For the past ten years, I have written a lengthy year-end series, documenting some of the dominant narratives and trends in education technology. I think it is worthwhile, as the decade draws to a close, to review those stories and to see how much (or how little) things have changed. You can read the series here: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019.
I thought for a good long while about how best to summarize this decade, and inspired by the folks at The Verge, who published a list of “The 84 biggest flops, fails, and dead dreams of the decade in tech,” I decided to do something similar: chronicle for you a decade of ed-tech failures and fuck-ups and flawed ideas.
Oh yes, I’m sure you can come up with some rousing successes and some triumphant moments that made you thrilled about the 2010s and that give you hope for “the future of education.” Good for you. But that’s not my job. (And honestly, it’s probably not your job either.)
The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade. . . with Pigeons
100. The Horizon Report
In 2017, just a week before Christmas, the New Media Consortium abruptly announced its immediate closure “because of apparent errors and omissions by its former Controller and Chief Financial Officer.” The organization, which was founded in 1994, was best known for its annual Horizon Report, its list of predictions about the near-future of education technology. (Predictions that were consistently wrong.) But as the ed-tech sector is never willing to let a bad idea die, the report will live on. EDUCAUSE purchased many of NMC’s assets, and it says it will continue to publish the higher ed version of the Horizon Report. The Consortium for School Networking, CoSN, has taken up the mantle for the K-12 version.
99. The Promise of “Free”
The phrase “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” gets bandied about a lot — despite, according to Slate’s Will Oremus, it being rather an inaccurate, if not dangerous, slogan. That being said, if you’re using a piece of technology that’s free, it’s likely that your personal data is being sold to advertisers or at the very least hoarded as a potential asset (and used, for example, to develop some sort of feature or algorithm).
Certainly “free” works well for cash-strapped schools. It works well too for teachers wanting to bypass the procurement bureaucracy. It works well, that is, if you disregard student data privacy and security.
And “free” doesn’t last. Without revenue the company will go away. Or the company will have to start charging for the software. Or it will raise a bunch of venture capital to support its “free” offering for a while, and then the company will get acquired and the product will go away.
(It’s not that paying for a piece of technology will treat you any better, mind you.)
98. "Rich People’s Kids Don’t Use Tech" (and Other Stories about the Silicon Valley Elite)
Steve Jobs wouldn’t let his kids have iPads. Bill Gates wouldn’t let his kids have cellphones. Again and again, the media told stories — wildly popular stories, apparently — about how technology industry executives refuse to allow their own children to use the very products they were selling to the rest of us. The implication, according to one NYT article: “the digital gap between rich and poor kids is not what we expected.” The real digital divide, this article contends, is not that affluent children have access to better and faster technologies. (Um, they do.) It’s that their parents are opting them out of exposure to these technologies. (Despite a few anecdotes, they’re really not.)
There are, of course, vast inequalities in access to technology — in school and at home and otherwise — and in how these technologies get used. Affluent students get to use digital tools for creative exploration; poor students get to use theirs for test prep. But the media narratives about wealthy, white families eschewing technology serve to reduce these sorts of inequalities to consumer decision-making and in doing so, they overlook important structural issues around schooling and parenting and so on. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Anya Kamenetez described articles about tech-free rich kids as “howling missed opportunities. They were lacking relevant research, they drew misleading conclusions, and some of the anecdotal evidence they cited contradicted the central hooks of the stories.”
That’s not to say that parents from all walks of life aren’t concerned about their children’s technology usage. They are. But listening to the hand-wringing of the “tech regrets” industry — those Silicon Valley elite who are now remorseful about what their products and services have done to democracy — tell us we should simply make better choices isn’t going to get us anywhere.
97. Textbook Publishers vs. Boundless
In 2012, Pearson, Cengage Learning, and Macmillan Higher Education sued Boundless Learning, claiming that the open education textbook startup had “stolen the creative expression of their authors and editors, violating their intellectual-property rights.” At issue, the publishers claimed, was primarily the way in which Boundless created its materials, which the startup marketed as direct, sometimes page-for-page alternatives to titles by those three. Boundless, the publishers charged, hired people specifically to copy and paraphrase their textbooks, copying (with slight modification) not only the organization of a particular textbook but some of the illustrations as well. This “reverse engineering,” the publishers claimed, violated copyright.
At the time, David Wiley expressed his concern that the lawsuit could jeopardize the larger OER movement, if nothing else, by associating open educational materials with piracy. His fears appeared to be unfounded, as Boundless settled the lawsuit with damage perhaps only to its own reputation. The startup was later sold to Valore Education in 2015, which was in turn acquired by Follett in 2016, which in turn shut down the Boundless site in 2017. Boundless’s materials have been archived by David Wiley’s company Lumen Learning.
In an era before Facebook or Edmodo, the social networking site Ning was, for a time, quite popular with educators. But in 2010, the company, co-founded by Gina Bianchini and Marc Andreessen, announced that it would no longer offer a free version. Following an outcry from teachers and schools who’d come to rely on the networks they’d created on the site, Ning announced that it was partnering with Pearson, who would pick up the tab for education sites (as long as users accepted a little Pearson branding on their Nings, of course).
In 2011, Ning was acquired by “lifestyle” site Glam Media for around $150 million. By 2016, Glam Media, rebranded as Mode Media, shut its doors, transferring ownership of Ning to Cyndx. So many lessons here about controlling your own data and not relying on free ed-tech products.
95. "Roaming Autodidacts"
“[The] literature [on online education] was preoccupied with what I call ‘roaming autodidacts’. A roaming autodidact is a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, cultural, history, and markets. The roaming autodidact is almost always conceived as western, white, educated and male. As a result of designing for the roaming autodidact, we end up with a platform that understands learners as white and male, measuring learners’ task efficiencies against an unarticulated norm of western male whiteness. It is not an affirmative exclusion of poor students or bilingual learners or black students or older students, but it need not be affirmative to be effective. Looking across this literature, our imagined educational futures are a lot like science fiction movies: there’s a conspicuous absence of brown people and women” — Tressie McMillan Cottom, “Intersectionality and Critical Engagement With The Internet” (2015)
94. Online Grade Portals
A host of new products appeared this decade that purported to make it easier for parents to stay up-to-date with what their children were doing at school. Indeed, according to one story in The Atlantic, a school district in Colorado opted to do away with parent-teacher conferences entirely, encouraging parents instead to simply check online to see what their children were up to. Perhaps the district didn’t know what New York City learned when it audited its old data portal: it found that less than 3% of parents had ever logged in. (There are a variety of reasons for this: language barriers, lack of Internet access, incompatible devices, lack of training. But let’s be honest: these sites are often quite poorly designed.)
At the other extreme, online grade portals have prompted some parents to log in all the time and to obsess over their children’s grades. At least, that’s the concern of columnists in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. And certainly the expectation of many ed-tech products (and increasingly school policy) is that parents will do just this — participate in the incessant monitoring of student data. Bonus if you can charge parents money for this sort of peek into their kids’ worlds.
93. 3D Printing
3D printing, The Economist pronounced in 2012, was poised to bring about the third industrial revolution. (I know, I know. It’s hard to tell if we’re on the third, the fourth, or the eighteenth industrial revolution at this stage.) And like so many products on this list, 3D printing was hailed as a revolution in education, and schools were encouraged to reorient libraries and shop classes towards “maker spaces” which would give students opportunities to print their plastic designs. In 2013, 3D printer manufacturer MakerBot launchedits MakerBot Academy with a goal “to put a MakerBot Desktop 3D Printer in every school in America.” But, as Wired noted just a few years later, 3D printing was already another revolution that wasn’t. Despite all sorts of wild promises, plastic gizmos failed to revolutionize either education or manufacturing (and they’re not necessarily so great for the environment either). Go figure.
92. "The Flipped Classroom"
It was probably Sal Khan’s 2011 TED Talk “Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education” and the flurry of media he received over the course of the following year or so that introduced the idea of the “flipped classroom” to most people. He didn’t invent the idea of video-taping instruction to watch at home and doing “homework” in the classroom instead; but history don’t matter in Silicon Valley. In a column in The Telegraph in 2010, Daniel Pink used the phrase “flip thinking” to describe the work of math teacher Karl Fisch, who’d upload his lectures to YouTube for his students to watch the night before class so that everyone could work together to solve problems in class. (Fisch, to his credit, made it clear he hadn’t invented the “flipped” practice either, pointing to the earlier work of Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams.)
As a literature person, I can’t help but remark that the teaching practices in my field have typically involved this sort of “flip” in which you assign the readings as homework then ask students to come to class prepared to discuss it, not to listen to lecture.
The problem with the “flipped classroom” is less the pedagogy per se than the touting, once again, of this as “the real revolution,” as Techcrunch did. (The revolution is predicted almost weekly at Techcrunch apparently.) But the practice does raise a lot of questions: what expectations and assumptions are we making about students’ technology access at home when we assign them online videos to watch? Why are video-taped lectures so “revolutionary” if lectures themselves are supposedly not? (As Karim Ani, founder of Mathalicious pointed out in a Washington Post op-ed, “Experienced educators are concerned that when bad teaching happens in the classroom, it’s a crisis; but that when it happens on YouTube, it’s a ‘revolution.’”) And how much of the whole “flipped classroom” model is based on the practice of homework — a practice that is dubious at best and onerous at worst? As education author Alfie Kohn has long argued, homework represents a “second shift” for students, and there’s mixed evidence they get much out of it.
WTF is Unizin?!
90. "Ban Laptops" Op-Eds
For the past ten years, every ten months or so, someone would pen an op-ed claiming it was time to ban laptops in the classroom. Students don’t pay attention to lectures, they would argue. They don’t take good notes on their computers. They’re distracted. They’re distracting others. They perform poorly on end-of-semester standardized tests. And on and on and on. And on and on and on. And on. For their part, critics of laptop bans claimed the studies the op-eds frequently cite were flawed, reductive, and out-of-date. These critics argued that laptop bans are ableist and that they disadvantage students who opt to purchase digital textbooks rather than printed ones.
A “ban laptops” op-ed may be the greatest piece of ed-tech clickbait ever devised. It is the instructional designer and tenured professor’s signal — “to the barricades!” — and everyone snipes at the other side from the Twitter trenches for a week, until there’s an unspoken truce that lasts until the next “ban laptops” op-ed gets published. And everyone clicks and rages and snipes all over again.
“Clickers” are definitely not new — indeed, in my research for Teaching Machines, I found examples of classroom response systems dating back to the 1950s. But the industry likes to pretend the idea is somehow innovative and that the practice of asking questions to a large audience and having them race to answer via their phones is somehow fun. (The greatest trick the ed-tech devil ever played was convincing people that clicking was “active learning.”) Startups making classroom response apps have raised tens of millions of dollars this decade. And students, for their part, have now created hacks and bots to crash these quizzes.
88. Bundling Textbooks with Tuition
“To Save Students Money, Colleges May Force a Switch to E-Textbooks,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2010. The key word in that headline isn’t “digital”; it’s “force.” The story examined a proposed practice: “Colleges require students to pay a course-materials fee, which would be used to buy e-books for all of them (whatever text the professor recommends, just as in the old model).” That is, rather than students buying textbooks separately (or buying used textbooks or checking them out from the library or sharing them with a roommate not buying textbooks at all), the cost would be bundled with tuition and fees. Students would be required to pay. (Students, no surprise, weren’t thrilled by the idea.)
Rafter, a course material provider that was an early advocate of and provider for this bundling of textbooks and tuition, closed its doors in 2016, having raised more than $86 million.
87. Amazon Inspire
Amazon unveiled its new lesson sharing site for openly licensed materials in June 2016. And one might think that Amazon would be able to pull something like this off to great success. After all, Amazon knows how to run online marketplaces; Amazon knows how to sell texts. But just one day later, the company had to remove several pieces of content from the site as educators complained that the materials were copyrighted. And what’s worse: two of those were items included in the marketing materials Amazon had circulated to the press covering the launch. (These materials were apparently lifted from rival teacherspayteachers.com.) “Although the complaints about the Amazon site have been few,” The New York Times reported, “the copyright issue that emerged on Tuesday suggested that Amazon Inspire did not have an effective procedure to independently vet the copyright status of materials that teachers uploaded and shared.”
More than three years later, Amazon Inspire is still in “beta.” But Amazon has since launched a new marketplace, Amazon Ignite, where teachers can sell not share their class materials.
In 2011, the Mozilla Foundation unveiled its “Open Badges Project,” “an effort to make it easy to issue and share digital learning badges across the web.” Along with the MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC, Mozilla announced the launch of a $2 million competition to design and test new badges. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called badges a “game-changing strategy.”
Reader, they were not.
Although sometimes talked about as a “movement,” Mozilla’s Open Badges Project was really more of a technical specification, one that was transferred from Mozilla to IMS Global Learning Consortium in 2017. In 2018, Mozilla said it would retire Backpack, its platform for sharing and displaying badges, and would help users move their badges to Badgr, software developed by the tech company Concentric Sky.
Despite predictions that badges would be the “new credential” and that we were looking at a “Future Full of Badges,” it’s not clear that digital badges have provided us with a really meaningful way to assess skills or expertise.
Wedge Tailed Green Pigeon
85. The Teacher Influencer Hustle
“Teachers Are Moonlighting As Instagram Influencers To Make Ends Meet,” Buzzfeed reported in 2018. Of course, teachers have utilized social media sites for years to launch various side-hustles — speaking gigs and “brand ambassadorships”, for example — as well as to facilitate their main hustle — you know, teaching. Indeed, DonorsChoose.org expects teachers to leverage their social media presence in order to fundraise for supplies for their classrooms. But the rise of the “teacher influencer” is about more than asking for donations for books or musical instruments; it’s about peddling certain products and certain stories about what classrooms should look like. (“Why the 21st Century Classroom May Remind You of Starbucks,” for example.)
