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The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology (2017)

A Hack Education Project

Education's Online Futures

This is part six of my annual look at the year’s “top ed-tech stories

Some of the most oft-told tales in education in recent years have the following plot: the students all move from “brick-and-mortar” to “online.” It’s an inevitable move, or so the story goes.

Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, for example, predicted in their 2008 book Disrupting Class that by 2019 half of all high school classes would be taught via the Internet. There was all that ink spilled circa 2010 that Khan Academy and “flipped learning” were going to “change the rules of education,” replacing in-class instruction with online videos watched as homework. And then there were MOOCs, of course, and all those predictions and all those promises about the end of college as we know it: “MOOCs make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind” and similar fables.

It’s not simply that the predictions were wrong. (Although no, to be clear, we are not on track for half of high school classes to be online or for higher education to be replaced by Udacity, and no, MOOCs have not transformed higher ed into some magical meritocracy.)

Rather, it’s that the steady drumbeat of stories about the inevitability of online education has shaped the cultural imaginary. It has shaped the political imaginary. It has shaped the administrative imaginary – and that in turn has shaped how schools have built capacity (or much more likely outsourced capacity) and defined capacity altogether – notably in response to what’s been consistently framed as the challenge of access and the necessity of choice.

Online education, we’re still told, will be education’s disruptor. Online education, we’re also still told, will be its savior. And parents and students – this is certainly Betsy DeVos’s message – want the “choice” that online education offers.

Vive la MOOC Révolution

In October of this year, Clarissa Shen, Udacity’s Chief Operating Officer, called MOOCs “a failed product.” Five years after “the year of the MOOC,” the acronym does not appear on the website of any of those high profile online course providers.

No doubt, Udacity, Coursera, and edX have been moving away from “free” and “open” online education for a while now, charging fees for courses and certificates and acting much more like online program management companies – third party vendors for Internet-based courses and degree programs. For its part, Udacity has fully rebranded itself as a high-tech job training company, a topic I’ll cover in more detail in a forthcoming article in this series.

Whether or not the product has failed or enrollments have fallen or the promises were always mostly bullshit, to this day, the big MOOC companies and their famous founders remain in the headlines: “Andrew Ng Spreads the Gospel of AI With a New Online School,” Wired reported. “Andrew Ng Wants a New ‘New Deal’ to Combat Job Automation,” said MIT Technology Review. “Sebastian Thrun Defends Flying Cars to Me,” where “me” in that headline is Wired’s Steven Levy. “The man building flying cars for Larry Page wants to reinvent the way you prepare dinner,” said Business Insider “Let’s talk about Sebastian Thrun’s puppy,” said Techcrunch.

There were some notable updates in the MOOC world this year, I suppose, in addition to Thrun bringing his puppy, strapped to his chest, on stage at one of Techcrunch’s events: Coursera laid off about 13% of its staff, Recode reported in October, that despite raising $64 million at a $800 million valuation in June. Coursera also brought on a new CEO: Jeff Maggioncalda, whose previous job was in the financial planning industry. Tom Willerer, Coursera’s chief product officer, left the company to become a venture capitalist. And Coursera co-founder Andrew Ng left Baidu, where he’d been since leaving the MOOC startup in 2014. Udacity’s CMO Shernaz Daver left that company. In April, a new startup, Voyage, was spun out of Udacity’s autonomous driving efforts. Adam Medros became edX’s president and COO. All three – Udacity, Coursera, and edX – rolled out new certificate programs. The British MOOC company FutureLearn entered the US market. (Just throwing that sentence in there for all the British readers who hit CTRL+F to see if I mentioned FutureLearn at all.) Udacity shut down Blitz.com, a freelancing platform for its nanodegree alumni. And edX shut down the original MITx 6.002x platform.

