The fate of big data after inBloom

Yesterday, a $100 million startup lost its last customer. According to a Politico article, the state of New York, inBloom‘s last remaining client, will delete all student data on the repository due to privacy concerns. InBloom’s company spokesperson told Politico the nonprofit was “pushing forward with our mission,” though at the moment there are no known state partners. The rise and fall of InBloom is a cautionary tale for those interested in the intersection of education, technology, and policy.


Back in 2011, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation began work on an unwieldy, unprecedented, obscure  “nuts-and-bolts, multi-state, grand-vision education technology project” called the Shared Learning Infrastructure. The purpose was to provide open-source software to safely organize, pool, and store student data from multiple states and multiple sources in the cloud. That included everything from demographics to attendance to discipline to grades to the detailed, moment-by-moment, data produced by learning analytics programs like Dreambox and Khan Academy. An API — application programming interface — would allow software developers to connect to that data, creating applications that could, at least in theory, be used by any school in the infrastructure.

In February 2013, just a little over a year ago, SLI relaunched as an independent nonprofit named InBloom. The company had nine state partners, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York and North Carolina, representing 11 million students. At SXSWEdu, they made a splashy public debut the following month, hosting parties and panel discussions as an official sponsor, a gathering focused just as much on business as on education.

“Our purpose is to remove the friction in the deployment of technology in the classroom,” CEO Iwan Streichenberger told me at the conference. “It’s not very exciting, but if you don’t have plumbing you can’t have appliances.”

InBloom’s offering is not uncommon — in fact, similar technologies exist all over the internet, and consumers largely embrace them. For example, an API allows you to sign in and comment on the Washington Post or rent a home on AirBnb using your Facebook profile information. You can sign in to personal finance site and see all of your bank accounts in one place, or for that matter, buy products on Amazon with one click thanks to back-end security protecting financial transactions.

But student information, like electronic health records, remains much more sensitive than other kinds of consumer information, and the public response since InBloom’s launch has been equivocal at best. In state after state,parents and other education activists raised concerns that student data would be exploited for financial gain or stolen by hackers. In the words of Leonie Haimson of Class Size Mattersin New York City, one of inBlooms’ staunchest critics, “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.”


So what does the demise of inBloom mean? It doesn’t mean that student data is safe, either from marketers or hackers. According to a recent study by Fordham University Law School, 95 percent of schools and districts already use a hodgepodge of third-party cloud providers for data storage and internal data mining. Fewer than 7 percent of these arrangements actually restrict the sale or marketing of student information by vendors, and parents are generally not informed of how their children’s data is stored or used.

Last November, a $5 million class action suit was filed against the makers of the ACTs and SATs for selling personal information about millions of high school students. And the Universities of Maryland and Indiana have recently suffered well-publicized data breaches exposing student Social Security numbers and other sensitive information.

It also doesn’t mean that the use of student data will come to a standstill. A small startup called Clever, launched in 2012, uses a single freestanding API to connect the vast mishmash of student information systems with third-party applications. It doesn’t store the data itself; it just makes it easier to get the data out of silos where it can be accessed by educational software developers — the exact same purpose announced by InBloom. So far, 10,000 schools have adopted it, with no public outcry.

It does mean that, at least when it comes to student data, when tech businesses roll out product pitches to schools, they need to understand the extent to which the concerns of parents and teachers will affect their business plans.

In our conversation, Streichenberger talked about taking down “barriers to entry” and creating an “attractive market for entrepreneurs.” Silicon Valley may generally take it for granted that what’s good for its business is good for everyone else, but for those wary of the privatization of the public school system, these are fighting words.

The same critics who are skeptical of the Common Core State Standards (also Gates-seeded) are skeptical about inBloom because of the underlying notion of “interoperability” in education practice. Standards and interoperability are core tenets of the web. It’s because of shared communications protocols such as HTTP that anyone can create a web page or application that is usable by virtually anyone else. Similarly, proponents of the Common Core argue that having a shared understanding of priorities will allow all schools to improve by sharing best practices.

