Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Is This How Post-pandemic Ed Tech Will Be Different

Andreesen Horowitz is a silicon valley venture capitalist investment firm looking to strike it rich in the ed tech world. That is more than enough reason to distrust them (here's just one article laying out how vc firms--particularly tech ones--are wrecking our world). But they want to play in the ed tech sandbox, which is another reason. But they have some thoughts about how ed tech will look after the pandemic, and it is always important to keep an eye on where the vultures are circling.

"Edtech's Answer to Remote Learning Burnout" comes from Anne Lee Skates and Connie Chan. Chan is a specialist in Chinese consumer tech investment, while Skates graduated from Princeton, started a failed company, went to work for McKinsey, and ended up with Andreesen Horowitz (she also came to the Us from Taiwan to become a violinist and performed a solo at the 49th Grammy Awards, so that's cool). No education background in either case.

As always with investment articles, this is less about prediction and more about selling. Consider this paragraph from the introduction:

Public schools’ budget limitations have created a surge in alternative avenues of education, for those who can access them: private schools, homeschooling, and supplemental education. Edtech companies targeting this market combine software and online distribution to help make teachers’ jobs easier and learning more engaging.

I love "for those who can access them" which sounds so much nicer than "for those who have the bucks." The teachers' lives easier and more engaging parts are a nice work of speculative fiction.

But the meat of this article is their predictions about six ways post-covid edtech will differ from what has come before.

Parents cut through red tape

The point here is that Ed Tech companies will sell more directly to parents and skip trying to sell whoever has the purchasing authority at the school district level. I would remind them that the big bucks are for those who can convince state legislatures to adopt their product (think Florida's Virtual School or the College Board's success in conning states into adopting the SAT as a Big Standardized Test to satisfy federal requirements). 

But for companies that don't have that kind of clout, the pharmaceutical model of selling directly to civilians ("Ask your doctor about Magicfixium"). Skates and Chan are predicting more families spending bucks on home ed tech and sales to learning "pods." Wealthy parents are going to buy ed tech. It remains to be seen how many will ditch it upon learning it's not very good.

Teacher will be free agents

"Edtech platforms give everyone access to the most talented, experienced and innovative teachers, unconstrained by geography (or public school salary caps)." 

Oh my. One example they cite is Teachers Pay Teachers. Are teachers getting rich from their innovations there? But Skates and Chan are sure that the very best instructors--"tailored to the needs of each individual child"--can be found in the "online marketplace." They also cite Outschool, where "anyone with expertise can create a class." Also, anyone without actual expertise. 

Where to start. Watching a video of a teacher teach is not a great instructional model. And as so many people can now tell you, communicating via video conferencing software is not a great substitute for a face to face relationship. "I don't ever want to go back to the classroom, because having class on Zoom is so much better," says pretty much nobody right now. 

Nor do I anticipate a great flood of teachers rushing to join the gig economy and become education Uber drivers. Some will be interested--specifically some who are married to a person with good benefits. But one of the compensations for less-than-spectacular pay in teaching is that the work is at least steady, and it comes with reasonably reliable benefits like health care and a pension. Skates and Chan duck around the fact that super-awesome best teachers would be subjecting themselves to the lousy pay and non-existent safety net of gig work. And much of this ed tech gig work is just like Outschool, allowing anybody to be a "teacher," thereby driving down the market price for a "great teacher." If teachers were making so much money beyond those "public school salary caps" at online teaching, the word would be spreading through the teacher grapevine like wildfire. It isn't. Instead, we're just hearing that some of these outfits (like teaching English to Chinese students at % AM our time) make a decent side hustle.

MOOCs get a makeover

Well, they'd have to, wouldn't they, because they were a pretty spectacular failure. But Skates and Chan say the next generation will be more "community-based, gamified, and interactive." Choose your own adventure lessons! Giving students agency! Live group educational experience--with cartoon characters! But here's the problem-- do you know how many cool interactive programs students burn through in a month? The biggies like Instagram may stick around for a year or two, but mostly my students would go from "Check this out!" to downloading to moving on to the Next Cool Thing in about 2-4 weeks. If you could figure out the program that would keep them engaged and excited for a full year, you'd be Mark Zuckerberg (but only sort of, because no self-respecting teen would be caught dead on facebook these days).

Math meets Minecraft (and Mickey)

Games! Fun! Insight! Legends of Learning! See above. 

YouTube gets unbundled

Videos! Sigh. They certainly have their place. But if I stood in front of a class and delivered a fifteen minute lecture/demonstration and wouldn't answer any questions except by just repeating the same thing over again, nobody would hail me as a pedagogical genius. Skatres and Chan mention how platforms are catering to "learning styles," and of course that's not a thing, but even if it were, you couldn't cater to a variety of styles by only using one medium. Yes, as they assert, kids watch YouTube, but that does not mean they'll watch or learn from you explaining fluid dynamics on a video.

Software frees teachers from after school drudgery

"AI isn't coming for teachers' jobs--it's coming for their busywork." Skates and Chan cite software like ClassDojo, which is a perfect example of how software adds more work to the teacher day, because the software has to be fed with attention and teacher input and regular monitoring because parents expect a response RIGHT NOW if they send a message. The authors also offer Google Classroom as an example of software that lets a teacher "digitally manage homework submissions that previously had to be printed, hauled back and forth to school, and manually tracked," and again (as someone who has worked with classroom) the not lugging part is helpful, but the hours spent inputting materials--the software can only "manage" submissions if you have shown it how--takes its toll. 

There's also a downside we need to talk about some time, which is that the time payoff does happen down the road--if the teacher decides to change very little of her instruction from year to year. Which is not a good thing.

There's also a handy graphic that captures much of what they predict:

As usual, there's a lack of knowledge of what currently happens in schools-- the old model assumes that 1:many lectures is the norm, and it isn't. And their faith in AI is badly misplaced. And their image of online tracking of, well, everything, underlines a concern that they don't address at all--just how much the Ed Tech market depends on the collection and sale of excessive, invasive data collection, and how the market will be affected as parents get smart enough to push back harder against it. 

Look, these are not education experts. These are venture capitalists trying to predict where the money should rush to next. The problem is that the rush of investor money skews the market. Here we are, say, in desperate need of hamburger and the investors have decided to back companies that produce gold-plated tofu, and so when we go to the store, there are aisles of gold-plated tofu, plus aisles of budget tin-plated tofu, and almost no hamburger. Worse, people who mistake market fluffing for actual predictions run out and buy the gold tofu for us because they heard that's what we're going to need. 

Ed Tech has so many problems, but the most fundamental one is that they read and write tofu articles like this one instead of going out into schools and asking teachers, "What would actually help you get your job done." Which leads to another issue, also captured in this article--when disaster strikes, instead of running to the scene to ask, "What do you need," they park themselves in their offices and ask, "How will we be able to make money from this?" 

1 comment:

  1. What would a professional violinist and a management engineer consider the biggest and most accessible consumer base? Every single person who is 5 - 18, of course!
    Who is their customer? Young parents who think like they do?
    This is sickening for all the reasons you stated and probably too many more. What is disheartening is the possibility that many people who grew up with technology will think they have found gold. People's values are changing. And I know that the "thing" that their generation is all about is being a headline news in a tech magazine. The long haul is not part of their mindset. Everything is morphing anyway so "git while the gittin' is good.

    Go for short term return and be flexible to move on as needed. It is actually ominous. I wonder where their money comes from. I can speculate.