What's Next for Hack Education
1 January 2019 | 4:10 pm

I’m making some major changes to Hack Education this year – and no, not because I’ve received venture capital and my investors have told me I have to rewrite the publication’s mission statement again. That’s a different site you’re thinking of…

For a good portion of the year, Hack Education will go dormant. (The archives, I would note, are rich here. Read up.) I’m no longer going to write the Friday “Hack Education Weekly News,” my chronicle of all the education, technology, and ed-tech news of the week. I’m ending that series because I’m no longer going to write my lengthy series on the year-in-review either. Not in 2019 at least, as I have to focus on Teaching Machines (the draft is due in April and the final manuscript due in September).

Once the book is done, I plan to return to writing on this site and to publishing essays analyzing what’s happened and happening in education and technology. Many of these will be historical, since it seems that so many people who work in ed-tech are utterly ignorant (even purposefully ignorant) of the field’s rich (but troubling) history. Some of these will respond to the latest happenings, but I want the work I do here on Hack Education to be less reactive to the bad stuff that gets trotted out daily as “innovation.” I don’t want to have to read the ed-tech publications that make me so deeply sad about what’s being peddled and promoted and so deeply disappointed about people’s willingness to read and write and buy that crap. The way we get better and smarter will not be through these ed-tech’s marketers and hucksters.

I am hoping that the shift away from compiling all the goings-on for that weekly news round-up will give me more time to think deeply and critically about education and technology, instead of perpetually being enraged by how many terrible and silly things are marketed as “solutions” by folks who just want to sell a product or service – some aware, some unaware that their very well-funded load of futurist bullshit is pretty damn dystopian.

This site will remain vulture free. No investors, philanthropists, corporate sponsors, or advertisers. Just pigeons.


The Business of 'Ed-Tech Trends'
31 December 2018 | 4:10 pm

This is the second part of my much-abbreviated look at the stories that were told about education technology in 2018 – and in this case, the people who funded the storytellers.

When I first started working as a tech reporter, I assumed – naively – that venture capitalists were smart people who did thorough research before funding a company. They are, after all, typically investing someone else’s money. One should be conscientious, as such. Right? I assumed that they looked to see if the company could do what it promised – financially, technologically. I assumed they checked to see if the idea was sound, the founders trustworthy.

Ha.

One of the best books I read this year was Bad Blood by WSJ journalist John Carreyou. It chronicles the rise and fall of Theranos, a company that promised to revolutionize the medical industry by running a complete slate of tests using only a drop of blood (rather than the more voluminous quantity of blood that can be rather frightening to have drawn). Its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, dropped out of Stanford to start the company when she was just 19. With a media blitz that included a popular TED Talk, Holmes steered the company to a valuation of nearly $9 billion, raising over $700 million in funding. There was just one problem: it was all a deception. The technology did not work. And the phony test results put people’s lives at risk.

In June, Holmes and her boyfriend were indicted on a number of charges, including conspiracy and wire fraud, and they could face time in prison. (I bet they won’t.)

John Warner made the connection between Theranos and ed-tech in an op-ed published on Inside Higher Ed, noting the parallels between the claims about companies poised to revolutionize education, often made by those without much experience or expertise in teaching and learning and the claims that Holmes and her company made – claims that those with experience and expertise (biologists and chemists and medical engineers, for example) knew simply weren’t true.

Nevertheless Holmes was able to tap into a network of powerful, wealthy conservatives, including George Schultz and Henry Kissinger and others connected to the Hoover Institution at Stanford. Networks matter. They matter to who gets funded more than any of those naive ideas I had about the key being good ideas or good businesses or good people. Reporting in May, John Carreyou noted that among those who’d lost the most money by investing in Theranos were the Walton Family, Betsy DeVos, Rupert Murdoch, and Carlos Slim – all also major (conservative) funders of charter schools and ed-tech.

Bad blood indeed. It runs pretty thick.

Follow the Money


But hey, it was another record-setting year for ed-tech investment. Here’s the year by the numbers:

  • Investment dollars: $4.46 billion
  • Number of investment deals: 187
  • Average investment size: $26 million / Median investment size: $5.2 million
  • Number of acquisitions: 109
  • Number of spinoffs: 1
  • Number of mergers: 9
  • Number of IPOs: 4
  • Number added to the “ed-tech dead pool”: 10

All that money. All that activity.

A closer look reveals a lot of illness too, a lot of exploitation, a number of criminal convictions, and a lot of uncertainty about the shape of the future of education.

