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Audrey Watters

Indie Ed-Tech: Revue/Reflections

13 min read

Kin and I spent Friday and Saturday at Davidson College at a “Indie Ed-Tech Data Summit.” I have a ton of thoughts about content, community, process, definitions, outcomes, funding that I thought I’d quickly write down while it’s all fresh in my mind. (Heh. This is already 2000+ words.) Several of these issues are worth writing up in more detail – and I probably will. Eventually.

The Keynote: More Liner Notes

Here’s a link to the transcript of my talk. Here’s a link to the slides on SpeakerDeck. Here’s a link to a soundtrack (with some of the songs that I mentioned in the talk) on Spotify.

There were several major points that I hope my talk made: 1) “open” scholarship matters for knowledge-building (I hope that those of us working in Indie Ed-Tech model this by posting our thoughts on our blogs). 2) students should be given to the technological tools to participate in open scholarship and knowledge-building – that is, at the very least, students should own their own domains. 3) controlling your own scholarship – content, IP, data, metadata, privacy levels, security, identity formation and performance, community participation – is crucial. 4) ed-tech industry interests want to shape and control all of these, and that’s a dangerous (or at least very very dull) proposition. We can build something different.

Since Jim Groom coined the term “edu-punk” – co-opted almost as quickly as British punk rock was – musical references have been key metaphors in talking about alternatives to “mainstream” and “corporate” education technology. I tried to extend the metaphor in this keynote, building off a talk that Jim and Adam Croom gave at Stanford last fall, referencing in particular the algorithmic promises made by the music industry. How do you identify the perfect hit song? How do you make the perfectly personalized playlist? The push for the latter – “personalization” – is clearly evident in ed-tech. What will be the results of an algorithmic “personalization”? What will the future of education look like (or to use the music metaphor, “sound” like)?

Speaking of sound, when I set about writing a talk to deliver “live,” I think quite differently about the rhetorical moves I’m going to make than I do when I’m writing something that others will simply read on their own. Arguments in keynotes and public lectures aren’t quite the same – or needn’t be quite the same – as arguments in essays. (Some of this has to do with the performance element; some of this has to do – ugh – with having slides.) The challenge then is when I do publish the transcript of a talk, and it becomes an essay. There are expectations from readers about what an argument in an essay is supposed to do, what it’s supposed to contain, what “proof” looks like (or to use the music metaphor, “sounds” like).

And perhaps that’s why so many men have reached out in the last day or so to explain algorithms to me. I just didn’t give math enough due in my talk apparently. Bonus points for the email that started with “maybe you don’t get how algorithms work…”

The Design Sprint

This was the third or fourth (or more?) time that I’ve attended a hackathon-of-sorts around the issues of Indie Ed-Tech, and this one benefited greatly from the “design sprint” process led by Known’s Erin Richey and Ben Werdmüller. In the past, these events have spent a lot of time talking about the tools and initiatives that we all were building, and I did miss hearing about what other schools were up to – I’m particularly interested in the Personal API work that’s happening at BYU and at the Domain of One’s Own initiatives that are spreading across campuses. But in some way, it was smart to skip that part and to work instead on ideas and possible projects that emerged from the activities Erin and Ben led us through.

I was in a small group with Adam and with Alan Levine who’ve both already blogged about what we did, how we struggled, what we pitched: Alan’s take and Adam’s take. I believe our idea – a Quora, of sorts, for first generation college students – is a pretty good one and fairly do-able at that. As both Alan and Adam write, our group spent a lot of time talking about the importance of mentoring relationships to students, and we spun our wheels a lot because we refused to technologize that. (Note: it probably really sucks to be stuck with me in your design sprint. Apologies, group.)

For me, one of the most important features of the ed-tech thingy we sketched out was that it was not designed for those who Tressie McMillan Cottom calls “roaming autodidacts.” Nor was it designed to predict and mold the non-autodidact into some algorithmically preferable (and more profitable) version of “college student.”

What Is Indie Ed-Tech?

It’s easier for me to list what Indie Ed-Tech is against, what it is not, what it most certainly aspires to never ever be. (This, of course, brings up the charge that, as a critic, I’m only interesting in tearing things down, not interested in building. That’s silly, simplistic bullshit, but I’m used to the accusation by now.)

Ed-tech need not be exploitative. Ed-tech need not be extractive. Ed-tech need not be punitive. Ed-tech need not be surveillance. Ed-tech need not assume that the student is a cheat. Ed-tech need not assume that the student has a deficit. Ed-tech need not assume that learning can be measured or managed. Ed-tech need not scale.

I know that as whatever this Indie Ed-Tech thing moves forward that there will be attempts to define what it is and not just what it is not. (No doubt, many of the things that Tim Klapdor lists in his write-up from the weekend are fundamental – infrastructure plus scholarship, agency, and autonomy.)

But for me at least, I’m okay with leaving things a little open-ended, emergent, messy, and undefined – or at the very least, not so circumscribed it’s quickly or easily co-opted and sold right back to us as the latest ed-tech upgrade or Gates Foundation-funded effort.

What Is a Personal API?

After I gave my keynote on Friday afternoon, Kin led a workshop on APIs. (GitHub repo. Click on the link. Seriously. Kin’s work is amazing, and I never ceased to be impressed with how comfortable he makes non-technical people feel about working through highly technical concepts.)

Like Indie Ed-Tech, the shape/design/meaning of “Personal API” remained largely undefined this weekend. Rightly so, perhaps. There’s certainly a tension here between something an institution might provide for students and faculty and something that each of us should want to weave together to suit our own needs. (Note: I said “tension.” These two aren’t necessarily in opposition.)

