Monday, January 15, 2018

The Ed Tech Revolution Is Late

Tom Vander Ark, king of tech-powered reformsterism, has a curious point to make over at EdWeek. The short summary would be something like this:

A bunch of ed tech was predicted to revolutionize education in 2017. None of that happened. Nevertheless, here are predictions for Big Ed Tech things sure to revolutionize education in 2018.

As is often the case with ed tech, we seem to have a triumph of hope over experience (and I can say that as someone on marriage #2). So what was supposed to be the Next Big Thing last year, and yet wasn't?

AR/VR didn't catch on. Gamification also failed to set the ed world on fire. Could it be that neither of these things offered any particular educational value-- at least not compared to the expense involved for districts?

Vander Ark is also disappointed in various platform systems:

Learning platforms continue to serve the schools we have not the schools we need. Most platforms support whole group learning, don't help personalized learning, can't make smart recommendations for what to do next, and don't support mastery-based progressions.

Would you like to buy this bridge?

Well, the schools we have are, in fact, the schools we have. Creating a product for imaginary future schools that may or may not ever exist, despite what reformsters say we "need," strikes me as a bad business plan, like trying to sell me the electric plastic internet-linked violins that my seven-month-old boys may someday "need." The violins would actually be a better bet, since the things Vander Ark wants platforms to do-- help personalized learning, make pedagogical recommendations, and support mastery-based progression (aka competency based learning)-- are things that nobody knows how to make software do well and/or at all yet. Might as well complain that platforms also fail to synthesize muffins out of atmospheric trace molecules.

In other words, there was a bunch of stuff that tech gurus said they'd have ready to use any minute now, which turns out to be a promise on par with your contractor's pledge that your house will be done in just two more weeks.

Something that did happen was the continued spread of chromebooks, which could be a lesson for the rest of the tech world because, regardless of all the reasons not to googlify your school, chromebooks make modest promises, do a petty good job of keeping them, and don't cost a ton of money. Utility and affordability still tend to beat flash and shiny (expensive unkept) promises. That's my analysis, not his. Vander Ark offers this advice to his primary audience (which, spoiler alert, is not actual educato

After almost a decade of venture investment, it's clear that EdTech is quite different than consumer internet. Few products go viral and freemium business models (free stuff with the hope that you'll upgrade to a premium version) doesn't produce sustainable businesses. With few exits, investors are more risk averse than five years ago.

What does Vander Ark think will happen this year (after all these things that didn't happen last year)? He sees three opportunities to cash in revolutionize education.

Broader aims. Schools are adopting some new learning goals, like social and emotional learning. So maybe someone can whip up some software to pretend to teach that! Also, project-based learning might be an opening for tech, somehow.

Personalized learning. Yeah, that AI powered personalized software will be coming along any day now. Though since we're trying to launch software, not so much personalized as depersonalized algorithm driven mass-produced custom education. Maybe students will find it engaging because it's on a computer, and I hear the children really dig the computers along with twitters and the rap music these days?? No, that ship is still not looking very seaworthy.

Platform plays. By which he means the various companies that keep buying up various platform things, like PowerSchool that was sold off by Pearson and now the new owners are buying up other companies to extend their brand. Or Aesop, the program that let subs and teachers connect style, which was bought by Frontline, which has great data ambitions but has since been bought. Or education-in-a-box charter school/beta tester Summit, which has also been bought. And all of these companies are going to buy other companies. And add features, and stuff!! This actually seems the most plausible of his predictions, as many of these companies have a foot in the schoolhouse door by virtue of having started out doing something useful, or at least shiny and attractive.

So these are things that are totally going to happen, unlike the last batch of things that were totally going to happen, and then didn't so much happen.

Vander Ark also identifies two areas that Need More Attention from public-private partnerships. Is "attention" a code word for "money"

One is interoperability, the capacity for all these great shiny programs to share and talk to each other. Which shouldn't be any problem at all, because tech companies are known for their willingness to share across platform lines. And the public won't find it at all creepy or objectionable that all these data collecting monsters are passing student data around with wild abandon.

The other is (are?) AI and blockchain. These both need millions of attentions because they still aren't ready for prime time. AI is complicated and hard and not really what most vendors are working on. And blockchain, well, mysterious and not always inspiring trust.  Don't place your bets on paperless credentials just yet.

So there you go. Big things were going to happen in 2017. They didn't. But now they totally will. They're just running a little late. While we wait, can I interest you in a bridge?


  1. Ed-tech got it all backwards. Too bad they didn't put their efforts into products that help teachers present information instead of silicon-based worksheets and electronic babysitters (aka Chromebooks). What we really needed was high quality photos, videos, diagrams, animations, etc. to better help students understand math, history, geography, and the sciences.

  2. Are we all going to get flying cars in 2018, too?

  3. SEL and College & Career readiness are where the Platform Players will focus to expand their product for existing customers. Lots of effort for a 20th century version of what we really need as educators, which is better tools to identify a personal plan of knowledge and skills for every student. Instead, I see investors putting money into developing proprietary student portfolio tools that work with existing platforms to comply with new state requirements. Shortsighted. But it will make them money because districts will buy.