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The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology (2017)

A Hack Education Project

"Robots Are Coming For Your Jobs"

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

In previous years, I’ve looked at how education technology is intertwined with narratives about “skills,” “competencies,” and “credentialing.” I’ve looked at how for-profit colleges, MOOCs, and learn-to-code companies have tapped into these narratives in order to justify their products and services. These have all been separate articles in each series. But this year, I’m reorganizing my analysis of these “trends,” partly because I think they can all be subsumed under the larger theme of “the new economy.” (And partly because I really cannot or should not write more than ten of these things every year – and this year I think I’m somehow poised to write eleven, goddammit.)

What are the dominant stories we’re being told about the economy – about our role, now and in the future, as workers? What are the dominant stories we’re being told about the role of education in preparing workers for this future economy?

The importance of thinking about education through the lens of “the new economy” was best demonstrated this year by Tressie McMillan Cottom in her book on for-profit education, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy. Don’t get distracted by just by the “for-profit colleges” part of that title, I’d caution. “Lower ed” is far more pervasive.

Among McMillan Cottom’s many contributions to education scholarship, she complicates the stereotype that those who attend for-profit colleges – and those are disproportionately low-income women and women of color – are somehow “dupes.” Rather, McMillan Cottom argues these students are making rational decisions in a world of growing economic precarity and shrinking social programs. In the hopes of not being (further) left behind in the labor market, these students are compelled to engage in this risky credentialism. “The new economy” insists we hustle. And that’s the future – that hustle – for more and more students and more and more workers.

Watch Tressie McMillan Cottom on The Daily Show. Listen to her on NPR’s Fresh Air. Read The New York Times review of her book. Don’t mess with her on Twitter.

I’ve already made references to for-profit higher education in the second and third articles in this year-end series – on the “innovation gospel” and on the business of student loans. I’ve also written a separate article listing some of the various events that happened in the for-profit college industry this year – closures, lawsuits, sales, and the like. I want to focus here, in this article, on the hustle, on the stories we were told this year about “the new economy,” and I want to explore how “risky credentialism” affects students and workers broadly – “lower ed,” as McMillan Cottom has dubbed it.

You’ll notice, however, that this article is not titled “Education Technology and the New Economy.” That’s because the stories told this year to keep us hustling and to keep up imagining a certain kind of future are almost all about robots.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over again we were told “robots are coming for your jobs.” And so, we must “automation-proofschools in response. We must encourage people to pursue “robot resistant” majors in college. We must prepare preschoolers for an automated future. Something about education needing to be reshaped in order to combat “jobsolescence” – I kid you not, someone said that.

The threat of robots might come less from their purported “artificial intelligence” – although there was a steady drumbeat of stories this year touting their magnificentmentalcapabilities – than from the story that posits human intelligence is faltering. Humans can no longer keep up; they are no longer desirable or capable employees (if indeed they ever were). Robots are much more ideal as workers, because of course they cannot unionize. They don’t ask for health insurance benefits or sick leave or 401K contributions. Employers, so we’re told, are simply unable to find workers with the right skills. Humans have fallen behind.

“The Skills Gap”

Despite the overwhelming evidence that there is no “skills gap,” – particularly a “high tech skills gap” – it’s a convenient and popular story told by employers, entrepreneurs, investors, pundits, and politicians alike – particularly those who’d like to blame schools for failing to teach students the right “skills.”

“The right skills,” of course, are the skills that employers expect potential employees to possess, largely eschewing training themselves and instead offloading the risk and responsibility of training onto individuals. Demanding that schools teach “the right skills” is also one of many examples of an ongoing “innovation” fixation, of how industry is pressing the education system to bend to its needs.

Arguably, there is no better example of this than the ongoing push that “everyone should learn to code,” led at the K–12 level by the industry-backed advocacy organization Code.org. As The New York Times’ Natasha Singer described the work of the non-profit in June:

Code.org has emerged as a new prototype for Silicon Valley education reform: a social-media-savvy entity that pushes for education policy changes, develops curriculums, offers online coding lessons and trains teachers – touching nearly every facet of the education supply chain.

