I cannot believe that in the midst of everything I’m trying to accomplish right now (namely my massive end-of-year writing project) I agreed to give a talk. But I did. And so tonight I spoke with the educators at NYCIST. They were very kind and put up with a very half-assed talk. Here’s the transcript:

I apologize in advance for what I feel is a total lack of preparation today. Typically, when I give a talk, I write out my speech in advance. A half an hour talk is about a 3000 word essay; an hour, about 5500 words – depending on how slowly I speak, how much I ad lib, if the slides all work, if there are no technical problems, and such.

I tend to write out my talks because I want to make sure I am telling a compelling story – that I have all the words in order, that I have all the details right, that there’s an arc, if you will, to the narrative. (I also write out my talk because I’m a writer, professionally, not a speaker. I’m good at writing – or I like to think. Speaking off the cuff, less so. And I like to have a record – a written record – so that other people can see what I said… or read.)

I know it’s trend to criticize keynotes and lectures and claim that they’re terrible ways to learn. People like to cite research that claims the human attention span is only 8 to 10 minutes. It’s cool to sneer at someone who stands in front of a room and explains things. Now, there isn’t a ton of evidence that that is actually true – that we can only pay attention for about the length of a YouTube video. But it’s a convenient figure for the tech industry to invoke, don’t you think. It’s a great story, particularly if you want to wield that factoid along with a product pitch for more “active learning” – like clicking on things.

We’re told an awful lot of stories about what “good teaching” looks like and what “bad teaching” looks like and how technology will purportedly enhance the former and replace the latter. Same goes for “good learning” and “bad learning,” somehow. Me, I am really much less interested in evaluating the various claims regarding “evidence-based teaching” – like, is the research any good, what does “the science” really tell us – than I am listening for these stories, looking at who’s telling them, looking at how they’re wielded politically, looking at how they’re backed financially, and asking why is this the story. Why, for example, would Microsoft famously put out a study in 2015 saying that humans’ attention spans are shorter than goldfish’s? (And why on earth would we believe that?!)

Now, I am not sure I really have “a talk” to give you today. Not sure I can pull together 3000 or so words of prepared remarks. And that’s mostly because, if you’re familiar with my work at all, you know that I’m in the middle of a project I undertake each December where I chronicle “the top ed-tech trends” of the past twelve months. It’s not really a look at “trends,” per se. And this year I’m trying to move away from that language. I’m not interested in identifying “trends” because I am not interested in pushing schools to buy certain products. My job isn’t in marketing. I don’t do “market research.” Rather, I want to look at the stories that are being told about education and technology. What are the stories that have been repeated again and again over the course of the year? What are the stories and why are they being told?

I have published 8 of these end-of-year articles. They’re about 6000 words apiece. I have two more still to write, including one that I’ve scheduled to post to my site on Wednesday that I’ve only written about 1500 words of. So I was feeling a bit stingy about the words I typed in preparation for this afternoon. I’m feeling sorta out of words and thoughts.

That’s a long-winded apology, in advance, that I don’t really have something splendid to read for you today.

What I want to do instead is to show you a photo. Talk about the photo. Talk a bit about the project – a separate project, one that I’m also still in the middle of – that I am currently working on as part of my Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship at Columbia this year. And then I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about the current state of ed-tech – products or propaganda.

This is the “PayPal Mafia.” The photo was taken as part of a 2007 profile in Fortune magazine. The phrase “PayPal Mafia” is used to describe the group of PayPal founders and employees who’ve gone on to become some of the most powerful players in Silicon Valley, forming additional technology companies and investment firms and becoming millionaires (and in a couple of cases, billionaires) in the process. Some of these men – and do note, they are all men – have become household names. Most of their products certainly have.

Back row from the left: Jawed Karim, the co-founder of YouTube; Jeremy Stoppelman, the CEO of Yelp; Andrew McCormack, co-founder of the venture capital firm Valar Ventures; Premal Shah, President of Kiva, the microfinancing company. Second row from the left: Luke Nosek, managing partner at the venture capital firm The Founders Fund; Kenny Howery, managing partner at the venture capital firm The Founders Fund; David Sacks, the CEO of Geni and Room 9 Entertainment; Peter Thiel, the CEO of the venture capital firm Clarium Capital and Founders Fund, the co-founder of Palantir Technologies, and the co-founder of Valar Ventures; Keith Rabois, the VP of business development at Slide (at the time of this photo), an executive at LinkedIn, an executive at Square, a venture capitalist at Khosla Ventures, and an original Youtube Investor; Reid Hoffman, the founder of Linkedin and a partner at the venture capital firm Greylock Partners; Max Levchin, the CEO of Slide at the time of this photo and now the CEO of the loan company Affirm; Roelof Botha, a partner at the venture capital firm Sequoia Capital; and Russel Simmons, the CTO and co-founder of Yelp.