“I am in this profession for the kids," these celebrity educators insist, not for money or fame. But altruism is not the same as justice.
Teacher influencers’ classrooms are rarely representative of what K-12 education looks like in the US: white and affluent. And their high profile presence on Instagram, Twitter, and the like to exacerbate inequality and re-inscribe a conspicuous consumption of gadgetry as a sign of “innovation.”
84. Ed-Tech Startup Accelerators
For a time, it seemed like some of the most popular new startups were emerging from one incubator or accelerator program or another — education-focused or otherwise: Remind and ClassDojo from Imagine K12, Clever and Lambda School from Y Combinator, for example. Accelerator programs offered early-stage startups mentorship, office space, and funding, often aiding them with product development, introductions to investors, and customer acquisition (in the case of ed-tech startups, this typically meant adoption of the product by a charter school chain). The number of these programs skyrocketed over the course of the decade — helping to flood the industry with a bunch strangely named companies. Accelerators that specialized solely in education included StartL, Imagine K12, Socratic Labs, and co.lab, to name a few.
Almost all of these have since shuttered — Imagine K12 was acquired by Y Combinator in 2016 — as they struggled to actually help entrepreneurs, many with absolutely no experience in education, build products that teachers or students wanted or needed. (Indeed, some clearly struggled mightily to run a program that was worth anyone’s time and effort.)
83. Shark Tank for Schools
In the reality TV show Shark Tank, budding entrepreneurs pitch a panel of investors — “sharks” — on their ideas. Sometimes they strike a deal. More often than not, the entrepreneurs walk away empty handed. A few education technology companies have landed investment on the show, including Packback (which was initially a textbook rental company but has since pivoted to the ol’ “AI-powered” Q&A site.)
But Shark Tank isn’t just some awful Mark Burnett / Mark Cuban vision for the future of reality TV. It’s now become a way in which educational events, organizations, and institutions dole out funding for projects. Because what education needs is more high-style, low-ethics cutthroat theatrics as the basis for decision-making. Clearly. What education needs is to model itself on a TV show where people of color and white women are grossly underrepresented, where they strike much smaller deals (when they strike deals at all) than white men.
That’s gonna be a “no” for me, dawg.
82. "The End of Library" Stories (and the Software that Seems to Support That)
If there was one hate-read that stuck with me through the entire decade, it was this one by Techcrunch’s M. G. Siegler: “The End of the Library.” It was clickbait for sure, and perhaps it came too early in the decade — this was 2013 — for me to be wise enough to avoid this sort of trollish nonsense. You can learn anything online, Siegler argued. (You can’t.) The Internet has “replaced the importance of libraries as a repository for knowledge. And digital distribution has replaced the role of a library as a central hub for obtaining the containers of such knowledge: books. And digital bits have replaced the need to cut down trees to make paper and waste ink to create those books.” (They haven’t.)
Libraries haven’t gone away — they’re still frequently visited, despite dramatic drops in public funding. More and more public libraries have started eliminating fines too because libraries, unlike Techcrunch writers, do care to alleviate inequality.
But new technology hasn’t made it easy. Publishers have sought to restrict libraries’ access to e-book lending, for example, blaming libraries for declining sales. And libraries have also struggled to maintain their long commitment to patron privacy in the face of new software — e-books and otherwise — that has no such respect for users’ rights.
81. Interactive Whiteboards
According to some team of industry analyst hustlers, the interactive whiteboard market is poised to hit $2.36 billion by 2025. They’ll sell you the report for $6000, and you can read all the details. A cheaper report — just $5000 — dangles the promise that the market will hit $5.13 billion by 2023. All this is to say that you can still find plenty of salespeople for interactive whiteboards; and you can still find plenty of schools shelling out the money for them. Mock them all you want, interactive whiteboards remain big business.
This decade did find some of the best-known IWB-makers getting acquired: Chinese hardware maker Foxconn bought Smart Technologies; Chinese gaming company NetDragon bought Promethean. So perhaps the death of the interactive whiteboard has been wildly exaggerated by Silicon Valley technologies touting their own vision of “personalization” and individualized usage of devices.
Green Imperial Pigeon
80. Viral School Videos
Viral videos weren’t new this decade, but the popularity of cellphones, along with the introduction of social media and its associated incentives to “go viral,” meant that viral videos became more common. Students recorded fellow students. Students recorded their teachers. They recorded school resource officers. Schools recorded elaborate lip-sync videos. Schools installed surveillance cameras and recorded everyone. While some of this might seem fun and harmless, the ubiquity of these videos signifies how much surveillance (and sousveillance) has been accepted in schools. No doubt, some of these videos helped highlight the violence that students — particularly students of color — face at the hands of disciplinarians. But other times, the scenes that were captured were taken out of context or these videos were purposefully weaponized (by conservative groups, for example, who encourage students to film their professors’ lectures and submit their names to “watch lists”).
79. Altius Education
In 2013, an accreditor ordered Tiffin University to stop enrolling students in its Ivy Bridge College, an online program run by the venture-backed firm Altius Education. The accreditor expressed concern about the oversight Tiffin actually had over the program, about the quality of the academics, and about the outsourcing of instruction. Implied: that Altius had in effect “bought” accreditation for its for-profit program by partnering with Tiffin. The Department of Justice launched an investigation into the company, which according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, was “part of a False Claims Act investigation that could cover Ivy Bridge's student-recruiting practices, academic-integrity issues, and student-loan policies, as well as the corporate relationship between Altius and Tiffin.”
Reporting on the dust-up was incredibly revealing about what publications believed Silicon Valley’s role should be in “disrupting” higher education. Buzzfeed, for example, described the accreditor an “118-year old” body — “How the Old Guard Shut Down an Experiment in Education” — headed by, of all things, a “Victorian literature scholar.” And this was story that Altius Education founder Paul Freedman worked very hard to make sure was repeated in the media: “They've boxed the innovators out of higher education.”
Of course, “they” haven’t, and much of the work to crack down on the fraudulent behavior of for-profit universities that occurred during the Obama Administration has come to a halt under Trump. And for his part, Freedman is still active in for-profit education reform efforts, now as the founder of Entangled Ventures, which The Chronicle of Higher Education describes as “Part incubator, part investment fund, part consultant, and part reseller of services.”
78. The Fake Online University Sting
The list of high profile “fake online universities” is fairly long. Indeed, the POTUS once ran one. (He paid a $25 million fine in 2018 to settle fraud claims relating to the now defunct Trump University, but please, go on with how much he’s the anti-corruption President.) And the federal government itself ran fake online universities too.
In April 2016, the Department of Homeland Security arrested 21 people, charging them with conspiracy to commit visa fraud. These individuals were alleged to have helped some one thousand foreign nationals maintain their student visas through a “pay to stay” college in New Jersey.
The college — the University of Northern New Jersey — was a scam, one created by Homeland Security itself. The school employed no professors and held no classes. Its sole purpose was to lure recruiters in turn into convincing foreign nationals to enroll — all this in exchange for a Form I–20 which allows full-time students to apply for a F–1 student visa.
It was an elaborate scam, dating back to 2012, but one that gave out many online signals that the school was “real.” The University of Northern New Jersey had a website — one with a .edu domain, to boot — as well as several active social media profiles. There was a regularly updated Facebook page, a Twitter account, as well as a LinkedIn profile for its supposed president.
Students who’d obtained their visas through the University of Northern New Jersey claimed they were victims of the government’s sting; the government said they were complicit. According to one student, he had asked why he wasn’t required to take any classes, and he’d been told by the recruiter that he could still earn credits through working. “Thinking back, it’s suspicious in hindsight, but I’m not really familiar with immigration law,” the student told Buzzfeed. “And I’d never gotten my Ph.D. before. So I thought maybe this is the way it works.”
“I thought maybe this is the way it works.”
With all the charges of fraud and deceptive marketing levied against post-secondary institutions this decade — from ITT to coding bootcamps, from Trump University to the Draper University of Heroes — we might ask if, indeed, this is the way it works now.
77. Course Signals
Course Signals, a software product developed by Purdue University, was designed to boost “student success” by using learning analytics to inform teachers, students, and staff to potential problems, labeling students with a red/yellow/green scheme to indicate their danger in failing a course. Purdue boasted that Course Signals increased retention by 21%, making it an incredibly effective tool. Students who took Course Signals courses were more likely to succeed, the university said, and taking two Course Signals courses was “the magic number.”
There was pushback about these claims, with Mike Caulfield suggesting that perhaps “students are taking more Course Signals courses because they persist, rather than persisting because they are taking more Signals courses.” Alfred Essa, McGraw-Hill Education’s vice president of R&D, ran a simulation that confirmed Caulfield’s suspicions: that what the Purdue team was pointing to in the effectiveness of Course Signals was actually a “reverse causality.” (Students who completed courses were more likely to complete courses.) Michael Feldstein argued that the “meaninglessness” of Purdue’s claims were important for the ed-tech community to grapple with, in no small part because many other learning analytics systems had been modeled on the Course Signals work. And as Essa told Inside Higher Ed, the problems with the data and analysis also raised questions about education technology research more broadly: “Maybe one of the conclusions that could be derived from this is that we really don’t have a strong community to test and validate these claims? Maybe that’s really the starting point of discussion in the academic community. As we move forward with new technologies in learning analytics, how and who will be evaluating the claims that people put forward?”
76. Channel One (and the Unsinkable Chris Whittle)
In May 2018, Channel One aired its last broadcast. The commercial-filled daily TV news programming service for schools began back in 1989, one of the earliest indications of the creep of brands into schools. It was also one of the earliest education endeavors of serial entrepreneur Chris Whittle. Whittle went on to have a string of business failures in the 1990s — well-documented in Samuel Abrams’s book The Commercial Mindset — most notably the for-profit flop Edison Schools.
I wrote about Whittle and his investment pal Michael Moe in an article in The Baffler in January of this year. But a gushing profile of Whittle in The Washington Post this fall — “The Master Salesman of For-Profit Education” — helps to underscore that there are no repercussions in the business of education for men with bad ideas and bad business sense.
Sulawesi Green Imperial Pigeon
In September 2010, Techcrunch founder Mike Arrington announced that Kno had raised $46 million from Andreessen-Horowitz and other investors. Kno was headed by Osman Rashid, the co-founder of the textbook rental company Chegg, and the tablet was aimed at the college market. According to Arrington, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen called the Kno tablet “the most powerful tablet anyone has ever made.” So powerful, in fact, that by the following year, Kno was in talks to sell off its hardware business and focus instead on student-facing software. Yet, it continued to raise money — almost $100 million in total. In 2013, Intel acquired Kno for $15 million — for “pennies on the dollar,” said one analyst — and rebranded the software as the Intel Education Study App. The Intel Education Study App has now too been discontinued.
In 2010, Sir Michael Barber published Deliverology 101: A Field Guide for Educational Leaders. The book packaged the ideas he’d developed during his time in the Blair Administration and at McKinsey & Company on how to successfully manage policy reform efforts. “Three critical components of the approach,” he wrote, “are the formation of a delivery unit, data collection for setting targets and trajectories, and the establishment of routines.” In 2011, Barber went to work for Pearson as its Chief Education Advisor, continuing his advocacy for competition, data collection, measurements, and standards-based reforms. (See David Kernohan’s excellent keynote at OpenEd13 for more.) In 2013, on the heels of “the Year of the MOOC,” Barber released a report titled “An Avalanche is Coming,” calling for the “unbundling” of higher education.
The work of Michael Barber underscores the importance of highly paid consultants in shaping what politicians and administrators believe the future should look like and in giving them a set of metrics-obsessed management practices to get there.
73. Pearson PARCC "Spies" on Students
In 2015, former Star-Ledger education reporter Bob Braun posted a screenshot to his blog of an email by a New Jersey superintendent. The email, he said, detailed a “Priority 1 Alert” that had been issued by Pearson and the New Jersey Department of Education, regarding a student who had tweeted about a test question on the PARCC — a standardized test based on the Common Core State Standards. The tweet had prompted a security breach, and the superintendent’s email expressed several concerns, not simply because a closely guarded test question had been made public. There was the potential, she feared, for parental outcry about student data and testing, particularly as the DOE had requested the student be disciplined. The incident, she added, had also made her aware that “Pearson is monitoring all social media during PARCC testing.” And Braun’s blog post made everyone aware of that.
(Also, just a sidenote: the superintendent’s email footer read “The best way to predict your future is to create it” — Abraham Lincoln. Sigh.)
The incident caused a great deal of furor, perhaps because it came at a moment of heightened political outcry about the Common Core State Standards and standardized testing. But it also occurred right as fears were growing about the social media monitoring of students — by schools and by corporations alike. It was easy — at the time, perhaps — to simply blame Pearson for the “spying” in order to protect the validity of its test. As the decade went on, the arguments for surveilling students’ social media have changed several times. But the “spying” has continued.
72. Chatbot Instructors
“Imagine Discovering That Your Teaching Assistant Really Is a Robot,” The Wall Street Journal gushed in 2016, documenting an experiment undertaken at Georgia Tech in which a chatbot called “Jill Watson” answered questions in a course’s online forum. “Students didn’t know their TA was a computer,” the university’s press release stated, seemingly unbothered about any ethical issues that might raise.
(Consent? It matters.)
Watson, as the name might suggest, was built using the IBM Watson “AI” technology. College of Computing Professor Ashok Goel and his team used the 40,000 some odd questions that students had asked in previous versions of the course to build out Jill’s knowledge-base. “One of the secrets of online classes is that the number of questions increases if you have more students, but the number of different questions doesn’t really go up,” Goel said. “Students tend to ask the same questions over and over again.” But instead of redesigning his course or materials so that students didn’t have to ask these questions, he built a chatbot and called it a TA.
It’s not just the teaching assistant labor that chatbots are seeking to replace. As Inside Higher Ed recently reported, they “have started to infiltrate every corner of higher ed -- from admissions to student affairs, career services and even test prep,” arguably making institutions that are struggling to treat people humanely even less human.
