Poised for Another Decade of Ed-Tech “Debacles”

Over the holiday break, two pieces of writing coursed through my Twitter feed in successive order.

The first was a Washington Post article by Drew Hartwell on the various tracking technologies higher education institutions are employing to surveil their students. As Hartwell reports, “Short-range phone sensors and campuswide WiFi networks are empowering colleges across the United States to track hundreds of thousands of students more precisely than ever before. Dozens of schools now use such technology to monitor students’ academic performance, analyze their conduct or assess their mental health.”

The applications range from the relatively simple – tracking specific class attendance – to the far more sophisticated, such as assigning student “risk scores” based on behavior, such as frequency of library attendance. In Hartwell’s words, “The dream of some administrators is a university where every student is a model student, adhering to disciplined patterns of behavior that are intimately quantified, surveilled and analyzed.”

Much of my Twitter network reacted with similar concern over technology that pays little heed to students’ right to privacy or the consequences of subjecting them to surveillance that may prod or even punish them according to aggregated “norms.” The notion that every student succeeds according to a fixed “model” is, and I say this with all due delicacy, total bullshit. It is difficult to see how algorithmic micromanagement is ultimately in the long term best interests of students who should be developing their sense of agency and independence.

Even the success story of a company called Degree Analytics, where the tracking system flagged a student who seemed isolated, only leaving their room for class and to eat, disturbs me, as it substitutes digital monitoring for an ethic of care rooted in human relationships. The algorithm prompted someone to go knock on the student’s door. Why isn’t there an existing system for students to have their doors knocked on regardless of what the algorithm has to say?

The other article was Audrey Watters round-up of “The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade,” a work of research and analysis which may take one several sittings to fully digest.

I expect the tracking technology discussed in Hartwell’s article to make the list of debacles for the next decade, except in a way it’s already there at item number 7 on the 2010’s list, “ClassDojo and the New Behaviorism.” ClassDojo is behavior tracking technology which has found favor among those who believe social emotional learning can be measured and mediated into “correct behaviors” another term for model students. In reality, it trains students to practice “malleability and compliance” which have little relationship to what I believe to be most important, you know, learning.

Watters’ list is sobering as we see the same mistakes made over and over again. The number of magic bullets for education reaches into the dozens – iPads for everyone, everyone learns to code, MOOCs, blockchain, predictive analytics, and on and on. The list represents billions of dollars invested in education-related ed-tech activities and every single one is quite clearly a “debacle.”

The same players seem to return to the scene, even following abject failures. Jose Ferreira of Knewton raised $180 million in venture capital, only to see the company sold for scraps at a $17 million valuation. He was recently feted in the New York Times for his latest venture, Bakpax. Marc Andreessen investing in your start-up seems to be an ultimate kiss of death. Chris Whittle is a serial failure, and yet he’s back with yet another venture, and subject of a “gushing” profile in the Washington Post.

Consider the sheer scale of waste. Mark Zuckerberg famously donated $100 million dollars to Newark schools in 2010 under the mayoral administration of Cory Booker. It seemed like a transformative sum at the time. A single failed ed tech software company, Knewton, drew almost twice as much money. AltSchool, which was meant to also transform teaching through some kind of predictive analytics special sauce, garnered $180 million of investment of its own, never expanding beyond a handful of schools, before closing all of them and pivoting into Altitude Learning, a provider of software and professional development services to schools.

Clearly there is money available for education, but when it is concentrated in the hands of venture capitalists it is almost certainly going to waste. While those billions were being flushed into the ether, America’s school teachers reached a peak “wage penalty” where they make 21.4% less than similarly educated workers.

Even when those capitalists – like Zuckerberg or Bill Gates – direct their money into existing schools, the money is likely to be wasted. Let the list of debacles put to rest the notion that billionaires are more capable of making efficient use of money than the public.

In a follow-up to her list of debacles, Watters addresses those who think she should’ve had a commensurate list of successes. She responds, “the technology industry — education technology or otherwise — does not need my validation. It needs criticism. It needs criticism that refuses to come with sugar-coating and a few plaudits. There are not “two sides” to this issue that deserve equal time. There are not ‘two sides’ — some good and some bad ed-tech — that exist in any sort of equal measure.”

“What if anything ‘good’ about ed-tech this past decade was so overwhelmed by all the money funneled into the ‘bad’ that the ‘good’ didn’t matter one whit? What if all that ‘bad’ meant any semblance of ‘good’ was stifled, suffocated?”

When I see higher education professionals tout tracking and surveillance technology as somehow a benefit for students, I know that we have lost the plot in a major way. Our collective stance toward technological solutions and algorithmic interventions should be much much more skeptical going forward. The sheer number of debacles in the past should be more than enough to warrant caution.

We do not have another decade to waste.