The principle of interoperability is now coming into conflict with a longstanding tenet of American public education — that of local control. The ultimate outcome is anyone’s guess, but it’s now clear that the transition to a big-data educational future probably won’t come from a centralized mandate or single coordinated effort — at least not now.

(a modified version of this post originally appeared on Mindshift. Gates Foundation supports the Hechinger Report.)

“Unprecedented” numbers opt out of state tests–what’s next?

Today students in New York State begin three days of state-mandated tests in English language arts.  But thousands of families across the state, from Syracuse and Buffalo to the Hudson Valley, Long Island to New York City, will sit out the tests, citing concerns with their relevance and the sense that the curriculum has been taken over by preparation.

“It shifts the entire focus of the classroom,” says Jeannette Deutermann, the organizer behind Long Island Opt Out, a Facebook group with almost 16,000 members. “They seem way too young to have that much testing and that much focus on the tests.”

An opt-out T-shirt worn by kids in Suffolk County.

An opt-out T-shirt worn by kids in Suffolk County.

The spring of 2014 has seen a wave of grassroots activism against both standardized tests and the Common Core that Bob Schaeffer, a longtime activist with the group Fairtest, calls “unprecedented.” The numbers are small, but they’re found around the country. Chicago, site of the 2012 teachers’ strike, and Colorado have seen the most action so far, although opt-out protests have been reported in Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Pennslyvania, New Jersey, and Alabama among other states.

Now it is New York’s turn. This is the second year that New York State students are taking Common Core aligned exams, which last year showed a 25-30 point drop in scores compared to previous tests, raising the ire of parents. It is unusual for parent activists in heavily democratic Greenpoint, Brooklyn to be on the same page with those in more conservative Syracuse, hundreds of miles away in Western New York. But the same pattern is repeating around the country. The convergence of resistance to the Common Core, a cause championed by libertarian and other right-wing groups, with resistance to state standardized tests, often backed by progressive teachers’ unions and civil rights groups, has led to what Schaeffer calls a “strange-bedfellows alliance.”

But based on organizers I’ve talked to in Texas, Washington State, Colorado and New York while researching my new book, most of the opposition to school testing honestly doesn’t have a prearranged political agenda at all. “The policy and funding elites–the Gates, Walton, and Broad foundations–major campaign donors, and the elite mass media are pushing for more tests and the Core,” Schaeffer says. On the other side, “There’s really a populist pushback–lots of just plain parents and teachers who think layering on even more test driven curriculum is not going to have the results we want.”

That describes Deutermann. She got involved in organizing “by accident” when the older of her two sons, then in 3rd grade, started crying and begging not to go to school.  “He had stomachaches at night. We took him in for all kinds of blood tests, allergy tests. The doctor said it was stress related.” Since last spring she has devoted her evenings to driving all over Long Island holding public forums on the drawbacks of testing and how to opt out. She has built a network of volunteer liasions representing 80 of Long Island’s 122 districts.

She also helped found a statewide coalition, New York State Allies for Public Education. As of today she posted on her Facebook page that she expected 7500 students to refuse the state tests.

There are three potential outcomes of this movement.

The first is that no meaningful change will occur. The protests will subside and the ad hoc coalitions will fall apart. Traditional, largely multiple-choice, state-mandated standardized tests will continue for the foreseeable future and the rollout of the Common Core will proceed on schedule, despite hiccups such as Indiana’s dropping out and many other states distancing themselves from the standards in name.

The second is that more states and jurisdictions will seriously scale back on tests, as has already happened everywhere from Alaska to Texas. America could come to more closely resemble other successful school systems around the world which make do with just one big high school exit/college entrance exam, or two exams, one for high school entrance and one for high school exit.

The final possibility is that schools come to adopt better forms of assessment which align more closely with 21st century skills. For Schaeffer, the preferred alternative is performance-based assessment, where students do projects, build portfolios, and make public presentations of their work. New York State could lead the way here, because it has an established Performance Standards Consortium with 28 successful middle and high schools that use this form of assessment in place of state tests.

