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?

AltSchool.

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.

Review – The Innovator’s Dilemma (#innovation)

The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business

by Clayton M. Christensen, published 1997

Technological innovation always means change, but which kind?

In the world of business technology, innovation can be thought of as coming in two distinct flavors:

  • sustaining, which are new technologies that improve a product or service in a way that is valuable to existing customers or markets
  • disruptive, which are new technologies that are uncompetitive along traditional performance metrics, which are unusable or undesirable to existing customers or markets but which nonetheless can eventually come to replace the traditional market over time

Throughout history, it is the best-in-class businesses which have the most difficult time with disruptive technologies to the point that disruptive technologies are usually the death knell for the leading businesses at the time. But this raises a question: if they’re such good businesses and they’re so well-managed, how come they can’t manage their way around disruptive technology in their industry?

The answer lies at the heart of what the author refers to as the “innovator’s dilemma”:

the logical, competent decisions of management that are critical to the success of their companies are also the reasons why they lose their positions of leadership

Why do good management teams and competent decision-making processes miss disruptive technologies? Disruptive technologies:

  1. are normally simpler and cheaper, promising lower margins, not greater profits
  2. typically are first commercialized in emerging or insignificant markets
  3. are usually unwanted and unusable to leading firms’ most profitable customers

But good management teams with excellent decision-making processes are fine-tuned to search out:

  1. higher margin opportunities at best, and opportunities with minimum margin requirements based upon their existing cost structure
  2. opportunities that market research and querying of leading customers show there is a present demand for
  3. markets and growth opportunities which can have a significant impact on their business relative to their current scale

In short, every successful firm has a unique “value network” DNA that allows them to be especially dominant within a certain set of competitive circumstances.

the value network — the context within which a firm identifies and responds to customers’ needs, solves problems, procures inputs, reacts to competitors, and strives for profit

But disruptive technologies present a paradigm shift of a market into a completely different “value network” that the firm has not been evolved to survive in which results in, similar to biology, an extinction event for firms with the wrong type of value network DNA.

Crafting a response to disruptive technology

But the reality of disruptive technology is not entirely depressing for successful firms, and they can develop successful strategies for coping with disruptive technologies if they first make themselves aware of the five principles of disruptive innovation:

  1. Companies depend on customers and investors for resources
  2. Small markets don’t solve the growth needs of large companies
  3. Markets that don’t exist can’t be analyzed
  4. An organizations capabilities define its disabilities
  5. Technology supply may not equal market demand

Each of these principles holds within it a potential misstep for successful firms within their traditional value networks trying to respond to a disruptive technology. Because firms depend on their customers (primarily their leading, most profitable customers) and investors for their resources, they are often incentivized to ignore the low margin disruptive technology because their customers initially don’t want it. And because disruptive technologies start in emerging or insignificant markets, successful firms often ignore them in favor of better growth opportunities. Meanwhile, firms that DO try to take disruptive technologies seriously often commit themselves to particular investment and marketing patterns based off of market research for a market that is dynamic and prone to sudden and rapid change. At the same time, that which makes a company excellent at doing A simultaneously makes the company horrible at doing B (where B is the opposite of A), and often disruptive technologies require B responses when successful firms are honed to operate at A. The final frustration for these successful firms occurs when they attempt to enter a disruptive market with a solution that technologically exceeds the needs of its current users, causing them to withdraw in defeat only to watch the market then take off anyway!

An ironic twist

As hinted at above, it is ironic that the very strengths of leading firms in adapting their business to sustaining technologies (improvements in performance in relevant metrics that their best customers demand) are the exact things that cause them to fail to respond to disruptive technologies in a profitable, dominant way. And to make a bad story worse, it is these strengths-as-weaknesses that allow entrants in disruptive technological markets to capture important first-mover advantages for themselves, constructing barriers to entry which are later often insurmountable for established firms.

To a dominant firm, disruptive technology looks like low-margin, small market business that neither their customers nor anyone else seems to be interested in. But for entrants in the disruptive market, with radically different cost structures than dominant firms and with organizational sizes and resources better matched to the opportunities presented, disruptive markets are a wild playground full of unchallenged opportunity.

And while the dominant firms look down at lower-margin, smaller market business and shake their heads dismissively, entrant firms look up above at higher-margin, huge market opportunity and lick their chops. Every business ultimately looks upstream for higher-margin opportunities than the ones they have at present.

Is it any wonder why dominant firms are continually defeated by surprise attacks from below?

How dominant firms can successfully respond to disruptive technology

The position of the dominant firm in the face of disruptive emerging technology is not hopeless. For every yin, there is a yang. By inverting the five principles of disruptive innovation outlined earlier, dominant firms can find five guidelines for successfully responding to disruptive technology:

  1. Give responsibility for disruptive technologies to organizations whose customers need them
  2. Match the size of the organization to the size of the market
  3. Discover new and emerging markets through a flexible commitment to “plans for learning” rather than plans for implementation
  4. Create organizational capabilities and strengths which are complementary to the unique demands of the disruptive market place
  5. Resist the temptation to approach the disruptive technology with the goal of turning it into something existing customers can use, rather than serving the customers unique to the market and searching out new markets entirely

Conclusion

This book was published 15 years ago. The subtitle is, “The revolutionary book that will change the way you do business.” I don’t know if 15 years is long enough in the business world for the ideas of a book like this to be fully adapted into the mainstream but I would guess it is not. I am no business expert but this material was completely uncharted territory for me.

Frankly, I never thought I’d enjoy reading something written by a Harvard business school professor as much as I did with this book. Whereas case studies, quirky charts and statistical evidence usually bore me to the point that I often skip over them, this book was something of a page-turner for me and I found myself eager to find out “what happens next” in each subsequent chapter.

As faddish as it has become as of late to hype the increasingly rapid change of markets and business practices in general, the reality is that most markets don’t change that quickly and most business practices are timeless themselves. But for those unlucky enough to find themselves, suddenly or otherwise, in a market or business that is changing due to disruptive technology, this book could be a lifesaver at a minimum and a handbook for profiting immensely from that change at best.

You can get the essential points of the book entirely from reading my review, or skim-reading the introduction and final chapters of the book (which present a comprehensive summary of the ideas outlined above). But the case studies are invaluable in driving the point home and there are numerous nuances to Christensen’s argument that are worth savoring and considering on their own. Because of this, I unequivocally recommend that every interested reader purchase their own copy and read it in full, and thereby grant themselves an invaluable competitive advantage in the market place, whichever value network they might happen to be competing within.

4/5