Monday, March 23, 2020

The Ed Tech Vultures Circle

Some ed tech companies and their investors are busily imagining that the coronaviral hiatus may be their Katrina. Natural disaster plus government botch job equals the board being swept clean, allowing players a golden opportunity to move in and clean up.

I see folks on Twitter wondering where Betsy DeVos is, why the USED isn't offering more guidance to schools as they navigate this mess. Could be because this situation suits her just fine, and public schools being shut down is a dream come true.

But while some folks may view this shutdown as a philosophical opportunity, for some it's all about the investment opportunities. Like Katrina's aftermath, vulture capitalism at its finest.

My email is filing up with pitches from more companies than I've ever heard of, all variations on "Your readers (aka our prospective customers) would love to hear about our cool product that is just the thing for dealing with the current pandemic crisis." While I am sure that some companies sincerely believe they have help they can offer at this time, I am equally sure that those companies are not trying to wring a bunch of client-building PR out of it. I'm seeing these pitches because I'm an education blogger at these things are coming to me, then the big-time education journalists must be drowning in the stuff.

Then there's this sort of thing. Take a look at this interview over at Goldman Sachs (Motto: "Honest, we haven't done anything to tank the economy, lately"). We're talking to Adam Nordin, whose beat is listed as the "education technology sector" for the Investment Banking Division; his LinkedIn profile says he's a lawyer/CPA, a Partner and Managing Director in the Technology Group, where his main responsibilities are M&A, IPOs, and leveraged finance. Previously he worked for Barclays (2010-2018) and Credit Suisse (1998-2010), in both cases counting "education technology" in his areas of focus. His degrees are all in accounting and finance.

The interview was run last Tuesday (amazing how we now track things by days rather than weeks or months), and he already smelled money:

COVID-19 could sharply accelerate the adoption of online learning in higher education. Historically, online learning in universities was largely a function of self-selection...This is the first time many universities will have to rely on a fully online experience for their undergraduate population. Doing so could dramatically accelerate the long-term acceptance of online learning. 

In other words, it used to be that only people who wanted to learn online chose to, but now that many people will be forced to, the market should grow.

Nordin, who you will recall has no actual training or experience in education, has his own thoughts about why ed tech adoption has laggeed, and why it is poised for success now. Low bandwidth and "rudimentary data compression" made real-time interactions difficult, but now--

Today, online learning can offer live virtual classrooms—aided by ample bandwidth and advanced cloud-based collaboration technologies— that rival, or even exceed, an in-class experience.

Yep-- taking the class on computer over the internet is actually better than doing it live. Except that, no, not really. Consider this Forbes report from a decade ago, surveying business leaders and finding that pretty much everybody considers live meetings better for things like leadership, engagement, inspiration, decision-making, accountability, candor, plus a variety of other intangibles. Has the tech gotten better since 2009? Sure. That much better? That's a tough case to make.

But Nordin things that AR and VR are going to make collaboration in virtual environments all the rage.

Meanwhile, the sector has seen "strong capital flows" in the last three-to-five years, particularly as "the structural barriers to adoption are falling."

Other drivers? Nordin says that "younger students expect a more digital experience and are increasingly judging their university choices on this factor" which-- is that actually true? Other than wanting a good wi-fi hookup and decent phone reception, are the youngsters really clamoring for digitized classrooms? Nordin also notes that universities are short on money, and ed tech is cheaper than traditional stuff, and that matters because--

It’s not just the Provost that weighs in on the debate of online versus traditional higher education—the CFO and President are now involved. 

In other words, as we get more non-education people to weigh in on these education decisions, it's an ed tech win. And if you think that at some point we're going to worry about how well the online tech actually educates anyone, well, no. It's the same old ed tech baloney that we've seen and heard before:

In short, data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence are enabling both students and teachers to gain a more customized and enriching experience. Learning assessments can detail precisely how, why and on what dimensions a student needs to focus to succeed. Professors hosting live-streaming classes have rich, personalized data that show each student’s entire performance profile, complete with their challenges and focus areas, enabling them to drive an individualized discussion with every student.

Data crunching, and fake artificial intelligence. Doing granular analysis of student learning (as long as you only measure the things that a computer program can measure). Teachers can talk to students because software will tell them things about that student, just in case the teacher lacks the power of seeing, listening, and relating to other carbon based life forms.

There will always be a place for the traditional campus experience, but online learning is here to stay. 

As will pitches that promise things that ed tech can't deliver.

As school closures drag on, there are two schools of thought on the ed tech incursion. The ed tech vultures of Coronavirus Katrina are sure that once pushed into using the products, teachers, parents and students will fall in love and never want to go back. Others suspect that once forced to deal with this stuff, students, teachers and parents will rediscover everything there is to love about traditional live-action 3D education.

Not to say that some of these tools may well turn out to be useful in the weeks ahead. Time will tell. In the meantime, the ed tech vultures are circling, hoping that the current crisis will provide them with a bounteous feast.


  1. Yeah....ask my son how he likes this ed-tech crap! His private school went online last week....they are trying to keep them slightly engaged in the learning process. Every time he goes on NoRedInk, there is much cursing, stomping and yelling coming from his room. Khan Academy is offering nothing but Common Core, mind numbing dittoes via computer. GIGO...garbage in, garbage out!

  2. My husband's school district looked at online instruction and couldn't find a way to meet FAPE with what was available. (a variety of income levels but majority qualify for free lunches, lots of ESL and a variety of spec ed needs), so they will not be requiring students to do work online during this school closure. They did complete their second year of 3 work from home snow days, but they did special projects tailored to them for those and not regular classroom work.
    My high school junior in another district also takes several college classes online all the time. Those continue, but the regular high school classes are just on hold, not online. She misses the teachers---and if given a choice would choose a live teacher over computer learning every time.

  3. Am taking an grad level online education class. After a 53 digital page reading assignment there was a 22 question (accountablility) quiz that is auto-graded. Not one of the questions was even on the topic of the reading. The professor did not make the quiz, she cannot view it, nor can she change the quiz. She can only 1) give a student more points than the system did or 2)drop the quiz from the students total score. "High tech" is not there yet.

  4. "Others suspect that once forced to deal with this stuff, students, teachers and parents will rediscover everything there is to love about traditional live-action 3D education." Let's hope this is right!