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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2014

A Hack Education Project


Part 10 in my Top 10 Trends of 2014 series.

2015 will mark the 25th anniversary of the first one-to-one laptop program. In 1990, the Methodist Ladies’ College in Melbourne, Australia gave all its students in Years 5 through 12 a computer. 2015 will mark the 35th anniversary of the publication of Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms. It’ll be the 15th anniversary of Maine Governor Angus King’s proposal to give a laptop to every middle school student and teacher in the state.

I’m not sure how the ed-tech industry will celebrate. As I’ve argued elsewhere, ed-tech suffers from amnesia, always forgetting or rewriting its past. It’s committed to a story that everything is new and that everything is wonderful.

It’s neither.

The Great LAUSD iPad Fiasco

It’s pretty incredible that after decades of one-to-one computing initiatives, schools can still get things so very, very wrong. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe that’s what happens when you ignore history and research. Maybe that’s what happens when you focus on profits, on data collection, on content delivery, on assessment.

When the Los Angeles Unified School District announced last year that it planned to give all 700,000 public school students an iPad (pre-loaded with a specially-designed Pearson curriculum), it was a very big deal – in terms of price-tag and publicity. Apple even issued a press release, boasting that it had been awarded the $30 million contract. $30 million out of an initiative expected to cost the district over $1 billion.

There were signs early on that LAUSD was struggling with the implementation. The district's WiFi infrastructure wasn’t robust enough. It hadn’t made plans or policies to deal with theft. And students quickly “hacked” their devices – or at least, they bypassed the security profiles set up to prevent them from downloading music and watching movies.

But this year, LAUSD’s iPad initiative has moved from being “botched” to being a full-blown scandal. Superintendent John Deasy resigned, as did the district’s CIO. A federal grand jury has been called to look into the procurement process, although its unclear if LAUSD or Apple or Pearson (or all of the above) is the target of the criminal investigation.

In August, several news organizations obtained and published emails between LAUSD, Apple, and Pearson officials. These revealed that Superintendent Deasy had begun meeting with these companies – specifically with former Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino – to discuss the hardware/curriculum purchase almost a year before the contract ever went out to bid.

In response, Deasy announced he would cancel the contract with Apple, and that the district would reopen the bidding process. Deasy’s replacement, Ramon Cortines, initially indicated that he’d make major changes to the program, suggesting that he did not want to use construction bond money to fund it. But as has happened almost weekly with this story, things changed. The contract with Apple was not cancelled – not entirely as the district announced it would spend $22 million to buy 20,000 more iPads just in time for spring standardized testing season. And instead of spending $504 per iPad, the district would pay $552 for each device.

In September, the American Institutes for Research (AIR) issued a 95-page report evaluating the district’s iPad project. It found that only one teacher out of 245 classrooms reported using the Pearson curriculum. (It’s costing the district about $200 per device for a three-year licensing deal.) 80% of high schools reported they “rarely used the tablets.” The report also found that the district was so busy dealing with the distribution of the iPads, it never really addressed using them in the classroom.

Bonus: in August, an audit found the district was missing $2 million in computers, mostly iPads.

Public Education and "The Pearson Tax"

Pearson has its hand in almost every trend I’ve looked at this year: competency-based education, the Common Core State Standards, data collection, testing, textbooks, online education, outsourcing, privatization. “The Pearson Tax” – we pay it.

In November, Pearson’s “charitable wing,” the Pearson Foundation, announced it would close at the end of the year.

The organization has come under intense scrutiny for how much of a division really existed between it and its parent company. Last year, the Pearson Foundation paid an almost $8 million settlement to the state of New York over accusations that its actions were really funneling money to its parent company Pearson. And this year, the LAUSD emails suggest that the Foundation was involved in some of the negotiations surrounding iPads and Common Core curriculum. (The foundation received a $3 million grant from the Gates Foundation in 2011 to design CCSS-aligned materials.)

It’s not clear what will happen to the other projects that the foundation was involved with – what’ll happen to the content and, of course, to the student data.

Other Ed-Tech Failures (An Abbreviated List)

LAUSD was hardly the only district that struggled with its one-to-one initiatives this year. The Hoboken School District, for example, announced it planned to destroy – yes destroy – all the laptops from its “failed” 1:1 laptop program.

But wait! I’m actually not done talking about LAUSD’s ed-tech failures yet!

In September, the district disclosed that it had paid $3.75 million to settle a lawsuit from Maximus Inc, a company it had hired to build its new student information system. The district spent $112 million to build that system but never implemented it. And the system it did implement? It doesn’t work.

The failed SIS caused problems with scheduling and with transcripts, affecting some 5000 students as they headed back to school this fall. The district says it will need at least $11 million more to fix it.

Much like LAUSD, an audit of the technology in New York City Schools "found what it called ‘grossly inaccurate’ record keeping at the Education Department, where more than 2,000 computers and tablets at a sample of department locations were either unused — still swaddled in their original wrapping — or could not be located at all.”

