobbying. It is now the largest corporate lobbying spender in the US. Google also invests in think tanks, the policy and research institutions that are so prolific in Washington DC and so influential in turn in helping to shape policy and the narratives about the future.
In August, The New York Times reported that the Open Markets team, a group of scholars and analystswho research monopoly power and influence, had been dismissed from New America after Google Chairman Eric Schmidt expressed his displeasure with the group. Google is a major donor to the think tank, having previously given some $21 million to it. (Google gives a lot of money to similar sorts of groups, including many, many education-related ones.)
How is Google influencing policy? How is Google influencing research?
In July, The Wall Street Journal published an article titled“Paying Professors: Inside Google’s Academic Influence Campaign.” Drawing on a list of names created by The Campaign for Accountability, the article accused Google of helping to finance academic research that would suit its needs legally, in particular defending it against regulatory challenges. The article came under fire almost immediately. Many scholars questioned the list of names altogether, challenging the contention that they’d been paid by Google for their work. Whether Google’s influence is direct or indirect, “it’s complicated,” Wired admitted. And one of the funders of The Campaign for Accountability? Google’s arch-nemesis, Oracle.
In November, Fortune reported that Google was being investigated by the Missouri Attorney General John Hawley for violating the state’s anti-trust laws. Turns out that effort has ties to some of Google’s enemies too. Peter Thiel, an investor in several of Google’s key competitors including Facebook and his own data surveillance company Palantir, made a $300,000 political contribution to Hawley’s campaign.
Monopolies are good for society, Thiel has argued. Unless they’re monopolies he doesn’t have a financial stake in, I guess.
In his book World Without Mind, former New Republic editor Franklin Foer talks about the tech giants as “a new style of firm: the knowledge monopoly.” He admits, in a footnote, that his “casual use of the term ‘monopoly’” is likely to annoy economists and antitrust lawyers.
It has a technical meaning, they will grump. “Oligopoly” might be a more accurate description of some of the markets I describe. These criticisms are fair but I am not making a technical argument. Indeed, I believe that technical arguments have strangled the discussion. My hope is that we revive “monopoly” as a core piece of political rhetoric that broadly denotes dominant firms with pernicious powers. This might not fly in the bar association, but such usage has a proud and productive lineage tracking back to Thomas Jefferson.
The sweeping powers of these technology companies must be challenged, particularly as they turn their sights on public policy, public research, public education, and public infrastructure: Apple’s attempts to brand its stores as the new “town square” (and let’s do note: where those stores get built– who are the imagined consumer-citizens with access to this corporate-civic space). Google’s plans to redesign the waterfront in Toronto. Bill Gates’ acquisition of land in Arizona to build his version of a “smart city.” Mark Zuckerberg’s ongoing attempts to define “community” based on the roadmap for the Facebook platform, not to mention his plans to revive “the company town.” Amazon’s plans for a new headquarters, in which cities trying to lure the corporate giant to move there, offered up control over municipal taxation and decision-making– using “democracy itself as the bargaining chip,” as The Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat put it.
As more data flows into these companies’ systems and as they use the “network effects” to amass more users and more money, the Web – that other major technology platform, but one without one powerful corporate owner – dwindles. “The system is failing,” its creator Tim Berners-Lee lamented in an op-ed in The Guardian this fall. Mozilla, which once sought to secure a foothold for education on the Web through its Web literacy initiative, announced this year that it was ending its work in digital learning. Silicon Valley has been declaring that “The Web is Dead” for a long time now, of course. More accurately, perhaps, the Web is undead, propped up by Google AdSense and bent to serve the needs of the platform economy.
One of the key questions that education technology’s evangelists must ask: are students and schools also being bent to serve those same needs? Are we compelling students to more become “productive” – through free labor, of course– on these platforms, not just as data points but as the very raw material that these companies are building their billion dollar businesses upon?
Can democracy co-exist with the powerful technology monopolies that dominate the platform economy? (Peter Thiel doesn’t think so. And remember, he’s pretty stoked about that.)
Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.
This is part five of my annual look at the year’s “top ed-tech stories”
As in previous years, it would be quite easy to fill a whole article in this series on “data insecurity,” on the data breaches and cyberattacks that continue to plague education – both schools and software. The issue extends well beyond education technology, of course, and in 2017 we witnessed yet again a number of high profile incidents (including some corporate admissions of breaches that had happened in years past): that over 140 million Social Security Numbers and other personal data had been stolen in a data breach at Equifax, for starters; that every single account at Yahoo– some 3 billion in all – had been affected in its 2013 breach.
