SXSWEdu: Gates Foundation vs. Microsoft Education: What’s the difference?

On my first day in Austin I had a terrific hourlong conversation with Cameron Evans, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft Education. He had a lot of candid observations and great lines: “The vast amount of data in our education system can be used for good, and also for bad actors and bad reasons,” and on the need for professional development and parent education around new learning technologies: “You don’t want to be in a situation where you give people a library card but they can’t read.”

op-art by simosx on Flickr

op-art by simosx on Flickr

Toward the end I took the chance to ask him about a controversial point. It is an article of faith among many concerned about education that the extensive philanthropic influence of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, headed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, is deployed directly in service of the business interests of the Microsoft Corporation. When it comes to schools, where do the interests of one end and the other one begin? (Disclaimer: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is among the many funders of The Hechinger Report, which publishes this blog.)

Evans greeted my question with a broad smile. It’s one that he fields fairly often.

“Bill and Melinda Gates have gone out of their way to make sure that the foundation’s work and the work of Microsoft have nothing to do with each other,” he starts, noting that the Gates Foundation often uses open-source technologies.

However, he allows, “There are times we do see eye to eye.” 

Not for nothing, Evans agrees that the Gates Foundation and Microsoft share a single mission. As the foundation puts it, “Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives.” “We share that core mission: everybody should be able to participate fully in life without constraint or impediment.”

The true common ground between the company and the foundation, Evans tells me, has to do with education as a source of human capital and economic productivity. 

“We’re not producing enough human capital capacity in higher ed and K-12. We have an obligation as a corporation to help America be the dominant player in international competitiveness. We should be very clear about this. This is a national issue for a global company. It’s not something we have to apologize for or defend. If the Gates foundation shares that sentiment, so does Intel, so does Lumina, so do MacArthur and Carnegie.” He mentions Microsoft’s legislative advocacy on behalf of the H1B visa for foreign-born technology workers as a sign of their interest in global human capital.

I point out that he’s defaulted to talking about Microsoft’s interest in education from a corporate social responsibility standpoint. This is a party line in any ed-tech conversation, and I wish that corporations would drop it. We all know that Apple, Google, and Microsoft are not just in the education business for the love of adorable, ethnically & socioeconomically diverse children. If they’d be more transparent about where they see the opportunities, we could have an open and honest public discussion about the legitimate role of private actors in providing this public good.

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top to bottom: Cute students using Apple, Google, Microsoft

So Evans says this: Microsoft’s education business strategy is not primarily about hardware–a pragmatic attitude since they’re losing out on hardware.

“Some people think our sole goal is to get kids hooked on our products,” through deployments of items like Surface tablets in public schools, he said. “That they’ll be gateway products, students will be hooked for life. The consumer market today is far more dynamic than that. IT doesn’t decide what technology you use, whether in school or out of it. Consumers are choosing, not school districts, not anybody.”

What IS it about, then? Reading between the lines, by being a strong voice in workforce development and training, Microsoft helps ensure the the continued dominance of Microsoft software programs like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access across the transition to mobile access in the global workplace. “As a technology supplier to governments, hospitals, individual corporations and entrepreneurs we have a responsibility to build capacity,”  Evans puts it. Microsoft has 1.5 billion users on the planet; only 55 million are in the US.

Secondly, on a much smaller scale than that global strategic interest, Microsoft is developing educational data and reporting systems that aim to give students, schools and parents embedded, formative, actionable, continuous feedback and insight about student growth and progress–and to give teachers and administrators performance feedback for professional development purposes. Evans was at SXSWEdu to promote this idea. “A teacher needs data on the student sitting in front of them right now. We need sophisticated, but simple tools to be able to communicate across the board, what is this data, and what decisions do I need to make that are different.”

The Gates Foundation, of course, cares a lot about data, reporting, and teacher quality as well. And here’s the rub: It can be difficult to trust any kind of separation between the interests of the foundation and the corporation because in many cases, not necessarily nefarious ones, they do in fact coincide.

An automatic boredom detector? Inside “educational data mining” research


I’m currently working on a book about the past, present and future of assessment. For the “future” bit I get to talk to researchers like Ryan Baker at Columbia. He’s spent the last ten years working on systems that gather evidence about crucial parts of the learning process that would seem to be beyond the ken of a non-human teacher.

The basis for the observations comes from what’s called “semantic logs” within a computer learning platform, such as Khan Academy’s: Was it a hard or easy question?  Did the student enter a right or wrong answer? How quickly did they answer it? How did it compare with their previous patterns of answers? The detectors gather evidence that students are gaming the system, drifting off-task, or making careless errors. They can extrapolate a range of emotional states, like confusion, flow, frustration, resistance, (which Baker calls memorably “WTF” behavior), engagement, motivation, excitement, delight, and yes, boredom.

