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This is the first article in my series The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015

One of the challenges of identifying the “Top Ed-Tech Trends” is that most of these developments are deeply interconnected. It’s hard to separate “The Politics of Education Technology” from “The Business of Education Technology.” It’s hard to separate the push for more standardized testing and more computers for students to use for standardized testing from either of these. It’s hard to separate concerns about testing from concerns about data and privacy. And so on.

It’s hard too, despite the title of this article, to solely talk about the politics of education technology. How does one distinguish such a thing from the politics of education or the politics of technology? To ignore these – something that happens too often – is to pretend that ed-tech is politics-free, that it is value-neutral.

Context matters. Unfortunately, when one narrows the focus to ed-tech alone, context is lost. (Moreover, things often get reduced to just “the business of ed-tech.”)

There were plenty of important news items this year that cannot be directly tied to “the politics of education technology” but that nonetheless help provide context for everything that’s occurred in schools, including some of the other trends I’ll look at in this series (data, privacy, social justice, testing, and so on): school shootings; the militarization of school police; poverty and homelessness; re-segregation; student protests; banned books; the school-to-prison pipeline; measles outbreaks and inanity about vaccinations; sexual assault on college campuses; undocumented immigrants’ access to education; trans* students’ rights; fossil fuel divestment; the revocation of Bill Cosby’s honorary degrees; the high price (monetarily and physically) of school sports; and so on.

As that list underscores, this review of the “Top Trends in Ed-Tech” tends to be very US-centric. I apologize. Too often, the rest of the world’s education systems are ignored by American writers like myself… unless there’s news about Finland. “Always cover Finland” – that’s written in the very first paragraph of the education journalist official manual, you know. And while updates from Europe and Canada do seem to make it into US education publications from time-to-time, it’s much rarer to see news from the global South. (Two exceptions that prove the rule: an attack on Garissa University in Kenya this spring that left 147 dead and the #feesmustfall protests in South Africa this fall.)

Electoral Politics


But in a nod to global coverage, I’ll note that David Cameron and the Conservatives won re-election in the UK this year. Cameron now wants every school in England and Wales to become an academy (that is, a school independent of local control). Admittedly, I’m really only including this in my “politics of ed-tech” post so I can type the words “pig fucker.” You’re welcome.

For their part, Canadians ousted the Conservatives and Stephen Harper in their federal election this year, delivering a “stunning victory” to the Liberal Party and its leader (and former teacher) Justin Trudeau. The educational and scientific communities of Canada breathed a huge sigh of relief at the outcome, even though the election was one of the longest and most expensive in modern Canadian history – bless your hearts, my dear northern neighbors.

Meanwhile, in the States, we will still have to suffer through almost another full year of presidential campaigning.

But hey, education is a “hot topic,” so let’s run through what (some of) the candidates have had to say:

Jeb Bush: Bush was expected to run on his education record from his time as Florida’s governor, but that’s proven to be challenging for him. Insert joke about Florida here, I guess. He’s pro-Common Core (one of the few Republican candidates who’s taking this position). Part of Bush’s problem is that he hasn’t been able to distance himself from his brother. Bush, who has a degree in Latin American studies, has been one of the candidates who’s repeatedly mocked college students who major in the liberal arts.

Ben Carson: Unlike other Republican candidates who’ve indicated they want to eliminate the Department of Education, Carson has said he would use it “to monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias and deny federal funding if it exists.” A neuroscientist, Carson says the best kind of education is homeschooling, which is exactly how I want my neuroscientists to be trained.

Chris Christie: He was for the Common Core before he was against it. He has consistently, however, remained a jerk.

Hillary Clinton: Clinton has deep ties to the for-profit college chain Laureate Education – or her husband does. She was also paid nearly a quarter million dollars for a speaking gig by Jeb Bush’s education company, Academic Partnerships. I think she’s trying – maybe – to brush up on her liberal cred (thanks to her opponent in the primaries, Bernie Sanders); and she’s been endorsed by both major teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and by the National Education Association. Clinton has criticized Sanders’ free college plan. Hers, she’s boasted, would make low-income students work for aid – echoes of the punitive “welfare reform” of her husband.

