The History of the Future of Learning Objects and Intelligent Machines

This talk was delivered at MIT for Justin Reich’s Comparative Media Studies class “Learning, Media, and Technology.” The full slide deck is available here.

Thank you for inviting me to speak to your class today. I’m really honored to be here at the beginning of the semester, as I’m not-so-secretly hoping this gives me a great deal of power and influence to sow some seeds of skepticism about the promises you all often hear – perhaps not in this class, to be fair, as in your other classes, in the media, in the world at large – about education technology.

Those promises can be pretty amazing, no doubt: that schools haven’t changed in hundreds if not thousands of years and that education technology is now poised to “revolutionize” and “disrupt”; that today, thanks to the ubiquity of computers and the Internet (that there is “ubiquity” is rarely interrogated) we can “democratize,” “unbundle,” and/or “streamline” the system; that learning will as a result be better, cheaper, faster.

Those have always been the promises. Promises largely unfulfilled.

It’s important – crucial even – that this class is starting with history. I’ve long argued that ignorance of this history is part of the problem with education technology today: that its promises of revolution and innovation come with little to no understanding of the past – not just the history of what technologies have been adopted (or have failed to be adopted) in the classroom before, but the history of how education itself has changed in many ways and in some, quite dramatically, with or without technological interventions. (I’d add too that this is a problem with tech more broadly – an astounding and even self-congratulatory ignorance of the history of the industries, institutions, practices folks claim they’re disrupting.)

I should confess something here at the outset of my talk that’s perhaps a bit blasphemous. I recognize that this class is called “Learning, Media, and Technology.” But I’m really not interested in “learning” per se. There are lots of folks – your professor, for starters – who investigate technology and learning, who research technology’s effect on cognition and memory, who measure and monitor how mental processes respond to tech, and so on. That’s not what I do. That’s not what my work is about.

It’s not that I believe “learning” doesn’t matter. And it’s not that I think “learning” doesn’t happen when using a lot of the ed-tech that gets hyped – or wait, maybe I do think that.

Rather, I approach “learning” as a scholar of culture, of society. I see “learning” as a highly contested concept – a lot more contested than some researchers and academic disciplines (and entrepreneurs and journalists and politicians) might have you believe. What we know about knowing is not settled. It never has been. And neither neuroscience nor brain scans, for example, move us any closer to that. After all, “learning” isn’t simply about an individual’s brain or even body. “Learning” – or maybe more accurately “learnedness” – is a signal; it’s a symbol; it’s a performance. As such, it’s judged by and through and with all sorts of cultural values and expectations, not only those that we claim to be able to measure. What do you know? How do you know? Who do you know? Do you have the social capital and authority to wield what you know or to claim expertise?

My work looks at the broader socio-political and socio-cultural aspects of ed-tech. I want us to recognize ed-tech as ideological, as a site of contested values rather than a tool that somehow “progress” demands. Indeed, that’s ideology at work right there – the idea of “progress” itself, a belief in a linear improvement, one that’s intertwined with stories of scientific and technological advancement as well as the advancement of certain enlightenment values.

I’m interested not so much in how ed-tech (and tech more broadly) might change cognition or learning, but in how it will change culture and power and knowledge – systems and practices of knowing. I’m interested in how ed-tech (and tech more broadly) will change how we imagine education – as a process, as a practice, as an institution – and change how we value knowledge and expertise and even school itself.

I don’t believe we live in a world in which technology is changing faster than it’s ever changed before. I don’t believe we live in a world where people adopt new technologies more rapidly than they’ve done so in the past. (That is argument for another talk, for another time.) But I do believe we live in an age where technology companies are some of the most powerful corporations in the world, where they are a major influence – and not necessarily in a positive way – on democracy and democratic institutions. (School is one of those institutions. Ideally.) These companies, along with the PR that supports them, sell us products for the future and just as importantly weave stories about the future.

