The Stories We Were Told in 2017 about Education Technology

I wouldn’t say these are all the stories about education technology we were told this year. But these are the ones I decided to analyze:

In addition to these eleven (damn) articles, I wrote a bunch of supplemental pieces, mostly trying to fill in some of the gaps in the storytelling:

I also wrote about the investors and corporations funding each of these powerful storylines (or at least, funding the new ed-tech companies associated with them):

This was the eighth time undertaking this year-end project, and it was, by far, the most difficult one yet. In part, 2017 was just a very bad year. A bad year for the politics of education. A bad year for the politics of technology. A busy year, full of bad education technology. There were many ed-tech storylines to follow, almost all of them dystopian. In part too, this project is just a lot of work, as there’s a ton of writing and as (I hope) there’s some big thinking as well.

This undertaking would not be possible without the scholarship of many other writers and thinkers. (So credit where credit is due.) And it certainly would not be possible without the financial and moral support of readers. Thank you everyone who read and shared my work this year.

Except for the haters. Don’t @ me.

from Hack Education

The Business of ‘Ed-Tech Trends’

This is part eleven of my annual look at the year’s “top ed-tech stories

In May, venture capitalist and former securities analyst Mary Meeker released her annual “Internet Trends” report. The report is always a big deal in technology circles – “a tech industry event in its own right,” as Wired’s Steven Levy put it in 2012 – and many publications and pundits dutifully cover Meeker’s observations, often adding very little analysis of their own.

Among the major trends Meeker identified for 2017: mobile advertising, gaming, and healthcare. She also noted the growth of markets in China and in India.

Another notable area of growth: the size of the report itself, which has expanded from 66 slides in 2011 to 355 this year, with the number of slides almost doubling in the last year alone. Longer doesn’t necessarily mean better or smarter (as readers of this series will surely attest), and some observers wondered if the length of Meeker’s report reflected a lack of focus on her part or a lack of innovation on the part of the industry itself. There are, after all, only so many times you can put “mobile” on your list of “what’s on the horizon” before folks begin to suspect your insights might not be that… insightful.

Much of what Meeker says in this year’s report about education is placed under her category “gaming.” She posits gaming as the new site for “modern learning,” with an emphasis on skills training and data-driven self-improvement.

I admit, I find this both an odd and a striking observation. Although I’ve written extensively in this series about the ways in which education is being framed in terms of “skills” and “data” and about how “behaviorism” – an older term for “gamification,” I’d wager – is growing more and more influential over how education products and policies are designed, I haven’t seen much indication this year that the future of education (or even the future of ed-tech) is “gaming” per se. (Although no doubt, Microsoft, now the owner of Minecraft, would like us all to repeat that particular storyline.) That this is how a venture capitalist would characterize the future of education is, nonetheless, quite notable.

And it raises a number of questions, I think: how good is Mary Meeker at actually identifying and analyzing Internet trends? (Hacker News commenters complained that she made no mention in her report of the blockchain or cryptocurrencies or Initial Coin Offerings. But guys, that might mean those aren’t actually “a thing.”) How accurate are her observations? How accurate is her data? (I’d contend that the slide on the rapid acceleration of technology adoption, for starters, is dead wrong.)

Why do so many people in the industry insist that this is “essential reading”? Why do people love to be told about “trends”?

Tom Webster, the VP of strategy at the market research firm Edison Research, argued that the report should be viewed as “an extremely effective piece of content marketing,” pointing to the number of slides that cite data about or by a portfolio company of Meeker’s employer, the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Smith Caulfield. “Why are there 72 slides about gaming, from a company invested in EA, Zynga, Mobcrush, and Magic Leap?” he asks. “Why is there a slide about Peloton? Is this really a trend? Would it be valuable to KPCB if it were?”

(For what it’s worth, Kleiner Perkins made just one major investment in education in 2017, participating in Coursera’s $64 million round this summer. KPCB partner John Doerr also invested in the “college alternative” MissionU.)

“Think critically about what has, and has not, been covered in this deck,” Webster urges. “Think about how much the report’s heft and quality lowers your defenses. And consider how much of the deck is about Internet Trends, and how much is a statement about KPCB’s portfolio. There is much to learn from the Meeker report. It’s just not what you think.”

The same could be said about so many of the reports and so much the writing that came out of the ed-tech industry this year. (It holds true for my work too, of course.) Why are certain types of technologies (and certain types of users) featured? Who and what is missing? Who is telling the stories, and who is funding the stories, and how much of ed-tech journalism ends up reflecting their “portfolio,” if you will – the political and financial investments certain people have made in a certain type of future.

Manufacturing Trends

There may be no better example of this in 2017 than “personalized learning.” There were hundreds upon hundreds of headlines this year, many touting the promise of new technologies to tailor teaching to each individual learner.

“Personalized learning” has powerful advocates, least of which US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos who talks about it as part of her broader initiative to “rethink school.” DeVos likes to contrast stories about “personalized learning” with a narrative about school not changing in hundreds of years, about school not recognizing individual student’s needs, about schools forcing students to all learn the same material at the same pace. “It’s a mundane malaise that dampens dreams, dims horizons and denies futures,” she told a crowd at a school in my hometown of Casper, Wyoming this fall. “Personalized learning,” we must imagine if we believe DeVos’s lyricism here, will be shinier.

I say “must imagine” because there isn’t really much research that supports the claims that “personalized learning” advocates make about it. There was a RAND study, funded by the Gates Foundation and released this summer, that did find modest gains for students in schools (that were funded by the Gates Foundation to utilize “personalized learning”) that tailored instruction to their needs, but the researchers cautioned against reading too much into the results and urged schools not to rush into buying new products or implementing new initiatives. There’s really no agreed-upon definition of “personalized learning” after all, and as such no real way to measure how many or how well schools are actually implementing it. Whatever “it” is.

So is “personalized learning” really a “trend”?

The lack of research hasn’t stopped the positive press coverage. Nor has it stopped Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg from making “personalized learning” a centerpiece of his venture philanthropy firm’s education work or from vowing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on it. Indeed, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has paid for some of that very press coverage, funding for example “an EdSurge Research series about how personalized learning is implemented in different school communities across the country.”

How Philanthropy Shapes “Ed-Tech Trends”

It’s hard to overstate how much influence philanthropic organizations have had on education policy, now and throughout US history. According to David Callahan, editor of the website Inside Philanthropy and author of the 2017 book The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy, philanthropists have more power than ever before, and “that influence is likely to grow far greater in coming decades.”

While civil society was a junior partner in the twentieth century relative to government and business, this is changing: Philanthropy is becoming a much stronger power center and, in some areas, is set to surpass government in its ability to shape society’s agenda. To put things differently, we face a future in which private donors – who are accountable to no one – may often wield more influence than elected public officials , who (in theory, anyway) are accountable to all of us.

No longer is this simply a matter of making a donation and getting one’s name on a university building – although there is still plenty of that. Philanthropy today shapes policy. It shapes discourse.

No contemporary billionaire has shaped the policy and the discourse in education quite like Bill Gates. The amount of money distributed by his philanthropy, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is simply staggering: some $15 billion across some 3000+ grants since the organization was founded in 1998. The Gates Foundation has backed a variety of education reform initiatives: charter schools, the Common Core State Standards, “small schools,” inBloom, teacher evaluations, and yes, “personalized learning.” He has backed these initiatives financially; and he has backed the publications and conferences that promote these sorts of efforts. The policy and the discourse.

In October, Gates announced to the attendees at the Council of the Great City Schools that his foundation plans to spend $1.7 billion in the next five years on education initiatives. But, Gates added, “our education efforts are evolving.”

The foundation will no longer directly invest in new initiatives involving teacher evaluations and ratings, Gates said – something the foundation has spent almost a billion dollars on – but will continue to gather data on the impact of these kinds of reforms. The foundation will focus on “locally-driven solutions” that networks of schools say are working well, using “data-driven continuous learning and evidence-based interventions to improve student achievement.” It will help to develop curricula and professional development aligned to state standards. It will continue to support charter schools, helping them with challenges like developing students’ “social and emotional skills.” And it will fund “innovative” research to “accelerate progress for underserved students.”

No mention of “personalized learning” in that outline, something that the Gates Foundation first started funding back in 2000 in some of its earliest grants “to support personalized learning environments where all students achieve.” Why, it’s almost as though there is some other tech billionaire who will now pick up the mantle for that cause…

There are many other billionaires – and not just tech billionaires, of course – who are active in education philanthropy and as such, education policy and education discourse. The Walton Family Foundation (of Walmart fame and fortune), for example, which pledged last year to spend $1 billion in K–12 education in the next five years, much of it going to fund charter schools. The Eli and Edith Broad Foundation, whose founder Eli Broad announced this year he was stepping down from his philanthropy. The Sackler family – dubbed by The New Yorker this year as “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” because of its role in funding the opiate industry – has backed a variety of education philanthropies and invested in a variety of education companies (including AltSchool). The Charles Koch Foundation, which gave some $50 million last year to universities and think tanks to support “free market ideas.” (I talk a bit about the Koch Brothers in part seven of this series that examines “free speech” on campus.) The Dick and Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, which has given money to charter schools (including Success Academy Charter Schools), media organizations (including The 74), and conservative education organizations (including Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education). (Perhaps that name, Betsy DeVos, is familiar. I have mentioned her once or twice in this series.)

Some of this is what Jane Mayer describes in her 2016 book Dark Money – the powerful and secretive networks of right-wing billionaire activists. Some of this is what was revealed this year in the release of the Paradise Papers – a trove of documents that show how wealthy individuals (and wealthy corporations and wealthy universities) keep their money in shell companies and offshore accounts, so as to avoid taxes. (According to The Givers, the US Treasury has estimated that charitable tax breaks will total some $740 billion over the next decade, although this calculation came prior the recent GOP tax plan that altered how the middle class benefits from these sorts of deductions.)

To avoid taxes and to avoid scrutiny.

To its credit, the Gates Foundation does make the list of its grant recipients publicly available on its website. (I spent some time this summer going through that list and compiling all the education-related ones – you can find that work on, including details of the $235-ish million in grant funding that went to education projects this year.)

But others in education philanthropy, particularly venture philanthropy, are far less transparent. The Emerson Collective, the investment firm run by Steve Jobs’ widow Laurene Powell Jobs, is notoriously opaque about its investments. Edsurge, for example, received funding from the company this year, but there was no public announcement to that end.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, for its part, has opted for a different organizational structure – an LLC – enabling it to avoid the kinds of disclosure that the IRS requires of foundations like the Gates’. As Jesse Eisinger wrote in a scathing article in The New York Times when Mark Zuckerberg announced the initiative back in 2015,

An L.L.C. can invest in for-profit companies (perhaps these will be characterized as societally responsible companies, but lots of companies claim the mantle of societal responsibility). An L.L.C. can make political donations. It can lobby for changes in the law. He remains completely free to do as he wishes with his money. That’s what America is all about. But as a society, we don’t generally call these types of activities “charity.”

Despite the promises that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has made about investing hundreds of millions of dollars in personalized learning and other education projects, we don’t know how much has been invested or how much has been granted or where all that money has gone.

We did learn a little this year about what happened to that famous $100 million donation Zuckerberg made to Newark’s public schools – thanks to research underwritten by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative: “by 2016, Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011. But the results are not uniformly positive. It finds no impact in math. And in both subjects, the reforms seem to have come with a cost: student achievement declined substantially in the first three years of the changes,” Chalkbeat reported this fall.

And we learned a little too about other CZI efforts based on the odd press release and media coverage: money to the College Board; money to Chiefs for Change; investments in Brightwheel, Sawyer, Andela, and Panorama Education. CZI hired Bror Saxberg, whose previous work was with the for-profit online charter school K12 Inc and the for-profit college Kaplan, as its learning scientist. It hired David Plouffe, Obama’s ex-campaign manager who had most recently worked at Uber. It hired former PayPal exec Peggy Abkemeier Alford as its CFO. It hired Joel Benenson, former Obama and Clinton political strategist. (Don’t worry. Mark Zuckerberg is totally not running for President.)

If the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a new model for ed-tech philanthropy, then it’s important to recognize how its lack of transparency reflects a growing influence of “dark money” in education and education technology. The policy and the discourse.

Venture Capital in 2017

You can find more data about “the business of ed-tech” – from 2017 and from previous years – on Here are some of the numbers from this one:

  • Amount of venture capital invested in 2017: $3.48 billion
  • Number of investments: 198
  • Average investment size: $19 million / Median investment size: $5 million
  • Number of acquisitions: 86
  • Number of mergers: 4
  • Number of IPOs: 4
  • Number added to the “ed-tech dead pool”: 4

The amount of investment is up from last year by over $1 billion. But it’s down from the record-setting year in 2015 – down by about $1 billion. The number of deals this year is also down from the two previous years, as is the number of acquisitions. That is, there were more large investments in fewer companies, but also fewer companies buying the little ones in turn.