In education, there were breaches at colleges and universities, breaches at K–12 schools, breaches at the Department of Education, breaches at education technology companies, and breaches with software schools commonly use. 77 million users accounts stolen from Edmodo. A file configuration error at Schoolzilla that exposed the data of some 1.3 million students. A ransomware attack at a school system in Maine. A ransomware attack at a community college in Texas. Computers affected by the WannaCry virus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Trinity College, the University of Washington, North Dakota State University, the University of Maine, and elsewhere. 14 million college email username and passwords for sale on “the dark Web.”W2 phishing scams at a school district in Texas. W2 phishing scams at a school district in Connecticut. W2 phishing scams at a school district in Minnesota. Phishing emails posing as Ofsted. Phishing emails posing as the University of California student health plan. $11.8 million scammed from MacEwan University. Keyloggers at the University of Iowa. Keyloggers at the University of Kansas. A hacked school Twitter account in Florida. A privacy breach at Stanford. Data stolen from a community college’s health clinic. A data breach at a school board in Ontario. A data breach at the Chicago Public Schools. A malware attack at the University of Alberta. And then there was the ominously named “Dark Overlord,” who held the data of multiple school districts for ransom, in one case sending parents text messages threatening to kill their children if they did not pay up.
And that’s not even remotely close to the complete list of hacks, scams, breaches, and thefts this year.
EdTech Strategies’ Doug Levin launched a new project in 2017– “The K–12 Cyber Incident Map” – that visualizes the breaches, ransomware attacks, DDOS attacks, phishing attacks, and so on that have been reported at US public schools. Some 280 incidents since January 2016. Levin’s message has been consistent this year and in the past: schools are simply not prepared to address the cybersecurity threats they’re facing – they’re unprepared for the attacks on their IT infrastructure (including vulnerabilities in the various technology products they’ve adopted), and they’re unprepared for attacks on individuals associated with schools (more on this in a forthcoming article about “free speech” on campus).
And yet schools continue to invest millions and millions of dollars in more and more technology. Investing in hardware and software. Investing, as I chronicled in the previous article in this series, in “the platform economy.” Investing, that is, in technology companies and in the ideology that underpins them: that schools and their vendors must collect an ever-increasing amount of data.
We heard plenty of stories this year, arguing for precisely that: Every student is a potential data point, we were told. “Super users” of certain ed-tech products demand more data collection. More data collection will help schools gauge student well-being. More data collection will improve course design. More data collection will improve student learning and student outcomes. More data collection will mean more diversity at schools. More data collection will mean more customization – a “Netflix-and-Amazon-like experience.” It will enable “personalization.” “The Higher Ed Learning Revolution,” as NPR put it: “Tracking Each Student’s Every Move.” And students are totally on board, we were told: they want even more of their data to be collected. (I call bullshit.) And perhaps my favorite: “Want Your Students to Remember You in 20 Years? Start Holding Weekly Data Conferences.”
These justifications for more data collection aren’t new; nor is an opposition to education’s data regime. The research organization Data & Society published a report this year on “the Legacy of inBloom,” a proposed data infrastructure initiative that shut down three years ago but that has surely left its mark on how schools and ed-tech companies frame discussions about data and “personalization.” And yet, even in the face of ongoing pushback against data collection and concerns about data insecurity – from parents, educators, students, and others – even with the hundreds of hacks and breaches, some industry groups do still try to argue that that “Your Concerns About Student Privacy Are Being Exploited.”
But 2017 made it clear, I’d like to think, that the dangers education technology and its penchant for data collection aren’t simply a matter of a potential loss of privacy or a potential loss of data. The stakes now are much, much higher.
Education Technology in a Time of Trump
Immediately following the 2016 elections, I tweeted that “Under a Trump administration: I very much want ed-tech companies and schools to reconsider collecting so much data about students.” I’d embed the tweet here in this article, but I deleted it. I delete all my old social media now on a regular and ongoing basis. I do so because I am uncomfortable about the ways in which our personal data is so easily used against us.
