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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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The Theranos Story and Education Technology

A great new book has me thinking about ed tech.

May 30, 2018
 
 

Normally it’s Joshua Kim’s IHE blogger beat to read a book and go looking for the education parallels, but after tearing through Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by Wall St. Journal reporter John Carreyrou, I can’t resist infringing on his territory.

Bad Blood is the story of Theranos, a blood testing company which once promised to be able to run hundreds of tests on its proprietary device using only a pinprick of blood, rather than relying on the far more voluminous (and scary to so many) venous draw.

The public face of Theranos, founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes in her Steve Jobs-emulating black turtleneck was a charismatic public presence, wooing support from eminences such as George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Rupert Murdoch, Betsy DeVos, Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton, Barack Obama, and current defense secretary James Mattis, who declared of Holmes, “She has probably one of the most mature and well-honed sense of ethics  — personal ethics, managerial ethics, business ethics, medical ethics that I’ve ever heard articulated.”[1]

Holmes was feted in Fortune and Wired, and Walgreens and Safeway invested tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in Theranos.

But Carreyrou reveals Holmes as a fraud. Through a combination of secrecy, lies, flattery, and intimidation, she maintained a fiction about having developed a truly revolutionary piece of technology which sounded like science-fiction, a desktop device that could diagnose disease. Even as Carreyrou was amassing a crushing amount of evidence which would expose the deceptions, Holmes used prominent attorney David Boies and his firm Boies Schiller to threaten Carreyrou and his sources with lawsuits and professional ruin.[2]

The Theranos “Edison” was “vaporware.” It never existed as anything beyond a theoretical prototype. When Theranos did manage to deliver accurate test results, it used devices produced by other companies. Elizabeth Holmes was claiming to investors her device was saving lives on the battlefield of Afghanistan even as they couldn’t get it to accurately measure Vitamin D levels in the lab.[3]

One of the striking parts of the Theranos story is that people with actual knowledge of biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering knew that the Theranos device was a fantasy requiring not just an improvement on existing technology, but some kind of fundamental upheaval of all that was previously known about the highly developed subfields of serology and microfluidics. Stanford dropout Holmes was proposing something that sounded literally impossible to knowledgeable experts, except she kept insisting otherwise, convincing other people who didn’t understand the science either to invest in her company until it was worth $9 billion.

The story of someone who claims to be able to revolutionize a complex field without possessing relevant expertise seems to have some parallels in education technology.

Consider Knewton, which founder Jose Ferreira claimed in 2015 to be a “mind-reading robo tutor in the sky” something later characterized as a “flawed” idea by the CEO who replaced Ferreira when Ferreira was deposed in a “pivot.” 

Consider AltSchool, which pledged to create “technology-infused schools that would revolutionize education,” but is undergoing a pivot of its own, on its way out of the school business and trying to concentrate on its personalized learning software. 

Consider MissionU which promised a “skills-focused education in a single year,” but managed to last only a single year itself. 

Max Ventilla of AltSchool was previously “Head of Personalization” at Google. Jose Ferreira has a Harvard MBA and was managing director of new markets at Kaplan. Adam Braun of MissionU did have a connection to education, but it was as a fundraiser for his non-profit Pencils of Promise which focused on building schools in impoverished areas of foreign countries.

None of these people possessed any background in teaching and learning, and yet they convinced other people to give them millions of dollars in the name of revolutionizing education. The thing is, they never had a chance at success because even though they’re not perpetrating a fraud like Elizabeth Holmes, like Elizabeth Holmes, they didn’t know what they were doing. I could name a dozen other ed tech projects here if I had the time and space.

All along, many experts questioned Elizabeth Holmes’ claims about Theranos, knowing the technological hurdles she had to overcome. So too have experts known the limits of personalized learning to “revolutionize” education. When Jose Ferreira was claiming to have developed a mind-reading robo tutor, Michael Feldstein, an independent expert in online learning called what Jose Ferreira was selling, “snake oil.”

None of these failures are unexpected or unpredictable. Audrey Watters has cataloged the history of these failed revolutions, and they are almost all nearly identical in their failure to grapple with the complexity of how we learn.  MOOCs were going to transform higher ed. Now, a vice president of MOOC provider Udacity declares them to be “dead.” The cycle from transformative technology to something significantly more limited happened in less than six years.

The explanation for the failure of these ed tech ventures as well as Theranos is in the inherent disconnect between the customer and the user. Theranos was selling to Walgreens and Safeway, not the people whose blood would be tested. Both companies had a vested interest in buying into Holmes’ fraud. As reported by Carreyrou, Walgreens was terrified of losing the exclusivity to the Edison to CVS, a potential death blow to their hopes of overtaking their rival. Safeway had declining numbers in its core grocery business. Moving into health care could revitalize the bottom line.

In ed tech, schools are the customers, but students are the users. In the start-up world (including in ed tech), the true customer is the investor, who merely needs to be convinced the project is worth taking a flier on. (Silicon Valley investors expect the vast majority of their investments to fail.)

This incentivizes companies to develop products which can sell without putting in sufficient time to see if they actually work. In this world, a technology “works” as soon as someone will buy it, but that’s not the same thing as it actually helping students learn. AltSchool became viable as a business to get off the ground as soon as Mark Zuckerberg was willing to write a check for it. This is not a good way to develop new approaches to education.

Schools, strapped for resources, are willing to take a swing at some “revolutionary” software “solution,” particularly when it’s funded by a grant, as happened in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative.

In a consumer marketplace, this ultimately gets sorted out by the marketplace. An app that fails to deliver on its promises won’t survive. The lasting harm is minimal.

But the number of years for one’s education are limited. When students are required to work with untested technology, there’s time lost which can’t be regained.

Ultimately it was people inside of Theranos who took the “first do no harm” message of the Hippocratic Oath seriously who helped blow the whistle on Holmes’ fraud.

I’m thinking we should have a similar "first do no harm" threshold for introducing technology into the classroom.[4]

How much ed tech would pass that muster?

 

 

[1] Interestingly, the republicans who were involved with Theranos tended to be investors who ended up losing all their money. Murdoch worte off all but $1 of his $125 million investment. The democrats used Holmes more as a symbol. President Obama named Holmes an “Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship,” and Holmes hosted a fundraiser for Clinton not long before the fraud was exposed by Carreyrou.

[2] In this light, it’s interesting to consider Boies role in the Harvey Weinstein saga as well, essentially helping to run a protection racket for Weinstein’s abuse of women. 

[3] Theranos claimed they could check potassium levels from a pin prick, but drawing blood in this way results in something called “hemolysis” where the blood cells are ruptured, causing a release of potassium which the device would read as an elevated number. Theranos was delivering potassium results which, if true, would have meant the patients were almost certainly dead.

[4] As a reminder, I’ve got a consultancy to help both ed tech companies and those who are tempted to invest in them, That Won’t Work, Bro Inc

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