Ted Cruz: The Texas Senator announced his presidential candidacy at (Jerry Falwell-founded) Liberty University. Speaking of “liberty,” students were mandated to attend. Here’s what they said on Yik Yak. Yik Yak is going to make lots of appearances in this years series. Ugh. Cruz is also anti-Common Core.

Carly Fiorina: Fiorina is running on the track record of her time as CEO of HP, which seems like a really, really, really bad idea. She has a degree in medieval history, which she says prepares her to fight ISIS. Sorta like Obama being a constitutional law professor helped him fight the NSA, I bet.

Mike Huckabee: Also anti-Common Core. Yawn.

Bobby Jindal: He’s dropped out of the race now, but Jindal has (recently at least) been an outspoken opponent to the Common Core, suing to try to block the standards’ implementation.

John Kasich: The Ohio governor has expanded charter schools in his state – pretty much a disaster. Like Bush, he supports the Common Core. Like Bush, he’s not doing so well in the polls.

Larry Lessig: He’s dropped out of the race now too, but the Harvard law professor and founder of Creative Commons was running on a platform of reforming campaign finance.

Martin O’Malley: When announcing his plan for debt-free college, the former governor of Maryland / former mayor of Baltimore said that he and his wife had taken out nine loans, totaling almost $340,000 to pay for their daughters’ tuition. Dude. Learn 2 FAFSA better.

Rand Paul: The Kentucky Senator wants to close the Department of Education. “Here’s how that would work.”

Marco Rubio: Rubio has been a supporter of the now-defunct for-profit college chain Corinthian Colleges. Rubio has been wooing the tech industry too. Like Rand Paul, Rubio thinks we should shut down the Department of Education. He’s anti-Common Core and a huge thorn in fellow Floridian Jeb Bush’s side.

Bernie Sanders: The Vermont Senator has proposed “the federal government … give $18 billion a year in dollar-for-dollar matching grants to states, which he says would allow them to slash public college tuition by 55 percent. He said this would apply to students at all public universities and colleges.” (More on others’ plans for “free college” below.) “Bernie Sanders’s plan to have Wall Street pay for your college tuition, explained.”

Rick Scott: LOL. Who?

Donald Trump: The clown candidate has “criticized the federal government for earning a profit on the federal student loan program.” (Remember that one time Trump ran a for-profit “university” that got fined by New York state because it wasn’t accredited and was making false claims? Good times. Good times.)

Scott Walker: Also a flip-flopper on the Common Core, Walker has dropped out of the race now, returning to Wisconsin where he’s working to dismantle the state’s public higher education system.

Yes, I’ve left some candidates off this list. Good grief. Let 2016 be over already.

The End of the Arne Era


But I’m getting ahead of myself. We haven’t even wrapped up the Obama Presidency yet, and I’ve written more than 1200 words on a bunch of people who will not be the next President of the United States.

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced) in October that he’d be stepping down from the position at the end of the year. Duncan is one of the few Cabinet members that’s stayed for (almost but not quite) the duration of Obama’s presidency. (His replacement: John King, the former commissioner of education for New York.)

Education history Sherman Dorn and doctoral student Amanda Potterton examined the Secretary’s legacy. And Education Week looked specifically at his ed-tech legacy. “In Swan Song, Arne Duncan Extols School Progress Under His Tenure,” was how The New York Times framed it, as Duncan boasted about, among other achievements, what the Race to the Top initiative and its $4.3 billion in competitive grant funds have done for schools. “We haven’t gotten everything right,” Duncan admitted, “and we’ve seen unintended consequences that have posed challenges for educators and students.” No details from the Secretary on what those consequences might have been. But swan songs are often light on details.

Education Policies (and Policy Proposals)


Free (Community) College: In January, President Obama proposed making 2 years of community college free for some students. He didn’t offer a lot of details on how the plan would be funded (the federal government would pick up three-fourths of the cost; states the rest). Students would need to maintain a 2.5 GPA in order to remain eligible.

As the cost of tuition and student loan debt have continued to increase, this idea of free or debt-free college has, no surprise, remained a popular theme this year (not just on the campaign trail among Democratic candidates, but from Democratic Senators, particularly Elizabeth Warren and from many in higher ed as well.)

