What technology can (and can’t) do for education

As I reflect on the excitement of South By Southwest Education conference last week, a fundamental question keeps coming up: What proportion of the challenges facing the education system can actually be addressed with technology and innovation?

Let’s quickly stipulate the issues here. Stop me if you’ve heard this all before.

  1. Many schools face serious resource constraints. But America already spends quite a bit of money on education and large increases in funding are not likely over the next generation.
  2. We have disappointing results given the money we’re spending, both in college attainment and in performance on international tests.
  3. We have an achievement gap for minority and low-income students, meaning the path to raising our educational status requires raising up the students who have been the most challenging to reach thus far.
  4. Our schools are not preparing kids for the workforce and society of tomorrow, whether that means STEM disciplines in particular or the always-on, mobile, connected, collaborative, cross-disciplinary society that we are all a part of. This is a catch-all concern, with many different definitions of the problem and paths to solutions.

Now, of those top four concerns, what exactly can technology do to help? #4 is the strongest argument for “wiring” our classrooms, and ironically, it’s a qualitative, not quantitative, argument. I spoke with Diane Tavenner, CEO of the Summit Public Schools charter chain, who argued “My computer is part of who I am. It’s an imperative tool in my life.” Professionals in this day and age work using always-on laptops and mobile devices, managing their own workflow with the help of various applications and productivity tools, and collaborating as needed.  Students need to practice doing more or less the same thing. Her high schools are phasing in one-to-one laptop programs.

#2 and #3 are arguments for the use of multimedia teaching aids, particularly adaptive learning and tutoring programs. One review of the literature shows positive results for these programs in raising performance, although of differing levels of significance, particularly by giving underperforming students the extra help they need to succeed. But as the technology is constantly evolving it is very difficult to design rigorous studies that keep up with the state of the art. Every startup out there has its own “independent” studies showing increases in test performance. Then there is the question of the quality of the tests themselves and the relationship they bear to what kids are actually learning.

#1 is the diciest. In order to save money in education–or dramatically improve performance with stagnant budgets, which amounts to the same thing–you have to cut labor costs. This means fewer teachers and administrators, or less generous benefits packages, or both.  The pitch here is that integrated uses of data, combined with personalized learning and tutoring programs, will somehow make teachers so much more effective that they can improve results even with larger classes. But it will be tough to prove this, and even tougher to get teachers on board en masse with “innovations” designed to eliminate their positions.

In his speech last Thursday Bill Gates pointed out that currently, only 1 percent of private R&D investment goes into education innovation. He argued that it should be much more, given the importance of our education system to our future economic competitiveness. But in the absence of a more fruitful and honest dialogue about the goals and outcomes of such investment, as outlined above, and careful documentation of what works, a more likely outcome is another turn of the hype cycle that leaves schools more or less unchanged.

Big data and schools: Education nirvana or privacy nightmare?

InBloom, a nonprofit start-up founded with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation, is taking center stage and spreading around some significant funds as an official sponsor of the South by Southwest Education conference in Austin, Texas this week. It hosted the official opening night party on Tuesday, is sponsoring a “networking lounge” with free coffee and snacks at the Hilton next to the convention center, and is debuting the first live demonstrations of its technology with representatives from pilot districts and states.


Iwan Streichenberger

It’s quite a splash for what is basically a highly technical, behind-the-scenes infrastructure company. InBloom promises to bring all the potential of “big data” to classrooms in a big way for the first time. Its stated mission: to “inform and involve each student and teacher with data and tools designed to personalize learning.”

“We want to make personalized learning available to every single kid in the U.S.,” says CEO Iwan Streichenberger. “The way you do this is by breaking the barriers—making data much more accessible.”

But to some educational activists, InBloom represents a danger, not an opportunity.

InBloom began as the Shared Learning Collaborative in 2011. It gets a bit technical, but basically, 10 districts in nine states agreed to build a shared technology infrastructure. Currently, student data—from attendance to standardized test scores—are locked in dozens of different “student information systems” that don’t talk to each other. “In one district we work with in Massachusetts, teachers had to use 20 different assessment storage places with different log-ins,” says Streichenberger.

InBloom offers a single middleware layer that hosts student data using Amazon Web Services, with some centralized dashboard-style functions and an API (application programming interface) that would allow start-ups to build education apps, aligned with Common Core standards, that anyone could use. It’s a similar strategy to how Facebook and Apple allow outside developers to build apps that pull your profile information from the cloud. Instead of designing for  thousands of school districts across the country, all of whom have their own idiosyncratic data storage systems, the InBloom platform will eventually allow developers to build one application—like DreamBox, a differentiated math game, or Kickboard, a dashboard program that allows teachers to track students’ performance and behavior—and have it work automatically in several states. This coordination, in turn, is likely to attract even more technology entrepreneurs to a market for educational IT spending estimated to be worth $20 billion in 2013. And similar to the way that electronic health records promise to reduce costs and increase efficiency and effectiveness in medicine, the use of centrally hosted data, says Streichenberger, offers similar cost savings and improvements in education.

But the very moves that make this idea a huge opportunity from the point of view of edtech entrepreneurs—the ability to find a large market for learning games and systems all in one place, to pull student data automatically, and to coordinate effortlessly with other apps—makes parents “horrified,” in the words of school activist Leonie Haimson of Class Size Matters.

“There are no limitations on the time-frame, or the kind of data. There’s no provision for parental consent or opt-out. The point is to give our kids’ data away for free, and share it as widely as possible with for-profit ventures to help them market and develop their learning products,” she says. “For-profit vendors are slavering right now at the prospect of being able to get their hands on this info. and market billions of dollars of worth of so-called solutions to our schools.”

Class Size Matters has been working with a lawyer to get public access to the agreements between InBloom and the nine states that are members of the collaborative (New York, Massachusetts, Louisiana, Colorado, Illinois, North Carolina, Georgia, Delaware and Kentucky), to learn under what circumstances student data will be released, and whether there are potential violations of FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which generally requires written consent from parents to release the records of students under 18. They are also trying to get states to agree to opt-out policies so parents can withhold children’s information from InBloom, especially sensitive information like disciplinary records, health records, and personally identifiable details like addresses.

Streichenberger says that InBloom’s terms of service are fully compliant with FERPA, but privacy policies—including parental notification and opt-out—will be in the hands of individual districts, which will hold and control all access to the data that InBloom hosts. “Privacy is a very emotional issue,” he says. “I have two children, four and six. I would never join InBloom if I thought it would compromise my kids.” At the same time, he says, “The privacy discussion is an important one, but one of my concerns is it’s preventing the discussion of what’s going on in the classroom. Are we preparing the children for the future? Do we have the tools to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow?”

So far, Haimson says, her group has generated thousands of letters from parents concerned about their students’ privacy to the Gates Foundation and to individual states. She says that her biggest problem in spreading the word is that many parents don’t believe this is really happening. “Parents are outraged and can’t believe it’s legal,” she says. “The tech companies and foundations shrug their shoulders. People are living on two separate planets.”

Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Carnegie Corporation are among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.