Ed-Tech Year in Review

There’s little to no evidence that more technology or more data-mining will “fix” education.

by Audrey Watters on December 9th, 2014


That’s the word Edsurge uses to hail funding announcements whenever the education technology companies it covers raise venture capital. “Ka’ching.” The sound of the cash register. “Ka’ching.” The sound of making money. “Ka’ching.” A record-setting year for ed-tech investments.

During the first quarter of 2014, investment research firm CB Insights proclaimed that

Education technology (ed tech) hit a record high in Q1 2014 as investors poured more than $559 million across 103 deals. Yes over half a billion dollars and over 100 deals in just the last three months. Of note, Ed Tech funding in Q1 2014 represented nearly 45% of total funding to the sector in all of 2013.

The record quarter comes after Ed Tech investments hit $1.25B across 378 deals in in 2013, the second-straight year of over $1B invested across the Ed Tech sector.  With everything from MOOCs to tutoring marketplaces to standardized APIs for K-12 schools getting funding, investors are clearly bullish on the education industry.

As the year draws to a close, the tune has changed a bit, and CB Insights recently suggested that investors — or “smart VCs” at least — are turning bearish on ed-tech. Venture capital is still flowing into ed-tech, but deal activity is slowing down and investments are increasingly in existing companies rather than in new startups.

It’s a cycle that education and education technology have seen before.

You wouldn’t necessarily know it if your understanding of education technology comes only through trade publications like Edsurge or TechCrunch. These tend to ignore history in order to reiterate a very convenient narrative: schools haven’t changed in hundreds of years until now — until just now — with the introduction of the latest Silicon Valley apps and gadgetry. School is broken; technology entrepreneurship will fix it. Digital learning — digital textbooks and digital worksheets on digital devices — is poised to transform and “disrupt” teaching and learning. Or so the story goes.

Whether or not you view education technologies as new or transformative (they’re mostly neither), 2014 has seen investor money continue to flood a sector that traditionally has viewed itself as operating outside the marketplace: education as a public good, not simply a private venture. The benefits of education, that is, should accrue to society as well as individuals; and those benefits aren’t really about money or profits. But this narrative about education’s “value” is changing — for reasons that are political and economic, and that are very much intertwined with Silicon Valley ideology about individualism and meritocracy.

Old-fashioned cash register.

Photo CC-BY Dana, filtered.

While VC investment in education technology companies increased in 2014, public spending of education did not. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “At least 35 states are providing less funding per [K-12] student for the 2013-14 school year than they did before the recession hit. Fourteen of these states have cut per-student funding by more than 10 percent.” These cuts, let’s be clear, do not hit all students and all schools equally. Every state except Alaska and North Dakota is spending less per student at the higher education level as well. As state funds are cut, public universities raise tuition in turn; and again, this feeds the larger cultural narrative that school has become too expensive, that it isn’t “worth it.”

Education technologies could, purportedly, address some of these cost issues through scale (as with MOOCs that boast tens of thousands of students per class) and/or alternative credentials (such as Udacity’s “nanodegrees”) or career pathways. But as education reformers and investors talk about “unbundling” educational institutions and outsourcing education services to for-profit companies, it’s worth asking who gains and who loses when we dismantle wraparound, public services.

Winners in 2014 certainly include those who are selling products and services related to the Common Core State Standards, a new set of academic standards in math and language arts that have been adopted by 43 states, supposedly to make US students “college and career ready” and the US school system more competitive internationally. The standards have been incredibly controversial — in part because some have viewed the initiative as an attempt to instill a national curriculum, and because some have seen the CCSS as yet another sign of the increasing privatization of the public education system. States and districts are poised to spend as much as $8 billion on new Common Core-aligned textbooks and instructional materials, and hundreds of millions of dollars on new Common Core assessments.