71. "Uber for Education"
“We want to be the Uber for Education,” Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun told the Financial Times in 2015. MOOCs are, no surprise, their own entry on this long list of awfulness. But the phrase “Uber for Education” deserves its own spot here, as the analogy was frequently invoked by education reformers, including Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. She told the Brookings Institution in 2017 that “Just as the traditional taxi system revolted against ridesharing, so too does the education establishment feel threatened by the rise of school choice. In both cases, the entrenched status quo has resisted models that empower individuals.” School choice, for DeVos, is the Uber for education. An end to regulations would make for the Uber for education.
But for Thrun, the reference to Uber was not about “choice” but about labor — specifically about building a platform to be used by a precarious workforce, lured into piecework with the promise of a big payout. “At Udacity, we built an Uber-like platform,” he told the MIT Technology Review. “With Uber any normal person with a car can become a driver, and with Udacity now every person with a computer can become a global code reviewer.” The promise — whether working for Udacity or for Uber — included better flexibility, more pay. For the customer, the promise is for service on demand. But as a decade of the gig economy has demonstrated, all this is “being fueled by exploitation, not innovation.”
And, of course, many teachers find themselves working as Uber drivers as they struggle to make ends meet on their salaries. Indeed, Uber markets to teachers directly, encouraging them to make the ride-sharing company their second gig, offering teachers in some cities to donate a small percentage of each trip fee to their classroom.
70. Galvanic Skin Response Bracelets
In 2012, education historian Diane Ravitch sounded the alarm that the Gates Foundation had given Clemson University a grant “to work with members of the Measuring Effective Teachers (MET) team to measure engagement physiologically with Galvanic Skin Response (GSR) bracelets which will determine the feasibility and utility of using such devices regularly in schools with students and teachers.” (The grant award now reads “to conduct a pilot study of new ways to measure student engagement for use in research.”) “Shades of Brave New World,” Ravitch cautioned. Her readers poured through the Gates Foundation website and uncovered more examples of funding for experiments with the GSR bracelets. “I’m sorry,” Ravitch wrote on her blog. “I think this is madness. Is there a mad scientist or psychologist advising the Gates Foundation? Does Dr. Moreau work in a Gates laboratory in Seattle?”
Ravitch, once a staunch advocate for standardized testing-based reform efforts when she worked in the Bush Administration as Under Secretary of Education, had had a recent change of heart, publishing in 2010 a bestseller titled The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Coming under particular scrutiny were what Ravitch called the “billionaire boys’ club,” wealthy philanthropists and investors like Gates who she charged with molding the public school system to serve their own interests. The bracelets were, for Ravitch and her readers, emblematic of a reform movement hell-bent on using any technology at their disposal to monitor (and punish) teachers. (For folks who mocked Ravitch and her readers for "hysteria" about these bracelets? You're sexist. Also, let me introduce you to other items on this list: brainwave monitoring, brain training, social emotional learning.)
In 2012, investor Michael Staton first published his framework for “unbundling” education, reworking it several times over the course of the next year or so. His framework outlined the services that he believed schools provide and the order in which technology will “disrupt” these. (Content delivery, he argued, would be the first to go.) Staton also published a paper for the American Enterprise Institute — a paper that, no surprise, drew heavily on Clayton Christensen’s theories of disruptive innovation and that predicted that “private sector is coming for education.” The Internet, Staton contended, would “unbundle” education just as it had “unbundled” other sectors — music, for example; and this would create a huge opportunity for entrepreneurs.
(Michael Staton, incidentally, has a starring role in Kevin Carey’s 2015 book The End of College, serving as a tour guide through the startup-filled world of Silicon Valley, giving Carey his first ride in an Uber, introducing him to the founder of the now-defunct coding school Dev Bootcamp, partying with him on an expensive yacht — all the key elements somehow of “the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere.”)
Derek Newton argued in The Atlantic that Staton’s (and by extension Carey’s) analysis misconstrued what most parents and students want from schools. They want the bundle. They don’t want “content loops.” They aren’t shopping for “content pathways.” They want to choose a school. They want a degree.
And increasingly, college students need more bundling, not less. They need schools that can provide courses and certifications, sure. They need degrees that will help them find gainful, meaningful work. But they also need mental health services, food banks, child care. Unbundling, to borrow from Tressie McMillan Cottom, is a fantasy for “roaming autodidacts.”
Instructure first announced its launch in 2011 in the pages of Techcrunch. Ah, the halcyon days of tech blogging, when Michael Arrington pronounced “Death to the Embargo!” — Techcrunch would not honor agreements with PR firms to hold back on stories because Techcrunch wanted to be f!rst!!111
And so the night before any of the education publications could publish their take on the new “upstart” learning management system, Arrington was the first to gush about… wait, let me check my notes here… the collection of vintage tanks and weapons owned by founder Josh Coates. Truly some stellar reporting, Mike. Truly.
Of course, the readers of Techcrunch care(d) little about education technology per se. Or rather, their interest wasn’t in the features of the new LMS. They wanted to hear about investment opportunities, about disruptive innovation, about the potential threat to Blackboard’s market dominance. What mattered to this crowd was the business of ed-tech, not the pedagogies.
And for a time, the business of Instructure was good. People were relieved that there was a new alternative to Blackboard. The company IPO’d in 2015 and finally surpassed Blackboard’s US market share in 2018. But it now ends the decade back where it started: trying to appease the money people. A move to sell Instructure to the private equity firm Thoma Bravo is facing resistance from three large investors.
67. UC Berkeley Deletes Its Online Lectures
In March 2017, UC Berkeley announced that it would remove public access to more than 20,000 audio- and video-recordings of lectures, in response to a Department of Justice order that the school make its educational materials accessible to people with disabilities. Cathy Koshland, the vice chancellor for undergraduate education, said Berkeley would continue to work with the MOOC provider edX to post open courses online. “Moving our content behind authentication allows us to better protect instructor intellectual property from ‘pirates’ who have reused content for personal profit without consent.” A weird claim, considering it was all openly-licensed.
UC Berkeley had been posting video and audio versions of lectures online for decades. And while much of this content pre-dated any interpretation of the ADA that could force schools to provide equitable access to these materials, even some of its more recent BerkeleyX material was still not ADA compliant.
To remove public access to content rather than make it accessible for people with disabilities was, to borrow a phrase from Wonkhe editor David Kernohan, “a very bad look.”
66. Slave Tetris
Yes. Slave Tetris. Someone did that. Someone made an educational video game called “Slave Trade”, thinking the practice of fitting Black bodies into a slave ship would be a great way to help children understand history. And what’s worse, it was hardly the only slavery “game” out there. The decade was littered with them — games built by publishers like Serious Games Interactive and games designed by teachers themselves. Fun.
Indian Fantail Pigeon
65. Apple’s iTextbooks
In October 2011, Walter Isaacson published his biography of Steve Jobs — just 19 days after the Apple co-founder’s death. Among its revelations, Jobs’s plans to transform the textbook industry.
He believed it was an $8 billion a year industry ripe for digital destruction. He was also struck by the fact that many schools, for security reasons, don’t have lockers, so kids have to lug a heavy backpack around. “The iPad would solve that,” he said. His idea was to hire great textbook writers to create digital versions, and make them a feature of the iPad. In addition, he held meetings with the major publishers, such as Pearson Education, about partnering with Apple. “The process by which states certify textbooks is corrupt,” he said. “But if we can make the textbooks free, and they come with the iPad, then they don’t have to be certified. The crappy economy at the state level will last for a decade, and we can give them an opportunity to circumvent that whole process and save money.” (p. 509)
In January 2012, Apple unveiled its plans for “digital destruction” — plans that looked nothing like what Isaacson had described. Apple would partner with Big Three publishers — Pearson, McGraw Hill, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt — to make digital versions of some of their titles available for the iPad at a cost of no more than $14.99 apiece. And while that price tag might have seemed much lower than the hundreds of dollars for a print copy, those print versions — at the K-12 level at least — are often shared across classes and used for many years. Sure, the iTextbooks promised they would always be up-to-date and that each student would have their own, but $14.99 per student per year would be — according to one calculation at least — five times the cost of print. Furthermore, the textbook authoring tools built books in a proprietary format that would only work for iBooks and that gave Apple sole distribution rights. So despite all the talk of dismantling the textbook industry and its bureaucracy, Apple opted instead to partner with it — something that would come back to bite Apple hard when it struck a deal to sell iPads and digital textbooks to the Los Angeles Unified School District.
64. Alexa at School
“Do Voice Assistant Devices Have a Place in the Classroom?” Edsurge asked in 2018, opening its story with a tweet from privacy advocate Bill Fitzgerald that made it clear the answer was “No.” “In the classroom,” Fitzgerald reported an Amazon rep had told him, “Alexa and Dot posed compliance and privacy issues.” But that didn’t stop the publication then adding some 1300 more words that made the case, despite potential privacy and security issues, for educators saying “Yes.”
Since then, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Center for Digital Democracy, and a dozen other privacy groups have lodged a complaint with the FTC, claiming that Amazon’s voice assistants violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. Amazon is also being sued for recording children without their consent.
But rarely willing to refuse the latest shiny gadget, even when it’s so obviously creepy, some schools are moving forward with installing Alexa in classrooms and dorm rooms and offering students money to develop new products using the technology.
But that never happened, as Education Week reported because “ConnectEDU had no employees as of the filing date” to carry out the task.
(To make matters worse, Buzzfeed noted, “One of the successful bidders on that data was a software company with an imperfect track record when it comes to privacy. The now-resigned CEO of Symplicity Corp., which powers universities' disciplinary record systems, pleaded guilty last month to conspiring to hack into the computer systems of competitors and steal their information. Along with the company's CTO, who will also plead guilty, he decrypted protected passwords and other private information of universities that used Symplicity's system. The company has not been charged in the matter.)
The publication Edsurge was founded shortly after I started Hack Education. I have raised zero dollars in venture capital; I’ve taken zero dollars in grants from the Gates Foundation or the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Edsurge raised over $8 million in venture capital and received over $7 million in Gates Foundation grants. Edsurge told its version of events for the past decade’s worth of ed-tech, and I told mine.
Edsurge struggled to find a business model over the years — it’s tried making money from sponsored content, a product catalog, conferences, a “concierge” service helping schools decide what product to buy, a research service helping investors decide what startups to fund, and so on. I struggled too, no doubt — although I didn’t have $15 million to help fund my fight.
This fall, Edsurge announced it would acquired by ISTE. Terms of the sale were not disclosed, but Edsurge said its investors would see nothing from the acquisition. But that doesn’t feel quite accurate. Over the past decade, its investors have gained quite a bit as the publication helped spread precisely the stories that the ed-tech industry wanted told.
For a time, Edmodo was quite the ed-tech industry darling. The social network for schools raised over $87 million from high profile tech investors like Linkedin founder Reid Hoffman. But the company could never find a good way to make money, experimenting with a “freemium” model, attempting to run a marketplace where teachers could buy and sell content, and even running ads (including ads for e-cigarettes). “Can Edmodo Turn Virality into Profitability?” Edsurge’s Tony Wan asked in 2016. The answer was a resounding “no.”
Founded by two educators in 2008, Edmodo experienced a number of leadership changes this decade. Crystal Hutter, the wife of one of the company’s investors, was CEO for a time. Then Vibhu Mittal took the reins. In 2018, Edmodo was sold to NetDragon for just $137.5 million (just $15 million of which was in cash) — an astounding loss.
The ability to make money was hardly the only problem that Edmodo faced. In 2017, news broke that some 77 million accounts had been compromised, and usernames, email addresses, and hashed passwords stolen.
60. The Death of Aaron Swartz
On January 6, 2011, Aaron Swartz was arrested by MIT police and charged with violating federal hacking laws for using the MIT network to download millions of academic articles from the subscription service JSTOR.
Although neither JSTOR nor MIT sought punishment, the federal government prosecuted Swartz anyway, charging him with violating JSTOR’s terms of service by downloading documents to distribute. He was initially charged with four felony counts, but prosecutors increased this to 13 counts, turning each day he’d downloaded documents into a separate count. As such, Swartz faced a maximum sentence of 50 years in prison and fines that could potentially reach $1 million. He was offered a plea deal in which he’d serve six months in prison, but he rejected it — he didn’t want to serve time and he didn’t think he’d committed a felony. Three months before his trial was set to begin, Aaron Swartz committed suicide, which friends and family blamed in part on the overzealous prosecution. This was, no doubt, one of this decade's greatest tech tragedies.
Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. …There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture. — Aaron Swartz, 2008
59. Clayton Christensen’s Predictions
In 2008, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn published Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and predicted that the growth in computer-based instruction would accelerate rapidly until, by 2019, half of all high school classes would be taught over the Internet. Nope. Wrong.
In 2013, Christensen told investor Mark Suster that, in 15 years time, half of US universities would be bankrupt. As with K-12 education, he believed (believes) that online education would provide the “disruptive innovation” to force traditional schooling out of business. In 2017, he doubled down on his prediction — half of colleges and universities would close in a decade. I have set a Calendar reminder for 2028. We can check back in then for the final calculation. Meanwhile, Phil Hill has run the numbers on what higher ed closures actually look like, with visualizations that helps underscore that the vast number of these were to for-profit institutions — and there just aren’t enough of those left to make up the “half of all colleges” claim.
As Jill Lepore reminded us in her scathing critique of Christensen’s “gospel of innovation,” “Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.” But it’s the sort of propheteering that hopes if you repeat a story enough times, that everyone — taxpayers, administrators, politicians, pundits — will start to believe it’s the truth.
