Virtual School Meanderings

January 6, 2020

The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade [K-12 Online Learning Mentions]

Back on New Year’s Eve Audrey Watters posted an entry on her blog entitled “The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade.”  If you haven’t read it yet, I would encourage you to review all 100 items.  Below, I have simply copied and pasted those items that I believe are specific to the field of K-12 online learning (note that the language can get a bit salty in the items pasted below).

95. “Roaming Autodidacts”

“[The] literature [on online education] was preoccupied with what I call ‘roaming autodidacts’. A roaming autodidact is a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, cultural, history, and markets. The roaming autodidact is almost always conceived as western, white, educated and male. As a result of designing for the roaming autodidact, we end up with a platform that understands learners as white and male, measuring learners’ task efficiencies against an unarticulated norm of western male whiteness. It is not an affirmative exclusion of poor students or bilingual learners or black students or older students, but it need not be affirmative to be effective. Looking across this literature, our imagined educational futures are a lot like science fiction movies: there’s a conspicuous absence of brown people and women” — Tressie McMillan Cottom, “Intersectionality and Critical Engagement With The Internet” (2015)

82. “The End of Library” Stories (and the Software that Seems to Support That)

If there was one hate-read that stuck with me through the entire decade, it was this one by Techcrunch’s M. G. Siegler: “The End of the Library.” It was clickbait for sure, and perhaps it came too early in the decade — this was 2013 — for me to be wise enough to avoid this sort of trollish nonsense. You can learn anything online, Siegler argued. (You can’t.) The Internet has “replaced the importance of libraries as a repository for knowledge. And digital distribution has replaced the role of a library as a central hub for obtaining the containers of such knowledge: books. And digital bits have replaced the need to cut down trees to make paper and waste ink to create those books.” (They haven’t.)

Libraries haven’t gone away — they’re still frequently visited, despite dramatic drops in public fundingMore and more public libraries have started eliminating fines too because libraries, unlike Techcrunch writers, do care to alleviate inequality.

But new technology hasn’t made it easy. Publishers have sought to restrict libraries’ access to e-book lending, for example, blaming libraries for declining sales. And libraries have also struggled to maintain their long commitment to patron privacy in the face of new software — e-books and otherwise — that has no such respect for users’ rights.

72. Chatbot Instructors

“Imagine Discovering That Your Teaching Assistant Really Is a Robot,” The Wall Street Journal gushed in 2016, documenting an experiment undertaken at Georgia Tech in which a chatbot called “Jill Watson” answered questions in a course’s online forum. “Students didn’t know their TA was a computer,” the university’s press release stated, seemingly unbothered about any ethical issues that might raise.

(Consent? It matters.)

Watson, as the name might suggest, was built using the IBM Watson “AI” technology. College of Computing Professor Ashok Goel and his team used the 40,000 some odd questions that students had asked in previous versions of the course to build out Jill’s knowledge-base. “One of the secrets of online classes is that the number of questions increases if you have more students, but the number of different questions doesn’t really go up,” Goel said. “Students tend to ask the same questions over and over again.” But instead of redesigning his course or materials so that students didn’t have to ask these questions, he built a chatbot and called it a TA.

It’s not just the teaching assistant labor that chatbots are seeking to replace. As Inside Higher Ed recently reported, they “have started to infiltrate every corner of higher ed — from admissions to student affairs, career services and even test prep,” arguably making institutions that are struggling to treat people humanely even less human.

59. Clayton Christensen’s Predictions

In 2008, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn published Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns and predicted that the growth in computer-based instruction would accelerate rapidly until, by 2019, half of all high school classes would be taught over the Internet. NopeWrong.

In 2013, Christensen told investor Mark Suster that, in 15 years time, half of US universities would be bankrupt. As with K-12 education, he believed (believes) that online education would provide the “disruptive innovation” to force traditional schooling out of business. In 2017, he doubled down on his prediction — half of colleges and universities would close in a decade. I have set a Calendar reminder for 2028. We can check back in then for the final calculation. Meanwhile, Phil Hill has run the numbers on what higher ed closures actually look like, with visualizations that helps underscore that the vast number of these were to for-profit institutions — and there just aren’t enough of those left to make up the “half of all colleges” claim.

