Ed Tech Cashes In on the Pandemic

As schools go virtual, digital learning threatens to replace teachers and deprive students of a real education.


Jandos Rothstein

When schools shut down in mid-March, teachers rose valiantly to the occasion, redoing courses so they could be taught online, figuring out ways of reaching the many students who do not have high-speed internet. About a month into the retooling, a video appeared that gave vent to the frustration many were feeling in this netherworld of cyber teaching. A sweet young woman introduces herself as “the music teacher,” and says she’s composed an ode to online teaching. After a few disarming chords on her ukulele, she lets out a primal scream. That scream made the rounds of social media, even making national news.

The transition to online teaching made everyone aware of the value of person-to-person communication. The human signals that tell a teacher how a class is reacting—the sighs, groans, snorts, giggles, eye rolls, glances, body language—are stripped away online. The teacher can’t even tell if she’s being heard. Warmth is difficult to express; rapport, trust, bonding almost impossible to build. “Kids can be hard to motivate under the best of circumstances,” says teacher blogger Steven Singer, “but try doing it through a screen.” Students say so, too: “I can’t get myself to care … I just feel really disconnected from everything.”

Ed tech companies lost no time moving in. “When the pandemic hit, right away we got a list of all these technology companies that make education software that were offering free access to their products for the duration of the coronavirus crisis,” said Gordon Lafer, political economist at the University of Oregon and a member of his local school board. “They pitch these offerings as stepping up to help out the country in a moment of crisis. But it’s also like coke dealers handing out free samples.” Marketing has become so aggressive that a school superintendent near Seattle tweeted a heartfelt appeal to vendors: “Please stop. Just stop … my superintendent colleagues and I … need to focus on our communities. Let us do our jobs.” Her plea hit a nerve, prompting a survey by the National Superintendents Roundtable that revealed “a deep vein of irritation and discontent” at the barrage of texts, emails, and phone calls, “a distraction and nuisance” when they’re trying to deal with the COVID-19 crisis. Comments on this survey ranged from “negative in the extreme” to “scathing,” and expressed concerns that these products “have not been validated” and that “free” offers conceal contracts for long-term pay.

For the past two decades, ed tech has been pushing into public schools, convincing districts to invest in tablets, software, online programs, assessment tools. Many superintendents have allowed these incursions, directing funding to technology that might have been better spent on human resources, teachers, counselors, nurses, librarians (up to $5.6 billion of school technology purchased sits unused, according to a 2019 analysis in EdWeek Market Brief). Now the pandemic has provided ed tech a “golden opportunity,” a “tailwind” (these are the terms we hear): Michael Moe, head of the venture capitalist group Global Silicon Valley, says: “We see the education industry today as the health care industry of 30 years ago.” Not a happy thought.

Ed tech proponents have long claimed that classrooms are obsolete and that online is the future of education. Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the Koch-funded American Enterprise Institute, urges that the United States’ $700 billion public-education budget should be spent on “a bunch of online materials—along with a device for every child and better connectivity.” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has close ties with the Koch network, also sees the classroom as obsolete: “If our ability to educate is limited to what takes place in any given physical building, we are never going to meet the unique needs of every student.”

They may get their way.

“Personalized” Learning Without Persons

In May, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced his intention “to work with the Gates Foundation to … develop a blueprint to reimagine education in the new normal.” “The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms,” Cuomo said. “Why, with all the technology you have?”

Bill Gates has been promoting various versions of so-called personalized learning for decades. Personalized programs are different from the online teaching most teachers did this spring, in that they eliminate the need for the teacher. Their interactive software has the student interacting with the computer, not a human being. They’re called “personalized” because an algorithm based on a student’s past performance generates “learning plans” tailored to her level and interests. The student sits, encased in headphones, responding to prompts, clicking her way through preset steps to predetermined answers; she demonstrates “competencies” by passing a test, then moves on to the next task and the next test, until she receives a “digital badge.” The student is said to be in charge, to have “ownership” of her education.

