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I was invited to speak this evening to Alec Couros and Katia Hildebrandt’s class on current ed-tech issues, #ECI830. As part of the course, students are engaging in a “Great Ed-Tech Debate,” arguing one side or another of a variety of topics: that technology enhances learning, that technology is a force for equity, that social media is ruining childhood, and so on. Tonight’s debate: “Public education has sold its soul to corporate interests in what amounts to a Faustian bargain.” Here are some of the remarks I made to the class about commercialization and education technology.

Ed-tech is big business. I’ll start with some numbers: According to one market analyst firm, the ed-tech market totaled $8.38 billion in the 2012–13 academic year. 2015 was a record year for ed-tech investment, with some $2.98 billion in venture capital going to startups in the industry. Companies and venture capitalists alike see huge opportunities for what they insist will be a growing market: last year, McKinsey called education a $1.5 trillion industry. One firm predicted that the “smart education and learning market” will grow from $105.23 billion in 2015 to $446.85 billion by 2020. Testing and assessment are the largest category of this market. Testing and assessment remain the primary reason why schools buy computers; these are also the primary purposes for which teachers say they use new technologies in their classrooms.

We can’t talk about corporate interests and ed-tech without talking about testing. We can’t talk about corporate interests and ed-tech without talking about politics and policies. Why do we test? Why do we measure? Why has this become big business? Why has this become the cornerstone of education policy?


There’s something about our imagination and our discussion of education technology that, I’d contend, triggers an amnesia of sorts. We forget all history – all history of technology, all history of education. Everything is new. Every problem is new. Every product is new. We’re the first to experience the world this way; we’re the first to try to devise solutions.

So when people say that education technology enables a takeover of public schools by corporate interests, it’s pretty easy to look at history and respond “No. Not true.” Schools have long turned to outside, commercial vendors in order to provide goods and services: pencils, paper, chairs, desks, clocks, bells, chalkboards, milk, crackers, playground equipment, books. But rather than pointing to this and insisting that there’s always been someone selling things to schools and therefore selling to schools is perfectly acceptable, we should look more closely at how the relationship between public schools and vendors has changed over time: what’s being sold, who’s doing the selling, and how all that influences what happens in the classroom and what happens in the stories society tells itself about education. The changes here – to the stories, to the markets – aren’t merely a result of more “ed-tech,” but again, we need to ask if and how and why “ed-tech” might be a symptom of an increasing commercialization of education not just the disease.

Again, when we talk about “ed-tech,” we usually focus on recent technologies. We don’t typically consider the chalkboard, the textbook, the pencil, the window, the photocopier. When we say “ed-tech,” we often mean “computers.” But even then we don’t think of the large mainframe computers and the terminals that students were using in the 1970s, for example. Ed-tech amnesia: we act as though nobody thought about using computers in the classroom until Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, or something. Indeed, a founder of an ed-tech company was recently cited in The New York Times as saying “Education is one of the last industries to be touched by Internet technology,” to which I have to offer an important correction: universities actually helped invent the Internet. (And I want to return to this point in a minute: who do we identify – schools or businesses, the public sector or the private sector – as being the locus of ed-tech “innovation”?)

I am particularly interested in the history of education technologies that emerged before the advent of the personal or mainframe computer, before the Internet, in the early parts of the twentieth century. This is when, for example, we saw the development of educational psychology as a field and in turn the development of educational assessment. This is when the multiple choice test was first developed, as well as the machines that could grade these types of tests. To give you some dates: Frederick Kelly is often credited with the invention of the multiple choice test in 1914; the first US patent for a machine to score this type of test – that is, to detect pencil marks on paper and compare them to an answer key – was filed in 1937. IBM launched a commercial service for a “test scoring machine” that same year.

Speaking of commercial services and commercial interests then, standardized testing was already a big business by the 1920s. Enrollment in public schools was growing rapidly at this time, and these sorts of assessments were seen as more “objective” and more “scientific” than the insights that classrooms teachers – mostly women, of course – could provide. Public schools were viewed as failing – failing to educate, failing to enculturate, failing to produce career and college and military-ready students. (Of course, public schools have always been viewed as failing.) They were deemed grossly inefficient, and politicians and administrators alike insisted that schools needed to be run more like businesses. The theories of scientific management were applied to schools, and “schooling” – the process, the institution – increasingly became viewed as a series of inputs and outputs that could be measured and controlled.

