Yes, I went to ASU+GSV – my first time at the event in the event’s nine year history. It was everything y’all said it would be. Truly.

I was there on a reporting trip, as part of the research I’m doing as a Spencer Fellow. I’m also working on a magazine article that’ll come out this fall on education technology and venture capital. Some of the questions I’ve wanted answered: how do VCs “know things” about ed-tech? Who do they listen to, what stories do they hear, and what stories do they tell in turn? VCs often speak of having an “investment thesis” – a strategy for why they fund certain companies. But I’m curious how one forms that thesis in education.

I don’t want to write too much that will take away from the article I’m writing, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a couple of observations about the theses that get formed at a place like ASU+GSV.

The agenda of the Summit was certainly designed so that some sessions appealed to investors and entrepreneurs while others were aimed at the educators in attendance. (And those were mostly administrators and administrative staff, I’d say, rather than classroom teachers.) Many people told me beforehand that “investors don’t go to sessions.” Investors go to the event for private meetings. They go to play golf. “All the buzz is outside,” I overheard one entrepreneur say to another. Fair enough. There were a couple of sessions that were well-attended by investors, which I duly noted (including one lead by “one of the all time great entrepreneurs in the education space,” as GSV’s Michael Moe described him – someone who has, by my calculations, lost investors millions and millions of dollars).

As I listened to the stories told from the various stages – in sessions and in keynotes – I also started to think about the ways in which educators (particularly administrators) and not just VCs were being prompted by the event to develop a certain “investment thesis.”

This happens all the time, of course, and not just at “business of education” conferences. Remember, if you will, the insistence from the University of Virginia Board of Visitors that school was missing the “coming MOOC tsunami” based on columns they’d read in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Stories about the future of education – particularly a future that is a more market-oriented, technological endeavor – are ubiquitous. They are relayed by influential storytellers.

And they are full of inaccuracies and misinformation.

At ASU+GSV, I heard plenty of invocations about “digital natives” and “learning styles.” “Society is evolving at a faster and faster rate.” “Technology is moving faster than it’s ever moved before.” There was all the usual talk of job-stealing robots and the “jobs that don’t exist yet.”

Lest you think the speakers just repeat sorts of these made-up stories and statistics, I suppose it’s worth noting that Angela Duckworth did point out in her keynote that the “10,000 rule,” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, is not quite true. But by and large, the kinds of pithy claims you find in the kind of non-fiction books that Gladwell writes and the kind that they sell at airports seems to have been accepted as Scripture. When it comes to education research, unassailable truth is to be found in Benjamin Bloom’s decades-old work – taxonomies and two sigmas. “We know it works.” “We know it matters.” Bloom says so.

I heard someone say that learning math is different than any other subject because math is made of “building blocks.” I heard someone claim that kids learn everything from YouTube these days so they don’t need what’s taught in school.

I heard the CEO of edX claim the phrase “data science” didn’t exist a decade ago. (Wikipedia actually traces it back to 1997.)

I heard the former CEO of Kaplan say “hundreds if not thousands of colleges will close in the coming years.”

I heard three different people repeat that old Arthur C. Clarke adage that “any teacher who can be replaced by a machine should be.”

I heard someone from Facebook relay the ol’ “founded in a Harvard dorm room” tale and then contend that “education is at our core. It’s at the true foundation of what the platform was invented for.”

I heard an Australian entrepreneur tell a packed room that “up ‘til two years ago, Australia didn’t do anything related to ed-tech.“ I couldn’t decide if I wanted to scream at him ”Have you ever heard of the Methodist Ladies’ College?” (The Melbourne school was the site, over 25 years ago, of the first one-to-one laptop program ever.) Or “Guess which country the most popular LMS in the world, first developed in the late 1990s, came from?

I wanted to do a lot of screaming at the event, I confess.

But I didn’t want to just scream at the investors and entrepreneurs about the misinformation they heard and they spread. I wanted to scream at all those reporters and all those pundits who uncritically repeat these stories too and at all those educators who readily take it all in.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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