The companies that have raised the most money in 2017 (not including the venture capital firms that have raised new funds):

  • SoFi (private student loans) –- $500 million
  • VIPKID (tutoring) – $200 million
  • EverFi (“critical skills” training) –- $190 million
  • Zuoyebang (tutoring) – $150 million
  • Hero K12 (behavior management) –- $150 million
  • Yuanfandao (tutoring) –- $120 million
  • Grammarly (grammar and spelling assistance in exchange for your personal data) –- $110 million
  • (tutoring) -– $100 million
  • Liulishuo (language learning) – $100 million
  • Gaosi Education (tutoring) – $83.5 million
  • BYJU’s (test prep) – $70 million
  • Coursera (online education) –- $64 million
  • Absorb (learning management system) – $59 million
  • Changingedu (tutoring) – $55 million
  • Yixue Education (online education) – $41 million
  • Wonder Workshop (robotics) – $41 million
  • AltSchool (private school; learning management system) – $40 million
  • Prodigy Finance (student loans) – $40 million

These are (as far as I can tell) currently the most well-funded startups in education:

  • SoFi (student loans) – $2.156 billion
  • VIPKID (tutoring) – $325 million
  • EverFi (“critical skills” training) – $251 million
  • BYJUs (test prep) – $244 million
  • Coursera (online education) – $210.1 million
  • Yuanfandao (tutoring) –- $210 million
  • Zuoyebang (tutoring) – $210 million
  • Pluralsight (skills training) – $192.5 million
  • Age of Learning (educational apps) – $181.5 million
  • Udemy (skills training) – $173 million
  • AltSchool (private school; learning management system) – $172.9 million
  • Kaltura (video) – $166.1 million
  • D2L (learning management system) – $165 million
  • Udacity (skills training) – $160 million
  • Knewton (mind-reading robo tutor in the sky) – $157.25 million

The most active venture capitalist firms this year:

  • University Ventures (with investments in Smart Sparrow, AdmitHub, CollegeVine, Examity, Motimatic, OOHLALA, Paragon One, PeopleGrove, Packback, EquitySim, Evertrue, Vemo Education, MissionU, and Galvanize. I would argue that University Ventures is not only the most active investor but also the one most actively shaping discourse, with regular op-eds by partner Ryan Craig in Techcrunch and in Edsurge)
  • Reach Capital (with investments in Abl, AdmitHub, BookNook, Epic, Holberton School, Mrs. Wordsmith, Mystery Science, Nearpod, PeopleGrove, Lightneer, Tinkergarten, Piper, BetterLesson, and OOHLALA)
  • Rethink Education (with investments in Abl, Clark, Knowledge to Practice, Trilogy Education, Vidcode, Voxy, MissionU, Upswing, and Lessonly)
  • GSV (with investments in CreativeLive, MasterClass, PeopleGrove,, Voxy, Lightneer, Nearpod, Coursera, and Motimatic from GSV Acceleration, GSV Asset Management, and GSV Capital)
  • Owl Ventures (with investments in Abl, Lingo Live,, Tinkergarten, Piper, BetterLesson, Panorama Education, and Noodle Partners)
  • Learn Capital (with investments in Coursera, Mystery Science, Outschool, Paragon One, MissionU, Springboard, and Peergrade)

Manufacturing Markets

Among the most popular areas of investment for venture capitalists:

  • Tutoring, with ~ $667.42 million in funding
  • Student loans, with ~ $583.8 million in funding (Financial aid management companies raised another $37.5 million this year)
  • Online education, with ~ $358.85 million in funding
  • Venture capital firms, with ~ $306.5 million in funding
  • Language learning, with ~ $185.6 million in funding
  • Behavior management, with ~ $150 million in funding
  • Grammar and spelling assistance, with ~ $110 million in funding
  • Coding bootcamps, with ~ $107.6 million in funding (Other learn-to-code companies raised about $22.89 million this year)
  • Robotics, with ~ $99 million in funding
  • Test prep, with ~ $80 million in funding
  • Learning management systems, with ~ $65 million in funding

It’s worth considering, I think, whether or not the level of investment matches the hype: do the areas above coincide with the stories that we were most often told this year about what, supposedly, are “ed-tech trends.” Gaming – what Mary Meeker, if you’ll recall, positions as the future of learning – doesn’t make the list here, for example. Nor does “social emotional learning,” virtual reality, predictive analytics, wearables, or the other things likely to end up on various publications’ lists of trends. Are tutoring and test prep – pax Benjamin Bloom – actually what we can expect with investors’ and philanthropists’ push for “personalized learning”?

Looking at investment dollars doesn’t tell the whole story, of course, of what might be “trending” – of what’s popular, of what’s profitable, of (god knows) what’s pedagogically useful or ethically desirable.

One could look at other financial indicators, I suppose, to get a sense of the health and viability of certain trends (or at least, of certain businesses). Companies that were acquired in 2017, for example. The number of acquisitions was down from previous years, as some of the companies who, in previous years, gobbled up a lot of small startups, seem to be struggling financially. (Pearson, for one.) Or one could gauge “ed-tech trends” based on the companies that went out of business. This year, Yik Yak shut down, despite having raised some $73 million in venture funding. Two high-profile coding bootcamps, The Iron Yard and Dev Bootcamp, closed their doors. Or one could look at ed-tech companies that laid off staff: the coding bootcamp Galvanize, the analytics company Civitas Learning, the learning management system Schoology, MOOC provider Coursera, the education giant Pearson, for example. One could look at companies that made major shuffles in the executive boardrooms: a new CEO at Coursera, the departure of Coursera’s chief product officer, a new CEO at Knewton, the departure of Altschool’s COO, for instance.

Of course, it might not be possible (or wise) to glean “trends” from business patterns, despite the popularity of all those Mary Meeker slides. But it’s probably one way to surmise what investors are betting “the future of education to look like.” If that’s the case, that future might look like China, with over a quarter of venture capital in ed-tech this year going to Chinese companies – almost entirely to tutoring and test prep. Six out of the top ten largest rounds of funding went to Chinese companies. Three out of four of the education IPOs this year were Chinese companies. Three out of the best funded education startups are Chinese companies. There was lots of talk this year about Chinese’s growing influence and innovation in tech, so to borrow from a Fortune headline, will China emerge as an education technology superpower to rival the US? How will the growing demand for education in China shape the future of education technologically and the future of education globally?

(Yes, this series is focused primarily on the stories we were told about education and education technology in the US. For a quick overview of some of the other stories from other countries, you can read more on the blog.)

For the past few years, I’ve noted that many in education technology have pointed to the procurement process as “the problem” – that that’s really what’s to blame when ed-tech (and the business of ed-tech) is terrible. Their “solution”: something I dubbed “procurement-as-a-service” – that is, a service offered to schools to help them make better and easier purchasing decisions. “Consulting” is probably the better word for it, in hindsight.

There were a string of events at the beginning of 2017 that made me think that this was going to become “a thing”:

  • Edsurge announced in January that it would concentrate on its “Concierge” service, acting as a liaison between schools and industry and aiding the former in deciding which of the latter’s products to buy. “We’re taking a big step and committing ourselves to one goal,” Edsurge wrote. “Helping schools figure out what technologies can best help all of their students grow into people who can smartly navigate our complex, networked world.”
  • Noodle Companies announced in January it had raised $5 million in venture capital. The company, founded by Princeton Review and 2U founder (and Edsurge investor) John Katzman, runs Noodle Markets, which helps schools with procurement.
  • In February, Education Week reported that districts and schools will be able to make purchases online via Amazon through the US Communities cooperative.
  • Education Week also reported in February that the State Educational Technology Directors Association had released a new website that offered guidelines on purchasing digital materials.
  • In February, The Hechinger Report profiled LEAP Innovations, a Chicago-based non-profit, alongside the LearnLaunch startup accelerator program: “How some schools decide what education technology to buy.”
  • In February, Education Dive profiled the Technology for Education Consortium, an organization whose members share data about what they’ve paid for ed-tech products, and its partnership with LearnPlatform. In April, Education Week’s Market Brief reported on a study by the consortium claiming school districts could save billions if they shared with one another the details about what they were paying for hardware and software.

But then in May, Edsurge suddenly pivoted again, announcing “the next stage” for its Concierge service: “Starting on June 1, EdSurge Concierge will no longer offer free, phone-based diagnostics to school and district administrators, nor will we make direct connections between administrators and company representatives.” Instead, it said it would offer some diagnostic tools online.

Around the same time, The New York Times began publishing Natasha Singer’s year-long investigative series into how education technology is being sold to classrooms, chronicling the ways in which Silicon Valley is changing what hardware, software, and curricula schools purchase. “Some tech moguls are taking a hands-on role in nearly every step of the education supply chain,” Singer wrote, “by financing campaigns to alter policy, building learning apps to advance their aims and subsidizing teacher training.” Edsurge, I’d suggest, may be a key piece of that supply chain, funded by the very same investors who’ve backed the products it covers and “trends” it promotes.

Singer’s series examined how tech companies are wooing school “gatekeepers” and decision-makers – how the Baltimore County Public Schools in particular made some of its tech procurement decisions, noting a tangle of relationships among education foundations, ed-tech advocacy groups, technology companies, and public officials (including the district’s superintendent Dallas Dance, who resigned suddenly in April and is now under investigation, in part for his connections to SUPES Academy, according to The Baltimore Sun, a company run by the former head of Chicago Public Schools, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who pleaded guilty in April to a bribery and kickback scheme).

Perhaps the most controversial (in some circles, at least) story in Singer’s series was her look at “brand ambassadors,” those educators who provide free marketing for ed-tech companies – receiving new products for use in their classroom (for free and as such outside the typical procurement process), promoting these products to other educators, and providing the companies with feedback. The story profiles 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, shaping what other teachers learn about “ed-tech trends.”

Here’s part of what I wrote in response to that article:

“I am in this profession for kids,” these celebrity educators insist, not for money or fame. But 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 his 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 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 those classrooms in Detroit, which makes it difficult to imagine how a teacher there could adopt the “flexible seating” options that Delzer promotes with her social media profile.

The New York Times series raises a lot of questions about the ethics of ed-tech procurement – about “influence” and decision-making and one of today’s most powerful industries. But it raises questions too about the business of “ed-tech trends” and the power of ed-tech storytelling. We’d do well to consider how our imaginations about the future of education and education technology are shaped by the narratives we see promoted by education investors and education philanthropists and education trade shows and education companies and by the educators that regularly speak for them. What ends up on schools’ and students’ shopping lists because of these stories? What legislation ends up on politicians’ desks?

Imagine that, instead of fawning over future-oriented “trends” or the future promise of products – be they virtual reality or “personalized learning” or “flexible seating” or what have you, that education technology actually centered itself on ethical practices – on an ethics of care. And imagine if education’s investors, philanthropists, and practitioners alike committed to addressing, say, economic inequality and racial segregation instead of simply committing to buying more tech.

It’d be a whole different story…

Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on You can read more at

from Hack Education

Hack Education Weekly News

(National) Education Politics

“Where is Trump’s Cabinet?” asks Politico. “It’s anybody’s guess.” The story include updates about US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and her failure to disclosure her complete schedule.

“The Library of Congress No Longer Wants All the Tweets,” says The New York Times. Related thoughts from Ed Summers.

Andrew Rotherham on the new tax code’s provision to allow 529s for private schools: “A Lousy School Choice.”

Via Inside Higher Ed: “Britain May Fine Universities That Limit Free Speech.”

Via Wired UK: “UK’s Nudge Unit tests machine learning to rate schools and GPs.” “Nudge Unit.” JFC.

(State and Local) Education Politics

Via Education Week: “Two Districts Roll Back Summit Personalized Learning Program.”

Via Inside Higher Ed: “Cuomo Wants Food Pantries at all New York Public Colleges.”

Via The Boston Globe: “Boston drops plan to change school hours.”

Education in the Courts

I’m not sure the best section for this story as so many “hate crimes” actually never make it to the legal system. But here it is, nonetheless. Via ProPublica: “What We Discovered During a Year of Documenting Hate.”

Via the AP: “A federal judge has issued a final judgment, blocking an Arizona state law that prompted the dismantling of a Mexican-American history program in Tucson’s largest school district.”

Via The Washington Post: “Judge lifts restraining order against Project Veritas in case involving teachers union.”

Via The Wall Street Journal: “A Look at Sexual-Harassment and Assault Settlements in Schools.”

Via Security Boulevard: “Canada Proposes $17.5M Settlement for Student Loan Privacy Breach.”

Meanwhile on Campus…

Via The Atlantic: “The Intrusion of White Families Into Bilingual Schools.”

Via The Boston Globe: “New college for conservative Christians planned in Boston.”

Go, School Sports Team!

