A Distemperate Response to Silicon Valley’s ‘Edtech Revolution’

A Distemperate Response to Silicon Valley’s ‘Edtech Revolution’


This is a dis-temperate response to a recent EdSurge op-ed, “Silicon Valley and the Edtech Revolution.”

Beginning with the bold claim, “Silicon Valley is once again leading the charge in a technology revolution, and this one might just have the greatest impact of all,” the author espouses a narrative that is reliant on myths that history and experience have taught us are patently untrue, or limited.

And myths matter, as do the opportunities squandered, possibilities delimited and the students who fail. It matters because a myth-making machine that ignores history, like the disruptive narrative that informs a lot of the current edtech revolution, is one that distorts knowledge and privileges wilful ignorance.

It matters because you, the technologists and entrepreneurs, need us and we, the educators, need you.

Silicon Valley is certainly a part of the conversation and ongoing efforts to improve education. We’ve been iterating for decades. But here are two of my quibbles with a couple of the Valley’s most commonly cited cause de célèbre when it comes to the “revolution.”

The MOOC “Revolution”

I’m a fan of Udacity, and Coursera. And Canvas. I’m one of their stats; I take their courses. Just like the majority of people in their courses, I’m someone who already has a degree.

Udacity started with several aims in mind. Amongst them, fixing education, providing access to those with need but no opportunity and providing content from leading subject experts to those who couldn’t afford it. But there is much room for improvement.

Studies have shown that students are typically professionals with degrees. About 66% of HarvardX and MITX enrollees had a primary degree already, as do about 80% of Coursera participants. MOOC participants often, though not always, are largely from the first world, (Coursera’s University of Pennsylvania MOOCs roughly break down to 65% OECD, 15% BRICS, and 20% other developing countries). Completion rates average out at about 6.5%.

Udacity’s own report states that 12% of high school students who took one of their online math courses at San Jose State University passed. Overall pass rates ranged from 11.9 to 54.3%, significantly lower than the face-to-face remedial courses they were supposed to supersede, fix and replace. The worst performing demographic were high school students and those already in trouble academically.

That distance learning suffers from higher dropout rates, along with motivation and persistence issues, should not surprise anyone. Content does not equal education. MOOCs need highly self-driven students, with previous experience of online learning, good self-directed learning strategies, and fairly easy access to technology. They also need access to instructors and feedback, as well as support in using tools. This is what history tells us.

Thrun’s response was humble, and in a way admirable. He admitted that Udacity had “a lousy product” unsuitable for the kind of course and students it targeted. I admire Thrun. Immensely. I hope, fervently, that he succeeds.

The Sal Khan “Revolution”

“Nearly single-handedly,” writes Ralston, “Sal Khan made competent teaching available to any child in the world at any time.”

There are two issues with this sentence. One: Khan made content available, not teaching. Mistaking content for learning is like mistaking a picture of a big mac and cheese for something you can eat. Content served does not equal learning achieved.

Second: Single-handedly? While Khan may have been the first of the YouTube-enabled idealists to achieve such a reach and audience--and that is important--his work stands on the shoulders of others who have made equally immense contributions to distance (now online) learning.

Distance learning has a long history, and has encountered and developed techniques to cope with the issues that MOOCs, networked learning, peer-based learning and online education are rediscovering now. A quick highlight of what came before Khan:

1728: First correspondence course in shorthand offered.

1858: The University of London Postal Degree Courses begin (running in a different format to this day).

Early 1900’s: Radio broadcasting licences issued to numerous colleges and universities.

1934: University of Iowa offers TV-based courses. (Video lessons turned 80 years old this year.)

1951: The Alice Springs School of the Air broadcast its first lesson. Still running 63 years later. Geographically distributed learners, school students, being supported in a technology based distance learning endeavour.

1961: B.F. Skinner unveils his teaching machine, a machine that automated testing, asked questions, and rewarded correct answers with no human intervention, adaptively. A version of Skinner’s machine, the Grolier MixMax shipped 20,000 units in two years. (Teaching machines stretch back into the 1800’s.)

1969: The Open University opens and starts broadcasting lessons on BBC in 1971. It’s rated as the top university for student satisfaction in England and Wales 3 times in the last ten years.

2001: MIT Courseware offers recordings of class lectures online

2008: The first “MOOCs” as we now call them, are offered by, among others, George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Downes is a prolific writer and theorist. Siemens is applying big data to MOOCs with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Foundation.

It may not sound like it, but I love aspects of Khan--his idealism, desire to help and gradual openness to change. His altruism speaks to what is at the heart of my own passion for education. Still, Khan Academy is not a revolution. Rather, it’s a continuation of efforts to apply technology to implement learning pedagogies espoused by big thinkers. Innovation today stands on the shoulders of giants who came before.

Some Humility is in Order

The last 150 years have given a wealth of knowledge, change, alteration and experimentation when it comes to finding ways to improve the teaching and learning processes.

Education is undergoing an evolution, not revolution. Call it an iteration--but it’s an iteration based on knowledge and a library of evidence far broader than that which the disruptive narrative includes. And espousing a working ignorance of history is an odd starting point from which to fix education, a field fixated on knowledge and experience.

Educators are engineers of experience. Silicon Valley startups are engineers of technology. Either this is a co-operative project, funded by experience, evidence and expertise, as well as the mutual passion for integrity, education and innovation (and yes, venture capital). Or it’s a series of expensive and limiting failures where working-stiff educators have to pick up the pieces.

Hubris is the enemy of knowledge. And when it comes to education, getting it right is a duty, not a gamble. Educators are on intimate terms with the tragedy that unfulfilled potential blossoms into. The fast pivot is the engine of unnecessary failure in a place where failure has consequences.

Which is a pity. Because educators love innovation, and tools that extend our abilities to teach, and our students’ abilities to learn. Most of us know in our bones that innovation is the sinew of excellence.

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