The week of August 17, 2014

Why the edtech bubble could burst

By Allen Weiner

There’s a high-stakes arms race going on, and the target is the hearts and minds of our nation’s students and teachers. It’s being funded by millions of our tax dollars and presented under the guise of using technology to create a new generation of better-educated students.

In a few short years, this arms race has already seen more than its share of collateral damage in the form of broken devices, hacked students records, and warehouses filled with iPads and other instruments of tech-enabled learning that are gathering dust, while issues of security and teacher training are deliberated in true ready-fire-aim mode.

To understand how the edtech bubble began, you have to follow the money.

With uncertainty in such areas as smartphones, wearables, and consumer PCs, tech companies have sought to capitalize on the needs of the $31.3 billion worldwide education industry. They’re rushing to arm each K-12 student with a tablet or similar device—a concept known as 1:1 computing.

“The very tool designed to level the playing field is, in fact, un-leveling it.”

Looking to share some good news during an otherwise tepid Q3 earnings call last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook noted the company has sold a total of 13 million iPads to education customers around the world. Those sales, he added, represents 85 percent of the market for tablets in K-12 education in the U.S. Meanwhile, Google recently announced that Virginia’s Chesterfield County Public Schools became the largest deployment of Chromebooks, with each of its 32,475 middle and high school students receiving a Dell Chromebook to use.

Critics who have chronicled the missteps of 1:1 programs, however, argue the vision behind such programs is short-sighted and overlooks the challenges that go with doling out devices without proper planning. Looking beyond the technology required to build a successful device-in-the-classroom program, the social acumen it takes to link technology to the real world often gets overlooked in the race to the top.

Despite the glowing optimism from Apple, Google, Microsoft, and every other company that has its sights set on educational technology, the scrum of often conflicting stakeholders casts more than a shadow of doubt over the rate of adoption of devices in the classroom. The stakeholders—teachers, students, administrators, parents, IT directors, elected officials, and technology supplies—all have individual needs and agendas that often prevent plans from coming to fruition.

Under current market dynamics, the stakeholders with the least amount of power and influence are students and teachers who face a new digital divide and the threat of being left behind in a No Child Left Behind world.

The new digital divide

In 1995, the U.S. Department of Commerce issued a report defining what it saw as a growing discrepancy between those who had access to the Internet and those who did not. While the first digital divide persists, an offshoot has developed related to how students use devices such as tablets, PCs, Macs, and other related digital learning tools.

Professors Susan Neuman and Donna Celano believe that the effectiveness of putting technology in the hands of students is directly related to the tech skills they bring to table.

“The very tool designed to level the playing field is, in fact, un-leveling it,” they wrote in a 2012 book based on a study they conducted in Philadelphia. With the spread of educational technology, they predicted, “the not-so-small disparities in skills for children of affluence and children of poverty are about to get even larger.”

To understand how the edtech bubble began, you have to follow the money.

The disparity—an issue that must be addressed to build an equitable device-in-the-classroom strategy—has been labeled by sociologists as “The Matthew Effect,”a reference to a line in the gospel of Matthew (“for whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath”). The research from Neuman and Celano revealed that, when granted access to technology, kids from affluent areas select different programs and features, engage in different types of mental activity, and come away with different kinds of knowledge and experience from those selected by kids from poor areas.

This research is in line with a previous study done in 2003 as part of Texas’s Technology Immersion Pilot, which concluded that students who came to the program with higher test scores benefited more than those with lower scores.

As the K-12 education system tackles the planning, purchase, deployment, and evaluation of  1:1 learning, understanding and resolving the fact that not all students come to the tech table with equal skills will be a crucial part of creating successful edtech programs.

The skills gap for educators

A K-12 teacher in the U.S. is a professional juggler, keeping many balls afloat just to get through the school day. The idea of undergoing the training necessary to become even fundamentally adept at using technology in the classroom can be overwhelming and, in many cases, unrealistic. While generally uniform in their desire to educate, teachers’ tech skills vary from nonexistent to advanced graphic design and basic coding skills.

Marti Harris, an analyst covering education for research firm Gartner, Inc., says that teachers are often left wondering about the added value of implementing technology in the classroom.

“Finding real ways to use technology, such as tablets, in the classroom can only be meaningful if they allow teachers to do something that could not be done before,” Harris, a former educator, told The Kernel. (Disclosure: The author previously served as vice president of research at Gartner.)

Tech providers are consistent in hiding teachers’ skills gap, trumpeting a familiar narrative where easy-to-use devices make educators’ jobs easier and more efficient while providing students with a memorable educational experience. Just look at the sector of Apple’s website devoted to education: There’s Charleston, S.C., kindergarten teacher Kristi Meeuwse, who used iBooks Author to create textbooks for her students. Burlington High School, 30 minutes outside of Boston, used iPads along with iBooks Author to show how much better a tablet can be as it “makes text jump off the page.”