Not pictured: Chad Hurley, the co-founder of YouTube. Steve Chen, another co-founder of YouTube. Dave McClure, the founder of the venture capital firm 500 Startups. And of course, Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX.

The PayPal Mafia has been credited by technology journalist Sarah Lacey and others with helping to build and fund the wave of consumer-focused Internet startups that emerged in the mid 2000s following the dot-com bubble burst. (PayPal itself was acquired by eBay in 2002. One might also include Pierre Omidyar in the PayPal Mafia, I suppose. Omidyar was the founder of eBay.)

According to Silicon Valley mythology at least, the Mafia have been successful because of the skills and confidence and camaraderie developed at PayPal. As the article in Fortune described them: “highly intelligent workaholics who were good at math. No frat boys, MBAs, or, God forbid, jocks.” The shared corporate culture at PayPal was coupled with a shared ideology among many Mafia members about the role of finance, technology, and private and public institutions – including most famously in the case of libertarian Peter Thiel, the role of governments and schools.

What interests me – and this is the focus of my Spencer Fellowship: Is there an equivalent to the PayPal Mafia in education technology? That is, is there a company or organization that has launched the careers of lots of education entrepreneurs and investors, that has become a powerful political, financial, and social network for education technology people and products? A company that really drives the ideology that underpins how we talk about the future of school and tech. Kaplan? The Princeton Review? The Gates Foundation? Pearson?

Of course, it’s important too for us to recognize how much influence the technology sector – I use “Silicon Valley” as a shorthand for that – has over education. Over the products that get built. Over the companies that get funded. Over the policies that get developed, and the laws that get passed. Over the ideas that get talked about. Over our imagination. The “PayPal Mafia” alone is a pretty good example of this.

Peter Thiel – where to start. He was Facebook’s first big investor. He’s probably tech’s most famous libertarian, and he believes that monopolies, not competition, are the natural and desirable order of things. He’s questioned the value of the 19th Amendment. Thiel bankrolled the lawsuit that put the publication Gawker out of business. He’s been a vocal Trump supporter – speaking at the Republican National Convention last summer. And he has plenty to say – and plenty of money to spend – on his beliefs about education. He wrote, along with fellow PayPal Mafia member David Sacks, a book called The Diversity Myth that criticizes “political correctness” on college campuses like Stanford and that claimed, among other things, that date rape is actually “seductions that are later regretted.” Thiel has entertained the idea there may be a biological connection between race and IQ. He was one of the first and one of the loudest to push the narrative that there’s a “college bubble” – that higher education is no longer worth it. He famously funded the Thiel Fellowship, giving a handful of young people under the age of 20 $100,000 to drop out of college. He’s also an investor in the private school AltSchool, the education data company Clever, the adaptive textbook company Knewton, the coding bootcamp Thinkful, the student loan company SoFi, and many others.

Max Levchin’s company Affirm is also in the student loan business.

Reid Hoffman was one of the first investors in Edmodo. He’s an investor in the learn-to-code company Treehouse and an investor in Knewton.

Dave McClure’s venture capital firm 500 Startups has been one of the most prolific investors in education technology companies in recent years. McClure is also just one of the investors who has stepped down from his position in 2017 due to allegations of sexual harassment.

Pierre Omidyar now runs the Omidyar Network. Its education investments include AltSchool, the African coding bootcamp Andela, the African private school chain Bridge International Academies, a startup that describes itself as an alternative to college called MissionU, and the publication Edsurge.

Elon Musk has founded a private school called Ad Astra for his own children and some of the children of SpaceX employees. There is almost nothing known publicly about this school. No website. No phone number. There are rumors that kids have to take an IQ test to get in. (I wonder if Musk has talked to his old PayPal pal Peter Thiel about IQ.)

Musk is fascinating and horrifying to me. He doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to business success, and yet he always seems to fail upward and his promises are always taken seriously. He repeatedly makes these claims about what his companies will do – he promised 20,000 Tesla 3s would ship by the end of this year. So far, his factories have produced just 260. He’s predicted SpaceX will have humans on Mars in seven years time. He says he’s going to build an underground tunnel that will get you from New York to DC in 29 minutes.