Baker’s engagement detectors are embedded within systems currently being used by tens of thousands of students in classrooms from K-12 up to medical school. (Medical residents, he says, show the highest rate of “gaming the system,” aka trying to trick the software into letting them move on without learning anything, at rates up to 38% for a program that was supposed to teach them how to detect cancer.) His research, located at the forefront of the rapidly expanding field known as “educational data mining,” has a wide range of fascinating applications for anyone interested in blended learning.

Understanding how good these detectors currently are requires a bit of probability theory. To describe the accuracy of a diagnostic test, you need to compare the rate of true positives to the rate of false positives. The results for the “behavior detectors,” Baker says proudly, are about as good as first-line medical diagnostics. That is, if the question is whether someone is acting carelessly, off task, or gaming the system, his program will be right about as often as an HIV test was in the early 80s–0.7 or 0.8 (“fair” according to this rubric). For emotional states, which require a more sophisticated analysis, the results are closer to chance, but still have some usefulness. These accuracy scores are derived from systematic comparison with trained human observers in a classroom.

So why would someone want to build a computer program that can tell if you are bored?

To improve computer tutoring programs. Let’s say a learning program provides several levels of hints before the right answer. You want to build something in that prevents a student from simple gaming techniques, such as pressing “hint, hint, hint, hint,” and then just entering the answer.

To give students realtime feedback and personalization.  “I would like to see every kid get an educational experience tailored to their needs on multiple levels: cognitive, emotional, social,” says Baker. Let’s say the program knows you are easily frustrated, and gives you a few more “warmup” questions before moving on to a new task. Your friend is easily bored. She gets “challenge” questions at the start of every session to keep her on her toes.

To improve classroom practice. Eventually as these systems become more common, “I would envision teachers having much more useful information about their kids,” says Baker. “Technology doesn’t get rid of the teacher, it allows them to focus on what people are best at: Dealing with students’ engagement, helping to support them, working on on one with kids who really need help.” In other words, though technology can provide the diagnostics for affective states that affect learning, it is often teachers that provide the best remedies.

To reinvent educational research: This is a fascinating one to me. 

“I’d like to see educational research have the same methodological scope and rigor that have transformed biology and physics,” Baker says. “Hopefully I would like to see research with, say, 75% of the richness of qualitative methods with ten times the scale of five years ago.”

Modeling qualitative factors related to learning opens up new possibilities for getting really rich answers to really interesting questions. “Educational data mining often has some really nice subtle analyses. You can start to ask questions like: What’s the difference in impact between brief confusion and extended confusion?”

In case you’re wondering, I will clear up the confusion. Brief confusion is extremely helpful, even necessary, for optimal learning, but extended confusion is frustrating and kills motivation.

The very phrase “data mining” as applied to education ruffles feathers. It’s helpful to hear from an unabashedly enthusiastic research scientist, not an educational entrepreneur with a product to sell, about this topic. Privacy, he says, should be given due consideration. “The question is what the data is being used for,” he says. “We have a certain level of comfort with Amazon or Google knowing all this about us, so why not curriculum designers and developers? If we don’t allow education to benefit from the same technology as e-commerce, all we are saying is we don’t want our kids to have the best of what 21st c technology has to offer.”

If you’re interested in learning more, Baker has a free online Coursera course on “Big Data in Education” starting this Thursday. Over 30,000 people have signed up.

The Gates Foundation is the $36 billion gorilla of education

In the circles in which I move, there has been a lot of talk this week about a major article published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, taking on the Gates Foundation‘s outsized power in education policy.

As a former Gates Foundation contractor I spoke at length to the authors of the piece and am quoted extensively in one sidebar about the program’s influence on media. I wanted to lay out the pros and cons of my experience because as a journalist I believe that maximum transparency is the key to dealing head-on with all potential conflicts of interest and influence. Likewise, the Chronicle itself disclosed early in its own piece that it receives funding from Gates. So has The Hechinger Report, which publishes this blog.

The sheer size of Gates–a $36 billion endowment, $2.6 billion given away last year alone to all programs, making it the world’s largest private grantmaking organization–creates this sort of irony throughout the education world, leaving many critics and observers, including myself, open to the charge of co-optation. But besides leading to a few awkward social moments among education researchers and journalists at conferences, is Gates really having an “undemocratic and undue influence” on education policy in the United States? And if so, what’s the best way to counter that influence?