“Finding real ways to use technology in the classroom can only be meaningful if they allow teachers to do something that could not be done before.”

There is mounting evidence, however, that without proper teacher training and accommodation for already busy schedules and lack of funding for building tech skills, any effort to bring devices into the classroom will likely fizzle.

“In every case of failure I have observed, the one-to-one computing plan puts enormous focus on the device itself, the enhancement of the network, and training teachers to use the technology,” Alan November of November Learning, an educational support services firm, wrote in a 2013 editorial. “Adding a digital device to the classroom without a fundamental change in the culture of teaching and learning will not lead to significant improvement. Unless clear goals across the curriculum—such as the use of math to solve real problems—are articulated at the outset, one-to-one computing becomes ‘spray and pray.’”

From a training perspective, the skills required for teachers to create original content or even curate content from the Web or open education resources (material created by educators and freely shared) range from the use of basic self-publishing platforms (such as iBooks Author) all the way up to coding and multimedia design.

“Teachers are forced to burn the candle at both ends,” Andrew Vanden Heuvel, a former Wisconsin high school teacher, told The Kernel. “They have to do a lot of the learning on their own dollar and deal with day-to-day responsibilities and pressures from administrators to stay current.”

The Silicon Valley hype machine

When millions of dollars and market share at stake, technology providers are wont to leave anything to chance. Armies of heavily commissioned salespeople criss-cross the nation, meeting with school boards and administrators and extolling the virtues of their tablet or laptop or netbook over their competition.

Every Google, Apple, or Microsoft triumph—selling tens of thousands of tablets or Chromebooks to school districts—is put through the PR megaphone to build a sense of urgency among elected officials who dole out budget dollars and school administrators.

Here are a few recent announcements by way of example:

Virginia’s Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS),  one of the 100 largest school systems in the country,  announced that it will be switching to Chromebooks in  some of its schools. The rollout will begin in the  upcoming school year, with each of the 32,475 middle  and high school students getting a Dell Chromebook to  use.

The St. Paul Public Schools will give an iPad to  every student pre-K-12 as part of a six-year lease deal  with Apple. The initiative will cost the school  district $5.7 million in the first year when the iPads  are distributed this fall, and $8 million per year  going forward.

Samsung announced the availability of the new Galaxy  Tab 4 Education, its first tablet specifically designed  to support scalable 1:1 initiatives in K-12 schools.  The company hopes to have the new device in schools for  the 2014-2015 academic year and integrated with Google  Play for Education.

Selection of devices for 1:1 and other edtech initiatives goes beyond sex appeal, price, and which vendor offers the best terms and support. Each hardware choice comes with its own ecosystem, and in most cases, they are not interoperable—that is, an iPad and Google Chromebook do not easily work together (although Apple offers a Chrome app in the iTunes store).

To complicate matters a bit more, a teacher-designed original textbook created on iBooks Author will not easily work (in most cases) on a Windows or Android device. Worse still, Apple (iTunes U) and Google (Google Classroom) are aiming to take a bite out of the Learning Management System market—a system used for curriculum development, posting of grades, and maintaining student records—with their own proprietary solutions.

That harsh reality forces school districts to make a difficult decision, one with serious long-term ramifications: Google or Apple?

Tim Holt, a 25-year public school educator from Texas, is among those who favor the iPad and dismiss the argument that a PC is more flexible in an educational environment.

“What is wrong here is that when anyone compares Chromebook to iPads, they forget one of the basic value-adds of iPads that emerged after the iPad was released several years ago,” he wrote in a recent op-ed for EdSurge, an edtech industry blog. “That value-add? The iPad (and I suppose other tablets, as well) can change its interface to match the user’s needs. No Chromebook, no laptop, no desktop can do that. Just the tablet.”

Point, Apple.

Google Chromebook has a few key selling points, though, as noted by Colorado’s Roaring Fork District Re-1 schools in its announcement of Google’s hardware purchased for the coming school year: “Chromebooks provide the teaching and learning benefits of computers without the typical distractions that come with technology in the classroom, like quick boot and resume time—eliminating the time wasted while traditional computers start up and connect to a network, and a long battery life that lasts an entire school day.”

Counterpoint, Google.


What could go wrong? Pretty much everything

Not only are school districts forced to make difficult decisions about tech products, but that decision is often being made by individuals far removed from the classroom.

“The most underestimated impediment overall is the ego of policy makers or administrators who are overtaken by the bright-shiny idea of one-to-one and how cool the devices are,” Frank Catalano, a leading industry expert, told The Kernel. “They don’t bother (or want) to do the hard work of thinking through what happens after the boxes arrive. That is almost a guarantee of an expensive, ugly, and counterproductive education experience, a fail whale of Monstro proportions.”

