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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2014

A Hack Education Project

Social Justice

Part 9 in my Top 10 Trends of 2014 series

Education is the civil rights issue of our time,” you’ll often hear politicians and education reform types say.

I maintain that civil rights remain the civil rights issue of our time. When we see, for example, the Supreme Court overturn part of the Voting Rights Act, when we see rampant police violence against marginalized groups, when we see backlash against affirmative action and against Title IX protections, when we see rampant discrimination – institutionalized – in people’s daily lives, we need to admit: there are things that the “education gospel cannot fix.”

This year marked the 60th anniversary of the landmark Brown v Board of Education Supreme Court decision. And yet, public schools in the United States remain deeply segregated and are systematically becoming even more so. Separate and unequal.

So when you look back on 2014 – on a school year in which for the first time “minority” students are the majority of public school students, all while less than 20% of their teachers are people of color, on a year that saw unemployment for recent Black college graduates hit a rate more than double that of all college graduates – it’s really, really hard to see education as the vehicle for civil rights. Too often, education has been an institution engaged in quite the opposite, playing a key role in exclusion, not to mention in incarceration.

The school-to-prison pipeline did gain some attention this year (hopefully we’re on the path to shutting it down), with the Obama Administration issuing guidelines in January recommending “public school officials use law enforcement only as a last resort for disciplining students, a response to a rise in zero-tolerance policies that have disproportionately increased the number of arrests, suspensions and expulsions of minority students for even minor, nonviolent offenses.” In March, the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights released civil rights data compiled from all 97,000+ public schools in the country. Among the findings, “Black students represent 18% of preschool enrollment but 42% of students suspended.” Preschool. And this from earlier this month: “Data from the Office for Civil Rights at the United States Department of Education show that from 2011 to 2012, black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide were suspended at a rate of 12 percent, compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls, and more than girls of any other race or ethnicity.”

Tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central and South America arrived at the US border this year, seeking asylum here. The response from Americans was not compassionate and it was not just; it was incredibly ugly. President Obama took executive action on immigration reform in November, offering limited legal status (a temporary reprieve from deportation, that is) to up to five million of the country’s 11.4 million undocumented immigrants. Again, the response from some: panic, vitriol, a concern about money, not people.

In 2014, affluent kids continued to do well. As they are wont to do. According to the AP, “Wealthier parents have been stepping up education spending so aggressively that they’re widening the nation’s wealth gap.” (Bonus: a school fundraiser that let parents buy their kids out of having to do homework. The price: $100.)

Speaking of affluence, the College Board, facilitators of the SAT and the AP exams, claimed this year that by partnering with Khan Academy for free SAT test prep, they were going to be able to neatly wipe away some of the socioeconomic problems that the test has faced – that is, that scores are correlated to wealth. (Education researchers: please follow up on this.)

The College Board also issued a statement this year “on behalf of itself and the Educational Testing Service, apologizing for a T-shirt that was made and sold by high school and college teachers who gathered in June to grade Advancement Placement exams in world history. Those who grade the exams have a tradition of creating a T-shirt, but this year’s version offended many Asian Americans who were at the event.” The shirt was straight-up racist.

But the College Board’s AP curriculum was defended by students in the Jefferson County (Colorado) school district, who staged protests over a district proposal to review the AP curriculum so as to be sure it would “promote patriotism, respect for authority and free enterprise and to guard against educational materials that ’encourage or condone civil disorder.’” The College Board said that it would not accept AP credits from those who fiddled with the curriculum, prompting the district’s Latino students to point out how access to AP classes and credits is an important equity issue.

So is education “the new civil rights movement” as ed-reformers want us to think? Hell, is it even a vehicle for civil rights? Or is it a vehicle for something else?

I mean, you have to wonder when a “teaching experiment” in a high poverty school in Detroit involves placing 100 kindergarteners into one classroom. Or when a group of white teachers show up wearing NYPD t-shirts in response to protests about the NYPD’s killing of an unarmed Black man.

