(A version of this article appeared in Knowledge Quest’s September/October issue.)

Education technologies will reshape the ways in which we teach and learn, the ways in which we read and write and communicate — or that’s the promise at least.

Indeed new hardware and new software are often marketed to schools and libraries with language that stresses their transformative and innovative potential, even when, upon closer inspection it may well be that these new tools simply update or expedite existing practices.

But whether or not the changes ed-tech will bring about are as radical as some of the PR suggests, it is clear that the education technology industry does have a powerful influence — on the design and development of new tools, no doubt, as well as on the policies that push their very adoption.

It’s worth asking, in light of all of this, how the ed-tech industry might be poised to shape the future of reading.

The Business of Ed-Tech

Investment in education technology companies hit a [record](high in the first quarter of 2014 with more than $559 million in funding spread across 103 deals. For a little historical perspective, there were 106 education deals total in 1999, in the middle of the dot-com boom. Investment in ed-tech that year hit $1.3 billion, then dropped precipitously when the bubble burst in 2011.

Of course, the ed-tech industry is vast and disparate and includes companies that focus on K–12, higher education, and corporate training, as well as those who sell directly to consumers. It includes companies that focus on administrative needs and those that focus on curriculum. But lumped together — rightly or wrongly — it’s apparent that the sector is growing, in both its economic and political influence.

Many reasons are given for the recent resurgence in ed-tech investment, which has skyrocketed since 2007 or so: the increasing ubiquity of computers, particularly mobile devices; the decreasing costs to starting a technology company (thanks, in part, to open source technologies and cloud computing); the “consumerization" of technology and education technology; the rising costs of education, particularly at the higher education level, and the search for cheaper alternatives; and a belief that education is a huge and largely untapped market.

The Politics of Ed-Tech

One of the other recent boons to education technology interest and investment: the Common Core State Standards. Designed to provide a single set of standards for K–12 in language arts and math across the United States, the Common Core has been adopted by the majority of states (although hardly without controversy). A single set of standards is very appealing to the education and ed-tech industries as it simplifies (and standardizes) their offerings across the US market.

Focused on math and literacy standards, the Common Core will require schools purchase newly and properly aligned materials (textbooks, assignments, assessments, and so on) — and as more and more of these resources are digital, that’s a huge boon to the ed-tech industry. The Common Core also mandates the use of computers for students’ online assessments, again another line item for school budgets. According to a survey taken last year, 68% of school districts say they plan to purchase new instructional materials as they implement the new standards. As just 67% of respondents said they felt their districts were fully prepared for online testing, it’s likely that the purchases will include new hardware as well.

Although the Common Core State Standards describes itself as a “state-driven” process, its origins aren’t quite so democratic: the initiative was originally sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, and as such the development of the standards was funded — directly or indirectly — via organizations like the Gates Foundation. Furthermore, states were incentivized to adopt the standards as they competed for the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top funding grants.

All this means that the Common Core is fraught politically. But the implications for ed-tech are (so far at least) less complex. Stanford University education history professor Larry Cuban, long a critic of education technology’s failed promises and of schools’ inability to integrate computers into the classroom, argues that the Common Core is going to become a significant force for driving technology adoption in schools. But the reasons for doing so are, in a nutshell, the Common Core itself, not some other educational goal (apologies for quoting him at length):

The best (and most recent) gift to the hardware and software industry has been the Common Core standards and assessments. At a time of fiscal retrenchment in school districts across the country when schools are being closed and teachers are let go, many districts have found the funds to go on shopping sprees to get ready for the Common Core.

And here is the point that I want to make. The old reasons for buying technology have been shunted aside for a sparkling new one. Consider that for the past three decades the rationale for buying desktop computers, laptops, and now tablets has been three-fold:

1. Make schools more efficient and productive so that students learn more, faster, and better than they had before.

2. Transform teaching and learning into an engaging and active process connected to real life.

3. Prepare the current generation of young people for the future workplace.

After three decades of rhetoric and research, teachers, principals, students, and vendors have their favorite tales to prove that these reasons have been achieved. But for those who want more than Gee Whiz stories, who seek a reliable body of evidence that shows students learning more, faster, and better, that shows teaching and learning to have been transformed, that using these devices have prepared the current generations for actual jobs—well, that body of evidence is missing for each of these traditional reasons to buy computers.

