In spite of

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

In spite

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.

A story

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.

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.

10 Look about 30 seconds in on this video.

11 Professional opinion.

12 Bret Victor being another person who keeps churning out things that inspire me and another individual, Gardner Campbell, mentioned him to me or I’d probably never have found him.

12 thoughts on “In spite of

  1. “Do not go gently into the lion’s maw, punch, punch against the setting of the dawn.” This is an honest take, and for me the cruz is there is a lot of shit to focus on and bemoan, but arguably equal amounts of amazingly inspiring creativity that is seemingly done “for nothing,” i.e. love fame, riches, power, etc. The sense of joy and fun that comes from figuring some of this stuff out and then sharing it is part of that alternative “nothing” that I think is intentionally overlooked and downplayed, almost to the point where we begin to assume that our own joy is suspect. I think that is part of that lion-heart resistance you appeal to here, which I love.

  2. I can’t withdraw from edtech unless I withdraw from supporting teaching and learning in 2022. It’s not a separate thing that can just be jettisoned anymore, and hasn’t been for a long, long time.

    1. D’Arcy, I thought of this recently when I read the term “FinTech.” What part of the financial system is not technological these days?

      Tom, I read your post as a big unconscious sigh. For years and years and years, you have been documenting all the good shit that you have done and all the possibilities and opportunities that stem from it. Yet, it seems what gets the most oxygen in the public sphere is the bad stuff (the lion?). I hope you keep doing good stuff and that I can remind myself to amplify it.

    2. Lots of stuff needs doing that’s just about making life a little more pleasant for people (even if I disagree with the top-level drivers). I can find some satisfaction in that but I don’t find any deep joy or inspiration. Companies will keep on being companies. I don’t look to them to be friends or to set high bars. In the USA, the difference between colleges/universities and companies is less and less.

  3. 12 footnotes! It might be a record.

    The EdTech being bemoaned is never the edtech those in this comment thread / post author were about. The light out there in the punched lion’s eye shines from “the sense of joy and fun that comes from figuring some of this stuff out and then sharing it”.

    That light is bright here, I count on it.

  4. I retired from the edu blogging universe at about the same time that I retired from the University of Illinois, summer 2010. After that, I would teach one course a year, an upper level undergraduate course in economics. Through 2014, it went pretty well. Then it started to go downhill. The students became even more mercenary about grades, attendance dropped off, and the last couple of times student depression and anxiety were palpable. (The last time was fall 2019, hence before the pandemic.) I say this because the malaise about ed tech as commercial activity may parallel the sickness that is in college education now.

    I did read Audrey Watters’ book on Teaching Machines. Since my campus was the home of the Plato system, that created quite an impact in the introductory STEM courses, and then informed the development of early Web tools here that in some way mimicked Plato, I had interest in the story she tells. But I think it’s only a partial picture of the legacy from these developments. Smart homework tools in the LMS can be thought of in this vein, though at the time I retired they weren’t up to snuff, in my opinion, perhaps because the big textbook publishers had a vested interested in keeping assessment to multiple choice questions. In any event, having students build their own narrative about their formative learning – via blogs perhaps – was something quite different. It required a much more labor intensive approach to instruction, so the students could get meaningful response from an informed reader. So it didn’t scale well at all. But, at least through 2014, I thought it improved the student learning. Yet by 2019, it no longer seemed that way.

    I will add one more thing and then go back to hibernating in my hole. As an edtech administrator, the mid to late 1990s were far more interesting to me even though the bandwidth was far more limited and there were real issues about access to computing resources for some students that presented significant challenges. The inventiveness I saw was as much in how the early adopter instructors fitted the technology to their teaching as it was in the technology itself. In the early 2000s the mission was to scale this up to the majority instructors who hadn’t yet adopted an online component to their teaching. But it stopped being about instructor creativity in fitting the technology to the situation and, frankly, over time the work became boring and mechanical for me. I think edtech needs that type of creativity to give it vitality.

    1. The bizarre assumption that computers need to reduce “learning” to multiple guess and “make it look like a textbook and fill intheblanks” has baffled me since oh, the 1990s. Just a tad west of you at Parkland College, here…

  5. Oh, I remember promising technology…. Modumath in 2000 was *cutting edge* Flash video math for adults … *conceptual* (which basically nothing else is/was)… but no fundingto bring it out of Flash. Bye bye.
    Lexia Learning was a little program that applied principles of Orton-Gillingham reading with fidelity. Rosetta Stone bought it up, glamorized it and now it’s ‘way too hard because they don’t know the students who were using it.
    There was a nifty program that used speech-to-text to guide folks in reading fluency … got bought up by folks who didn’t understand target audience.
    Now ReadingPlus got bought by DreamBox. I think it has a *better* chance than the others b/c it had more years of tech expertise and has a pretty big following but…
    Yea, there’s a pattern… something that works well w/ niche market gets subsumed by folks who don’t know from those kinds of learners so “hey, it doesn’t have to be that complicated, does it?” Well, yes it does…

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