Politics: Gates money is big in isolation, but all philanthropic money is dwarfed by government spending on education–$600 billion annually for K-12 in the United States. Pilot studies and technology startups and charter schools are all well and good, but Gates’ real power move–as outlined in this American Enterprise Institute book about philanthropy in K-12–is getting the ear of the Department of Education through its lobbying, advocacy and research. The creation of the Race to the Top fund is the most obvious example.

Politically, I think the strongest democratic principle to uphold as a check and balance to this policy ecosystem is that of local control. While the reformers are obsessed with “scaling up” and “impact,” applying their chosen solutions to as many schools as possible, there is a strong tradition in this country of giving teachers and parents in individual schools the deciding vote in what kind of education their children are going to have.

Technology & Innovation: It’s a bit simplistic to argue that the secret purpose of the Gates Foundation is to get governments to buy a lot of Windows computers for classrooms in order to make Microsoft more successful and further enrich the richest man in the world.

But a more subtle and insidious form of the argument I think does hold water. Bill Gates and many of his fellow Silicon Valley philanthropists fall into the category of “technological solutionists,” in the phrase of Evgeny Morozov. Their personal life experience was getting very rich creating the Internet-enabled reality we’re all living in, which really does feel magical sometimes and profoundly different from what came before. And because of that they tend to believe the following:

1) Technology fixes things 2) More fundamentally, innovation–doing things very differently than they were done before–fixes things.

And then, at the same time, they believe that when it comes to education, the status quo is very broken. Not only is it the case that when you have a hammer, it makes everything look like a nail–sometimes, it also makes everything look like it’s falling apart.

So I think it’s incumbent upon everyone who thinks about education, especially if we’re taking Gates money, to look hard at those assumptions and their opposites. That’s the message of this story to me.

What can technology solve? What is it helpless to solve? 

Where do we need to innovate? What do we need to preserve?

What is really broken about school right now? What’s working? and finally,

Who is deciding? Who are we not hearing from? 


Bill Gates greeted by standing ovation from…teachers?

Patti Freudenberg works for the Clear Creek Independent School District in the Houston-Galveston area, where she is the “Teaching American History Grant Specialist,” currently leading groups of history teachers to historical sites around the US on a Department of Education grant. Clad in leopard print, she arrived bright and early Thursday morning to sit in the very front row of Bill Gates’ closing keynote at the South by Southwest Edu conference. “It’s a hero worship thing,” she said. “I don’t know what he’s going to say. Hopefully he’ll talk about new ways we can use technology. Because education is changing so much–we’re finally moving from the traditional classroom to something that’s more technology rich and media rich. We’re reaching these kids where they actually are instead of what we had in the 1960s.” She’s seen this in her own schools, where pilot programs are bringing iPads into the classroom, making it easier to incorporate more primary source documents and multimedia into social studies classes.

Gates’ wide-ranging keynote, greeted by a standing ovation, didn’t disappoint Patti. He argued that the market for educational innovation is reaching a tipping point–although he acknowledged that from an investment point of view, this is simply a return to the heights of the late ’90s, when annual investment in ed-tech once topped $1 billion just as it did again in 2012. The first time turned out to be a bit of a bubble, leading to few major changes.

But this time, he said, is different, because of new technologies like more-ubiquitous wireless internet, tablet computing, cheap video storage, and data in the cloud, and because of a tipping point in student demand. He envisions a future “five to ten years out” where school budgets for IT, textbooks and assessments will no longer be separated, creating a single K-12 funding pool of $9 billion a year for all kinds of new technology, both content and systems. “We’re just on that cusp, where the tablet and PC are rich enough and cheap enough that that’ll be the way it’s done.”

Equal with the flashy gadgets in the classroom, Gates highlighted the increasing use of back-end technologies to coordinate and manage data that can help drive districts, teachers and even students’ decisionmaking.

Amid all the enthusiasm, what’s still missing in the education space, Gates acknowledged, are “the gold standards of proving that something works.” In the areas of global health where the Gates Foundation has done so much work, you can measure outcomes by countless widely agreed-upon metrics: infant-mother life expectancy, number of malaria infections, number of vaccines distributed. In education, we have standardized test scores; graduation rates; maybe some surveys on job placement or unemployment rates. And we have some initial findings on what teaching techniques may be correlated with success for students. All these attempts at measurement are hotly contested, methodologically weak, several steps removed from the problem, or all three.

But as hundreds of spectators held up mobile phones to photograph Gates on stage, the sheer ubiquity of wireless technology in our daily lives seemed to provide its own internal rationale for its increasing use in the classroom–if for no other reason than that the classroom needs to resemble the wired, independent, collaborative, location-agnostic workplace that our kids will one day be joining.

Note: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is among the various funders of The Hechinger Report.