Code.org is backed by a long list of technology companies – from AT&T to Amazon to Facebook to Google to Verizon. (I’ll look in more detail at how robots are coming for your children in the next article in this series.)

And well beyond the industry’s backing of Code.org, venture capital has continued to flow into “learn-to-code” businesses in 2017, alongside a number of corporate grants (and corporate PR efforts that have sought to encourage the adoption of coding curriculum. (For a complete look at who funded learn-to-code companies this year, visit funding.hackeducation.com.)

Bootcamp or Bust

Coding bootcamps also continued to be popular among tech investors. In previous years, these were also popular acquisition targets, but 2017 saw several of these high-profile acquisitions falter under new corporate leadership.

Their stumbles certainly weren’t from a lack of positive PR from trade publications, which repeatedly touted the benefits of these short-term technical programs: “Learn to code, get a job – and get paid well,” as Edsurge put it. “A guaranteed jobor your money back!” “No teachers!” “Sweet digs!”

In July, two of the most well-known (and some believed, well-established) coding bootcamps announced they’d be closing their doors: Dev Bootcamp and Iron Yard. Both had been acquired by for-profit college companies, a convenient target – no surprise – for entrepreneurial blame at the bootcamps’ failures: Dev Bootcamp was bought in 2014 by Kaplan Inc and Iron Yard was acquired in 2015 by the Apollo Education Group, the parent company of the University of Phoenix.

In some ways, the explanation for the closure was quite simple: there are now far more coding bootcamps – almost 100 across the US and Canada – than there are prospective students. But there have been some indications too that many employers find bootcamp graduates to be unprepared for technical work. Or rather (and this is really key) employers don’t interpret the bootcamp certificate as a good “signal” – and that is the “lower ed” gamble all along. (On average, a bootcamp runs about $11,000 for a 12-week course.) As Tressie McMillan Cottom puts it, “Boot camps are a tax paid by suitably credentialed workers who do not have enough capital (economic, social, or cultural) to enter a high status field of work in which some job is undergoing an actual or projected short-term demand bubble.”

In October, the New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced a $375,000 settlement with the coding bootcamp Flatiron School “for operating without a license and making bogus claims about the success of its graduates.” One week later, Flatiron School was acquired by WeWork, a company that runs co-working spaces, meet-ups, and now a private K–12 school to teach entrepreneurship – “the new economy” indeed.

The charges of providing misleading information about graduates echo those commonly made against other for-profit colleges – charges that prompted bootcamps (or more accurately a loan provider for bootcamps) this year to start reporting job placement statistics, and charges that, in previous years, had led to the Obama administration’s creation of the “gainful employment rules.” Those rules, aimed at career-colleges and career-oriented programs, had been challenged by for-profits in the courts for years; and in January, the Department of Education finally released the names of some 800 programs which failed to meet the accountability standards – that is, they’d failed “by having graduates with annual loan payments that exceeded 12 percent of their total earnings or 30 percent of their discretionary income.” But as many feared, the Trump administration announced in March that it would delay implementing the rules or imposing any sanctions against the programs that were in violation. In June Secretary DeVos said she would pause the “burdensome” rules until they could be “re-negotiated.”

As The New York Times put it in February, “For-Profit Schools, an Obama Target, See New Day Under Trump.” Clearly there’s very little oversight or accountability for these programs at the federal level. And even though a couple of coding bootcamps have stumbled this year, it’s not clear that the hype or the funding will dry up. There are other markets to pursue, after all – markets in Mexico, Gaza, Uganda, Kenya, and Nigeria, for example. The prison market.

“The new economy.”

