Audrey’s post explaining why she’s stepping away from ed-tech for good was something that resonated with me in a few different ways. I’ve also been a fan of Desmos (the tool) and Dan Meyer (the person) for a long time. That’s going back many years (2009 easily). But I separate the tool and the person from the business.1 Audrey’s post led to a conversation with Jim and his post has inspired this post.
I imagine being Ed Tech’s Cassandra as a depressing path. Looking at previous edtech travesties to contextualize the mess currently being pursued at massive profit is not going to make anyone who cares about humans happy. There’s some joy in being right. There’s the hope that maybe you prevent some bad choices but being a bad-news-Nostradamus2 is not a fun long-term occupation. Audrey provided research, history, and a compelling narrative but I’m confident she could accurately predict these futures without bothering with any of that. I’ve always suffered when I look at scale, when I focus on how little we’ve taken advantage of the potential, when I look at the timeline required for institutional change, when I see what failed to catch on in the 1960s.3
The basic problem is that edtech is a bag of gold. It’s just not the same bag of gold for lots people that I/we want it to be.
Can I expect the same basic drivers things that create Martin Shkreli to lead to better behavior because it’s education? Can I expect different behavior in the organizations operating in a world shaped by KPIs that opt for profit over everything else?4
I don’t. I can’t.5
When I was fairly young, I read a book about animals that eat people. I don’t know how real it is and I’m sure it has many problems but there was one scene that stuck in my head about the man-eating lions of Tsavo.6 The important part was that there were a bunch of railroad workers in tents at night. The lions are dragging people out to eat them and one guy was described as punching the lion in the face as he’s dragged into the darkness. He had to know that punching a lion isn’t going to work out but what else could you do? I’d like to think I would offer what resistance I could- futile or not. Might as well keep punching the lion in the face, maybe bite its ear or something, as I am dragged to my inevitable doom. Where I more literary, maybe I’d say I don’t want to go gently into that good night but I think of punching lions in the face. It’s not an exact analogy but it is what I have in my head when I think about doing edtech7 work in the world we’ve created.
And that’s what I look for. People doing things they think are right, or good, or fun in spite of all the structure that says they shouldn’t. It’s where I find hope. They do this in spite of the organization, the culture, the KPI.
Mainly, I find this hope in individuals or individual acts. It can happen with groups (be they businesses/colleges/learning groups) but it’s harder and often transient.
The thing is that there are so many people out there. Just as I’ll always be surprised by the depths of human awfulness, I also can’t know just how much good exists in ways that don’t end up visible.
I saw Fluid Math being demonstrated at some mega-edtech conference8 back when I worked in Henrico County Public Schools. This guy was going around doing his demonstrations on the giant vendor floor on other people’s smartboards. Maybe they couldn’t afford a booth. Luckily for him, there were 700 different smartboard vendors eager to have something useful happen on their hardware.9 Fluid Math came out of research at Brown. It mixed handwriting and gestural interactions with on-the-fly data visualizations that were manipulatable. You could write two acceleration equations and apply them to cartoon cars which would then animated according to those equations.10 Equation variables became manipulatable via sliders which changed the graph displays. Really just amazing stuff. Especially at that time. Crowds of math teachers gathered and were amazed. I believe I got it in as pilot for a number of classroom in HCPS.
Fast forward to now. You probably never heard of them. You can see from the their videos that they are terrible at marketing. They now have venture funding and are on Crunchbase. Their websites suck.11 They have tried to do some shifting to focus on automatically grading math problems.
I still love that software. Even if they eventually use it to kill puppies for profit, the roots still inspire me. I still see amazing potential in the concepts it crystalized. It did (maybe still does) the kind of interaction that enables people to build their own explorable explanations in dynamicland.12
I can’t rely on a company to anything other than generate profit and, in this case, I’m not sure I can even rely on it for that.
I can look for little glimmers of beauty in the vast sea of feces.
I wired the brick up as a very small external monitor, so you can, for instance, play Doom on it. pic.twitter.com/uWK2Uw7Egr
— James Brown (@ancient_james) June 19, 2022
Take something like the Lego monitor in this tweet. I don’t know anything about ancient_james but I love that he did this. I can’t see any reason to do it other than “because I can.” It changed my conception of what was possible.
I look for things that change my mind about what can be done. Those things, regardless of the source, keep aggregating to change how I think and what I try to do. The source (person, company, college) isn’t all that relevant to me. I don’t even care (much) any more if I’m creating any degree of change beyond the limited sphere of people I interact with directly. I’ll take what I can get. I’ll help people who like hot dogs while looking for people who want something more. I’ll keep evolving my vision for what “more” is.
1 It’s really separate when I move from footnotes to parenthesis.
2 This was my self-appointed nickname. Predicting the failure of the pay-for-performance grant in HCPS, VCU’s failure to turn online ed into a goldmine, etc. etc. Easy to predict these futures.
3 I capped this list before I got too sad. I treat these kind of thoughts like sad movies. I avoid them whenever possible. I resist importing depression.
4 Could I have linked each letter in this paragraph to an individual article I found depressing? Yes. Could I ask more questions I answer? Yes.
5 Maybe you can. No problem. I’m not trying to convince you of anything. This is just how I deal with things. I don’t even recommend it.
6 Details are blurry. They really aren’t important.
7 My definition.
8 ISTE I think.
9 This was the golden age of smartboards . . . around 10 or 12 years ago.
11 Professional opinion.