Are schools a safe place for all students? 2014 suggested otherwise: The Department of Education released a list of 55 institutions it was investigating over their handling of sexual assault on campus. 23 K–12 school districts are also under investigation. When facing legal challenges for negligence in sexual assault cases, many schools blamed the victims. (Or worse. Much worse.)

There were over 40 school shootings in the US, and around the world terrorist attacks on schools are on the rise. Campus police officers are increasingly becoming militarized. (Scrutiny prompted the Los Angeles School District Police Department to return three grenade launchers, but it said it would keep 61 rifles and a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle.)

Are schools a safe place for educators? Employment became more and more precarious this year with concerted, legal attacks on tenure for public school teachers in New York and California and with attacks on academic freedom, most notably perhaps when the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign’s rescinded its job offer to professor Steven Salaita after he tweeted his support for Palestine. What protections do tenure really offer? Racist campus policing practices affected professors as well as students.

Are schools a safe place to work? What is that work? The work of teaching? Learning? Research? Sports? Who profits from this work?

And how is technology – education technology – changing all of this?

Diversity and Tech

Who builds technology and education technology matters. It matters because the make-up of engineering teams, for example, shape what gets built – what problems get tackled – and how. Privileges, ideologies, expectations, and values are reproduced in technologies. (For an interesting example, see danah boyd’s article "Is the Oculus Rift Sexist?)

News organizations have been pushing for several years for the major technology companies to release their diversity numbers — that is, the make-up of their workforce. In fact, many of these companies have fought attempts to publish their EEO (Equal Employment Opportunity) data. But this year, perhaps recognizing that they must at some point address the “pipeline issue” — how to get more women and people of color into STEM-related fields — some tech companies have released this data. And it’s not pretty.

70% of Google’s employees are male. 61% are white and 30% Asian. Of Google’s “technical” employees. 83% are male. 60% of those are white and 34% are Asian.

70% of Apple’s employees are male. 55% are white and 15% are Asian. 80% of Apple’s “technical” employees are male.

69% of Facebook employees are male. 57% are white and 34% are Asian. 85% of Facebook’s “technical” employees are male.

70% of Twitter employees are male. 59% are white and 29% are Asian. 90% of Twitter’s “technical” employees are male.

There’s also a lack of diversity in the venture capital firms that fund technology startups and a lack of diversity among those working in technology leadership positions in schools..

Not Welcome

“Why Women Aren’t Welcome on the Internet,” Amanda Hess wrote in January, presaging a year in which we most certainly were not. When I gave a talk in November on ed-tech and gender, I started to count the number of my female colleagues who’d experienced harassment online – rape threats and death threats. I could name 39 before I had to stop – not because I’d reached the end of the list, but because I wanted to throw up.

I can’t stomach making a list of all the microaggressions either, incidents like at the Grace Hopper Celebration when a panel of “male allies”, including the CEO of GoDaddy – known best perhaps for its sexist advertising campaigns – were asked to speak about fixing sexism in tech. Or when Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said at the same event that women shouldn’t ask for raises; they should trust “karma.”

Tech educator Kathy Sierra deleted her Twitter account (@seriouspony) this year, leaving behind a really chilling blog post (Wired version) about her ongoing experiences with harassment and trolling. After having to spend much of 2013 in hiding following a concerted harassment campaign against her, Adria Richards opened up with some of her experiences with violent threats as well.

And then there was #Gamergate, a campaign of threats and harassment against women in the video game industry. In October, one of the women who’s been the target of this violent misogyny for a long, long time, the cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, was forced to cancel a speaking engagement at Utah State University. Because of a Utah law, campus officials told her that they could not stop attendees from bringing concealed weapons into her talk — even though the campus had received a threat from someone calling himself Marc Lépine and promising “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if Sarkeesian spoke. (Lépine was the man who, 25 years ago this year, killed 14 women at École Polytechnique, an engineering school in Montreal, Quebec.)

I wrote about ed-tech and Gamergate and you won't believe what happened next. Actually, you probably would...

Ed-tech conferences did slowly move to adopt Codes of Conduct this year. But speaking out about sexual harassment at library conferences has resulted in a $1.25 million defamation lawsuit filed against two librarians. The message remains: not safe and not welcome.

