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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2013

A Hack Education Project

The Politics of Education/Technology

This post first appeared on Hack Education on November 20, 2013. Part 2 of my Top 10 Ed-Tech Trends of 2013 series.

I’m not going to summarize all the education-related political developments from 2013. Pardon me while I skip over the Department of Education’s No Child Left Behind waivers; the impact of sequestration and the federal government shutdown of education programs; the Supreme Court’s Fisher v Texas decision; (failed) education in Tennessee to tie a family’s welfare benefits to children’s grades; “the missing Michelle Rhee” memo; Senator Alexander’s attempts to let Congress, and not peer review, decide who gets NSF money; court cases against administrators in Tennessee and Georgia involved in test-cheating scandals; the hiring of former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to head the University of California system; the end of Mayor Bloomberg’s tenure in NYC (and as promised by newly elected Mayor Bill De Blasio, an end to many of Bloomberg’s edu policies); and the publication of Ron Paul’s book on education. Might I recommend instead POLITICO’s new education vertical, which launched this year – particularly its morning email that summarizes all your daily (US) politics-and-education news. (Or on second thought...)

There are many political developments – the Common Core State Standards, school districts’ hardware purchases, MOOCs, NSA spying, accreditation, rising college costs and student loan debt – that I’ll address at more length in subsequent posts. (And I promise, I’ll talk more about developments outside the US too.) Perhaps that’s the main takeaway from this post: politics permeate ed-tech.

One of the challenges I’ve found writing a blog about teaching, learning, and technology is that you can’t simply talk about these without talking about business and the politics. And the business and politics of ed-tech bleed into other business practices, technical developments, and policy issues as well. To write about ed-tech without referencing the latter in particular isn’t apolitical or neutral or objective. Rather, to do so simply obscures how power operates.

Student homelessness in the US has hit a record high, for example – there were 1.2 million homeless students during the 2011–2012 school year. That’s not an ed-tech story per se, despite the best efforts of those with a solutionist bent to make it one – “an app to end homelessness!” or simply “teach them to code!”. But it’s impossible (or at least deeply, deeply problematic) to ignore growing and vast income disparities, to ignore students’ lives outside of school and write sunnily about efforts like the “flipped classroom” or digital textbooks.

And no doubt, if there are “zombie ideas” in ed-tech as I suggested in the first post in this year-in-review series, it is in no small part due to power and politics. It’s such an easy political stance to take, after all: more technology is synonymous with “the future” – a better, shinier future.

The Politics of the “Education is Broken” Narrative

And thank goodness for all that shiny tech! Because “education is broken.” (And technology will sell you a fix… but more on the business of ed-tech in a subsequent post too.)

2013 marked the thirtieth anniversary of one of the most influential arguments made to that effect, with the publication in 1983 of A Nation at Risk. (Of course, the idea of failing schools goes back much farther.) Commissioned by President Reagan, the report highlighted “a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.” Many historians trace the push for “accountability” to this report – No Child Left Behind, and all its standardized testing ilk. Reform reform reform.

And yet despite three decades of reform, the “education is broken” narrative continues. “ACT scores fall to lowest level in five years,” says Inside Higher Ed in August. “This Year’s SAT Scores Are Out, and They’re Grim,” reads The Atlantic headline in September. And even when some tests point to some improvements, “Be Wary of Ranking NAEP Gains,” cautions the Brookings Institution. We're doomed!

In addition to handwringing over test scores – ongoing signals of brokenness - a number of political organizations stepped in with “report cards” to rate schools and states’ policies: former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee’s organization StudentsFirst issued one; former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s organization Foundation for Excellence in Education issued another. Massachusetts, for example — well-known for topping test scores – rated a D+ on the former’s report card, an F on the latter’s. Because unions. Or something.

A couple of blows to these ratings: 1) Rutgers education professor Bruce Baker analyzed how these ed-reform-oriented report cards – that is, grades given to states based on how well they conform to certain policies – actually coincide with NAEP scores. (That is, they don’t.) 2) Ed reform darling Tony Bennett, defeated in his re-election bid for Indiana State Superintendent last year (but hired as the head of Florida’s schools shortly thereafter) was found, thanks to an AP investigation, of changing a top GOP donor’s school grade. So something is broken here…

No doubt, the loudest counter-argument to A Nation at Risk 3.0 – the assertion that schools are not, in fact, broken – was made by education historian Diane Ravitch in her book Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools, published in September. Ravitch continued her work (even after an illness sidelined her speaking tour this fall) as one of the most outspoken opponents to what she describes as “corporate education reform” – accruing 7 million page-views on her blog in just 18 months.

But things are broken. Communities. Government. Schools. Economies.

One need look no further than Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the shuttering of 49 schools – the largest public school closure in history. That move forced many students – oh, guess what race was affected? – to walk through gang-territory in the newly-crowned murder capital of the US.

Or look no further than Philadelphia, where its public school district faced a massive budget shortfall, where its superintendent threatened to not open schools this fall if the city did not loan it $50 million, where thousands of staff were laid off, and where a contract agreement put before teachers early in the year not just scrapped seniority, but water fountains, desks, and parking spaces.


The Politics of Students

Many of these events simply happen to students, mind you, not in conversation with them. We have these policy discussions about reshaping education – no matter whether you’re “pro” or “anti” “reform” – but very rarely does the student voice get a chance to speak.