At first glance, it might not seem like Musk’s projects are all that relevant to education investing or education narratives. But what Musk says and what Musk does is still worth our paying attention to, I’d argue, because of how his work (and storytelling) in transportation and space exploration subverts or shifts our expectations for public investment and public responsibility. Stories about and stories by Elon Musk are very much stories about the future of public space, public science, public knowledge, and as such, public education.

Where do these stories about the future come from? Like, how do we know about “what’s happening” and “what’s trending” in education? Who are the people who are telling us what the future of education or technology or education technology is supposed to like? Who tells these stories? Who benefits from these stories? Who funds these stories? Why do we find these stories compelling?

The goal of my Spencer research – broadly speaking – is to identify and trace how certain stories get popularized, how they become embedded in education technology products, policies, and practices.

One example of this is the push for “everyone to learn to code.” Where did this story come from? Who tells it? Why do we believe it?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for example, the occupations that will add the most new jobs in the next decade are personal care aides (754,000 new jobs), food service workers (580,000 new jobs), registered nurses (437,000 new jobs), home health aides (426,000 new jobs), software developers (253,000 new jobs), and janitors and cleaners (233,000). The fastest growing occupations are solar photovoltaic installers (growing by 105%), wind turbine service technicians (growing by 96%), home health aides (growing by 47%), personal care aides (growing by 37%), and physicians assistants (growing by 37%). But just one of those occupations seems to dominate the storyline of how schools should prepare students for the “jobs of the future.” And it sure isn’t “everyone should learn nursing.”

Another storyline I am paying attention to – we should all pay attention too – involves “personalization,” a concept shared by tech and ed-tech alike. Your Facebook news feed is “personalized”; the list of movies Netflix recommends to you is “personalized”; suggestions for other products you might purchase on Amazon are “personalized.” And so too are the recommendation engines that ed-tech companies like Knewton or AltSchool say will help students navigate curriculum more efficiently. They even use same terminology, drawn from other digital content providers – “playlists.” Facebook’s CEO believes in personalized learning. Netflix’s CEO believes in personalized learning. What’s going on with that story?

Knewton founder Jose Ferreira formerly worked at Kaplan. AltSchool founder Max Ventilla was a Google exec. Peter Thiel is an investor in both of these companies. Is there an “ed-tech mafia”? And what do they want? What do they believe?

“Follow the money” is, perhaps, clich√©. But as billions of dollars of venture capital flow into ed-tech every year, it’s essential nonetheless. Yet it’s complicated by the paucity of independent reporting on education technology – that is, from sites not partially or wholly funded by tech investors or tech philanthropists.

The education technology company Edsurge, for example, positions itself as a news organization while also promoting conferences and services selling ed-tech services to schools. It has raised almost $6 million in venture capital and at least as much in grant money – $5.22 million from the Gates Foundation alone. Edsurge’s investors include the very same investors in many of the products it covers. Edsurge’s investors are people who are very committed – politically, financially – to telling certain kinds of stories about the future. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – the venture philanthropy firm founded by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg – has funded Edsurge to write about “personalized learning,” for example.

My concerns, I suppose, are similar to my concerns about Elon Musk – we are talking about billionaires who have influence in reshaping public space and public infrastructure in ways that are profoundly anti-democratic. If nothing else, there’s not really research that supports their beliefs or their technologies. Can Musk get to Mars? Lots of scientists are pretty skeptical of his plan. Can the Zuckerberg-funded Summit Public Schools learning management system scale and provide a Facebook-like vision of “personalized learning” and content delivery to every school in the country? Is that the future we want?

One of Edsurge’s other investors, the Emerson Collective – the venture philanthropy firm founded by Laurene Powell Jobs (Steve Jobs’ widow) – is interested in stories about “rethinking school.” She paid for a glitzy television show on all four big networks to push that message: schools haven’t changed in hundreds of years. “Rethink school.” That’s what Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos says she’s interested in too.

Now, you can either imagine one of those scenes from a film where I’m connecting ed-tech brands to photos of venture capitalists with yarn. Who went to MIT. Who worked at Google. Or you can picture what statistics folks call “social network analysis” where I give you a nice visualization that will help us see these relationships – see them so we can talk about them. Because there are relationships and networks, “ed-tech mafia” or not.

There are really powerful forces – powerful stories and powerful storytellers – at play here. I would say that for far too long now, many people who work in education technology have seen themselves as underdogs in some sort of digital versus analog battle for the future of education. But that’s not really an accurate way to describe the setting for this particular story any longer, indeed if it ever was.

(This is the part where I gave up typing… So I’ll just add here, in lieu of a “happy ending” that I am really interested in helping educators understand the powerful networks that operate in education and education technology. Because we must think more critically about the vision and the model and the story of the future that we’re being sold.)

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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