Arguably the ongoing attention given to these MOOC makers and MOOC providers outweighs the importance of these particular product and company updates. (That’s not to say that online education isn’t important – more and more students are taking courses online.) But ed-tech punditry – and tech punditry more broadly – helped create the MOOC monster, and it simply won’t let the story go. (I mean, here I am again talking about MOOCs in my year-end review for, like, the fifth year in a row.) There were still so many articles and op-eds written about MOOCs this year – lots of “where are they now” pieces and various calls to revive, rethink, and “put the ‘M’ back in MOOCs.” In one of the many articles it published on MOOCs this year, Edsurge asked the peak-Edsurge question: “What if MOOCs Revolutionize Education After All?”

What if indeed.

What might be the elements of the MOOC revolution? That Edsurge article suggests that MOOCs have forced schools to rethink the lecture, focusing on short bursts of content delivery and “active learning” instead. MOOCs have forced faculty to compete with one another, with other institutions, with third party providers, the article argues. They’ve introduced the logic of markets to institutions that resist change: “moving a university is a little bit like moving a cemetery. You can’t expect any help from the inhabitants.”

Or so the story goes.

One survey conducted this year (by Learning House) did give a boost to the argument online education is becoming more competitive. Students want to be able to enroll quickly, it found; they want access to financial aid and other services immediately; they want to know if their credits will transfer; they want to be able to access course and school information via their mobile phone. Some of this, I’ll note, is very much the type of assistance that has made for-profit higher ed so successful in enrolling students.

The survey also claimed that students prefer short classes (eight weeks or less), and they spend far less time studying and working on assignments than they should be – at least according to Department of Education requirements for credit-bearing coursework.

Of course, online education (and distance education and correspondence courses and all the historical variations) has always been challenged for its quality and questioned regarding its prestige. That is to say, a Udacity executive remarking that MOOCs are a “failed product” should not be viewed some as shockingly radical commentary. Indeed, investors and entrepreneurs are constantly jostling to position their product as the superior alternative. Some of the superior alternatives they’ve proposed in the last few years: bootcamps, and now mentorships and apprenticeships. More on these totally-not-failed products in an upcoming article in this series.

One other company that rode the wave of the MOOC revolution back in 2012 was MasterClass which offers online classes “from the best,” as its PR puts it. “The best” include a cooking class from Wolfgang Puck, a class on investigative journalism from Bob Woodward, a tennis class from Serena Williams, a filmmaking class from Martin Scorsese, and an acting class from Kevin Spacey. Wait, nevermind. The company removed the Kevin Spacey content. MasterClass raised $35 million in venture capital in March. (It’s raised $56.4 million total.) It’s not a scam, The Verge insisted when it wrote about the startup in May. The LA Times was less a little less awestruck in its coverage: “I think it’s valuable in the way that watching ‘Actors on Actors’ or Charlie Rose is,” one acting coach told the newspaper. “You’re expanding your mind, but I wouldn’t consider that taking an acting class.”

So, what does count as a real class – acting class or otherwise? How has online video changed our expectations of that? And as Edsurge wondered this fall, “How Much Hollywood Glitz Should Colleges Use in Their Online Courses?”

Online Education and Teaching Labor

What counts as a real class? Have all the philosophical debates about that you want, but there are rules and regulations, particularly when there’s federal financial aid involved.

Western Governors University, an online university that’s been at the center of efforts to reform “what counts” when it comes to the credit hour, ran into trouble this year when an audit by the Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General found that its competency-based, online education program did not have sufficient interaction between faculty and students. The OIG’s recommendation: that the institution repay the federal government some $700 million in student aid. Mindwires Consulting’s Phil Hill called the audit “a travesty,” later arguing that the audit, whether the Department of Education accepts the findings or not, will likely impact “fragile movement of competency-based education” – a movement is deeply intertwined with calls for “personalized learning” and the adoption of new technologies for adaptive instruction and assessment.

This is the part where someone always cites Arthur C. Clarke about any teacher who can be replaced with a computer should be. It’s also the part where I note that he wrote that in 1980 and computer-assisted instruction is still crap. So perhaps when we talk about replacing teachers with computers it’s not so much that the computers are amazing. It’s that those telling these stories sorta despise teaching labor.

