"Zombie Ideas" (Ed-Tech Ideas That Refuse to Die Even Though We Know They're Monstrous)
It’s time once again for my annual review of the dominant trends in education technology. This will be the fourth year of my penning this series – long enough for me to feel like it’s become a veritable year-end tradition, and long enough for me to reflect beyond the single year in the arc of recent ed-tech history.
When I first started writing about the top trends – way back in 2010 – we were in the early days of a significant resurgence in ed-tech adoption and ed-tech entrepreneurship. I struggled then to convince editors that I should even cover the space. But soon enough, stories about the promise of education and technology filtered out beyond the tech or education trade press, and – thanks in no small part to Khan Academy – into the mainstream news as well. Oh sure, there were still lots of examples of schools banning computing devices and blocking websites (particularly social media). But there was a sense of excitement and promise among students, teachers, parents, principals, politicians, business folks, investors, journalists. Plus, as of the spring of 2010, there were iPads.
And that changed everything. Or something like that. “The iPad will revolutionize education,” or so the headlines promised. But three years later, as I plan this end-of-year review, I’m struck by how very little has changed at all.
For the record, here are what I have chosen as the “top ed-tech trends” in previous years:
Social Media – Adoption and Crackdown
Text-messaging Data (Which Still Means Mostly “Standardized Testing”)
The Digital Library
STEM Education’s Sputnik Moment
The Higher Education Bubble
The Business of Ed-Tech
The Business of Ed-Tech
The Maker Movement
Learning to Code
The Flipped Classroom
The Battle to Open Textbooks
Education Data and Learning Analytics
The Platforming of Education
Automation and Artificial Intelligence
The Politics of Ed-Tech
I want to kick off this year’s series by arguing that in 2013, not much is new. Oh sure. Shit happened. Plenty of shit. Trust me. I chronicle it all here weekly.
But the trends that I’ll cover over the next five weeks are going to be drawn almost entirely from the lists above. Same shit, different years. Old wine, new bottles. And so on. Despite all the hype and hoopla about “disruptive innovation,” all the cheering for the “end of college as we know it” all the excitement about the coming flipped classroom revolution, what we’ve seen instead is more of the same: many technologies that continue to prop up old practices, and notably this year many entrepreneurs who continue to pile onto popular but pre-existing trends (a sizable number of new “learn to code” startups this year, for example).
Indeed to a great extent, two of the most significant trends this year – MOOCs (at the university level) and the Common Core State Standards (in the US at the K–12 level) – sucked all the oxygen out of the room. There seemed little else to talk about in ed-tech – in policy, products, investing, or otherwise. This year’s “top trends” reflect that.
But by selecting “zombie ideas” as the first trend I’m covering, I want to point to more than just the stagnancy of ed-tech innovation this year. I want to highlight too the ways in which 2013 seemed a reprise of many older trends that just keep coming back, even though research and analysis have refuted them.
Edu Deja Vu
“Books will soon be obsolete in schools” – Thomas Edison, 1913
“Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete” – Arne Duncan, 2012
“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks. I should say that on the average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture… where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency.” – Thomas Edison, 1922
“Nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.” – Thomas Friedman, 2013
Late last year, education historian and Stanford professor Larry Cuban wrote a blog post about “zombie ideas and online instruction” drawing on economist Paul Krugman’s contention that zombie beliefs are those “beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die.” No doubt, it's an argument that runs through much of Cuban's research on the history of teachers and machines. Cuban writes, ”The repeated return of mistaken ideas captures well my experiences with technologies in schools and what I have researched over decades. The zombie idea that is rapidly being converted into policies that in the past have been ‘refuted with evidence but refuse to die’ is: new technologies can cure K–12 and higher education problems of teaching and learning."
2013 was a great year for zombie ideas in ed-tech.
Like "bite-sized learning chunks" -- a phrase in far too many press releases. In June, Fujistu and MIT announced a “first-of-its-kind breakthrough higher education learning platform” – well, that’s what the press release called it anyway. The platform offers “learning nuggets” – a throwback to “learning objects” perhaps but without a shred of recognition of the critiques made of them. “By breaking domains into atomistic concepts and populating each concept with a wide variety of learning nuggets, [the new platform] will be able to eliminate the Industrial Age ‘course’ and tailor each individual’s education to suit their interests.”
It wasn’t just the “learning object” that found a reprise in 2013. There were several initiatives launched this year that described themselves as education “portals” – a word that is certainly reminiscent of the Internet in the 1990s. These portals serve as closed search engines and/or content repositories – “marketplaces” where educational content (apps, lessons, and so on) can be purchased, “review sites” to help make that purchasing decision. Affiliate marketing and lead gen 2.0.
An abbreviated list of new education portals includes: Graphite, a website from Common Sense Media, that rates educational apps. Balefire Labs which also rates apps. Educade, a site sponsored by AT&T and Gamedesk and a portal for “interactive learning tools.” LearnBig, an educational content portal brought to you by the former CEO of Egghead. The educational app discovery portal appoLearning. Edvantage, a curriculum hub for educators brought to you by George Washington University. BetterLesson (founded in 2008), which teamed up with the NEA this year to offer “master teacher” lesson plans – an initiative it described as the “first educator-created body of knowledge around effective teaching.”
Of course, everything is “the first” in a world of ed-tech marketing that has no sense of history, that seems to believe that Apple developed the first educational tablet, that Stanford AI professors invented online education, that David Wiley doesn’t exist.
But at least ed-tech had a sense of style this year, right? Not just with “rock star professors,” oh no (more on that coming up when I address the MOOC trend). Kim Taylor, one of the stars from Randi Zuckerberg’s “Start-Ups: Silicon Valley” reality TV show on Bravo, launched an ed-tech startup too! Ranku. And yup. It’s a “comparison shopping site for legit online universities,” per Techcrunch.
But perhaps the largest indication of 2013 as the year of zombie idea: Gilfus Venture Partners acquired the e-learning company Adrenna for an undisclosed sum in October – “part of an ambitious plan to rival learning management system powerhouses like Blackboard, Desire2Learn and Instructure.” Gilfus Venture Partners, of course, is owned by Stephen Gilfus, one of the co-founders of Blackboard.
Learning management systems are, indeed, the undead of education technology, aren’t they. Even MOOCs, purportedly the greatest innovation in recent ed-tech history, started to look more like LMSes this year.
The History of the Future of Ed-Tech
"The greatest innovation in recent ed-tech history" is a pretty meaningless phrase when for many the history of ed-tech is newer than this blog. I often lament the lack of historical knowledge about ed-tech, particularly among education entrepreneurs and investors. Invoking George Santayana’s famous quotation is a bit of a cliche, I realize. But then again, when we don’t pay attention to the past, we can't ever quite slay the zombie ideas. We build and move forward quite blindly.
No one articulated that better this year, in my opinion, than Bret Victor in his presentation this summer on "The Future of Programming" -- a talk inspired by one of the great education technologists Alan Kay.