The first public talk I gave this year was on 2 February at the University of Richmond – “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump.” I repeated my call again: education institutions and education companies must rethink their collection of data. I pointed to several historical examples of how the collection, categorization, and analysis of data led to discriminatory and even deadly political practices – racism and the US Census, for example, and the history of IBM and how its statistical analysis helped the Nazis identify Jews.
Even in the earliest days of the Trump administration – even in the campaign itself – it seemed obvious to me that immigrants to the US would targeted, that immigration data, whether overtly collected or algorithmically inferred, would be weaponized.
Just one week after taking office President Trump signed an executive order banning all refugees from entering the US, as well as barring entry for citizens from seven majority-Muslim countries. The order had an immediate effect on scholars and students, many of whom had returned home over the holidays and were stuck outside the country – some even stranded mid-transit. There were immediately protests at airports and objections in the courts, the latter led in part by public universities who claimed they had legal standing to challenge the travel ban as it harmed their mission as research and teaching institutions. The ban was blocked, altered by the administration, blocked again, altered, blocked, altered, blocked… (The latest, almost one year later: the US Supreme Court has allowed the ban to take effect while legal challenges to it continue.)
No surprise, colleges and universities have expressed some concern about how the travel ban – and attitudes in the US towards foreigners more broadly – will affect their ability to recruit and retainstudents and scholars. There were other high profile incidents as well: the refusal, for example, to give visas to the all-girls robotics team from Afghanistan.
The actions of the administration should not come as a surprise. President Trump ran on a white ethno-nationalist platform and from his opening campaign speech promised that he would strength the country’s borders and boost immigration enforcement. ICE, the agency responsible for the latter, has dramatically increased the number of arrests of immigrants this year, many of whom did not fall into categories previously targeted by law enforcement – they did not have criminal records, for example – and many of whom were detained at places not previously targeted by ICE either, including schools. Parents in LA were picked up as they dropped their children off at school. School officials in Pasadena were accused of threatening to call ICE on students or on their family members. Washington University in St. Louis threatened to report international students to ICE if they unionized. Some students were arrested during their regular check-ins with immigration. One teenager was arrested hours before his prom. A fourth grader in Queens was allegedly interrogated about his family’s immigration status. After an ICE raid outside of Las Cruces, New Mexico, over 2000 students in the district missed school, fearing more ICE activity.
According to data from Pew Research Center, there are approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US. How this number affects schools is a bit harder to calculate, as students might be citizens and live with family members who are undocumented or students might be undocumented and live with families who are citizens and so on. Education Trust-West said this year that it believed one in eight students in California schools had at least one parent that was undocumented, for example, and the Los Angeles Unified School Board announced this year that it was committed to protecting its students and their families from ICE. Other campuses and cities also reaffirmed they would act as “sanctuaries,” a move some Republican lawmakers tried to outlaw.
In September, the Trump administration announced its plans to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. “Unprecedented,” Vox’s Dara Lind called it: “There’s never really been a time when a generation of people, raised and rooted in the United States, has been stripped of official recognition and pushed back into the precarity of unauthorized-immigrant life.”
DACA was established by the previous administration, providing a protected status to those who were brought to the country illegally when they were children. Some 800,000 undocumented immigrants qualified for the program, which had enabled these DREAMers to legally pursue work and education opportunities. An estimated 20,000 are educators– some 5000 in California, 2000 in New York, 2000 in Texas. They are in limbo, along with many of the students in their classrooms. Again, universities have said they would protect their students who are DREAMers, and some have sued the Trump administration for violating these stduents’ rights. Meanwhile, DREAMers are already being arrestedanddeported.
Some technology companies have joined some of these lawsuits challenging the Trump administration’s immigration policies. The tech industry has also expressed its own frustrations over curbs to visas for foreign technical workers and foreign entrepreneurs – “startup visas” – as well as threats to green cards.
But technology companies – some of the very same technology companies– are also working with the Trump administration to build the software for its “extreme vetting” programs. This software would track and analyze the social media and digital activity of visa holders in order to identify those who might be “high risk.”
It’s a process incredibly similar to what’s marketed in education as “learning analytics” – tracking the social media and digital activity of students to identify those who might be “at risk.”
What happens to all the data that schools and their software vendors have collected about students? Can that data be used to glean their immigration status (or their religion)? Can their status be deduced even if the specific data points about nationality or immigration status are not collected? Because this is, of course, the promise of algorithms and analytics – making inferences based on the data that’s available. Profiling. Grouping. Predicting.
