Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland

The Ed Tech Conundrum

Ed-tech has been on my mind ever since I read Audrey Watters’ “The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade

Her epic post was a part of what inspired my thoughts on ed-tech startups in my New Year’s thoughts blog post but those (admittedly off-the-cuff) thoughts were also inspired by working for a charity that’s at least ed-tech adjacent, if not in ed-tech properly.

Those thoughts, quoted for those who don’t follow links:

  • Charitable or social benefit startups are screwed up in a special kind of way. Most of them target a specific industry from the outset—hoping to fix it in some way, even though the reasons for systemic dysfunction tend to be, well… systemic and not something a startup or charity can fix.

  • Organisations of this kind—like Rebus, my employer—are effectively prevented from using the most powerful tool available to entrepreneurs: picking your market based on research; guided by what you know to be your organisation’s strengths and capabilities. We’ve already picked our market; we’ve already picked our tools; and building a sustainable business without the ability to revisit those choices is an enormous handicap.

  • That handicap increases our dependance on grants and outside financing, which in turn makes us—and every organisation like us—dependent on the whims, agendas, and politics of America’s wealthiest. And that class is never interested in addressing systemic issues: they always choosing to patch up the cracks with ‘innovative’ software or ‘disruptive’ business models.

  • Any sensible business that chose its focus based on what sustainable good they could do, would likely leave the education industry proper.

  • The education industry is kind of screwed no matter what happens. Their options for tech and software are: idealists burning money on ideas that will never be sustainable, greybeards raking in money for maintaining clunky, outdated, legacy tech, sociopaths looking to extract value from the system (stripmining) through ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’, or entrepreneurs seeking to ‘fix’ education by establishing monopoly dominance over some vital cornerstone that everybody relies on (because they know better than everybody else).

  • That the fastest path to sustainability for an education startup is often to stop being an education startup tells us something. Not sure what, but it’s definitely telling us something.

The issues I list above are just symptoms of a dysfunctional system and aren’t what actually ails it.

An important caveat here is that I consider most industries to be screwed up in some way so I’m not singling out education here as being messed up to an unusual degree. I’m also specifically focusing on North American higher education as that’s the one my employer is focusing on. Other education industries are also screwed up, albeit arguably less screwed up (IMO) in countries where the state, not the student, bears the brunt of the cost of the mess.

American higher education does come up with a few unique ways of being messed up that are worth noting:

  • High tuition fees which, irrespective of the cost to the student, completely reframes the role education has in the student’s life and the value the institution provides to society in general.
  • Subsidies (public or private) tend to get siphoned out of the industry by for-profit companies into their own coffers.
  • Institutions seem to favour the goodwill of for-profit companies over that of the students, who will be replaced by new students soon enough. Pearson is (seemingly) forever.
  • Everybody seems to be hoping that charities, not-for-profits, and various ‘open’ movements will change the overall equation to be less student-hostile and less extractive as actual reforms look like non-starters.

Now the Rebus Foundation, my employer, is primarily an Open Education/Open Source charity and I don’t think any of us working there would consider it an ed-tech company. But some of the projects we’re working on are definitely ed-tech adjacent and suffer from many of the same issues.

Namely, given the dynamics of North American higher education, ed-tech is overwhelmingly going to be student-hostile, extractive (as in, siphoning off funds better spent elsewhere in the system), or both.

That’s because this education system is fundamentally hostile to students and geared towards extracting money into company coffers. Barring outright systemic reform, you’re stuck with this dynamic no matter how clever or useful your software is.

OER and open source are tactics you can use to mitigate the harm (which I think is absolutely useful and valuable, otherwise I wouldn’t work for Rebus) but they can’t be more than a stopgap measures to keep everything going until you can invest in real reforms.

Otherwise, long term, you’ll just end up with:

  • Poorly funded out-of-date OSS/OER projects whose costs are paradoxically higher than you’d expect considering how out of date they are.
  • Legacy OSS/OER everybody uses but are largely unmaintained.
  • Well funded OSS/OER projects whose primary purpose is to be an on-ramp for an escalating, extractive business relationship between a for-profit company and an education institution.
  • A system where employees and students are expected to donate substantial amounts of their own time towards maintaining the OSS/OER projects everybody is using but somehow never gets funded.
  • Nothing important, useful, and regularly used seems to be properly funded no matter how many grants and funds are supposedly specifically earmarked for important, useful, and regularly used OSS/OER projects.
  • People keep burning out and getting replaced by a new crop of easy to manipulate idealists.

So, while it is absolutely worthwhile to work towards mitigating harm (after all, give how the climate crisis is escalating, that’s probably going to be the dominant theme of the rest of our lives) we also need to be aware of the fact that we, the employees, are behaving as and being treated like expendable resources that are being used to maintain a unmaintainable system. If we don’t set boundaries and limit our expectations, we’re only going to get chewed up, spat out, and left behind with no regard to our mental, physical, or emotional health.

You can’t save a broken system by turning yourself into an emotional and physical wreck but most people working in this system (or adjacent to it) will be expected to do just that.

Or, to put it another way: this shit is a total mess and we can’t be expected to fix it. Politics broke it; politics need to fix it.

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