Guest Post: Blended Learning in Kigali

Note: Through March 27 I’ll be sharing this Digital/Edu space with some excellent professionals in the area of learning and innovation on Thursdays. In addition to bringing new voices and ideas to our readers, this will help me as I finish the first draft of my forthcoming book, The Test, on the past, present and future of testing in public schools, to be published by Public Affairs in 2015.

 This guest post is from Chrystina Russell, the Chief Academic Officer of Kepler, a startup hybrid university program for students in Rwanda that incorporates MOOCs, face-to-face instruction, and a competency based degree program.

Screen Shot 2014-01-29 at 10.54.53 AM

One of the most exciting yet challenging aspects of launching and leading Kepler Kigali on the ground is navigating the many lines we straddle on a daily basis. For example, innovation versus traditional best practices, understanding core concepts versus pushing critical thinking, building a program for scale versus meeting student needs, local relevance versus globalization, partnership needs versus our own mission/vision, learning for the sake of learning/growth versus learning for the sake of employability. The list is endless.
In some ways, we are not unique because all industries have to navigate the fine lines that can greatly impact the outcomes of an organization. The joy of working in an educational setting is that the choices made can be life-changing, but the terrifying part is that if we make the wrong decision, the stakes are immeasurably high. Our students won’t have a second chance at a university degree, and the difference in the quality of the education we provide could determine if our students live a life of poverty or move into the middle class.
As we’ve launched into the oh-so-fabulous and equally oh-so-challenging project called Kepler, one of the most interesting lines we’re straddling isn’t relevant just to Rwanda—it’s a world-wide issue and challenge.
  • We’re committed to planning the best program for our students, and to do so we concentrate deeply on their futures.  In examining their futures, we’re working to figure out how—as the world of work rapidly changes—do we develop a university program for students that are coming out of a K-12 educational system that hasn’t necessarily prepared them for readiness in a rigorous curriculum like the one we’re designing? It’s a program that at a minimum requires the following:
  • Blended learning (in person teaching and on-line teaching) that demands high levels of independence
  • Technological fluency
  • Skills to collaborate and effectively work in a group for desired outcomes
  • The ability to access, analyze, and synthesize complex and large quantities of information
  • A flexible attitude that embraces engagement in ambiguous situations and rapid change
  • Leadership through influence
  • The ability to think critically by asking questions about problems rather than rushing to solutions
  • The willingness to take feedback and continually improve projects until they demonstrate competency
In grappling with how to best build these skills for our students’ futures, we’ve quickly been brought to their educational pasts.
Every corner of the world has its own local version of how these readiness challenges manifest themselves, but university educators have some universal similarities in preparing students for the world of work. Essentially, higher education institutions have two choices: 1) continue the traditional models that many students have engaged in for their first 13-15 years of education, with the likely result that students will not be prepared for tomorrow’s workplaces; or 2) disrupt the traditional system and develop models of teaching and learning that prepare students for a rapidly changing knowledge-based economy. At Kepler, we’re choosing the latter, which is clearly an easy choice (maybe the only one?). But choosing and implementing are two completely different phenomena, and it’s our daily efforts at executing the decision that bring the challenges, imagination, failures, resolutions, and aspirations of building Kepler to life.
I’ll be posting more about our curriculum, implementation, challenges, and our efforts at disrupting higher education as we build Kepler in the weeks ahead, so keep an eye out.


From Yale to Coursera

Coursera, the largest MOOC platform, announced today that Richard Levin will be coming on board as CEO. Levin was president of Yale University for 20 years before stepping down in 2013.

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller

“Technology,” Levin said in the press release, “now gives us the means to extend the reach of high quality education around the world and to provide millions of people with access to learning and opportunities for advancement. Coursera is at the front of this effort, with a stellar team, a remarkable growth trajectory, and a purpose that is an unmitigated public good.”

Levin first made contact with the company a few months ago as an advisor to Coursera co-founders Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng. The company currently partners with 108 educational institutions in 19 countries. They offer 600 free courses to 7 million users from every country in the world.