“Why Haven’t MOOCs Eliminated Any Professors?” Inside Higher Ed contributor Joshua Kim asked this year, which I don’t think he made with Clarke’s pronouncement in mind but a question that surely assumes MOOCs haven’t. Indeed, it is impossible to separate institutions’ embrace of MOOCs and online education more broadly with the labor conditions at universities – with the growing reliance on adjuncts, for example, for instruction and on outsourcing for technical support. A study released in 2015 found that colleges were increasingly turning to adjuncts to teach online classes, and those hiring patterns – that is, the hiring of part-time, contingent instructors rather than tenure-track professors – have likely continued in recent years as higher education has expanded its online offerings.

The Chronicle of Higher Education profiled BYU-Idaho this year, touting what a bargain the tuition was for its online PathwayConnect program: about $8,100 for the 120 credits necessary for a bachelor’s degree, which is about half the price of tuition for classes on campus at BYU-Idaho. The article noted that one way the school kept the price tag so low was, no surprise, its reliance on adjuncts. (Underscoring how precarious this labor is, an adjunct at the school lost her teaching contract one week after the Chronicle story was published, after she defended LGBTQ rights in a post on Facebook.)

The Chronicle described another way in which BYU-Idaho saves money on staffing: it uses volunteer labor for tutoring and advising in its online program. Coursera, even with the $210 million in venture capital it’s raised, also uses free, volunteer labor for some of its tasks. It has some 2500 “beta testers,” Edsurge reported in February. (Arguably students are “beta testers” too, working for free to improve these platforms.)

One study published this year confirmed what many professors will tell you: that teaching online is more time-consuming than teaching in a traditional, face-to-face setting. The survey, conducted by the National Tertiary Education Union and the University of Tasmania, found that all the tasks associated with online instruction took longer: from preparing a lecture to updating course materials. No doubt, the introduction of all sorts of digital technologies – email, the learning management system, and so on – has changed the expectations of how (and when) faculty work, whether they’re teaching online or not.

“Faculty,” as this year’s ECAR study put it, “have a love-hate relationship with online teaching and learning. They don’t want to do it but think they would be better instructors if they did. Most faculty agree that online learning makes higher education available to more students, but few agree that online learning helps students learn more effectively.”

Just as we’ve seen in recent years, there was some faculty pushback to online education in 2017 at various institutions, notably at George Washington University, which was sued last year by a handful graduates who claimed that their online education was inferior to what was offered on campus. The university’s Faculty Senate, which had created a task force to investigate the quality of its degree programs, found there were in some cases vast differences between those that were offered and online and those that were offered on campus and that oversight of online education at the university was inconsistent – “There’s no organized approach to the online education experience, not in all schools,” the chair of the task force Professor Kurt Darr told the student newspaper.

To attain an “organized approach,” schools often turn to online program managers, which The Century Foundation described in a damning report this year as “a traditional outsourcing model with a dangerous twist.”

The involvement of OPMs in the establishment and growth of online educational opportunities at public institutions exposes consumers to the financial interests of decision-makers, interests that would not exist if exclusively public or nonprofit institutions were involved in providing these distance learning programs. Driven by the desire and need to make money for investors or owners, those to whom executives are held accountable, these companies may prioritize profit over the interests of online students, to whom they owe no loyalty, financial or otherwise.

I explored what can happen to student data under these circumstances in the previous article in this series; I will turn to what can happen to faculty data and academic freedom in the next one.

But when we’re thinking about the stories told about “the future of education” and how often those stories insist that that future is online, it’s worth exploring too, as the Century Foundation report suggests, what it means to be “public” with such significant involvement of private, for-profit companies in these educational endeavors.

Online Education and the Stories We Are Told about “Choice”

“What it means to be public” is a conversation – a controversy is perhaps a more accurate word – that’s been unfolding in K–12 education for decades now, particularly with the expansion of charter schools, which claim to be public schools but are run by private entities (both for-profit and not-for-profit companies).

