Which Stories Do the Nation’s Education Technology Reporters Want You to Follow?

Which Stories Do the Nation’s Education Technology Reporters Want You to Follow?

Apple, Google and Microsoft are battling to take over the classroom. Ransomware attacks in both K-12 and higher education have compromised the private information of millions of vulnerable students, 2017 has had no shortage of edtech news.

But when it comes to the biggest stories of the year thus far, what are the writers themselves—education reporters—reading and thinking about?

While at the Education Writers Association conference on May 31 to June 2 in Washington, D.C., EdSurge reporter Jenny Abamu spoke with a group of reporters focused on the education technology beat—Benjamin Herold of Education Week, Nichole Dobo of The Hechinger Report, and Goldie Blumenstyk from The Chronicle of Higher Education—to hear their thoughts on the biggest education technology stories of the year, what they’re working on right now, and whether the federal government is helping—or hurting—the integration of edtech nationwide.

Check out the EdSurge podcast, or scroll down below for a selection from the Q&A.

EdSurge: In your opinion, what was one of the biggest education technology stories that readers might have missed last year?

Nichole Dobo (The Hechinger Report): I think there's been a real push in schools to (to use a jargon term) personalize learning. It's an old idea that's sort of getting a new life, and there is a lot of push in these states, like Rhode Island, to use it.

Benjamin, you had a big story last year. You actually won an EWA National Award for your investigative piece looking into cyber charters. This story was released at the beginning of November last year, the height of the election period, but covers important topics that people might have missed. Tell us a bit about your story.

Benjamin Herold (Education Week): We were real pleased to get it out. My colleague Arianna Prothero really focused on the lobbying that for-profit charter operators do, and I was really focusing on the operations of the school, and then we had a lot of research and support. But it's great to be able to do that because I've been covering online charters in various capacities going back almost six years and, from the beginning, kind of had the sense of, “We know that there's data out there that would show how often students are actually engaging in the schools and taking part in the learning.” And it was really hard to get that data, and I was knocking on doors and making calls for years trying to get it and without much luck, still kind of chipping away at the stories as they came up.

And then about a year ago, I got a email out of the blue that said, "I'd like to tell you about my school. I've been reading your work, and I think you might wanna know what's going on here." And so that was really the start for the whole project.

What was the school?

Benjamin Herold: So the school's name was GOAL Academy, and it's an online academic learning academy. It's a full-time online charter school with the idea that students would be spending about 90% of their time online via software. They do have centers around the state where students can come in for tutoring help and so forth. But it has over 4,000 students. It's the largest school in Colorado.

And what we found when we started digging in the data, talking to students, talking to teachers and staff, and reviewing documents, was that on a typical day, only about one in four students actually logged into the software. And there were a lot of questionable financial activities going on at the top, including the fact that the school's founder had started his own for-profit management company and gave it a no-bid $5 million contract.

Goldie, you cover the higher education sector. There are a lot of things that have happened last year, including things I'm sure went under quite a few people's radar. What story did you think was a really big highlight that people missed?

Goldie Blumenstyk (The Chronicle of Higher Education): I think there was a lot of momentum behind the stories about data analytics, and the ethics and the use of data analytics in higher education. Obviously, it's a big issue in the K-12 sector, but increasingly in higher education, as well.

And the other thing that was really a news story for us, that did become a bigger story, was the whole cyber security issue. Hacking was in the news and in the national political discourse, but colleges are among the places that are the most vulnerable to hacking, and also, colleges are the places that produce the experts who can prevent hacking. And so we did several stories about the need for more people in cyber security. I mean, the biggest experts we spoke to about cyber security talked a lot about the biggest need for people who need to be tech-skilled—but they also need to have an awareness of global politics, sociology. They need to understand the motivations of a hacker, or the political ramifications of why someone would be hacking, for a cyber security situation.

I don't think of these as tech stories, per se, but they clearly have a tech piece to them in a big way.

We're going to transition a little bit to the stories that you all are working on right now. I'll start with you, Nichole. Recently, you wrote a piece about STEM education. Have you followed the trends as far as people trying to do STEM education, and how legislation going into that? How does it make it more difficult for them, or why is this important?

Nichole Dobo: Well, I think a lot of school districts right now are scrambling, because they don't know what money is going to be coming from programs that they have been able to rely on year in and year out. And on the ground of the school district, beyond the hoopla of D.C., districts have to plan and decide what they're going to do. When there is confusion or unclear information coming on what money they're going to have, it sort of freezes them. They're not sure where to go. So that can be bad for innovation in schools, I think.

And your latest story, Benjamin, focuses on the Federal Communications Commission, and you talk about E-Rate. Why should readers be concerned about what's going on in those areas?

Benjamin Herold: One of the biggest, almost invisible federal funding streams for schools and libraries is the E-rate program. It helps them offset the cost of telecommunications services. Increasingly, that means broadband. And for schools around the country, it's been a boon. I mean, that's how the connectivity is really happening in American schools, particularly in rural schools. And it's another area where this kind of uncertainty, with the transition and the lack of attention to some of these issues, is causing a lot of wariness in the K-12 sector.

So there's a new leadership at the Federal Communications Commission. President Trump appointed Ajit Pai, who was on the Commission as a commissioner, who's now the Chairman, and he brings very different ideas to the table than his predecessor about the role that the FCC should play. His predecessor, Tom Wheeler felt the FCC should be heavily regulating a lot of things, and Mr. Pai is much more hands-off—saying that the decision should be made at the states, and divesting a lot of his authority from the FCC.

And so for schools, there's a sense of, "Okay, is the E-rate funding going to remain the same? Is the mechanism by which the funds are distributed going to remain the same?”

Finally, let’s talk covering the edtech sphere. What is one thing that you've learned? Something unique about covering edtech?

Goldie Blumenstyk: I mean, the thing that I dislike the most about it is that the kinds of press releases I get—very product-y pushes from people just expecting us to cover the latest version of their platform. Nobody really would be that interested in reading that in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

But I love that it's the mix of business and higher ed, for me. I mean, the people in the edtech world come at a problem with a different way to analyze a problem. I love the way that they think about what the issue is and what their solution is to fix it. It's not always the right solution for higher ed, but just that they come at it at that 90-degree angle. It's always eye-opening for me.

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