As Jill Lepore reminded us in her scathing critique of Christensen’s “gospel of innovation,” “Disruptive innovation is a theory about why businesses fail. It’s not more than that. It doesn’t explain change. It’s not a law of nature. It’s an artifact of history, an idea, forged in time; it’s the manufacture of a moment of upsetting and edgy uncertainty. Transfixed by change, it’s blind to continuity. It makes a very poor prophet.” But it’s the sort of propheteering that hopes if you repeat a story enough times, that everyone — taxpayers, administrators, politicians, pundits — will start to believe it’s the truth.

33. Online Credit Recovery

In 2017, Slate published a series of stories on online credit recovery programs — classes offered to students who needed to quickly make up missed credits in order to graduate high school on time: “The New Diploma Mills,” it called them. These classes were “fast, isolating, and superficial,” the series reported, describing the experiences of one student who, after failing her junior year English class, was able to make up the course online in 2 days. It told of another student who paid his friend $200 to take a course for him.

Schools are pressured to use these online options — products offered by companies like Apex, Edmentum, Odysseyware, and Edgenuity — in part because of their desire to boost graduation rates. And efforts to crack down on providers offering “bad online courses” were often countered by lobbying from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which “has made expanding online learning — unfettered and in all of its forms — one of its priorities.”

28. Computer-Based Testing Blunders

The new assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards were to be administered via computers, prompting as I noted above, a great deal of expenditure on new devices. But the new mode of testing caused a great deal of headache too. 2015 marked the year that states implemented the tests associated with the standards, and many struggled with that very implementation. That’s not a surprise, as a COSN survey that year found educators pleading that “We’re Not Ready for Online Tests.”

There were worries about how the move to online testing might affect scores. There were worries that there weren’t enough computers for test-taking. There were worries about kids’ abilities to type. There were worries about Internet connectivity, particularly in poor and rural schools. And many of the worries were well-founded. The problems weren’t just with district infrastructure; there were problems with vendors’ websites. There were technical problems in MinnesotaFloridaColoradoNew JerseyNevadaNorth DakotaMontanaTennessee, and elsewhere. Some states blamed the vendors and some blamed school IT and some states blamed “hackers.” The Common Core tests in one New Jersey school district were postponed as its entire computer network was held hostage by ransomware in exchange for 500 Bitcoins, approximately $124,000 at the time.

The technical problems were so bad in some states that they prompted concerns about the validity of the scores and about states’ ability to meet the federally-mandated levels of test participation (numbers that exacerbated too by the “Opt Out” movement). Several states accused their testing vendors of breach of contract, and several switched vendors, hoping that would fix the problem.

Spoiler alert: it did not.

27. Online Preschool

Arguably one of the best investments we could make in education would be to fund universal preschool. High quality universal preschool, staffed with well-paid professionals. High quality universal preschool, staffed with well-paid professionals in a brick-and-mortar setting and not online. But online preschool, according to some education reformers, is poised to “change the way rural America does early education.” One program, Upstart, “mixes adaptive software for preschool-aged kids, along with child development training and check-ins for parents. The program focuses on building pre-literacy skills, such as sound blending and letter names, and is designed to be used 15 minutes a day for a total of 75 minutes per week. Currently Upstart is used by about 19,000 families in Utah and in smaller pilots in about 15 other states,” Edsurge reported earlier this year. Many experts have caution against these programs, arguing for example that “Online ‘preschool’ lacks the concrete, hands-on social, emotional and intellectual educational components that are essential for quality learning in the early years. Further, online preschools are likely to exacerbate already existing inequalities in early education by giving low-income children superficial exposure to rote skills and ideas while more privileged children continue to receive developmentally sound experiences that provide a solid foundation for later academic success.”