Via The Intercept: “The NCAA Makes Billions, College Athletes Get Nothing. LaVar Ball Wants to Shake Up the System.”

From the HR Department

George Ciccariello-Maher has left his position at Drexel, citing threats to himself and his family.

The Business of Job Training

“Best Online Classes for Job Skills,” according to MIT Technology Review.

Contests and Awards

From the press release: “Alexa Skills Challenge Offers $250,000 in Prizes for Best Kid Skills.” “The best kids skills,” I’m just gonna say, should never include surveillance capitalism, folks.

Upgrades and Downgrades

“Ten years in, nobody has come up with a use for blockchain,” says Hacker Noon. Except everyone in education who keeps insisting that it’s gonna “tokenize learning” or “revolutionize grades” or something. Or stuff like this, also on Hacker Noon: “Introducing The Crypto University.”

Via Buzzfeed: “ YouTube Has A Massive Child Exploitation Problem. How Humans Train Its Search AI Is Partly Why.”

OER, Capability, and Opportunity” by David Wiley.

Via Edsurge: “OER Had Its Breakthrough in 2017. Next Year, It Will Become an Essential Teaching Tool.” “OER is about to become for course planning what LMS is for grading,” which frankly sounds awful.

According to The Wall Street Journal, “Textbook Shopping Goes Online, Driving Prices Down.”

Via Mindwires Consulting’s Michael Feldstein: “Cengage Unlimited Textbook Author Update.”

Robots and Other Ed-Tech SF

Via Today Online: “Robot tutors set to help students take on China’s daunting Gaokao college entrance exams.”

Venture Capital and the Business of Ed-Tech

PeerGrade has raised $1.5 million in seed funding from Y Combinator, byFounders, Project A, Nordic Makers Learn Capital and Futuristic.VC. The peer feedback company has raised $1.89 million total.

Edlio has acquired Scholantis.

Eurazeo and Primavera Capital have acquired WorldStrides.

Privacy, Surveillance, and Information Security

The most Wired headline: “Science Says Fitness Trackers Don’t Work. Wear One Anyway.”

Via The Hickory Record: “Newton-Conover City School use data walls to close academic gaps.”

There’s more about legal cases surrounding privacy breaches in the courts section above.

Research, “Research,” and Reports

Via The Exstreamist: “Kids in ‘Netflix Only’ Homes are Being Saved from 230 Hours of Commercials a Year.” (I’m not so sure about this, but hey. Nice marketing for streaming services published on a site about streaming services.)

Icon credits: The Noun Project

from Hack Education

Education Technology and the New Behaviorism

This is part ten of my annual look at the year’s “top ed-tech stories

Perhaps it’s no surprise that there was so much talk this year about education, technology, and emotional health. I mean, 2017 really sucked, and we’re all feeling it.

As support services get axed and the social safety net becomes threadbare, our well-being – our economic and emotional well-being – becomes more and more fragile. People are stressed out, and people are demoralized, and people are depressed. People are struggling, and people are vulnerable, and people are afraid. And “people” here certainly includes students.

All the talk of the importance of “emotion” in education reflects other trends too. It’s a reaction, I’d say, to the current obsession with artificial intelligence and a response to all the stories we were told this year about robots on the cusp of replacing, out-“thinking,” and out-working us. If indeed robots will excel at those tasks that are logical and analytical, schools must instead develop in students – or so the story goes – more “emotional intelligence,” the more “human” capacity for empathy and care.

Talk of “emotion” has also been the focus of several education reform narratives for the last few years – calls for students to develop “grit” and “growth mindsets” and the like. (So much easier than addressing structural inequality.)

There has been plenty of speculation in the past few years that the latest law governing K–12 education in the US, ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law by President Obama in December 2015), will promote programs and assessments that focus on “social and emotional learning,” not simply on the traditional indicators of schools’ performance – academics and test scores. Schools should “foster safe, healthy, supportive, and drug-free environments that support student academic achievement,” the law says, which might include “instructional practices for developing relationship-building skills, such as effective communication” or “implementation of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports.”

Of course, when all these narratives about “social emotional learning” get picked up by education technologists and education entrepreneurs, they don’t just turn policy mandates or even into TED Talks. They turn into products.

“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.” – Eric Hoffer

Hacking the Brain

The current (and long-running, let’s be honest) fascination with AI is deeply intertwined with science and speculation about the functioning of the brain and the possibilities for that organ’s technological improvement. There’s a science fiction bent as well and a certain millennialism, an AI apocalypticism, to much of the invocation of “hacking the brain” – a religious fantasy about the impending merger of “man and machine.”

While new “neurotechnologies” are primarily being developed to help those with disabilities regain speech, sight, and mobility, there is still plenty of talk about “linking human brains to computers” as consumer-oriented “enhancements” that everyone will want to pursue. A “symbiosis with machines” as Bryan Johnson puts it. He’s put $100 million of his own money into his company Kernel (which I guess means we’re supposed to believe it’s a real, viable thing) with the promise of developing computer chip implants that will bolster human intelligence. Elon Musk – a totally reliable person with his predictions of the future of the business of science – has founded a company called Neuralink that does something similar. It too will link human brains to machines. (There’s a cartoon explainer, which I guess means we’re supposed to believe it’s a real, viable thing). In eight to ten years time, Musk assures us, brain implants will enable telepathy.

(I’m keeping track of all these predictions. It isn’t simply that folks get it right or get it wrong. It’s that the repetition of these stories, particularly when framed as inevitabilities, shapes our preparations for the future. The repetition shapes our imaginations about the future.)

“Neuroeducation Will Lead to Big Breakthroughs in Learning,” Singularity Hub proclaimed this fall. Singularity Hub is a publication run by Singularity University, a for-profit (non-accredited) school founded by Ray Kurzweil, one of Silicon Valley’s biggest evangelists for the notion we’ll soon be able to upload human minds into computers. We’re on the cusp of being able to upload skills directly into the brain, wrote this spring. ( is a website run by the New York Chapter Leader of Singularity University.) All these promises, if kept, would indeed make for breakthroughs in teaching and learning. “If kept,” of course, is the operative phrase there.

If kept. If possible. If ethical or desirable, even.

There are promises about “brain hacking pills” that will speed up learning. (Well, it turns out, they don’t actually work.) There are promises about “brain zapping” to speed up learning. (What researchers understand about the effectiveness of this procedure is pretty preliminary.) There are promises about “brain training” exercises that will keep the brain “fit” as one ages. (The research is iffy at best.)

Edsurge wrote about Brainco in October, a company that says its devices can monitor students’ brainwave activity in order to ascertain who’s paying attention in class. A few weeks later, Edsurge wrote about InteraXon, a company that says its devices can monitor students’ brainwave activity “for meditation and discipline.” An ed-tech trend in the making, investors hope.

But probably the biggest story in “neuroeducation” this year involved Neurocore, a company that monitors brainwaves and then, through “neurofeedback sessions,” trains people to train their brain to activate certain brainwave frequencies. Neurocore didn’t make headlines because it worked – to the contrary. It made headlines because it was under investigation for making misleading claims about its benefits. (It’s promoted in some circles as a “cure” for autism and ADHD.) And it made headlines because one of its financial backers is US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who despite the dearth of data about the effectiveness of Neurocore, invested even more money in the company this year.

Don’t let the dearth of data fool you though. Many people find all this a compelling story, data or no data – a long-running fantasy about “Matrix-style learning”. And when the story is accompanied with colorful images from fMRIs, it all seems to be incredibly persuasive.

It’s incredibly dangerous too, as Stirling University’s Ben Williamson cautions, as the kind of control that these devices promise should raise all sorts of questions about students’ civil rights and “cognitive liberties.” Williamson argues,

Neuroenhancement may not be quite as scientifically and technically feasible yet as its advocates hope, but the fact remains that certain powerful individuals and organizations want it to happen. They have attached their technical aspirations to particular visions of social order and progress that appear to be attainable through the application of neurotechnologies to brain analytics and even neuro-optimization. As STS researchers of neuroscience Simon Williams, Stephen Katz & Paul Martin have argued, the prospects of cognitive enhancement are part of a ‘neurofuture’ in-the-making that needs as much critical scrutiny as the alleged ‘brain facts’ produced by brain scanning technologies.

Marketing “Mindsets”

While the brainwave monitoring headsets hyped by some in ed-tech might seem too far-fetched and too futuristic for schools to adopt, they are being positioned as part of another trend that might make them seem far more palatable: “social emotional learning” or SEL.

SEL has powerful advocates in powerful places: MacArthur Foundation “Genius” and University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth. Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck, who was awarded the $4 million Yidan Prize for Education Research this fall. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, whose vision for the future of education involves “whole child personalized learning” and who says it plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into education initiatives to that end. The World Economic Forum. The OECD.

Oh, and the President of the United States, I guess. He did declare 15 – 21 October of this year “Character Counts Week.” Something about grit and determination and moral fiber and whatnot.

For its part, Edsurge pushed hard with its marketing of SEL in 2017: “Want Social-Emotional Learning to Work? The Careful Balance of Tech and Relationships.” “Assessing Social-Emotional Skills Can Be Fuzzy Work; SELweb Offers Concrete Data.” “How Valor Collegiate Academy is Rethinking SEL.” “Can Grit Be Measured? Angela Duckworth Is Working on It.” “How Can Educators Strike a Balance Between Blended and Social-Emotional Learning?” “Panorama Offers New Platform to Help Teachers Track Student’s SEL Growth.” “Panorama’s Student Progress Reports Show More Than Grades (Think Behavior and SEL).” “Social-Emotional Learning Is the Rage in K–12. So Why Not in College?” “ClassDojo and Yale Team Up to Bring Mindfulness to the Masses.” “We Know SEL Skills Are Important, So How the Heck Do We Measure Them?” “​How Game-Based Learning Encourages Growth Mindset” (that’s sponsored content from “Three Ways You Can Harness Personalized Learning to Promote a Growth Mindset” (that’s sponsored content from Edmentum). “What If Students Have More Confidence in Growth Mindsets Than Their Teachers?” “Free Tech Tools Teach Social Emotional Learning in Classrooms” (that’s sponsored content from EverFi). “Panorama Education Raises $16M to Connect Emotional, Academic Wellbeing With Data.” “How to Measure Success Without Academic Achievement.”

The elements shared across many of these stories: the monitoring and measuring of students. Monitoring and measuring studentsdata, that is, and then managing their emotions, sure, but more likely, their behavior.

One of the largest single rounds of funding this year was in the behavior management company Hero K12, which raised $150 million in private equity funding in June. (You can read more about who’s funding this and other trends in my year-end series on

I wrote about this company, along with its better known competitor ClassDojo, in an article in The Baffler. ClassDojo, which is also used by teachers and schools to manage student behavior, boasts that it’s been adopted in 90% of schools – a statistic that cannot be verified since this sort of data is not tracked by anyone other than the company making the claim. With this popularity, ClassDojo has done a great deal to introduce and promote “growth mindsets” and “mindfulness” to educators. (“To the masses” as Edsurge puts it.)

These apps – Hero K12, ClassDojo and other types of behavior management products – claim that they help develop “correct behavior.” But what exactly does “correct behavior” entail? And what does it mean (for the future of civic participation, if nothing else) if schools entrust this definition to for-profit companies and their version of psychological expertise? As Ben Williamson observes “social-emotional learning is the product of a fast policy network of ‘psy’ entrepreneurs, global policy advice, media advocacy, philanthropy, think tanks, tech R&D and venture capital investment. Together, this loose alliance of actors has produced shared vocabularies, aspirations, and practical techniques of measurement of the ‘behavioural indicators’ of classroom conduct that correlate to psychologically-defined categories of character, mindset, grit, and other personal qualities of social-emotional learning.” These indicators encourage behaviors that are measurable and manageable, Williamson contends, but SEL also encourages characteristics like malleability and compliance – and all that fits nicely with the “skills” that a corporate vision of education would demand from students and future workers.

Classroom Management and Persuasive Technologies

In that Baffler article, I make the argument that behavior management apps like ClassDojo’s are the latest manifestation of behaviorism, a psychological theory that has underpinned much of the development of education technology. Behaviorism is, of course, most closely associated with B. F. Skinner, who developed the idea of his “teaching machine” when he visited his daughter’s fourth grade class in 1953. Skinner believed that a machine could provide a superior form of reinforcement to the human teacher, who relied too much on negative reinforcement, punishing students for bad behavior than on positive reinforcement, the kind that better trains the pigeons.

As Skinner wrote in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, “We need to make vast changes in human behavior…. What we need is a technology of behavior." Teaching machines, he argued, would be one such technology.

By arranging appropriate ‘contingencies of reinforcement,’ specific forms of behavior can be set up and brought under the control of specific classes of stimuli. The resulting behavior can be maintained in strength for long periods of time. A technology based on this work has already been put to use in neurology, pharmacology, nutrition, psychophysics, psychiatry, and elsewhere.

