Sadly, I'm not at AERA today, even though I was supposed to be part of a really excellent panel, "Whither Equity in the '21st-Century School'? Critical Perspectives on Education and Technology," with some of my favorite educators and scholars.

The panel organizer, Ethan Chang, was nice enough to let me record a video of my 10 minute spiel, and I am embedding it below:

Here is (roughly) what I had planned to say today. I am really sorry I am not there.

My apologies for not being there in person today. I’m on a reporting trip for a story I’m currently working on. It’s actually a story associated with the paper I proposed for this panel – so I do have a good excuse for my absence. Also I’ll get paid for that story. Lines on my CV don’t pay the bills.

I’m recording this a few days early but by the time of this panel, I’ll be at the ASU-GSV Summit. It’s an event I’ve never attended before – one that I’ve been quite loathe to go to, in part because of the reports I hear back about some of the shadiest and most destructive elements in education business and politics. Here’s how the event’s sponsor GSV, the venture capital firm Global Silicon Valley, describes it:

The Summit continues to bring together the most impactful people from diverse constituencies – entrepreneurs, business leaders, educators, policymakers, philanthropists, and university and district leaders – to create partnerships, explore solutions, and shape the future of learning.

I can’t help but notice that students and parents and communities are not mentioned among those constituencies. Also absent from that list (and relevant to our purposes here, no doubt): “education researchers.” Indeed, every year (and this is its ninth), the ASU-GSV Summit seems to coincide with AERA. I don’t think this is an insignificant or even an unintentional scheduling gaffe. If nothing else, it taps into a powerful cultural trope, one that’s particularly resonant among Silicon Valley and education reform types: that education experts and expertise aren’t to be trusted, that research is less important than politics, that the “peer review” that matters isn’t the academic version. Rather that “review” in the ASU-GSV framework is a kind of networking or power brokering – it’s who you know, not what you know; it’s not how you wield your research as much as it’s how you wield your relationships. That’s not to say relationships don’t matter in academia. They do. But these networks are significantly less powerful.

But as people in Silicon Valley like to say, venture capitalists don’t invest in ideas, they invest in people.

Now, I believe that that saying overstates its case a lot. Clearly, ideas do matter. Ideology matters. Metaphors matter. The way in which one talks about education matters – the notion that it’s broken, for example, or that it needs to be fixed through market-based mechanisms. Ideas shape the products that entrepreneurs build and the policies that reformers promote. Investors might select certain people as entrepreneurs or back certain officials as reformers, but that’s because they share ideas. More importantly, I’d argue, they share networks.

I am currently wrapping up my year as a Spencer Fellow at the Columbia School of Journalism, and my proposed project involves an exploration how these networks work, how education technology investors work in particular – where and how they come up with their ideas, how their influence spreads. I’m interested in the shape of the network (who’s in it), the money (where’s the funding going), the power (how do investors and investments influence policy), and the associated narratives about the future. “The Ed-Tech Mafia,” I sometimes call this – a nod to “The PayPal Mafia,” those early employees and executives at PayPal who’ve gone on to shape recent Silicon Valley history and business and politics (as investors or entrepreneurs). Reid Hoffman (the founder of LinkedIn). Elon Musk (the founder of Tesla and SpaceX). Peter Thiel (vampire and enemy of the free press). Chad Hurley (the founder of YouTube). Pierre Omidyar (the founder of eBay) and so on.

Venture capitalists are important, increasingly so as Silicon Valley technologies play a more and more powerful role in our personal lives and in our political (and education) system. But when I use the word “investors,” I also mean the influence of philanthropists. And it’s worth pointing out that several of the philanthropies founded by tech executives are not the classic “family foundation,” they’re venture capital firms – some are non-profit and some are for-profit. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, for example – founded by Facebook’s founder – is a venture capital firm. It’s often talked about like it’s a philanthropy. But it’s a company. The Emerson Collective – founded by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple’s co-founder – is a venture capital firm. As LLCs, they have fewer requirements for transparency than do foundations about where their money goes. You can see, for example, on the Gates Foundation website, who’s received its education grants, dating all the way back to 1994. (I’m guessing that includes many many people in the room right now.) But we don’t really know where CZIs dollars are going. The organization has promised to spend billions in the coming decade on “personalized learning.” Last time I checked, “personalized learning” is an idea, and not a person; but who gets that money is still worth considering. How that idea takes shape and takes hold in people and in policies is important.

So, here’s an example of how these investor networks operate – and this is what I’m trying to investigate in more detail while I’m at the ASU-GSV Summit. One of GSV’s co-founders is Deborah Quazzo. She is one of the most active investors in ed-tech. She was briefly on the Chicago Public Schools board – that is, until a Chicago Tribune story found that since her appointment, the district had tripled its spending on companies in her investment portfolio. GSV’s investments include Dreambox Learning, Coursera, ClassDojo, and Edsurge. (Edsurge is a really important node here as its investors include almost every firm who’s actively investing in ed-tech in Silicon Valley, as well as the major philanthropies and venture philanthropies like Gates and CZI. And as such, it is clear the publication promotes certain narratives about the future of schools. Ideas do matter.) Another co-founder of GSV is, of course, Michael Moe. Moe has a long, long history in education financing. When he worked at Merrill Lynch in the 1990s, for example, he helped the school management company Edison Schools prepare for its initial public offering.

Edison Schools is another one of those interesting nodes in the ed-tech network. And I mention this one because the privatization and financialization of education – an idea – has a lengthy history. These networks are well established, even as Silicon Valley prefers to associate itself with “the new.” Edison was co-founded by Chris Whittle, whose other companies include Channel One, the advertising-filled TV news provider for schools. Edison Schools’ founding partners include Chester Finn and John Chubb. The President of its LearnNow division was Jim Shelton, who from Edison went on to work as a Program Director at the Gates Foundation. He then worked as Assistant Secretary of Education at the Obama Department of Ed. (An aside: Arne Duncan is also a venture capitalist now; he works for the Emerson Collective.) After the Department of Education, Shelton went to work at 2U, an online program management company co-founded by John Katzman who previously founded the Princeton Review – another key node, another investor (surprise, surprise) in Edsurge. Shelton is now the head of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s education program.

CZI has also hired Bror Saxburg, formerly the chief learning officer at Kaplan (owned by Graham Holdings, once the owner of The Washington Post and – yup – an investor in Edsurge) as its Chief Learning Officer. It’s also hired Katrina Stevens, who worked at the Department of Education under Jim Shelton and who worked at Edsurge, as its director of learning sciences. I believe these folks are all at ASU-GSV and not at AERA.

A “director of learning sciences” in the business of ed-tech needn’t be interested in the research as much as she need navigate and perhaps even propitiate the investor network.

And that’s where one future – a dystopian one, I’d argue – of education technology lies: in a place where scholarship and research can be ignored unless it explicitly endorses the ideas and the politics and the “impactful people” and the networks of capital.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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