Thomas Ultican: Edtech is Business First
Thomas Ultican has begun a deep dive into the business of education technology, and the many secrets of turning a profit on the back of student data. Reposted with permission.
Not all edtech is negative but it is important to remember that private companies are in it for the money. Giant corporations and private equity firms require return on investment. Improving education comes in second to making profits and everyone in the business knows that the real edtech gold comes from data mining.
Dr Velislava Hillman is a visiting Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). In a post on the LSE blog she writes,
“It is hard, perhaps impossible, to go to school and not be registered by a digital technology. Cameras wire the premises; homework is completed using one business’s software application (eg Microsoft Word) that may be embedded onto another business’s platform (shared via Google); emails, bathroom trips, assessments, parental backgrounds – all feed into digital systems that are owned, managed, used and repurposed by hundreds of thousands of invisible business hands.”
“Edtech companies thrive on digital data.”
In her post, Dr Hillman pointed to an edtech company that is very active in the UK:
“Naviance, owned by Hobson, is a multi-layered data-collecting platform, which until February 2021 formed part of the Daily Mail and General Trust in the UK. The platform has access to a wide range of personal and sensitive information of students. It ‘tracks students as they move through elementary school, college and beyond”’.
The pro-edtech Education Research and Development Institute (ERDI) listed Hobson as a 2017 partner. This February the Daily Mail sold Hobson’s higher-ed focused Starfish business to the American company EAB for $90 million. They completed the divestiture of Hobson by selling the Naviance and Intersect businesses to U.S.-based PowerSchool for $320 million.
In the early 00s, my school district bought a student information system from Chancery Software Ltd. Unfortunately, the system was not ready for high school. Creating the master schedule was a nightmare. It took several years to get the system functioning well and then giant Pearson Corporation purchased Chancery and renamed it PowerSchool. That was 2006. In 2015, Pearson sold PowerSchool to Vista Equity Partners, a private equity group, in an all-cash deal worth $350 million.
Since then Vista has been adding more companies to PowerSchool. In 2018, Vista merged PowerSchool and PeopleAdmin with the investment buyout firm Onyx Corp. Bloomberg reports that this February PowerSchool filed “confidentially for a U.S. initial public offering that could value the education software provider at more than $6 billion.”
Lisa Cline’s and Andy Liddell’s article at the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood states,
“Every time your child opens their Chromebook or takes out their iPad to do schoolwork, their digital footsteps are shared with the universe. Every click, search and browse becomes property of an app maker who can store it, sell it, and use it to create a profile of your kid.”
The 50-years old Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA law makes this illegal but there is no enforcement. When FERPA was written, the school records contained names, addresses, grades and a few comments all written on paper and stored in onsite filing cabinets. With scant federal oversight, the concept of student data has grown to a running log of a child’s every click over the course of their childhood, packaged into a profile and slapped with a price tag. Now when parents inquire about what information is being stored on their child “The schools point at the vendors” and “vendors point at the schools.” Parents get nothing!
Personalized Bad Education
Tom Vander Ark shamelessly hawks personalized education products and writes glowing articles about schools that put children in front of screens. In July 2020, Vander Ark, who was the first Gates Foundation’s director of education initiatives, wrote in Forbes about Juan Cabrera and the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD). The article states, ‘“Mr. Cabrera’s focus on ethics and character was a driver for most of our success; it made us rethink the why and how of our work in the best interest of students and community’ said Carmen Arrieta-Candelaria, Deputy Superintendent for Finance and Operations.”
In November 2020, the EPISD board unanimously voted to accept Juan Cabrera’s resignation. The resignation seems to have been prompted by irregularities with the districts technology contracting. When a new audit arrived in May, Arrieta-Candelaria was put on paid leave. Channel 9 El Paso reported, “An El Paso Independent School District audit found former Superintendent Juan Cabrera initiated contracts with two vendors for academic services that gave ‘an appearance of a conflict of interest due to social/professional relationships.”’
The audit says, “The former Superintendent directed Academics staff to acquire contracted services from Renaissance Learning (Renaissance), Engage Learning (E2L), and Con Mi Madre, which totaled approximately $2.32 million.” In the next section it notes, “Funds were not budgeted to cover the contracted services from E2L in the amount of approximately $1.08 million.”
This scandal is just starting to play out, however a look at the businesses involved is interesting. Renaissance Learning is funded by CapitalIG which belongs to Alphabet (formerly Google). They sell testing and personalized learning apps for math and English. Engage2Learn (E2L) is owned by Leeds Equity Partners, a New York Investment firm, which was an early identifier of the business growth prospects in the education market. E2L offers virtual coaching and personalized learning services. Con Me Madre is a local non-profit that seems not to be an edtech profit scheming organization.
One of the edtech businesses key to the data collection business is “personalized learning.” It is isolated learning at a digital device and children hate it but it creates lots of data.