"Hashtag Activism"

There continued to be a lot of sneers at those who organize politically online, particularly via Twitter – that’s not new. But “hashtag activism” showed itself to be pretty powerful in 2014. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. #NotYourAsianSidekick. #YesAll#Women. #BringBackOurGirls. #TeamHarpy. #BlackLivesMatter. #CancelColbert. #Ferguson. #FergusonSyllabus. #Educolor. Organizing via hashtags did translate into offline organizing, such as #NMOS14, a call for a national moment of silence to protest the death of Michael Brown and other people of color at the hands of police. That particular hashtag spawned vigils across the country.

As Suey Park and Eunsong Kim argued “These hashtags have allowed for women of color feminists to generate ideas and resist the status quo. Much like our revolutionary ideas, our activist hashtags do not emerge in isolation. They have a specific locality and community that collectively uses experiences to forge new spaces.”

So where was ed-tech in all this? Pretty silent. (Unless you count all the edu-Twitter chats about the latest ed-tech products. #EdTechProductChat)

Education Technology and Social Justice

What role does ed-tech have in addressing issues of equity?

What role might it have in making things worse? As Annie Murphy Paul argued in Slate, “Educational Technology Isn’t Leveling the Playing Field. In fact, it’s making achievement gaps even bigger.”

Research is finding other differences in how economically disadvantaged children use technology. Some evidence suggests, for example, that schools in low-income neighborhoods are more apt to employ computers for drill and practice sessions than for creative or innovative projects. Poor children also bring less knowledge to their encounters with computers. Crucially, the comparatively rich background knowledge possessed by high-income students is not only about technology itself, but about everything in the wide world beyond one’s neighborhood. Not only are affluent kids more likely to know how to Google; they’re more likely to know what to Google for.

Slogans like “one laptop per child” and “one-to-one computing” evoke an appealingly egalitarian vision: If every child has a computer, every child is starting off on equal footing. But though the sameness of the hardware may feel satisfyingly fair, it is superficial. A computer in the hands of a disadvantaged child is in an important sense not the same thing as a computer in the hands of a child of privilege.

In January of this year, an appeals court this week struck down the FCC’s “net neutrality” rules, which prohibit companies from prioritizing some Internet traffic over others and/or charging more to access certain sites. Since then, there’s been lots of concern about what this might mean for the future of the open Internet. Although President Obama has since said that he wanted to see the FCC adopt “the strictest rules possible” to prevent telecommunications companies from providing “fast lanes,” many are still apprehensive about how well the open Internet will be protected by net neutrality – and how the loss of it could have a major impact on schools that can only afford “slow lane” access. (Khan Academy is a partner with Comcast. So you’ll still get speedy loading times on math video lessons, I guess.)

Earlier this month, the FCC approved an overhaul to its E-rate program, which subsidizes high-speed Internet for public schools and libraries. This includes a $1.5 billion boost in funding to the program. Who benefits? I mean, other than ed-tech companies...

See, better access to broadband and to educational technologies doesn’t fully address issues of equity, as Annie Murphy Paul’s article suggests. It raises new questions about school surveillance and policing, for example. Who has access to Internet-connected devices at home? Who has access to an unfiltered Internet at home? Whose access is monitored by schools, even when they are at home?

A Huntsville, Alabama school district, for example, “expelled 14 students last year based on the findings of a private contractor who monitored students’ social-media activity as part of greater school security efforts, according to a review by The Huntsville Times. Twelve of them were black, drawing concerns that the program unfairly targeted African-American students.” As Bill Fitzgerald points out, “Filtering and Surveillance Should Not Be Considered Protection.” Again, this is an equity issue.

As is big data. Algorithms. BYOD (One of the ways that a North Carolina school plans to handle its low-income students not having their own computers to bring to school: “have students share their devices.”). A mandate that students buy $100 graphing calculators (later changed to include calculator apps). All important ed-tech equity issues.

As is the demographics of students taking online courses and enrolled in computing programs and bootcamps. The safety of students in those classrooms. The fact that academic skills on the Web are tied to income levels. All important ed-tech equity issues.