The Biggest Investments of 2018


The companies that raised the most money this year:

  • BYJU’s (tutoring): $540 million
  • VIPKID (tutoring): $500 million
  • Zuoyebang (tutoring): $350 million
  • Yuanfudao (tutoring): $250 million
  • 17zuoye (tutoring): $200 million
  • Peilian.com (music education): $150 million
  • DreamBox Learning (adaptive learning): $130 million
  • Zhangmen (tutoring): $120 million
  • Connexeo (school administration software): $110 million
  • DadaABC (English language learning): $100 million
  • Knowbox (tutoring): $100 million

(You can see the complete list of investments here.)

As far as I can tell, these are now the most well-funded ed-tech startups (that is, those education companies which have not gone public):

  • SoFi (student loans): $2.16 billion
  • VIPKID (tutoring): $825 million
  • CommonBond (student loans): $803.6 million
  • BYJUs (tutoring): $784 million
  • DadaABC.com (English language learning): $608.9 million
  • Zuoyebang (tutoring): $585 million
  • 17zuoye (tutoring): $585 million
  • EverFi (“critical skills” training): $251 million
  • Yuanfudao (tutoring) –- $244.2 million
  • Coursera (online education): $210.1 million
  • Knewton (adaptive learning): $182.3 million
  • Age of Learning (educational apps): $181.5 million
  • DreamBox Learning (adaptive learning): $175.6 million
  • Udemy (skills training): $173 million
  • AltSchool (private school; learning management system): $172.9 million
  • D2L (learning management system): $165 million
  • Udacity (skills training): $160 million

All great investments, I'm sure.

Notable Investment Trends


The most well-funded types of education company this year were those who offered tutoring. Tutoring, to be clear, here mostly means test prep.

It’s worth noting, I think, that tutoring as the preferential method of instruction is deeply intertwined with the long history of computer-assisted instruction and “intelligent tutoring systems.” Tutoring is the cornerstone of technological fantasies about “personalized learning.” You’ll often hear its advocates invoke Benjamin Bloom’s 1984 study on “the 2 Sigma Problem” and claim that one-on-one tutoring is radically effective at improving student outcomes. The results of Bloom’s investigation are a little suspect; or at least, they’ve never been replicated. But before the 1980s and since, many education technologists have been convinced that tutoring is the best form of instruction – far, far surpassing “traditional” classroom instruction – and that the only way that we can reach the goal of one tutor per child is to use the computer as the tutor.

Investors in tutoring companies this year included Warbug Pincus, Goldman Sachs, Learn Capital, Y Combinator, the Omidyar Network, Sequoia Capital, TAL Education, Tencent, Google, and of course, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Not all of these tutoring companies rely on AI or adaptive teaching, although that is a big selling point of some of them. Many of them take advantage of the “gig economy,” using low-wage freelance workers (many of whom are teachers working a second job) as tutors. It’s “flexible, interactive, and fun” sponsored content on Edsurge wants its readers to know.

Of the twenty some-odd tutoring companies that raised funding this year, ten were Chinese. As you can see from the list above, these accounted for some of the largest funding rounds of 2018, and Chinese tutoring companies are now some of the most well-funded education startups.

Chinese tutoring company TAL Education also invested in Edsurge this year – so watch its message about “personalized learning” and tutoring – a message backed by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative too – grow much louder, with little recognition of how tutoring exacerbates educational inequalities.

Bad Investments and Unhealthy Markets


The record level of investment dollars belies the health of the education sector. 2018 saw the lowest number of deals in recent history, as larger companies gained multi-multi-million dollar rounds. Although the number of acquisitions appeared strong, many of those were deals by private equity, which is often a sign that a disastrous restructuring is poised to take place. (One of the most active acquirers this year was the private equity firm Francisco Partners, which bought Discovery Education, Renaissance Learning, and MyON.)

Neither Pearson nor Blackboard, companies that were quite active in gobbling up startups a year or so ago, bought a single company this year. Microsoft bought three companies in 2018. ACT and TurnItIn both bought two. (You can see the complete list of acquisitions here.)

Perhaps the biggest acquisition of the year was Edmodo. Well, it wasn’t big financially. It was big as in bad. China’s NetDragon paid $137.5 million for Edmodo – only about $15 million of which was cash. Not a great outcome for a company that had raised over $77 million in venture funding and had been lauded as the future of social learning. “EdTech fails to pay, again,” The Financial Times chuckled.