Despite this success, Coursera, along with all other MOOC platforms, faces major existential issues. Levin is well suited to tackle them. “Levin’s a major fundraiser, so this could see Coursera win far larger amounts of VC and other support,” Bryan Alexander, the senior fellow for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education and a futurist specializing in learning and technology, commented on the announcement. “He’s also a consulting economist, so he’s probably going to try and solve the xMOOC economic sustainability problem.”  (Alexander uses “xMOOC” to refer to the courses created by the big MOOC platforms, as opposed to cMOOCs organized independently around the web).

The money problem is a big one. Coursera’s growth so far has been funded by investment. They have been experimenting with different ways to attract revenue. Advertising, the most obvious choice, would likely be off-putting to students and university partners. At the end of 2012, Coursera announced a recruitment service, where employers would pay for access to users. But this didn’t get much traction.

Infographic shows Coursera's growth as of October 2013.

Infographic shows Coursera’s growth as of October 2013.

A little over a year ago, they introduced a  “Signature Track,” which provides learners verification of their identity and course completion for a fee. Nine months later they announced $1 million in revenue from Signature Track.

But that compares to $85 million in investment that the company has already taken on, from venture capitalists who expect large returns. It also translates into a 4/10 of one percent adoption rate, with just 25,000 of 7 million users opting to pay. Successful “freemium” companies, which offer some services for free and others for pay, typically have 2 to 4 percent paying users–five to ten times more than Coursera is reporting.  In order to be sustainable, Coursera needs a lot more paying customers.

Rick Levin

Rick Levin

The second, and related, big looming question has to do with Coursera’s relationship to the educational establishment. Its university partners, which include some of the most prestigious institutions in the world, have shouldered most of the cost and effort of content creation, which can be as much as $50,000 per course. Supervising a MOOC with tens of thousands of students can be a lot of work for professors and TAs.

Their return on this investment is still unclear. Is it primarily a way of attracting new students (an example of the “freemium” model applied to universities)? Or piloting new ways to teach? There are questions about intellectual property–does a professor who leaves one university get to take her MOOCs with her? Some universities have repurposed Coursera content in for-credit offerings. Does the Coursera signature track compete with their own continuing education courses?

Attracting new partners was easy when MOOCs were the flavor of the month, but going forward Coursera will need to provide a solid value proposition to its universities and convince them that their missions are aligned. It is here that Levin can really shine. He’s not the first university president to join an edtech startup–Bob Kerrey, who went from the New School to Minerva, is another example. But, as Alexander says, “It’s a serious commitment from this guy, who has a global reputation.”

Knowledge pills, robo-graders, brain implants and other dystopian edtech

It’s been a good week for the weird fringes of ed-tech. On Tuesday,  Nicholas Negroponte took the stage at the 30th anniversary of TED, the starry technology-entertainment-design conference. He’s the mastermind of One Laptop Per Child. It pioneered the idea of low-cost personal devices for students around the world.

Negroponte has been criticized as an extreme apologist for the “teachers don’t matter, kids + tech = MAGIC” view of ed tech. Chris Anderson, TED’s curator, asked him this week for “one final prediction.” He said, according to the blog Ars Technica,

Brain scans make things more scientific.

Brain scans make things more scientific.

” In 30 years…we’re going to be able to literally ingest information. Once information is in your bloodstream, some kind of mechanism could deposit the information in the brain. You could take a pill and learn English or the works of Shakespeare.”

Sound improbable? Surf over to the Wall Street Journal. Neuroprosthetics–literally, brain implants–are coming to market. These include the cochlear implant, for hearing, and a retinal implant for seeing which received FDA approval last year. Soon, we may see devices that enhance memory, focus, and the speed at which we acquire new information. One group of researchers at UC Berkeley is working on a wireless brain interface made up of thousands of microsensors. Each the thickness of a human hair, they call them “neural dust”. It’s the stuff that sci-fi horror movies are made of.