Oregon followed Tennessee to become the second state to offer free community college. Richmond Community College in North Carolina will also offer free tuition to high school students in the area: “The program, dubbed RichmondCC Guarantee, promises two free years of college for students of public, private and home schools who have at least a 3.0 grade-point average and two college courses under their belts.”

I mean, who could be against “college for all”?! (#WellActually.)

Elsewhere in Financial Aid: Promising to focus on college access and affordability, as part of his State of the Union address, the President proposed scrapping the “529” college savings accounts, something used by just 3% of families. But bowing to Republican pressures, he backed away from the plan.

The Perkins Loan Program lapsed this year, although higher education groups continue to pressure Congress to revive the program. Senator Lamar Alexander was one of those pushing for the program’s elimination, arguing that the financial aid system needs to be simplified.

And hey, the Department of Education did try to simplify FAFSA, axing the PIN number for FAFSA applications. So that’s something. I guess. It also announced that it’s making a change to the financial aid applications, starting in the fall of next year: applicants will be asked to provide the prior prior year’s tax information, rather than the prior year’s.

The Department of Education also expanded Pell Grant eligibility – to high school students in certain dual enrollment programs and to (some) prisoners, “the first adult inmates to be eligible for the grants since Congress barred prisoners from receiving them more than 20 years ago.”

And in an experiment I will examine in much more detail in an upcoming article in this series, the Department of Education said it will grant financial aid eligibility to partnerships between accredited colleges and unaccredited “alternative” education providers like MOOCs and coding bootcamps. I bet the ed-tech industry is pretty stoked to have former venture capitalist Ted Mitchell there in DC as the Undersecretary of Education, eh.

Ed-Tech Boosterism: It isn’t only MOOCs and coding bootcamps that benefit from the current administration’s commitment to expanding education technology. Timed with the annual ed-tech investor conference, the ASU-GSV Summit, the Department of Education released an ed-tech developers guide. (The alternate preface penned by MIT TILT’s Justin Reich is, for what it’s worth, much, much better than the department’s.)

In April, “Linking reading to technology, the White House marshaled major book publishers to provide more than $250 million in free e-books to low-income students and is seeking commitments from local governments and schools across the country to ensure that every student has a library card.” (Jessamyn West asked, “Aren’t libraries already doing that?”) The initiative is part of Obama’s ConnectED program, in which ed-tech companies push their products into schools. In June, the White House boasted about the initiative, saying it’s “on track to achieve its goal of connecting students to tools they need for 21st century learning.” It’s 2015 and we’re “on track” to move towards “21st century learning.” Strong work, team.

OER: The Department of Education supports open educational resources. Big if true.

A College Rating System Scorecard: Last year, the Obama Administration said it planned to create a college rating system – “transparency, accountability, and equity” blah blah blah – in order to identify and rate colleges’ “institutional performance.” In March, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that “Education Dept. Considers Creating Not 1 but 2 College-Ratings Systems,” one to lure prospective students and one to punish schools. Or something like that. Having set aside some $4 million to build the system, the administration later scrapped its original plan, releasing a “scorecard” instead.

Responses: The news, as reported by Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Vox. And the analysis: Via Mindwire Consulting’s Phil Hill: “17% Of Community Colleges Are Not Included In College Scorecard” and “College Scorecard Problem Gets Worse: One in three associate’s degree institutions are not included.” “What Actual High Schoolers Think of the New College Scorecard.” Actual high schoolers! The head of the University of Phoenix was unhappy with what the scorecard says about his school. Shocking. The best advice, no surprise, came from UW education professor Sara Goldrick-Rab: “College Scorecard: For Analysis Not Action.”

Privacy Legislation: Again, this is a topic I’ll cover in more detail in a subsequent post – data, privacy, security, bullshit claims about learning analytics and so on. But I’ll note here, for the record, the legislative record on privacy in 2015. Student privacy was something Obama mentioned in his State of the Union address. And there were numerous attempts to tackle the issue in Congress too. But of course Congress can’t get anything done.