These new assessments, which are being field-tested this school year, are supposed to be administered via computers as opposed to via pencil-and-paper. For many schools, this will require significant investment in devices and in networking infrastructure. And in both cases, many schools have struggled — with the costs and the implementation.

Perhaps one of the most highly publicized ed-tech disasters on this front has been Los Angeles Unified School District’s iPad initiative. First announced in the summer of 2013, LAUSD — the second largest public school district in the US — earmarked over $1 billion to buy an iPad for each student. The program has been plagued with problems from the start. Almost immediately after the district announced the deal, Apple unveiled new, updated iPads — that is, from the get-go, students in the district would be receiving out-of-date hardware (or “out-of-date” as far as Apple’s planned obsolescence goes). The cost the district was paying per device was actually higher than the regular consumer price. Many schools did not have the WiFi infrastructure to support devices for every student. The district hadn’t created policies or plans for loss or theft. Students bypassed security protocols — something the district and the media labeled as “hacking” — so they could install music and video apps. The iPads were supposed to all come pre-loaded with Common Core-aligned curriculum, designed by the education behemoth Pearson. But the curriculum was incomplete. A report on the district’s iPad program found only one teacher actually used the Pearson materials.

The problems didn’t stop there. In August, news organizations obtained emails between LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy and then CEO of Pearson Marjorie Scardino that seemed to indicate that deals were made to purchase Pearson curriculum and Apple hardware before the initiative was ever put out to bid. Although the district insisted there was no impropriety, Deasy cancelled the contract between Apple and the district, indicating that the project would be rebid; shortly thereafter, he resigned. However his interim replacement Ramon Cortines has resurrected the contract, and the district will now spend another $22 million on iPads so that students can take their standardized tests on the devices this spring.

Pens and a standardized verbal test.

Photo CC-BY Deb Stgo, filtered.

Standardized testing has traditionally been one of the key tools that districts, states, and the federal government have utilized to evaluate the successes or failures of schools. In the last couple of decades, there has been more and more standardized testing in schools, and pressure for more and more assessment. With the growing adoption of educational technologies, there is now much more data being generated by students — and, as Jessy Irwin has documented in her article on schools and surveillance — being collected on students. Although this year saw the demise of the high profile and well-funded inBloom project — a non-profit funded with $100 million from the Gates and Carnegie Foundation to build a student data repository — due in part to parents’ privacy concerns, many education technology companies continue to boast that collecting all that student data and analyzing all that student data will miraculously improve teaching and learning.

“We have five orders of magnitude more data about you than Google has,” Jose Ferreira, the CEO of the education company Knewton, says in a video recorded at a Department of Education event.  “We literally have more data about our students than any company has about anybody else about anything, and it’s not even close.” Ferreira contends that his company, which has partnered with most major textbook publishers, can use all this data to determine how students learn best. But there’s little to no evidence to support any of this — that more technology or more data-mining will improve teaching and learning or will “fix” education.

Indeed, what all this education technology is poised to do —  particularly if it is not accompanied with a more radical rethinking of the purpose of “schooling” itself —  is to reinforce pre-existing inequalities. Who gets to use computers for self-directed learning, for example? Who gets to “make”? Who gets to create? And for whom are computers in the classroom mostly about “kill and drill” test prep, about rote learning, about standardization and surveillance? Who has computers and Internet connectivity at home? Who does not and has to use school-issued devices, with all the Web filtering and tracking that that entails?

This isn’t simply a matter of a digital divide that can be addressed by providing more computers in the classroom. How these devices are used matters; whose needs they meet matters. This is a social justice issue that education technology, as an industry, pays very little attention to, wrapped up instead in rhetoric that spending money on digital devices and digital content is future-facing and transformational. Who benefits in this future? What does this transformation looks like? More privatization? More outsourcing? More standardization? These questions are simply not asked.

So perhaps, in the end, that does make Edsurge’s repetition of “Ka’ching” the best sound to represent 2014 in ed-tech: it’s all about money and politics.