These products and stories are, to borrow a phrase from sociologist Neil Selwyn, “ideologically-freighted.” In particular, Selwyn argues that education technologies (and again, computing technologies more broadly) are entwined with the ideologies of libertarianism, neoliberalism, and new forms of capitalism – all part of what I often refer to as the “Silicon Valley narrative” (although that phrase, geographically, probably lets you folks here at MIT off the hook for your institutional and ideological complicity in all this). Collaboration. Personalization. Problem-solving. STEM. Self-directed learning. The “maker movement.” These are all examples of how ideologies are embedded in ed-tech trends and technologies – in their development and their marketing. And despite all the talk of “disruption”, these mightn’t be counter-hegemonic at all, but rather serve the dominant ideology and further one of the 21st century’s dominant industries.

I want to talk a little bit today about technology and education technology in the 20th century – because like I said, history matters. And one of the ideological “isms” that I think we sometimes overlook in computing technologies is militarism. And I don’t just mean the role of Alan Turing and codebreakers in World War II or the role of the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency in the development of the Internet (although both of those examples – cryptography and the Internet – do underscore what I mean when I say infrastructure is ideological). C3I – command, control, communications, and intelligence. Militarism, as an ideology, privileges hierarchy, obedience, compliance, authoritarianism – it has shaped how our schools are structured; it shapes how our technologies are designed.

The US military is the largest military in the world. That also makes it one of the largest educational organizations in the world – “learning at scale,” to borrow a phrase from this course. The military is responsible for training – basic training and ongoing training – of some 1.2 million active duty soldiers and some 800,000 reserve soldiers. That training has always been technological, because soldiers have had to learn to use a variety of machines. The military has also led the development and adoption of educational technologies.

Take the flight simulator, for example.

One of the earliest flight simulators – and yes, this predates the Microsoft software program by over fifty years, but postdates the Wright Brothers by only about twenty – was developed by Edwin Link. He received the patent for his device in 1931, a machine that replicated the cockpit and its instruments. The trainer would pitch and roll and dive and climb, powered by a motor and organ bellows. (Link’s family owned an organ factory.)

Although Link’s first customers were amusement parks – the patent was titled a “Combination training device for student aviators and entertainment apparatus” – the military bought six in June of 1934, after a series of plane crashes earlier that year immediately following the US Army Air Corps’ takeover of US Air Mail service. Those accidents had revealed the pilots’ lack of training, particularly under night-time or inclement weather conditions. By the end of World War II, some 500,000 pilots had used the “Link Trainer,” and flight simulators have since become an integral part of pilot (and subsequently, astronaut) training.

(There’s a good term paper to be written – you are writing a term paper, right? – about the history of virtual reality and the promises and presumptions it makes about simulation and learning and experiences and bodies. But mostly, I’d argue if I were writing it, that much of VR in classrooms today does not have its origins the Link Trainer as much as in the educational films that you read about in Larry Cuban’s Teachers and Machines. But I digress.)

The military works along a different principle for organizing and disseminating knowledge than does, say, the university or the library. The military is largely interested in teaching “skills.” Or perhaps more accurately, this is how military training is largely imagined and discussed: “skills training.” (Officer training, to be fair, is slightly different.) The military is invested in those skills – and in the teaching of those skills – being standardized. All this shapes the kinds of educational software and hardware that gets developed and adopted.

One of the challenges the military has faced, particularly in the twentieth century, is helping veterans to translate their skills into language that schools and civilian hiring managers understand. This is, of course, the origin of the GED test, which was developed during WWII as a way to assess whether those soldiers who’d dropped out of high school in order to enlist had attained high-school level skills – to demonstrate “competency” rather than rely on “seat time,” to put this in terms familiar to educational debates today. There has also been the challenge of translating skills within the military itself – say, from branch to branch – and within and across other federal agencies. New technologies, to a certain extent, have complicated things by introducing often incompatible software systems in which instruction occurs. And at the end of the day, the military demands regimentation, standardization – culturally, technologically.

I just want to lay out an abbreviated timeline here to help situate some of my following remarks:

I’m not suggesting here that the Web marks the origins of ed-tech. Again, you’ve read Larry Cuban’s work; you know that there’s a much longer history of teaching machines. But in the 1990s, we did witness a real explosion in not just educational software, but in educational software that functioned online.