What could go wrong, you ask? Here’s a partial list:

Students breaking through content-filtering software  to surf the Web

Students taking devices home without permission

Device screens cracking too easily or the power  supplies malfunctioning

Operating system upgrades that wipe out school  records

For proof, look no further than the Los Angeles Unified School District’s failed 2013 iPad program. While it failed to meet any of its stated goals, the project suffered from inadequate teacher training, confusion over whether students should be allowed to take the devices home, and the need to spend an additional $38 million on wireless keyboards to accommodate older students.

The backlash has been harsh.

Robert J. Moreau, who teaches computer animation in the Los Angeles school district, witnessed the failure first-hand.

“It’s outrageous, appalling, that we are buying these toys when we don’t have adequate personnel to clean, to supervise,” told the Los Angeles Times. “Classrooms are overcrowded, and my room has not been swept or mopped in years except by me and the students. … It would be great if the basics were met. I can’t get past that.”

The Los Angeles Unified School District’s fiasco had a ripple effect that forced other districts to reconsider their plans, most notably the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which had budgeted $63 million to a program that would have handed out 35,000 devices to students.

There is mounting evidence that without proper teacher training, any effort to bring devices into the classroom will likely fizzle.

“If we take away the old textbook, and replace it with digital curriculum, there’s a transition that has to take place, and it doesn’t happen just because you hand out a device,” Debbie Karcher, head of technology for Florida’s Miami-Dade County Public Schools, told the Miami Herald. “I think people and districts want to go from zero to 60 in five seconds.”

The bruise to Apple’s PR recently turned into a black eye when the Los Angeles Unified School District announced it was moving away from iPads to Windows and Chromebook devices. Attempting to minimize the outrage of its failure, the school district told AppleInsider it realized a one-size-fits-all approach did not make sense for a diverse educational environment.

“The benefit of the new approach is clear,” said Monica Ratliff, a school board member and chair of the panel that reviewed the educational technology initiative. “Why would we treat all our students—whether they are a first-grader or a high school freshman—as if they all had the same technology needs? They don’t. … To have a one-device-fits-all approach does not make sense.”

And then there’s the story of the school district in Greensboro, N.C., that had to withdraw the 15,000 Amplify tablets it purchased as part of a $30 million Race to the Top grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The school district says that it pulled the tablets after receiving more than 100 complaints of power supply issues, approximately 2,000 complaints about defective cases, and another 1,500 returned with broken screens.

Think updating your iPhone or iPad when Apple comes up with an OS upgrade is a contentious exercise? Imaging the dilemma facing school districts when an iOS 7 upgrade removed the content-filtering software many school districts are required to implement when receiving state or federal funds for 1:1 initiatives.

In October 2013, All Things D reported on a memo from the Manitou Springs School District in Colorado that told parents: “Apple did not realize that installing iOS 7 would remove our (and thousands of organizations across the country) safety protection measure.”

The oversight allowed the iPad devices to access the Internet outside of school completely unfiltered.

From 1:1 to one to the world

In my previous work as a technology analyst, my company was known for publishing a series of documents called “hype cycles.” After more than a decade of assembling them for the media and educational technology sectors, I have come to realize there is no perfect storm in technology. As seen in the implementation of tablets and other devices in the K-12 classroom, it’s impossible to plan the trajectory of any major trend. There are far too many individual factors that can prompt a domino effect.

There are more than a few takeaways from this look into the current state of the state of edtech devices in K-12 programs. Yes, planning is important, as is understanding all the implications and collaboration between educators, administrators, and their tech support. Perhaps most importantly, the needs of the stakeholders must be carefully considered and prioritized by whose needs are greatest.

Not only are school districts forced to make difficult decisions about tech products, but that decision is often being made by individuals far removed from the classroom.

Dr. Eric Williams, superintendent for the Loudoun County (VA) Public School system is quick to put students at the center of any 1:1 program. “Consider a One to the World initiative, he says on his blog, Promoting Student Engagement. “Rather than labelling connectivity initiatives as 1:1 or Bring-Your-Own-Technology initiatives, consider framing them as One to the World. By connecting students globally, a One to the World initiative would improve the quality and amplify the impact of the work of students as they master the content and competencies of the curriculum.”

Any way you look at it, students and teachers must be the center of any edtech activity. If teachers can’t teach and students are not equipped to learn, the best device running the best software is just white noise on a slick screen. For technology to be effective, it needs to be deployed in the right social envelope—the personal capital and knowledge that ties together bits and bytes.

As with any envelope, it’s not the packaging that counts. It’s the words in the message inside that matters.


Illustrations by J. Longo