Exsiting brain-computer interfaces, such as the headsets made by NeuroSky and Muse, pick up large-scale patterns of brain activity. They can give instant feedback about how calm, focused or excited you are. Jan Plass at NYU, who I met recently at South by Southwest EDU, is testing the Muse on students using Cerego learning software. They want to see if the feedback can make you smarter, and the software more customized.

Let’s not forget the brain prosthetics we’re already carrying around, known as smartphones. Soon voice-activated wearable devices will further blur the line between knowing a fact and being able to retrieve it. When I start singing my daughter a Simon and Garfunkel song, the next generation of Google Glass or a similar device will automatically bring up the lyrics.

These breakthroughs are fascinating. They’re also troubling, because we don’t really know very much about how the brain works normally. In fact, we don’t even know what we don’t know. The Achilles heel of any technology designed to make us smarter is that people are still smarter than any technology. If you use any kind of designer brain enhancement, you’re voluntarily limiting your own mind to the uses that some designer imagined for it.

Take one futuristic technology that’s already in place in classrooms today: automatic grading of essays using natural language processing. You can find it on the GED and the GMAT, and in products by Pearson and CTB/McGraw-Hill. These programs are still in early stages. They don’t parse meaning; they use crude metrics like word count, frequency of words, spelling, punctuation, plagiarism (based on text available around the web) and some sense of sentence structure. The ratings they give are comparable to the scores given by humans, but that’s not saying much. Essay questions on standardized tests are graded by contract workers who are paid per test and who must spend no more than a minute on each essay in order to earn a living wage.

This week the Contra Costa Times talked to a seventh grade teacher who is using robograding in her classroom. She said it was great! Saved her so much time! Except, “The robo-reader only can score submissions that are on topics the manufacturer has prescribed and the majority of those don’t have any bearing on the books her students are reading.” Do we want to live in a world where our brains are limited to “topics prescribed by the manufacturer”?




$1 Million global education “Nobel in teaching” announced

Today at the Global Education and Skills Forum, in Dubai, education entrepreneur and philanthropist Sunny Varkey announced a $1 million prize, to be awarded to one outstanding teacher somewhere in the world. Nominations and applications are now open at  The winner will be announced in November.

(disclosure: GEMS  Foundation supported my coverage of this event, but had no editorial input). 


President Bill Clinton, Honorary Chairman of the Varkey GEMS Foundation, with H.H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, at the Global Education and Skills Forum.

For classroom teachers, this is the largest prize of its kind ever to be announced. In fact, it’s larger than most prizes in most professional fields. It rivals the the Nobel Prize itself, currently around $1.2 million. The MacArthur Fellowship (the “Genius Grant”), which is currently $625,000, went to a high school physics teacher, Amir Abo-Shaeer, in 2010.

Varkey is a newly minted billionaire, originally from India, who founded GEMS, the largest network of private for-profit schools in the world. It has 132 schools and 142,000 students across the Middle East, Africa, Europe, China, and India. He told the crowd that the mission of the global teacher prize, supported by Dubai’s Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, was inspiration.  “We want to inspire children from far-flung villages, towns and cities around the world to say ‘I want that prize!’ How many kids say they want to be a reality TV star? Let’s get them aiming to be the greatest teacher in the world.”

The Global Education and Skills Forum was organized in partnership between GEMS’ nonprofit foundation, UNESCO, The Commonwealth Business Council (a sort of global Chamber of Commerce), and UAE’s monarchy.  The underlying aim is to raise the profile of global education on the agenda of big-time philanthropy, international aid, and the business community directly. At the Forum, UNESCO also announced the Business Backs Education campaign, which asks corporations to nearly double their giving to education-related causes, to $1 billion by this time next year and to 20 percent of all corporate social contributions by 2020. Corporate charities donate sixteen times as much money to health-related causes as to education, even though cultivating human capital contributes directly to the bottom line. As keynote speaker President Bill Clinton told the GESF audience, every dollar invested in education returns $53 to employers through a better qualified, more productive workforce.