58. Deborah Quazzo and the Chicago Board of Education
In 2014, an investigation by the Chicago Sun Times found that companies Chicago Board of Education member Deborah Quazzo had a financial stake in had seen the business they received from the city’s schools triple (to almost $4 million) since Mayor Rahm Emanuel had appointed her to the board the previous year. The newspaper also found that she had voted to support charter school networks that had strong financial ties to some of her investment portfolio. The Chicago Teachers Union called on Quazzo, the founder of GSV Advisors and a very active ed-tech investor, to immediately resign. However, she insisted there was no conflict of interest in serving on the CPS Board and investing in ed-tech companies, and she held on to her seat until her term expired, supported by Mayor Emanuel who said that the city was “lucky to have her.”
57. TurnItIn (and the Cheating Detection Racket)
iParadigms, the company whose product is most closely associated with cheating detection — TurnItIn — was bought and sold twice this decade: in 2014 to Insight Venture Partners for $752 million and earlier this year to Advance Publications for $1.75 billion. Thankfully, because education technology is such an ethical and mission-driven industry, every student who has ever been forced to submit an essay or assignment to TurnItIn received a nice cut of the deal, as befitting their contribution of data and intellectual property to the value of the product.
I jest. Students got nothing, of course. Students write, and then their work gets extracted by TurnItIn, which in turn sells access to a database of student work back to schools. Or as Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris put it, “A funny thing happened on the way to academic integrity. Plagiarism detection software (PDS), like Turnitin, has seized control of student intellectual property. While students who use Turnitin are discouraged from copying other work, the company itself can strip mine and sell student work for profit.” (Another funny thing: essay mills are now touting that they use TurnItIn too, and they can assure their customers that their essays will pass the plagiarism detector.)
Rather than trusting students, rather than re-evaluating what assignments and assessments look like, schools have invested heavily in any number of technology “solutions” to cheating — keystroke locking, facial recognition, video monitoring, and the like, all designed to identify students with “low integrity.”
56. Brain Training
In 2016, Lumosity agreed to pay the FTC $2 million to settle charges of deceptive advertising surrounding its “brain training” games. Lumosity had claimed that its products could improve memory and focus and even reverse the symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease — claims that were unsubstantiated at best. Criticism of Lumosity and other brain training companies had been circulating for a while. In 2014, more than 70 scientists penned an open letter stating that there was “little evidence” to support the industry’s claims. The industry, these scientists contended were simply capitalizing on people’s fears about aging. A 2017 study in the Journal of Neuroscience found no evidence that playing Lumosity games helped improve cognitive functioning. And another study published that same year in Neuropsychology Review found that most brain training programs had no peer-reviewed evidence demonstrating their efficacy.
Why, it’s almost as if, when it comes to education technologies, you can just say whatever you want in the marketing copy.
Lumosity was hardly the only brain training company to get in trouble this past decade. Neurocore, a “brain performance company” agreed to “stop advertising success rates for children and adults suffering from maladies such as attention deficit disorder, depression and autism after a review found the company could not support the outcomes it was promoting.” Among Neurocore’s investors: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
55. Montessori 2.0
I’d wager if you ask most Americans to describe “progressive education,” they’d cite one of two names in doing so: John Dewey and Maria Montessori. They’ve likely not read any Dewey — just see the phrases attributed to him on PowerPoint presentations and on edu-celebrity Twitter. And they know little about Montessori either, other than it’s a kind of preschool where kids play with wooden blocks. So not surprisingly, as tech executives sought to open their own, private schools, they have turned to a largely imagined legacy of progressive education, often referring to their experiments as “Montessori 2.0” — Sal Khan’s Lab School and Max Ventilla’s AltSchool, for example. They contend that their schools expand on Montessori’s vision by adding new digital technologies to “personalize learning,” as well as to surveil students. “It’s in this meticulous logging and data tracking that teacher-leaders see the most promise for technology,” as one Edsurge article described the Wildflower charter school chain. That story documented the wide array of cameras and sensors (the latter, tucked inside the students’ slippers) utilized to monitor what activities children undertake, what objects they interact with.
Many in Silicon Valley like to point to the Montessori experiences of famous founders like Larry Page, Sergei Brin, Jimmy Wales, and Jeff Bezos and suggest that their early childhood education helped make them creative thinkers — although it’s probably not fair to blame Montessori for the destructiveness to our democracy from Google and Amazon. It is fair, however, to blame “Montessori 2.0” for this new affiliation of so-called progressive education and surveillance technologies.
54. Google Reader
Google shut down Reader in 2013, citing declining use of RSS. Indeed, Internet users were already much more likely to get their news from social media feeds than from any feed reader (although let’s be honest, it probably wouldn’t have cost Google a dime to keep the server up and running). Arguably, the closure of Google Reader was not just a blow to news consumption; it was a blow to blogging as well. It became harder and harder for small, personal sites (like this one) to compete with the giant, venture-backed ones (like that one).
So anytime someone tries to tell you Google’s mission is “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful,” remind them that Google killed Google Reader and that in doing so, it’s helped make the world more susceptible to the mis- and dis-information that now thrives online.
53. The TED Talk
One can trace far too many bad ideas to the event whose focus purports to be on “ideas worth spreading”: TED. It’s not just that the talks are terrible, trite, and full of historically inaccurate information. Say, for example, Sal Khan’s 2011 TED Talk “Let’s Use Video to Reinvent Education.” But people hear those TED Talks and then think they’ve stumbled upon brilliance. Say, for example, Sebastian Thrun, listening to Sal Khan’s 2011 TED Talk and deciding he would redesign higher education — an idea that prompted an experiment at Stanford in which he offered his graduate level AI class online, for free. (You’ll never believe what happened next.)
Unfortunately, education-related TED Talks are some of the most popular ones out there. Some of these are laughably silly, such as Nicholas Negroponte’s prediction of a pill you will be able swallow to “know Shakespeare.” And some of the ones with the greatest appeal, such as Sugata Mitra’s “School in the Cloud,” may just re-inscribe the very exploitation and inequality that the TED Talks promise, with their 18-minute-long sleight-of-hand, to disrupt.
TED Talks are designed to be unassailable — ideas to spread but never challenge. As I noted back in 2013, “You don’t get to ask questions of a TED Talk. Even the $10,000 ticket to watch it live only gives you the privilege of a seat in the theater.”
52. Virtual Reality
Virtual reality was, once again, heralded as a technology poised to transform education. I say “once again” because virtual reality has long been associated with such promises. VR appeared in some of the earliest Horizon Reports for example, with the 2007 report positing that virtual worlds would be adopted by higher ed institutions within two to three years’ time; funnily enough, the 2016 report offered the same outlook: we’re still two to three years out from widespread adoption of VR.
Facebook acquired the VR headset maker Oculus Rift in 2014, and Facebook tried to push the equipment on schools, donating one headset to every school in Arkansas, for example.
Google also sought to market its version of VR to schools, offering “virtual field trips” with its Expeditions product. It’s not clear that the positive benefits of going on actual field trips extend to the experience of watching a 360 degree video via a device strapped to your face. We don’t believe that field trips are the equivalent of watching educational films in class, do we? So why is VR any different?
But according to the marketing hype, VR is different as it is a new and unique “empathy machine.” (Good grief. It is not.)
51. The Math Emporium(s)
The Math Emporium at Virginia Tech was founded in the late 1990s, but it saw renewed interest this decade as hundreds of other schools adopted the model: use computer-assisted instruction to teach math in lieu of paying professors or graduate students to do so. According to The Washington Post, “The Emporium is the Wal-Mart of higher education, a triumph in economy of scale and a glimpse at a possible future of computer-led learning. Eight thousand students a year take introductory math in a space that once housed a discount department store.”
Following the creation of the Math Emporium, pass rates for introductory math went up, Virginia Tech boasted. And the per-student expenditure went down. Wheee. But research also found that “the emporium appeared to best serve students with higher math achievement, who enjoyed mathematics, and who spent more time taking their exams.” The software appeared successful in helping students to recall formulas they’d been taught, but did little to develop broader mathematical or analytical reasoning. And students’ reactions to the emporium were mixed, at best.
“Our software will never replace teachers,” they always say. Until some decides, “To hell with it. Let’s save some money” and the software does.
50. One Laptop Per Child
Nicholas Negroponte first started talking up his vision for a $100 laptop at the World Economic Forum in 2005. Inspired by the work of Seymour Papert, he believed that a cheap computer could unlock educational opportunities for children around the world. But as The New York Times’ Jon Markoff observed, Negroponte’s reception at Davos was chilly: “His mission has been complicated at Davos 2005 because the digital divide and the information technology industry are no longer the center of attention at this annual intimate gathering of the world's most powerful and wealthy.” There was slightly more buzz when Negroponte pitched the idea again at the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis in 2005. But when he and the head of the UN Kofi Annan went to demo the device, its signature feature — a hand crank that would power it — fell off. As Adi Robertson wrote in The Verge, “The moment was brief, but it perfectly foreshadowed how critics would see One Laptop Per Child a few years later: as a flashy, clever, and idealistic project that shattered at its first brush with reality.”
The struggles faced by the One Laptop Per Child project have continued since its outset. (In 2009, Techcrunch named the laptop one of the biggest flops of that decade.) And here it is again, still flopping in this one.
In 2011, Negroponte announced he planned to drop the tablets out of helicopters down onto remote villages in Ethiopia. “When I say I drop out of the helicopters, I mean it... it's like a Coke bottle falling out of the sky,” he said, apparently referring to the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. (He clearly missed the part where the elders in the film decide the Coke bottle is cursed.) The following year, Negroponte boasted that “within two weeks, [children] were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android.” But a controlled study in Peru published in 2012 found no evidence that the OLPC tablets increased children’s math or language learning.
In early 2014, the OLPC Foundation disbanded, and OLPC News shut down. “Let us be honest with ourselves. The great excitement, energy, and enthusiasm that brought us together is gone,” its farewell post read. “OLPC is dead.”
(This year, Morgan G. Ames published The Charisma Machine: The Life, Death, and Legacy of One Laptop per Child — so at least one good thing came out of the endeavor this decade.)
49. Yik Yak
Once valued at $400 million, having raised some $73.5 million in venture capital, the anonymous messaging app Yik Yak closed its doors in 2017. Good riddance.
Founded in 2014 by Tyler Droll and Brooks Buffington (seriously), Yik Yak was for a time quite popular with students, who too often took advantage of its anonymity to harass others and to post racist and sexist remarks. As The New York Times chronicled, threats of violence posted to the app prompted several schools to go on lockdown, and several students were subsequently arrested — in Virginia, Michigan, and Missouri, for example — for posts they’d made. Some schools blocked the app on their WiFi network; students at Emory denounced it as a platform for hate speech.
As one student noted, the hyper-localization of the app was a constant reminder that these threats were not coming from some random person across the country; they were coming from someone in your class.
48. The Hour of Code
During Computer Science Education Week in 2013, the industry-backed learn-to-code group Code.org launched “The Hour of Code,” a campaign to encourage more computer science with a series of short tutorials (and high profile testimonials) posted to its website. “Don’t just buy a new video game — make one,” President Obama urged in a video he recorded on behalf of the Hour of Code. “Don’t just download the latest app — help design it. Don’t just play on your phone — program. No one’s born a computer scientist, but with a little hard work — and some math and science — just about anyone can become one.” The tech industry trade press loved the story, repeating Code.org’s PR about, for example, the number of lines of code that students had written during the campaign or the number of girls who’d participated.
Code.org has raised over $60 million in funding from the tech industry giants, and its lessons are often highly branded: “You can now learn the basics of coding with Disney’s Moana.” There are serious problems with the industry’s command that “everyone should learn to code” — that’s a separate item on this list. But it’s worth noting here that one hour — whether an hour of code or a “genius hour” — is hardly a sufficient commitment to changing education or, for that matter, to changing industry. Indeed, in many ways, the Hour of Code is a marketing coup, a feel-good distraction from some of the more insidious lobbying efforts the tech sector has undertaken to reshape K-12 curriculum.
47. Brainwave Headbands
“Brainwave Headsets Are Making Their Way Into Classrooms — For Meditation and Discipline,” Edsurge wrote in 2017, touting the use of the Muse headset to measure electroencephalography (EEG) and reduce behavioral problems. It wrote about a different headset maker that year too — BrainCo — which purports to use EEG to gauge students’ attention levels in the classroom. This year, Edsurge featured a headset made by EMOTIV in yet another story that suggested that these technologies would help improve “mindfulness”: “I Moved a Drone With My Mind. Soon Your Students Will Too.”
Most of this is, no doubt, speculation. It’s marketing. But it is an indication that plenty of companies (and schools) see students’ neural data as a potential way to monitor and control their behaviors, their emotions, and their cognition.
46. Compulsory Fitness Trackers
In 2016, Oral Roberts University announced that students would be encouraged to wear Fitbits to monitor their physical activity. The fitness trackers would help support the university’s model of “Whole Person Education,” it said. The FitBit data — number of steps, heart rate data — would be integrated into the student grade-book in the school’s learning management system (in this case, D2L’s Brightspace). Students were required take 10,000 steps a day and check their heart rate three times a day — arbitrary fitness goals, to be sure. A school spokesperson told Vice that it would not track any other data that the FitBits collected — such as the type of physical activity undertaken (including sex, which is forbidden at the university). And he told Vice that students could always opt out of wearing the device and just pen and paper to track their activity — but no one had.
The students most likely to have all sorts of their fitness activity data tracked and monitored (and even monetized) and given no choice in doing so are, no surprise, athletes. The University of Michigan, for its part, struck a new contract with Nike for sports apparel in 2016 and included in the deal was the opportunity for Nike “to harvest personal data from Michigan athletes through the use of wearable technology like heart-rate monitors, GPS trackers and other devices that log myriad biological activities.”
Of course, students needn’t wear fitness trackers for their schools to track their every step. As The Washington Post pointed out, many colleges just track students via their phones.
