I started writing this blog, about 6+ months ago, when I was headed in a professional direction that was a bit different than it is now. Let's say that my worldview was a bit more open source-ish and not particularly commercial or profit-minded. Since then I've moved into greater contact with the business of edtech, so to speak. One useful feature of writing in the current format and under the current heading of “minimalist” edtech is that it's given me a chance to think through the tension between my teacher brain, which tends to want to serve students and teachers, and the reality of various edtech business models and trends. I don't mean to imply that edtech companies are bad actors in relation to some sort of pedagogical purity that only teachers possess; it's not that at all. But there is a tension there, a difference in what stakeholders may value or may find compelling.
More specifically, if asked, “what's the value prop for x edtech product or y technology”, how far apart would teacher brain and business brain be?
In a physical classroom, some students are shouters, others are reserved, and all gradations in between. As teachers, we respond to that difference and the uniqueness of students in a variety of ways, ideally such that everyone has a voice and can join into the whole in a way that feels both comfortable and authentic.
Technology encodes values and edtech is no different. In too many ways, edtech today tends to encode and promote the particular ideals of extroversion, demanding that students act publicly, visibly, and loudly, as if this is the only way of doing things in the world.
A good friend of mine admitted that he was a pretty piss-poor teacher on zoom. He is, in the classroom, an excellent teacher, in no small part due to a charismatic persona which slides from serious to amused and from hard to soft with ease. It would be easy to imagine that he's just being tough on himself, but I think he's actually kind of right. He's not great on Zoom. Something about his instincts and his habits don't translate quite right and his inability to sense the physical cues of students distracts and frustrates him.
There is some sort of mismatch there or difficulty in translating teaching persona through the screen.
The overuse of the term “AI” to market technology products has been out of control for some time. Educational technologies are no different. More and more I've been seeing “AI” products in edtech that are little more than slick visualizations wrapped around basic arithmetic.
Things that are not, by themselves or by default, “AI”:
simple and obvious things expressed as percentages, e.g. percentage of students participating in some activity
any graph and visualization that is not a line or bar chart
huge dashboards full of numbers
huge dashboards full of numbers with fancy labels of the form “Engagement Score” or “[StupidTradmarkedName] Score”™
Make it stop. Seriously, machine learning, deep learning and everything that might legitimately be called “AI” are interesting and awesome and powerful, problematic and potentially biased and also full of possibility. All of that is worth talking about and fair game to market as some branch of artificial intelligence; but selling elementary math and week 1 of Intro to Statistics as AI is just ridiculous.
Recently I had the chance to see one of Class for Zoom's demos of their new product. The platform delivers what they promise, an education-focused version of Zoom for both remote and hybrid teaching. They are in the sales phase and it was a polished pitch. One thing left me particularly uneasy...
As it is nearly midterm season, a student asked the other day whether we were going to have a midterm. This tends to be a question from a corner of the Zoom that is a bit... er, clueless. It was in my pitch for the course at the beginning of the term: no midterms, no final. I get applause for that. They do the wave. They profess affection and my immortal glory. (The trade-off is they have to do a fair amount of writing and speaking.)
So, maybe a question that makes me wonder whether anything I've said is being heard out there, but good to reaffirm the plan anyway. No midterm.
I went on to say that I didn't have any high stakes assessments because I didn't think they could be done well remotely. Or, rather, there were more effective uses of our time. And, I added, I also didn't think it was ethical to ask students to install spyware on their computer simply to monitor whether they are taking a test without cheating.