What education technology practices and products have schools already adopted that might be putting their students at risk – adding geo-tracking devices, for example, to laptops given to students in migrant education programs.
Will this data be used to punish students – to refuse them admission or aid?
How will all the education data and analysis that’s gathered be used? Education technology companies and big data proponents always have the sunniest futures to sell. But what are the implications of algorithmic decision-making in a time of Trump?
“Should big data be used to discourage poor students from university?” ZDNet asked this summer, describing an algorithm that could help predict whether or not low-income students would be successful at school – but not so more resources could be directed their way to help them succeed. Not so that they received more help, more money, more support. Nope. Rather, the big data would be utilized so these students could be discouraged from going to school in the first place.
Typically, stories about predictive analytics in education aren’t framed that way, no surprise. Education technology proponents like to say that big data will be used to encourage low-income students – or at least to send them nudges and notifications when students appear, algorithmically at least, to be struggling. These algorithmic products are marketed as helping students succeed and – no surprise – helping schools make more money by retaining their tuition dollars.
There are major ethical implications of these sorts of analytics in education. If, for example, a school doesn’t have the resources to help struggling students, perhaps as that ZDNet article suggests, it would rather discourage them from attending.
There seemed to be much more discussion in the media this year about ethics and the discriminatory tendencies in algorithmic decision-making, as more mainstream attention was brought to the topic through a combination of investigative journalism and academic scholarship. (Through the work, for example, of Cathy O’Neil, Zeynep Tufekci, Julia Angwin, Frank Pasquale, and many others.)
That attention came in part because of the ongoing concerns about the role technology companies played in the 2016 election – something I discussed briefly in the first article in this series. How do algorithms shape news and information sharing? What did Facebook and Google’s algorithms show people in their news feeds and in their searches during the election? How were specific groups targeted for certain kinds of advertising, messaging, and “promoted content”? ProPublica found, for example, that“Facebook Enabled Advertisers to Reach ‘Jew Haters’” during the presidential campaign. Google similarly allowed advertisers to target people who were searching for racist phrases. To reiterate: algorithms on these platforms dictate what you see and what you don’t see. And that view isn’t simply a matter of political party affiliation. ProPublica had discovered last year that Facebook let advertisers target housing ads to white audiences only – a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act – and in follow-up reporting this fall the publication found that it was still able to place discriminatory ads, despite Facebook’s insistence that it had fixed the problem.
The algorithms of these platform companies are increasingly inscrutable– a “black box,” as Frank Pasquale has described them – and that’s certainly part of the problem. Journalists and scholars are not allowed to peer “under the hood,” if you will (although there has been some talk of requiring companies to “open” their algorithms to scrutiny.)
So how do we know their algorithms “work” – or rather, what sorts of work do these algorithms do? Again, it’s not just about the news feed. Facebook, for its part, has also promised that its algorithms will identify terrorists and individuals who might be suicidal. Its algorithms are not merely informative; they are extra-judicial.
And clearly the use of this sort of algorithmic decision-making extends well beyond what happens in high profile technology companies and what happens on social media. Algorithms are being used to determine prison sentences. They’re being used to predict criminal activity. They’re being used to identify children who might be at risk of abuse. In all these cases, algorithms raise serious questions about the potential for discrimination. In the latter, it’s also simply a question of the algorithm failing altogether – that is, failing to accurately identify children at risk as the Illinois Department of Child and Family Services recently discovered after spending $366,000 on data-mining software.
And yet, despite the repeated concerns about the discriminatory potential for these algorithms and the ongoing questions about whether or not these systems are accurate or effective or just, many schools have plowed forward with adopting these sorts of tools. Algorithmic decision-making is the basis for “personalized learning,” a trend that venture capitalists and venture philanthropists and education reformers and technology companieswant very much to happen (whether the research says “it works” or not).
And whether they’re “all in” on “personalized learning,” many schools are adopting analytics and surveillance technologies to monitor and predict student behavior: to identify cyberbullying and suicide threats; to recommend what students should be reading; to recommend what lessons students should be working on; to ascertain if teachers should be awarded tenure; to determine school bus routes; to identify learning disabilities; to identify college students who are struggling with classes; to identify K–12 students who are struggling with classes; to recommend students enroll in certain courses or pursue certain degrees; to help colleges decide who to admit in the first place. “Can you predict your students’ final grade at the start of the course?” Technológica de Monterrey asked on its website, “Yes, you can with Artificial Intelligence.” “Will You Graduate?” asked an article in The New York Times. “Ask Big Data.”