In April, a “discussion draft” of a revision to FERPA was released to the US House of Representatives’ education committee. US Representatives Jared Polis and Luke Messer introduced the Student Digital Privacy and Parental Rights Act of 2015, which “would prohibit operators of websites, apps and other online services for kindergartners through 12th graders from knowingly selling students’ personal information to third parties; from using or disclosing students’ personal information to tailor advertising to them; and from creating personal profiles of students unless it is for a school-related purpose.” The ed-tech industry was “wary,” Education Week reported.

Then in May, Senators Edward Markey and Orrin Hatch reintroduced their update to FERPA, the “Protecting Student Privacy Act.” And David Vitter introduced his “Student Privacy Protection Act.” Vitter’s bill, according to Education Week, “would expand the types of student information covered under FERPA, require educational institutions to obtain prior consent from parents before sharing that information with third parties, outlaw a host of data-sharing practices that have become commonplace over the past decade, and require educational agencies and private actors who violate FERPA to pay cash penalties to individual families.”

And in July, “(Yet Another) Federal Student-Data-Privacy Bill Introduced”: “The SAFE KIDS Act would prohibit ed-tech companies and operators from selling student data, using that information to target advertising to students, or disclosing such information to unapproved third parties.”

And at the end of the day? Nothing passed at the federal level (although states have had more luck passing privacy legislation).

Testing: And again, I’ll write a whole big, detailed round-up on the state of testing and ed-tech in 2015, but let me include a few words here, with even more words below on the possible renewal of NCLB.

In October, Obama came right out and said he wants students to “stop taking unnecessary tests.” Of course, we need to ask what constitutes an “unnecessary test.” Here’s the official “Testing Action Plan,” that includes some details on how tests will be limited to just 2% of classroom time. (Is that actually less than what tests take now? We should probably ask that too…) Vox offered an “explainer”: “Obama’s flip-flop on standardized tests, explained.” And the International Business Times wrung its hands: “How Obama’s Push For Fewer Assessments Could Affect Education Companies.” tl;dr: they’ll be fine.

Net Neutrality: Elsewhere in executive branch ed-tech-related updates: in February, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled new rules that would preserve net neutrality by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service, governed by Title II. Broadband providers promised to sue.

Net neutrality purports to keep the Internet “free and open,” but it’s still pretty “slow and closed” at most schools. “It Won’t Be Long Now Until Every School Has Internet Access,” Wired recently trumpeted. Of course, it doesn’t help that telecoms continue to overcharge schools for lousy Internet service, as ProPublica and others have reported. But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is on the case; so I’m sure it’ll all be fixed, just like he’s “fixing” – cough – the Internet in the developing world.

The FCC also sought comments this year on a proposal to allow the Lifeline program to subsidize broadband, much as it has long subsidized phone service, to low income households. And from July, ConnectHome: a new Obama Administration initiative to expand access to broadband to low-income families in order to address the “homework gap.”

Consumer Finance Protection: During one of the Republican presidential candidate debates that aired on the Fox Business Network this fall, a Soviet-themed ad ran opposing the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau. The ad was paid for by the student loan sector. The CFPB is a new agency created by the Obama Administration, so no surprise it’s the target of Republican ire. The agency is charged with protecting consumers in the financial sector, a mandate that includes enforcement of rules surrounding student loans – hence the ire of the student loan sharks. Again, I’ll look more closely at the for-profit education industry in a subsequent post, but I’ll note here that the CFPB has been quite active this year, demanding search engines crack down on student loan scams, for example, investigating and fining loan providers like Discover and Navient for illegal, deceptive, and “stressful” practices.

Charters: I’ll look at charter schools in more detail in my upcoming post on “The Business of Ed-Tech,” as ed-tech and charters share many (tech) investors. And perhaps I’ll talk about charters too in my post on for-profit higher ed, expanding that one to cover K–12 as well. We’ll see. The month is young. So I’ll just make a quick note here about one of the most significant developments this year: the decision in September by the Washington State Supreme Court to declare charters unconstitutional. After rejecting charter schools in the states in three previous referendums, Washington voters had approved a charter school law in 2012 (thanks in part to the financial support for the proposal from the Gates and Bezos families).

The Court’s decision involved whether or not charters count as private or public entities. It’s not a new debate, and clearly it remains an unsettled one.

