The Politics of Ed-Tech
Education is political — inherently so and despite the protestations from some quarters when what happens in our schools, in our textbooks, in our brains “becomes politicized.” Education is political not simply because of the governmental role — federal, state, local — in school funding and policies. It is political because of the polis — the connections between education and community. Education is political because learning is at once personal (and, of course, “the personal is political”) and social; it is both private and public.
But I’ll leave a round-up of all that happened in 2012 with regards to the “politics of education” — the U.S. Presidential Elections, the Chicago Teachers Union strike, the Dream Act — for someone else to write. I’m interested here in the “politics of ed-tech.”
Of course, if education is political, then ed-tech must be as well. As such, “the politics of ed-tech” isn’t really a trend; it’s a truism. (And wait, “what is ed-tech?”) So why frame this as the penultimate trend in my year-in-review series? I think it’s because, much like the first trend I examined — the business of ed-tech — we witnessed in 2012 the (education) technology sector discovering, seizing, wielding its power and influence.
The year began with the Internet’s protests against SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (the Protect IP Act). The proposed legislation would give U.S. law enforcement more authority to crack down on online copyright infringement, allowing them to ban search engines from linking to “infringing” websites and require Internet service providers to block access to these sites as well. The technology industry was very vocal in its opposition to SOPA and PIPA (except GoDaddy. I hope you all changed domain registrars!), arguing the laws would “break the Internet” — in technology and in spirit. Internet co-founder Vint Cerf penned a letter to the author of SOPA, Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), stating that "Requiring search engines to delete a domain name begins a worldwide arms race of unprecedented ‘censorship’ of the Web.” On January 18, the English Wikipedia, Reddit, Wired, and thousands of other websites coordinated a protest, “going dark” to express their opposition to the bills. Access to pro-SOPA websites was difficult as Anonymous called for DDOS attacks against them. Rep. Smith put work on the legislation on hold 2 days later.
The Internet had won.
The (Ed-)Tech Lobby
The Internet — whatever we mean by that — isn’t a new political force, by any means. But in 2012, at both the grassroots and the corporate levels, the Internet flexed its political muscles. Major Internet/technology companies increased their lobbyist presence in Washington DC. According to Opensecrets.org, Google had over $14.3 million in lobbying expenditures this year (it was the fifth highest spender). Microsoft spent $5.6 million. Facebook spent $2.5 million, almost twice what it had in 2011. Apple spent $1.4 million. Compare that to $790,000 spent by Pearson Education, the $540,000 spent by the Apollo Group (parent company to the University of Phoenix), the $5 million spent by Ford, or the $9.8 million spent by Exxon.
What, if anything education-related, did these tech companies get for their efforts? For starters, an updated COPPA, just released today. The updated version of privacy law reflects changing technologies, adding geolocation data and photos to the types of “personal information” that sites cannot capture from those under 13 without parents’ consent. The new rules also state that platforms like Google Play and the Apple App Store are exempt from liability if they sell apps that violate COPPA. Facebook had protested some of the proposed changed that would have required the “Like” button (and similar social media plug-ins) to comply with COPPA. That language didn’t make it to the final version, which will allow sites to collect data without parental consent
”for the sole purpose of supporting the website or online service’s internal operations, such as contextual advertising, frequency capping, legal compliance, site analysis, and network communications. Without parental consent, such information may never be used or disclosed to contact a specific individual, including through behavioral advertising, to amass a profile on a specific individual, or for any other purpose.”
Lobbying doesn’t just happen at the federal level, of course. Salon recently reported on the lobbying efforts of the University of Phoenix to defeat proposed legislation in Arizona that would have allowed some community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees.
And it’s at the state level where the efforts of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) are focused. As I wrote in October (as part of yet-another series I penned this year — this one on “What Educators Should Know About Tech”), ALEC is
a powerful non-profit organization whose membership is comprised of corporations and conservative politicians. This isn’t merely a lobbying group, as corporate members craft legislation introduced at the state level that promotes free-market and conservative ideals — all behind closed doors.
While ALEC has been in existence for decades now, it’s only recently found itself in the spotlight, in no small part because of the killing of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and the invocation of the ALEC-sponsored Stand Your Ground Law as a defense by his shooter George Zimmerman. Other legislation that the organization has promoted include the spate of voter ID laws that some argue prevent voter fraud and others say are an organized campaign of voter disenfranchisement.