In January of 1999, President Clinton signed Executive Order 13111 – “Using Technology To Improve Training Opportunities for Federal Government Employees.” Here’s the opening paragraph, which I’m going to read – apologies – simply because it sounds as though it could be written today:

Advances in technology and increased skills needs are changing the workplace at an ever increasing rate. These advances can make Federal employees more productive and provide improved service to our customers, the American taxpayers. We need to ensure that we continue to train Federal employees to take full advantage of these technological advances and to acquire the skills and learning needed to succeed in a changing workplace. A coordinated Federal effort is needed to provide flexible training opportunities to employees and to explore how Federal training programs, initiatives, and policies can better support lifelong learning through the use of learning technology.

One of the mandates of the Executive Order was to:

in consultation with the Department of Defense and the National Institute of Standards and Technology, recommend standards for training software and associated services purchased by Federal agencies and contractors. These standards should be consistent with voluntary industry consensus-based commercial standards. Agencies, where appropriate, should use these standards in procurements to promote reusable training component software and thereby reduce duplication in the development of courseware.

This call for standards – and yes, the whole idea of “standards” is deeply ideological – eventually became SCORM, the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (and one of the many acronyms that, if you work with education technology, will make people groan – and groan almost as much as a related acronym does: the LMS, the learning management system).

Indeed, SCORM and the LMS – their purposes, their histories – are somewhat inseparable. (And I want you to consider the implications of that: that the demands of the federal government and the US military for a standardized “elearning” experience has profoundly shaped one of the foundational pieces of ed-tech that is used today by almost all colleges and increasingly even K–12 schools.)

The SCORM standard was designed, in part, to make it possible to easily move educational content from one learning management system to another. Among the goals: reusability, interoperability, and durability of content and courses. (I’m not going to go into too much technical detail here, but I do want to recognize that this did require addressing some significant technical challenges.) SCORM had three components: content packaging, runtime communications, and course metadata. The content packaging refers to the packaging of all the resources needed to deliver a course into a single ZIP file. The runtime communications includes the runtime commands for communicating student information to and from the LMS, as well as the metadata for storing information on individual students. And the course metadata, obviously, includes things like course title, description, keywords, and so on. SCORM, as its full name implies, served to identify “sharable content objects” – that is the smallest unit in a course that contains meaningful learning content by itself – content objects that might be extracted and reused in another course. The third version of SCORM, SCORM 2004, also introduced sequencing, identifying the order in which these content objects should be presented.

The implications of all this are fairly significant, particularly if we think about the SCORM initiative as something that’s helped, almost a decade ago, to establish and refine what’s become the infrastructure of the learning management system and other instructional software, as something that’s influenced the development as well of some of the theories of modern instructional design. (Theory is, of course, ideology. But, again, so is infrastructure.) The infrastructure of learning software shapes how we think about “content” and how we think about “skills” and how we think about “learning.” (And “we” here, to be clear, includes a broad swath of employers, schools, software makers, and the federal government – so that’s a pretty substantial “we.”)

I will spare you the details of decades worth of debates about learning objects. It’s important to note, however, that there are decades of debate and many, many critics of the concept – Paolo Freire, for example, and his critique of the “banking model of information.” There are the critics too who argue for “authentic,” “real-world” learning, something that almost by definition learning objects – designed to move readily from software system to software system, from course to course, from content module to content module, from context to context – can never offer. I’d be remiss if I did not mention the work of open education pioneer David Wiley and what he has called the “reusability paradox,” which to summarize states that if a learning object is pedagogically useful in a specific context, it will not be useful in a different context. Furthermore, the most decontextualized learning objects are reusable in many contexts, but those are not pedagogically useful.

But like I said at the outset, in my own line of inquiry I’m less interested in what’s “pedagogically useful” than I am in what gets proposed by industry and what becomes predominant – the predominant tech, the predominant practice, the predominant narrative, and so on.

Learning objects have been blasted by theorists and practitioners, but they refuse to go away. Why?