But not at the front and center of most education technology conferences or conversations.

Who gets to use computers for self-directed learning? Who gets robot teachers? Whose job will be replaced? From Forbes, consistently the source for stories that tout a techno-dystopian future as some sort of great business breakthrough: “A Colorado Software Firm Is Programming Your Next Professor": “As education costs increase, it’s not unreasonable to think that professors, teachers, adjuncts, and tutors could at least be partially replaced by a $7,000 programmable character who never sleeps or unionizes, or emotionally overreacts to student behavior.”

Again, what role does ed-tech play in social justice?

Social Justice, Ed-Tech, and Ed Reform

When I prepare to write this year-end series (which I actually start thinking about quite early in the year), I make a ton of notes. I pour through all the links I’ve bookmarked, all the “Hack Education Weekly News” posts I’ve written. I sort events into different categories in order to provide some analysis that, hopefully, makes sense on all these trends.

I’ve been sorta stuck this year on where in the series to place the “Opt Out” movement. A growing number of families are “opting out” of standardized tests, a response in part to the increase in the number of tests that students must take – “an average of 113 standardized tests between pre-K and grade 12” according to one survey. Is “Opt Out” a “business of ed-tech” issue? (Yes.) Is “Opt Out” related to the Common Core? (Yes.) Is “Opt Out” a data issue? (Yes.) Is it a privacy issue? (Yes.) Is it a social justice issue? (Yes.)

How are standardized test scores wielded politically? What arguments are made using them? By whom? To what end?

Take Vergara v California, a lawsuit brought by StudentsMatter that charged that California’s tenure and seniority rules violated students’ civil rights, disproportionately affecting low-income and minority students and preventing them from having effective teachers and getting a quality education. The plaintiffs invoked standardized test scores and the “Value-Added-Model” to make their case.

StudentsMatter is a non-profit created by tech entrepreneur David Welch. Welch is also an investor in NewSchools Venture Fund. NewSchools Venture Fund is in turn an investor in the charter school chain Rocketship Education. One of the plaintiffs in this case is the daughter of a Rocketship employee. Wow. Small world, huh.

Incidentally, the ed-tech-centric Rocketship, which targets mostly low-income, minority families, is slowing its expansion, the San Jose Mercury News reported this spring, detailing many of the problems that the charter chain is facing. “Teachers – who are at-will employees who can be fired at any time – also criticized Rocketship’s intolerance for dissent, saying it contributed to the disastrous redesign that placed 100 students in a classroom.” But by “placing children on computers and with non-credentialed tutors for more than an hour a day has saved on teacher salaries.”

So yeah. That ed-tech and social justice thing.

Educolor: The Real Magic

Too often, ed-tech acts as though you “move the needle” by throwing technology at things. The industry suffers from what Evgeny Morozov calls “techno-solutionism” – this idea that tech magically fixes complex social problems. We see “techno-solutionism” in the MOOC craze (which was once all about democratizing education. Now it’s mostly about corporate training.) We see “techno-solutionism” in the “learn-to-code” craze, as though programming classes are going to address unemployment and job insecurity.

Actual headline and subhead from Fast Company: “The Prison Coding Class That Might Have Inmates Making Six Figures On Their Release. At California’s San Quentin prison, inmates who never even used a computer before are learning software development and planning their apps.”


Jose and Audrey

We woke up like this.

I kicked off the year by leading a “conversation” at Educon with my friend José Vilson on “the privileged voices in education.” His book, This Is Not a Test, is the most important education book published in 2014. I couldn’t have made it through what has been a really tough year without him. (We’ll donate our Google Chats to some university archive one day. They’re that historic.)

All those who gather in the #educolor hashtag on Twitter have worked together this year to make it harder for educators to ignore questions of social justice and racial justice and to support teachers and students in addressing these issues head-on in their classrooms.

This is the most important work we can do, and yup, we used computer technologies to do some of it. But the ed-tech wasn't the thing. It’s the community. It’s the commitment to justice.

Image credits: Kin Lane. This article was first published on December 18, 2014