Just a fraction of those students who enroll in charter schools attend virtual charters, taking all their classes online. Some 200,000 students attend online charter schools, according to a 2016 report by Education Week, out of the 3 million or so total who are enrolled in charters and the 50 million or so who are enrolled in K–12 public schools. Yet “the sector has an outsized influence,” the head of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers told Education Week.

Arguably, it has even more now that Betsy DeVos is Secretary of Education.

One of DeVos’s key agenda items involves vouchers, a system that enables parents to use taxpayer money – the dollars that would typically be allocated to their child’s public school – to pay the tuition at any school, including private and parochial schools. Although there have been some state and local experiments with vouchers, their adoption is not widespread, and federal approval of vouchers would be a radical expansion of “school choice,” if for no other reason than because, as opponents argue, they erode the separation of Church and State. (There are also concerns about the curriculum at many of these religious schools – “Voucher Schools Championed By Betsy DeVos Can Teach Whatever They Want. Turns Out They Teach Lies,” The Huffington Post recently charged, noting that these schools not only teach creationism, but also Scientology and a fair amount of white supremacy.)

The research about vouchers also suggests that many of the programs – whether subsidizing L. Ron Hubbard reading materials or not – fail to benefit students academically. That was the finding, at least, of a study of the District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarship Program in April – students who used vouchers scored lower on math tests. A study released in June on Indiana’s voucher program found “modest annual achievement losses” in math, particularly in the first two years after leaving public school – although students were able to catch back up to their public school peers after four years. A study released in June on Louisiana’s voucher program had similar findings.

In addition to questions about academic achievement, there are other concerns about how vouchers might exacerbate educational inequality: “Indiana’s School Choice Program Often Underserves Special Needs Students,” NPR reported in May. In another story from Indiana’s voucher program this summer, Chalkbeat found that “$16 million went to schools with anti-LGBT policies.” Vouchers in Vermont were used disproportionately by more affluent families, ProPublica found, not to help low-income families escape under-resourced schools. In an NYT op-ed in March, Kevin Carey contended that Arizona’s voucher program raised all sorts of ethical questions about profiteering and public money, noting that Steve Yarbrough is both the head of the State Senate and the CEO of one of the state’s largest voucher granting groups. There were concerns – and certainly these echo those we have long heard about charter schools too – that voucher programs drain money away from public schools.

While much of the attention on voucher programs have been on their potential to fund religious schools – no surprise in light of DeVos’s own Christian fundamentalism – there are also concerns that the Trump administration’s push for more “school choice” could also be a boon for virtual charter schools. Again, the research has consistently shown that students at these online schools underperform their peers at traditional, offline ones. A 2015 study from Stanford’s CREDO famously found that the performance was so poor that it was “literally as though the student did not go to school for the entire year.”

Nevertheless, virtual charter schools have continued to expand even in the face of state opposition, challenges, and fines. The California Virtual Academies was forced to refund some $2 million to the state’s Department of Education for improperly used funds this year, for example. The Post and Courier reported on South Carolina’s charter schools this summer, noting that their graduation rate is half of that at traditional schools – just 42%. An investigation by Chalkbeat into virtual charters in Indiana found that the Indiana Virtual School had hired only one teacher for every 222 students. The Ohio Department of Education sought some $80 million in repayment for tuition dollars it gave to the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow after an audit showed that the virtual charter school had overstated its enrollment. ECOT refuses to pay. Meanwhile, the state has cleared the company to become a dropout recovery school.

That last example underscores how talk of “school choice” – whether used to justify vouchers or cyber charters in K–12 or online degree programs in higher ed – often masks other educational inequalities.