Common Wood Pigeon
45. WeGrow and WeWork
The last half of WeWork’s 2019 was an unmitigated disaster. The co-working company filed for an IPO in August, having last been valued at $47 billion. The IPO filing gave investors an opportunity to dig through the company’s financials which were shockingly bad. Co-founder and CEO Adam Neumann was forced to step down, the public offering was delayed, and one of its investors had to pony up another $5 billion to help cover immediate bills (including severance pay for laid off employees).
Although its main business appeared to be buying and leasing real estate, WeWork had several education-oriented subsidiaries too, one of which MissionU closed its doors last year. (MissionU had promised a one year program that would replace a traditional college degree.) WeWork had acquired the Flatiron School back in 2017, and it laid off dozens of the coding bootcamp’s employees this year. WeWork also announced it would close WeGrow, its “conscious entrepreneurial school” for children (a school that apparently ran with the same sort of chaotic disruption that Neumann embraced as the head of WeWork).
Just remember, kids. No matter what the PR tries to tell you, it’s likely that “unicorn” is more of an ass.
44. YouTube, the New "Educational TV"
You can learn anything on YouTube, we’ve been told. Indeed, young people prefer learning from YouTube than from textbooks — according, ironically, to Pearson. Although YouTube was founded in 2005, it has seen an explosion in growth this decade, in part from the ubiquity of mobile devices: anytime, anywhere television-watching.
The popularity of sites like Khan Academy helped fuel the narrative that video could teach anything and that YouTube would “reinvent education” — funny, as Thomas Edison thought the same thing about film back in 1922. But as the decade progressed, it seemed clear that the algorithmically-driven content on the video-sharing site was introducing viewers to conspiracy theories and misinformation. “YouTube, the Great Radicalizer,” as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci put it.
Parents have long been criticized for letting television “raise their children,” But YouTube now means a much stranger and potentially more dangerous, data-driven viewing experience.
“Juul’s not ed-tech, Audrey.” Right right right. The e-cigarette maker is pretty popular with “the kids.” And schools are having to revamp their anti-smoking policies and lessons in order to account for the rise of the popular new vaping technology. Of course, some schools actually decided to use Juul’s own anti-vaping curriculum. What the hell was appeal? Well, in part, Juul framed its vaping prevention program in terms of “mindfulness” — all the rage thanks to the hype around “social emotional learning.” (See below.) But Juul sweetened the pot too. According to Buzzfeed, Juul offered to pay schools $20,000 to use its materials, which blamed vaping on peer pressure not on, you know, the addictive properties of nicotine. Those materials dramatically downplayed the dangers of vaping — dangers that have become much clearer this year with a growing number of illness and deaths associated with the practice. Even better: some of those materials were apparently plagiarized, according to Stanford professor Bonnie Halpern-Felsher at least, who claims that Juul used her slides without her permission.
42. “Social Emotional Learning” Software
While the brainwave monitoring headsets and “galvanic skin response bracelets” might seem too far-fetched and too futuristic and too creepy for schools to adopt, they are being positioned as part of another trend that might soon make them seem far more palatable: “social emotional learning” or SEL.
SEL has powerful advocates in powerful places: MacArthur Foundation “Genius” and University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth. Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, whose vision for the future of education involves “whole child personalized learning” and who says it plans to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into education initiatives to that end. No surprise, investment in software that encourages and measures “grit,” “growth mindsets,” and “mindfulness” has followed.
For its part, the OECD, the organization that administers the PISA test, has started surveying 10- to 15-year-olds’ social and emotional skills too. Because the thing that some people insisted was going to mitigate our maniacal focus on standardized achievement tests will now become its own standardized achievement test.
41. The K-12 Cyber Incident Map
To be clear, the K-12 Cyber Incident Map isn’t on this list because it is a bad idea. To the contrary, the map, which documents the 700+ cybersecurity-related incidents in K-12 schools since 2016 — ransomware attacks, DDoS attacks, data breaches, phishing attacks, and the like — is a necessary idea, as it underscores the utterly dismal state of cybersecurity in education.
Run by EdTech Strategies’ Doug Levin, who has created an accompanying cybersecurity resource center, the map should prompt districts to ask why they are collecting so much data, why they are buying software that collects so much data, and what kind of capacities and policies are they building internally to address what is clearly going to be an ongoing issue for all schools.
40. IBM Watson
In 2011, Watson, a question-and-answer system built by IBM, beat two human players, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, on the TV game show Jeopardy! It was a brilliant PR move by IBM, which then sought to commercialize the technology for use in a number of fields, including medicine and education. IBM boasted a partnership with the Sesame Workshop to build “cognitive learning” apps. It boasted a partnership with Scholastic and one with Edmodo to build content recommendation services.
Perhaps the fiercest critic of IBM Watson in education came from another AI pioneer in the field, Roger Schank. Schank blogged regularly and angrily about Watson, insisting that IBM was not engaged “cognitive computing” — Schank published his book The Cognitive Computer in 1984 — and suggesting the company’s claims were “fraudulent.”
Despite all the marketing — ads featuring Bob Dylan, Big Bird, Grover — there has been little substance to demonstrate that Watson works. n other sectors, outside of education, results have been troubling at best. Researchers working with Watson’s medical application found, for example, “multiple examples of unsafe and incorrect treatment recommendations.” “This product is a piece of shit,” one doctor said. Not that’ll stop education from adopting it, of course.
Founded in 2008 by a former Kaplan executive Jose Ferreira, Knewton was one of the most heavily funded ed-tech startups of the decade. It was also, in the words of Michael Feldstein, “snake oil.”
Ferreira boasted at a Department of Education “Datapalooza” in 2012 that “We literally know everything about what you know and how you learn best, everything. Because we have five orders of magnitude more data about you than Google has. We literally have more data about our students than any company has about anybody else about anything, and it’s not even close.” He told NPR in 2015 that Knewton’s adaptive learning software was a “mind-reading robo tutor in the sky.” But these outlandish claims of a powerful piece of learning software never matched what materialized. Knewton, having raised over $180 million in venture capital, was sold for just $17 million this year.
But like I’ve said elsewhere in this long list: there are no consequences for snake oil salesmen in ed-tech. Ferreira’s new startup was just featured in a glowing New York Times article promising, once again, that machine learning and AI are going to revolutionize education.
38. Coding Bootcamps
It’s almost impossible to separate Silicon Valley’s massive interest in (and investment in) coding bootcamps from other education trends this decade: efforts to challenge traditional credentialing systems, the tech industry’s push to reshape school curriculum to include coding, fears about a “skills gap,” and the morphing of a for-profit higher education system facing increasing regulatory scrutiny from the Obama Administration.
Coding bootcamps offer short, intensive courses in computer programming. While these are often marketed as alternatives to a traditional college degree, the vast majority of students who enroll at bootcamps appear to already have Bachelor’s degrees.
The bootcamps promise successful job placement — indeed some say they will refund tuition if a graduate does not find employment — but a feature published in Bloomberg in 2016 warned prospective students, “Want a Job in Silicon Valley? Keep Away From Coding Schools.” The article contended that many companies have found coding bootcamp grads unprepared for technical work: “These tech bootcamps are a freaking joke,” one tech recruiter told the publication. “My clients are looking for a solid CS degree from a reputable university or relevant work experience.” Google’s director of education echoed this sentiment: “Our experience has found that most graduates from these programs are not quite prepared for software engineering roles at Google without additional training or previous programming roles in the industry.”
There were several high profile closures of bootcamps — Dev Bootcamp, owned by Kaplan Inc., and Iron Yard, owned by the parent company of the University of Phoenix, for example — and it’s hard to not see these closures alongside those that swept the for-profit “career college” sector this decade. When Dev Bootcamp announced it was closing in 2017, the company admitted that it had been “unable to find a sustainable model” that didn't compromise its vision for “high-quality, immersive coding training that is broadly accessible to a diverse population.” Indeed, despite the tech industry’s disdain for the education system and particularly for the politics of its (unionized) labor force, “high-quality, immersive coding training” is an expensive, labor-intensive proposition. The for-profit higher education industry has never been known to invest heavily in instruction (faculty or curriculum); its dollars — primarily federal financial aid dollars at that — have gone instead to marketing and recruitment.
37. Ed-Tech Payola
In 2011, The New York Times’ Michael Winerip reported that, “In recent years, the Pearson Foundation has paid to send state education commissioners to meet with their international counterparts in London, Helsinki, Singapore and, just last week, Rio de Janeiro. The commissioners stay in expensive hotels, like the Mandarin Oriental in Singapore. They spend several days meeting with educators in these places. They also meet with top executives from the commercial side of Pearson, which is one of the biggest education companies in the world, selling standardized tests, packaged curriculums and Prentice Hall textbooks.”
It appeared as though these commissioners were in violation of state ethics laws, and the New York State Attorney General launched an investigation into the foundation. In 2013, Pearson paid $7.7 million in fines to settle the accusations that it broke New York state law, not only by paying for education officials’ travel but by using its foundation to help develop its Common Core-aligned products (hoping that these products would help it land more funding from the Gates Foundation). In 2014, Pearson closed its foundation.
And that was the end of pay-for-play in the education technology world. I’m kidding. It wasn’t.
There were numerous other high profile cases this decade of administrators accepting kickbacks from education and education technology companies. In 2014, the Speaker of the House in Alabama was arrested for using his office for personal gain, having taken some $90,000 from the ed-tech company Edgenuity “to open doors.” In 2017, The New York Times’ Natasha Singer described the lucrative wooing as precisely “how Silicon Valley plans to conquer the classroom.” And on the heels of her investigation, one of the figures in her story, Baltimore County Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance pleaded guilty to perjury relating to $147,000 in payments he’d received for speaking and consulting.
36. "Personalized Learning" Software (and Facebook and Summit Public Schools)
The role that venture philanthropy has played in attempting to reshape the American education system is near the top of this list of bad ideas. But a special shout-out goes to Mark Zuckerberg here and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative’s wretched commitment to extend “personalization” beyond Facebook and into schools.
One of the main beneficiaries of CZI funding has been Summit Public Schools, which according to The New York Times, has received almost $100 million in grants from the venture philanthropy firm since 2016. The charter school chain was already developing a personalized learning platform to manage its competency-based learning practices when Facebook stepped in, offering to help the software it called Basecamp. (CZI took over the engineering of the learning management system from Facebook in 2017.)
Although the software received glowing praise from some tech journalists, there’s never been any research to demonstrate that Summit’s personalized learning software is actually effective. Not that that stops folks from claiming otherwise, of course. And the response in some communities to the introduction of Basecamp has been far from positive. Students and parents protested its adoption in Brooklyn NY, in McPherson KS, in Cheshire CT, in Indiana PA, and elsewhere. Some students complained that they weren’t learning anything; others said they were concerned about their privacy. Many schools pulled the plug on the software in response. According to data obtained by Chalkbeat, “Since the platform was made available, 18% of schools using it in a given year had quit using it a year later.“
35. Pearson's "Digital Transformation"
It hasn’t been a great decade for Pearson. This list is littered with Pearson scandals — spying on students, investing in Knewton, testing blunders, the Pearson Foundation payola scheme, the LAUSD iPad debacle, a redesigned GED.
Pearson’s business suffered — as did many publishers in this decade, to be fair, so we can’t actually say it’s because of these repeated fiascos. In an attempt at “digital transformation,” Pearson opted to sell off a number of high profile assets, including The Financial Times its stake in The Economist Group, and its stake in Penguin Random House. Nonetheless, in 2017, it posted the biggest loss in its history: £2.6 billion for 2016. It continued to reorganize and lay off staff, selling off its US K-12 courseware business earlier this year.
Pearson announced in July that it planned to abandon its traditional textbook publishing model, opting instead for a “digital first” strategy. Instead of selling students an expensive print textbook, it will rent them an expensive digital one. Brilliant.
34. The LA Times Rates Teachers
In 2010, The Los Angeles Times made the controversial decision to publish test score data for more than 6000 public school teachers in the district, assigning them a rating indicating how effective they were in improving student performance — that is, their “value-added” measure (VAM). The rating system was one supported by the Obama Administration, as well as many education reform advocates, who contended that this sort of data-driven evaluation would help ineffective teachers improve. (Or, just as likely, could be used to strong-arm them to leave the profession. And indeed, LAUSD experienced a spike in teacher turnover after The LA Times published teachers’ names and ratings.)
There were (and still are) plenty of concerns about the validity of the VAM data — did the change year-to-year in standardized test scores really reflect what one teacher did or did not do? And did the VAM data help address educational inequality, making sure that “good” teachers were not simply assigned to “good” neighborhoods. (Indeed, some subsequent research found that the publication of the teachers names might have actually exacerbated inequalities in the district as more well-connected parents were able to pull strings to make sure their children were in the classrooms of those teachers deemed “the best.”)
The publication of teachers’ names and ratings was one of the first salvos in what we saw throughout the rest of the decade: in the name of transparency, public data was weaponized. And it was weaponized not so much because “sunlight is the best disinfectant” but because powerful forces wanted to “disinfect” the public sphere of their perceived enemies, teachers.
33. Online Credit Recovery
In 2017, Slate published a series of stories on online credit recovery programs — classes offered to students who needed to quickly make up missed credits in order to graduate high school on time: “The New Diploma Mills,” it called them. These classes were “fast, isolating, and superficial,” the series reported, describing the experiences of one student who, after failing her junior year English class, was able to make up the course online in 2 days. It told of another student who paid his friend $200 to take a course for him.
Schools are pressured to use these online options — products offered by companies like Apex, Edmentum, Odysseyware, and Edgenuity — in part because of their desire to boost graduation rates. And efforts to crack down on providers offering “bad online courses” were often countered by lobbying from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which “has made expanding online learning — unfettered and in all of its forms — one of its priorities.”
