Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2017: The Stories We’ve Been Told

At the end of every year since I founded Hack Education in 2010, I’ve reviewed what I think are the most important and influential trends in education technology. I’ve called this “the Top Ed-Tech Trends,” but this has never been an SEO-optimized list of products that the ed-tech industry wants schools or parents or companies to buy (or that it claims schools and parents and companies are buying). No, fidget spinners were not a “top ed-tech trend” this year.

“Trends” is certainly a misnomer, and I’m going to start moving away from that word this year. This is about the stories we’re told about education, about technology, and about education technology. (No doubt, some people hope these stories fuel markets and lead to trends.)

This series is meant to serve in-depth exploration of the events of the past year and an analysis of how these events shape the way in which we imagine and prepare for the future of teaching and learning. We must think more critically about education technology – its technologies and its stories – and I believe that comes in part from scrutinizing its history. The world is not changing more rapidly than ever before – don’t let that story convince you to throw the past into a memory hole.

This series always ends up being incredibly lengthy – I apologize in advance – and this year, it threatens to be even more so. 2017 has been an extraordinary year for education news and for technology news – two areas that provide crucial context for everything that happens with education technology.

It’s the first year, of course, of the Trump Administration, and its attempts to change education policy and funding have been profound: the nomination of his most controversial and unpopular Cabinet member, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos; a budget proposal that would have slashed $9 billion from the Department of Education (not to mention steep cuts to other education-related programs and services, including funding for scientific research); battles with HBCUs; the revocation of DACA and changes to immigration and visa policies, including an increase in deportations; the withdrawal from UNESCO, the UN’s cultural and educational organization; Justice Department investigations into college admissions and free speech on campuses; the rollback of regulations relating to the rights of students with disabilities; the rollback of Obama-era guidance on Title IX and sexual assault policies on college campuses; the delay of Obama-era regulations on for-profit higher ed and reneging on promises of debt relief for the students defrauded by these institutions; the rollback of Obama-era protections for transgender students; the rollback of Obama-era rules on school lunch standards (are you sensing a trend yet?); and the scaling back of investigations into civil rights violations in schools.

All this happened in the larger context of news from the US school system itself. And again, what a year: changing demographics of teachers and students (and the US population overall); changing enrollments; desegregation turning to resegregation; hate crimes; lead poisoning; “adjunct-ification”; school shootings (including those by school police officers); bullying; hazing; hurricanes; fraud; money laundering; FBI investigations; illicit campaign contributions; corruption charges; drug-fueled parties; white nationalists on campus; student protests; (ongoing) racial disparities in school discipline; the opioid crisis; school closures and mergers; rising poverty levels and growing income inequality; increasing student loan debt; food insecurity; “lunch shaming”; homelessness; and my god, so many stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment at school – stories that emerged well before the revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein have emboldened more victims to come forward and speak up.

And I haven’t even touched on any news from the tech sector yet. There were scores of stories of sexual assault and sexual harassment in that industry too: accusations regarding the ride-sharing company Uber – Susan Fowler really should be credited for kicking off much of the discussion of sexism and Silicon Valley culture this year; the student loan startup SoFi; venture capitalist Frank Artale; venture capitalist Dave McClure; venture capitalist Chris Sacca; venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck; and venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson. Then there was the infamous anti-diversity memo distributed by Google engineer James Damore and leaked to the press this summer that charged that efforts the company (and the industry more broadly) had taken to address diversity were misguided as women are biologically ill-suited to computer science – which is, of course, totally bullshit. And then there were the revelations – although, to be fair, many people had already noticed this last year – that the Internet had played a played a major role in a concerted dis-information campaign during the 2016 Presidential Election, that Twitter, Facebook, and Google were (and still are) ongoing sources of misinformation, that the major technology companies have become powerful monopolies and in the process serve to undermine democracy and reshape public institutions to suit their needs and visions for the future.

One of the challenges of this end-of-year series has always been determining what is really within the purview of “education technology.” This isn’t a review of “the year in education” or “the year in tech,” after all. And yet it is naive and even misleading to pretend as though education technology exists separately from either of those – from the politics of DC, the politics of local school boards, or the politics of Silicon Valley, for example. The latter’s influence permeates education – politically, financially, and culturally; via venture capital, venture philanthropy, and lobbying efforts, and increasingly through algorithms that govern schools’ and teachers’ decision-making. As concerns about “fake news” make clear, Silicon Valley’s influence also extends to how we access information and build knowledge; it extends to the stories we hear and share.

So that’s my focus of this project this year: analyzing the stories that we have told and were told in 2017 about and by education technologies.

The series kicks off on Saturday, 2 December. (You can receive updates from Hack Education via email if you prefer to read articles that way.)

Stories From Previous Years:

Here are some of the stories that got us to where we are today:

The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2016

The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2015

The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2014

The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2013

The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2012

The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011

The Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2010

I’m fortunate to be a recipient of a Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship this year. But as a reminder, Hack Education is a completely independent publication. The stories I write here are not backed by venture capital or venture philanthropy or consulting dollars. Readers can support my work in a number of ways, but what would be awesome is if everyone took the time to think more critically about the stories they’re telling about the future of education. It’s getting pretty dystopian out there…

Icon credits: The Noun Project

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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