I really try my best not to read what Diane Ravitch writes. I usually disagree with her and I find her to be quite inflammatory, and not in a good way.
But this time I feel like I really need to speak up.
Ravitch wrote a piece for Scientific American that appears in the July 31, 2013 edition, which is already available on the website. In the article, entitled “3 Dubious Uses of Technology in Schools,” she criticizes three major developments in ed tech: online virtual schools, automatic grading of essays and the storage of student personal data in the cloud.
To be fair, these are three areas that are relatively new to education and I don’t think anyone has claimed that any of them has been perfected or doesn’t have room to evolve. But Ravitch, in what I have come to think of as her “typical” fashion, grossly oversimplifies the issues and, instead of writing a helpful piece about how these technologies could be improved upon and grown, just presents them as detrimental.
I don’t have a dog in this hunt, as I don’t work for a virtual school, an essay grading company or a cloud data provider. But I am an ed tech entrepreneur and Ravitch’s general negativity and broad criticisms really irritate me. Here is how she wrapped up her article in Scientific American:
Here is the conundrum: teachers see technology as a tool to inspire student learning; entrepreneurs see it as a way to standardize teaching, to replace teachers, to make money and to market new products. Which vision will prevail?
Again, we see a very polarizing statement, suggesting a grand struggle of good versus evil, a common theme for Ravitch. It’s not unusual, in my opinion, for her conclusions to be very black and white, rarely leaving room for the nuance that most thinking people recognize is in most situations. And these characterizations are unfair. From three examples of ed tech areas that are still evolving, she reaches the conclusion that the goal of entrepreneurs is to use technology to standardize teaching and replace teachers (a common scare tactic). It’s a leap and such a broad generalization that I found it shocking, even for her.
I’m an ed tech entrepreneur. I also have a doctorate in Educational Psychology and am a trained Instructional Designer. I’ve spent my whole career working with teachers and students. I am not some Johnny-come-lately who sees edtech as a quick way to make a buck. And the reason I am starting my business, Balefire Labs, is because I talk to teachers (and parents) all the time who struggle with using technology as a tool for student learning. They can’t find high quality educational apps that help their kids learn. There are tons of junky educational apps out there that are carelessly slapped together and have misleading marketing claims. Teachers, in particular, don’t have the time to spend searching through tens of thousands of apps and they don’t want to waste money purchasing apps that don’t teach.
The whole point with entrepreneurism is that the entrepreneur must align his or her visions with solutions for their customers. If those visions are at odds with one another then the customers won’t buy the product, plain and simple. It is not possible for an entrepreneur’s vision to “prevail” if the product they offer is something the customers don’t want. The customer is in charge.
My customers ARE teachers and parents and I’m trying to help them solve a problem they have. In fact, if I don’t solve a problem for them then my business won’t be successful. In short, I am not trying to standardize teaching or replace teachers. Do I need to make money and market new products? Well, I do if I want to continue to help teachers and parents! It seems crazy to me that a criticism of entrepreneurs is that they want to make money and market products. How else does a business survive? But helping customers (and in the case of edtech this means both teachers and students) and having a successful business are not mutually exclusive. They can’t be! Because having a successful business is dependent on helping customers!
I don’t really understand why Ravitch doesn’t like ed tech entrepreneurs or how she came to the conclusion that we are enemies of teachers. I’d be willing to bet that most ed tech entrepreneurs see themselves as allies of teachers, not enemies. But I do think Ravitch’s opinion pieces would be much more meaningful (and impactful) if they offered constructive feedback to entrepreneurs. If she thinks there is a gap between what entrepreneurs are offering, what actually improves students’ learning outcomes and what teachers find useful, why not pitch in and be part of the solution instead of just criticizing from her position as an education pundit?