Sales, Not Education

Recently an innocent tweet went down the wrong way. It provided a link to an article without further commentary. What I found was a post extolling the virtues of technology to “transform education” based on the freshly released NMC (New Media Consortium) Horizon Report – Higher Ed edition. So often have I heard such lofty and outsized claims which I fear miss the point. I retweeted the link with this comment:

Now having reread the article on Campus Technology more carefully, I realize that it is simply a tech friendly channel highlighting the big points from the researchers’ report at NMC. Nevertheless, my reaction also has its place. Although this article and the report at hand are addressing trends for higher education, the sweeping claims made are those most likely to show up in K-12 ed-tech discourse as well.
Two things are at issue for me:

  • The idea that technology will transform education needs to go. Rather it is and will continue to be people (students, parents, educators, community members) who will transform education. People have many tools at their disposal and certainly technology will play a role, but we need to stop abdicating our responsibility and power to devices, software and corporations to create just and equitable access to education for all students.
  • Too easily we in education seem to take such reports and their underlying assumptions as gospel, conveniently forgetting that technology is an industry with profit motives like other industries. Education is a vast and diverse market with multiple entry points to exploit. (Audrey Watters writes expertly about the corporate interest sides of ed-tech like here and here. Read these and be enlightened.)

I often worry that we (teachers, parents, policy makers) are absolutely complicit in selling the education of our kids to the teams with the best marketing strategies. We love new and shiny and all promises of time and effort saving – while at the same time we expect our kids to develop grit and become critical thinkers. We want to believe that we are equipping our children and students for a future which we can’t fathom and yet we fail to question our most basic assumptions about what school is good for and how it should function. (See this awesome post by @BlueCerealEduc about inquiry for grown folks.)

We also like to give people who claim to care deeply about education more of the benefit of the doubt than they perhaps deserve (i.e., politicians, education “reformers,” billionaire philanthropists). I urge you to keep up with the likes of @edushyster (Jennifer Berkshire) who has her eyes peeled for all of the nonsense, misinformation and outright lies which are perpetuated via the media and other channels to cloud our understanding of what’s actually at stake when we hand over public schools wholesale to charter organizations or create programs of school choice without actually creating viable options for the weakest recipients of such initiatives.  A recent post of hers unpacks an  unbelievable document full of highly refined PR talking points for reformers to use in addressing a number of major parental concerns with testing and other feature of ed reform. The document is both remarkable and sickening in its baldfaced illustration of how manipulation is a science that can and will be used against you unless you combat it directly.  (No, really, the document and the post are each extraordinary in their own right. Go read both carefully.)

Critical and higher order thinking, collaboration, cooperation, digital literacy – these are skills we claim we want our children to master, that we insist are critical to their success in the future.  And I ask, How skilled are we?  How well are we collaborating and cooperating to inform ourselves and bolster our critical thinking skills? In my own experience I am finding out how naive I have been in several areas. I am only now beginning to fully appreciate the extremely well informed minds in my personal learning network. I need their tireless investigations into the false claims and snake oil peddlers in order to better understand how I can contribute to conversations in a meaningful way.  For now my attempt is to curate, read, share and synthesize the great work that others are doing to keep us awake at the wheel of our own and our kids’ futures.

A Programmable Future


I experienced a rare moment this week. I read a post and quite simply it changed me.

The post helped me see what I was not seeing.

To recognize what I have been avoiding.

To be brave when my fear is the only audible voice I can hear.

The post  I read was  “The Future of Education: Programmed or Programmable “ by Audrey Watters. It is in fact the transcript of a talk she recently gave at Pepperdine University. I encourage you to read the full text to appreciate the strength and wisdom of her arguments.

The first point that got under my skin was this:

Whether it’s in a textbook or in a video-taped lecture, it’s long been the content that matters most in school. The content is central. It’s what you go to school to be exposed to. Content. The student must study it, comprehend it, and demonstrate that in turn for the teacher. That is what we expect an education to do, to be: the acquisition of content which becomes transmogrified into knowledge…

…despite all the potential to do things differently with computers and with the Internet and with ubiquitous digital information, school still puts content in the center. Content, once delivered by or mediated through a teacher or a textbook, now is delivered via various computer technologies.