These sorts of stories that promote high tech “solutions” for certain communities always make me wonder why we don’t opt instead to build out local capacity rather than insisting that the only alternative is education-from-elsewhere online.

23. OPMs and Outsourcing

Despite all the hullabaloo this decade about the importance of offering online classes, many schools opted not to develop the capacity internally to do so, but rather to outsource that function to a vendor. In 2017, The Century Foundation issued a blistering report on these online program managers (OPMs) titled “The Private Side of Public Higher Education.” Although universities have long outsourced some of their services to third-party providers — food services and parking enforcement, for example — OPMs could pose significant risks to higher ed, the report argued, as “the functions of OPMs are closely linked to the core educational mission of these public institutions. As a result, the quality of the services provided by OPMs has a direct bearing on the quality of the school itself and the ability of these institutions to fulfill their mission to train students and prepare them for the workforce.”

The involvement of OPMs in the establishment and growth of online educational opportunities at public institutions exposes consumers to the financial interests of decision-makers, interests that would not exist if exclusively public or nonprofit institutions were involved in providing these distance learning programs. Driven by the desire and need to make money for investors or owners, those to whom executives are held accountable, these companies may prioritize profit over the interests of online students, to whom they owe no loyalty, financial or otherwise.

As Phil Hill observed, as for-profit universities and MOOC providers stumbled this decade, several sought to become OPMs instead. (That is to say, there are really just a handful of pivots you can make in ed-tech: become an OPM or become an LMS or try to market yourself as both.)

19. Platforming Education

In his review of Nick Srnicek’s book Platform CapitalismJohn Hermann writes,

Platforms are, in a sense, capitalism distilled to its essence. They are proudly experimental and maximally consequential, prone to creating externalities and especially disinclined to address or even acknowledge what happens beyond their rising walls. And accordingly, platforms are the underlying trend that ties together popular narratives about technology and the economy in general. Platforms provide the substructure for the “gig economy” and the “sharing economy”; they’re the economic engine of social media; they’re the architecture of the “attention economy” and the inspiration for claims about the “end of ownership.”

In his book, Srnicek posits that platforms are poised to become the fundamental business model of our digital world — key to the new economy, clearly, but also key to political and social systems (and how these will be shaped under the control of the powerful technology industry). And certainly the goal for many technology companies — education and otherwise — has been to become a platform: that is, to become a key piece of digital infrastructure whose business model rests on the extraction of data.

In many ways, the learning management system is the prototypical education platform. The LMS has long positioned itself as an “operating system,” of sorts, for higher education, one that certainly predates any talk of a “platform economy.” But LMS providers spent the decade buying up a vast number of other companies so as to extend the functionality of their original product — companies that offered offered administratively adjacent features and would facilitate the extraction of more data from students’ and professors’ activities online than just what could be gleaned from the student information system.

(The LMS isn’t the only platform in education to be sure. Perhaps the most dominant and dangerous is Google — which nears the top of this list.)

17. Test Prep

Year after year after year after year, the most well-funded startups in education technology were those offering tutoring and test prep. Neither of these are progressive trends. These can exacerbate educational inequalities as more affluent families can afford to give their children extra academic support (or at least some extra tips and tricks on how to do well on standardized tests).

To counteract some of these inequalities — in test prep and in the testing itself — the College Board partnered with Khan Academy in 2015 to provide free online SAT prep courses (after years of insisting that test prep would actually make no difference in how well one performed on the exam). One year later, the head of the College Board David Coleman boasted “Never in my career have I seen a launch of technology on this scale that has broken down the racial divisions that so haunt this nation — never.” And in 2017, the College Board released data that showed “20 hours on free Official SAT Practice on Khan Academy is associated with an average score gain of 115 points, nearly double the average score gain compared to students who don’t use Khan Academy.” One problem though: not all students practiced the same amount, and students with highly educated parents tended to spend more time doing so. As Matt Barnum and Sarah Darville write in Chalkbeat, “The College Board’s research doesn’t show whether Khan Academy truly caused the score increases. Perhaps the students who used Khan most were particularly motivated or were using other study aids.”

