HEWN, No. 335

Ideas that aren't worth spreading

I’ve been thinking quite a bit this week about how bad ideas in ed-tech spread.

Obviously, a key way is via the media. Take this NYT story for example: “The Machines Are Learning, and So Are the Students.”

Ostensibly, it’s an article about how AI is “starting to take over repetitive tasks in classrooms, like grading, and is optimizing coursework and revolutionizing the preparation for college entrance exams.” And my god, it’s a glowing article at that — not a word of concern about algorithmic biases, heightened surveillance systems, or extractive business practices. Hell, there’s not even a consideration that computer-assisted instruction isn’t particularly effective — a pretty egregious omission considering much of the article focuses on Bakpax, the new startup of Jose Ferreira, the founder of Knewton. Yeah, the “mind-reading robo tutor in the sky” guy, whose history gets neatly laundered here. Knewton’s “financial difficulties” were not, we are told, because the technology simply didn’t work. (Indeed, the extent of those money troubles aren’t elucidated either: Knewton raised over $180 million in venture capital and was sold for just $17 million.) According to the article, the only hitch is “the system”: “The challenge for A.I.-aided learning, some people say, is not the technology, but bureaucratic barriers that protect the status quo.” “The gatekeepers.” The teachers. The schools themselves. These should be bypassed, the article concludes, and parents should let the Internet educate their children.

How utterly irresponsible. But there you go. And the bad ideas spread. (See also: “Schools are collecting new data in new ways about students with cutting-edge high-tech.” In this case, the article addresses some bad ideas that have already been spread around the Cambridge, Massachusetts area — spread through networks, I’d say: school networks, university networks, local business networks. Incidentally, I’m pretty fascinated how Montessori chains has become ground-zero for some of this new social-emotional-surveillance tech. Editors: I’ll be pitching you a story on this bad idea next year.)

Better things to read:

This week’s Columbidae is the Jambu fruit dove. The bird is found in Malaysia and Indonesia, but like many of the pigeons I highlight here, its habitat is shrinking due to deforestation, and it is listed as “near threatened.” (Image credits)

Yours in struggle,