Here in the US we debate the benefit of big donors and private wealth in schools. But in the developing world the story is very different. Globally, 57 million children are not in primary school. Many countries don’t have the resources to expand access. “Universal Primary Education” is #2 on the list of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals; this would require an estimated 6 million new teachers by next year, 2015. The private sector has stepped into the breach. GEMS is one of a new breed of private, for-profit chain school operators that have sprung up in China (where some are owned by Disney), the Middle East, and Africa. These global education organizations have a mix of pro-social and business motives.

Viewing access to schooling through the lens of global development lends a proper urgency to the issue. But it also encourages a narrow instrumentalist view of education as a means to economic growth and only economic growth. When a gathering is hosted by an absolute monarch, sponsored by multinational corporations including Samsung, Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Credit Suisse, one can’t expect much room for the role of education as a radicalizing, democratizing force.


Why it’s so hard to get schools online in the digital age

In recent months there’s been a lot of news about public, private and philanthropic commitments to getting our public schools access to broadband Internet. In February, coming off a State of the Union address by President Obama that highlighted the issue, the FCC announced that it would move money around to double the sum available for so-called E-Rate broadband grants, from $1 to $2 billion. According to the advocacy group Education Superhighway, an astonishing 72% of K-12 schools nationwide lack sufficient speeds for the kinds of applications that you and I probably take for granted in our homes.


How can this be? The problems with school Internet access are basic and often come in the last mile, or even the last few inches. I recently spoke to Matt Tullman of digedu, a small Chicago-based startup, who offered me a closeup view of the problems.

Digedu actually started as a learning software company, offering lesson creation tools. They expanded into providing hardware, helping a school choose the right device and offering the service maintenance and training. It became clear that many schools didn’t have the bandwidth to use the products they were offering.

So they created a classroom “bandwidth augmentation” solution called Classroom Cloud. It’s a box that sits on a desk, makes local backups of content, and augments bandwidth, enabling 60 or 70 students to stream video simultaneously.

I asked how much his solution can improve performance for his client schools. “It’s not so much a difference in performance as operable vs. not,” he says. “Most schools share amongst the entire school what a household would have.”

Think about that: a connection that’s supposed to be used by 4 or 5 people, instead being shared by possibly hundreds of students.

Upgrading access, he says, is a heavy infrastructure undertaking, often bound up with other costs.

“In the Southside of Chicago, where our schools are located, it’s copper wires.  They have no other choice. It’s not about paying for a bigger plan. I sat down with a principal who told me, even if you use E-rate it’s still $200,000 to lay a pipe of fiber optics. That’s prohibitive, especially when access is not the end in itself–the outcome is technology.” In other words, laying the pipe is a necessary, not a sufficient condition to having a 21st century school.

Figuring out what exactly is slowing down a school’s connection takes some detective work–Tullman says he’s often “sweating in his suit” at un-air conditioned Chicago schools. 

“There are so many points at which bandwidth can be throttled at most schools,” Tullman says. “The access point could be outside these buildings with four-foot concrete walls. It could be several years old. The wiring could be old. You have to have a holistic view of what’s going on.” 

 The E-Rate program has been criticized for mismanagement of resources. A very large proportion, about five billion dollars’ worth, of E-Rate funds has gone unused, piling up year after year. Outdated procurement processes also stand in the way of school districts using these funds effectively. According to Education Superhighway, average schools are paying around $25 per mbps (megabit per second), while some districts have been able to negotiate prices as low as $2 per mbps. (According to the FCC, minimum bandwidth for one user to download email or browse static web pages is about 0.5 mbps.  “Advanced” service is classified as more than 15 mbps, which is needed to have more than three users or devices using applications such as streaming video.) 

Education Superhighway recommends school districts banding together into regional consortia to increase their bargaining power. 
Maybe the structure of the federal grant program needs to change to enable the kind of last-few-inches construction and network management that actually needs to be done to get schools wired.

Update: this post has been updated to reflect the correct term “megabit per second.”

The top 5 #EdInnovations to watch

The benefit of a big conference like SXSWEdu is a sort of ambient exposure to trends. Here are five concepts that everyone (or at least key, smart people) were talking about at last week’s conference, and that bear keeping an eye on for the future.

no buzzwords, please

no buzzwords, please


1) ConnectED .