32. Common Core State Standards
I haven’t put the Common Core State Standards on this list because I think the content of the standards was bad. I don’t have a horse in that race. That being said, I don’t think it’s a stretch to call the rollout of the Common Core one of the major education disasters of the decade. I include the CCSS here because of the vast influence it had on schools prompting schools to buy new “Common Core-aligned” technology products — hardware and software and digital curriculum and assessments. The Common Core is implicated in several other failures on this list too: the new GED and inBloom, for starters
31. The Gentrification of Sesame Street
Sesame Street turned 50 this year — one of the greatest successes in the history of education technology, reaching millions and millions of early learners on public television.
In 2015, Sesame Workshop announced that new episodes of the beloved show would appear first on the premium cable channel HBO, and then nine months later on public television. Although the organization said it needed to make the switch for financial reasons, the move was a blow to educational equity — the core mission of Sesame Street. It was, as Siva Vaidhyanathan put it, “a symptom of how Americans view our collective obligations to each other — especially to our poorest children.”
Sesame Workshop also got into the venture capitalism business in 2016 to invest in “‘mission-aligned’ education technology startups” (including test prep companies) and partnered with IBM Watson in 2017.
“New money has ruined Sesame Street,” The Guardian argued. "In its new format the show’s theme tune is a little brighter and the street scene a little ritzier than one remembers from earlier versions.” Elmo has a new apartment. Oscar the Grouch no longer lives in a trash can. The puppets that are featured the most are the ones with the best-selling product lines. And then there are the humans. Some of those humans — those most dearly beloved humans of Sesame Street, Gordon, Luis, and Bob — were fired (and then brought back due to the uproar).
What seems to drive the programming on Sesame Street now isn’t education research; it’s market research. The Sesame Workshop is no longer committed to “equity” as in social justice; it’s interested in “equity” as in the financial stake a venture capitalist takes in a tech startup.
Pink Headed Fruit Dove
30. "Precision Education"
“In some ways, precision education looks a lot like a raft of other personalized learning practices and platform developments that have taken shape over the past few years,” sociologist Ben Williamson wrote in 2018. “Driven by developments in learning analytics and adaptive learning technologies, personalized learning has become the dominant focus of the educational technology industry and the main priority for philanthropic funders such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.” But “precision education” does not simply rely on the assessment or behavioral data that feeds most learning software algorithms. It seeks to include in its analysis “intimate interior details of students’ genetic make-up, their psychological characteristics, and their neural functioning.”
This is part of a “new genetics of intelligence,” according to behavioral geneticist Robert Plomin, who contends that DNA analysis could provide every student with a “learning chip” that could reliably predict their academic strengths and weaknesses and that could help schools customize — “personalize” — their education.
In 2018, a study published in Nature Genomics said that after studying the genomes of over 1 million people of European descent, it had found that “educational attainment is moderately heritable and an important correlate of many social, economic and health outcomes, and is therefore an important focus in a number of educational genetics studies.” (To be clear, as Ed Yong wrote in The Atlantic, “The team hasn’t discovered ‘genes for education.’”) Although the researchers tried to be very careful in explaining what they had discovered (publishing a FAQ longer than the research paper itself), it’s no surprise that their findings were quickly politicized: “Why Progressives Should Embrace the Genetics of Education” read one op-ed piece in The New York Times, forgetting perhaps that education’s progressives (including Maria Montessori) have been down that path before.
29. Student Loan Startups
Among the most popular areas in education for venture capitalists to invest this decade were student loan (and other financial aid-oriented) startups. I mean, if there’s a student loan crisis surely the right thing to do is get into the business of giving out more loans. (Among Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’s investments: a student loan collection agency.)
Why were student loan companies so popular among investors and entrepreneurs? In part, it reflected the state of the banking industry overall right now: personal loans, commercial loans, industrial loans have boomed. Investor interest in loan companies also reflects the promise of new technologies — namely, AI and analytics — that have led both established financial institutions as well as upstarts to believe that loans will continue to be a lucrative market. (One loan startup that raised $200 million from Credit Suisse in 2017 boasted no human decision-making in its application process, for example. It’s all machine learning and algorithms. Gee, what could go wrong?!)
In 2017, the loan industry, coding bootcamps, and their investors started pushing a new type of loan: income-sharing agreements. Income-sharing agreements typically involve some sort of deferred tuition in exchange for a cut of a student’s future income. (Schools offering ISAs included Purdue and Lackawanna College.) As the student loan industry moves towards a more pervasive data-mining of students’ history in order to identify who has the “best potential” for repayment, these sorts of new funding agreements raise all sorts of questions about both overt and algorithmic discrimination. Indeed, Sara Goldrick-Rab called ISAs a “dangerous trend” as they move the risk of financial aid and student loans onto individuals’ backs (rather than the shared risk of public funding), and as such are steps towards privatizing funding for education.
Of course, those are exactly the reasons why many are hoping student loan and financial aid startups will be profitable investments.
28. Computer-Based Testing Blunders
The new assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards were to be administered via computers, prompting as I noted above, a great deal of expenditure on new devices. But the new mode of testing caused a great deal of headache too. 2015 marked the year that states implemented the tests associated with the standards, and many struggled with that very implementation. That’s not a surprise, as a COSN survey that year found educators pleading that “We’re Not Ready for Online Tests.”
There were worries about how the move to online testing might affect scores. There were worries that there weren’t enough computers for test-taking. There were worries about kids’ abilities to type. There were worries about Internet connectivity, particularly in poor and rural schools. And many of the worries were well-founded. The problems weren’t just with district infrastructure; there were problems with vendors’ websites. There were technical problems in Minnesota, Florida, Colorado, New Jersey, Nevada, North Dakota, Montana, Tennessee, and elsewhere. Some states blamed the vendors and some blamed school IT and some states blamed “hackers.” The Common Core tests in one New Jersey school district were postponed as its entire computer network was held hostage by ransomware in exchange for 500 Bitcoins, approximately $124,000 at the time.
The technical problems were so bad in some states that they prompted concerns about the validity of the scores and about states’ ability to meet the federally-mandated levels of test participation (numbers that exacerbated too by the “Opt Out” movement). Several states accused their testing vendors of breach of contract, and several switched vendors, hoping that would fix the problem.
Spoiler alert: it did not.
27. Online Preschool
Arguably one of the best investments we could make in education would be to fund universal preschool. High quality universal preschool, staffed with well-paid professionals. High quality universal preschool, staffed with well-paid professionals in a brick-and-mortar setting and not online. But online preschool, according to some education reformers, is poised to “change the way rural America does early education.” One program, Upstart, “mixes adaptive software for preschool-aged kids, along with child development training and check-ins for parents. The program focuses on building pre-literacy skills, such as sound blending and letter names, and is designed to be used 15 minutes a day for a total of 75 minutes per week. Currently Upstart is used by about 19,000 families in Utah and in smaller pilots in about 15 other states,” Edsurge reported earlier this year. Many experts have caution against these programs, arguing for example that “Online ‘preschool’ lacks the concrete, hands-on social, emotional and intellectual educational components that are essential for quality learning in the early years. Further, online preschools are likely to exacerbate already existing inequalities in early education by giving low-income children superficial exposure to rote skills and ideas while more privileged children continue to receive developmentally sound experiences that provide a solid foundation for later academic success.”
These sorts of stories that promote high tech “solutions” for certain communities always make me wonder why we don’t opt instead to build out local capacity rather than insisting that the only alternative is education-from-elsewhere online.
26. Google Glass
Google announced “Project Glass” in 2012, and The New York Times’ Nick Bilton described them as “a very polished and well-designed pair of wrap-around glasses with a clear display that sits above the eye. The glasses can stream information to the lenses and allow the wearer to send and receive messages through voice commands. There is also a built-in camera to record video and take pictures.” But the tech press’s initial fondness for the futuristic design quickly faded: “I, Glasshole: My Year With Google Glass,” Mat Honan wrote in 2013.
Education technology blogs also gushed about Glass, churning out hundreds of articles like “30 Ways Google Glass In Education Might Work” and “14 Google Glass Innovative Uses In Education.” Adam Bellow delivered the closing keynote at ISTE 2013 wearing Google Glass. Ed-tech evangelists made it clear, from the outset, that surveillance was the future.
From the outset, there were major concerns about privacy and security with Glass, as well as problems with accessibility. In 2015, Google had announced it would stop selling the product. Bonus points, however, if you’re an education guru who’s Twitter profile still has you wearing Glass.
25. Peter Thiel
On stage at Techcrunch’s annual conference Disrupt, investor Peter Thiel announced a new initiative, the “20 Under 20” program in which he would pay a select group of young people $100,000 to drop out of school and pursue their entrepreneurial interests. It was a political PR move that coincided with his larger thesis: we are in a “college bubble,” which like the housing bubble, finds people making unreasonable investments in something that is just not worth it.
If that was all that Peter Thiel did or said — stirred up the public’s resentment towards the expansion of higher education with some quaint story about talent and meritocracy — he’d probably be much lower on this list. (Here’s one look at what some of the past Thiel Fellowship recipients are up to. Yawn.) But Thiel has worked actively this decade to subvert democracy — he’s never been a fan apparently — bankrolling an attack on the First Amendment, for example, endorsing Donald Trump for President, and sitting on the Board of Facebook.
24. The Secretaries of Education
How funny that two of the longest serving members of both the Obama and the Trump Administrations were their Secretaries of Education: Arne Duncan and Betsy DeVos, respectively. Actually, it’s not funny at all. They were both pretty terrible. Beloved by VCs. (Indeed, since leaving office Duncan became one.) And beloved by ed reform types. But terrible. Among the ed-tech disasters they facilitated: a broken FAFSA, the floundering EQUIP experiment, andterrible FERPA enforcement, for starters.
More generally, the Department of Education has shown how tightly connected it is to industry. Former department officials have cycled in and out of the Gates Foundation, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, ISTE, the student loan industry, startups, and the like.
23. OPMs and Outsourcing
Despite all the hullabaloo this decade about the importance of offering online classes, many schools opted not to develop the capacity internally to do so, but rather to outsource that function to a vendor. In 2017, The Century Foundation issued a blistering report on these online program managers (OPMs) titled “The Private Side of Public Higher Education.” Although universities have long outsourced some of their services to third-party providers — food services and parking enforcement, for example — OPMs could pose significant risks to higher ed, the report argued, as “the functions of OPMs are closely linked to the core educational mission of these public institutions. As a result, the quality of the services provided by OPMs has a direct bearing on the quality of the school itself and the ability of these institutions to fulfill their mission to train students and prepare them for the workforce.”
The involvement of OPMs in the establishment and growth of online educational opportunities at public institutions exposes consumers to the financial interests of decision-makers, interests that would not exist if exclusively public or nonprofit institutions were involved in providing these distance learning programs. Driven by the desire and need to make money for investors or owners, those to whom executives are held accountable, these companies may prioritize profit over the interests of online students, to whom they owe no loyalty, financial or otherwise.
As Phil Hill observed, as for-profit universities and MOOC providers stumbled this decade, several sought to become OPMs instead. (That is to say, there are really just a handful of pivots you can make in ed-tech: become an OPM or become an LMS or try to market yourself as both.)
22. Automated Essay Grading
Robot essay graders — they grade just the same as human ones. Or at least that was the conclusion of a 2012 study conducted by University of Akron's Dean of the College of Education Mark Shermis and Kaggle data scientist Ben Hamner. The researchers examined some 22,000 essays administered to junior and high school level students as part of their states’ standardized testing process, comparing the grades given by human graders and those given by automated grading software. They found that “overall, automated essay scoring was capable of producing scores similar to human scores for extended-response writing items with equal performance for both source-based and traditional writing genre.”
“The demonstration showed conclusively that automated essay scoring systems are fast, accurate, and cost effective,” said Tom Vander Ark, partner at the investment firm Learn Capital, in a press release touting the study’s results. (It did not.)
When edX announced it had developed an automated essay grading program, its president Anant Agarwal boasted that the software was an improvement over traditional grading methods. “There is a huge value in learning with instant feedback,” he told The New York Times. (There is not.)
Automated essay grading software can be fooled with gibberish, as MIT’s Les Perelman has shown again and again. Moreover, the algorithms underpinning them are biased, particularly against Black students. But that hasn’t stopped states from adopting automated grading systems for standardized testing and software companies from incorporating automated grading systems into their products.
21. Rocketship Education
In 2012, PBS News Hour’s John Merrow asked “Can Rocketship Launch a Fleet of Successful, Mass-Produced Schools?” Betteridge’s Law of Headlines would tell us the answer is “no.” But many in Silicon Valley thought that Rocketship’s model — a charter school chain that relies heavily on computer-based instruction — would be the model for future schools, and the organization raised money from the Gates Foundation, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg (for starters).
One of the key features of Rocketship was its Learning Labs, a cost-saving way to quickly scale that required “students to spend significant time working on laptops in large groups supervised by noncertified, lower-paid ‘instructional lab specialists.’” "Students rotating into Learning Labs meant employing fewer teachers," Richard Whitmire wrote in a book the charter school chain. "Thus a school such as Rocketship Mosaic could successfully serve 630 students with only 6 teachers plus aides." That News Hour documentary shows young, mostly Latino students, clearly bored and frustrated, sitting in row after row after row of cubicles, supposedly working (alone) on some computer program. It’s probably the scene of children using ed-tech that has stuck with me the most this decade.
According to NPR’s Anya Kamenetz, who wrote a detailed article on some of the major drawbacks to the Rocketship model, the emphasis on maximizing the instructional time on computers had led some schools to limit the bathroom breaks that students were allowed to take. One teacher reported that “Bathroom breaks are a problem because the kids go there to play, because they only have one 20-minute play period during the day." Other teachers said that bathroom accidents were common.
Although Rocketship founder John Danner hoped that the charter school chain would serve one million students by 2020, his goal has since been significantly revised. There are less than 20 schools in operation today, as expansion has faced growing resistance. (Danner left Rocketship to start another ed-tech company in 2013.)
