I want us to set the bar really high when it comes to education technology -- both in its development and its implementation. I don't think it's too much to ask. I mean, we're talking about teaching and learning here, and while I believe strongly we should all be lifelong learners, most often when we talk about ed-tech, we're talking about kids. As the Macarthur Foundation's Connie Yowell said at the recent DML conference (and I'm paraphrasing), there's value in risk-taking and failing fast and often, but not in "high stakes environments with other people's children."

When I talk to ed-tech entrepreneurs, I try to go into the conversation with both high expectations, lots of support, and loads of skepticism. Sure, I'm always keen to hear about their products or services, but I also want to know more about their educational philosophies and experiences, the stories that led them to found ed-tech startups, and their vision for the future of education. And like it or not, I judge startups on all of this -- what they've built, why they've built it -- perhaps not always overtly, perhaps not always consciously, and perhaps not always rigorously or even fairly. There's really no scorecard, and there's no formal rubric as I do so.

So when I was asked if my thought-processes were akin to Stack Overflow co-founder Joel Spolsky's "Joel Test" -- and if I could write a similar "Audrey Test" for education -- I admit, I balked.

For those unfamiliar, the Joel Test involves 12 quick yes-or-no questions that can help ascertain the quality of your software development team: Do you use source control? Do you fix bugs before writing new code? Do you have a spec? and so on.

Despite all my critiques and interviews and assessments, I'm not sure I can create a comparable test for techies in education.

Yes or No Questions

I could, I suppose come up with a list of yes-or-no questions about what ed-tech entrepreneurs and engineers should do:

  • Do you work closely your potential users (teachers or students, for example) about product development?
  • Do you offer data portability -- not just for administrative data, but for students' own information?
  • Is your tool available across platforms?
  • Are you open source?
  • Do you offer an API?
  • Is your educational content openly licensed?
  • Is it accessible to those with disabilities?
  • Do you have a revenue strategy that involves something other than raising VC investment?
  • Does your product reduce the "achievement gap"?

But answering "yes" to all or most of these questions doesn't begin to capture all the things that I'd want to know. What you do with your code or your content or your users' data -- while incredibly important -- is only be part of what I "test."

The Essay Questions

If I were to really formalize such an "Audrey test," I think it would also have to involve what you know, what you think about education, about teaching, about learning, about politics and theory and practice -- its history, its present, its future.

I rail a lot against what I describe as our "ed-tech amnesia," this mistaken notion that suddenly in the last year or so, technology has entered the classroom. This amnesia means we forget that chalkboards and paperclips are also technologies. And even if we just consider computers, there's still a lengthy history. So the "Audrey test," if I were to write one, would likely demand you know some of it:

  • Who is Seymour Papert?
  • What is Logo? Squeak? Scratch?
  • What is PLATO?
  • Re: all those technologies listed above:  what's happened?
  • What's a MOOC? Where did it originate, and why?

The test would also expect you to be familiar with various theories of learning:

  • What is constructivism? Constructionism? Connectivism?
  • Who is Paolo Freire? John Dewey? B.F. Skinner?  (Why does knowing these names matter?)
  • What is Bloom's Taxonomy?
  • How do things like "self-efficacy" and "stereotype threat" shape learning?
  • What's peer instruction? What's direct instruction?  What are their benefits and weaknesses?
  • What's project-based learning?  What's inquiry-based learning?  
  • What are the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?  So what?

It would also be important to understand the history of laws and policies governing education and education technology:

  • What is FERPA? COPPA? CIPA?
  • What is the Common Core?
  • When did standardized testing via multiple choice examination originate?
  • What are charter schools?
  • Who were/are the originators and proponents of these policies?

You should know what the realities of technology in the classroom actually look like:

  • What's the ratio of computer to student in U.S. public schools? How are computers used? (i.e. for testing? for hacking? for keyboarding or word processing skills?) Do all students across grades, genders, and skill-levels have equitable access?
  • What is the availability of high speed Internet -- at school and at home?
  • How many K-12 students own a cellphone? A smartphone?
  • Who pays for technology in the classroom?
  • What, if anything, does technology in the classroom change?
  • What does educational content going digital change? 

You should understand the prevailing political narratives surrounding education and education technology in this country and be able to respond critically, not just parrot the ed-reform or Ed Department's party line:

  • Are schools failing? If you answer "yes," then why are they failing? How do you know this? Who/what's to blame?  And how do you know this?
  • Who benefits from this "failure narrative"?
  • Is technology the answer? 
  • How do you know if technology works to enhance learning? How and what do you measure?
  • Why do you mean by "scaling" education?

And finally -- and this would certainly require some reflective self-examination here:

  • What are your own experiences with learning? With school? With teachers? How do these experiences shape how you approach teaching, learning, schooling and un-schooling?
  • Are you an autodidact? Is everyone?
  • Have you ever taught? Have you ever taught online?
  • Have you ever taken a course online?
  • Who was your favorite teacher, and why?
  • What are you learning now? How?

What is the purpose of education technology?

What is the purpose of education?

Answers due Thursday. All answers final.  No late work accepted. No extra credit, and there will be no curve. This will go down on your permanent record.  Show your work. Cite your sources. No cheating. No talking. No using Wikipedia.    

Or not.  Let's all share our questions and our answers and talk among ourselves. This is not a test...

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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