Companies including Apple, Microsoft, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, Autodesk, Adobe, Prezi, and O’Reilly Media are all touting recent commitments to the president’s initiative to get 99% of students access to broadband within 5 years. The private sector commitments total $1 billion, but that’s a squishy figure–it includes both cash and in-kind donations such as software. Nevertheless, broadband in schools is a big deal. It’s a basic pre-req for 21st century learning, and, some argue, a civil and human right.

2) Student voice.

Last year at #SXSWEdu everyone was asking “Where are the teachers?” This year, what I heard several times was “Where are the students?” Truly student-centered, student-focused, and student-led innovations and reforms are thin on the ground. And the conference’s one student session, led by teenage firebrand Zak Malamed, founder of Student Voice, was ill-attended. Some student-slanted innovations I did turn up: StudyBlue, which has been around for a bit and has 5 million active users who create study guides and interact online; & Socratic, a Q&A focused site with young founders.

3) Tech becomes invisible.

Speaking of student voice, at the end of January, the White House asked high school students to submit 3 minute videos about their experiences with technology in the classroom. They got over 2500 submissions. One of the 16 official selections is above. Overwhelmingly the kids didn’t talk about the tools per se, but how the tools enabled them to do the things they love, connect with people and explore ideas. Several people I spoke with have predicted a tipping point where conversations about educational technology become obsolete. Broadband and 1 to 1 computing will be just part of the landscape, like pens and notebooks are today, and we’ll refocus on innovative practices.

4) Tests as we know them are obsolete.

This is my personal hobby horse — the subject of my next book. But it was striking.
When you hear essentially the same prediction from executives at a big tech company (Microsoft), an ed-tech company (, a former test-prep king (John Katzman, founder of Princeton Review, now with ed search engine Noodle), an assessment incumbent (McGraw Hill), and a learning scientist (Jan Plass at NYU), it’s time to pay attention.

The long term vision is software-based assessments that are “Embedded, low-anxiety, formative–not the assessment event that creates stress for teachers, principals, students, and families,” said Cameron Evans of Microsoft, and that serve as “durably predictive short term metrics,” said Katzman of “real-world outcomes” like happiness, employability, and civic responsibility. “We have to think about assessment as something that should bolster education, not just measure it.”

5) #NewSATs.

Speaking of obsolete tests, the #NewSATs were the biggest mainstream media story to come out at the event; as I write this there are three related stories on the NYTimes most emailed list. More than anything, this reflects the status anxiety of upper middle class parents that too often drives mainstream education coverage, as my friend Paul Fain of Inside Higher Ed observed on our panel. I wasn’t the only person critical of the changes. People are criticizing the SATs as outdated, irrelevant, and unfair, and the changes as too little, too late. The bigger question: is our society willing to do what it takes to offer a high quality higher education to everybody who can participate, not just 1600-point lottery winners?


Live from SXSWEdu: Who’s Khan Academy in bed with now?

The White House, the College Board, Bank of America, and Comcast.

What do they have in common? They’ve all announced partnerships with Khan Academy, the nonprofit provider of free educational videos and analytics tools, in the last 12 months.

These partnerships combine various aspects of cash, content, and distribution. But in each case, the stodgier established player is borrowing a little bit of Khan Academy’s halo. Maybe it’s because of their nonprofit status, maybe it’s Sal Khan’s geeky yet approachable personality, maybe it’s because the content is really pretty great and useful, but Khan Academy is the rare ed-tech company that has managed to reach millions of people while gaining a high media profile and transcending the MOOC backlash. They remain dedicated and associated in the public’s mind to providing free high quality educational resources to the world using technology. And so when a technology company wants to burnish its association with low-cost internet access; or the White House wants to update the image of college access, or the College Board wants to democratize test prep; or a big bank wants people to not hate them, they turn to one guy with a digital whiteboard and a camera on a tripod.