Why, it was just a few years ago that Pearson sold off The Financial Times, wasn’t it, in the hopes that a restructured company could make ed-tech pay. How quickly we forget…

The industry’s fixation on “the future of learning” certainly seems to prevent many people from taking a good look at the past. And my, isn’t it always fun to revisit some of ed-tech’s darlings of yore.

In 2017, for example, Edsurge informed its readers that “MissionU Says It Can Replace Traditional College With a One-Year Program.” One year later, in May of this year, Edsurge informed its readers that MissionU would cease operations. (You can see a list of all the companies that joined the ed-tech “deadpool” here.) In 2012, Wired Magazine proclaimed that Udacity “could change higher learning forever.” Techcrunch asserted that Udacity would “end college as we know it.” Udacity’s founder Sebastian Thrun predicted 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.” This year, Udacity ended its money-back guarantee. It upped the price of its “nanodegrees.” (Its MOOC competitor edX also announced this year that many of its courses would no longer be free.) Udacity laid off about a quarter of its staff mid-year. And its CEO stepped down.

Vive la MOOC révolution.

The Privatization of Education


Speaking of MOOCs, Phil Hill astutely observed earlier this year that many MOOCs and for-profit companies were altering their products and services so as to become online program management providers: “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try To Be An OPM.”

The growing reliance on OPMs is part of a larger trend of outsourcing and privatization – and certainly not all of this occurs online, as the “coding bootcamp” trend underscores. (Among the coding bootcamps raising money this year: Trilogy Education, which raised $50 million, and Galvanize, which raised $25 million. Among the startups that closed their doors this year: coding bootcamp Learners Guild.)

The original OPM is probably the learning management system. Watch everyone (AltSchool, Summit Learning) try to become LMSes.

Another recommendation for a 2018 book on how corporations are reshaping public education to suit their needs: The University of Nike by Joshua Hunt.

Ed-Tech and IT Authoritarianism


If I were writing my usual, lengthy series on the year’s “trends,” I certainly would have devoted one article to the connection between ed-tech and “IT authoritarianism.” I did make a brief nod to this when I wrote an article analyzing Edsurge’s latest round of funding – a round that included two Chinese investors, test prep company TAL Education and JMD.edu.

China is hardly the only country we should keep an eye on here. It’s hardly the only country willing to surveil, track, and punish students. The US excels at this too, no doubt. We have children in cages, and ICE monitoring schools.

The connections between tech and authoritarianism became a lot more obvious this year, I’d hope.

Perhaps the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi doesn’t seem like a “business of education technology” story. But it matters.

The murder of Khashoggi is a story that is deeply connected to many of the people in the tech and VC industries. It shows how little those in Silicon Valley care for democracy. Silicon Valley has overtly courted Saudi wealth – it has a “Saudi Arabia Problem,” as NYT op-ed writer Anand Giridharadas put it. “Technology companies can no longer turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses of one of their largest investors,” he argued. (MIT, on the other hand, says it’s too lucrative to sever ties.)

At least one major investment vehicle, SoftBank’s Vision Fund – worth about $100 billion – is funded in part by Saudi money. The fund has backed high profile startups like Uber and Doordash and Slack, among others. Among its ed-tech investments: WeWork, SoFi, and perhaps soon Zuoyebang.

When the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman toured the US this year, he hung out with Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Sergey Brin and others. Among those involved in bin Salman’s $500 billion “smart city” project, Neom, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen and former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.

“Smart cities” are authoritarian cities. “Smart cities” are public spaces and public institutions, privatized. The data analysis and surveillance that are at the core of “smart cities” will surely include education data. “Smart cities” will be facilitated by ed-tech, thru the ed-tech industry. This is the future of learning that plenty of folks are hawking.

They’ll tell us they’re doing it for our own good.

The Business of Education Philanthropy


Charity is no substitute for justice withheld, as St. Augustine famously stated. And philanthropy is no substitute for not paying your taxes. But billionaires – tech billionaires and otherwise – all seem convinced that through their philanthropic efforts they can reshape education, reshape how education is funded and what is taught.

Two of the world’s richest men – Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates – were joined by more of the world’s richest men to that end this year. Jack Ma, China’s richest man, announced this fall he was retiring from Alibaba to focus on educational philanthropy. (Alibaba is already active politically in the US, this spring joining ALEC, the right-wing organization that “ghost-writes” state legislation to benefit its corporate members.) Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest man, announced this fall that he was creating a $2 billion fund to address homelessness and to start a chain of “Montessori-inspired” preschools. Like Amazon, but for preschool – “the child will be the customer,” Bezos wrote in his statement.