In May, it did, thanks to a cellphone video captured in a Duncanville High School classroom. Jeff Bliss, (apparently) kicked out of class (for an infraction that the video never makes clear), delivered a passionate speech about teaching, learning, care, and connection, all of which he juxtaposed to the “packets” and passivity of the classroom and his teacher. The video, uploaded to YouTube and WorldStarHipHop, garnered millions of views.

I’ll talk more about education, technology, and surveillance / sousveillance in another post – I think that’s a crucial element of this particular story. What does it mean to have a student’s rant taped, what does it mean to have it go viral? Regardless of how you care to explain Bliss’s 15 minutes of fame – he helped spread this ongoing refrain about a broken system.

The Politics of Labor

Of course, a large part of the “what’s broken” narrative tends to place blame at the feet of educators, and this is not just a question about optimal learning conditions but of working conditions too.

While the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012 highlighted labor issues at the K–12 level, in 2013 education labor issues were highlighted other places as well:

  • a focus, for example, on unpaid internships, including a crowdfunding campaign by ProPublica to help investigate the practice across college campuses.
  • the ongoing lawsuit by student athletes against the NCAA, challenging the current system of amateurism and the organization’s licensing of students’ likenesses to video-game makers.
  • contingent labor in higher education, which The New York Times reported in April now comprises 76% of the academic work force. While some adjuncts were able to unionize this year (at Tufts, for example), others found their hours cut or capped so that colleges could bypass having to cover their healthcare under the Affordable Care Act. Undoubtably the story that brought the most attention to contingency in higher ed: “The Death of an Adjunct,” an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, who’d been an adjunct instructor at Duquesne University for 25 years who died penniless. (L. V. Anderson recently wrote a longer piece about Votjtko for Slate, complicating the story that went viral – over 400,000 page views and 69,000 Facebook “likes.”)
  • So some people quit. The “I quit” genre of essay and/or YouTube video become a popular one for K–12 and higher ed folks alike.

The Politics of the Tech Sector

Of course, in the future our jobs will all be automated – or half of our jobs – depending on how you run the numbers, I guess.

Robots, writes George Mason University economics professor Tyler Cowen are “harbingers of a new libertarian age.” And some in Silicon Valley are surely readying for it with calls this year for secession, gridlock, an alternative currency, and a floating island utopia. Fun times.

The libertarian impulse didn’t stop the tech industry from lobbying the government. As of October 2013, OpenSecrets.org says that the computer/Internet sector had spent $104,299,922 on lobbying, with Google ($10 million), Microsoft ($7.7 million), Oracle ($5.3 million), Hewlett-Packard ($5.1 million), and Facebook ($4.9 million) leading the pack. Google and Facebook also joined ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the conservative lobbying and legislation-writing organization that’s pushed for laws like “Stand Your Ground.”

Among the specifically ed-tech oriented federal laws that were up for revision or comment this year: COPPA and E-Rate. New COPPA rules governing children’s online privacy went into effect in July, with tech friendly measures that allow contextual advertising without parental permission. And the FCC is still in the process of updating E-Rate, a fee on telecommunications that helps fund cheaper Internet access for schools and libraries. (AT&T, incidentally, outspent Google this year on lobbying, spending $12.3 million. Verizon spent $9.9 million.) While there have been calls to expand E-Rate to include wireless community hotspots, Verizon is among those opposed to that idea.

But expanding Internet access isn’t simply the purview of the FCC. Oh no. In August, Mark Zuckerberg asked (on Facebook, duh), “Is connectivity a human right?” His answer: “I believe connectivity is a human right.” His solution: Internet.org, a consortium that includes Facebook (duh) and several cellphone makers. Their goal: bring the Internet (Facebook duh) to the entire world.

Berkeley PhD candidate Jen Schradie penned the best of what were overwhelmingly skeptical responses to Zuckerberg’s efforts: “Are you really concerned about human rights via Internet connectivity or do you want to make sure Facebook is a Human Right?” (Bill Gates had the second best response to these tech industry efforts towards “connectivity.” I’ll grant him that.)

Of course, Internet.org wasn’t the only foray of the young billionaire Zuck into politics. He’d already made a $100 million donation to Newark Schools several years ago (emails chronicling the negotiations between Zuckerberg and Mayor Cory Booker were released on Christmas Eve, 2012. Because timing in politics is everything.) This year, Zuckerberg co-founded a SuperPAC, Fwd.us, along with other tech luminaries (including Gates). Much of the agenda of Fwd.us is focused on immigration reform (a major issue in the tech industry this year). Its priorities also include “Education reforms that produce more graduates in the science, technology and math fields and ensure all children receive a high quality education from effective teachers and accountable schools.” (Familiar ed-reform language.) And just to cover all the bases (I guess), the SuperPAC also bought ads supporting drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. (Because even libertarian tech utopias need fuel and workers, yo.)

“It’s already clear that with FWD.us, the tech industry is going to have to reckon with exactly how real the realpolitik is going to get,” wrote Anil Dash in response to the launch of the SuperPAC. “If we’re finally moving past our innocent, naive and idealistic lack of engagement with the actual dirty dealings of legislation, then let’s try to figure out how to do it without losing our souls.”

The Politics of the Business of Ed-Tech

I’m not sure I agree with Dash that the tech industry is really that naive. The education sector sure isn’t. And together? Well…

This year, Ted Mitchell, the CEO of NewSchools Venture Fund (investor in charter schools like Rocketship and KIPP and in startups like Edsurge and ClassDojo), was tapped to replace Martha Kanter as Under Secretary, the highest ranked higher education official in the Department of Education.

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