HEWN, No. 333

"Tut, tut, child!" said the Duchess. "Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it."

I hardly know where to begin. This newsletter’s already a day late — partially because of travel, partially because I have no idea how to address some of the things that have occurred in and around the ed-tech industry (and ed-tech punditry) this week.

So first, instead, this week’s Columbidae: the dodo. No complete specimen of this extinct pigeon exists, and what we know about its plumage and its behavior comes from the accounts of sailors — many with the Dutch East India Company — who wrote about the flightless, fearless (and apparently rather flavorless) bird. The first recorded mention of the dodo was in 1598; the last sighting was in 1662. But the bird was not recognized as extinct until the 1800s, in part because many scientists refused to believe the dodo had ever existed.

(Image credits: Edwards’s Dodo by Roelant Savery)

I decided to highlight the dodo this week because the bird underscores so many of the things I’ve been thinking about as I’ve read the various responses to news that the LMS company Instructure is getting acquired by a private equity company: The dodo is a symbol of obsolescence. It’s a symbol of stupidity. It’s a symbol of human destruction of the natural world (but without mention, I’d say, of the role that imperialism plays in that). It’s also a creature whose appearance and habits, in part due to a lack of scientific evidence, were often invented, imagined. Even the first-hand accounts of the dodo were found to be unreliable. The dodo was a real bird, but it was also a bird of fantasy.

(Image credits: John Tenniel’s 1865 illustration of Alice and the Dodo, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

There are many good threads on Twitter about the acquisition of Instructure for $2 billion by the private equity firm Thoma Bravo. See Ian Linkletter (here and here, for starters) and Matt Croslin (here), for example. There were also many bad ones — ones in which ed-tech advocates were patronizing if not insulting to those who questioned the sale and expressed concerns about the monetization student data. I was called, in not so many words, a whore for suggesting that the modus operandi of private equity in these sorts of cases is to lay off employees, restructure, and sell off parts of the company. (That follows being called, in not so many words, a liar for the talk I delivered last week in Berlin.)

Want to know why ed-tech is so exploitative? So dysfunctional? So damaging to the well-being of students and teachers and public institutions? Perhaps take a look at yourself, dear chroniclers of the dodo. Your dead bird won’t fly no more. It never actually did.

It is mind-boggling — MIND-BOGGLING — that folks want to argue that the value of a technology company has little to do with its accrual of data. The argument for the past decade has been “data is the new oil” — its extraction and analysis necessary for predictions and profit. Now data is the new nothing-burger, I guess.

Some great education/technology reporting this week: “Schools Spy on Kids to Prevent Shootings, But There's No Evidence It Works” by Todd Feathers. “Clear backpacks, monitored emails: life for US students under constant surveillance” by Lois Beckett. Also by Lois Beckett: “Why parents in a school district near the CIA are forcing tech companies to erase kids’ data.” Matt Barnum and Gabrielle LaMarr LeMee write about how GreatSchools’ ratings nudge families towards schools with fewer Black and Hispanic students. Good thing student data is so superfluous and school software is so scrupulous and the ed-tech industry is full of such men of honor and virtue. Otherwise we’d be pretty fucked.

Yours in struggle,