We should ask “who does online education work for,” for example, and what kind of “choice” does it really represent? That is, does a college student need to take a class online because the classes on campus overlap with her work schedule? Is a school unable to offer calculus and so an online class become an enrichment opportunity for advanced students? Or is an online class used for “credit recovery,” so a struggling student who has failed classes can quickly make up credits in order to graduate? (“The New Diploma Mills,” as the investigative reporters at The Teacher Project called them.) When and why is the “choice” an online program – when and why is capacity not developed locally? (There is perhaps no better example of this than the push this year to offer preschool online in rural parts of Utah. Or the offer for tens of thousands of displaced students in Puerto Rico to attend Florida Virtual School.) What sorts of choices do students with disabilities have, particularly if online educational content continues to fail to be ADA compliant? And how do all of these questions dovetail with what we know from educational research about which students excel and which students struggle online?

In his ongoing coverage of education policy, Chalkbeat’s Matt Barnum asked this summer, “Do vouchers actually expand school choice?” “Not necessarily,” he answered. It depends on how the programs are designed. It also depends on where they’re designed. In many parts of the US, there aren’t private or parochial schools for parents choose from – online is the “choice.”

So vouchers will likely be a boon for the operators of cyber charter schools. As I noted in an earlier article in this series, K12 Inc’s stock rallied after DeVos was confirmed Secretary of Education. One of her associates, Kevin Chavous, co-founder along with DeVos of the “school choice” group American Federation for Children, joined the board of the virtual charter school chain this year. K12 Inc has been an active member of the conservative political “bill mill” ALEC for some time now, crafting legislation that would, among other things, facilitate the expansion of virtual charters.

Vouchers will also exacerbate segregation, a practice which as MacArthur “Genius” winner and education journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones reminds us is maintained through “choice” – “through a series of individual choices.” And “a series of individual choices” is foundational for many of the stories we’re told about the future of online education – so yes, discrimination and segregation are very much bound up in that future too.

Of course, you can always put a positive spin on any of this: “The Flip Side of Abysmal MOOC Completion Rates? Discovering the Most Tenacious Learners,” as Edsurge pronounced this year. Why address structural inequality when you can laud that gritty autodidact.

Online Education and “Access”

There might be a couple of snags with all these predictions about the future of online education, particularly if you still believe the story that online education is some sort of democratic force. That’s because online education requires Internet access, and under the Trump administration, the government seems thoroughly committed to slowing speeds, eliminating privacy protections, and scrapping subsidies that have helped low-income families and schools afford high-speed broadband:

From February: “FCC Revokes Decision Allowing Companies to Provide Low-Income Families With Subsidized Broadband.” Also from February: “Under New Leadership, FCC Quashes Report on E-rate Program’s Success.” From April: “Trump signs repeal of U.S. broadband privacy rules.” From August: “Republicans try to take cheap phones and broadband away from poor people.” From October: “FCC Delays, Denials Foil Rural Schools’ Broadband Plans.” From November: “FCC begins scaling back internet subsidies for low-income homes.”

Digital redlining continues in urban areas. Rural areas continue to be underserved. We have, as education futurist Bryan Alexander calls it, “a Balkanized Internet,” and the contours of these divides absolutely shapes who has access and what they have access to. And so if, as some insist, the future of education is online, that leaves a sizable portion of the population at the mercy of Internet service providers to dictate what that means – the price, the speed, the privacy protections (or lack thereof).

While The Hechinger Report touted early in the year that “most students go to a school that meets federal standards for internet speed,” that might be changing too. The FCC is poised this week to vote to scrap “net neutrality” regulations – “a victory for telecoms” that will allow these companies to charge more money for certain kinds of Internet traffic (particularly the video traffic that online education has come to expect). To be fair, it is mostly speculation, at this stage, how the revocation of net neutrality will affect schools or ed-tech products and services. Perhaps it will all depend on who’s taken money from telecoms and ISPs. Perhaps, net neutrality or not, it will all depend on who is aligned with the key players in the platform economy.

I am guessing that some folks will still be well-positioned to regale us with stories about the future of education online, whether there is “net neutrality” or not. Indeed, as Ajit Pai, the head of the FCC insists, “markets will work it all out.” That is how “choice” supposedly works, after all.

This post first appeared on Hack Education on 13 December 2017. Financial data on the major corporations and investors involved in this and all the trends I cover in this series can be found on funding.hackeducation.com.