the grade hed

In a new Q and A, Watters describes the three main aspects of education technology that warrant coverage, raises troubling questions about trade publications funded in part by companies they cover, and praises a handful of journalists she admires.

By Alexander Russo
People in education have strong feelings about education technology writer Audrey Watters. I am one of them.

If you’re not sure about the name, Watters is a prolific writer on education technology issues (and tech more generally) who describes herself as both a troublemaker and an ed-tech Cassandra. She is also a 2017-18 Spencer Education Fellowship recipient at Columbia — perhaps the first Spencer Fellow who’s not some form of traditional journalist.

audrey watters

Audrey Watters via Twitter.

As you’ll see, I share many of Watters’ concerns about how education is described in the mainstream media, both general interest publications and trade outlets. Education journalism needs more transparency and depth around complicated issues, less chasing a story that someone tells us we need to be chasing. Watters’ concerns about journalists seeming to respond credulously to new ideas is warranted, whether they’re technology-related or otherwise. In addition, I appreciate Watters’ biting sense of humor, such as her description of a recent effort to connect education policy to Taylor Swift lyrics as “the most godawful white lady thing I’ve seen this week.” In a world of education folks many of whom come off as super-serious smartypants, Watters is wonderfully human in her writing (and presumably in person).

For all those admirable and welcome aspects Watters brings, I am uncomfortable with her single-minded focus on education technology and its potential dangers and downsides. For me, they are an important but relatively small part of a larger set of challenges. But from what I’ve read of her work over the past few years, a larger context is not always very clearly presented. Watters spends an enormous amount of attention helping us get under the hood of what’s going on in education technology, dismantling an edtech narrative that is frequently problematic and superficial, but has tunnel vision when it comes to the broader set of challenges education faces and the hidden dynamics that keep things the way they are.

On to the Q and A. Watters and I had the chance to chat via email about education journalism earlier this month. As you’ll see, she provided thoughtful responses to several questions about how the media covers education technology — but ducked one key question despite repeated attempts to get a response.

Here are her answers to my questions, edited lightly for clarity and length:

How do you identify yourself — as a journalist, researcher, critic, or something else — and how are you commonly identified by reporters you talk to?

Audrey Watters: I describe myself as a writer. I figure if someone is trying to diss me or diminish my work, they label me “blogger.”

When you’re not in the middle of a cushy Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship year, how do you pay the bills?

AW: Hack Education is my full-time gig. It’s supported through readers’ donations (via PayPal and Patreon). I do some freelancing, but I mostly pay the bills through speaking.

What’s your vision for the role, limited or otherwise, that education technology play in helping improve the current school system?

AW: I don’t know that I have a vision for education technology per se, as much as one for education, which as a system we should make much more humane and just. I am largely unconvinced that education technology is the key to either of those things. Indeed, what we have often seen throughout the long history education technology is mechanization, standardization, and commercialization, and importantly, the exacerbation of inequalities.

What’s the role education reporters generally play in keeping readers, parents, and policymakers informed about education technology?

AW: There are many different approaches to covering education technology, depending on the reporter and the publication (and, of course, the angle and topic of the story). There are times when the focus is the business of education technology: what companies have raised venture capital, for example, or released new products. There are those stories that deal with the politics of education technology: what are the policies that encourage education technology, for instance, how are they formed, and how does something like industry lobbying shape laws and regulations. There are those stories that examine the technology itself — what does it do, what data is collected, what are the promises, and so on. There are the stories about how education technology is used in specific classrooms — these can be stories about pedagogy or stories about products or stories about technology and what’s often the promise of cultural or institutional change. There are, of course, plenty of stories on education research — what do we know about how ed-tech “works” (or doesn’t).

“Very little of that [potential conflicts of interest] is apparent, no doubt, to the typical reader. And we wonder why folks don’t trust journalists.”

What are the problems with how education technology is described in the media?

AW: Unfortunately, there are too many stories that seem to forget that technology companies are some of the most powerful corporations in the world. Neither Google nor Apple nor Microsoft nor Amazon (and on and on and on) needs the media to evangelize its education products. And there are too many stories that just assume technology is always good and necessary and that the future of education is inextricably bound to its adoption. Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but most ed-tech isn’t even sufficiently advanced and some reporters are bewitched nonetheless.