Far from putting her in charge, such programs make the student what the program says she should be. Paul Emerich France, a teacher who went to work for a Silicon Valley startup as a true believer but became rapidly disillusioned, describes personalized learning as “isolating … impersonal … disembodied and disconnected, with a computer constantly being a mediator between my students and me”: It “dehumanizes the learning environment.” Personalized programs may offer students choices about where and when to do assignments and whether they want dogs or cupcakes in their math and grammar exercises, but this is trivial compared with the excitement, curiosity, discovery that a live class can generate that actually can put a student in charge.

Another former ed tech enthusiast, Larry Berger, co-founder of Amplify, of which more in a moment, came to see motivation as a problem: “Just because the algorithms want a kid to learn the next thing doesn’t mean that a real kid actually wants to learn that thing.” Actually, it’s the teachers, writes John Warner in Inside Higher Ed, who’ve always “personalized” learning. Teachers, unlike software, can field questions in real time, engage students, push them to think more deeply, consider alternative points of view, tap into an inner motivation that’s a more powerful driver than a “digital badge.”

Nevertheless, personalized learning got federal endorsement when the Every Student Succeeds Act was signed into law by President Obama in December 2015. The act was passed, significantly, at the moment when tens of thousands of students were refusing to take standardized tests. Suddenly, Gates and Obama—whose Department of Education was full of Gates Foundation people—seemed to do an about-face and agree with parents and teachers that there is entirely too much testing. And lo and behold, “competency-based education” was slipped quietly into place: The law is packed with generous grants to promote personalized learning. It was a brilliant end run around the “opt out” movement: no more need for those annoying tests—now kids can sit at computers and be tested and assessed more or less all the time.

“Ed tech is almost always organized around standardized testing,” explains Steven Singer. “Software basically teaches to the test. It shows users the kinds of questions that will be asked, how to solve them, and then gauges their success by giving them test-based questions.” Now “students will take high-stakes tests without even knowing they are doing it … They’re asked the same kinds of multiple-choice nonsense you’d find on state-mandated standardized assessments.”

For the past two decades, ed tech has been pushing into public schools, convincing districts to invest in tablets, software, online programs, assessment tools.

When you see who’s pushing educational technology, you see why this slipped easily through Congress. Besides Wall Street investors, hedge funds, venture capitalists, multinational corporations, publishing conglomerates, they are some of the most powerful people on the planet: Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Rupert Murdoch, Jeff Bezos, Reed Hastings of Netflix, real estate mogul Eli Broad, and Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Steve Jobs. Comcast and Facebook are heavily invested. Google, Apple, and Microsoft have been duking it out for control of classroom technology, with Google moving to the fore using the low cost of Chromebooks and its skill enlisting “teacher influencers” to do its promotion. Billionaire-funded foundations—the Gates Foundation, Broad, Walton, Lumina, Carnegie, Ford—are on board, along with the Koch brothers’ think tanks Americans for Prosperity and the American Enterprise Institute. So is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Koch brothers legislation-making network, which has been pushing legislation that favors virtual schools.

Looking at this lineup, you see immense wealth and power bent on accumulating even more. You see how far removed the investors are from anyone who does the actual teaching—not an educator in the lot. You see the pronounced right-wing drift and anti–public school ideology. The goal of investors entering this market is, as Lafer points out, “to replace costly and idiosyncratic human teachers with mass-produced and highly profitable digital products and get legislation through that makes public tax dollars pay for them.” Digital learning takes a major step toward privatization not only by routing federal funding to private companies but by removing major decisions about goals and methods from the teachers and turning them over to programmers, software designers, and technology vendors.

But for all the industry and media hype, there has been an astonishing “lack of oversight or accountability,” reports a 2019 review of personalized learning by the National Education Policy Center (NEPC), and hardly any systematic assessment. There is no evidence that personalized learning actually works. And there have been some spectacular failures. It’s well to recall these failures before we let this become “the future of education.”

