Edtech coverage, the hype cycle, and media complicity

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Another insider’s concerns about the media hype cycle – and some great edtech story leads for 2018.

By Alexander Russo

Policymakers, administrators, and educators have been experimenting with technology for roughly 30 years, going back to the days of computer-assisted instruction, connecting schools to “the information superhighway,” and One Laptop Per Child. By necessity, education journalists have been along for the ride. (Twenty years ago this past summer, the magazine then known as The Atlantic Monthly published The Computer Delusion, warning the American public about the dangers of bringing computers into schools and expecting much academic improvement.)

But the past few years have been especially confusing and contentious when it comes to technology and schools, in response to the backlash against the school reform movement, growing concerns about the dominance of the “big five” tech companies (Apple, Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft*), and edtech advocates’ tireless efforts to fix education with apps and gizmos.

As a result, there’s not much middle ground these days when it comes to discussion about education technology. Folks either like education technology a lot or they think that it’s ruining education (and coming to take teachers’ jobs). This makes it all the more important to have smart coverage of what us wonks like to refer to as “edtech.”

Alas, the experts I’ve talked to in recent months are in desperate want of more nuance and pragmatism out of mainstream coverage.

altschool nyt

NYT 2015: The Bold Idea Behind a Small Brooklyn School

Earlier this winter, longtime writer Audrey Watters lamented the current state of edtech journalism, describing repeated instances in which news accounts “assume technology is always good and necessary and that the future of education is inextricably bound to its adoption.”

This week, EdTech Strategies founder and president Doug Levin weighs in with observations based on nearly three decades in and around education technology:

“My wish is just for a more balanced consideration of pros and cons, costs and benefits, and an attempt to get at basic questions like where does the money come from, what did they spend it on, and what happened?”

In the Q and A below, which has been edited for clarity and length, Levin addresses common challenges for reporters covering edtech – several of which are chronic issues for education journalism in general – makes the case for more of a focus on the everyday experiences of schools and technology, and comments on the big edtech stories of 2017 and 2018. He shares his thoughts on the reporting produced by journalists like the New York Times’ Natasha Singer, EdWeek’s Ben Herold, and Spencer Education Journalism fellow Watters, and he describes an edtech hype cycle in which low-quality stories percolate up to more reputable outlets.

Whether the topic being covered is edtech or school integration, this kind of hype cycle does parents, educators, and policymakers little good — and undercuts trust and credibility in the news outlets that contribute to it.

What’s the current state of edtech journalism?

Doug Levin: There are two main clusters of stories I see. The first cluster, most often written by the edtech trade publications, are those that provide forward-looking, largely positive takes on the industry and its plans. The second cluster are the stories generated by mainstream outlets (including mainstream trade publications like EdWeek and District Administrator, but also regional and national newspapers and magazines), which are hit or miss based on the experience of the reporter.

A lot of what gets put out is done on tight timelines, by folks who don’t always have the most experience or the time to follow up on the details. Stories get repeated, it’s often clear that they are pitched stories focused on a single product. Occasionally you get some sort of deeply researched, investigative piece, showing up in a major mainstream media outlet. There is a pretty consistent gap between the promise of edtech and the potential, yet journalists’ collective memory and knowledge of this longer, broader context is pretty weak.

What edtech issues got covered most last year, and were they useful and important issues?

DL: Within K-12, lots of edtech writing last year focused on the next big thing du jour (artificial intelligence, robots, machine learning, ‘personalized’ learning, big data, Gates/Chan Zuckerberg Initiative/Emerson Collective investments, etc.) and also the transition from Obama to Trump and ESSA implementation. At the federal level, edtech folks focus on ESSA Title IVA and E-rate. This is pretty pedestrian stuff and, while sometimes useful, not that noteworthy in my opinion.

nyt singer

One of Natasha Singer’s high-impact edtech stories for the New York Times. For another view on Singer’s journalism, read Problems with the NYT’s “Google takeover” story.

What were the really big edtech stories of 2017, then?

In terms of the real, big stories of the year in edtech, I tend to think about pieces that introduced new ideas or shed new light on existing practices. In Education Week, Ben Herold’s The Case(s) Against Personalized Learning has resulted in several public rebuttals, re-framings, and new explications – and will likely remain a touchstone piece in the field for some time. The New York Times series by Natasha Singer, Education Disrupted, includes two standout pieces: How Google Took Over the Classroom and Silicon Valley Courts Brand-Name Teachers, Raising Ethics Issues. They both struck a nerve because they directly raised questions about real changes underway due to continued edtech adoption.

There were two other stories that were big last year year in K-12 edtech: the ongoing fight between Electronic Classrooms of Tomorrow (ECOT) and the state of Ohio over how the virtual charter counted student attendance (and hence was entitled to state funding). The second story that was new in 2017 had to do with cybersecurity vulnerabilities in K-12 schools, brought about by the increasing reliance on tech. Probably the most prominent, best researched story of 2017 on this was NBC Nightly News’ Criminals make student data public in escalating demands for ransom.

NBC News: Criminals make student data public in escalating demands for ransom

But a lot of great original reporting was done by local papers in communities who experienced cybersecurity issues, especially The Flathead Beacon (Montana), primarily by a reporter named Dillon Tabish. For example, In Columbia Falls, A Shaken School District Moves Forward from Cyber Threats.

For more on this topic, read Best education journalism of 2017.

2015 npr altschool coverage

AltSchool Promises To Reimagine Education For the 2030s (NPR 2015)

What is the “hype cycle” and why are you concerned that journalists covering education technology may be complicit in it?

DL: One example that comes to mind is about converage of AltSchool. At first, they were really a darling in the media. Outlet after outlet touted the impact their work would have on the future of public education and the high-profile nature of their investors. Then, after disappointing results, they announced a big pivot in their model – and only then did the more nuanced coverage begin. This is an example of the hype cycle, which starts with future-oriented coverage about a dramatically improved future. That’s not to say that some of the articles didn’t hedge their bets. But they were overwhelmingly positive. There was very little critique or talk of tradeoffs in the design and decisions or in their scaling-up strategy. That coverage gave AltSchool an air of credibility and inevitability. That makes the coverage somewhat complicit in the hype. That’s a common pattern in edtech journalism.

For more on this topic, read AltSchool, media hype, & the dilemma of innovation stories, Getting The AltSchool Story Right, and In Praise Of The New Yorker’s AltSchool Story.

Is this tendency towards hyperbole a part of education journalism in general, or is it specific to edtech coverage?

DL: It feels to me that there’s a more balanced conversation about other education reform thrusts — more of a maturity in our acceptance of the tradeoffs and the claims of other ed reform approaches, such as choice or accountability. In edtech we seem to be in a permanent state of suspended disbelief. But the ongoing coverage of Summit Learning Program may be a good counter example. Coverage of Summit has seemed a bit more nuanced. There has been some quite positive coverage, some of which I suspect was sponsored – I don’t know for sure. But there’s no question that the coverage has been balanced; questions have been raised about Summit that have not been raised about other tech models.

“There is a pretty consistent gap between the promise of edtech and the potential, yet journalists’ collective memory and knowledge of this longer, broader context is pretty weak.”

Who are the most important and influential edtech writers out there, and why so?

DL: Two come to mind. The first, Natasha Singer, has brought a business angle to edtech coverage. In focusing on Silicon Valley’s influence, she is shedding light on issues often overlooked by mainstream education writers covering edtech, like business models, lobbying priorities, and conflicts of interest. The prominence the New York Times has given her extensive coverage is really quite remarkable. Audrey Watters – the other writer I have in mind – has been among the strongest and most consistent edtech voices for the past decade, challenging the stories that advocates tell about the future of education and edtech. Even with all my years working in edtech, I still routinely learn things in reading her work. I value her independence and the well-researched context for her work – even if I don’t always agree with her takes or share all her views. I get that some feel her style can (sometimes) feel confrontational, but edtech as a field needs to embrace and respond to constructive critiques if it is ever to fulfill its promise.

For more on this topic, read Edtech writer Audrey Watters shares thoughts on education journalism

computer delusion inside art 1997

The cover story from the July 1997 edition of the Atlantic Monthly.

 Is it harder to cover edtech well now than it was in the past?

DL: I’ve been reading edtech coverage since the early 1990s. There may have been more coverage then, but I don’t recall if it was better coverage. What was better years ago was that the field had better information on edtech trends and practices. The United States Department of Education [USDE] put out annual reports on the state of edtech in schools. Quality Education Data (QED) and the Software Publishers Association also used to put out regular market research reports on the state of edtech. Those have stopped. The USDE itself has not published a comprehensive descriptive study on K-12 edtech since the 2008 school year, and the only market research reports available now are proprietary and prohibitively expensive for the general public to access. The current lack of a high-quality, public descriptive accounting of the state of edtech in public schools is hurting our understanding of what progress we may have made and need to make.

What are the big edtech stories for 2018 going to be?

 DL: Cybersecurity issues are likely to be big. Outside education, stories about high-profile data breaches and privacy concerns are becoming increasingly common. There’s no reason to think education is going to be immune to these trends, and there is plenty of emerging evidence of school-related incidents (including ransomware and cyber attacks). Given the high-profile nature of its backers, Summit’s personalized learning ambitions will continue to be a story, especially now that two districts have pushed back. Having said that, edtech goes in cycles and I’m starting to feel like the personalized learning cycle is waning and that advocates need a new new thing to talk about. I’m starting to see stories about the application of blockchain and bitcoin in education. It’s a new technology, gaining a lot of mainstream attention and investor money, even though practical applications in education remain few. Nonetheless, I expect to see more than a few breathless stories about it.

dillon tabish

From the Flathead (Montana) Beacon: In Columbia Falls, A Shaken School District Moves Forward from Cyber Threats.

What advice would you give education reporters who are asked to cover edtech?

DL: What I would love to see is better investigation into claims about the future, the tradeoffs and unintended consequences involved, and the research base. It’s been 30 years since edtech as we commonly think of it really took off. We should have a better knowledge base about what works by now and should be highlighting efforts to conduct high-quality research And, finally, I’d also love to see more reporters partnering with technologists to evaluate how edtech products actually work in schools and classrooms. How is personalization accomplished? How valid are privacy concerns? What is the impact on students? We need to vet claims about technology and that will require education reporters to test drive it.

*Disclosures: The Gates Foundation is one of The Grade’s sponsors. Levin has not “discussed or referenced any work for which I have been (or are currently) funded.” During his previous work he has “at various times been supported by industry and foundations, including Gates, with a stake in these issues.”

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

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