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You’ve singled out trade publications as particularly problematic when it comes to tech journalism. Generally or in particular, is the same true for education trade publications and edtech coverage?

AW: Tech journalism, particularly in certain (online) trade publications, has many flaws. (These flaws are not only found in tech journalism or in trade magazines, to be fair.) It’s often “access” journalism, for starters — that is, messages are carefully controlled by technology companies, and if you want to continue to receive press briefings, you need to stay on message. It’s often “churnalism” — that is, it involves a lot of rewriting of press releases (or of other people’s articles). It’s rarely investigative. Often, the people writing these stories — and this is particularly true for many online publications — are paid very little and expected to turn out a lot of content but have very little experience in the subject matter or even in journalism. Because of these expectations, writers don’t have time to contact sources, for example, that can support or refute a particular piece of product marketing or research. (It’s quite common to see these writers make the move into marketing, startups, or investing — far more lucrative than journalism, no doubt.) When these trade publications are venture-backed — and because of the proximity to the tech sector, many are — there are all sorts of conflicts of interest. Disclosures aren’t consistently made, say, when a publication and the subject of a story share investors. And as publications look for new revenue streams — running conferences, selling job ads, selling consulting services, and so on — there are a ton of potential conflicts of interest and ethical problems when it comes to financial relationships with the companies and organizations that are covered.

Very little of that is apparent, no doubt, to the typical reader. And we wonder why folks don’t trust journalists.

“There are too many stories that just assume technology is always good and necessary and that the future of education is inextricably bound to its adoption.”

Who are some of the most insightful reporters/outlets when it comes to education technology coverage?

AW: The New York Times’ Natasha Singer is a terrific reporter, and she’s been one of the most tenacious when it comes to investigating questions of ethics, data, and privacy. At the K-12 level, Education Week’s Ben Herold does an excellent job including lots of voices and lots of considerations in his stories: he addresses business questions as well as pedagogical questions, for example. And at the higher education level, I’m a fan of Steve Kolowich’s writing and his storytelling (which isn’t always about technology, granted, but I always read what he’s written). Although they don’t cover education technology per se, I think both The Atlantic’s Ian Bogost and Alexis Madrigal are good at puncturing the PR narratives that Silicon Valley tries to spin.

[For a very different perspective on Singer’s work, see Richard Colvin’s recent column, Problems with the New York Times’ Google takeover story]

What are some of the most powerful/effective edtech stories that come to mind?

AW: Last year’s series from the Teachers Project on online credit recovery programs was stellar — exemplary because it so thoroughly dealt with the range of issues that education technology should always prompt us to consider: who benefits? who’s hurt? why are these policies (and in this case, these online software programs) adopted? what are the experiences like for students? what kinds of students have these experiences?

It’s that last question that I think is absolutely crucial to consider because, as sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued, there’s a tendency among those building education technology companies to imagine students as “roaming autodidacts” — idealized students who love learning, who constantly seek it outside of formal institutions, and who breeze through any and all online courses. Unexamined in this fantasy — that these imagined students seem to all be white, Western, male, affluent, and have access to the latest electronic devices and reliable Broadband.

The PR that comes out of education technology companies — particularly Silicon Valley startups — is full of glowing promises about these “roaming autodidacts” and about disruption and revolution and transformation. There’s no need to uncritically repeat these stories. Indeed, that should not be the job of the journalist.

What are some of the most vividly problematic stories/storylines?

AW: I think I’m going to hold off on saying more as some of this is part of the research and reporting I’m doing as part of my Spencer Fellowship — connecting the dots between venture capitalists and the stories that get told about the future of education.

You can find Watters’ work at Hack Education. There’s a weekly roundup of education news every Friday, known as HEWN. See the archive and sign up here.  

Related posts from The Grade:

AltSchool, Media Hype, & the Dilemma of Innovation Stories
Problems with the New York Times’ Google takeover story
Reflections: Journalism’s Role In The Current “Grit” Hype/ Criticism Cycle
Dear New York Times: Please don’t hype the high school admissions process again

Disclosures: The Grade has been supported by a number of different funders over the past three years, including the Gates Foundation, Walton, Bloomberg, and the AFT. I was a recipient of the Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship.