Is Education Fundamentally A Technology Problem? (#education, #tech, @NewYorker, @AltSchool)

Is Education Fundamentally A Technology Problem? (#education, #tech, @NewYorker, @AltSchool)

What happens when the computer engineering bubble hits the Silicon Valley finance bubble in a collision directly overhead of the philosophy of education?


In “Learn Different“, the New Yorker surveys a for-profit, tech-inspired elementary education startup. Some key takeaways of the company’s approach to education, according to the reportage:

  • No professional school admin; school is run by teachers
  • “Micro-school” with small total enrollment
  • Mixed classrooms; pre-K through 3rd grade in combined learning environment
  • “Franchise” model; locations in major cities throughout the US
  • “Highly tailored” education that uses technology to track student progress
  • “Playlist” driven lesson plan; students work through pre-assigned steps on tasks of interest
  • Surveillance; students are recorded with video and audio for later playback and analysis by teachers
  • Big data; used to analyze student progress and adapt lesson plan to strengths and weaknesses
  • Private tuition, approx. $30,000/yr

According to the editor’s tag on the article, AltSchool is an example of “Silicon Valley disrupts education.” In the disruption literature there is the idea of disruptive and sustaining technologies– disruptive technologies create a paradigm-shift in the strategic world upon which the industry in question competes, while sustaining technologies simply allow for more efficient continuation of the existing competitive dynamic. Better horse breeding practices are an example of sustaining technology in the era of the horse and buggy, while the internal combustion automobile is an example of a disruptive technology in personal transportation.

If AltSchool is disruptive technology, then the questions are:

  1. What is the primary strategic principle for mainstream education?
  2. How does AltSchool represent a paradigm-shift?

It’s perhaps difficult to say exactly what the principle of mainstream education is. There are many interest groups who vie for influence over the system so it is by no means a monolithic group. That being said, there is perhaps a cohesiveness of interests: provide jobs and economic resources for “educators” and administrators (including the politicians who are the ultimate stewards of the system) while creating a student body that will be cooperative with the political system around it and willfully integrate into the various economic relationships that sustain it. “Question everything” this is not.

The AltSchool gives meek lip service to the idea of an individual-oriented learning experience, but upon further investigation it seems that this is not about making the student the master of his education, but making the education a more subtle component of the student’s social indoctrination.

Ventilla [the founder of the company] also wanted students to focus on developing skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future, rather than forcing them to acquire knowledge deemed important by historical precedent. “Kids should be spending less time practicing calculating by hand today than fifty years ago, because today everyone walks around with a calculator,” Ventilla told me. “That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to do math—I shouldn’t have to whip out my phone to figure out if someone gave me the correct change. But you should shift the emphasis to what is relatively easier, or what is relatively more important.”

While there isn’t necessarily anything blame-worthy in being mindful of conditions in the workplace which students might one day be interacting with, it also isn’t exactly revolutionary to incorporate job-worthiness into one’s educational philosophy. The “workplace of the future” is an extrapolation of the “workplace of the present” into future periods.

In San Jose, students’ scores on annual state tests were made available only after the end of the school year. At AltSchool, Seyfert could keep tabs on her students’ daily, if not hourly, progress. Every task card on a student’s playlist is tagged to denote not just academic skills, like math and literacy, but also social and emotional skills.

What is the value of all of these statistics? If you are teaching to a standard (ie, you have an end goal in mind of what your student should “look like” when their education is “complete”), then being able to measure progress toward that standard would be instrumental. The application of technology to this problem of measurement might introduce some efficiencies or even  capabilities that are impossible without it. But then, this wouldn’t be a disruptive innovation but rather a sustaining innovation.

If your methodology is centered around the development of the individuality of the student himself, then the best such statistics can provide is a description of strengths and weaknesses. There would be nothing actionable as there would be no specific goal. Suzie is good at math. Jerry is good at reading. But what of it? And even then, these descriptions would only be valuable to compare Suzie and Jerry to others, but what value are such comparisons to the individual being compared? He cares not for it.

Like other AltSchool teachers, Seyfert was drawn to the startup because of its ambition to make systemic change. Two or three times a week, she told me, she gives colleagues feedback about the school’s digital tools. The Learner Profile, Stream app, and other tools are only about a year old, and AltSchool’s personalization still requires considerable human intervention. Software is updated every day. Carolyn Wilson, AltSchool’s director of education, told me, “We encourage staff members to express their pain points, step up with their ideas, take a risk, fail forward, and fail fast, because we know we are going to iterate quickly. Other schools tend to move in geologic time.” (Ventilla may question the utility of foreign-language acquisition, but fluency in the jargon of Silicon Valley—English 2.0—is required at AltSchool.)

The obsession of the school seems to be in building excellent quantitative measurement tools. These pieces of software can be updated and tested rapidly. But the educational principles themselves produce effects which are long in both maturation and duration. We can’t be sure of their results until many years have passed, if even then, and they’re most easily tested through logical inquiry, not mathematical interpretation. As human nature and cognitive capability are not improving any faster than iteratively through “geologic time”, it’s unclear what value these rapid upgrades to the software provide to the improvement of the philosophic principles of education that have supposedly been disrupted by AltSchool.