No Child Left Behind: Not Left Behind Quite Yet…


I should have purchased the website “HasESEABeenRenewed.com” because almost every week this year – hell, for a decade now – there’s been some promise of maybe possibly revising the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Of course, its most recent version is best known as No Child Left Behind, a George W. Bush-era piece of legislation that mandated (among other things) more regularly scheduled standardized testing and the threat of punishment for schools that failed to make “adequate yearly progress” towards “proficiency.”

“No Child Left Behind May End, But The Industry It Spawned Is Here To Stay,” Buzzfeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy wrote in January. (That is, the testing/ed-tech industry.) And that really set the tone for the rest of the year. February updates. March updates. April updates. July updates. November updates.

I’m going to hit “publish” on this post before the House of Representatives votes this afternoon on the revision, the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. Education Week has a look at its provisions. Among them: states will still have to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school but they will have greater flexibility on setting accountability goals and punishments.) Here’s the copy of the latest bill, if you’d like to read those 1000+ pages instead of the 1000+ in my “Top Ed-Tech Trends” series.

Education/Technology Lobbying


  • According to OpenSecrets.org, the top five “Schools/Education” lobbyists were the Association of American Medical Colleges, the Apollo Education Group, the University of Washington, Warburg Pincus, and University of California.
  • According to OpenSecrets.org, Google spent almost five times on lobbying than the top education lobbyist.
  • FratPAC, a lobbying arm for fraternities, has raised some $2.1 million for Congressional candidates who would press for legislation to make it harder for universities to investigate rapes on campus.
  • Via Politico in April: “Loan servicer Navient spent $1 million lobbying Congress in the first three months of 2015, new records show, more than the company has spent in any quarter thus far but a little less than Sallie Mae spent in the first quarter of last year. Sallie Mae has wound down its lobbying operation, spending only $60,000 in the first quarter. Other big spenders among education groups in the first quarter of 2015: The Association of American Medical Colleges ($1 million); the National Education Association ($605,000); Apollo Education Group ($350,000); American Federation of Teachers ($332,527) and California State University ($270,000).”
  • “Education Groups Were The Biggest-Spending Lobbyists In New York Last Year,” Buzzfeed’s Molly Hensley-Clancy reported in April. The pro-charter school group Families for Excellent Schools, Inc. spent $9.6 million on lobbying in 2014, outspending the next four highest groups on the list combined.
  • According to The Washington Post, “analysis, done by the Center for Media and Democracy, a nonprofit liberal watchdog and advocacy agency based in Wisconsin that tracks corporate influence on public policy, says that four companies – Pearson Education, ETS (Educational Testing Service), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and McGraw-Hill – collectively spent more than $20 million lobbying in states and on Capitol Hill from 2009 to 2014.”
  • Everybody in education pays the Pearson tax.

A Few More Education/Technology Numbers for Context


Education Technology and Education Reform


Late last year, the Chicago Tribune broke the story that “Companies that Chicago Board of Education member Deborah Quazzo has an interest in have seen the business they get from the city’s schools system triple since Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed her to the board.” The controversy spilled over into the new year, and in February, Quazzo sent an angry, all caps, mass email to her industry supporters saying “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!” No more hard questions from the public or the Fifth Estate! Quazzo later stepped down from her role on the board.

Elsewhere in Chicago Public Schools shadiness: Barbara Byrd-Bennett resigned as the head of Chicago Public Schools “amid a federal investigation into a $20.5 million no-bid contract.” She later pled guilty for “her role in a scheme to steer $23 million in no-bid contracts to education firms for $2.3 million in bribes and kickbacks.” She will serve 7.5 years in jail. As The Chicago Sun-Times noted, “Chicago taxpayers paid almost $900,000 for three and a half years’ work by disgraced former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. And though she’s a felon since pleading guilty in a contract rigging scheme at CPS, she still stands to cost taxpayers in districts that employed her more than $140,000 in annual public pensions.”