ALEC currently runs 9 initiatives to impact legislation at the state level, including one specifically devoted to education reform. “The mission of ALEC’s Education Task Force,” according to its website, “is to promote excellence in the nation’s educational system, to advance reforms through parental choice, to support efficiency, accountability, and transparency in all educational institutions, and to ensure America’s youth are given the opportunity to succeed.”
ALEC’s legislative efforts in education include legalizing and expanding charter schools and vouchers, passing parent trigger laws, eliminating caps on virtual school enrollment, penalizing students who take longer than 4 years to graduate college, breaking teacher unions, weakening teacher certification requirements, and eliminating tenure. In short: dismantling and privatizing the U.S. public school system.
The list of education and tech-related ALEC members includes AOL, the Association of Private Sector Colleges and Universities, AT&T, Comcast, the Entertainment Software Association, the Foundation for the Excellence in Education, the Innosight Institute, iNACOL, K12 Inc, Kaplan Higher Education, Microsoft, News Corp, Reed Elsevier, Scantron, Verizon, the Walton Family Foundation, Wireless Generation, and Yahoo.
Politicians, Policies, and Pundits
2012 was an election year, but education wasn’t much of an issue in the Presidential Presidential campaign (compare Republican and Democrat Party platforms to gauge why). Education technology, even less so. Similarly, education was important in a number of state-level races (see Education Week’s Voters’ Guide for edu-related campaign results), but ed-tech was a question at stake in just one — in Idaho where voters rejected 3 measures dubbed the “Luna Laws" (so-called for their connection to State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna).
Voters rejected a proposition that would have required students take 2 online classes to graduate and mandated they all lease laptops. They also rejected a law that would have linked teachers’ pay to standardized test scores and one that would have curbed teachers’ collective bargaining rights.
This trio of “Luna Laws” should make it clear why it’s hard to extract the politics of ed-tech from the politics of education and/or the politics of tech. Online classes. Mandatory laptops. Performance pay. Standardized testing. Anti-union measures. It’s all part of the education reform agenda, and as such it’s near impossible to just talk about the ed-tech and not situate it in politics/policies/practices.
Five more points of interest:
New Jersey: Until December 14, and the horrific shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut I would have said New Jersey was the site of the most devastating stories of the year: Hurricane Sandy. In the wake of the storm, I think folks saw a different side of Chris Christie. I think they saw the massive vulnerabilities we face in light of climate change. And John Merrow, in a PBS NewsHour segment, highlights why in light of all this “schools matter” — as teachers and principals help maintain the safety of their students.
Hurricane Sandy wasn’t an “ed-tech” story per se, although there were elements — thanks to social media — of its being a “community tech” story, particularly with real-time, crowdsourced news via mobile devices and via Twitter.
Bonus points for New Jersey for Newark mayor Cory Booker, avid tweeter, friend of Mark Zuckerberg, teen media startup founder, and part-time superhero. Also not an ed-tech story. Still somehow relevant.
Lousiana: Louisiana’s story isn’t particularly “ed-tech-y” either, unless you link, as some folks do, charter schools to ed-tech. (There’s a sense — in some quarters at least — that charter schools, less encumbered by district bureaucracy, are more apt to adopt new computer technologies, more willing to experiment with “blended learning” (that is, a blend of face-to-face and computer-mediated instruction), more interested in data and learning analytics.) Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has had to rebuild much of its infrastructure, including its school system — and charter schools have proliferated. (About 80$ of New Orleans schools are charters.) New Orleans is also the site of a thriving ed-tech startup community, with the 4.0 Schools lab helping to support some of that innovation. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal also expanded a voucher program this year that allowed public funding to be used for almost any sort of “school.” This has since been found to be unconstitutional. Phew, because if you see the list of the “14 Wacky “Facts” Kids Will Learn in Louisiana’s Voucher Schools,” it’s pretty clear that this was the anti-STEM initiative of the year.
Virginia: Virginia made the “Politics of Ed-Tech” news this year with the decision at UVA to fire president Teresa Sullivan. In June, the political appointees who make up the university’s Board of Visitors (none of whom were educators) ousted Sullivan (long-time educator, sociologist, administrator), in part because they felt she was slow to hop on the MOOC bandwagon. Massive outcry from alumni, professors, students, academia followed. Sullivan was reinstated. And a few weeks later, the university announced it was joining Coursera (it had already been in discussions to do so when Sullivan was fird.) Ell Oh Ell,.