There was some humorous contrary evidence:

The previous day, Otto said, a guest teacher had come in to lead several students in a 3-D-modelling project, using a Web site called Tinkercad. “We built little models online—some people built phone cases, or little towers, or yo-yos,” Otto said. “I built a toilet, because I thought it would be fun. It has lots of different components—you have the base, you have the seat, you have the back.” He clicked to the site and pulled up his model. “I was looking around at pictures of toilets online,” he said. “I think I want to make it a bit more shaped for your back. I also want really sanitary toilets. And I want to make it really comfy. I’m quite bony, and I’m small, and if they don’t have a cushion they hurt.” Eventually, Otto said, he planned to 3-D print his prototype: a model toilet, fashioned to his personal specifications and preferences.

I really enjoyed this comment and I am glad the journalist captured it. First, it suggests that maybe the AltSchool is creating some spaces for the individual student to explore their interests, deeply. Second, Otto comes from a financially successful family whose parents are accomplished corporate types. It seems that, given the freedom to pursue his own interests, he can think of nothing better than building a comfortable toilet. That must give mainstream educators (and maybe even his ambitious parents) the chills!

If you can pull your own preferences out of your head for a moment and just look at this boy’s effort from his own perspective, though, isn’t it glorious?

The point of the hackathon was to sketch out in code potential solutions to “robot tasks”—routine aspects of a teacher’s job that don’t require teaching skills. Kimberly Johnson, the head of product success and training, addressed the team. “Basically, what we have told teachers is we have hired you for your creative teacher brains, and anytime you are doing something that doesn’t require your creative teacher brain that a computer could be doing as well as or better than you, then a computer should do it,” Johnson said.

Since the previous hackathon, three months earlier, teachers at AltSchool had filed more than a hundred digital “tickets” to Johnson, indicating how AltSchool software might be improved. Some teachers had asked for a more streamlined way to input data. Johnson acknowledged, “It is a lot of work to go into each card and click the learning objective and click the score and click ‘save.’ It’s just four or five clicks, but it adds up.” The teachers also wanted to enter assessment scores to groups of kids at once. “If you say, I want to give all of these kids threes, and all of these kids fours, there must be an easy way to do that,” Johnson said. “I don’t know what it would look like, but you could probably hack something together.”

Again, the emphasis on data technology over teaching philosophy. Now, it sounds like the school is trying to free up the teachers to focus on teaching by improving their technology interface. But the question begged is, “What makes the technology interface so central to their teaching philosophy?” This comes back to the question of disruptive versus sustaining technology. How is the student served by all the assessments? Life is its own assessment.

But AltSchool’s philosophy of education is also essentially utilitarian, even as it celebrates the individuality, autonomy, and creativity of its students. It holds that children should be prepared for the workplace of the future—and that the workplace of the future will demand individuality, creativity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

We turn now to that great social philosopher, Ludwig von Mises, who said of genius and the creation thereof in his “Human Action“:

The genius does not deliver to order. Men cannot improve the natural and social conditions which bring about the creator and his creation. It is impossible to rear geniuses by eugenics, to train them by schooling, or to organize their activities. But, of course, one can organize society in such a way that no room is left for pioneers and their path-breaking.

Now here are two very different philosophies. At AltSchool, “individuality” and creativity are being taught as part of the lesson plan and the methodology of the school in service of the demands of a future workplace so envisioned. For Mises, the creative individual is something natural, inexplicable and uncontrollable and he is in service to himself first and foremost.

I think it is Mises’s ideas that are disruptive here.

AltSchool’s perspective does not necessarily require abandoning texts that have long been considered central to a humanist education, but it does mean approaching them anew. One middle-school class undertook a lengthy study of the Iliad by focussing on the theme of “rage” and designing a spreadsheet that logged instances of it. They then used data-visualization techniques to show their findings, and wrote persuasive essays based on their results. Afterward, their teacher, James Earle, wrote, “Analyzing a piece of literature this way turns the work into a piece of robust data that can be understood quantitatively, in addition to allowing a qualitative reading.”

But what is the value of this new understanding? What does it add that is new and different? Yes you can do this, but what thinking informs the should?

Mediratta [vice-president of product] envisaged a time when AltSchool technology would get “into the sci-fi realm.” What insights might be drawn from aggregated data culled from video and audio? He spoke of the video moments that teachers were bookmarking. “The next useful thing would be for us to analyze all the things that are bookmarked, and to draw inferences,” Mediratta said. “Like, bookmarks seem to happen when the classroom is noisy. So let’s generate a few other interesting moments that the teacher might want to look at—say, a moment when the classroom was full of kids but was dead quiet. What was happening there? Is this good? Is this bad? Or you could look at a moment when it was absolutely chaotic—but maybe that is what the activity called for. So we can start applying machine learning to this data to start driving inferences. Maybe what we should be doing is detecting when the classroom gets noisy, and then we could have the head of the school, who is also an educator, stop by your classroom and participate and help.”

The meta-philosophy of modern education is control, the schooling agenda is a by-product of the aim to control others. The desire to control the schooling environment seems to be what is behind the focus on applying technology to surveil and measure the students and their activities.

AltSchool is not disrupting anything as far as I can see. From my understanding of what education is and what education isn’t, I don’t see a place like AltSchool meeting my needs, but that does not mean it won’t be successful in terms of the paradigm of mainstream education, within which I believe it is situated.

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