The predominant narratives today about the future of learning are all becoming deeply intertwined with artificial intelligence. We should recognize that these narratives have been influenced by decades of thinking in a certain way about information and knowledge and learning (in humans and in machines): as atomized learning objects and as atomized, standardized skills.

There’s a long history of criticism of the idea of “intelligence” – its origins in eugenics; its use as a mechanism for race- and gender-based exclusion and sorting. It’s a history that educational psychology, deeply intertwined with the development of measurements and assessments, has not always been forthright about. Education technology, with its origins in educational psychology, is implicated in this. And now we port this history of “intelligence” – one steeped in racism and bias – onto machines.

But we’re also porting a history of “skills” onto machines as well. This is, of course, the marketing used for Amazon’s Alexa. Developers “build” skills. They “teach” skills to the device. And it’s certainly debatable whether many of these are useful at all. But again, that’s not the only way to think about teaching machines. Whether or not something is “pedagogically useful,” here are reasons why the stories about it stick. The narrative about AI and skills is something to pay attention to – particularly alongside larger discussions about the so-called “skills gap.”

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Hack Education Weekly News

(National) Education Politics

“Americans Have Given Up on Public Schools. That’s a Mistake,” writes Erika Christakis in The Atlantic.

One of the most important stories this past week was the Trump Administration’s announcement that it planned to end the DACA program, putting the immigration status and safety of some 800,000 people into question. There’s much more on that in the immigration section below.

Buzzfeed reported that – as of 9pm Thursday at least – “Betsy DeVos Still Hasn’t Said Anything About Trump’s Decision To End DACA.” (Do remember, she weighed in immediately after Trump announced the US was leaving the Paris Climate Accord.) Later, via CBS: “DeVos says her ‘heart is with’ Dreamers.”

Another huge (and awful) deal: Betsy DeVos announced this week that the Department of Education would replace Obama-era guidance on how colleges must protect students from sexual violence and respond to sexual assault claims on campus. The Department of Education offers “Highlights from Secretary DeVos’ Remarks on Title IX Enforcement.” More from Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and The New York Times.

“The Department of Justice Is Overseeing the Resegregation of American Schools,” The Nation argues.

Via Inside Higher Ed: “Education Dept. Ends Partnership With CFPB.”

Via Education Week: “Senate Panel Rejects Trump Teacher-Funding Cut, School Choice Proposals.”

Via Inside Higher Ed: “The White House said Friday it would delay an annual conference for historically black colleges and universities that had been scheduled for mid-September.”

Via Ars Technica: “Senate Democrats fight FCC plan to lower America’s broadband standards.”

(State and Local) Education Politics

Via The New York Times: “Michigan Gambled on Charter Schools. Its Children Lost.”

And The New York Times again: “The Resegregation of Jefferson County.”

Also via The New York Times: “New York City Offers Free Lunch for All Public School Students.”

Related on school lunch, via Mother Jones: “The Shocking Ways Poor Kids Have Long Been Singled Out in American Schools.”

Via the Tennessean: “Nashville school district sends families opt-out form as student data battle with state rages on.” The districts are protesting a new law that dictates they hand over student directory data to charter school operators.

Via Boing Boing: “British Columbia government forces Vancouver dad to end his kids’ free-range city bus rides to school.”

Via Education Week: “Idaho has repaid the Federal Communications Commission $3.5 million to cover federal funds that went to the botched statewide school broadband contract.”

Via KATU2: “Evergreen School District teachers told to stop using crowdfunding site Donors Choose.”

Immigration and Education

Via Inside Higher Ed: “The Trump administration announced Tuesday that it will end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, through which about 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children have gained the right to work and temporary protection against the risk of deportation. The administration said it will phase out the program, which was established by President Obama in 2012, after a six-month period to give Congress a chance to act on legislation that could restore the program.” More on the announcement from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“Why ending DACA is so unprecedented,” Dara Lind writes for Vox.

“By ending Daca, Donald Trump has declared war on a diverse America,” by Carol Anderson (author of White Rage).