Minnesota: Insisting "this has been a longtime requirement in Minnesota (at least 20 years)” the state informed Coursera this summer its residents were not allowed to take MOOCs, prompting the startup to clarify its Terms of Service:
Notice for Minnesota Users:
Coursera has been informed by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education that under Minnesota Statutes (136A.61 to 136A.71), a university cannot offer online courses to Minnesota residents unless the university has received authorization from the State of Minnesota to do so. If you are a resident of Minnesota, you agree that either (1) you will not take courses on Coursera, or (2) for each class that you take, the majority of work you do for the class will be done from outside the State of Minnesota.
After much pointing and laughing from the Internet (and suggestions that entrepreneurial-minded folks set up coffeeshops just across the state line where Minnesota folks could legally MOOC), the state said it would revisit the law. “Obviously, our office encourages lifelong learning,” said the Office of Higher Educaiton. I mean, obviously.
Florida: See also: Jeb Bush.
(Note all the names here that come up as possible contenders for the White House in 2016.)
Plenty of ed-tech is clearly tied to education policies. You can see it in the Race for the Top competition and its requirements that states and districts comply with the administration’s demands for more testing, more data-driven decision-making, more tech. And you can see it in the Common Core State Standards — the new curriculum and the associate development of new, computer-based assessments. (It’s worth noting here too that one of the creators of the CCSS, David Coleman, was named the head of the College Board this year. You know, the highly profitable “non-profit” that handles the SAT and AP exams.)
All this — the testing, the RTTT, the Common Core — necessitates new procurements, new technology, new apps, new (digital) textbooks, new hardware, new tests, kaching, kaching, kaching -- link the business of ed-tech to the politics of ed-tech.
Workers versus Machines?
Will computers replace teachers? Can computers replace teachers? Should computers replace teachers? Folks keep asking these questions — and not just as link-bait-y blog headlines either. I think that people are genuinely concerned. Are their jobs in jeopardy? Are their relationships in jeopardy? Will education be cheaper? Better? Faster? Do we just need a handful of "superstar professors," some webcams, and an Internet connection and we can ditch everyone else?
Oh no no no, we have no plans to replace teachers, most ed-tech companies say reassuringly. But sometimes it feels like they doth protest too much. (Khan Academy, I’m looking at you here.) But then there are the folks who make that agenda overt: “Why the Chicago Teachers’ Strike Will Help Education Entrepreneurs,” read a headline in Inc Magazine. “If there’s a bright side to the Chicago teacher’s strike as it continues to victimize (for no good reason) hundreds of thousands of kids and parents, it’s that it will provide an opportunity for many Chicago-based entrepreneurs and education start-ups.” Or take former DC mayor Adrian Fenty who told the crowd at the Education Innovation Summit at the ASU campus in April, “if we fire more teachers, we can use that money for more technology.”
Education Politics and Internet Culture
But remember: the Internet stopped SOPA. Not just the big tech co’s. The Internet. Us. I think about that a lot in relation to the politics of ed-tech: whither the Internet?
What role might the Internet play in demanding better education? More access? More opportunities? Will the Internet be interested in protecting user (learner) data? What does Internet culture have to say for and about education politics? There are some profoundly anti-teacher and anti-school narratives being told (particularly in the tech industry, I think): how do these shape our tech, our ed-tech? Are these narratives being spread or being countered by the Web? What stories do we tell about learning and learning online? I mean, we the Internet, not just the corporate voices.
And how do "the politics of ed-tech" run through of the trends I’ve looked at in this series: data, platforms, DARPA and the Maker Movement, MOOCs, open textbook initiatives, startups, investment, and so on.
Sure, there weren’t a lot of great education-related memes this year, I lamented at one point, in a year rich with political meme-ry. A couple of Sesame Street-related GIFs popped up after a presidential debate, but not much more. But I'd wager education had its fair share of viral TED videos, a viral Clay Shirky blog post for good measure. PBS autotuned Mr. Rogers. And somewhere along the way, a Web of teachers and techies and movie critics convinced the world not to go see the pro-“parent-trigger” education reform movie Won’t Back Down, which can now boast the worst box office opening in history. So we have the Internet to thank for that.
One final note: in April, education historian Diane Ravitch started a blog. I know, right? A blog? In 2012. Heh. But also, wow. Ravitch posts incessantly — on average 10 post a day. Commenters flock to it. While Ravitch is not much of a fan of education technology, she has certainly embraced Web 2.0 tools — the blog, the Twitterz — as a platform for her message. She noted just this week that her site has already seen 2 million pageviews since its launch, invoking just the sort of metrics that the tech industry loves to hype. And really, her blog's become quite the year’s big political ed-tech thing.