Bezos was hardly the only person interested in investing in early childhood education. As Rachel Cohen argued in response to his announcement, “preschool is a particularly appealing area for those who like conceptualizing problems in terms of market potential.” The child will be the customer; the child will be the investment, if you will.

Startups providing preschool-related ed-tech services were also popular investments, raising money this year from the likes of the Omidyar Network, Andreessen Horowitz, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Wonderschool, for example, took in $22 million in funding; Brightwheel took in $21 million.

Other areas of investment for Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in 2018 – that is, in addition to tutoring and preschool management software: career placement software, English language learning software, and financial aid management software. (The one ed-tech spinoff this year was the Summit Learning management system, which spun out of the Summit Public Schools charter chain – but not too far out of CZI.) CZI also made a number of grants, which Chalkbeat, a CZI grant recipient itself, helped to identify – the venture philanthropy company remains quite opaque about where its dollars goes.

The lovely thing about these philanthropists is how they fund education journalism to tell the stories they want folks to hear. It’s only later that those journalists say “oh damn, looks like that reform didn’t work out, eh?” But the great thing about being a billionaire tech philanthropist, I guess, is never having to say you’re sorry. Or rather, you never have to actually mean it.

I mean, who’s gonna hold you accountable?!


The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology (2018)
18 December 2018 | 4:10 pm

It’s been quite a year for education news, not that you’d know that by listening to much of the ed-tech industry (press). Subsidized by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, some publications have repeatedly run overtly and covertly sponsored articles that hawk the future of learning as “personalized,” as focused on “the whole child.” Some of these attempt to stretch a contemporary high-tech vision of social emotional surveillance so it can map onto a strange vision of progressive education, overlooking no doubt how the history of progressive education has so often been intertwined with race science and eugenics.

Meanwhile this year, immigrant, refugee children at the United States border were separated from their parents and kept in cages, deprived of legal counsel, deprived of access to education, deprived in some cases of water.

“Whole child” and cages – it’s hardly the only jarring juxtaposition I could point to.

2018 was another year of #MeToo, when revelations about sexual assault and sexual harassment shook almost every section of societythe media and the tech industries, unsurprisingly, but the education sector as well – higher ed, K–12, and non-profits alike, as well school sports all saw major and devastating reports about cultures and patterns of sexual violence. These behaviors were, once again, part of the hearings and debates about a Supreme Court Justice nominee – a sickening deja vu not only for those of us that remember Anita Hill ’s testimony decades ago but for those of us who have experienced something similar at the hands of powerful people. And on and on and on.

And yet the education/technology industry (press) kept up with its rosy repetition that social equality is surely its priority, a product feature even – that VR, for example, a technology it has for so long promised is “on the horizon,” is poised to help everyone, particularly teachers and students, become more empathetic. Meanwhile, the founder of Oculus Rift is now selling surveillance technology for a virtual border wall between the US and Mexico.

2018 was a year in which public school teachers all over the US rose up in protest over pay, working conditions, and funding, striking in red states like West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma despite an anti-union ruling by the Supreme Court.

And yet the education/technology industry (press) was wowed by teacher influencers and teacher PD on Instagram, touting the promise for more income via a side-hustle like tutoring rather by structural or institutional agitation. Don’t worry, teachers. Robots won’t replace you, the press repeatedly said. Unsaid: robots will just de-professionalize, outsource, or privatize the work. Or, as the AI makers like to say, robots will make us all work harder (and no doubt, with no unions, cheaper).

2018 was a year of ongoing and increased hate speech and bullying – racism and anti-Semitism – on campuses and online.

And yet the education/technology industry (press) still maintained that blockchain would surely revolutionize the transcript and help insure that no one lies about who they are or what they know. Blockchain would enhance “smart spending” and teach financial literacy, the ed-tech industry (press) insisted, never once mentioning the deep entanglements between anti-Semitism and the alt-right and blockchain (specifically Bitcoin) backers.

2018 was a year in which hate and misinformation, magnified and spread by technology giants, continued to plague the world. Their algorithmic recommendation engines peddled conspiracy theories (to kids, to teens, to adults). “YouTube, the Great Radicalizer” as sociologist Zeynep Tufekci put it in a NYT op-ed.

And yet the education/technology industry (press) still talked about YouTube as the future of education, cheerfully highlighting (that is, spreading) its viral bullshit. Folks still retyped the press releases Google issued and retyped the press releases Facebook issued, lauding these companies’ (and their founders’) efforts to reshape the curriculum and reshape the classroom.