Billion-Dollar Busts

The story of inBloom, one of the more spectacular Gates-backed failures, begins back in the years Joel Klein was chancellor of New York City public schools, 2002–2010. Klein was chosen by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to implement his privatization agenda, which he did, closing dozens of public schools and promoting charter schools. During his time as chancellor, the city made massive investments in technology. Klein promoted an Android tablet and personalized learning software developed by Wireless Generation. In 2011, he went to work for Rupert Murdoch to head his online education division and to develop Amplify, the new name for Wireless Generation.

There were problems from the start: The tablets had easily shattered screens, were prone to malfunctioning, and schools often lacked the bandwidth to run them. But Amplify built the infrastructure for a database that seemed so promising to Gates that he (and the Carnegie Foundation) funded it to the tune of $100 million, forming the nonprofit inBloom to run it. After three months, the database had compiled information on millions of children, including “learning disabilities … test scores … attendance ... student hobbies, career goals, attitudes toward school—even homework completion,” reports Stephanie Simon of Reuters. When teacher advocate Leonie Haimson, founder of Class Size Matters, alerted parents to privacy issues, inBloom shut down a year after it had been launched, in 2014. Murdoch sold Amplify in 2015, having sunk $1 billion into it.

Next in this parade of Gates-backed follies came the Teach to One program by New Classrooms, which Gates funded, between 2011 and 2014, with more than $10.5 million, and which similarly set off alarms about data mining and privacy. Teach to One places up to 150 students in a room and gives them computers loaded with “playlists.” The playlists consist of software packages, videos, and games customized by an algorithm. Students work through a few playlists, then take multiple-choice tests to assess what they have learned. Parents in Mountain View, in the heart of Silicon Valley, protested that the math program relegated teachers to “managing the program” rather than teaching, a local paper reports, that “the curriculum is a haphazard mess, jumping between remedial math and overly challenging course content,” that their kids have “become frustrated and unhappy with math” and “turned off to the subject entirely.” When it became clear that math test scores had fallen, the district dropped it, at a loss of a half-million dollars.

Gates then became a backer of Zuckerberg’s Summit Learning Program, a program similar to this, with many of the same problems. Zuckerberg, a college dropout with no teaching experience or background in education, threw $100 million at Chris Christie and Cory Booker’s scheme to “disrupt” Newark’s schools, most of which went to charters and high-paid consultants. Zuckerberg lived up to his motto, broke things and moved fast, fast away from Newark, leaving 14 public schools closed and thousands of students’ lives disrupted. Undaunted, he went on to launch Summit, which, like Teach to One, has students clustered together in a room, working at their own pace on assignments they’ve chosen, taking multiple-choice tests at the end of each unit.

With Summit, the software does the teaching: “Computers hold the content that drives instruction, and they provide a place for student-teacher communication,” summarizes a Hechinger report; “Students take quizzes and tests through the platform, submit assignments online and track their progress in each course. They set academic goals and prepare for meetings with their mentors through the platform.” There has yet to be an independent evaluation of Summit’s effectiveness.

Digital learning takes a major step toward privatization not only by routing federal funding to private companies but by removing major decisions about goals and methods from the teachers.

Once again, privacy issues arose with software that creates an online profile of every student. Summit met with parent and student opposition from several communities that have the wherewithal to speak up. In Cheshire, Connecticut, dissatisfaction was so strong that it got the program pulled. The playlists were little more than “a bunch of links, to sites ranging from Kids Encyclopedia to SparkNotes to the BBC,” reports Nick Tabor in New York magazine; the goal of making kids self-starters, skilled at teaching themselves, translated to turning them loose on the web. And in Kansas, parents started withdrawing their kids by the dozens. One parent said, “Within weeks my [12-year-old] son started coming home from school upset and didn’t want to go to school. He said he didn’t like being taught by a computer and sitting in front of a computer watching videos and taking notes all day.”

