HEWN, No. 330

"Mother, I would like to become a lawyer" -- a young Richard Nixon, inspired by the Teapot Dome Scandal

This week’s Columbidae is the mourning dove, once known as the Carolina turtledove, once believed to be the closest living relative of the extinct passenger pigeon. (It isn’t. That would be birds in the Patagioenas genus.) (Image credits)

It’s a short newsletter this week — my apologies.

I was going to write an essay about the comments Apple exec Phil Schiller made about Chromebooks — they’re only good for testing, he argued. But Bill Fitzgerald has written something up in response, and he tackles a lot of the points I’d make. One thing I do think is noteworthy here is that Apple doesn’t claim that its products are better because they protect student privacy. That would be an easy and obvious argument: Google mines your kids’ data, and schools should be wary about going in on cheap devices and free software that is based on this sort of algorithmic expropriation. The privacy argument is something that Apple makes elsewhere — and so it’s interesting that that isn’t the case here. Does Apple not believe that privacy matters in education?

Elsewhere in edu:

And because this is too great a headline to not share, there’s this gem by Charles P. Pierce: “Professional Ratf*cker Roger Stone Has F*cked His Last Rat.” (It made me happy this week to get to tell a couple of millennials about the history of ratfucking. Textbooks leave out some of the most important details, don’t they?)

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 329

Dance like no one is watching. Except they are watching. And adjusting your credit score accordingly...

This week’s Columbidae is the socorro dove, a bird that is extinct in the wild. As the Wikipedia entry laments, the socorro “show little fear of humans or, fatally, cats.” Once endemic to Socorro Island off the coast of Mexico, there are now less than 100 of the birds in captivity. (Image credits)

I wanted to find a pigeon for this week’s HEWN that would sum up my thoughts on the news that ISTE is acquiring Edsurge. But I couldn’t find a good openly-licensed photo of the pied cuckoo dove. So instead I just went with a bird that was last seen in the wild in 1972 — the same decade in which ISTE was founded.

I’ve had a long history with ISTE, and indirectly at least, the organization was one of my first forays into ed-tech. I first started working in the sector in the spring of 1997, when I was hired by the University of Oregon’s Continuing Ed department to do data entry for a conference it helped run: NECC. It was a big year for the event. What had once been a mid-sized, national conference for computer-using educators, NECC suddenly found its registrations doubling (or more, even) in size — hence the need to hire temp workers like me. The conference was in Seattle that year, and the keynote speaker was Bill Gates (he was, at the time, still the CEO of Microsoft. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was formally launched a few years later, although the Gates family had several other library- and education-oriented foundations prior to that.) Everyone seemed to believe that finally! the ed-tech “revolution” had arrived.

I was eventually hired full-time by the UOCC in a job that helped me pay for much of graduate school, running registration for a variety of ed-tech events (NCCE, Tel-Ed). I had a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at what went into running a major conference — managing exhibitors and attendees and speakers and so on. And even though our department wasn’t responsible for the content of the conference — that was ISTE’s job — I still managed to glean some insights into what ed-tech’s biggest proponents (that is, its corporate sponsors and its teacher-celebrities) thought technology-oriented teaching and learning could and should be be.

After I dropped out of my PhD program, I worked for ISTE for about a year-and-a-half. (It had officially acquired the NECC conference back in 2001, rebranding the event with its own acronym.) ISTE was struggling at the time, I’d say, to find its place as a membership organization in a “Web 2.0” world — a world in which networking with like-minded professionals no longer required paying dues or even attending conferences. (Many organizations, many conferences are still struggling with this, no doubt.)

I quit ISTE in 2010 to focus on freelance writing about education technology. I founded Hack Education that spring. One year later, Edsurge launched. The two publications had utterly different approaches to the same phenomenon: that is, to the renewed interest in ed-tech by politicians, investors, entrepreneurs, ed-reformers. I’ve never taken grants or investment for my site, never run ads. And lately, I won’t lie, I’ve run out of steam. Edsurge, on the other hand, has raised over $8 million in venture capital. It’s received over $7 million in Gates Foundation grants. Terms of the sale to ISTE were not disclosed, but apparently, Edsurge’s investors will see nothing from the acquisition. In some ways, Edsurge had run out of steam too. Or at least, it had run out of money. It has clearly struggled to find a business model over the years — it’s tried making money from sponsored content, a product catalog, conferences, a “concierge” service helping schools decide what product to buy, a research service helping investors decide what startups to fund, and so on.

I have no idea how ISTE will make any of this sustainable. The non-profit did run $2 million in the black last year — $20 million in revenue (almost three-quarters of which was generated by the ISTE conference) and had about $18 million in expenses. But any surplus will be gobbled up by Edsurge’s impressive burn-rate — $15 million over eight years!! — unless, of course, there are some major changes (likely: major layoffs).