The analysis is also relevant to education. A student is ‘taught’ in the sense that he is induced to engage in new forms of behavior and in specific form upon specific occasions. It is not merely a matter of teaching him what to do; we are as much concerned with the probability that appropriate behavior will, indeed, appear at the proper time – an issue which would be classed traditionally under motivation.

Skinner was unsuccessful in convincing schools in the 1950s and 1960s that they should buy his teaching machines, and some people argue that his work has fallen completely out of favor, only invoked when deriding something as a “Skinner’s Box.” But I think there’s been a resurgence in behaviorism. It’s epicenter isn’t Harvard, where Skinner taught. It’s Stanford. It’s Silicon Valley. And this new behaviorism is fundamental to how many new digital technologies are being built.

It’s called “behavior design” today (because at Stanford, you put the word “design” in everything to make it sound beautiful not totally rotten). Stanford psychologist B. J. Fogg and his Persuasive Technology Lab teach engineers and entrepreneurs how to build products – some of the most popular apps can trace their origins to the lab – that manipulate and influence users, encouraging certain actions or behaviors and discouraging others and cultivating a kind of “addiction” or conditioned response. “Contingencies of reinforcement,” as Skinner would call them. “Technique,” Jacques Ellul would say. “Nudges,” per behavioral economist Richard Thaler, recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize for economics.

New technologies are purposefully engineered to demand our attention, to “hijack our minds.” They’re designed to elicit certain responses and to shape and alter our behaviors. Ostensibly all these nudges are supposed to make us better people – that’s the shiniest version of the story promoted in books like Nudge and Thinking about Thinking. But much of this is really about getting us to click on ads, to respond to notifications, to open apps, to stay on Web pages, to scroll, to share – actions and “metrics” that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors value.

There’s a darker side still to this as I argued in the first article in this very, very long series: this kind of behavior management has become embedded in our new information architecture. It’s “fake news,” sure. But it’s also disinformation plus big data plus psychological profiling and behavior modification. The Silicon Valley “nudge” is a corporate nudge. But as these technologies are increasingly part of media, scholarship, and schooling, it’s a civics nudge too.

Those darling little ClassDojo monsters are a lot less cute when you see them as part of a new regime of educational data science, experimentation, and “psycho-informatics.”

Personalized Learning and the Nudge

In May, The Australian obtained a 23-page document from Facebook’s Australian office detailing how the company had offered to advertisers the ability to target some 6.4 million young people (some as young as 14) during moments of emotional vulnerability – when they felt “worthless,” “insecure,” “defeated,” “anxious,” “silly,” “useless,” “stupid,” “overwhelmed,” “stressed,” or “a failure.” Facebook denied the reporting, stating that The Australian article was misleading and insisting that the company “does not offer tools to target people based on their emotional state.” Of course, five years ago, the company did conduct a mass experiment on the manipulation of users’ emotions. It published those findings in an academic journal.

Facebook might not offer tools to identify users’ emotions to others, but it certainly uses them internally. In November, it unveiled a service to detect if users are suicidal. And earlier this year Facebook IQ, the company’s research division, did publish a paper on how marketers could utilize the emotional experiences people will have in VR. (Remember: Facebook owns Oculus Rift.) “All participants wore EEG headsets to analyze their brain signals and measure their level of comfort and engagement.” The company also announced at its annual developer conference this spring that, like Elon Musk, it too is working on a brain-computer interface. Facebook won’t say if it plans to use brain activity for advertising.

“Is Spending Time on Social Media Bad for Us?” Facebook’s Director of Research David Ginsberg pondered in a company blog post last week. And certainly there has been a ton of ink spilled this year on this very question, noting the increased depression and anxiety (particularly among teens) that some researchers are tracing to the Internet in general and to social media specifically. “Increased Hours Online Correlate With Uptick In Teen Depression, Suicidal Thoughts,” Mindshift reported this fall. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” asked Jean M. Twenge in a widely-read article in The Atlantic, also published this fall. Many in education technology like to scoff at these sorts of claims, I realize. They’re prone to side with Facebook’s Ginsberg: “our research and other academic literature suggests that it’s about how you use social media that matters when it comes to your well-being.”

Facebook is the largest social network in the world. As of June, it boasted some 2 billion active monthly users. The manipulation of users’ social and emotional experiences should not be minimized or dismissed. And for educators, it’s important to recognize that interest in social and emotional experience and behavioral design is not just something that happens on the Facebook platform (or with other consumer-facing technologies).

Mark Zuckerberg and his Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to promote his vision of “personalized learning.” It’s a vision that, as the head of its education work Jim Shelton recently wrote in an article on Medium, “embraces the role of social-emotional and interpersonal skills, mental and physical health, and a child’s confident progress toward a sense of purpose.”

“More personal means more equitable and just,” Shelton insisted in that Medium essay. And I do not doubt that the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook all believe that. They believe that they have our best interests at heart, and they will guide us – algorithmically, of course – to “good” academics and “good” thoughts and “good” feelings and “good” behavior, defining and designing what “good” looks like.

Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on You can read more at

from Hack Education

Hack Education Weekly News

(National) Education Politics

The GOP passed their tax plan. Various education-related updates – via The New York Times: “How the Republican Tax Plan Uses School Savings to Hurt States.” Via Education Week: “Final Tax Bill Keeps Teacher Deduction at $250, Cuts State and Local Deductions.” Via Inside Higher Ed: “Final GOP Deal Would Tax Large Endowments.” Via Buzzfeed: “A Small College That Mostly Accepts Poor Students Is A Last-Minute Loser In The New Tax Plan.” (That’s Berea College. More on the Kentucky college in The Chronicle of Higher Education.)

US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave a commencement speech in at the University of Baltimore this week. Via The Atlantic: “The Significance of Betsy DeVos’s Speech in Baltimore.”

Via Chalkbeat: “Four takeaways from Betsy DeVos’s summit on innovation in K–12 education.”

Via The Washington Post: “Education Department proposes delaying Obama-era rule on racial disparities in special education.”

More news on student loans in the student loan section below.

Via Edsurge: “What’s In? What’s Out? And What’s Likely? Decoding Higher Ed Act Reauthorization.”

More thoughts on the revocation of “Net Neutrality” regulations – from “Dean Dad” Matt Reed: “Net Neutrality and Online Teaching.” Via Edsurge: “From Neutrality to Inequality: Why the FCC Is Dismantling Equal Access and What It Could Mean for Education.” “Net Neutrality Was Never Enough,” says Ian Bogost in The Atlantic.

(State and Local) Education Politics

New York Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will step down from her position in the new year. More on the news in the HR section below.

Two school districts in two states are scaling back their use of the Facebook-built Summit Public Schools’ learning management system. Via Edsurge: “Connecticut School District Suspends Use of Summit Learning Platform.” Via The Indiana Gazette: “Directors vote to scale back Summit Learning program.” That’s the Indiana Area School District in Pennsylvania.

Via Inside Higher Ed: “New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vetoed legislation Tuesday that would have extended the state’s tuition-free scholarships to for-profit institutions.”

Via Education Week: “A Cheating Scandal Rocked Atlanta’s Schools. Ten Years Later, Efforts to Help Affected Students Fall Short.”

São Paulo has approved a bill that would allow companies to manufacture school uniforms and sell branding and sponsorship opportunities on the clothing.

Via Motherboard: “New York City Passes Bill to Study Biases in Algorithms Used by the City.” The city uses algorithms, for example, to place students in public schools.

Via Wired: “Koch Brothers Are Cities’ New Obstacle to Building Broadband.”

From Chalkbeat’s Indiana newsroom: “Parents and educators worry about how new graduation rules will affect students with disabilities.”

Education in the Courts

Via NPR: “Grand Jury Report On Penn State Hazing Finds ‘Indignities And Depravities’.”

The Business (and Politics) of Student Loans

Betsy DeVos Is Slashing Student Loan Relief For Defrauded Students,” writes Buzzfeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy. “A new Education Department policy will dramatically limit the amount of student loan relief some students get after being misled by their schools.” More via Inside Higher Ed.

The “New” For-Profit Higher Ed

NPR reviews the year in for-profit education.

Online Education (and the Once and Future “MOOC”)

A call to rebrand MOOCs, from Edsurge.

Via Education Week: “Cyber Charters’ Struggles: An Update Showing New Troubles in 8 States.”

Meanwhile on Campus…

Via The New Yorker: “A Conservative Nonprofit That Seeks to Transform College Campuses Faces Allegations of Racial Bias and Illegal Campaign Activity.” Why, it’s almost as if “free speech” is a smokescreen used by Turning Point USA.

Via The Atlantic: “The Changing Landscape of Student Protest in Higher Education.”

“The Education of Lyle Clinton May” – Inside Higher Ed on prison education.

Via Edsurge: “The Possibilities for Tech (and Screentime) in the Preschool Classroom.”

Via Inside Higher Ed: “Sweet Briar College is eliminating more than 10 percent of its faculty, including tenured faculty positions, as it puts in place a new core curriculum and restructures academic programs.”

Accreditations and Certifications and Competencies

Via Edsurge: “​Blockchain, Bitcoin and the Tokenization of Learning.”

Testing and Measuring

Via Inside Higher Ed: “The Association of American Colleges and Universities on Wednesday announced the creation of the VALUE Institute, which will help colleges ‘leverage learning outcomes evidence to improve student success and ensure quality and equity in student learning.’”

From the HR Department

New York Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña will step down from her position in the new year. [Here is the letter](chools Chancellor Carmen Fariña) she wrote to the department, announcing her retirement.

From the New York Times: “Eric Schmidt to Step Down as Alphabet’s Executive Chairman.”

William H. McRaven is stepping down as chancellor of the University of Texas System.

ProPublica with more news about Facebook and discrimination: “Dozens of Companies Are Using Facebook to Exclude Older Workers From Job Ads.” But yes, please do go on about how personalization will make education “more just.”

The Business of Job Training

Via Wired: “Impatient With Colleges, Employers Design Their Own Courses.”

Contests and Awards

From the MacArthur Foundation press release: “Sesame Workshop & International Rescue Committee Awarded $100 Million for Early Childhood Education of Syrian Refugees.”

This Week in Betteridge’s Law of Headlines

Can sadness be good for reading?asks The Hechinger Report.

(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

The New Media Consortium announced in an email to its members that it would be immediately shutting down. Bryan Alexander, who has worked for and worked closely with the organization, has the most thoughtful coverage. More via Edsurge. (I have been busy with my year-in-review, but I will be updating my Horizon Report “data liberation” project with as much data as I can scrape from the NMC website before it all goes away.)

Via Techcrunch: “Parenting Hero helps parents figure out how to talk to their kids.”

Via Buzzfeed: “Facebook Allowed Sellers To Target Teens With Ads For Penis Keychains.” “Personalized learning,” I believe Zuck calls this.

It’s time, apparently, to move beyond “design thinking.”Systems thinking,” I guess, is the new entrepreneurial “mindset.” Or something.

Via Mindwires Consulting’s Michael Feldstein: “Pearson Open Sources Equella – Properly.”

Also via Michael Feldstein: “Cengage Unlimited Draws the Battle Lines in the Curricular Materials War.”

The New York Times promotes what it thinks are “The Best Toys That Teach Kids How to Code.”

Robots and Other Ed-Tech SF

A collection of stories from Education Week: “Artificial Intelligence, Schooling, & Tomorrow’s Jobs.”

Via NPR: “Hi, Robot: Adults, Children And The Uncanny Valley.”

“A robot called Bina48 has successfully taken a course in the philosophy of love at Notre Dame de Namur University, in California,” Inside Higher Ed reports.

In the UK, “Artificial intelligence school inspections face resistance,” says the BBC. (It’s good to note when people describe things as “algorithmic decision making” and when they blame robots.)

(Venture) Philanthropy and the Business of Ed Reform

Mark Zuckerberg describes the “Lessons in Philanthropy in 2017.” Lots to say about “personalized learning,” but amazingly little reflection on if any of that vision actually works.

Venture Capital and the Business of Ed-Tech

Springboard has raised $9.5 million in Series A funding from Costanoa Ventures, Learn Capital, Jyoti Bansal, Blue Fog Capital,, and Moneta Ventures. The company, formerly known as SlideRule, has raised $11.2 million total. The company helps “learners upskill,” says Edsurge, which did not disclose it shares investors with the company.

Career and college counseling startup Connecpath has raised $150,000 in seed funding from undisclosed investors.

iContracts has acquired the EasyCampus LMS from Educadium.

Privacy, Surveillance, and Information Security

Via The Chronicle of Higher Education: “A Brief History of Students Secretly Recording Their Professors.”

