Is there a Silver Lining to the Education Robber Barons Riding the Regulatory and Compliance Waves?

The educational technology space continues to expand, with new companies and products emerging every week. I welcome calls from vendors as I have time, but mostly because I am interested in how they present their products and services. What is the problem that they are solving? What educational values do they embrace? What do they believe about education and how do these beliefs manifest themselves in the product or service? Every educational product addresses these questions as does every person who speaks about a given product.

Educational software is a means of communicating, amplifying, and muzzling beliefs and values. The back-end architecture, the administrative console, and the overall user-inference communities educational beliefs and values. Educational products and services contribute to the establishment of policies, assumed practices, and quite often speaks to what one thinks is truly important in education.

I recall attending an educational innovation event years ago where a representative from the US Department of Education was discussing the implications of something new at the time, the Common Core State Standards. The tone in this small but significant room of people, with recording devices off, was clearly focused upon the financial benefit of more states formally adopting the CCSS. The conversation involved a candid recognition that the adoption of the CCSS was good for business. If more states are aligned to the same standards, then education companies can design a single product that meets the needs of a larger population. In other words, it would allow one to scale faster, and that certainly captured the interest of investors as well.

The intersection of educational products and policy is especially apparent when we look at the litany of what I call compliance products and services. We help you align objectives, learning activities, and assessments so that you are ready for your next accreditation visit. We help you track key data points that you need to include on compliance reports. We help you align with mandatory standards. You get the idea.

As I look at these products, I divide them in at least two distinct categories. Some help schools, learning organizations, educators, or learners navigate the sometimes confusing but current landscape so that they can focus upon that which is more important, namely learning and growth. The vendor realizes that these compliance issues can easily siphon precious financial and other resources and time from organizations, and  are offering help at a reasonable price. Others are companies and products that exist to generate as much revenue as possible by riding the waves of the latest regulatory developments or compliance trends. They are not thinking much beyond that. They see an opportunity in the policy landscape and they use it to make some money. I don’t suggest that there is necessarily anything wrong with this second category, not if it helps learning organizations spend less time on compliance.

Yet, both of these categories have risks. The first risks hiding and sustaining the life of poor policies and unnecessarily restrictive compliance requirements. It is an effort to make the best of a less than ideal situation, but along the way, people become so comfortable working amid that context that it can perpetuate the problem. The other depends upon the current landscape. Both have a vested interest in maintaining the policy and compliance status quo. Changes in policy are not good for them unless these changes increase the compliance requirements.

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking of many such products, but I confess to be drawn to one particular assessment technology that essentially functions like a monopoly on the K-12 level in many states. The product perpetuates some practices that many consider positive, but it does so while ignoring many others. It is not hard to argue that it limits the scope of teaching innovations. One might argue that it contributes to a more narrow definition of quality teaching and learning. Along the way, it generates massive revenue for the company involved. I’m not ready to name the product, but many readers can likely guess. Is this a bad product? It has affordances and limitations. However, even with its affordances, I have serious concerns about what it does to the larger education ecosystem.

There is a positive side to this. Because of situations like what I described in the last paragraph, it drives innovation to the grassroots, on the edges, and even beyond the reach of regulations. As such, there is a very real possibility that such practices will, in the long run, contribute to the creation of new and better ways of approaching teaching and learning, ones that are less hindered by the current regulatory landscape and that do not depend upon a given vendor.

Recently, I read The Tyranny of Metrics and followed that up by interviewing the author, Dr. Jerry Muller. In the book and amid our conversation, Dr. Muller reminded me of Campbell’s Law, which Muller paraphrases as saying “anything that can be measured and rewarded will be gamed.” While I’m applying it beyond the intent of Muller’s use in the book, I contend that this law is hard at work in the modern education ecosystem. The “gaming” includes education robber barons and those who are just not thinking deeply about the implications of their product or service, enticed by the opportunity generated by the current rules. Robber baron is a strong phrase and I’m convinced that most companies do not fit that definition. Few are ruthless. They are just making the most of the legal and educational context in which they find themselves. At the same time, there is a different “gaming” at work, people who see green pastures beyond the boundaries of these rules. They are venturing into these less chartered areas and they are creating some compelling and inspiring alternatives to the educational status quo. This is the silver lining in this current context.

Why Are We Comfortable with This in Education?

Sometimes we are so close to problems that we fail to even recognize them as such. When others point out the problem to us, we might even accuse them of over reacting, being unrealistic, extreme, or “rocking the boat.” If we look into history, we can see incredibly troubling examples of this, even when entire people groups accept  immoral behaviors as normal. Of course, those exist in our communities and societies around the world today as well, what some have called moral blind spots.