Via The Daily Beast: “The Trump Administration Now Has Tons Of DACA Data And Is Poised To Weaponize It.”

Via Pacific Standard: “How DACA Helped Immigrants Get More Education and Higher-Paying Jobs.”

Via Buzzfeed: “American Colleges Say They’ll Fight For DREAMers After Trump’s Decision.”

Via The New York Times: “For Teachers Working Through DACA, a Bittersweet Start to the School Year.”

More data on enrollment of foreign students in US colleges in the research section below.

Education in the Courts

Via The Hill: “Lawsuit filed to let Richard Spencer speak at Michigan State.”

Via Ars Technica: “Comcast sues Vermont to avoid building 550 miles of new cable lines.”

The Business of Student Loans

Via the US News & World Report: “ Why Few Borrowers Have Pursued PSLF.” The acronym stands for “public service loan forgiveness.”

The “New” For-Profit Higher Ed

Via Media Matters: “Newt Gingrich used Fox position to push for-profit colleges without disclosing conflict of interest.”

There’s more research on for-profits in the research section below.

Online Education and the Once and Future “MOOC”

Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “That Hilarious Tweet About an Instructor’s Big Mistake? Almost Certainly Fake.” The tweet claimed an instructor didn’t realize a class was online and was angry that no students had shown up in class.

The University of Naples Federico II has joined edX.

Edsurge wonders if there’s inequality in online education.

Via Tony Bates: “Responses to the Canadian survey of online and distance learning.”

There’s more on the accreditation of Arkansas’ new public online university in the accreditation section below.

Meanwhile on Campus…

Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Florida’s Governor Closes Public Colleges as Irma Bears Down on Peninsula.”

Melinda Anderson talks to Beverly Daniel Tatum about the 20th anniversary of her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race.

Via The Hechinger Report: “How slavery helped build many U.S. colleges and universities.”

Via the BBC: “Oxford vice-chancellor criticised over homosexuality comments.”

Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “After All but Closing, Sweet Briar Will Shift Curriculum and Pricing.”

Inside Higher Ed looks at a change this year to Harvard’s CS50, which last year had encouraged students to watch video lectures instead of coming to class. This year: “come to class,” the instructor says.

Accreditation and Certification

Salesforce has filed a patent for “Digital badging for facilitating virtual recognition of an achievement.”

Via Inside Higher Ed: “Arkansas’s new public online university chooses national accreditor over its regional agency, raising questions about pace, prestige and the state of quality assurance.” The school, eVersity, will seek approval from the Distance Education Accrediting Commission, an organization that accredits mostly for-profit institutions, rather than the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits the rest of public higher ed in Arkansas.

Purdue Introduced 3 Year Degree Program,” says Inside Higher Ed.

Degreed now offers skill certification – “The Degreed Skill Certification is a scientifically-backed process that combines skill evidence, data science, endorsers, and reviews by an expertise panel, which results in your final Skill Level ranking.”

Testing, Testing…

Via The New York Times: “Who Benefits From the Expansion of A.P. Classes?”

Via Mashable: “Why Denver Public School Students Are Protesting for AP History.”

Via Inside Higher Ed: “This Saturday’s ACT has been called off at some international testing centers. An ACT spokesman said that the action was ‘due to a verified breach of the test materials,’ and that ACT would not be commenting further on the breach.”

Also via IHE: “ACT scores are up this year, but the scores of black and Latino students and those who did not complete recommended college preparatory courses remain far behind those of other students.”

Via Education Week: “New Tool Alerts Teachers When Students Give Up on Tests.”

“Innovation schools saw some of the largest gains on ISTEP in Indianapolis Public Schools,” Chalkbeat argues.

Go, School Sports Team!

Via The New York Times: “Football Favoritism at F.S.U.: The Price One Teacher Paid.”

“Universities see opportunity in e-sports,” says Education Dive.

The Business of Job Training

Via Quartz: “A free, teacher-less university in France is schooling thousands of future-proof programmers.”

Via Rutgers Today: “Is There a STEM Worker Shortage? Rutgers Professor Debates Issue at National Academies.”