And much like the LAUSD’s struggles with its student information system, NYC Schools announced this year that it would scrap ARIS, the Achievement Reporting and Innovation System – a $95 million system that teachers never really used. ARIS has been around since 2007, its development overseen by then Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. The company Klein now works for, News Corp’s Amplify, has been handling the program for the past six years.

Another big budget failure this year (that also had some development work done by News Corp’s Wireless Generation. Small world): inBloom.

InBloom, the data warehousing system, seeded with $100 million from the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation, ran into lots of problems last year, particularly over parents’ concerns about student privacy. New York State pulled out of its inBloom pilot in April, leaving the organization with no customers. Shortly afterwards, it announced it would close its doors. (The website inbloom.org now redirects to the GitHub repo.)

inBloom had also found itself (rightly or wrongly) associated with the controversial Common Core State Standards which is associated (rightly or wrongly) with an explosion in assessments. Many schools continued to struggle this year with the move to computer-based testing: in Florida, in Oklahoma, in Indiana, in Louisiana.

In many cases, the problem was the lack of Internet connectivityat schools. But often, the assessment providers were at fault. That seemed to be the case in July when bar exam takers couldn’t get their tests to upload to the Examsoft website.

Ridiculous Predictions, Predictable Failures

Part of the problem that education technology faces is that its proponents often make these wild claims about what the tech will do:

It’ll democratize education.

It’ll end homelessness.

It’ll raise test scores.

It’ll boost efficiency.

It'll bust teachers' unions.

It’ll put universities out of business.

It’ll be able to tell if you’re a visual learner who learns calculus best on Thursday mornings.

"In 30 years … we’re going to be able to literally ingest information. Once information is in your bloodstream, some kind of mechanism could deposit the information in the brain. You could take a pill and learn English or the works of Shakespeare.”

Dropped from the sky onto villages into the developing world, education technology will teach children to read and to write and – of course – to code.

(Thank you, Nicholas Negroponte, for those last two gems.)

In many ways, OLPC exemplifies ed-tech techno-solutionism and ed-tech imperialism (something I wrote about this year in relation to the $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE, whose director used to work on the OLPC project). While the initiative – “one laptop per child” – might sound good in theory, in practice… well… OLPC has never been able to reach under-$100 price it promised, for example. It’s struggled with the manufacture and with the deployment of devices. This year, Thailand’s initiative hit a roadblock when the manufacturer of its tablets shut down its business in the country. And research hasn’t shown the project to be particularly effective. A study released this year on the implementation in Uruguay found “no impact of the OLPC program on test scores in reading and math. This result is consistent with estimates for Israel, Perú, Romania, Nepal, and the US (North Carolina).”

In March, OLPC News, a site that tracked on the project, declared the organization “history,” and subsequently moved its blogging efforts elsewhere. OLPC does live on. Its appearance at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, displaying a couple of new tablets is an indication, at least, that it remains committed to being a commercial endeavor.

“But wait!” you say. “OLPC was never about test scores!” “Ed-tech shouldn’t be about test scores!” I don’t disagree. But if we’re going to spend billions of dollars on ed-tech, maybe we should talk more about what it is about. Why are tablets better than books? Why would you prioritize buying machines over hiring teachers? What should learning with technology look like? How do we know it’s going well?

Many ed-tech proponents seem awfully fast to jump on the latest bandwagon – brain-training! personalization! adaptivity! data dashboards! MOOCs! Second Life! – with little reflection or little forethought about the implications. Even though we still can’t seem to get one-to-one laptop programs right, folks are already on to the next hot new trend. Heck, I didn’t even have time to write about what a terrible, expensive surveillance tool Google Glass in the classroom would be before it appeared that early adopters were “losing faith” in the product.

Mindwires’ Phil Hill has argued that too many ed-tech innovations are “stuck in purgatory,” and never make it out of their pilots. Conversely, I’d say, too many ed-tech “innovations” make Techcrunch or Edudemic headlines and should never make it anywhere at all.

The Failed Future of Ed-Tech

If you’ve worked in ed-tech a while – at least as long as when Sal Khan first invented it back in 2006, right – you can probably guess what’s coming. We’ve seen it before. There’s hype. There are New York Times op-eds. There’s a flood of investment. The bubble bursts. Folks get disillusioned. Companies go broke. Big companies acquire the little companies. Private equity firms acquire the big companies. Computers get bought and never used in the classrooms. Or they get used to continue traditional practices, just at a higher cost.

This summer, America’s premier education expert Bill Gates explained why ed-tech fails. “New technology to engage students holds some promise, but Gates says it tends to only benefit those who are motivated. ‘And the one thing we have a lot of in the United States is unmotivated students,’ Gates said.”

The problem, according to Gates, is not that ed-tech is crap. It’s not that many ed-tech entrepreneurs are snake-oil salesmen. It's not that people make these ludicrous claims about ed-tech revolution and ed-tech magic. It’s not that education policies are ridiculous. It’s not that the market-forces skew what gets pegged as a “problem” and what gets sold as a “solution.” It’s not that school is often boring and schoolwork often meaningless.

It’s that kids don’t give a shit. It’s their fault.

Ed-tech, on the other hand, is awesome.

This post was first published on December 20, 2014.