Students in Summit programs miss the social interaction they get at school, the excitement of class discussion, the chance to bounce ideas off one another. So do teachers. “It felt like the people aspect, the relational aspect, was really taken out,” said a Connecticut teacher of Summit. “It didn’t allow me to be responsive with students.” “The kids all look like zombies,” said an irate parent who saw his son’s fourth-grade class in a Summit program, and pulled him out of the school.

Many more such stories could be told—AltSchool, for example, another Zuckerberg-backed startup, opened in 2013 and began closing schools in 2017. There are also the virtual schools, which use personalized programs, to poor effect. Besides their involvement in numerous scandals siphoning off millions of taxpayer dollars by claiming to enroll more students than they have, they have a dismal performance record. A 2015 Stanford study found that gains in math were so limited, it was “literally as though the student did not go to school for the entire year,” reports Macke Raymond, director of the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford. They have a four-year graduation rate of 40.6 percent, compared to 81 percent for the nation as a whole, according to the 2019 NEPC review. And students from low-income households are the most likely to fall away, which widens the achievement gap that ed tech claims to close.

But virtual schools work like vouchers, routing public funds to private companies, which makes them a favorite of DeVos. She was an early investor in K12 Inc., the largest chain of for-profit virtual charters (the company enjoying the “tailwind”) and is now directing a portion of relief money to virtual schools.

Connectivity Is Not Connection

The fundamental problem with personalized learning is that it’s pedagogically unsound, and goes against what is known about how people learn. It assumes that knowledge is a set body of information that can be transferred from a machine to a mind. “No longer is the teacher the bottleneck between students and knowledge,” boasts Robin Britt, a “Personalized Learning Environment Facilitator” quoted by Carlo Rotella in “No Child Left Untableted.” But it’s that “bottleneck,” the personal interaction, that is the lifeblood of learning.

People learn from people. In our long period of immaturity and vulnerability, we develop by paying close attention to others. Alex Beard, author of Natural Born Learners, explains, “It is why infants don’t learn to talk from video, audio or overhearing parental conversations … That’s why it matters that we talk to our children.” He summarizes the findings of a 2003 study by psychologist Patricia Kuhl, who tried various ways of teaching American infants Mandarin: “Split into three groups (video, audio, and flesh-and-blood teacher), only those with a human tutor learned anything at all. In 2010 a study of the wildly popular Baby Einstein vocabulary-building DVDs … revealed that infants who watched them ‘showed no greater understanding of words from the program than kids who never saw it’… more than words, it took a human being for a baby to learn language”—a human being in the room, that is, to engage young minds.

A study comparing face-to-face with online learning cited by Sarah Sparks in “Why Does Personalized Learning Sometimes Feel Impersonal?” found that even when face-to-face was less coherent and the teacher didn’t make it through all the material, students still learned more. The difference is “someone saying, I’m here, I care about you,” says Robert Slavin, director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University. A RAND Corporation study found that “students in personalized learning programs are statistically less likely to report … feeling comfortable in school, feeling engaged in and enjoying schoolwork,” and “feeling safe in school.” “Connectedness,” a “sense of bonding or belonging to a school,” improves student engagement, motivation, and performance, concludes a report from California Safe and Supportive Schools. It “also has been shown to mitigate or protect against emotional distress.”

Even when face-to-face learning was less coherent and the teacher didn’t make it through all the material, students still learned more.

Something else that’s problematic: What personalized learning teaches is only what a computer can be programmed to teach. In order to be tech-friendly, learning has to be reduced to bits that software can handle. Most subjects can’t be broken down like this—not just reading, writing, and the humanities, but the sciences, when taught in any depth. Nor can the ability to think, question, create, to engage with other minds or the creations of other minds be broken into bits and pieces—in other words, most of what educators consider education. “Personalized” learning can be useful for teaching skills or rote information, for training, not teaching. A language lab, for example, can complement but not substitute for human teaching.

