Thursday, June 11, 2020

Five Examples Of What's Wrong With Ed Tech

I get pitches-- e-mails from PR folks who have noticed that I write about education and want to offer me a chance to talk to an up-and-coming visionary who can tell me all about Bunkadiddle Corporation's new program! The pitches have taken on a pandemic sheen for a few months now ("In these trying times, when students and teachers are all struggling, we offer this Shiny New Thing!"). Mostly they highlight everything there is to dislike and distrust in edu-business, but a couple of weeks back I got a super-entry in the category, a pitch that threw five "sources" at me, and they serve as a fine example of what's out there and why it's Not Good.

These companies are all "best in the space" (all of these pitches are for best top exemplary companies--always) and offer to help with the "two looming thoughts" for re-opening schools. How to keep people safe, and how edtech will be implemented. Which is the first bad sign, because I know lots of teachers are wrestling with concerns about students and health and classrooms and curriculum, but hardly anybody who is specifically worried about how to find edtech a happy place (the correct answer is, "I'll use any ed tech that actually does something I need to do better than I can just do it myself, and the rest can just take a hike.")

These five companies didn't ask to be raked over coals here, and it seems mean, even for me, to call them out by name after they handed me their info in an email. But here they are, offering to do their thing for pandemic times.

Our first CEO's LinkedIn profile leads with "A tireless visionary and the founder of multiple technology companies."

They're not kidding. Their profile lists him as founder for six companies, including gaming center management software, a communications platform, a business ecosystem, and a company that brings entrepreneurs to co-live in Bali. They've done a TED talk. They signed the Founders Pledge. They graduated from Copenhagen Business School in 2006, Harvard (Business Valuation, Mergers & Acquisitions) in 2007, and Northwester University Kellogg School of Management, specializing in business marketing, entrepreneurial ventures, venture capital, bargaining and negotiations, in 2008. After finishing at Northwestern, he spent a year at McKinsey and Company. Four of the six companies were founded after his McKinsey days.

Their most recent company creates virtual lab simulations and offers the promise "your students will learn twice as much with" their product. Twice as much as what is not explained, but they promise that it will close the knowledge gap. The email argues that "motivation and engagement issues with at-home learning can be solved by utilizing the right ed tech platforms," so hey-- problem solved. You can get up to eight simulations for $49 per student, or go "full course" with over 140 simulations for $99 per student. And they're global. The CEO/Founder, you may notice, has zero background in education; the company website offers no indication if anyone who works there has an education background.

Our next CEO/Founder/President graduated from the University of Phoenix with a MBA in 1996, founded the company in 2003 (though incorporation papers filed in Delaware in 1999), and has been riding that pony ever since, growing through acquisition. The CEO also did some work with distance learning companies, including his alma mater.

The company runs for-profit education services, specializing in the "data driven" personalized learning. They've had legal troubles in multiple states, including charges of illegal robo-calling sales prospects. It bought a couple of universities that it grew through online learning, except that they also became a prime exhibit of predatory for-profits that didn't actually produce useful degrees.

This company is in my email touting their newest subsidiary, an on-demand tutoring service with over 10,000 tutors available. Within management, there does not appear to be a single person with the slightest background in education--it's all business. In fact, there are several management committees--none are related to education.

Number three. MBA from Wharton in 2010. Prior to that they worked as a business analyst at Capital One, and spent two years at Bain and Company, along with some summer "associate" work. Degree in hand, he went to InMobi for signing publishing partnerships, then founded their company in 2013. They are "on a mission to make high-quality education accessible to everyone in the world." Also, "learn in-demand skills online--on your schedule." You get a mentor, too. The focus appears to be almost entirely on tech-related career prep. Networking is their big thing, and their pitch to me seems to be at least partly about people "looking to reskill due to the pandemic."

Our fourth CEO/Founder graduated top of the heap from University of Virginia with a degree in Foreign Affairs and Spanish. From there it was a United Nations commission, the Brazilian Embassy, the Organization of American States, and a Fulbright Scholar for a year at the US State Department. An account executive at Powell Tate, and a program advisor at UPEACE/US. All of that in the space of five years. Then a big job at Atlas Service Corps, an international exchange for non-profit leaders.

Somewhere in there in 2007, they founded a company that "cultivates students' social and emotional learning skills that empowers them to navigate the complex and rapidly-changing realities of our world." It uses interactive videos, movement and creative expression and the program was "developed with educators in alignment with CASEL." Since this CEO was a dancer, too, they may come the closest of any to having some piece of qualification for the work they're doing. But the company can also pitch baloney stats with the best of them; the email promises that they have "helped schools see a nearly 40% increase in students' ability to manage and resolve conflict by using their program." I can't imagine how one would design a study to actually measure that.

Their management team at least includes jobs like Senior Education Consultant, but one such consultant has a BS in finance, another "has been working in the education market" for years "in several aspects of education, including fundraising, publishing and technology," which are totally not aspects of education. The third such consultant has been working in edtech for the past 7+ years; only in the tech world are seven years enough to qualify you as a senior anything.

CEO number five has worked since 2006 in marketing., launching a self-titled consulting group in 2016. Then in 2018 they became CEO of "a language learning organization on a mission to empower students to learn new skills, and by so doing, expand their horizons and foster understanding and communication across cultures and communities." The business website seems far less student-oriented and more aimed at the adult and corporate market. You can join a group class for $399 or take private lessons at $32/hour, and there are corporate packages, too. This CEO is prepared to talk to me about the importance of personalized learning.

The five CEOs have two things in common--1) they are offering huge, sweeping, grandiose promises about education and 2) they have absolutely no background in education whatsoever. Well, three things--3) they smell an opportunity to grow some market while schools are shuttered.

The sadder thing is that, per my in-box, this is just one batch of cubes off the iceberg.


  1. This is the kind of news everyone should hear and let sink in. Anyone who calls himself a tireless visionary is questionable at best. Thank you for keeping a bright light on this scam industry.

  2. Although I have not commented until now, I want you to know I read everything you blog and appreciate your honest voice and information about education issues-Florida Teacher here- I am sure there are many like me - thank you

  3. Any edu-meddler who claims that their software can "close the knowledge gap" between the poor and affluent is either ignorant beyond belief or the very worst kind of snake oil salesman. It really is as preposterous as claiming their software prevents cavities or soothes headaches.

  4. Peter, I think you should publish the names of these companies to make it easier for folks who need to debunk some edu-sleaze company that's trying to sell a fast one to their school district.

  5. The first fellow seems to be Michael Bodekaer.