The New Vocationalism

Stanford University professor Larry Cuban published a three article series this year on “Coding as the New Vocationalism” – parts 1, 2, and 3 – which provides important historical context to the latest Silicon Valley push for computer science education. (Disclosure: there’s a photo of my brother and me using Logo in part 2.) Career and technical education is hardly new – this year marks the centennial of the Smith Hughes Act, which first promoted and funded vocational education in agriculture, trades, industry, and homemaking. Although lauded by many industry groups today – often framed as a lamentation over the loss of the shop class as public schools have reduced their vocational offerings – the history of vocational education is fraught with racism, sexism, classism, and xenophobia, where “certain students” were tracked into vocational training and “certain students” were given more academic opportunities. “Tracking” – an educational practice that re-inscribed social inequalities.

But renewed vocational training (or career and technical education or CTE) has found support not just from Silicon Valley technology companies but from the Trump administration. Trump has earmarked more money for apprenticeships, for example. (He even praised Germany – Germany! – for its apprenticeship model.) Others in the administration and in the Republican party have echoed his call for more career-oriented education and less focus on college attainment. “We need to stop forcing kids into believing a traditional four-year degree is the only pathway to success,” Secretary of Education DeVos recently asserted.

All this makes for (yet more) business opportunities.

The Business of Credentialing

In the last few years, as part of this series, I’ve chronicled Silicon Valley’s push for new credential and certificate products – “Competencies and Certificates” in 2014; “Credits and Credentialing” in 2015; “Credentialing” in 2016. These products – badges, microcredentials, micromasters, nanodegrees, and the like – have been packaged alongside (and by) MOOCs, coding bootcamps, and other popular ed-tech trends. Funny, for all the talk of “unbundling education” among investors and education reformers, they’re more than happy to sell you new bundles of products and services they support.

It’s been an effort to create a new credentialing ecosystem of sorts, one that includes but extends beyond traditional higher ed (for-profit and not-for-profit). But it’s still one that, to borrow from Tressie McMillan Cottom yet again, constitutes “lower ed.” As she argues in her book, “new institutions and new credentials are by definition lacking in prestige, the kind of prestige that lower-status workers and students need for their credential to combat discrimination in the labor market.”

Nevertheless, the promise of many of these certification programs – from for-profit colleges to coding bootcamps to MOOCs – is that they are viable alternatives to “the traditional four year degree.” “You Can Get a Good Job Without a Bachelor’s Degree,” an op-ed in Bloomberg recently asserted. “More Americans just need the right training.” Implied even in this headline: a high school diploma is no longer sufficient. Indeed, the job prospects for those with just a high school diploma but no additional schooling are pretty dismal, even for positions that once did not demand any sort of post-secondary education.

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs still like to trot out the argument that “Your College Degree is Worthless,” but that’s bullshit – and peak hypocrisy as many of these men (they’re always men. weird that, eh?) already have college degrees. So when you hear marketing claims like “MissionU Says It Can Replace Traditional College With a One-Year Program,” ask about the type of person that can eschew traditional credentialing and rely on simply networking with famous employers and entrepreneurs or “independent study” in order to “make it.”

More likely in “the new economy,” a college degree is not enough, and thus we see the scramble for workers to attain even more credentialing in order to remain economically competitive – that’s that “tax paid by suitably credentialed workers who do not have enough capital (economic, social, or cultural) to enter a high status field of work” as McMillan Cottom has described it.

Some of what we saw this year was an attempt to rebrand occupational licensing with the terminology used by Silicon Valley – “microcredentialing.” Microcredentials for teachers. Microcredentials for police. Neither of these two efforts occur in a vacuum, of course, as pressures for “alternative certification” have long been wrapped up in reform efforts that reshape who has control, institutional or otherwise, in determining who has the right qualifications and right “skills” for a particular (public) profession. Credentialing still functions as a type of gatekeeping, even if you add the “micro” prefix to make it look smaller and less gate-like.