Google announces it is “Funding 75,000 Udacity scholarships to bridge the digital skills gap.”

Sound the made-up-statistic klaxon because the MIT Technology Review parrots the BS claim that “65 percent of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that don’t currently exist, underscoring the need for new skills training using hands-on and exploratory learning techniques.”

This Week in Betteridge’s Law of Headlines

“XQ is taking over TV to make the case that high school hasn’t changed in 100 years. But is that true?asks Chalkbeat.

Will the Trump Era Transform the School Lunch?asks The New York Times.

Will a Netflix Model Work for Textbooks?asks Edsurge.

(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

Natasha Singer shook things up with a story in The New York Times this past weekend on the ethics of “brand ambassadors” and influencer marketing in ed-tech. My response: “Inequality, ‘Brand Ambassadors,’ and the Business of Selling (to) Classrooms.”

Via Edsurge: “Forget ‘US News’ Rankings. For Online College Programs, Google Is Kingmaker.”

Tonight there’ll be a live TV show on the four major networks – “XQ: The Super School Project.” It’s sponsored by Laurene Powell Jobs, the founder of the venture philanthropy firm Emerson Collective and the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs. It’s part of the argument that investors and entrepreneurs like to make: that high school hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. In The Washington Post, Jack Schneider writes about “The false narrative behind a glitzy live television show about school reform.”

Quartz is publishing a series on “The Vanishing University.” The first article claims that “The college lecture is dying. Good riddance.” It’s full of examples of lecturing, but now that they’re recorded as videos somehow it’s innovation.

“Why Picking a Major Is a Bad Idea for College Kids,” Cathy Davidson argues. She’s out with a new book, The New Education: How To Revolutionize the University To Prepare Students for a World in Flux.

“Student Teachers Get ‘Real World’ Practice Via Virtual Reality,” says Education Week, apparently confused because VR is very much not “real.”

Robots and Other Ed-Tech SF

Parla.ai – “No need to spend money on teachers – I’ll help you learn English effectively and for free!”

Investor Tom Vander Ark talks to investor Michael Moe about the future of AI and HR.

“This Machine Learning-Powered Software Teaches Kids To Be Better Writers,” Fast Company claims. No, actually. I bet it doesn’t.

Automation-proofing students requires more of schools, districts,” says Education Dive.

Via Inside Higher Ed: “IBM and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced Thursday that the company will spend $240 million on a joint lab with MIT focused on artificial intelligence.”

From the Udacity blog: “ Your Exclusive Guide To Pursuing A Robotics Career.” Exclusive!

(Venture) Philanthropy and the Business of Ed Reform

The Koch Brothers are teaming up with Deion Sanders to launch an anti-poverty initiative. Sanders is the founder of a charter school company that, in the words of the Dallas Morning News, “collapsed spectacularly.”

Venture Capital and the Business of Ed-Tech

Guild Education has raised $21 million in Series B funding from Bessemer Ventures, Redpoint Ventures, Harrison Metal, Social Capital, and Cowboy Ventures. The company, which helps corporations run education programs for their employees, has raised $31.5 million total.

Labster has raised $10 million in Series A funding from Balderton Capital, David Helgason, and Northzone. The company offers “virtual science labs” and has raised $13.67 million.

Evertrue has raised $6 million in Series B funding from Bain Capital Ventures and University Ventures. The company, which helps schools manage philanthropic giving campaigns, has raised $20.57 million total.

Classcraft, which says it helps “gamify” the classroom, has raised $2.8 million in venture funding from Whitecap Venture Partners, Brightspark Ventures, and MaRS Catalyst Fund.

English language learning app Kings Learning has raised $2.5 million in seed funding from Village Capital and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation.

Tenka Labs has raised $2 million in seed funding from undisclosed investors. The company, which makes engineering kits, has raised $4.1 million total.

Circuit Cubes has raised $2 million from undisclosed investors.

Privacy, Surveillance, and Information Security

Via The Washington Post: “Parents cite student privacy concerns with popular online education platform.” Not sure how popular Facebook and Summit Public Schools’ “personalized learning” platform is, for what it’s worth.