Educators have been noticing a dumbing down that comes with computerized learning. John Vallance, former headmaster of Sydney Grammar, one of Australia’s top K-12 schools, pronounced the billions spent on teaching technology “a scandalous waste of money” and banned laptops and iPads from the classroom because they prevent students from learning how to converse and work out ideas by engaging with one another. “The digital delivery of teaching materials” is “making it quite difficult for children to learn how to disagree, how not to toe the party line … the possibility of questioning things has been taken away from them.” Veteran teachers quoted by Amy Joyce in The Washington Post worry that digital devices have impaired students’ ability to think through problems, to “wrestle with the gray area or complexity,” leading them to expect ready answers right away. This is truly alarming, since these are the capacities—thinking through problems, dealing with complexities, engaging with other minds—that young people most need to navigate futures as uncertain as theirs.

Ed Tech as Disaster Capitalism

This may be ed tech’s moment, but it has also been a moment for teachers. Appreciation has been pouring forth on social media, a welcome relief from the blame teachers have endured for decades. “Millions of parents are seeing up close what teachers do every day and marveling at their skills and their patience,” writes Amy Stuart Wells in EdWeek; parents who’ve experienced the difficulties of home schooling have a better understanding that teaching is a profession, demanding skills, training, experience. The public is more aware “how critical schools and educators are to a functioning social network,” as Glenda Cohen says, how they’ve been patching holes in the “country’s social safety net … picking up the slack for so much of the government’s failings.”

At the end of the school year, many teachers drove by their students’ houses, honking and holding up poster boards with farewells and congratulations, and students were thrilled—a rousing testimony to how much these relationships mean to students, and to teachers, too. “What would life be without human teachers, and real-life interaction?” came the heartfelt response of a student to a New York Times article promoting online teaching: “Are we really going to only exist behind screens …? Where would this leave us? Alone entirely.”

But with the coronavirus setting new records, many teachers cannot risk returning to school in the fall, however much they’d like to, whatever pressure is put on them. “If schools aren’t going to reopen, they shouldn’t get the funds,” threatened DeVos on Fox News Sunday. DeVos has done a 180-degree turn in a few months’ time, from declaring classrooms obsolete to deciding they’re essential. It’s hard to imagine a more ruinous blow to public schools than the situation she’s created: cut funding, put teachers up against impossible decisions, force some to quit, others to risk illness, even death, make the schools dangerous, and watch anyone who has the means flee to home schooling, virtual, or “alternative” schools.

The classroom is one of the few places young people can learn how to communicate and cooperate, learn that it’s possible to disagree yet get along.

Never has the threat of privatization been so great. “We might be entering the last days of public education in America,” writes Johann Neem in USA Today, “as longstanding political efforts to undermine public schools” get a tailwind from the pandemic. With budgets undergoing draconian cuts, with hundreds of thousands of teachers likely to be laid off and many more resigning, the temptation to warehouse kids to devices that do away with the need for the teacher will be enormous. “In the COVID-19 moment, the online classroom IS the public school system,” writes Patricia Burch, in a paper forthcoming in Phi Delta Kappan. The boundaries between public and private are becoming very thin indeed.

Public schools are a force for social cohesion, one of the strongest, one of the last. The classroom is one of the few places young people can learn how to communicate and cooperate, learn that it’s possible to disagree yet get along. It is where real learning takes place, where teachers have a chance of engaging students, capturing their attention, helping them grow up human. To take kids who are already unhealthily glued to screens, who are losing the ability to interact or converse, who need more human connection, not less—to chain them to devices and expect “education” to come of it, is sheer lunacy. Better a teacher than a computer, even if there is a screen between her and her students. Better the kind of distance learning teachers did this spring, for all its problems, than programs that dispense with teachers, that have never worked.

The classroom is not obsolete. The danger lies in believing that it is, in giving up on the idea of the classroom and warehousing kids to a way of teaching that sidelines teachers or eliminates them. Schools must not let go of their teachers or be careless of their safety. Looking beyond the pandemic—it will end someday—we must assure that teachers, classrooms, public education itself are not among its casualties, that digitalized learning is not “the future of education,” whatever its powerful proponents would have us believe.

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