If degrees don’t matter – I mean, they do, but let’s do some Silicon Valley-style pretending here – then how can you tell if someone has the right qualifications and the right “skills”? There are, no surprise, a number of startups that purport to help you with that. (For a fee.) But the language of “skills versus credits” is also one found in other education reform efforts, notably those associated with “competency-based education,” “mastery-based learning,” and the like. (I touched on this topic briefly in a previous article on online education.)

Earlier this year, a consortium of elite private high schools formed the Mastery Transcript Consortium in order to replace the traditional transcript with a document that “would not include courses or grades, but levels of proficiency in various areas.” The effort, which the organization said it hoped would “transform college admissions,” is meant to help shift the way in which students are evaluated but also, according to the organization, the way in which they are taught. But with participation from The Dalton School, Phillips Exeter Academy, Choate Rosemary Hall, Catlin Gable School, and the like, one has to wonder how we can expect the most prestigious private schools in the US to lead a charge that would reform schools (and college admissions) to be more equitable. What sort of credentialism best serves the students at the country’s most elite schools, and will that ever serve the majority of public school students?

In a prestige-based system, let’s be honest, students from these schools are admitted into colleges and universities based not merely on “skills” or “grades” but on the signals of affluence and attainment that the K–12 school they attended symbolizes. There’s a certain level of trust and expectation that’s automatically granted to them. (That’s what the networks of power and wealth – and whiteness – get you.)

It’s crucial to look at all the stories we’re told about credentialing side-by-side: you need a degree; you don’t need a degree; we need to change how grading works to be more equitable; and, of course, one of the most popular tales, we need to change how the process works because students and employees cannot be trusted.

That’s the argument, at least, for a move to put transcripts and degrees on the blockchain. Students cheat. Job applicants lie. “In the Era of Microcredentials,” says Edsurge, “Institutions Look to Blockchain to Verify Learning.” Now the blockchain does not actually verify learning. It just presumably means that the information about what they’ve done is stored in a record that hasn’t been altered. If you believe the blockchain evangelists, this “crypto accreditation” will mean no fake PhDs. (Looking at you, Sebastian Gorka, deputy assistant to President Trump.) No taking a four-week course and passing it off as an Ivy League degree. (Looking at you, Joseph Otting, Trump’s nominee for the US Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.) No telling people that your on-the-job training at Sizzler is a business degree. (Well, it was BS, Iowa State Senator Mark Chelgren.) Even in the face of these notable Republicans’ distortions this year, one should probably ask how necessary it is to throw the computational (and electrical) power of the blockchain at this “problem” – particularly with the blockchain’s history of fraud and fascism.

Malta thinks it’s necessary, I guess. It became the first country to explore issuing educational certificates via the blockchain. MIT will issue digital diplomas on the blockchain. Sony’s in the business. And Northeastern has teamed up with IBM to put digital badges on the blockchain.

In other badging news, Salesforce received a patent for badges. Pearson filed a patent for badges. Folks still insist that badges are “gaining traction.” Of course, we’d expect as much in a world of economic precarity where workers need to be able to display as much flair on their employee uniforms as possible.

The Business of Hiring

It was notable that when the venture capital firm GSV issued its latest report on investment opportunities in education this spring, that it discussed both “learning” and “talent” technology. If you can’t find success in training workers, try to find success in being the arbiter of who gets hired, I guess.

This is hardly a new market for investors, but it’s a reliable one – as the GSV report says, “We believe we are now in a new wave of creation and consolidation in enterprise/professional learning and talent sector.” More details about venture capitalists’ activity in this sector this year in the supplement to this article here: “Who’s Investing in Job Recruitment and Job Placement Startups (in 2017?” A sample of headlines from trade publications underscores the kinds of features that might make these companies appealing to investors: “Headstart wants to better analyze candidates to fit them with the best jobs”; “Swedish Startup Hopes to Replace Resumes With ‘Gamified’ Job Matching System”; “​The Cost of Cutting in Line: Students Can Now Buy Their Way to a Job Interview.” As venture capitalist Tom Vander Ark wrote in Education Week in July, “Chalk up the sector disruption to better software-as-a-service platforms, cheaper cloud-computing services and the rise of artificial intelligence across all HR functions.” Vander Ark interviewed GSV’s Michael Moe in September where they contended, among other things, that artificial intelligence in hiring would eliminate bias – claim that surely flies in the face of all the evidence that algorithms can be incredibly racist, replicating the prejudices of their designers and the inequalities of existing systems.