With Common Core standards adopted, the rationale for getting devices has shifted. No longer does it matter whether there is sufficient evidence to make huge expenditures on new technologies. Now, what matters are the practical problems of being technologically ready for the new standards and tests in 2014–2015: getting more hardware, software, additional bandwidth, technical assistance, professional development for teachers, and time in the school day to let students practice taking tests.

In other words, the Common Core is a big “win” for the ed-tech industry. The label “Common Core-aligned” is affixed to almost every new product (whether the products are really “aligned” or not). The Common Core is not simply another rationale for bringing computing devices into the classroom; it is a mandate to do so.

The Business and Politics of Reading

But how will all this affect reading, you ask? (Fair enough — that is the headline of this story.) After all, much of the investment that’s gone into education technologies has been funneled to administrative software, and then perhaps to math curriculum. A recent Gates Foundation-sponsored survey of educators pointed to a gap in both the availability and the effectiveness of literacy software.

Nevertheless, there is still a major push, thanks to the Common Core, to rethink both the medium of reading — a push to digitize reading materials, for example — and to rethink the content of reading. Most famously perhaps, the Common Core places an emphasis on non-fiction over fiction materials: 70% of what students are supposed to read under the Common Core must be non-fiction — but that’s across all subjects, not just English class.

But there’s another element of the Common Core that will also shape what students might read. And it’s another element that, again, is deeply connected to the education (technology) industry. That is Lexile, a framework that measures a text’s complexity (based on individual words and sentence length) and gives a number rating for the text that indicates an appropriate grade level for it.

Lexile is a proprietary framework, developed and licensed by the MetaMetrics Corporation — hardly a newcomer to or minor player in education (the company was founded in 1984, long before the recent ed-tech craze, and the Lexile Framework is used in assessments across multiple states and has been adopted by all of the major publishers).

There is widespread criticism of the Lexile Framework, particularly when the notion of “appropriate reading levels“ gets translated into steering readers away from books they want to read towards books that match their “level.” University of Iowa English professor Blaine Greteman blasted the Common Core and the Lexile Framework in a New Republic story late last year with the catchy headline ”Federal Bureaucrats Declare ‘Hunger Games’ More Complex Than ’The Grapes of Wrath.’” Indeed that’s a major problem with the framework: it deems Slaughterhouse Five more “complex” than Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

Greteman writes,

Few would oppose giving teachers better tools to challenge students, but this approach seems badly flawed. One alternative would be to trust teachers themselves to determine the moral and aesthetic complexities that engage students as individuals. After all, human expertise is the center of the humanities. Lexile scoring is the intellectual equivalent of a thermometer: perfect for cooking turkeys, but not for encouraging moral growth.

Any attempt to quantify literary complexity surely mistakes the fundamental experience of literature.

The Business and Politics of Reading Technologies

Despite this line of criticism, the Common Core has given the Lexile Framework a substantial boost — it is now the arbiter of reading level. And when it comes to the connections between education and technology that I’ve tried to describe in this article, this boost may be even more significant: Lexile becomes more than policy — it becomes code.

The importance of this cannot be understated, particularly in a world in which the ed-tech industry is both well-funded and school-mandated. The Lexile Framework will be written into applications and assessments — it will be “hard coded.” The Lexile Framework will shape software design and development. And from there it will shape adoption and implementation.

Rather than human-based recommendations that steer readers towards or away from certain materials (problematic enough already), we will increasingly find these recommendations automated, delivered via an algorithm. Moreover, the reading levels won’t really be recommendations any longer; they’ll simply be the next reading assignment that the software algorithm offers readers.

This automation is often couched in terms of “personalization” and/or “adaptivity.” It combines the data that software gleans about individual student-readers and the data it has about the material (data that includes the Lexile score). And the companies that promise offer this have raised staggering amounts of money. Knewton, for example, which has inked deals with many of the major publishers for its adaptive learning platform has raised over $105 million in investment.

New education technologies have been pitched to many of us as being full of promise and possibility. New ed-tech means new devices, more interactive media, Internet connectivity, and so on. And no doubt there is much potential there for accessibility, shareability, portability, and the like. But it’s too simplistic to stop at the slogan that “the future of reading is digital.” We need to dig further.

The future of ed-tech — and by association for schools and for libraries, the future of reading — is deeply implicated in the politics and business of education technology. Arguably reading always has been caught up in these debates about what students should read and how they should read and when they should read it.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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