I’m not sure what ISTE gains by buying Edsurge, to be honest. Edsurge, for its part, gains a lifeline. Despite years and years of losing millions and millions, the publication won’t go away. Not yet at least. There’s more, some seem to believe, to squeeze out of the brand. Apparently the ed-tech industry — and ISTE is certainly part of that industry, despite being a non-profit — has determined that its storytelling function is too valuable to go away. Or perhaps it’s just cheaper for the industry to fund one marketing vehicle rather than two. And that’s an interesting determination, considering all the pronouncements that finally! the ed-tech “revolution” has arrived.

What do the members of ISTE gain by this deal? What do the employees of ISTE, many of whom have decades more experience in ed-tech than anyone associated with Edsurge, gain by this deal? What the hell does “editorial independence” look like now? Those are questions I hope folks demand that ISTE’s Board and CEO answer.


Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 328

"Semi-automated luxury parenting" and other Halloween tricks

This week’s Columbidae is the tooth-billed pigeon. Critically endangered and a relative of the extinct Dodo, the tooth-billed pigeon is the national bird of Samoa. It appears on the country’s 20 tālā bills, but I couldn’t actually find an openly-licensed photo of the bird. A pity, because it’s tooth-billed, you know? Instead, here is an illustration by 19th century ornithologist John Gould. (Image credits)

There were a number of stories this week about surveillance and children — a trend that I’m happy to see getting more coverage. I think this is going to be the topic of my next book too. I often think about something my friend Jessy Irwin wrote several years ago: that ed-tech is “grooming students for a lifetime of surveillance.” But let’s be clear: this grooming is happening at school, and it’s also happening at home.

I’m particularly interested in the move between the third article in that list -- the one that claims parents are struggling to keep up -- and the fourth and fifth ones. That is, many parents may balk at the apps schools use to monitor and control students, but then they are happily equipping their own homes with all sorts of Internet-connected tracking devices. “Semi-automated luxury parenting,” as Ben Williamson has called the latter.

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 327

The sad thing is, Mark Zuckerberg actually wants his hair to look like Augustus Caesar's...

This week’s Columbidae is the pink pigeon. The bird, which is native to Mauritius, very nearly went extinct in the early 1990s when there were only ten left. Conservation efforts have managed to save the pink pigeon, although it is still listed as “vulnerable.” (Image credits)

But these days, aren’t we all?

And aren’t we all a little more vulnerable, thanks to (ed-)tech? (Heckuva job, everyone.) See this piece by Lois Beckett in The Guardian: “Under digital surveillance: how American schools spy on millions of kids.” And now there’s proposed legislation to require schools monitor and track students this way, even though there is zero evidence that this software does anything to prevent school shootings. (Related: this story, which went viral thanks, in part, to the ubiquity of school surveillance. I know it’s supposed to be a feel-good story, but I don’t read it that way. Viral surveillance camera footage should always make you feel bad. And in this case, there are a million ways in which the interaction could have gone very wrong, in no small part because Coach Lowe is Black and we know that, far too often, cops roll up guns blazing.)

Elsewhere in student surveillance news: I never thought I would see opposition to ClassDojo be a specific piece of messaging in a Presidential campaign. But I am here for it.

Nevertheless, we still have folks out here insisting that we cheer for this stuff. “Tik Tok is the next big thing in schools!” The New York Times says. A few days later, The Wall Street Journal cautions that “Tik Tok is used to recruit people to extremist groups.” And a few days later: “Congress concerned teenagers’ favorite app is national security threat.” Security threats from tech prompt more surveillance which prompts more threats which prompt more surveillance which prompts more threats…

Thank goodness Very Smart, Blue-Checkmarked Men have their own plans for the future of education:

Ever notice how there are, like, zero consequences for grifters in education?

Speaking of which, remember how Sarah Lacy helped fuel Peter Thiel’s narrative that there was a higher ed bubble and it’d be cool to pay young people (young men, mostly) to drop out of college? Anyway, I guess she’s sold her tech publication Pando to a company called BuySellAds.

The moral arc of the software universe is not that long, and it bends towards adtech.

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 326

Facebook needs authoritarians as much as authoritarians need Facebook

This week’s Columbidae is the pink-headed fruit dove, also known as Temminck’s fruit pigeon — named after Coenraad Jacob Temminck, a Dutch zoologist. The pink-headed fruit dove does not, mind you, live in the Netherlands. (It can be found in parts of Indonesia.)

(Image credits)

I turned in the latest draft of my book this week, and I also traveled up to Vancouver, where the algorithms kept me up-to-date on Canadian politics rather than American ones -- a nice respite to be sure. That means I did not pay close attention to the news, although I did notice that a very dull boy wrote a very dull manifesto (that is, after spending a lot of time with some very bad people). Fortunately, it prompted some very smart folks to write some very good responses:

Elsewhere in education/technology:

Yours in struggle,

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