March 18, 2019

To Go Far Enough

The predation of the edtech industry only works if we don’t lift our heads to see it, raise our hands to change it, stand in its way.

To Go Far Enough

The predation of the edtech industry only works if we don’t lift our heads to see it, raise our hands to change it, stand in its way.

The following are my opening remarks at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Toronto event on March 28, 2019.

I used to clean houses for a living. Big, beautiful, rich homes in the center of Boulder, Colorado. I dusted, vacuumed, mopped, cleaned toilets and showers. Sometimes, I remade the beds with clean sheets, and I collected laundry from around the house and washed and folded it. Usually, I did this when no one was in the house; but sometimes, I was there, cleaning the living room while the family made their lunch in the kitchen, young children watching as I picked up their toys, dusted off bookshelves. I never vacuumed when a family was around, of course, because it would make too much noise.

I also used to work for Instructure, the makers of the Canvas LMS. I worked there for about a year before Amy Collier brought me to Middlebury College. During that time, I was privy to conversations about the data they’d been collecting on students. Throughout the company, there was a sense of awakening to the potential of that data, a sort of shrug in the face of it, the “what should we do with all of this?” that eventually resolved itself into a strategy to sell it back to the universities and colleges and K12 schools that had generated it.

That shrug has turned into something meaner, something more bent on not just profit derived from data, but on an engine running on that data—powered by data. Instructure recently announced their “second growth initiative [will be] focused on analytics, data science and artificial intelligence. The code name for this initiative is DIG.”

Their initiative has a code name. You know what else has code names? Spies and military operations.

The new CEO, Dan Goldsmith, also went on to claim: “We have the most comprehensive database on the educational experience in the globe. So given that information that we have, no one else has those data assets at their fingertips to be able to develop those algorithms and predictive models.” A quick close analysis of that statement shows that Dan Goldsmith—standing in here for Instructure, which could be standing in here for the edtech industry as a whole—believes that “information,” “data,” and “the educational experience” are all one and the same.

But the story doesn’t end or begin with Instructure. Earlier this month, Advance Communications—a cable television provider who, according to Bloomberg “offers video on demand, data, and digital phone services to its customers”—purchased Turnitin, a nearly ubiquitous plagiarism detection service, to the tune of $1.74 billion. Turnitin’s primary product, that thing that makes it worth $1.74 billion, is a database of student work, largely consisting of assignments written by students as they worked their way toward an A in our classes.

So to be clear: the Instructure DIG initiative would be impossible if students and teachers didn’t show up to class and use the LMS. Likewise, Turnitin’s very expensive database, would eventually become worthless if teachers and institutions stopped asking students to turn-it-in. We—teachers, administrators, instructional designers--make these platforms not only worth their purchase price, but we make these platforms run.

It’s good to note that whole university and college systems have purchased contracts with both Canvas and Turnitin.

It’s also important to realize that, as much as these companies may claim to provide services for the betterment of education, they are first and foremost in the business of creating demand. Every for-profit business has to be. Without demand, their supply sits useless in the giant warehouse that is the cloud. If we weren’t afraid of plagiarism, Turnitin would have no market; so it behooves them to be sure we stay afraid. If we weren’t looking for efficient solutions to the messy work of teaching and learning, Instructure’s teacher-in-the-cloud wouldn’t be an easily foreseeable future.

This isn’t altruism; edtech’s interest in education is as a market. But it’s also interested in education because they have found a perpetual motion machine, a market that cannot stop generating what edtech needs to survive.

This is predation. This is companies not just making money off of what we do in classrooms, but engineering approaches to pedagogy that continue to necessitate technology that significantly changes the work we do in classrooms. If that feels like a stretch, just listen again to Dan Goldsmith:

“What's even more interesting and compelling is that we can take that information, correlate it across all sorts of universities, curricula, etc, and we can start making recommendations and suggestions to the student or instructor in how they can be more successful. Watch this video, read this passage, do problems 17-34 in this textbook, spend an extra two hours on this or that.”

The LMS, then, becomes not just a platform where we try to manage to teach through a screen, but a teacher of teachers itself. Professional development won’t even be a click away, it will be integrated into the interface. Or it will be unnecessary.

This is not why we brought computers into classrooms. This is not why we investigate and invite digitally-inflected learning. There are better, more interesting uses of technology in education. The initiative started at the University of Mary Washington—Domain of One’s Own—is an example of what digital learning and teaching can be. Martha Burtis, one of the founders of the initiative, described her first foray into the experiment this way:

"Suddenly, the Web felt accessible to me in a way it had never been before. I had complete control over a slice of it, and I dove into understanding how it worked. I started my own blog (as did all of my colleagues). I began experimenting with open source community building platforms as a way to connect our department since, at the time, we all worked in different buildings. We began building custom learning spaces for courses, based on partnerships with faculty."

Rather than a space that was attached to outcomes, curricula, and the rest, Domain of One’s Own changed the whole relationship between students and the web, and between teachers and the web. Martha notes that the four primary goals of the initiative are to:

  • Provide students with the tools and technologies to build out a digital space of their own
  • Help students appreciate how digital identity is formed
  • Provide students with curricular opportunities to use the Web in meaningful ways
  • Push students to understand how the technologies that underpin the Web work, and how that impacts their lives
    These are pedagogical goals, not instrumental ones, not goals wedded to outcomes like retention and performance—though they undoubtedly affect those things.

Very soon, the University of Mary Washington will choose to renew their contract with Instructure. But the Domain of One’s Own project has been asked to justify its cost. I don’t say this to damn UMW, because frankly this isn’t unusual across higher education. The drive for data, for results, for efficiency can blind us to the opportunities in front of us. Educational technology like Canvas makes everything so easy, so efficient, so cleverly workable.

But here’s the thing: the predation of the edtech industry only works if we don’t lift our heads to see it, raise our hands to change it, stand in its way.

Seymour Papert wrote that:

"Most honest Schoolers are locked into the assumption that School’s way is the only way because they have never seen or imagined convincing alternatives to impart certain kinds of knowledge … almost all experiments in purporting to implement progressive education have been disappointing because they simply did not go far enough in making the student the subject of the process rather than the object."

It needs to be our job to imagine convincing alternatives, to go far enough.

The educational technology industry wants a clean house. The makers of learning management systems, ePortfolio platforms, plagiarism detection services are all happy to watch us work to make their world shinier, happier, more glossy and clean. They don’t want us to be seen or heard. They don’t want to be disturbed by the noise education makes.

But today, here, this community at Digital Pedagogy Lab, we’re going to make some noise.