I’m not quite ready to frame all the topics that I explore on this blog as moral issues, although I confess to thinking in such terms at times. Yet, there are common practices in much of education today that work very much like these moral blind spots. We grew up with the practices. Then, for those of us who entered the field of education, we adopted them. Students are acclimated to them. Parents are acclimated to them, even preferring them and demanding a return to them when people try something else. Even the larger society is comfortable with them.

While this is a topic that I’ve discussed before, it was highlighted for me recently when walking through a school hallway. I overheard a student talking about how much she liked a teacher because, when he lectured, he took the time to highlight what students needed to know for the test. “That makes it so much easier for me to focus upon what is important and not get distracted by all the other stuff,” I overheard the student.

In that moment, I experienced what felt like a combination of embarrassment and sadness. Is that really where we are in education today? We think school is mostly about getting ready for the test? The nuances, the wonder, the intriguing problems and questions, the provocative discussions, the struggle of trying to develop a new habit of thinking…these just fit into the category of “other stuff”, disregarded unless they are going to be tested? Is this really the education system that we want for students…for ourselves? Is this what we believe is going to best equip people for a rich, full, rewarding, meaningful life?

Fortunately, my brief eavesdropping is only one experience, yet this mindset is evident in policy-making, school design, teaching style, learning style, and more. I’m sure that I conform to it without evening recognizing it at times, and it is not okay.

Yet, there are wonderfully encouraging exceptions. I find hope in these exceptions. When you choose to be the exception, people might call you a dreamer, unrealistic, extreme, or even a troublemaker. Own it. Be the exception and stick with it long enough that a crowd of exceptions help create a new normal in our education ecosystem. Believing that education and schooling can and should be about things like wonder, curiosity, true personal growth and transformation, and deep learning is not the position of pie-in-the-sky dreamers. That is achievable and desirable, if only we regain 20-20 vision from the exceptions around us, and join in helping them to spread.

The Launch of an Academic Innovation Team on Augmented & Virtual Reality in the Higher Education Classroom

As some might recall, I choose three words to guide my work and thinking each year. For 2018, my three words are experiments, prototypes, and competitions. Related to the first two of these words, and amid my new role as Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, today I launched the first of what I hope to be a series of multi-disciplinary Academic Innovation Teams. Over the next six months this group will deepen our understanding of and experience with augmented and virtual reality. From there we will begin to create small tests, experiments, or prototypes that help us explore the benefits and limitations of these technologies.

It is a pretty simple structure. In the first session, we introduced ourselves, shared a bit about our roles at the University, and each explained what we hope to get out of the group. Then we established some shared goals and a bit of a timeline. As such, we will be spending the first two months familiarizing ourselves with more of the scholarly literature about AR and VR in higher education while also getting some hands on experience with current hardware and software, thanks to the leadership of two team members who are also faculty in our computer science department.

We had a good chat about how we want to deepen our knowledge together. As such, we agreed that our learning will take on the form of reviewing and discussing scholarly literature, getting hands on experience with the software and hardware, examining current and emerging applications beyond education (and considering potential educational applications), taking time to consider the important ethical and philosophical aspects of AR & VR, inviting in guest scholars/designers/practitioners who are already doing great work with AR & VR in higher education, and then quickly working toward learning by doing/designing/creating.

As we deepen our understanding in the first two months, this will also give individual team members a chance to clarify their goals and interests for the next phase, the part where we establish individual and/or shared design and development projects related to AR and/or VR in a higher education classroom context. Some of these will be more applied projects in a specific classroom or context, while others might be more formal research projects. Either way, it is my hope to see some good presentations and papers emerge from this group over the next year.

This should make for a rich, rewarding, and productive community. We have faculty from curriculum and instruction, business, computer science, physiology, anatomy, pharmacy, sociology, adult education, instructional technology, English/writing, and nursing. We also have staff on the team who represent student life, IT, and instructional design. Experience ranges from people who have never experienced virtual reality to others who have designed some pretty advanced educational applications. Together we will explore the possibilities, deepen our individual and shared understanding, and (most exciting to me) glean actionable teaching and learning insights through experiments and classroom/context prototypes across disciplines.

The idea of this team itself is an experiment, and I’m excited to co-learn and co-create with this wonderful group over the upcoming months! I’ll do my best to keep you posted of the progress and lessons learned along the way.

A Conversation With Jeff Young at EdSurge About Futures, Affordances, and Limitations in Higher Education #podcast

In early February, I was honored to give the Bob Heterick Memorial Lecture at the Educause Learning Initiative Annual Meeting. In this keynote, I presented on “Experiments, Entrepreneurs, and Innovations That are Shaping the Future of Higher Education. Afterward, I met up with Jeff Young, a senior editor at EdSurge, where we explored these topics a bit further. You can review Jeff’s summary of that conversation here or listen to the entire podcast below.