Computers, in many many ways, are simply an extension of this. Learning analytics is often framed as a “hot new trend” in education. But it’s actually quite an old one. Thanks to new technologies, we do have more data now to feed these measurements and assessments.

We also have, thanks to new technologies, a renewed faith in “data” as holding all the answers: the answers to how people learn, the answers to how students succeed, the answers to why students fail, the answers to which teachers improve test scores, the answers to which college majors make the most money, the answers to which TV shows make you smarter or which breakfast cereals makes you dumber, and so on. Again, this obsession with data isn’t new; it’s rooted in part in Taylorism – in a desire for maximized efficiency (which is in turn a desire for maximized cost-savings and maximized profitability).

There’s an inherent conflict, I’d argue, between a culture that demands learning efficiency and a culture that recognizes learning messiness. It’s one of the reasons that schools – public schools – have been viewed as spaces distinct from businesses. Humans are not widgets. The cultivation of a mind cannot be mechanized. It should not be mechanized. Nevertheless, that’s been the impetus – an automation of education – behind much of education technology throughout the twentieth century. The commercialization of education is just one part of this larger ideology.

Alongside the push for more efficiency in education – through technology, through scientific management – has been a call for more competition in education. The Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman, for example, called for school vouchers in the 1950s, arguing that families should be able to use public dollars to send their children to any school, public or private – one should be “free to choose,” as he put it – and that choice and competition would necessarily improve education. During the latter half of the twentieth century, this idea of competition and of outsourcing gained political prominence. Some schools started to turn to outside vendors for remedial education – to companies like Sylvan Learning, for example. And some schools started to turn to vendors for instruction in specific content areas, such as foreign languages. By the 1990s, companies like Edison were offering “school management” in its entirety as a for-profit business. These were never able to demonstrate that they were better than traditional public schools; often they were much worse.

But as my short history here should underscore, the privatization of all or part of public schools was already well underway, in no small part because of the power of this dominant narrative: that competition and efficiency was the purview of the private sector and was something that the public sector simply couldn’t get right.

No surprise, I suppose, this is the story you hear a lot from today’s technology and education technology entrepreneurs and investors – many of whom are involved politically and financially in “education reform” efforts. It’s as I cited at the outset: there’s almost complete amnesia about the long history of ed-tech and about the role that schools have played in the development of the tech itself and of associated pedagogical practices. (LOGO came from MIT. The web browser came from the University of Illinois. PLATO came from the University of Illinois. TurnItIn came from Berkeley. WebCT came from UBC. Google’s origins are at Stanford. ) Nevertheless, you’ll hear this: “school is broken” – it’s that old story again and again. Tech companies assure us that they’ll fix it. Fixing schools requires “innovation”; “innovation” requires the private sector. “Innovative schools” are the ones that have most successfully adopted business practices – scientific management – and that have bought the most technology.

To reiterate, the problem isn’t simply that schools are spending billions of taxpayer dollars on technology. That is, the problem is not simply that there are businesses that sell products to schools; businesses have always sold products to schools. The problem is that we don’t really examine the ideologies that accompany these technologies. How, for example, do new technologies coincide with ways in which we increasingly monitor and measure students? How do new technologies introduce and reinforce the values of competition, individualism, and surveillance? How do new technologies change the way in which recognize and even desire certain brands in the classroom? How do new technologies – the insistence that we must buy them, we must use them – help to change the purpose of school away from civic goals and towards those defined by the job market? How do new technologies themselves view students as a commercial product?

When I insist that “there’s a history to ed-tech,” some people hear me say “nothing has changed.” But that’s not my message. Ed-tech in 2016 is different than ed-tech in 1916. I mean, clearly the tech is different. But the political and economic power of tech is different too. Some of the biggest names in education philanthropy are technologists: Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg. Former members of the US Department of Education now and in the past work for ed-tech companies or as ed-tech investors. And to close with a number that I opened with: last year, one investment analyst firm calculated that $2.98 billion had been invested in ed-tech startups. The money matters. But I’d contend that the narratives that powerful people tell about education and technology might matter even more.

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Audrey Watters


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