All attempts to avoid definitions aside, for me, an essential element of Indie Ed-Tech does involve control of one’s “personal cyberinfrastructure.” It’s not simply about controlling one’s domain/data/content as the end-goal; but it is about recognizing how control of these elements is always intertwined with questions/practices of knowledge, identity, and power.

I once made a joke – one that Kin will never let me live down – that APIs reduce everything to a transaction. I’d like to crack open what we mean – technically, philosophically – by “transaction” so that it isn’t simply an invocation of economics. So that its synonym “interaction” isn’t simly “clicking.” Perhaps we can think of Personal API and “reciprocity.” Perhaps “exchange.” Perhaps, as Mark Sample used the word “transaction” to describe a comment I made in my keynote, “social contract.” That raises many questions, in turn, again, about information, social structures, and power.

Funding Indie Ed-Tech

I got word today that a decently-funded startup – it has raised over $7 million in the two-and-a-half years of its existence – has run out of money. While the co-founders will, for the time being, work to “keep the lights on,” it’s fired all its staff – some 30-odd employees.

So let’s dismiss from the outset this notion that, in order for ed-tech to be sustainable, it has to be venture-funded. Indeed, by their very definition, tech startups are not sustainable: they are high risk, and although the return on investment might be high if a company is acquired or has an IPO, neither of those are particularly common occurrences. Most startups fail.

On the final night of the Indie Ed-Tech Data Summit, Known’s Ben Werdmüller led a discussion about funding, one that he admitted was an attempt to make a case for a Silicon Valley investment model for Indie Ed-Tech, one patterned perhaps off of Matter, a media-focused startup incubator program that’s invested in Known. It does sound as though the startups that are backed by Matter work closely with the organizations and companies that are limited partners in the fund. These organizations – as investors – shape the types of products that their investment portfolio develop, partially through the design process that the attendees at the Indie Ed-Tech event went through. What would it look like, Ben asked us to consider, if universities became investors in ed-tech startups? What kinds of products would be built?

Of course, universities do have policies and practices in place for profiting from the technologies that are developed on campus. We most often think about this in terms of work done in science labs. How “Indie” (or “open”) could ed-tech be once the universities’ patent attorneys get involved? I don’t know…

An incomplete list of ed-tech products that started at universities and were later spun out into companies: PLATO, Blackboard, WebCT, TurnItIn, edX, HelioCampus, Degree Compass, Learning Catalytics, Cognitive Tutor (later Carnegie Learning), Udacity, Coursera. Not a stellar track record when it comes to “Indie.” As such, I don’t think the proximity to university staff or students is actually the key in differentiating “good ed-tech” from the “bad ed-tech” produced by those living in their Silicon Valley bubble. What matters more, to borrow from Tim Klapdor’s thoughts on Indie Ed-Tech: your vision for autonomy, agency, and scholarship.

How do we achieve a cultural (political, social, economic) shift so that we move towards organizations that value those things? (Kate Bowles’ post today on “Heresy and Kindness” resonates so deeply on this matter. It’s not really a question of “how do we build ‘good ed-tech?’” It’s “how do we strengthen our capacity for criticism and care?”)

Simply put: I don’t think venture capital is the way to go to fund Indie Ed-Tech. Nothing makes a good thing go bad faster than that. That being said, I do recognize that questions about funding are going to become increasingly important, particularly as austerity measures kick in.

(And I should note here, this isn’t simply about public budgets or even school budgets. There’s a pretty substantial funding squeeze happening right now in the tech sector. A lot of startups are about to go away. They’re going to close their doors. They’re going to be picked up (picked off) at a deep discount by the big education companies – the Pearsons and the Blackboards. “A good rule of thumb is multiply the number of people on the team by $10k to get the monthly burn,” VC Fred Wilson wrote back in 2011. You do the math on your favorite ed-tech startup – how much they’ve raised, how much you think they’re earning, how fast they’re burning through what’s in the bank – and you guess how long they’ll be around. Then you decide how much you want to build your course, your learning, your teaching, your scholarship on them.)

UCLA professor Miriam Posner wrote a really great piece last week – “Money and Time” – that explored some of the funding challenges around digital humanities projects. The work of Indie Ed-Tech is probably far more closely aligned with those types of projects than with the TurnItIns and LMSes that investors seem to love. Using industry-created technology tools, Miriam writes, has

…also had material effects on the kind of work we can produce, and the horizons of possibility our work can open. When we choose not to invest in our own infrastructure, we choose not to articulate a different possible version of the world.

In fact, this state of affairs is already very well-documented for edtech. By outsourcing development of key components of educational technology to for-profit vendors, we’ve chosen to invest in the development of software companies that mine our students’ data, encourage us to spy on their work, and lock us into a closed ecosystem of for-profit technology whose philosophy bears very little resemblance to the kinds of teachers we started out wanting to be.

To borrow from Miriam, I think we do need education institutions to “pay up” – to invest in scholarship about and teaching and learning with technology. But should the model for that investment be venture capital? I don’t think so. There are other ways to think about funding; there are other ways to think about investment; there are other ways to build software. There are better ways to build capacity; there are better ways to think about sustainability. There have to be, right?

Thanks to Kristen Eshelman and Adam Croom for organizing the Indie Ed-Tech event. Thanks to Davidson College for being one of the very few institutions that’s ever invited me back. Image credits, with apologies to Daft Punk.