Thomas Ultican: Edtech Is Business First (Part 2)
Thomas Ultican continues with a series looking at some of the snake oil being sold as ed tech. Reposted with permission.
The pandemic brought a bonanza for online content providers and classroom organizing software. Programs like Google Classroom and Class Dojo which previously seemed superfluous performed a needed service during the crisis. Unfortunately, some of the edtech companies whose businesses spiked were taking advantage of the situation to sell profitable but harmful products based on bad education theory.
Neeru Kosala Presenting for her Non-Profit (Photo Credit CK-12)
Neeru Khosla is the founder and CEO of CK-12, a nonprofit that she started in 2007 to deliver free digital books, particularly on math and science topics. She has the same qualification to reform education as many of our lead education “disrupters”; she’s a billionaire. Her company claims to be providing high-quality, free resources and by free they also mean no pro-accounts or data collection.
Khosla is a mother who trained as a molecular biologist and later earned a masters from the Stanford Graduate School of Education but does not seem to have any classroom experience. Her husband, Vinod Khosla, is a venture capitalist whose massive wealth appears tied to early investments in Google (now Alphabet).
To finance CK-12, the couple uses two private philanthropies, Amar Foundation and CK-12 Foundation. For the past several tax cycles Amar Foundation (EIN 94-3055731) has liquidated about $9 million in Alphabet stock and forwarded the cash to CK-12 Foundation (EIN 20-8007128) which uses it to pay salaries and finance digital content development.
When the pandemic started this barely noticed service saw their registrations expand by 460 percent. Unfortunately, yet another billionaire amateur educator has gotten a larger megaphone to push the “personalized learning” agenda.
The Khan Academy is another content provider that saw their traffic soar in 2020. Originally, the academy generated an image of this selfless Silicon Valley guy, Sal Khan, making math education videos and distributing them for free. In 2007, he formed his non-profit but it was not until 2010 that Bill Gates (EIN 56-2618866) and other billionaires began sending him money.
It turns out that Sal Khan is not so selfless. His non-profit is making him wealthy. Khan Academy tax records (EIN 26-1544963) reveal that between 2010 and 2019 his salary totaled $6,009,694 and since 2015 his yearly salary has been more than $800,000. Between 2012-2017, the Gate Foundation gifted the Khan Academy $12,951,598 and the Overdeck Foundation (EIN 26-4377643) has kicked in $2,154,300.
In 2019, Khan Academy took in $92,559,725 of which only $27,629,684 was from contributions. The Academy has turned into a big-revenue generating non-profit.
In October 2020, Khan Academy announced a new joint effort with NWEA called Khan Academy Districts. There sales pitch says “Khan Academy has partnered with NWEA, creators of MAP® Growth™, to empower teachers to differentiate their instruction based on assessment results and meet the needs of all students.”
NWEA is the company that generated a lot of buzz with their covid-learning loss “research.” NWEA sells standardized math and English testing. They take in noisy data (All standardized testing data is noisy and fraught with error) 3-times a school year, do some fancy arithmetic and report out student growth determinations.
Last year, App Annie reported, “April 8, 2020 The top 3 Education apps in the US by downloads during the week of Mar 22 were Google Classroom, Remind: Safe Classroom Communication and ClassDojo, which saw 580%, 290% and 565% growth, respectively, versus the weekly average in Jan 2020.” This is the ongoing pandemic phenomena that prompted CNBC’s April 23, 2021 article “Ed tech’ is booming: Wall Street analysts reveal how to trade the $5 trillion education market.”
Selling Education Snake Oil
The 2016 rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 named ESSA, specified big money for edtech in Title’s I and IV including grants promoting “personalized learning” (ESSA Page 1969). About the only workable training method using a computer is competency based education (CBE). It is a method of drilling small chunks of knowledge and then assessing the learning.
Unfortunately, CBE is just an update of previous failed teaching strategies. In the 1970’s it was called Mastery Learning and in the 1990’s it was called Outcome Based Education. CBE is simply putting Mastery Leaning on a computer instead of using worksheets and paper assessments. It is still bad pedagogy with a sixty-year history of not living up to its protagonist’s claims.
Not only is “personalized learning” bad pedagogy it is also unhealthy. Dr. Nicholas Kardaras wrote in “Time” magazine about health risks associated with student screen time. He noted that “over two hundred peer-reviewed studies point to screen time correlating to increased ADHD, screen addiction, increased aggression, depression, anxiety and even psychosis.” Also, the vast majority of school principals believe that students are experiencing too much screen time and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development said in a 2015 report that heavy users of computers in the classroom “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”
Curriculum Associates (CA) distributes i-Ready and its related testing services. The company which was founded in 1969 to provide worksheets for Mastery Learning curriculum is selling CBE based digital curriculum today. Children isolated at digital screens running their algorithms is called “personalized learning.” Student comments on the article “iReady Magnificent Marketing Terrible Teaching” make it clear how much they despise this product.
Amplify is another company selling “personalized learning.” After Rupert Murdoch and Joel Klein failed miserably to profit in the edtech arena when Murdoch purchased Generation Wireless and rebranded it Amplify, they took a $371 million write off and exited the business. The billionaire Laurene Powell Jobs’s “Emerson Collective” assumed control of Amplify.
A third company selling CBE based lessons delivered to a screen is Education Elements. They are the classic technology startup company being financed by five venture capital funds including New Schools Venture Fund.
Technology holds great promise for enhancing education, but when profit motives trump ethics it is like feeding poison to America’s children.