Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Is The Ed Tech Bubble Ready to Burst?

For anyone who still believes the Ed Deform movement is entirely motivated by compassionate individuals who just want what’s best for our children, a recent article on the burgeoning Ed Tech Bubble posted on ought to set them straight.

The push to get more technology into the classroom started almost immediately with the advent of inexpensive personal computers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, with high tech magnet schools sprouting up in many districts. I even attended one of these early adopters in middle school and have fond memories of playing the primitive fantasy game, Adventure, during class time. However, I have no memory of learning anything practical and didn’t even own a computer until after I graduated from college. More disturbingly, this magnet school was located in a poor, African-American neighborhood with a few middle class white kids bussed in to take advantage of its new computers and science equipment. During my time at that school, it was only these middle class carpetbaggers who had access to the new technology, perhaps a consequence of the naïve assumption that only middle class students could bring profits to the tech companies who sold the equipment.

By the late 1980s and early 90s tech companies started to push for desk top computers, computer labs and internet access for all students, recognizing that all students, regardless of class, could bring them profits because the school districts, rather than individual parents, were purchasing the hardware, site licenses, tech support and software. They also started to realize that even poor people were purchasing cell phones and apps—an indication that perhaps they could also be sold education technology products for personal use.

Over the last few years, however, things have really taken off, with a plethora of companies squeezing districts for millions of dollars in service contracts, data analysis packages, communication software, online courses, ebooks and myriad other snake oils they argue will solve districts’ academic problems. They are also jumping into political campaigns, especially for school board races and state initiatives, hoping this will increase sales. For example, Bill Gates, the Walton Family and Amazon were large funders of Washington’s recent ballot initiative to increase the number of charter schools in the state, while  Michael Bloomberg and Rupert Murdoch were large funders of candidates for the Los Angeles school board race. While Gates’ connection to technology is obvious, the Waltons, Bloomberg and Murdoch are purveyors of information technology and also stand to profit from the increased use of technology in the schools. The focus on charter schools might also seem obscure. However, because they are less restricted by district regulations and procurement rules, charter schools are seen by many tech companies as an easier sell than traditional public schools, particularly with the growing number of online charter schools that rely on technology hardware and software to deliver their curricula.

Of course some of the ways technology is being incorporated into the classroom reflect its changing role in society as a whole. It would be absurd, for example, to expect students to continue using typewriters when most of the rest of the world abandoned them years ago. Similarly, communication, collaboration and inexpensive web design software facilitate communication between teachers, students and parents. However, much of the new technology is of dubious benefit to students and teachers, but immensely profitable to the people pushing it. Some school districts, for example, have purchased expensive site licenses for software that they don’t even use or that serves no purpose. Even technologies which increase efficiency (e.g., LCD projectors, which replaced overhead/transparency projectors, which in turn replaced chalkboards), do not necessarily improve learning outcomes.

Geekwire notes several indications that the bubble may be ready to burst, including a quote by Susan Wolford, Managing Director of BMO Capital Markets, who said that too much money is being spent on ideas “that should have been left to die.” According to the Geekwire piece, “record numbers of companies are receiving venture funding” for educational technology projects and the Consumer Electronics Association recently named education technology as one of five “prominent technology trends expected to influence the consumer electronics (CE) industry in the years ahead.”

Larry Cuban identifies another potential reason for the bubble to burst: the exaggerated claims or assumptions that simply dumping technology into a school will magically transform academic outcomes for students. This has contributed to massive spending on technology that rapidly becomes obsolete or that gets ignored because teachers and students find it burdensome or useless. He points to several notable cases, including instructional television in the 1960s and desktop computers in the 1980s. Even the One-Laptop-Per-Child initiative (OLPC) has failed to deliver its promised outcomes for poor children throughout the world. So far, the laptops have gone primarily to rural Peruvian children and the outcomes have been mixed, at best. According to an evaluation of the program by the World Bank, there is no evidence that OLPC has improved learning in math or language.

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