Blue Headed Quail Dove
20. Predictive Analytics
“Should big data be used to discourage poor students from university?” ZDNet asked in 2017, describing an algorithm that could help predict whether or not low-income students would be successful at school — but not so more resources could be directed their way to help them succeed. Not so that they received more money or more support. Nope. Rather, could big data be utilized so these students were discouraged from going to school in the first place?
For a long time, stories about predictive analytics in education weren’t framed that way, no surprise. Education technology proponents were wont to say that big data will be used to encourage low-income or minority students –- or at least to send them nudges and notifications when students appear, algorithmically at least, to be struggling. These algorithmic products were marketed as helping students succeed and — no surprise — helping schools make more money by retaining their tuition dollars. But as the years have past, it has become clear that many schools are doing precisely what ZDNet had alluded to: using predictive analytics to recruit certain students and to avoid others altogether, exacerbating existing educational inequalities.
19. Platforming Education
In his review of Nick Srnicek’s book Platform Capitalism, John Hermann writes,
Platforms are, in a sense, capitalism distilled to its essence. They are proudly experimental and maximally consequential, prone to creating externalities and especially disinclined to address or even acknowledge what happens beyond their rising walls. And accordingly, platforms are the underlying trend that ties together popular narratives about technology and the economy in general. Platforms provide the substructure for the “gig economy” and the “sharing economy”; they’re the economic engine of social media; they’re the architecture of the “attention economy” and the inspiration for claims about the “end of ownership.”
In his book, Srnicek posits that platforms are poised to become the fundamental business model of our digital world — key to the new economy, clearly, but also key to political and social systems (and how these will be shaped under the control of the powerful technology industry). And certainly the goal for many technology companies — education and otherwise — has been to become a platform: that is, to become a key piece of digital infrastructure whose business model rests on the extraction of data.
In many ways, the learning management system is the prototypical education platform. The LMS has long positioned itself as an “operating system,” of sorts, for higher education, one that certainly predates any talk of a “platform economy.” But LMS providers spent the decade buying up a vast number of other companies so as to extend the functionality of their original product — companies that offered offered administratively adjacent features and would facilitate the extraction of more data from students’ and professors’ activities online than just what could be gleaned from the student information system.
(The LMS isn’t the only platform in education to be sure. Perhaps the most dominant and dangerous is Google — which nears the top of this list.)
18. Bridge International Academies
Bridge International Academies was founded in 2007, promising to bring quality education to parts of the Global South. Its schools are technology-intensive — that means scripted lessons for teachers to read via mobile device, the tracking of teacher and student attendance via mobile device, the payment of tuition by parents and the payment of teacher salaries via mobile device, for example. Bridge has received financial backing from Silicon Valley investors and executives, including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. “It’s the Tesla of education companies,” investor Whitney Tilson told journalist Peg Tyre. (I guess that’s supposed to be a compliment and not an admission that the startup suffers from exploitative, racist labor practices.)
Tyre’s investigation into Bridge International Academies chronicled the problems that the startup faced as it tried to scale: opposition from teachers’ unions, regulatory hurdles, inspections that found unsanitary conditions, the inability for poor parents to afford the tuition. In order to scale, one civil rights group in Uganda charged, Bridge marketed to students already enrolled in public schools rather than trying to recruit students who attended informal schools. In 2016, a Ugandan judge ordered Bridge to close its schools in the country; the startup refused.
17. Test Prep
Year after year after year after year, the most well-funded startups in education technology were those offering tutoring and test prep. Neither of these are progressive trends. These can exacerbate educational inequalities as more affluent families can afford to give their children extra academic support (or at least some extra tips and tricks on how to do well on standardized tests).
To counteract some of these inequalities — in test prep and in the testing itself — the College Board partnered with Khan Academy in 2015 to provide free online SAT prep courses (after years of insisting that test prep would actually make no difference in how well one performed on the exam). One year later, the head of the College Board David Coleman boasted “Never in my career have I seen a launch of technology on this scale that has broken down the racial divisions that so haunt this nation — never.” And in 2017, the College Board released data that showed “20 hours on free Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy is associated with an average score gain of 115 points, nearly double the average score gain compared to students who don’t use Khan Academy.” One problem though: not all students practiced the same amount, and students with highly educated parents tended to spend more time doing so. As Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville write in Chalkbeat, “The College Board’s research doesn’t show whether Khan Academy truly caused the score increases. Perhaps the students who used Khan most were particularly motivated or were using other study aids.”
Perhaps test prep will never undo the inequalities baked into the system. Perhaps, just perhaps, it was never really meant to.
In 2012, Rupert Murdoch’s media company News Corp launched Amplify, a “new brand,” Fast Company said, “for the completely digital classroom.” The head of the new division: Joel Klein, the former superintendent of the New York City Schools. Speculation that News Corp was planning to enter the education technology market had been brewing since the beginning of the decade, when Klein stepped down from his chancellor position to join the company. In November 2010, News Corp acquired Wireless Generation for $360 million. Wireless Generation had several contracts with the NYC Department of Education: building its student data warehouse, ARIS, and writing the algorithm for School of One, a math program that delivered personalized “playlists” of instruction.
None of this was popular in New York City — not Klein, not School of One, not Aris — it’s worth noting. And the news of an education division also came on the heels of an inquiry into News Corp’s phone hacking scandal. Any honest observer knew Amplify was doomed from the outset.
In the spring of 2013, Amplify unveiled its new tablet at a splashy launch at SXSWedu. In the fall of that year, one of its main customers, Guildford County Public Schools in North Carolina, announced it was recalling all the devices in use in the district after reports that a student’s charger had melted. There were other flaws too: broken screens on about 1500 of its tablets. By 2015, rumors spread that News Corp was winding down Amplify’s hardware business. But it turned out, News Corp wanted out of the education business altogether, placing Amplify up for sale. The company was sold to the Emerson Collective, the venture firm run by Laurene Powell Jobs, for an undisclosed sum.
Rose Crowned Fruit Dove
15. Jeffrey Epstein and the MIT Media Lab
“A decade before #MeToo, a multimillionaire sex offender from Florida got the ultimate break,” Julie K. Brown wrote in The Miami Herald in 2018, detailing the sweetheart plea agreement that Jeffrey Epstein had received that helped him stay out of prison despite a 53-page federal indictment for sexual abuse and sex trafficking. But in July of this year, Epstein was arrested in New York and charged with sex trafficking. Epstein committed suicide while waiting for his trial, an act that has spawned numerous conspiracy theories.
Unsealed documents linked Epstein to a sex ring in which girls were forced to have sex with a number of powerful men, including Prince Andrew, former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, and AI pioneer Marvin Minsky. Indeed, many scientists had continued to take Epstein’s money, even after he was jailed in 2007 for soliciting sex with a girl. Among those, Joi Ito, the head of the MIT Media Lab, who posted an apology to his blog for taking money for the Lab as well as for his own startup endeavors. There was, no surprise, a huge outcry, and several professors resigned their positions there. (Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte, on the other hand, said that taking Epstein’s money was justified and that relying on billionaires’ largesse was what made the work there possible.) An article in The New Yorker by Ronan Farrow detailed how Ito and others at the Media Lab had covered up Epstein’s donations. Less than a day after it was published, Ito resigned.
Accepting the 2019 Barlow/Pioneer Award from the EFF, danah boyd called for a “great reckoning” in the tech industry, but we will have to wait until the next decade for that apparently. What will come first: that great reckoning? Or Ito’s return to tech?
The Shared Learning Collaborative was introduced in 2011: “Shared Tools for Teachers: There’s an App for That!,” the Gates Foundation’s Vicki Phillips wrote enthusiastically. Her post explained the possibility of a “huge app store — just for teachers — with the Netflix and Facebook capabilities we love the most.” The Shared Learning Collaborative, she explained, was funded by a$87 million grant from the Gates Foundation and backed by the Council of Chief State School Officers (an organization of state school superintendents that was a major proponent of the Common Core State Standards). The Shared Learning Collaborative had contracted with Wireless Generation to build the Shared Learning Infrastructure, Phillips said, which was to be open source and was designed to deliver “a less expensive, more connected way to store student data with the potential to make student learning more personal.” It’s like she had no idea how many warning bells her post would set off.
SLI was to be comprised of several components, including a student data warehouse, a database of educational content, and a set of APIs that would supposedly move administrative, assessment, and behavioral data about students in and out of various applications and in and out of the main data store. Agreeing to take part in a pilot were districts in Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, North Carolina, Colorado, Louisiana, Georgia, and Delaware.
The Shared Learning Collaborative named a new CEO in 2012: Iwan Streichenberger, a former executive at the interactive whiteboard maker Promethean. And it made its formal debut, rebranded as inBloom, at the 2013 SXSWedu conference, where Streichenberger appeared on stage with Bill Gates.
The organization faced concerns from the outset. A connection to the unpopular Common Core State Standards didn’t help what appeared to be yet another ed-reform effort bankrolled by Bill Gates. The involvement of News Corp’s Wireless Generation irked parents in New York City, one of the districts that was supposed to pilot the technology; And then, of course, there were the fears about data privacy and security. As The New York Times’ Natasha Singer reported, “The inBloom database included more than 400 different data fields about students that school administrators could fill in. But some of the details seemed so intimate — including family relationships (“foster parent” or “father’s significant other”) and reasons for enrollment changes (“withdrawn due to illness” or “leaving school as a victim of a serious violent incident”) — that parents objected, saying that they did not want that kind of information about their children transferred to a third-party vendor.”
Parent protests and lawsuits prompted states to withdraw their participation in the pilot project, and inBloom suffered a major blog when the state of New York passed legislation that restricted its Department of Education from contracting with companies to store and aggregate student data. A little over a year after its launch at SXSWedu, and $100 million in funding later, CEO Streichenberger announced inBloom would be shutting down.
13. Blockchain Anything
There is no good reason to use Blockchain technologies — in education or otherwise. The Blockchain will not prevent cheating. It will not stop people from lying on their resume. It will not make it easier for students to request a copy of their school transcripts. It will not improve college retention rates. It would not have prevented the “college admissions scandal.”
12. The New GED
The GED exam was developed during WWII to award enlisted soldiers who’d left high school before they could graduate a credential indicating that they had the academic skills equivalent to those represented by a high school diploma. The GED has since been used by those who, for whatever reason — fighting fascism or otherwise — did not graduate from high school but still needed to demonstrate they were prepared for employment or educational opportunities.
In 2014, a new GED test, created by the education giant Pearson, went into effect. Aligned to meet new Common Core State Standards, the revised exam was much, much tougher, focusing on “college readiness” rather than the previous emphasis on “workforce readiness”. The new version was also administered via computer — arguably a barrier to many test-takers unfamiliar with the devices — and the price of the test shot up from $80 to $120. Credit cards only, thank you very much. “About 86,500 people passed the new test in 2014, compared with 540,535 in 2013,” The Daily Beast reported.
Although the passing rate for the GED has inched up since then, the number of test-takers has remained low. Less than half as many people took the test in 2017 than in 2012. (To be fair, there are also a number of alternatives to the GED these days.) And as the National Center for Education Statistics stopped collecting GED data in 2013, it’s not entirely clear what has happened to those adults who might be seeking alternative credentials. What we do know: not only has the GED test got tougher — thanks Pearson — federal funding for adult education has also taken a hit during this decade. All that, alongside a steady stream of ed-tech propaganda about the overblown promises of traditional diplomas and degrees and about the potential for new, privatized education alternatives.
AltSchool was founded in 2013 by Max Ventilla, a former Google executive (his Q&A company Aardvark was acquired by Google in 2010, but he’d worked at the tech giant previously too). When he departed Google, Techcrunch speculated that his next project would be education-related, based on a tweet from his wife — a photograph of a pile of education-related books. Embracing the Silicon Valley mantra of “fail fast and pivot,” Ventilla took that reading list and jumped headfirst into education, hiring engineers and teachers (reportedly hiring one engineer for every teacher) and starting a new, for-profit school. Almost immediately, he was able to raise venture capital for his idea — $33 million in 2014 from the likes of Andreessen-Horowitz.
Silicon Valley loved the idea, of AltSchool, and the investment dollars kept rolling in — almost $180 million in total. In 2015, Wired gushed that Altschool could “save education” through its blend of personalized learning and surveillance technologies. But some parents began to push back, claiming that their children were being used as “guinea pigs” for the startup’s untested software and unproven teaching methods. With an ambitious plan to scale, AltSchool found itself burning through money at an unsustainable pace — $40 million a year according to some reports, and it began shuttering schools instead of opening them.
In June of this year, AltSchool “called it quits,” rebranding as Altitude Learning and planning to sell its software and professional development services to schools.
Red Knobbed Imperial Pigeon
10. Google for Education
In April 2010, Oregon became the first state to open up Google Apps for Education to all its public schools. “This move is going to save the Department of Education $1.5 million per year — big bucks for a hurting budget,” Google boasted on its blog. And for a while, the news was full of stories about this state or that state, this district or that district “going Google” (as well as a fair number of PR from Microsoft about those who opted to stay with its suite of office and email products).
Google introduced the Chromebooks in 2011, and although the hardware was largely panned, Chromebooks found a receptive customer base in education, happy to have a cheaper alternative to the more expensive Apple or Microsoft devices — perfect for the new online assessments designed for the Common Core. (Apple sneers about this. No surprise as Chromebooks now make up 60% of all laptops and tablets sold to K-12 schools, up from 5% in 2012.) In 2014, the company launched Classroom, its free pseudo-LMS, one of many products aimed at the education market — aimed at making Google the platform for education.
But at what cost comes “free”? Google continues to data mine its education products — it won’t say exactly what data it collects from students. And the company has faced several lawsuits from students over whether the data that’s scanned is used in advertising, still Google’s main business.