Via Inside Higher Ed: “Student blasts Georgia Tech for monitoring his social media accounts, including details about his travel plans and activist work on campus.” More via The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Research, “Research,” and Reports

Here are Edsurge’s calculations for the year of venture capital (in the US): “Fewer Deals, More Money: U.S. Edtech Funding Rebounds With $1.2 Billion in 2017.”

Via EdWeek’s Market Brief: “Top Education Foundations Supporting K–12 Schools Score Record Funding, Report Says.”

Via Inside Higher Ed: “College enrollments in the U.S. decline for a sixth straight year – although at a slower rate – while the bachelor’s degree got more popular.”

“Two newly released academic research papers identify negative consequences linked to states’ performance-based funding formulas,” Inside Higher Ed reports. Of course, the Republicans in Congress will probably still push this idea forward even knowing that it doesn’t work and has unforeseen consequences.

The Chronicle of Higher Education on the latest report from the Babson Survey Research Group on OER adoption: “Use of Free Textbooks Is Rising, but Barriers Remain.” More via Inside Higher Ed.

Icon credits: The Noun Project

from Hack Education

‘Robots Are Coming For Your Children’

This is part nine of my annual look at the year’s “top ed-tech stories

We Need to Rethink How We Educate Kids to Tackle the Jobs of the Future.” It’s a core refrain in “the innovation gospel,” one of those arguments that certain pundits and politicians really lean into. You hear it all the time, accompanied by a standard set of justifications about the pressing need to reform education: something about the "factory model of education; something about radical shifts in the job market in recent decades; something about technology changing faster than it’s ever changed before. And almost inevitably at some point, this statistic will get invoked: 65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that don’t exist yet.

All of these claims play pretty fast and loose with the facts – with the history of education, with the history of technology, and with the history of work. All of them. But the point of these sorts of stories is never historical accuracy (although certainly citing a number – “65%” – gives them all the air of science and truth).

“65% of children entering primary school today will end up working in jobs that don’t exist yet.” It’s a prediction – and a statistic – than Benjamin Doxtdator brilliantly dissects in an article he published this year called “A Field Guide to ‘Jobs that Don’t Exist Yet’.” And while on one hand, I’d like to see everyone stop citing that made-up figure, on the other, it’s always useful to be able identify who the bullshit artists are.

What makes this narrative about the future resonate, I think, is that it taps into the fears many feel about the future, about their children’s future. This isn’t simply a matter of “robots are coming for your jobs.” They’re coming for your kids’ jobs.

The future for younger generations does seem particularly grim: “millennials” carry more student loan debt than their parents; they’re less likely to own a home; their employment rates have been slower to recover after the recession; they earn less money. Oh, and then there’s global climate change.

This narrative – robots are coming for your jobs (and your kids’ jobs) – involves tasking schools with retooling so they can better train students for “the jobs of the future,” although to a certain extent, workforce preparation has always been what (part of) the education system has been expected to do. A sense of urgency about financial precarity – now and in the future – might raise the stakes these days. Really, it’s no surprise that fears about an unsettled, uncertain economy are used to shift and control education’s mission, and it’s no surprise that parents go along with that.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the occupations that will add the most new jobs in the next decade are personal care aides (754,000 new jobs), food service workers (579,900 new jobs), registered nurses (437,000 new jobs), home health aides (425,600 new jobs), software developers (253,400 new jobs), and janitors and cleaners (233,000). The fastest growing occupations are solar photovoltaic installers (growing by 105%), wind turbine service technicians (growing by 96%), home health aides (growing by 47%), personal care aides (growing by 37%), and physicians assistants (growing by 37%). But just one of these occupations seems to dominate the storyline of how schools should prepare students for the “jobs of the future.” And it sure isn’t “everyone should learn nursing.”

Everyone Should Learn to Code

As I noted in the previous article in this series, the technology industry has continued this year to advocate for changes to both policy and curriculum to expand computer science education.

In an attempt to counter the industry’s ongoing problems with diversity, many of the organizations pushing for more CS education – the College Board and, most notably – have touted the progress that has been made in getting more kids of color and more girls to participate in coding classes (and in the case of the College Board, more paying for AP assessments, including a second CS-related exam, first administered this year). “Is the College Board’s Newest AP Computer Science Course Closing the Gap?” Edsurge asked in February. Well, probably not as long as the culture of Silicon Valley remains profoundly racist and sexist. And it’s a nice thought that an AP exam would be a lever for equality too.

The tech industry made a number of high profile donations and pledges this year, coinciding with the Trump administration’s announcement this fall that it would earmark $200 million in grants for computer science and STEM education. (Arguably this focus on CS was the one education policy pursued by Obama that Trump did not try to loudly reverse.) The administration’s announcement did not make it clear where that $200 million would come from (it had, after all, submitted a budget that would slash the Department of Education’s funding by $9.2 billion) – but that didn’t stop some industry folks from crooning about what they saw as a windfall. The next day after the administration’s announcement, several tech giants – Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Salesforce, and other – said they would help fund the White House’s commitment to CS, to the tune of $300 million more. Again, this all made for a flurry of headlines, even though there were few specifics about where that money would go or how schools or students would benefit – “Scant Details, Fuzzy Math,” as EdTech Strategies’ Doug Levin put it.

Computer science education need not be about job training and need not be in the service of industry. But with the millions of dollars being funneled by industry into this effort, that is very much the shape that this all is taking.

Saturday’s Child

One of the notable elements this year of both the “everyone should learn to code” narrative and the “we need to be training students for the jobs of the future” story was how young this is all supposed to start. “How to Prepare Preschoolers for an Automated Economy” read a New York Times headline in July. “A Toy for Toddlers Doubles as Code Bootcamp,” said another NYT piece, this one profiling a $225 programmable wooden block toy. “PBS Show Will Teach Preschoolers How To Think Like Computers,” Edsurge declared this summer. And then there was the President’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, who penned an op-ed in The New York Post in October explaining “Why we need to start teaching tech in Kindergarten.”

No time for play, kids. Get to work.

In November, Bloomberg reported that WeWork, a co-working space startup that acquired both the coding bootcamp Flatiron School and the meet-up company MeetUp this year, planned to open a private K–12 school in one of its facilities. The school would be focused on “conscious entrepreneurship.” “Children are ready to start creating their life’s work when they’re 5,” WeWork co-founder Rebekah Neumann told Fast Company. “In my book,” she told Bloomberg, “there’s no reason why children in elementary schools can’t be launching their own businesses.”

There are plenty of reasons, to be quite frank. There are legal issues regarding children’s intellectual property, and there are issues surrounding child labor laws. But good grief, there are moral and ethical and pedagogical reasons too. Is their “life’s work” what we want five year olds to be thinking about? Are monetization strategies what we want elementary school students to be concerned with? (And, of course, let’s consider which students would be weighing monetization at the private WeWork school, and which students in the USare worried about their next meal.)

What should we do with kids over the summer months, Senator Ben Sasse asked in an op-ed in The New York Times in July? Again: put ’em to work.

“The logic of human capital is now the basis for the American education system, which means it’s the code that governs the day-to-day lives of America’s children,” Malcolm Harris argues in his 2017 book Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials. Childhood, education – it’s all become “work,” Harris contends. Learning how to “work.” Learning as “work.” Work as learning. It’s part of what he describes as the “pedagogical mask” that obscures the labor children do in school.

Kids These Days opens with an analysis of one of my very favorite books on education technology, Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine. Published in 1958, the title character in the children’s story has built a homemade labor-saving device that allows him to handwrite two copies of he and his best friend’s math homework at once. “If only we could save even more time,” Danny says to his pal. “You’d think six hours of school would be enough for them, without making us take school home. If only I could build some kind of robot to do all our homework for us….” Danny’s mother, as it turns out, is a housekeeper for Professor Bullfinch, who happens to have a computer in a laboratory in his house. (A “miniac” – a miniature version of Harvard’s Mark I.) The resourceful young Danny programs it to do his homework for him – leaving him more time for playing baseball and for exploring his own curiosities. “Inquiry-based learning,” I think we’d call it. But a classmate snitches, and rather than admit to his teacher than he’s cheating, Danny tries to make the case – the very logical and accurate case – he’s simply using a new technology to work more efficiently, to be more productive like any good scientist would do. Rather than reward his ingenuity, his teacher gives him more work.

“Between 1981 and 1997,” Harris writes, “elementary schoolers between the ages of six and eight recorded a whopping 146 percent gain in time spent studying, and another 32 percent between 1997 and 2003…. Kids age nine to twelve, like Danny, have sustained near 30 percent growth in homework, while their class time has increased by 14 percent.”

Harris argues that, despite all the stories told about lazy millennials – that op-ed from Senator Sasse, for example – today’s youth are already working incredibly hard. And that’s because, like Danny Dunn, new technologies are being used to ramp up the pace and the expectations of their productivity – the amount of school work and home work they are supposed to do.

Helicopter Robots

In Kids These Days, Harris argues that modern parenting has become all about risk management and even risk elimination parents try to ensure the best possible future for their children. The obsession with hand sanitizer. The elimination of wooden playgrounds. We all know the story.

“Helicopter parenting” – or at least parental anxiety – might not be a new phenomenon, but it is now increasingly able to enlist new technologies to monitor children’s activities. A story this summer in The New York Magazine is, no doubt, an extreme example of this: “Armed with Nest Cams and 24/7 surveillance, one company promises to fix even the most dysfunctional child – for a price.” But many, many technology products boast features that allow parents to check up on what their kids are doing – what they’re reading, what they’re watching, what they’re clicking on, what they’re saying, who they’re talking to, how many steps they’re taking, where they’re at at any given money, and so on. It’s all under the auspices, of course, of keeping kids safe.

This all dovetails quite neatly, as I noted in the article on education data, with the ways in which schools too are quite willing to surveil students. The New York Times family section cautioned in August about “The Downside of Checking Kids’ Grades Constantly.” But the expectation of many ed-tech products (and increasingly school policy) is that parents will do just this – participate in the constant monitoring of student data.

When schools and parents surveil children, they aren’t the only ones collecting the data – companies are (obviously) as well. And as I noted in that article I wrote on data, this isn’t simply about a loss of privacy – although yes, there’s sure a lot of that (and there were a handful of FTC settlements and lawsuits this year regarding the unauthorized collection of data by products and apps aimed at kids). It’s also about the vulnerability of data to various cyberthreats.

One of the major targets for cyberthreats – that is, a growing source of data vulnerability – is “the Internet of Things” or IOT. IOT now includes all sorts of everyday objects that, for some reason, folks think is a good idea to add Internet connectivity to. In February, Motherboard reported that “Internet of Things Teddy Bear Leaked 2 Million Parent and Kids Message Recordings.” Also in February, Germany warned parents that Cayla, a talking doll, could easily be hacked and criminals could use the toy “to steal personal data by recording private conversations over an insecure Bluetooth connection.” In July, the FBI issued a warning about the security of Internet-connected toys: “toys with microphones could record and collect conversations within earshot of the device. Information such as the child’s name, school, likes and dislikes, and activities may be disclosed through normal conversation with the toy or in the surrounding environment.” In November, Germany banned smartwatches for kids due to concerns about surveillance and safety, and the same month, a UK consumer rights group called for the banning of Internet-connected toys, citing the privacy and security risks.

I guess we’ll see how many parents ignore this advice and buy their kids holiday gifts that spy on them. For her part, the head of Mattel believes that “Internet-connected toys are the future.”

Robots Raising Children

In January of this year, at the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Mattel (or rather, its subsidiary Nabi) unveiled Aristotle, a “smart baby monitor” – what it claimed was the world’s first. Companies always hope they’ll be able to make headlines at CES, and Aristotle received a fair amount of attention this year. There were stories in the usual tech publications – Engadget, PC World, CNET – as well as in the mainstream and tabloid press – USA Today, ABC News, Fox News, The Daily Mail. Bloomberg heralded the device as “Baby’s First Virtual Assistant.” And here’s how Fast Company described the voice-activated speaker/monitor, which is set to launch some time next month (the release day keeps getting postponed):

Aristotle is built to live in a child’s room – and answer a child’s questions. In this most intimate of spaces, Aristotle is designed to be far more specific than the generic voice assistants of today: a nanny, friend, and tutor, equally able to soothe a newborn and aid a tween with foreign-language homework. It’s an AI to help raise your child.

I gave a talk this summer at NMC on the Aristotle and the history of baby monitors – “‘The Brave Little Surveillance Bear’ and Other Stories We Tell About Robots Raising Children” – and I won’t rehash the arguments here. (It’s one of my favorite talks I gave in 2017, I will say, so you should read it.)

I was skeptical at the time about Mattel’s ability to pull off the promises it made about the functionality of the virtual assistant – it had already canceled the Amazon Alexa integration heralded at CES. Hell, I was skeptical it would ever be released. And indeed, Mattel announced in October that it was canceling its plans to bring the device to market. Mattel didn’t cite privacy concerns or the petition drive organized by the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood when it did so. It simply said “leadership changes” at the company prompted the decision. The New York Times reported that “Sven Gerjets, the company’s new chief technology officer, ‘conducted an extensive review of the Aristotle product and decided that it did not fully align with Mattel’s new technology strategy.’”