This is the ninth year that I’ve reviewed the stories we’re being told about education technology. Typically, this has been a ten (or more) part series. But I just can’t do it any more. Some people think it’s hilarious that I’m ed-tech’s Cassandra, but it’s not funny at all. It’s depressing, and it’s painful. And no one fucking listens.

If I look back at what I’ve written in previous years, I feel like I’ve already covered everything I could say about 2018. Hell, I’ve already written about the whole notion of the “zombie idea” in ed-tech – that bad ideas never seem to go away, that just get rebranded and repackaged. I’ve written about misinformation and ed-tech (and ed-tech as misinformation). I’ve written about the innovation gospel that makes people pitch dangerously bad ideas like “Uber for education” or “Alexa for babysitting.” I’ve written about the tech industry’s attempts to reshape the school system as its personal job training provider. I’ve written about the promise to “rethink the transcript” and to “revolutionize credentialing.” I’ve written about outsourcing and online education. I’ve written about coding bootcamps as the “new” for-profit higher ed, with all the exploitation that entails. I’ve written about the dangers of data collection and data analysis, about the loss of privacy and the lack of security.

And yet here we are, with Mark Zuckerberg – education philanthropist and investor – blinking before Congress, promising that AI will fix everything, while the biased algorithms keep churning out bias, while the education/technology industry (press) continues to be so blinded by “disruption” it doesn’t notice (or care) what’s happened to desegregation, and with so many data breaches and privacy gaffes that they barely make headlines anymore.

Folks. I’m done.

I’m also writing a book, and frankly that’s where my time and energy is going.

There is some delicious irony, I suppose, in the fact that there isn’t much that’s interesting or “innovative” to talk about in ed-tech, particularly since industry folks want to sell us on the story that tech is moving faster than it’s ever moved before, so fast in fact that the ol’ factory model school system simply cannot keep up.

I’ve always considered these year-in-review articles to be mini-histories of sorts – history of the very, very recent past. Now, instead, I plan to spend my time taking a longer, deeper look at the history of education technology, with particular attention for the next few months, as the title of my book suggests, to teaching machines – to the promises that machines will augment, automate, standardize, and individualize instruction. My focus is on the teaching machines of the mid-twentieth century, but clearly there are echoes – echoes of behaviorism and personalization, namely – still today.

In his 1954 book La Technique (published in English a decade later as The Technological Society), the sociologist Jacques Ellul observes how education had become oriented towards creating technicians, less interested in intellectual development than in personality development – a new “psychopedagogy” that he links to Maria Montessori. “The human brain must be made to conform to the much more advanced brain of the machine,” Ellul writes. “And education will no longer be an unpredictable and exciting adventure in human enlightenment , but an exercise in conformity and apprenticeship to whatever gadgetry is useful in a technical world.” I believe today we call this "social emotional learning" and once again (and so insistently by the ed-tech press and its billionaire backers), Montessori’s name is invoked as the key to preparing students for their place in the technological society.

Despite scant evidence in support of the psychopedagogies of mindsets, mindfulness, wellness, and grit, the ed-tech industry (press) markets these as solutions to racial and gender inequality (among other things), as the psychotechnologies of personalization are now increasingly intertwined not just with surveillance and with behavioral data analytics, but with genomics as well. “Why Progressives Should Embrace the Genetics of Education,” a NYT op-ed piece argued in July, perhaps forgetting that education’s progressives (including Montessori) have been down this path before.

This is the only good grit:

If I were writing a lengthier series on the year in ed-tech, I’d spend much more time talking about the promises made about personalization and social emotional learning. I’ll just note here that the most important “innovator” in this area this year (other than Gritty) was surely the e-cigarette maker Juul, which offered a mindfulness curriculum to schools – offered them the curriculum and $20,000, that is – to talk about vaping. “‘The message: Our thoughts are powerful and can set action in motion,’ the lesson plan states.”

The most important event in ed-tech this year might have occurred on February 14, when a gunman opened fire on his former classmates at Marjory Stone Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 students and staff and injuring 17 others. (I chose this particular school shooting because of the student activism it unleashed.)

Oh, I know, I know – school shootings and school security aren’t ed-tech, ed-tech evangelists have long tried to insist, an argument I’ve heard far too often. But this year – the worst year on record for school shootings (according to some calculations) – I think that argument started to shift a bit. Perhaps because there’s clearly a lot of money to be made in selling schools “security” 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 its readers this summer. Those are the choices – surveillance or surveillance.

What an utter failure of imagination.

But there you have it, folks. I’m done.



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