Other ed-reform/ed-tech policy folks in the news this year: Richard Culatta, the head of the Office of Education Technology, is stepping down from his position at the Department of Education at the end of the year. Condoleeza Rice took over as the head of Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellent in Education. Scott Benson, who oversaw grants to blended and charter schools as a program officer at the Gates Foundation, became a managing partner at NewSchools Venture Fund. Gates Foundation program manager Emily Dalton-Smith joined Facebook in March as product manager for its K–12 education team, working with Summit Public Schools on its ed-tech software system. (More on that partnership in “The Business of Ed-Tech.” Or maybe in the article I’ll write on data and privacy.) Jim Shelton, former deputy secretary of education and former Gates Foundation program manager and former NewSchools Venture Fund partner, joined 2U as “Chief Impact Officer.” Success Academy's Eva Moskowitz is not running for NYC mayor. And daaaamn, things aren’t looking so good for Michelle Rhee’s political future, are they.

Meanwhile, in the world of “philanthropy”-as-politics: the Gates Foundation looked back on how it’s spent some $3 billion on education and how it plans to use the Gates’ riches to shape the future of education. The Koch Brothers remained busy promoting their libertarian ideals on college campuses. Thanks to an investigation by The LA Times, we know the Broad Foundation has a plan to convert half of LAUSD schools to charters. And now Mark Zuckerberg’s doing the family foundation LLC thing too (Newark turned out so well, right?), announcing he will donate 99% of his Facebook shares to “charity,” with a focus on, among other things, ed-tech efforts.

Democracy!

The Politics of Labor and Teaching Machines


I always frown at those who repeat Arthur C. Clarke’s contention that if a teacher can be replaced by a machine, she or he should be. I mean, it’s pretty clear to me that there are many forces at play – some of the most dystopian politics of education technology – that want precisely that. I spoke about teaching machines and educational labor in August at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Wisconsin university system had a particularly rough year, thanks to the efforts of no-longer-presidential-candidate-but-still-governor Scott Walker, who announced in January a $300 million budget cut to the state’s higher education system, couching it in terms of “independence.” He said his plan would make universities “do things that they have not traditionally done” – including requiring professors teach more classes per semester, all without tenure. Walker also proposed scrapping the “Wisconsin Idea,” changing the mission of the illustrious state system from the “search for truth” to focus on meeting “the state’s workforce needs.”

I’ll examine labor issues and tenure issues and academic freedom issues (all related) in more detail in upcoming posts – you know, those ridiculous claims about “mind-reading robo tutors in the sky” and such. But let’s just note here in this article because it bears repeating: that as long as teachers have demands, as long as teachers strike, there will be those who push to replace them. And these days, the arguments – particularly those from the tech sector – are for machines taking the place of workers.

-Isms and the Ed-Tech Industry


Sexism: “Edtech Women Defy Tech Industry’s Sexist Trends,” Edsurge’s managing editor Tony Wan argued in April. The “proof”: less than a third of those who registered for the chintzy ASU-GSV corporate education investment event offered information about their startup’s demographics, but of those who did, 29% said they have a woman founder or woman on the exec team. (I’m curious what percentage had a male founder or man on the exec team. I’m guessing 100%.) A pretty low standard for “defying sexism.” But there you go.

I’m fairly relieved, I must say, that we’re close to a sexism-free ed-tech industry having dealt with harassment, doxxing, and tone-policing in this and previous years.

Other stats and reports related to gender and ed-tech aren’t as sunny as Edsurge’s assertions, strangely enough: According to a study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly, “men are much more likely than women to reject findings of sexism in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), and even to make sexist comments in response to such research.” The OECD’s report on gender equality and education finds that the “among high-performing students, girls do worse than boys in mathematics; in no country do they outperform boys at this level. In general girls have less confidence than boys in their ability to solve mathematics or science problems.” Piazza also found a “STEM confidence gap.” UCLA professor Linda Sax authored a paper on changes to interest in computer science and the gender gap in that field. Google also published research on gender and the CS pipeline.

Oh, and COSN published a report on the gender gap in K–12 ed-tech leadership. Among the findings: “Only a handful of K–12 chief technology officials earn more than $160,000 per year. All are men. Women comprise 65 percent of those who reported making under $70,000 per year.” Sexism defied, right?!

And 88% of ed-tech leaders are white.

Racism: And perhaps that statistic explains some of the ed-tech products and promotions this year.

Take Interactive timeline tool Hstry, for example, which thought it was a good idea to re-enact the murder of Emmett Till on Twitter. Needless to say, folks onTwitter did not agree. The company said it was sorry.