But where Mattel stumbled, Amazon seems to be thriving, convincing millions of people to buy an Alexa and place the company’s Internet-connected “voice assistant” in their homes. The security and privacy flaws are still there, no doubt, as these devices “listen” to all conversations, gathering data so as to build a consumer profile on a household.

As I argued in my article on “education platforms,” keep an eye on Amazon and how it tries to promote Alexa as a teaching and learning machine. Because Amazon’s power in the platform economy deeply implicates education in the practices of surveillance and in a pervasive culture of commercialism. It deeply implicates the home – family life, childhood – in the same.

Some parents have expressed concern about the relationships – and yes, that’s the word that people use – that children are developing with devices like Alexa. “What will it do to kids to have digital butlers they can boss around?” the MIT Technology Review asked. “Alexa, Are You Safe For My Kids,” asked NPR. “Should Children Form Emotional Bonds With Robots?” asked The Atlantic. What happens, The Washington Post wondered, “When your kid tries to say ‘Alexa’ before ‘Mama’.”

MIT professor Sherry Turkle recently argued that robots shouldn’t be given or promoted to children as “friends.” They offer “the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship,” she says, “the illusion of connection without the reciprocity of a mutual relationship. And interacting with these empathy machines may get in the way of children’s ability to develop a capacity for empathy themselves.” Of course, since so many folks in ed-tech like to lambast everything Turkle has written lately, her arguments will probably be used to justify more robots, not fewer. And certainly Amazon (and the Bezos Foundation) are ready with all sorts of (corporate-sponsored) research about “connected families” to convince parents that these devices are really quite wonderful for childrearing.

As Stirling University’s Ben Williamson put it,

it’s clear that parenting and child-rearing has now become the focus for ambitious technical imaginings and visions. Supported by the massive technical might of Microsoft and Amazon, companies like Mattel want to extend from supplying Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels tracks to become interactive participants in semi-automated luxury family life. To do this, they’ll need data about families and about children. The surveillance and datafication of the family has begun.

We should ask, of course, whose family life will be one of semi-automated luxury and whose will be one of surveillance and control. (And we should ask too what the hell is going on with the algorithms that are raising children – like the ones feeding kids content on YouTube.)

Robot Teachers

Which families will have a “robot butler” or “robot nanny”? Which students will have a “robot teacher”? The questions surrounding equity and algorithms should be paramount. But too often, there’s simply an assumption that more technology means “progress.” (And “technological progress” is so readily confused with “politically progressive.”) “‘Eton for all’,” NewStatesman wrote about robot teachers in October for example, suggesting that they would mean “everyone gets an elite education.”

Spoiler alert: they wouldn’t.

Robot teachers. I’m not sure there was any ed-tech fantasy repeated more often this year than this one: AI will be the “next big thing” in the classroom. “Amazon’s Alexa: Your Next Teacher.” Robots will revolutionize how people teach and learn. Machine learning will revolutionize how people teach. Artificial intelligence will transform how people learn. AI will choose better lessons. AI will improve graduation rates. AI will improve guidance counseling. Robots will improve “student engagement.” Robots will keep students “on task.” AI will replace testing. AI will facilitate testing. AI will be the key to “personalized learning.” AI will teach students how to be better writers. Robots will then grade those papers. AI will transform universities. AI will “optimize” K–12 education. And then, there were all sorts of claims and predictions about the future of educational chatbots – chatbots as teaching assistants, chatbots for sex and drug education.

Again and again, as I noted in the previous article in this series, we were warned repeatedly this year that “robots are coming for our jobs.” We’re supposed to believe from the repetition of all these robot tales, that AI has made – is making – incredible breakthroughs. Sure, some say education will be particularly challenging to automate. But there’s clearly a strong political desire in certain circles to do just that.

Robots will replace teachers by 2027.” “Machines will replace teachers in ten years.” “Within ten years, human teachers will be phased out, replaced by machines” – these are all the prediction of one guy, Sir Anthony Seldon, vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham. But boy, was this prediction repeated over and over in the media this year.

Talk of robots is always talk about labor. And you can sense the disdain for teachers as labor in some of the arguments for teaching machines this year. “Let Robots Teach American Schoolkids,” George Mason’s Tyler Cowen wrote in July. “Imagine how great universities could be without all those human teachers,” Quartz wrote in September. Imagine.

(Perhaps it’s worth noting here another story from the year: many teachers cannot afford to live in the school districts where they teach. Teachers cannot afford to live in parts of Colorado, for example. Teachers certainly cannot afford to live in the Bay Area. Good ol’ Mark Zuckerberg. His Chan Zuckerberg Initiative contributed $5 million to a fund run by the startup called Landed that helps teachers make down payments on homes. That $5 million will help about 50 teachers in the Bay Area, Edsurge estimates. Why address structural inequality when you can sell a couple of folks on a loan service.)

As I have written about quite frequently, there is a long history to the push for teaching machines – it’s been the project of education technology since at least the 1920s. There has been renewed storytelling in the last year or so about “intelligent tutoring systems,” a phrase first coined in the early 1980s (and one that’s been updated with new, more Facebook-era friendly language“ personalized learning”). Praise for “intelligent tutoring systems” is often accompanied by invocation of the work – also from the 1980s – of Benjamin Bloom and his research on the effectiveness of tutoring itself. Can computers replicate that two standard deviation bump that Bloom found human tutors provided? And does it even matter if they can or can’t – as Politico put it in an article on tutoring low-income children in Chicago, “learning from a computer is going to be far cheaper than hiring a human being.”

Who gets the robot tutor and who gets the human one? Who gets a tutor at all? Investors seem to believe that there are lots of parents who are willing to pay. Tutoring businesses were, by far, the most well funded type of education company this year. Many of these companies come with their own set of labor issues – they’re part of the growing “gig economy” that positions teaching and tutoring as part-time, freelance work rather than as a profession.

Arguably, tutoring exacerbates educational inequalities, as it shifts the burden of enrichment activities onto individual families rather than onto a public institution like school. But it’s a price many parents are willing to pay so that their children can get ahead or stay ahead. Perhaps it’s not so much that “robots are coming for the children.” It’s that global inequality already has.

Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on Even at 5000+ words an article, there are stories I have left out. You can read more at

from Hack Education

‘The Ed-Tech Mafia’

I cannot believe that in the midst of everything I’m trying to accomplish right now I agreed to give a talk. But I did. And so tonight I spoke with the educators at NYCIST. They were very kind and put up with a very half-assed talk. Here’s the transcript:

I apologize in advance for what I feel is a total lack of preparation today. Typically, when I give a talk, I write out my speech in advance. A half an hour talk is about a 3000 word essay; an hour, about 5500 words – depending on how slowly I speak, how much I ad lib, if the slides all work, if there are no technical problems, and such.

I tend to write out my talks because I want to make sure I am telling a compelling story – that I have all the words in order, that I have all the details right, that there’s an arc, if you will, to the narrative. (I also write out my talk because I’m a writer, professionally, not a speaker. I’m good at writing – or I like to think. Speaking off the cuff, less so. And I like to have a record – a written record – so that other people can see what I said… or read.)

I know it’s trend to criticize keynotes and lectures and claim that they’re terrible ways to learn. People like to cite research that claims the human attention span is only 8 to 10 minutes. It’s cool to sneer at someone who stands in front of a room and explains things. Now, there isn’t a ton of evidence that that is actually true – that we can only pay attention for about the length of a YouTube video. But it’s a convenient figure for the tech industry to invoke, don’t you think. It’s a great story, particularly if you want to wield that factoid along with a product pitch for more “active learning” – like clicking on things.

We’re told an awful lot of stories about what “good teaching” looks like and what “bad teaching” looks like and how technology will purportedly enhance the former and replace the latter. Same goes for “good learning” and “bad learning,” somehow. Me, I am really much less interested in evaluating the various claims regarding “evidence-based teaching” – like, is the research any good, what does “the science” really tell us – than I am listening for these stories, looking at who’s telling them, looking at how they’re wielded politically, looking at how they’re backed financially, and asking why is this the story. Why, for example, would Microsoft famously put out a study in 2015 saying that humans’ attention spans are shorter than goldfish’s? (And why on earth would we believe that?!)

Now, I am not sure I really have “a talk” to give you today. Not sure I can pull together 3000 or so words of prepared remarks. And that’s mostly because, if you’re familiar with my work at all, you know that I’m in the middle of a project I undertake each December where I chronicle “the top ed-tech trends” of the past twelve months. It’s not really a look at “trends,” per se. And this year I’m trying to move away from that language. I’m not interested in identifying “trends” because I am not interested in pushing schools to buy certain products. My job isn’t in marketing. I don’t do “market research.” Rather, I want to look at the stories that are being told about education and technology. What are the stories that have been repeated again and again over the course of the year? What are the stories and why are they being told?

I have published 8 of these end-of-year articles. They’re about 6000 words apiece. I have two more still to write, including one that I’ve scheduled to post to my site on Wednesday that I’ve only written about 1500 words of. So I was feeling a bit stingy about the words I typed in preparation for this afternoon. I’m feeling sorta out of words and thoughts.

That’s a long-winded apology, in advance, that I don’t really have something splendid to read for you today.

What I want to do instead is to show you a photo. Talk about the photo. Talk a bit about the project – a separate project, one that I’m also still in the middle of – that I am currently working on as part of my Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia this year. And then I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about the current state of ed-tech – products or propaganda.

This is the “PayPal Mafia.” The photo was taken as part of a 2007 profile in Fortune magazine. The phrase “PayPal Mafia” is used to describe the group of PayPal founders and employees who’ve gone on to become some of the most powerful players in Silicon Valley, forming additional technology companies and investment firms and becoming millionaires (and in a couple of cases, billionaires) in the process. Some of these men – and do note, they are all men – have become household names. Most of their products certainly have.

Back row from the left: Jawed Karim, the co-founder of YouTube; Jeremy Stoppelman, the CEO of Yelp; Andrew McCormack, co-founder of the venture capital firm Valar Ventures; Premal Shah, President of Kiva, the microfinancing company. Second row from the left: Luke Nosek, managing partner at the venture capital firm The Founders Fund; Kenny Howery, managing partner at the venture capital firm The Founders Fund; David Sacks, the CEO of Geni and Room 9 Entertainment; Peter Thiel, the CEO of the venture capital firm Clarium Capital and Founders Fund, the co-founder of Palantir Technologies, and the co-founder of Valar Ventures; Keith Rabois, the VP of business development at Slide (at the time of this photo), an executive at LinkedIn, an executive at Square, a venture capitalist at Khosla Ventures, and an original Youtube Investor; Reid Hoffman, the founder of Linkedin and a partner at the venture capital firm Greylock Partners; Max Levchin, the CEO of Slide at the time of this photo and now the CEO of the loan company Affirm; Roelof Botha, a partner at the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital; and Russel Simmons, the CTO and co-founder of Yelp.

Not pictured: Chad Hurley, the co-founder of YouTube. Steve Chen, another co-founder of YouTube. Dave McClure, the founder of the venture capital firm 500 Startups. And of course, Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX.

The PayPal Mafia has been credited by technology journalist Sarah Lacey and others with helping to build and fund the wave of consumer-focused Internet startups that emerged in the mid 2000s following the dot-com bubble burst. (PayPal itself was acquired by eBay in 2002. One might also include Pierre Omidyar in the PayPal Mafia, I suppose. Omidyar was the founder of eBay.)

According to Silicon Valley mythology at least, the Mafia have been successful because of the skills and confidence and camaraderie developed at PayPal. As the article in Fortune described them: “highly intelligent workaholics who were good at math. No frat boys, MBAs, or, God forbid, jocks.” The shared corporate culture at PayPal was coupled with a shared ideology among many Mafia members about the role of finance, technology, and private and public institutions – including most famously in the case of libertarian Peter Thiel, the role of governments and schools.

What interests me – and this is the focus of my Spencer Fellowship: Is there an equivalent to the PayPal Mafia in education technology? That is, is there a company or organization that has launched the careers of lots of education entrepreneurs and investors, that has become a powerful political, financial, and social network for education technology people and products? A company that really drives the ideology that underpins how we talk about the future of school and tech. Kaplan? The Princeton Review? The Gates Foundation? Pearson?

Of course, it’s important too for us to recognize how much influence the technology sector – I use “Silicon Valley” as a shorthand for that – has over education. Over the products that get built. Over the companies that get funded. Over the policies that get developed, and the laws that get passed. Over the ideas that get talked about. Over our imagination. The “PayPal Mafia” alone is a pretty good example of this.