(A story from August: “New app scans your face and tells companies whether you’re worth hiring.” The company in question is HireVue. Its customers include plenty of universities and school districts – BYU and Atlanta Public Schools, for example.)

Robots might not take your job. But they might decide whether or not you get hired in the first place. “Robots” – not bosses. It’s never the bosses’ fault, is it.

Training Ed-Tech

I looked at “the year in MOOCs” briefly in a previous article in this series, where I noted that they have largely pivoted away from “free and open online education” to job training. It’s been a common move in the past for education startup to move away from selling to schools and toward selling to companies. Corporate learning – that’s where people hope the money is. (You can look to Lynda.com, which was acquired by LinkedIn in 2015 for $1.5 billion, as the kind of “exit” that many ed-tech entrepreneurs hope to have.)

As such, education technology products that were, according to some of the storytelling, poised to “revolutionize schools” are instead marshaled for job training. And there’s no better example of that this year than virtual reality (although it’s still largely a gimmick even there): KFC, UPS, and Walmart all boasted that they were training new employees with VR. (And the tech press dutifully repeated the marketing.) There’s still hope in some quarters for school-based applications, I suppose. Student teachers are getting trained with VR, Education Week reported this fall.

But today’s education technology landscape feels a little different than previous manifestations in which struggling startups could readily turn towards what they were told would be a more reliable revenue stream: corporate learning. (Although to be clear, yes, they still do that. Yes, they’re still encouraged to do so.)

In part that’s because “the new economy” has shifted the burden of job training. It doesn’t necessarily fall to the employer now. I’m not even sure it falls to the school. It falls to the employee and the prospective employee. A future of “lifelong learning” isn’t one where we get to pursue fanciful curiosities and intellectual interests – me, I would like to learn about pigeon first aid. It’s about a labor market that requires us all to be constantly picking up new skills on our own dime and our own time so we’re (hopefully) employable. As social services dwindle, we will need retraining our entire lifetimes because we will be working until we die.

We’re also seeing schools be pressured to become the sites of corporate learning themselves, training students in the specific skills that specific industries (local industries, often) want. “Save Your College (and America’s Workforce) Through Corporate Training,” as investors Frank Britt and Ryan Craig wrote in Edsurge.

As such, perhaps the next ed-tech “platform” to watch – or to listen for the stories about, at least – will be Salesforce, which as MIT Technology Review excitedly wrote this year, is “Making Job-Training Software People Actually Want to Use.” (Ha. Ha. Ha.) Inside Higher Ed noted in passing in October that “Salesforce, the world’s largest customer relationship management platform, has announced a new classroom-ready training scheme called Trailhead for Students.” Also in passing, this sentence in a Brookings Institution report from November: “It is probably fair to say that the social good of having every high school student in America learn Salesforce might outstrip other trendier agendas in tech.”

“Everyone should learn Salesforce.” It’s got a charming ring to it…

Robots Are Coming For Your Children

Why we need to start teaching tech in Kindergarten” – Ivanka Trump, Special Assistant to the President

There’s no reason why children in elementary schools can’t be launching their own businesses” – Rebekah Neumann, co-founder, WeWork

More on teaching robots and training children in the next article in this series…

This post first appeared on Hack Education on 18 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/archives.html. Even at 5000 words an article, there are stories I left out. You can read more at 2017trends.hackeducation.com/archives.html.