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.