Peter Thiel – where to start. He was Facebook’s first big investor. He’s probably tech’s most famous libertarian, and he believes that monopolies, not competition, are the natural and desirable order of things. He’s questioned the value of the 19th Amendment. Thiel bankrolled the lawsuit that put the publication Gawker out of business. He’s been a vocal Trump supporter – speaking at the Republican National Convention last summer. And he has plenty to say – and plenty of money to spend – on his beliefs about education. He wrote, along with fellow PayPal Mafia member David Sacks, a book called The Diversity Myth that criticizes “political correctness” on college campuses like Stanford and that claimed, among other things, that date rape is actually “seductions that are later regretted.” Thiel has entertained the idea there may be a biological connection between race and IQ. He was one of the first and one of the loudest to push the narrative that there’s a “college bubble” – that higher education is no longer worth it. He famously funded the Thiel Fellowship, giving a handful of young people under the age of 20 $100,000 to drop out of college. He’s also an investor in the private school AltSchool, the education data company Clever, the adaptive textbook company Knewton, the coding bootcamp Thinkful, the student loan company SoFi, and many others.

Max Levchin’s company Affirm is also in the student loan business.

Reid Hoffman was one of the first investors in Edmodo. He’s an investor in the learn-to-code company Treehouse and an investor in Knewton.

Dave McClure’s venture capital firm 500 Startups has been one of the most prolific investors in education technology companies in recent years. McClure is also just one of the investors who has stepped down from his position in 2017 due to allegations of sexual harassment.

Pierre Omidyar now runs the Omidyar Network. Its education investments include AltSchool, the African coding bootcamp Andela, the African private school chain Bridge International Academies, a startup that describes itself as an alternative to college called MissionU, and the publication Edsurge.

Elon Musk has founded a private school called Ad Astra for his own children and some of the children of SpaceX employees. There is almost nothing known publicly about this school. No website. No phone number. There are rumors that kids have to take an IQ test to get in. (I wonder if Musk has talked to his old PayPal pal Peter Thiel about IQ.)

Musk is fascinating and horrifying to me. He doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to business success, and yet he always seems to fail upward and his promises are always taken seriously. He repeatedly makes these claims about what his companies will do – he promised 20,000 Tesla 3s would ship by the end of this year. So far, his factories have produced just 260. He’s predicted SpaceX will have humans on Mars in seven years time. He says he’s going to build an underground tunnel that will get you from New York to DC in 29 minutes.

At first glance, it might not seem like Musk’s projects are all that relevant to education investing or education narratives. But what Musk says and what Musk does is still worth our paying attention to, I’d argue, because of how his work (and storytelling) in transportation and space exploration subverts or shifts our expectations for public investment and public responsibility. Stories about and stories by Elon Musk are very much stories about the future of public space, public science, public knowledge, and as such, public education.

Where do these stories about the future come from? Like, how do we know about “what’s happening” and “what’s trending” in education? Who are the people who are telling us what the future of education or technology or education technology is supposed to like? Who tells these stories? Who benefits from these stories? Who funds these stories? Why do we find these stories compelling?

The goal of my Spencer research – broadly speaking – is to identify and trace how certain stories get popularized, how they become embedded in education technology products, policies, and practices.

One example of this is the push for “everyone to learn to code.” Where did this story come from? Who tells it? Why do we believe it?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, the occupations that will add the most new jobs in the next decade are personal care aides (754,000 new jobs), food service workers (580,000 new jobs), registered nurses (437,000 new jobs), home health aides (426,000 new jobs), software developers (253,000 new jobs), and janitors and cleaners (233,000). The fastest growing occupations are solar photovoltaic installers (growing by 105%), wind turbine service technicians (growing by 96%), home health aides (growing by 47%), personal care aides (growing by 37%), and physicians assistants (growing by 37%). But just one of those occupations seems to dominate the storyline of how schools should prepare students for the “jobs of the future.” And it sure isn’t “everyone should learn nursing.”

Another storyline I am paying attention to – we should all pay attention too – involves “personalization,” a concept shared by tech and ed-tech alike. Your Facebook news feed is “personalized”; the list of movies Netflix recommends to you is “personalized”; suggestions for other products you might purchase on Amazon are “personalized.” And so too are the recommendation engines that ed-tech companies like Knewton or AltSchool say will help students navigate curriculum more efficiently. They even use same terminology, drawn from other digital content providers – “playlists.” Facebook’s CEO believes in personalized learning. Netflix’s CEO believes in personalized learning. What’s going on with that story?

Knewton founder Jose Ferreira formerly worked at Kaplan. AltSchool founder Max Ventilla was a Google exec. Peter Thiel is an investor in both of these companies. Is there an “ed-tech mafia”? And what do they want? What do they believe?

“Follow the money” is, perhaps, cliché. But as billions of dollars of venture capital flow into ed-tech every year, it’s essential nonetheless. Yet it’s complicated by the paucity of independent reporting on education technology – that is, from sites not partially or wholly funded by tech investors or tech philanthropists.

The education technology company Edsurge, for example, positions itself as a news organization while also promoting conferences and services selling ed-tech services to schools. It has raised almost $6 million in venture capital and at least as much in grant money – $5.22 million from the Gates Foundation alone. Edsurge’s investors include the very same investors in many of the products it covers. Edsurge’s investors are people who are very committed – politically, financially – to telling certain kinds of stories about the future. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – the venture philanthropy firm founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – has funded Edsurge to write about “personalized learning,” for example.

My concerns, I suppose, are similar to my concerns about Elon Musk – we are talking about billionaires who have influence in reshaping public space and public infrastructure in ways that are profoundly anti-democratic. If nothing else, there’s not really research that supports their beliefs or their technologies. Can Musk get to Mars? Lots of scientists are pretty skeptical of his plan. Can the Zuckerberg-funded Summit Public Schools learning management system scale and provide a Facebook-like vision of “personalized learning” and content delivery to every school in the country? Is that the future we want?

One of Edsurge’s other investors, the Emerson Collective – the venture philanthropy firm founded by Laurene Powell Jobs (Steve Jobs’ widow) – is interested in stories about “rethinking school.” She paid for a glitzy television show on all four big networks to push that message: schools haven’t changed in hundreds of years. “Rethink school.” That’s what Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos says she’s interested in too.

Now, you can either imagine one of those scenes from a film where I’m connecting ed-tech brands to photos of venture capitalists with yarn. Who went to MIT. Who worked at Google. Or you can picture what statistics folks call “social network analysis” where I give you a nice visualization that will help us see these relationships – see them so we can talk about them. Because there are relationships and networks, “ed-tech mafia” or not.

There are really powerful forces – powerful stories and powerful storytellers – at play here. I would say that for far too long now, many people who work in education technology have seen themselves as underdogs in some sort of digital versus analog battle for the future of education. But that’s not really an accurate way to describe the setting for this particular story any longer, indeed if it ever was.

(This is the part where I gave up typing… So I’ll just add here, in lieu of a “happy ending” that I am really interested in helping educators understand the powerful networks that operate in education and education technology. Because we must think more critically about the vision and the model and the story of the future that we’re being sold.)

from Hack Education

Robots Are Coming For Your Jobs

This is part eight of my annual look at the year’s “top ed-tech stories

In previous years, I’ve looked at how education technology is intertwined with narratives about “skills,” “competencies,” and “credentialing.” I’ve looked at how for-profit colleges, MOOCs, and learn-to-code companies have tapped into these narratives in order to justify their products and services. These have all been separate articles in each series. But this year, I’m reorganizing my analysis of these “trends,” partly because I think they can all be subsumed under the larger theme of “the new economy.” (And partly because I really cannot or should not write more than ten of these things every year – and this year I think I’m somehow poised to write eleven, goddammit.)

What are the dominant stories we’re being told about the economy – about our role, now and in the future, as workers? What are the dominant stories we’re being told about the role of education in preparing workers for this future economy?

The importance of thinking about education through the lens of “the new economy” was best demonstrated this year by Tressie McMillan Cottom in her book on for-profit education, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. Don’t get distracted by just by the “for-profit colleges” part of that title, I’d caution. “Lower ed” is far more pervasive.

Among McMillan Cottom’s many contributions to education scholarship, she complicates the stereotype that those who attend for-profit colleges – and those are disproportionately low-income women and women of color – are somehow “dupes.” Rather, McMillan Cottom argues these students are making rational decisions in a world of growing economic precarity and shrinking social programs. In the hopes of not being (further) left behind in the labor market, these students are compelled to engage in this risky credentialism. “The new economy” insists we hustle. And that’s the future – that hustle – for more and more students and more and more workers.

Watch Tressie McMillan Cottom on The Daily Show. Listen to her on NPR’s Fresh Air. Read The New York Times review of her book. Don’t mess with her on Twitter.

I’ve already made references to for-profit higher education in the second and third articles in this year-end series – on the “innovation gospel” and on the business of student loans. I’ve also written a separate article listing some of the various events that happened in the for-profit college industry this year – closures, lawsuits, sales, and the like. I want to focus here, in this article, on the hustle, on the stories we were told this year about “the new economy,” and I want to explore how “risky credentialism” affects students and workers broadly – “lower ed,” as McMillan Cottom has dubbed it.

You’ll notice, however, that this article is not titled “Education Technology and the New Economy.” That’s because the stories told this year to keep us hustling and to keep up imagining a certain kind of future are almost all about robots.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over again we were told “robots are coming for your jobs.” And so, we must “automation-proofschools in response. We must encourage people to pursue “robot resistant” majors in college. We must prepare preschoolers for an automated future. Something about education needing to be reshaped in order to combat “jobsolescence” – I kid you not, someone said that.

The threat of robots might come less from their purported “artificial intelligence” – although there was a steady drumbeat of stories this year touting their magnificentmentalcapabilities – than from the story that posits human intelligence is faltering. Humans can no longer keep up; they are no longer desirable or capable employees (if indeed they ever were). Robots are much more ideal as workers, because of course they cannot unionize. They don’t ask for health insurance benefits or sick leave or 401K contributions. Employers, so we’re told, are simply unable to find workers with the right skills. Humans have fallen behind.

“The Skills Gap”

Despite the overwhelming evidence that there is no “skills gap,” – particularly a “high tech skills gap” – it’s a convenient and popular story told by employers, entrepreneurs, investors, pundits, and politicians alike – particularly those who’d like to blame schools for failing to teach students the right “skills.”

“The right skills,” of course, are the skills that employers expect potential employees to possess, largely eschewing training themselves and instead offloading the risk and responsibility of training onto individuals. Demanding that schools teach “the right skills” is also one of many examples of an ongoing “innovation” fixation, of how industry is pressing the education system to bend to its needs.

Arguably, there is no better example of this than the ongoing push that “everyone should learn to code,” led at the K–12 level by the industry-backed advocacy organization As The New York Times’ Natasha Singer described the work of the non-profit in June: has emerged as a new prototype for Silicon Valley education reform: a social-media-savvy entity that pushes for education policy changes, develops curriculums, offers online coding lessons and trains teachers – touching nearly every facet of the education supply chain. is backed by a long list of technology companies – from AT&T to Amazon to Facebook to Google to Verizon. (I’ll look in more detail at how robots are coming for your children in the next article in this series.)

And well beyond the industry’s backing of, venture capital has continued to flow into “learn-to-code” businesses in 2017, alongside a number of corporate grants (and corporate PR efforts that have sought to encourage the adoption of coding curriculum. (For a complete look at who funded learn-to-code companies this year, visit

Bootcamp or Bust

Coding bootcamps also continued to be popular among tech investors. In previous years, these were also popular acquisition targets, but 2017 saw several of these high-profile acquisitions falter under new corporate leadership.

Their stumbles certainly weren’t from a lack of positive PR from trade publications, which repeatedly touted the benefits of these short-term technical programs: “Learn to code, get a job – and get paid well,” as Edsurge put it. “A guaranteed jobor your money back!” “No teachers!” “Sweet digs!”

In July, two of the most well-known (and some believed, well-established) coding bootcamps announced they’d be closing their doors: Dev Bootcamp and Iron Yard. Both had been acquired by for-profit college companies, a convenient target – no surprise – for entrepreneurial blame at the bootcamps’ failures: Dev Bootcamp was bought in 2014 by Kaplan Inc and Iron Yard was acquired in 2015 by the Apollo Education Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix.

In some ways, the explanation for the closure was quite simple: there are now far more coding bootcamps – almost 100 across the US and Canada – than there are prospective students. But there have been some indications too that many employers find bootcamp graduates to be unprepared for technical work. Or rather (and this is really key) employers don’t interpret the bootcamp certificate as a good “signal” – and that is the “lower ed” gamble all along. (On average, a bootcamp runs about $11,000 for a 12-week course.) As Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it, “Boot camps are a tax paid by suitably credentialed workers who do not have enough capital (economic, social, or cultural) to enter a high status field of work in which some job is undergoing an actual or projected short-term demand bubble.”