Perhaps test prep will never undo the inequalities baked into the system. Perhaps, just perhaps, it was never really meant to.

9. Virtual Charter Schools

According to recent data from the Department of Education (as reported by Education Week), “half of all virtual charter high schools had graduation rates below 50 percent in the 2016-17 school year. Thirty-seven percent of schools had graduation rates at or above 50 percent. Graduation data for the remaining 13 percent of schools was masked for various reasons, such as to protect student privacy. There are about 163 virtual charter schools educating over 30,000 seniors nationally as determined by the adjusted cohort graduation rate, according to federal numbers.” In some states — Indiana, for example — not a single virtual charter school has had a graduation rate over 50% for the past four years.

One of the largest studies of online charters, published by Stanford in 2015, found that students in these schools had less contact with a teacher in a week than students in traditional, brick-and-mortar schools have in a day, and their academic progress was so poor that it was almost like not going to school at all.

And yet, despite the abysmal performance of virtual charters, states have struggled to hold these (largely) for-profit endeavors accountable. There were the odd lawsuit, to be sure. K12 Inc, one of the best known virtual charter chains, reached a $8.5 settlement with the state of California in 2016 after it was accused of false advertising and inadequate instruction. In Indiana, two virtual charters were accused of “counting toward their enrollment thousands of students who either never signed up for or completed classes,” collecting almost $10 million in state funding along the way. In Ohio, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow, or ECOT, claimed to serve some 15,000 students, but state officials found the virtual charter school was significantly inflating its numbers and said the school owed back $80 million in funding. (ECOT was forced to close in 2018.)

But in spite of the lousy education and unethical business practices, profits at virtual charters are up. K12 Inc, for example, announced this summer that for the first time its history, its revenue had topped $1 billion.

3. Venture Capitalism

Billions of dollars of venture capitalism has been funneled into education technology this decade. And this list demonstrates what we have to show for it.

2. (Venture) Philanthropy

Billions of dollars of (venture) philanthropy has been funneled into education technology this decade. And this list demonstrates what we have to show for it.

In many ways, philanthropy and venture capital worked hand-in-hand — the former set the policy agenda for ed-tech and the latter fueled the entrepreneurs and stoked the market for it.

The Gates Foundation has continued to have an outsized influence in shaping public policy (even though Gates has admitted that his initiatives haven’t had a great track record).

He has been joined this decade by other tech billionaires — by Mark Zuckerberg, for example. The Facebook founder made his first, high profile education donation in 2010, announcing on Oprah, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker at his side, his plans to give the city’s schools $100 million. In 2012, Zuckerberg launched the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, he and his wife Priscilla Chan’s philanthropic company. And it is, to be clear, a company, not a foundation — a business structure that gives Zuckerberg more control in investing in for-profit companies and in political causes, as The New York Times explained.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos also announced a philanthropic effort (that is, when he’s not spending his billions on funding space travel).His new philanthropic effort would fund and operate “a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities.” “We’ll use the same set of principles that have driven Amazon,” Bezos wrote in a note posted to Twitter. “Most important among these will be genuine intense customer obsession. The child will be the customer.”

These philanthropists’ visions for the future of education and education technology mirror their own businesses: the child will be the customer. The child’s data will be mined. The child’s education will be personalized.

Again, check out the full list at http://hackeducation.com/2019/12/31/what-a-shitshow

December 31, 2019

Statistics for December 2019

This entry is being posted back-dated.

Once again a very quick statistics entry this month.  In December 2019 there were 2,198 hits from 1,233 distinct visitors.  This was approximately 200 fewer hits and about 200 fewer visitors than we saw in November 2019.  However, it was also exactly 100 fewer hits, from 65 fewer visitors than December 2018.