Research, “Research,” and Reports

Via the Institute for Women’s Policy Research: “Single Mothers are 3 Times More Likely to Enroll in For-Profit Colleges than Single Students without Children.”

Via Inside Higher Ed: “Study finds that students who deliver microaggressions are also likely to harbor racist attitudes.”

Daniel Willingham on learning styles.

Via Inside Higher Ed: “Amid concerns about visas and the political environment, some institutions are maintaining or even increasing their enrollment numbers, but many report drops, some by as much as 30 to 50 percent for new students.”

Via the Pew Research Center: “Most Americans – especially Millennials – say libraries can help them find reliable, trustworthy information.”

Via Inside Higher Ed: “A new University of New Hampshire study has identified how deeply sexual assault can affect students’ academics.”

Via Campus Technology: “2.1 million augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality headsets shipped in the second quarter of 2017, a 25.5 percent increase compared to the same period of 2016, according to a new report from International Data Corp. (IDC).”

Via Inside Higher Ed: “Many college students are stressed about finances – but none more so than American students, according to the results of a new report by Sodexo.”

Adaptive learning spending balloons to $41M since 2013,” Education Dive claims.

The latest on venture capital and education from me: “The Business of Ed-Tech: August 2017 Funding Data.”

Via The New York Times: “Education by the Numbers.”

Icon credits: The Noun Project

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Inequality, ‘Brand Ambassadors,’ and the Business of Selling (to) Classrooms

The Evergreen School District in Washington has told its teachers to stop using Donors Choose to raise money for classroom supplies and projects. According to KATU2, “The Washington State Auditor’s Office advised the district that a policy needs to be put in place to ensure that the money is properly handled, and that the items are designated as district property and put in the district inventory.”

Peter Greene argues that this new policy is about control – who gets to decide what is purchased for a classroom or school. One might pick up on an unspoken message in the decree too: teachers can’t be fully trusted to make procurement decisions. The district already has a system in place to do buy things, one that supposedly checks to make sure that purchases are necessary or “appropriate,” that (tax) dollars are spent wisely, and that no ethical or legal issues arise.

But does the district procurement process work? (Not just in this district. Anywhere.) For whom does it work? For whom does it not?

Of course, crowdfunding sites like Donors Choose (which boasts it’s helped raise some $571 million for school projects) are just one way that educators stock their classrooms with items that district budgets don’t (or won’t or can’t) pay for. Teachers spend a fair amount of money out their own pockets to this end as well – about $470 on average, often for basic office and classroom supplies. And this occurs alongside the burden of buying classroom supplies that falls on families too – there are reports this fall that the price tag for many back-to-school lists runs from $650 (for an elementary school student) to $1500 (for a high school student). That’s a lot of money for anyone, but particularly for the over half of US public school students who are eligible for the federal free and reduced lunch program, a proxy for living in poverty.

School supplies, whether paid for by taxpayers, teachers, or parents, are an equity issue. And adding technology to the shopping list might just make things worse – and not simply because these products can be expensive.

This weekend, New York Times reporter Natasha Singer published the latest article in her series on “Education Disrupted”: “Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues.” The story follows two teachers – Nicholas Provenzano from Gross Pointe South High School in Michigan and Kayla Delzer from Mapleton Elementary School in North Dakota – who have leveraged their social media followings to become high profile “influencers” in education technology, receiving new products for their classroom (for “free” and outside the district procurement process) in exchange for promoting them to other teachers in turn.

None of this is entirely new – some teachers have always sought to bring supplemental materials into the classroom at their own initiative and risk, particularly when it comes to technology (computing and otherwise). But this latest version of the “entrepreneurial teacher” as described in The New York Times is deeply intertwined with Silicon Valley’s version of “the hustle”; it’s one that demands that teachers take on a second shift (a 24–7 shift even) on technology platforms in order to build their own brands; and it’s one that reinforces the notion that it should be the responsibility of individual teachers to identify, buy, and promote technology, often justified by insisting they’re “doing the best they can” for their students. (Success in raising money on Donors Choose, for example, can depend to a great extent on a teacher’s ability to leverage her or his social media presence to spread word of the crowdfunding campaign.) This acclamation of the individual education “innovator” or entrepreneur and dismissal of a collective responsibility dovetails with talk of the failure of public institutions, as well as with another popular corporate narrative: “the procurement system is broken,” as ed-tech startups are wont to say. But again, broken how and broken for whom?