Sal Khan talks to David Coleman at the College Board

So it’s pretty clear what these organizations want out of KA. But what does KA want with them?Of course, the nonprofit needs cash to continue. But they’re also at risk of diluting their brand image, independence, and mission every time they ink a deal. The Comcast partnership, in particular, has raised eyebrows as it relates to net neutrality–an Internet provider appearing to favor a certain type of content.

I spoke to Monica Tran, Khan’s Product Strategy Lead, for insight on what KA is thinking as it enters into these partnerships.

“We are in a privileged position — we have a lot of interest from potential partners,” she said. “Given the fact that we’re pretty small and lean, we are highly thoughtful about what these partnerships can do for our learners.” She mentions that in the case of the College Board partnership, 70% of KA’s users are under 17, so these test prep resources are potentially quite appealing for that audience. And there’s a synergy with their college prep tools, which come out of the White House relationship.

I believe in the idea of giving learners what they want. But by aligning itself with SAT prep and college prep, Khan Academy is tethering itself to the educational establishment, diverging from its original, revolutionary vision: to give people a path to learn and demonstrate mastery without needing institutions as intermediaries.

Live from SXSWEdu: #NewSATs or No SATs?

The big news coming out of SXSWEdu Wednesday was the New SAT. It even has a hashtag: #NewSAT.

The changes to the test taken by millions of students each year, which will start in 2016 with today’s 9th graders, are, at first glance, puzzling. The vocabulary section will be simplified, with fewer “gotcha” words. The math section will go into greater depth on fewer and more predictable topics. The reading section will involve more nonfiction and technical selections, including charts and graphs, and will be more predictable as well, with greatest-hits selections from US history like the Declaration of Independence and I Have a Dream.

Oh, and the essay section is now optional. After generations of testing, research has found that essay scores on the SATs are not predictive of anything important, and college admissions officers couldn’t agree on whether it was useful.

There are two big goals with the new SAT, as College Board director David Coleman had it at today’s announcement. At first blush, I don’t think it accomplishes either of them.

The first goal is to better align with what students are learning in high school and what they need to know in the workplace. Here’s a point-by-point comparison between the changes on the test and the Common Core curriculum, which College Board director David Coleman was very involved in designing–for example, less literature, more nonfiction.

Problem: the Common Core hasn’t been officially implemented yet in most states, yet it’s stirring up quite a bit of backlash. Nor was it tested or piloted. Who knows where it will be in five or 10 years?  Will the test change again then?

Problem #2 : Seriously, you made the essay question optional? When verbal communication is the number one skill that employers look for?  If you can’t devise a free response question that is useful or predictive, maybe you are not trying hard enough. Look at your own AP English exams or the UK GCEs  if you need inspiration.

Employers aren’t clamoring for students who can pick the right answer from a given list, especially when the new SAT eliminates the penalty for blind guessing.

The second, and laudable goal is to make the exam more equitable by eliminating the influence of costly test preparation companies (which don’t, by the way, actually raise scores very much). The new test is designed to be both simpler to study for and harder to game. The College Board is also partnering with Khan Academy to provide free digital test prep–more on that soon so watch this space.

If you really want to make college admissions more equitable, here’s an idea: try getting rid of the SATs. Recently William Hiss of Bates College published a study looking at outcomes for 123,000 students and alumni at a wide range of institutions. These institutions belong to the growing group of 800 out of the nation’s 3000 colleges and universities that make the SATs optional for admission.


Most people who don’t submit their SAT scores, not surprisingly, have poor SAT scores. They are more likely to be first-generation college students, minorities, Pell Grant recipients, women and students with learning differences. Schools who go test-optional tend to get more diverse students as a result.

The bottom line: “in a wide variety of settings, non-submitters are outperforming their standardized testing.” Hiss found few significant differences between students who submitted SATs and those who did not. “Across the study, non-submitters … earned Cumulative GPAs that were only .05 lower than submitters, 2.83 versus 2.88. The difference in their graduation rates was .6%.”

Maybe the next step in the #NewSATs should be making the whole thing optional. 



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