The top ten entries this past month were:

  1. We Missed You at Last Week’s Webinar<
  2. FLVS And Web 2.0
  3. EDTECH537 – Guest Blog Entry: Civil Rights and Online Learning
  4. iNACOL Report – Policy Brief Highlights Need For Higher Education Institutions To Create Systematic Changes Within Teaching
  5. Virtual Schooling In The News
  6. Distance Education, Volume 40, Issue 4, November 2019 Is Now Available Online On Taylor & Francis Online
  7. Present At The 2020 Conference
  8. For Student-Centered Learning To Work, Schools Must Rethink This Key Component. Here’s How.
  9. Tech Skills Needed For Your Future And Register Now For January Online Courses
  10. Personalized ELL, Dyslexia, K-12 Science

Interestingly, seven of the 10 of these entries were actually posted in December 2019 (which is a bit unusual).

Finally, the statistics from my old blog site – which still managed to get a couple of hits this past month.
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November 30, 2019

Statistics for November 2019

This entry is being posted back-dated.

A very quick statistics entry this month.  In November 2019 there were 2,380 hits from 1,436 distinct visitors.  This was approximately 50 fewer hits and about 40 fewer visitors than we saw in October 2019.  However, it was also about 600 less hits, but about the same number of visitors as November 2018.

The top ten entries this past month were:

  1. We Missed You at Last Week’s Webinar
  2. FLVS And Web 2.0
  3. EDTECH537 – Guest Blog Entry: Civil Rights and Online Learning
  4. Samuel Barbour (1920-2013)
  5. Article Notice – Exploring The Impact Of Small-Group Synchronous Discourse Sessions In Online Math Learning
  6. We’re Hiring!
  7. College Admissions Fraud And 504 Plans: A Q&A With NEPC Fellow Edward Garcia Fierros
  8. Special Offer For Your Family From K12
  9. Virtual Schooling In The News
  10. Plugged In | 11.15.19 – CompetencyWorks Releases New Definition Of Competency-Based Education

Finally, the statistics from my old blog site – which still managed to get a couple of hits this past month.
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October 31, 2019

Statistics for October 2019

This entry is being posted back-dated.

A very quick statistics entry this month.  In October 2019 there were 2,439 hits from 1,489 distinct visitors.  This was approximately 400 more hits and about 250 more visitors than we saw in September 2019.  However, it was also about 800 less hits and 300 fewer visitors from October 2018 (which is close to the same as last month).

The top ten entries this past month were:

  1. We Missed You at Last Week’s Webinar
  2. FLVS And Web 2.0
  3. Special Offer For Your Family From K12
  4. FLVS now offers ACT/SAT prep!
  5. EDTECH537 – Guest Blog Entry: Civil Rights and Online Learning
  6. Review – Frog Dissection
  7. Blended Learning vs. Technology-Rich Instruction
  8. “An Analysis Of The Curriculum Requirements For All Online K-12 Teaching…”
  9. The History Of K-12 Online Education???
  10. 5 Blended-Learning Trends To Watch

Finally, the statistics from my old blog site – which still managed to get a couple of hits this past month.
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September 30, 2019

Statistics for September 2019

This entry is being posted back-dated.

A very quick statistics entry this month.  In September 2019 there were 2,056 hits from 1,217 distinct visitors.  This was approximately 200 fewer hits, but about the same number of visitors than we saw in August 2019.  However, it was also about 800 less hits and 400 fewer visitors from September 2018.

The top ten entries this past month were:

  1. We Missed You at Last Week’s Webinar
  2. FLVS And Web 2.0
  3. Special Offer For Your Family From K12
  4. EDTECH537 – Guest Blog Entry: Civil Rights and Online Learning
  5. The History Of K-12 Online Education???
  6. Questions About The School Of Tomorrow
  7. Last Chance to Register for Tomorrow’s Virtual Tech Forum!
  8. EBSCO Alerts
  9. SITE 2019 – Revisiting The Adolescent Community Of Engagement Framework
  10. NZC Online Newsletter May 2018

Finally, the statistics from my old blog site – which after generating no traffic at all for the very first time during the previous month, still managed to get a couple of hits this past month.
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