Strange Filament

I’m a little behind on my work this week, what with a fun-filled trip to San Francisco on Monday that somehow led to two days of feverishness and bed. Go figure. Unfortunately that’s meant I had to cancel travel plans to MIT Media’s Lab Education Nation event — I guess there was only so much critiquing powerful ed-reform narratives that I could handle this week. And what a shame since that’s part of the argument I make for what I do in this week’s assignment for Ed Startup 101.

The Idea

This week’s assignment for Ed Startup 101 asks students to write about their idea for an education startup.

It’s actually a topic that Steve Hargadon and I discussed in the last few minutes of our latest weekly podcast, when Steve asked me how I work (in other words, the process I go through in finding and writing stories) and how I plan to make my work at Hack Education sustainable. “I’m not sure Hack Education is a startup,” I said, but he insisted that it was. “Independent education technology journalism,” he argued. “No one else is doing that but you.”

I’m not sure that’s true. I mean, there are a lot of indie bloggers that write about education and education technology. Hack Education is easily just another one of those, but since writing (and speaking) is how I make my living, it seems right that this site become more professional than just past-time.

That being said, what I value most about this site is that I can say what I want here. I can question those who dominate education and ed-tech narratives. I don’t have to kowtow to sponsors or editors or advertisers or investors or companies or their PR firms.

And really, that’s what much of the technology blogs do. It really struck me — no surprise — at Techcrunch Disrupt, watching speakers be handled with kid gloves by the moderators on stage as well as by the bloggers who wrote up the proceedings of each session. There were no tough questions. There was no context. No critique. It’s not journalism. It’s marketing.

Maybe that’s just what trade magazines like Techcrunch do — frame press releases as stories; market new products to a niche audience in a particular industry; target readers with advertisements and stories.

The twist with Techcrunch and its tech blogging kin is that interest in the technology industry now has a larger appeal than just those who work in the sector. Many readers are tech entrepreneurs and tech investors; many are tech enthusiasts and tech consumers. I bet we could say the same about education — it matters to everyone and not just teachers and students. But I doubt very many people would bother reading an education trade publication if they weren’t “in” education. And yet there’s a sudden zeal for ed-tech among the tech trade publications (and among tech industry folks). But what gets written about mostly, I’ll repeat: it’s not journalism; it’s marketing.

I spend a lot of time stewing about the Venn Diagram of education and technology —and how the overlap isn’t always a good one, and a fair amount of time thinking about the relationship between education journalism and technology journalism (or “blogging” or “PR”) — and how there’s a need for much better ed-tech reporting and analysis. That’s the niche I try to fill here at Hack Education.

Here’s how I describe this site on my “About” page. I think it explains "my idea" (as part of the Ed Startup 101 assignment) and the problem(s) I’m tackling here.

I created Hack Education in June 2010 shortly after I became a technology journalist. No surprise, I was frustrated by the lack of coverage of education technology – by both technology and education publications. I did my day job (the freelance writing I get paid for) but devoted as much attention as possible to Hack Education, trying to create the sort of blog that (admittedly) I’d want to read: one that’s smart and snarky, one that’s free of advertising and investor influence (See: Disclosures), one that’s tracking new technologies but not just because of some hyperbolic “revolution.” Hack Education isn’t just about how ed-tech changes “the system.” It is about the future of learning. (Yes, there’s a distinction there.)

I think Hack Education provides an important counter-balance to “business of education” or “tech-related business of education” slant that a lot of the tech and ed-tech trade publications take. To me, the question isn’t “how much venture capital did you raise?” but “how does this shape power relations in the education system?” It’s not so interesting to know “how many users have you signed up?” but far more important to understand “how does this shape learning?”

I think it’s crucial that this site is independent — no Gates Foundation or Pearson Foundation funding, no corporate sponsorship, no ads. I ask for donations, true, because I'd rather have the support of the community than the investment of influencers. (Thankfully, figuring out the business model for all this can wait ’til the end of term.)

And I think that it's important this is me here, writing as honestly and openly and as skeptically as possible. There's so much "insider versus outsider" conflict going on right now in education too -- accusations that insiders can't or won't change the system; accusations that outsiders are only motivated by profit. I feel like I'm both an insider and an outsider in education. I'm both and neither.

I think we need to have a far more nuanced way of talking about how power, influence, expertise, experience, and vision work in ed-tech (and more broadly, in education). Because right now, with very little in the way of independent ed-tech journalism, we mostly get PR.

Photo credits: Jack Newton

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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