Altruism is not the same as justice.

“My kids have access to awesome things that, as a district, we could never afford,” teacher Nick Provenzano tells The NYT in justifying his relationship with a 3D printer company. The article takes that assertion at face value; many readers probably did too. Again, we all know that school budgets are tight. But “tight” is relative; budgets are relative. And Provenzano’s school is quite affluent. Just 7% of the students at Provenzano’s school qualify for the free and reduced lunch program – the state-wide average in Michigan is 38%, and 74% of students in the neighboring Detroit Public Schools qualify. Provenzano worries his English lit students won’t have a 3D printer; teachers (and parents) just 8 miles away in Detroit still have to worry about the lead in the city’s drinking water.

Inequality is rampant throughout public education in the United States (and yes, throughout the United States itself), and inequality affects not just how much money is allocated per student – funding is typically tied to property taxes – or how much teachers and families can afford and expect to spend in order to to supplement that. These inequalities affect what sorts of education technology appears in the classroom and how these products are used. Some students get 3D printers; some students get digital drill-and-kill. Some students get colorful beanbags to sit in; some students have to walk through metal detectors.

Educational inequalities are historical and they are structural and they are dependent on class and race and geography. 86% of the students at Provenzano’s school are white; 80% of those at Kayla Delzer’s, the other teacher in The NYT story, are white (which is, in fairness, a reflection of the overwhelmingly whiteness of North Dakota). This stands in stark contrast to the percentage of students enrolled in public schools across the entire US who are white: less than 50%. The student-teacher ratio at Delzer’s schools is 8 to 1; it’s significantly higher – no surprise – in classrooms in Detroit, which makes it difficult to imagine how a teacher could adopt the “flexible seating” options that Delzer promotes with her social media profile.

Neither Delzer nor Provenzano’s classrooms are representative of K–12 public schools; and yet these educators have been granted a sort of “celebrity” and speak widely – with corporate backing, as The New York Times underscores – about the future of education technology. But if their students aren’t representative of the make-up of the US student body, these two teachers both are representative of the K–12 teaching population: 82% of those who teach in public schools are white. Almost without exception, “ed-tech celebrities” are too. Furthermore, these high-profile tech-using educators teach (or once taught) in affluent schools where their students are predominantly white.

As such, we should ask what it means when these people are selected by ed-tech companies to “brand ambassadors”? What does it reveal about how these companies imagine teaching and learning? What does it say about how these companies view “influence” and decision-making power in public schools? (Indeed, several startups and organizations have identified the procurement process itself as a business opportunity, selling consulting services to schools and districts and recommending which technology products they should buy. Who will control this process?) How are our imaginations about the future of education and education technology shaped by the narratives we see promoted by these companies and by the ambassadors they’ve chosen to speak for them? What ends up on back-to-school lists and Donors Choose lists and district procurement lists because of these narratives?

Much of the response to The NYT article has focused on ethics: should teachers be profiting from their leveraging their profiles and positions in the classroom? Is there sufficient transparency? What rights do students have in these settings where their teachers are “brand ambassadors”? It’s their experiences and their data and their images, after all, that are being utilized for marketing and product development. These are crucial issues to address, particularly as ed-tech demands schools model themselves on the values of corporations and consumption.

But the questions the article raises go well beyond the ethics of marketing and pay-for-play. Education technology and its influencers must be viewed through the lens of social justice – and in the loud protestations I’ve seen on Twitter defending the practices in the story, that certainly is not happening – otherwise we will continue to ignore how ed-tech serves to exacerbate inequality and re-inscribe whiteness, affluence, and the conspicuous consumption of gadgetry as signs of “innovation.”

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