Or take “Slave Tetris.” I’m not kidding. Slave Tetris.

Or read Rafranz Davis who wrote – “shocked” – about Mission US: Flight to Freedom, a slavery simulation promoted in Common Sense Media’s Black History month email. In an op-ed in Edsurge, the producer of the slavery simulation said “we regret to hear that some people have found the game to be problematic, we stand by it.” Sorry, not sorry.

The conservative publication Education Next celebrated (yep, celebrated) the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report, which helped pathologize Black women as “welfare queens” and Black men as “deadbeat dads.” Michael Petrelli gleefully trolled Twitter with the cover of its latest magazine. Later he said he was sorry for sending the tweets. (No apology for the cover itself.)

From The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration

From Techcrunch’s Kim-Mai Cutler: “East Of Palo Alto’s Eden: Race And The Formation Of Silicon Valley.”

Ableism: In May, the US Department of Justice joined a lawsuit by a student at Miami University in Ohio, charging the university of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by adopting education technologies that are inaccessible. The software listed in the suit included the university’s websites, YouTube, Vimeo, TurnItIn, Google Docs, and more.

In August, the New York Public Schools said it would delay a deal it had struck with Amazon – the company was poised to manage a book marketplace for students – following letters from the National Federation of the Blind has concerns about accessibility, noting that the platform would exclude the visually impaired.

In September, Seattle announced it would take steps to make the ed-tech used in its schools accessible to blind students, faculty, and parents, settling a lawsuit against the district brought by Noel Nightingale and her co-plaintiff, the National Federation of the Blind. A statement from the NFB:

This landmark agreement with the Seattle Public Schools should serve as a model for the nation and should put school districts on notice that we can no longer wait to have equal education for blind students and to have access to information, use of school services, and full participation in school activities by blind faculty, personnel, and parents.

Activism: I plan to devote an entire article in this series to activism, social justice, and ed-tech. Coming soon…

Solutionism and the Ed-Tech Industry


Ed-tech likes to present itself as “the fix” to a broken system. For example: “Kids Are Using Minecraft To Design A More Sustainable World,” says Fast Company. (“Letting Kids Play Minecraft Is Probably Better Than Telling Them They Have No Future,” the Awl responded.)

Ed-tech likes to present itself as innovative, rarely questioning who benefits.

Ed-tech likes to present itself as ideology-free, even though it’s steeped in such.

From Paul Prinsloo’s reflection on the ICDE conference, which I was fortunate enough to keynote this fall:

Education, as I understand it, is about creating spaces for learners to learn to read the world, to recognise the meta-narratives as well as the epistemological and ontological alliances, as well as develop the capabilities and agencies to disrupt these meta-narratives and create new localised narratives in service of hope, equality and justice. Various keynotes and panelists raised the issue that we seriously and urgently needed to rethink our understandings of “open”, “access”, “knowledge production” (see the thought-provoking keynote by Laura Czerniewicz) and “hope.”


Rethinking the relationship between access, justice and equality (as Tressie McMillan Cottom suggested) means resisting the neoliberal discourses celebrating the collapse of public education in order to invite venture capital in to “save” and “fix” education – ala “the shock doctrine” and “disaster capitalism” exposed by Naomi Klein. We were reminded by Audrey Watters that Africa should not and cannot afford to accept the Silicon Valley narrative that technology is all we need. Designing hope is, however, much more than resistance, but reclaiming (as suggested by Stella Porto) the potential of education as liberation through pedagogies of hope.

Laudato Si’


In June, Pope Francis issued his second encyclical, Laudato Si'. The subtitle: On Care for Our Common Home. Laudato Si’ is not simply a theological document; it is a work of social criticism – a critique of capitalism, consumerism, and technology and a warning about environmental destruction and climate change.

I’m including Laudato Si’ here because it can be situated alongside the work of other theorists who cautioned against technology and power – Jacques Ellul, Lewis Mumford, Neil Postman – and who inform my writing on ed-tech.

Indeed, I think this encyclical provides one of the most powerful recent counters to Silicon Valley solutionism, which still dominates so much of the framing and so much of the politics of education technology.

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