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Writing at EdSurge, Jason Palmer, a General Partner at an outfit called New Markets Venture Partners, has declared himself “optimistic about the next wave of education technology.” 

Palmer believes the time is finally fully ripe for the education technology industry as the right combination of regulatory change, advances in technology, and philanthropic support have put “all the key building blocks in place.”

Palmer's optimism is the reason for my pessimism. The mix of companies in the New Markets Venture Portfolio reveals an emphasis on credentialing, and perhaps my least favorite ed tech trend, “personalized learning” software. Palmer believes the relative financial health of these ed tech start-ups is a good sign for education technology.

Maybe so, but I believe it’s a bad sign for education.

As Audrey Watters shows in her talk “Pigeons and Personalization: The Histories of ‘Personalized Learning,’ “personalized learning” dates to the earliest teaching machines, and underneath those promises of individualization is an undermining of institutions and the people who work within them. When education can be delivered “personally” by machines, the only relationship needs to be with the corporation serving up the software. 

This is, of course, big business. In my home state of South Carolina, the Post & Courier newspaper recently reported over a 10-year period, $350 million of funding had been funneled to “online charter schools,”  to “dismal results.” 

Since a 2007 bill paving the way for taxpayer money to be funneled their way, the five virtual charter schools have seen enrollment increase from 2100 to 10,000 students. Our current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos is a strong supporter of increasing and expanding the use of vouchers, including to online schools.

All but one of these schools are for-profit entities. But even the schools themselves often merely serve as fronts for larger corporations. Of the $24 million S.C. Connections Academy received from the state in 2015-16, $22 million went to Connections Education LLC, a subsidiary of Pearson.

An online personalized virtual charter school in South Carolina comes courtesy of a massive educational publishing and assessment conglomerate headquartered in the United Kingdom.

While $350 million of taxpayer money was going to these corporations, South Carolina is “desperate” for teachers. 6500 teachers did not return for the 2016-17 year, an increase of 21% over the previous year. South Carolina ranks 38th in the nation for teacher salaries and is now turning to an alternative certification program through Teachers of Tomorrow, (a corporation) which offers a set of virtual online courses that qualify participants for a provisional license to teach. 

In 2014 the National Council on Teacher Quality gave A+ Texas Teachers (the entity from which Teachers of Tomorrow was born) an “F” rating for their credentialing program. Teachers of Tomorrow claims they’ve changed a lot since then.

In sum:

  • A state that ranks poorly in education embraced virtual charters as a way to serve students who have fallen through the cracks of their under resourced schools to the tune of $350 million, money primarily funneled to out-of-state (out-of-country) corporations.
  • The poorly paid, under resourced teachers are fleeing their jobs in record numbers, necessitating the use of alternative credentialing which happens through virtual education provided by corporations.

There’s a certain cruel beauty to the formula. The state of South Carolina is now at least partially captive to outside corporations to educate their students and train their teachers. As more students enter the virtual space, even more resources are drained from public schools, which drives even greater need for these virtual credentialing services.

They’ve got us coming and going. South Carolina is not unique in this pattern. Meanwhile, I wonder what kind of difference an extra $350 million might’ve made to teacher salaries and teacher retention.

As a teacher, I am a fan of integrating technology into the classroom and have relied on dedicated ed tech professionals to help me explore these possibilities. I know of many of these people who want nothing more than to figure out the best ways to use technology to help students learn.

But these good motives mean very little up against the might of industry, particularly where industry is encouraged to colonize previously public spaces in order to lap up our taxpayer dollars. Even if you are not a believer in education as a public good as I am, surely the waste and inefficiency should bother you. As reported by the Post & Courier, the S.C. Virtual Charter school with an enrollment of 3275, has received over $150 million in taxpayer funding since 2008 for an on-time graduation rate of 37% and a dropout rate near 25%. 

IHE resident ed tech blogger Josh Kim recently wrote about Courtney Maum’s satirical novel, Touch, and asked if we could see a future where there is “an inverse relationship between the exclusivity (and cost) of an education and the amount of technology incorporated into the experience?” 

In fact, I can, because we’re living it now. While I have no doubt you will find technology in elite private schools such as Sidwell Friends (alma mater of Malia Obama), or Lakeside Prep (where Bill Gates’ children go to school), I feel confident there is no personalized learning software substituting for a teacher in these educational spaces.

The students in these schools get to use technology as tools for learning, as it should be. These young people get to imagine futures as “data scientists,” while Silicon Valley pushes students in public education towards “coding,” and demand we be thankful for it. 

As long as more and more children who are born into less fortunate circumstances are subjected to “Let them eat pixels” futures, I will be hard-pressed to feel enthusiastic about education technology.

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