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,