In October, the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a $375,000 settlement with the coding bootcamp Flatiron School “for operating without a license and making bogus claims about the success of its graduates.” One week later, Flatiron School was acquired by WeWork, a company that runs co-working spaces, meet-ups, and now a private K–12 school to teach entrepreneurship – “the new economy” indeed.

The charges of providing misleading information about graduates echo those commonly made against other for-profit colleges – charges that prompted bootcamps (or more accurately a loan provider for bootcamps) this year to start reporting job placement statistics, and charges that, in previous years, had led to the Obama administration’s creation of the “gainful employment rules.” Those rules, aimed at career-colleges and career-oriented programs, had been challenged by for-profits in the courts for years; and in January, the Department of Education finally released the names of some 800 programs which failed to meet the accountability standards – that is, they’d failed “by having graduates with annual loan payments that exceeded 12 percent of their total earnings or 30 percent of their discretionary income.” But as many feared, the Trump administration announced in March that it would delay implementing the rules or imposing any sanctions against the programs that were in violation. In June Secretary DeVos said she would pause the “burdensome” rules until they could be “re-negotiated.”

As The New York Times put it in February, “For-Profit Schools, an Obama Target, See New Day Under Trump.” Clearly there’s very little oversight or accountability for these programs at the federal level. And even though a couple of coding bootcamps have stumbled this year, it’s not clear that the hype or the funding will dry up. There are other markets to pursue, after all – markets in Mexico, Gaza, Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria, for example. The prison market.

“The new economy.”

The New Vocationalism

Stanford University professor Larry Cuban published a three article series this year on “Coding as the New Vocationalism” – parts 1, 2, and 3 – which provides important historical context to the latest Silicon Valley push for computer science education. (Disclosure: there’s a photo of my brother and me using Logo in part 2.) Career and technical education is hardly new – this year marks the centennial of the Smith Hughes Act, which first promoted and funded vocational education in agriculture, trades, industry, and homemaking. Although lauded by many industry groups today – often framed as a lamentation over the loss of the shop class as public schools have reduced their vocational offerings – the history of vocational education is fraught with racism, sexism, classism, and xenophobia, where “certain students” were tracked into vocational training and “certain students” were given more academic opportunities. “Tracking” – an educational practice that re-inscribed social inequalities.

But renewed vocational training (or career and technical education or CTE) has found support not just from Silicon Valley technology companies but from the Trump administration. Trump has earmarked more money for apprenticeships, for example. (He even praised Germany – Germany! – for its apprenticeship model.) Others in the administration and in the Republican party have echoed his call for more career-oriented education and less focus on college attainment. “We need to stop forcing kids into believing a traditional four-year degree is the only pathway to success,” Secretary of Education DeVos recently asserted.

All this makes for (yet more) business opportunities.

The Business of Credentialing

In the last few years, as part of this series, I’ve chronicled Silicon Valley’s push for new credential and certificate products – “Competencies and Certificates” in 2014; “Credits and Credentialing” in 2015; “Credentialing” in 2016. These products – badges, microcredentials, micromasters, nanodegrees, and the like – have been packaged alongside (and by) MOOCs, coding bootcamps, and other popular ed-tech trends. Funny, for all the talk of “unbundling education” among investors and education reformers, they’re more than happy to sell you new bundles of products and services they support.

It’s been an effort to create a new credentialing ecosystem of sorts, one that includes but extends beyond traditional higher ed (for-profit and not-for-profit). But it’s still one that, to borrow from Tressie McMillan Cottom yet again, constitutes “lower ed.” As she argues in her book, “new institutions and new credentials are by definition lacking in prestige, the kind of prestige that lower-status workers and students need for their credential to combat discrimination in the labor market.”

Nevertheless, the promise of many of these certification programs – from for-profit colleges to coding bootcamps to MOOCs – is that they are viable alternatives to “the traditional four year degree.” “You Can Get a Good Job Without a Bachelor’s Degree,” an op-ed in Bloomberg recently asserted. “More Americans just need the right training.” Implied even in this headline: a high school diploma is no longer sufficient. Indeed, the job prospects for those with just a high school diploma but no additional schooling are pretty dismal, even for positions that once did not demand any sort of post-secondary education.

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs still like to trot out the argument that “Your College Degree is Worthless,” but that’s bullshit – and peak hypocrisy as many of these men (they’re always men. weird that, eh?) already have college degrees. So when you hear marketing claims like “MissionU Says It Can Replace Traditional College With a One-Year Program,” ask about the type of person that can eschew traditional credentialing and rely on simply networking with famous employers and entrepreneurs or “independent study” in order to “make it.”

More likely in “the new economy,” a college degree is not enough, and thus we see the scramble for workers to attain even more credentialing in order to remain economically competitive – that’s that “tax paid by suitably credentialed workers who do not have enough capital (economic, social, or cultural) to enter a high status field of work” as McMillan Cottom has described it.

Some of what we saw this year was an attempt to rebrand occupational licensing with the terminology used by Silicon Valley – “microcredentialing.” Microcredentials for teachers. Microcredentials for police. Neither of these two efforts occur in a vacuum, of course, as pressures for “alternative certification” have long been wrapped up in reform efforts that reshape who has control, institutional or otherwise, in determining who has the right qualifications and right “skills” for a particular (public) profession. Credentialing still functions as a type of gatekeeping, even if you add the “micro” prefix to make it look smaller and less gate-like.

If degrees don’t matter – I mean, they do, but let’s do some Silicon Valley-style pretending here – then how can you tell if someone has the right qualifications and the right “skills”? There are, no surprise, a number of startups that purport to help you with that. (For a fee.) But the language of “skills versus credits” is also one found in other education reform efforts, notably those associated with “competency-based education,” “mastery-based learning,” and the like. (I touched on this topic briefly in a previous article on online education.)

Earlier this year, a consortium of elite private high schools formed the Mastery Transcript Consortium in order to replace the traditional transcript with a document that “would not include courses or grades, but levels of proficiency in various areas.” The effort, which the organization said it hoped would “transform college admissions,” is meant to help shift the way in which students are evaluated but also, according to the organization, the way in which they are taught. But with participation from The Dalton School, Phillips Exeter Academy, Choate Rosemary Hall, Catlin Gable School, and the like, one has to wonder how we can expect the most prestigious private schools in the US to lead a charge that would reform schools (and college admissions) to be more equitable. What sort of credentialism best serves the students at the country’s most elite schools, and will that ever serve the majority of public school students?

In a prestige-based system, let’s be honest, students from these schools are admitted into colleges and universities based not merely on “skills” or “grades” but on the signals of affluence and attainment that the K–12 school they attended symbolizes. There’s a certain level of trust and expectation that’s automatically granted to them. (That’s what the networks of power and wealth – and whiteness – get you.)

It’s crucial to look at all the stories we’re told about credentialing side-by-side: you need a degree; you don’t need a degree; we need to change how grading works to be more equitable; and, of course, one of the most popular tales, we need to change how the process works because students and employees cannot be trusted.

That’s the argument, at least, for a move to put transcripts and degrees on the blockchain. Students cheat. Job applicants lie. “In the Era of Microcredentials,” says Edsurge, “Institutions Look to Blockchain to Verify Learning.” Now the blockchain does not actually verify learning. It just presumably means that the information about what they’ve done is stored in a record that hasn’t been altered. If you believe the blockchain evangelists, this “crypto accreditation” will mean no fake PhDs. (Looking at you, Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to President Trump.) No taking a four-week course and passing it off as an Ivy League degree. (Looking at you, Joseph Otting, Trump’s nominee for the US Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.) No telling people that your on-the-job training at Sizzler is a business degree. (Well, it was BS, Iowa State Senator Mark Chelgren.) Even in the face of these notable Republicans’ distortions this year, one should probably ask how necessary it is to throw the computational (and electrical) power of the blockchain at this “problem” – particularly with the blockchain’s history of fraud and fascism.

Malta thinks it’s necessary, I guess. It became the first country to explore issuing educational certificates via the blockchain. MIT will issue digital diplomas on the blockchain. Sony’s in the business. And Northeastern has teamed up with IBM to put digital badges on the blockchain.

In other badging news, Salesforce received a patent for badges. Pearson filed a patent for badges. Folks still insist that badges are “gaining traction.” Of course, we’d expect as much in a world of economic precarity where workers need to be able to display as much flair on their employee uniforms as possible.

The Business of Hiring

It was notable that when the venture capital firm GSV issued its latest report on investment opportunities in education this spring, that it discussed both “learning” and “talent” technology. If you can’t find success in training workers, try to find success in being the arbiter of who gets hired, I guess.

This is hardly a new market for investors, but it’s a reliable one – as the GSV report says, “We believe we are now in a new wave of creation and consolidation in enterprise/professional learning and talent sector.” More details about venture capitalists’ activity in this sector this year in the supplement to this article here: “Who’s Investing in Job Recruitment and Job Placement Startups (in 2017?” A sample of headlines from trade publications underscores the kinds of features that might make these companies appealing to investors: “Headstart wants to better analyze candidates to fit them with the best jobs”; “Swedish Startup Hopes to Replace Resumes With ‘Gamified’ Job Matching System”; “​The Cost of Cutting in Line: Students Can Now Buy Their Way to a Job Interview.” As venture capitalist Tom Vander Ark wrote in Education Week in July, “Chalk up the sector disruption to better software-as-a-service platforms, cheaper cloud-computing services and the rise of artificial intelligence across all HR functions.” Vander Ark interviewed GSV’s Michael Moe in September where they contended, among other things, that artificial intelligence in hiring would eliminate bias – claim that surely flies in the face of all the evidence that algorithms can be incredibly racist, replicating the prejudices of their designers and the inequalities of existing systems.

(A story from August: “New app scans your face and tells companies whether you’re worth hiring.” The company in question is HireVue. Its customers include plenty of universities and school districts – BYU and Atlanta Public Schools, for example.)

Robots might not take your job. But they might decide whether or not you get hired in the first place. “Robots” – not bosses. It’s never the bosses’ fault, is it.

Training Ed-Tech

I looked at “the year in MOOCs” briefly in a previous article in this series, where I noted that they have largely pivoted away from “free and open online education” to job training. It’s been a common move in the past for education startup to move away from selling to schools and toward selling to companies. Corporate learning – that’s where people hope the money is. (You can look to, which was acquired by LinkedIn in 2015 for $1.5 billion, as the kind of “exit” that many ed-tech entrepreneurs hope to have.)

As such, education technology products that were, according to some of the storytelling, poised to “revolutionize schools” are instead marshaled for job training. And there’s no better example of that this year than virtual reality (although it’s still largely a gimmick even there): KFC, UPS, and Walmart all boasted that they were training new employees with VR. (And the tech press dutifully repeated the marketing.) There’s still hope in some quarters for school-based applications, I suppose. Student teachers are getting trained with VR, Education Week reported this fall.

But today’s education technology landscape feels a little different than previous manifestations in which struggling startups could readily turn towards what they were told would be a more reliable revenue stream: corporate learning. (Although to be clear, yes, they still do that. Yes, they’re still encouraged to do so.)

In part that’s because “the new economy” has shifted the burden of job training. It doesn’t necessarily fall to the employer now. I’m not even sure it falls to the school. It falls to the employee and the prospective employee. A future of “lifelong learning” isn’t one where we get to pursue fanciful curiosities and intellectual interests – me, I would like to learn about pigeon first aid. It’s about a labor market that requires us all to be constantly picking up new skills on our own dime and our own time so we’re (hopefully) employable. As social services dwindle, we will need retraining our entire lifetimes because we will be working until we die.

We’re also seeing schools be pressured to become the sites of corporate learning themselves, training students in the specific skills that specific industries (local industries, often) want. “Save Your College (and America’s Workforce) Through Corporate Training,” as investors Frank Britt and Ryan Craig wrote in Edsurge.

As such, perhaps the next ed-tech “platform” to watch – or to listen for the stories about, at least – will be Salesforce, which as MIT Technology Review excitedly wrote this year, is “Making Job-Training Software People Actually Want to Use.” (Ha. Ha. Ha.) Inside Higher Ed noted in passing in October that “Salesforce, the world’s largest customer relationship management platform, has announced a new classroom-ready training scheme called Trailhead for Students.” Also in passing, this sentence in a Brookings Institution report from November: “It is probably fair to say that the social good of having every high school student in America learn Salesforce might outstrip other trendier agendas in tech.”

“Everyone should learn Salesforce.” It’s got a charming ring to it…

Robots Are Coming For Your Children

Why we need to start teaching tech in Kindergarten” – Ivanka Trump, Special Assistant to the President

There’s no reason why children in elementary schools can’t be launching their own businesses” – Rebekah Neumann, co-founder, WeWork

More on teaching robots and training children in the next article in this series…

Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on Even at 5000 words an article, there are stories I left out. You can read more at

from Hack Education