Education technology, as a field and as an industry, places an incredible amount of faith in data and algorithms to address social problems that are incredibly complex.
But that faith in data is just part of the problem. Just collecting data alters how decisions get made, some research suggests. And the types of data that are collected is facilitated by the types of technologies and systems already in place – the learning management system, most obviously.
Algorithms get layered on top of these existing structures. And artificial intelligence comes with deep, deep biases – biases at the very core of the discipline. Racism. Sexism. Biases in language and in image recognition. Biases based on the training data. Biases that comes from the engineers. Wrapped in the shine of science (and pseudoscience) and backed with billions of dollars of venture capital and PR, these biases are, as Blaise Agüera y Arcas, Margaret Mitchell and Alexander Todorov have argued, “Physiognomy’s New Clothes.”
If these algorithms make use of existing data and are layered on top of existing practices and systems, then it seems even more likely that they will reinforce the education system’s existing biases rather than radically upend them. Racial biases in school discipline, for example. Biases in admissions decisions. Teachers’ biases. Administrators’ biases. Department of Education biases. Long-standing beliefs and practices about who students are and what students need. Legal precedent as to what rightsstudents have and do not have while at school (and perhaps even while at home).
“This will go down on your permanent record…”
Education Technology and School Surveillance
Schools surveil to prevent cheating, which we’re told is now more pervasivebecause of new technologies. They install cameras. They install microphones. They monitor social media. They demand biometric data from students in order to prove their identity. They use proctoring software with facial recognition. They buy software that scans for plagiarism and software that monitors students’ location while they’re doing schoolwork. They adopt devices that monitor students at school and students at home.
Schools surveil to track attendance. They install finger print scanners at the schoolhouse door. Schools surveil to monitor students while they’re at school. They use facial recognition devices to make sure students are paying attention. They install finger print scanners in the lunch room. They install iris-scanners in the cafeteria.
Schools surveil to ensure student safety and well-being. They use heart-rate monitors to track students’ physical activity. They use fitness trackers to monitor students’ sleep. They monitor all sorts of activities – sleep, exercise, and more – of student athletes. They scan the license plates of those who come on campus. They install facial recognition devices in dormitories. They filter websites, blocking content deemed “inappropriate.” They monitor students’ ID cards to track their location– before, during, and after school.
Students can see how these systems work, you know – the decisions that are human-made and the decisions that are machine-made and the decisions that are historical and the decisions that are structural. They worry that they are being set up to fail. They worry that their data – their very identities – are being weaponized against them. It’s not simply “the algorithm” that causes educational inequalities to persist. Students know that. It’s just becoming an easier way to justify unjust decision-making.
I’m halfway through my annual series on the year’s “Top Ed-Tech Trends” – all the stories that we’ve been told about education technology and the future of education in 2017. Perhaps you’re overwhelmed by the word count. I know I am.
This means it’s also time to post my annual reminder that the work I do on Hack Education is supported almost entirely through readers’ donations.
Full disclosure: I also subsidize this site through speaking gigs, and for the 2017–18 academic year, I am a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at the Columbia School of Journalism. Someone recently called that a “cushy” gig, which is sort of weird. I work non-stop. Seriously. Seven days a week. You can look at my GitHub commits: I have not skipped a day of work in over a year. The hustle doesn’t stop because I have a fellowship. It can’t.
I love what I do, but it’s not easy work. It’s certainly not “cushy.”
There are a couple of ways you can support my writing: You can make a donation via PayPal or become a monthly subscriber. I also have a Patreon account (although Patreon seems to be in the process of screwing us all over so maybe hold off on using that site. Hooray! Freelancer economy!) You can buy my books. You can invite me to speak at your event or at your school– although I’m not accepting any speaking engagements until the Fall 2018.
I have Hack Education stickers that I can send you as a gesture of “thanks,” whether you contribute financially or not. (There will be a new pigeon sticker and logo coming in the new year, so maybe hold off on that request too.)
But I don’t want to be in the sticker business. I want to write education technology criticism. Your support helps me continue to do that.