It isn’t just the use of student data to fuel Google’s business that’s a problem; it’s the use of teachers as marketers and testers. “It’s a private company very creatively using public resources — in this instance, teachers’ time and expertise — to build new markets at low cost,” UCLA professor Patricia Burch told The New York Times in 2017 as part of its lengthy investigation into “How Google Took Over the Classroom.”
9. Virtual Charter Schools
According to recent data from the Department of Education (as reported by Education Week), “half of all virtual charter high schools had graduation rates below 50 percent in the 2016-17 school year. Thirty-seven percent of schools had graduation rates at or above 50 percent. Graduation data for the remaining 13 percent of schools was masked for various reasons, such as to protect student privacy. There are about 163 virtual charter schools educating over 30,000 seniors nationally as determined by the adjusted cohort graduation rate, according to federal numbers.” In some states — Indiana, for example — not a single virtual charter school has had a graduation rate over 50% for the past four years.
One of the largest studies of online charters, published by Stanford in 2015, found that students in these schools had less contact with a teacher in a week than students in traditional, brick-and-mortar schools have in a day, and their academic progress was so poor that it was almost like not going to school at all.
And yet, despite the abysmal performance of virtual charters, states have struggled to hold these (largely) for-profit endeavors accountable. There were the odd lawsuit, to be sure. K12 Inc, one of the best known virtual charter chains, reached a $8.5 settlement with the state of California in 2016 after it was accused of false advertising and inadequate instruction. In Indiana, two virtual charters were accused of “counting toward their enrollment thousands of students who either never signed up for or completed classes,” collecting almost $10 million in state funding along the way. In Ohio, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, claimed to serve some 15,000 students, but state officials found the virtual charter school was significantly inflating its numbers and said the school owed back $80 million in funding. (ECOT was forced to close in 2018.)
But in spite of the lousy education and unethical business practices, profits at virtual charters are up. K12 Inc, for example, announced this summer that for the first time its history, its revenue had topped $1 billion.
8. LAUSD's iPad Initiative
In 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District awarded a $30 million contract for Apple, paving the way (supposedly) for an ambitious $1.3 billion plan to give every student in the district an iPad. (It was such a big deal that Apple issued the rare press release.)
There were critics from the outset. Some felt as though the plan was too expensive — the district would pay $678 per device, much higher than the retail cost — and the district’s infrastructure was inadequate for the new demands on its WiFi capacity. Others said that the project was being rushed; the software and curriculum — built by Pearson — was not ready. Still others feared that there hadn’t been sufficient training for teachers on how to incorporate the devices into their classroom and that there hadn’t been the necessary plans for security.
Indeed, almost as soon as the first iPads reached students’ hands, there were reports that students had “hacked” their devices. (In truth, they had merely worked to bypass some of the administrative controls the district had placed on them.) The district quickly put an end to students bringing their iPads home after disputes over who was responsible for lost or stolen devices. The rollout was, from the outset, a total fiasco.
Then, in 2014, local NPR affiliate KPCC launched an investigation into how the district had struck its deal with Apple and Pearson in the first place, publishing emails between the Superintendent John Deasy and Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino. New allegations surfaced that the bidding process for the project had been unfair. “I don't know why there would have to be an RFP,” one Pearson sales executive had said. Deasy resigned in October, and the district canceled its contract with Apple. In December 2014, the FBI raided district offices, taking with them some 20 boxes of materials pertaining to an investigation into the iPad program. (The federal inquiry ended in 2017 with no charges.)
In 2015, the school board voted on a $6.5 million settlement with Apple over the project. But that money, the district later clarified, would actually be paid by Pearson.
7. ClassDojo and the New Behaviorism
ClassDojo was founded in 2011 and, thanks to the help of over $66 million in venture funding, has become one of the most popular ed-tech apps of the decade — used, according to its website, in 95% of US schools. Originally designed as a behavioral management tool — monitoring, tracking, and rewarding student behavior — it is more apt these days to describe itself as a communication tool: “ClassDojo connects teachers with students and parents to build amazing classroom communities.” ClassDojo has helped behavioral engineering creep from the school into the home.
Increasingly ClassDojo has framed itself as the tool for schools wanting to enhance “social emotional learning,”, developing animations and lessons about “growth mindsets,” “grit,” and “mindfulness.”
ClassDojo and other types of behavior management products claim that they help develop “correct behavior” and “right mindsets.” But what exactly does “correct behavior” entail? And what does it mean if schools entrust this definition to for-profit companies and their version of psychological expertise? As Ben Williamson has observed, “social-emotional learning is the product of a fast policy network of ‘psy’ entrepreneurs, global policy advice, media advocacy, philanthropy, think tanks, tech R&D and venture capital investment. Together, this loose alliance of actors has produced shared vocabularies, aspirations, and practical techniques of measurement of the ‘behavioural indicators’ of classroom conduct that correlate to psychologically-defined categories of character, mindset, grit, and other personal qualities of social-emotional learning.” These indicators encourage behaviors that are measurable and manageable, Williamson contends, but SEL also encourages characteristics like malleability and compliance — and all that fits nicely with the “skills” that a corporate vision of education would demand from students and future workers.
6. "Everyone Should Learn to Code"
Over and over and over this past decade, we were told that “everyone should learn to code.” We were told there is a massive “skills gap”: too few people have studied science, technology, engineering, or math; and employers cannot find enough skilled workers to fill jobs in those fields. But these claims about a shortage of technical workers are debatable, and there’s plenty of data to indicate otherwise: wages in STEM fields have remained flat, for example, and many who graduate with certain STEM degrees cannot find work in their field. In other words, the crisis may be “a myth.”
But it’s a powerful myth, and one that isn’t terribly new, dating back at least to the launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and subsequent hand-wringing over the Soviets’ technological capabilities and technical education as compared to the US system.
The “jobs of the future” — when pundits and politicians claim to know what they’ll be — will be highly technical and will require computer programming, we’ve been told. The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests otherwise: two of the fastest growing jobs in the next decade will home health aides and personal care aides — jobs that pay less than $25,000 a year.
But the tech industry has funded plenty of startups, not to mention much of the narrative about learning to code. Politicians have got in on the action as well — take then NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg, who tweeted in 2012 that his New Year’s Resolution would be learning to code with Codecademy. Thanks in no small part to industry lobbying, legislation passed in some 24 states making computer science a graduation requirement. No matter how useful you believe “computational thinking” to be, this is clearly a powerful industry reshaping curriculum.
All the while, the technology industry has continued to struggle with diversity, despite claiming that it’s working to hire more people of color and women. So if, indeed, schools are forced to bend to Silicon Valley’s will, education will be molded to suit an industry that remains at best exclusionary and at worst utterly toxic.
Luzon Bleeding Heart Dove
In the fall of 2014, Deadspin writer Kyle Wagner declared that “The Future Of The Culture Wars Is Here, And It's Gamergate.” “What we have in Gamergate,” he wrote “is a glimpse of how these skirmishes will unfold in the future—all the rhetorical weaponry and siegecraft of an internet comment section brought to bear on our culture, not just at the fringes but at the center. What we're seeing now is a rehearsal, where the mechanisms of a toxic and inhumane politics are being tested and improved.” He was right.
Just a few months earlier, “an angry 20-something ex-boyfriend published a 9,425-word screed and set in motion a series of vile events that changed the way we fight online,” The New York Times recently recalled. “The post, which exhaustively documented the last weeks of his breakup with the video game designer Zoë Quinn, was annotated and punctuated with screenshots of their private digital correspondence — emails, Facebook messages and texts detailing fights and rehashing sexual histories. It was a manic, all-caps rant made to go viral. And it did. The ex-boyfriend’s claims were picked up by users on Reddit and 4chan and the abuse began.” “Gamergate,” as the online harassment campaign came to be called, merged old troll tactics with new troll tactics; and it is clear that it “prototyped the rise of harassment influencers” and the alt-right: Steve Bannon and Breitbart, Milo Yiannopoulos, Mike Cernovich.
If your response here is “what does this have to do with education,” you haven’t been paying attention. It isn’t just that games-based education has had to reckon with Gamergate. (Or not reckon with it, as the case may be. Markus Persson, the creator of Minecraft, acquired by Microsoft in 2014, likes to use the word “feminist” as an insult and has claimed that gender doesn’t exist in Minecraft — a game where the main character is a blocky dude called Steve, for crying out loud.) The Verge recently wrote that “As misinformation and hate continues to radicalize young people online, teachers are also grappling with helping their students unlearn incorrect, dangerous information. ‘It has made a lot of us teachers more cautious,’ they say. ‘We want to challenge our students to explore new ways of thinking, to see the cultural meaning and power of video games, but we’re understandably anxious and even scared about the possible results.’”
4. "The Year of the MOOC"
The New York Times declared 2012 “the Year of the MOOC.” And I chose "The Year of the MOOC" rather than "The MOOC" as the big disaster because I wanted to underscore how much of the problem here was the PR, the over-promising and the universities and startups believing their own hype.
The hype about massive open online courses really began in late 2011, with huge enrollment in three computer science courses that Stanford offered for free online during the Fall semester, along with the announcement of MITx in December. But starting in January 2012, the headlines — and the wild promises — about MOOCs were incessant: Sebastian Thrun announced he was leaving Stanford to found Udacity, predicting that in 50 years, “there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them”; Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller unveiled their new startup, Coursera; and MIT and Harvard announced the formation of edX. Hundreds of millions of dollars of investment were funneled into these (and other) MOOC providers. Universities scrambled to publicize their partnerships with them. (In June 2012, the University of Virginia Board of Trustees fired President Teresa Sullivan, contending she was too slow to jump on the MOOC bandwagon even though the school was already in talks to join Coursera.)
MOOCs, like so many ed-tech products, were declared “revolutionary,” with hundreds of thousands of students signing up to listen to video-recorded lectures, take online quizzes, and chat in forums. (The technology, despite the deep computer science knowledge of the venture-capital backed MOOCs’ founders, was mostly crap.) Hundreds of thousands of students signed up, but very very few finished the courses (and most “successful” MOOC students already had college degrees) — a potential counter to any claim that these free online classes were going to extend educational opportunities to everyone and replace a university education. The dropping-out was often dismissed as a feature, not a bug. Students were just curious; they never planned on completing the course, advocates insisted.
But as MOOC providers started to work more closely with universities to offer their courses for credit, the low completion rates (arguably) mattered more. In a high profile announcement in early 2013, California Jerry Brown, San Jose State University President Mo Qayoumi, and Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun unveiled a pilot program that marked a first for the state: San Jose State would award college credits for special versions of select Udacity classes. The program would “end college as we know it,” Techcrunch cooed. But just a few months later, citing concerns about the quality of the courses, San Jose State put the project on pause. “We have a lousy product,” Sebastian Thrun told Fast Company that fall, saying with a shrug he didn’t even like the word “MOOC.”
Investors continued to fund MOOCs nonetheless. Coursera has raised over $310 million. (Richard Levin, the former President of Yale who led that schools failed online initiative AllLearn back in the early 2000s, was briefly CEO.) Udacity has raised some $160 million. But even with all that venture capital to keep the lights on, MOOCs have had to look for some sort of revenue model. So gone — mostly gone, at least — are the free online courses. Gone are the free certificates. The MOOC revolution simply wasn’t.
3. Venture Capitalism
Billions of dollars of venture capitalism has been funneled into education technology this decade. And this list demonstrates what we have to show for it.
2. (Venture) Philanthropy
Billions of dollars of (venture) philanthropy has been funneled into education technology this decade. And this list demonstrates what we have to show for it.
In many ways, philanthropy and venture capital worked hand-in-hand — the former set the policy agenda for ed-tech and the latter fueled the entrepreneurs and stoked the market for it.
The Gates Foundation has continued to have an outsized influence in shaping public policy (even though Gates has admitted that his initiatives haven’t had a great track record).
He has been joined this decade by other tech billionaires — by Mark Zuckerberg, for example. The Facebook founder made his first, high profile education donation in 2010, announcing on Oprah, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker at his side, his plans to give the city’s schools $100 million. In 2012, Zuckerberg launched the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, he and his wife Priscilla Chan’s philanthropic company. And it is, to be clear, a company, not a foundation — a business structure that gives Zuckerberg more control in investing in for-profit companies and in political causes, as The New York Times explained.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos also announced a philanthropic effort (that is, when he’s not spending his billions on funding space travel).His new philanthropic effort would fund and operate “a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities.” “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” Bezos wrote in a note posted to Twitter. “Most important among these will be genuine intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”
These philanthropists’ visions for the future of education and education technology mirror their own businesses: the child will be the customer. The child’s data will be mined. The child’s education will be personalized.
1. Anti-School Shooter Software
The most awful education technology development of the decade wasn’t bankrolled by billionaire philanthropists. Rather it emerged from a much sicker impulse: capitalism's comfort with making money off of tragedy. It emerged from this country’s inability to address gun violence in any meaningful way. And that is despite a decade that saw a steady rise in the number of school shootings. “10 years. 180 school shootings. 356 victims,” CNN reported this summer. That is despite, at the beginning of the decade, a shooting that left 20 second graders dead. instead of gun reform, we got anti-school shooter software, a culmination sadly of so many of the trends on this list: surveillance, personalization, data mining, profiling, Internet radicalization, predictive analytics.
For a while, many ed-tech evangelists would bristle when I tried to insist that school security systems and anti-school shooting software were ed-tech. But in the last year or so, it’s getting harder to deny that’s the case. Perhaps because there’s clearly a lot of money to be made in selling schools these products and services: shooting simulation software, facial recognition technology, metal detectors, cameras, social media surveillance software, panic buttons, clear backpacks, bulletproof backpacks, bulletproof doors, emergency lockdown notification apps, insurance policies, bleeding control training programs, armed guards, and of course armed teachers.
“Does It Make More Sense to Invest in School Security or SEL?” Edsurge asked in 2018. Those are the choices education technology now has for us apparently: surveillance or surveillance.
What an utter failure.
Victoria Crowned Pigeon