YES! Content is always at the center, of course.  And what have I been working so hard to cultivate in the learning episodes that I design for others? Experience.  I want my clients, participants, students, athletes to experience something, to feel something and thereby come to know “the thing” and what it may mean for them. Content has been a vehicle but my real desire has always been to generate feelings, emotions, connection – the stuff that makes you feel alive. How very counter-cultural I now understand.

Audrey Watters goes on to talk about shifting away from the content-centered approach of the “programmed web” and towards the more open and co-constructed “programmable web:”

The readable, writable, programmable Web is so significant because, in part, it allows us to break from programmed instruction. That is, we needn’t all simply be on the receiving end of some computer-mediated instruction, some teacher-engineering. We can construct and create and connect for ourselves. And that means that — ideally — we can move beyond the technologies that deliver content more efficiently, more widely. It means too we can rethink “content” and “information” and “knowledge” — what it means to deliver or consume those things, alongside what it makes to build and control those things.

This is about where things started to heat up for me. The next sentence laid my purpose out for me like the Tarot card you knew was coming before you even approached the table:

One of the most powerful things that you can do on the Web is to be a node in a network of learners, and to do so most fully and radically, I dare say, you must own your own domain.


As I read on, two things were happening: my emotions had gotten hold of the stage and were running with it. At the same time, my rational mind tore further into the text looking for something to save me fast.

Authority, expertise, participation, voice — these can be so different on the programmable web; not so with programmed instruction.

The Domain of One’s Own initiative at University of Mary Washington purposefully invokes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “A woman must have money, and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.” That is, one needs a space — a safe space that one controls — in order to do be intellectually productive.


We have an amazing opportunity here. We need to recognize and reconcile that, for starters, in the content that programmed instruction — as with all instruction — delivers, there is a hidden curriculum nestled in there as well. Education — formal institutions of schooling — are very much about power, prestige, and control. [emphasis mine]

and then this:

Despite all the talk about “leveling the playing field” and disrupting old, powerful institutions, the Web replicates many pre-existing inequalities; it exacerbates others; it creates new ones. I think we have to work much harder to make the Web live up to the rhetoric of freedom and equality. That’s a political effort, not simply a technological one.

That’s when the tears came rolling in. Between the deep desire to be that “node in a network of learners” and the self-unhelpful stance of “I could never do that.” (in this case  to have, run and maintain my own domain.), a larger truth was revealed:  I am at liberty to make use of my own superpowers. I am a learner of outrageous potential. There is no reason to believe that I cannot do what no one expects.  That’s when all the forces, internal and external, technological and philosophical which have  kept the volume of my fears turned all the way up seemed suddenly muted.

I’ve been sitting with this experience for a few days now. I wrote to Audrey almost immediately to say Thank you and at the same time nearly wanting to ask for the antidote.  Because it is a fundamentally scary experience to be exposed to your own potential and grant it some credibility. And when you belong to a marginalized group, that exposure can be all the more astounding and confounding. Empowerment can feel like work because it is not for free. Empowerment always challenges us to imagine, to create, to put into practice what once appeared impossible.


“You had to be there” is history

I was not at ISTE2014. And that is not really so important. Thanks to my twitter feed, however, I felt as if I was there on several counts. Serial tweeters @BethStill, @RafranzDavis, and @Angela_Watson kept me abreast of successful sessions and major insights, not only through their own tweets but through rapid-fire retweeting with the #ISTE2014 hashtag.

This generous retweeting introduced me to numerous other great contributors such as @chrislehmann, @carrierossTX, and @aimeegbartis.
In fact, it was Aimee Bartis who retweeted this link: about using the Ignite session as a template for energized faculty meetings.
That post by John Hardison @gettingsmart was a further gold mine of ideas, presenters and enthusiasm – all coming out of ISTE.

I also have to salute Bill Ferriter (@plugusin) for tweeting on behalf of the all-important analog connections through face to face interactions and keeping the focus on our kids’ learning in the midst of so much tech hype.

I wasn’t at ISTE2014. Yet, thanks to my growing PLN, the idea that “you had to be there” is history. #ISTE2014 provided enough access to inspiring messages and powerful speakers so that even if ed tech is not my highest priority, I can feel well informed and included in the conversation.