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How Venture Capital Misses the Boat With Higher Education Technology

Blogger and self-proclaimed "troublemaker" Audrey Watters discusses venture capital in education, learning analytics, artificial intelligence and more.

If you want to catch an interesting glimpse of the views that certain people have about the future of education, look at venture capitalists. Those narratives are probably unrecognizable to those working within education, according to Audrey Watters, author of the popular Hack Education blog. "They are not disruptive or innovative. They are not particularly radical," she said, pointing out that money is flowing into things like test preparation and tutoring and helping schools move services online as well as the student loan sector.

Watters, who labels herself a "recovering academic" and "troublemaker," is the author of "The Monsters of Education Technology," a collection of her 2014 keynote speeches, and "Claim Your Domain," which argues students should control their digital identities and digital work. She spoke about the role of venture capital in education in the first Future Trends Forum, a series of video chats launched by consultant and futurist Bryan Alexander.

"Most investors make decisions about educational technology investments without a deep understanding of what happens in a school or classroom," Watters said. They are more concerned with getting in on the next Facebook, she explained. It is like a roulette wheel: Venture capitalists place lots of small bets and hope something will cash in.

She said it is important to understand the key narratives from the tech sector about education because those narratives govern the way people approach their thinking about what technology can and can't do. "The main narrative is that education hasn't changed in hundreds of years — that all classes in both K-12 and higher education are based on lectures and students are forced to listen to lectures and regurgitate back the information. That describes some classes, but not all classes."

Alexander suggested that perhaps many of these venture capitalists are ignorant of education history and the struggles between proponents of different types of teaching and learning.

Watters responded that what irks her the most about a lot of education technology entrepreneurs is that they act as though no one thought about these issues before Steve Jobs came on stage with an iPad or Sal Kahn started posting videos. In fact, she said, many so-called innovators are replicating things that were experimented with 100 years ago and were found to have significant problems. For instance, she sees a resurgence of behaviorism coinciding with how the tech sector operates. "Using Skinner's metaphor, they think of us as pigeons and they are trying to get us to peck at a certain button. Maximizing clicks is the interest. That is the signal of being engaged. But clicking on buttons doesn't indicate learning or anything really other than clicks."

Watters also expressed concern about the use of learning analytics in education. Schools are gathering lots of data without really thinking through what they want to measure and why, she believes. She said some efforts have ported over a Google analytics model — how many visited a site and clicked, and did it lead to a metric tied to the bottom line. That hasn't got anything to do with learning, she insisted. "You can track people's tasks and transactions. Did you send an e-mail or update your status? But I am not sure these answer interesting questions." She added that a lot of the data collection is being done "without student consent or knowledge or even in a way that would pass muster in peer-reviewed experiments."

Join the Discussion

Bryan Alexander's Future Trends Forum series will take place at 2 p.m. ET on Thursdays. Future guests include Casey Green, Anya Kamentz, Richard Demilo, Will Richardson and Phil Long. The discussions are free and open to anyone with an Internet connection. RSVP at:

Alexander shifted the conversation to the increase in automation, artificial intelligence and machine learning. He said schools are struggling to understand whether they should revise their curriculum if the job market is going to be radically transformed or whether they can use automation to help teach better. "Where is the robo-fly in the ointment?" he asked Watters.

She said the whole idea of artificial intelligence gets back to what we mean by intelligence and how we measure it, adding that what we know about human intelligence is very partial. She said some believe that 600 years from now, when people look at today's psychology and cognitive science, it will be in the same way we look back at "the humors" as a way of understanding the mind. "We have such a rough and partial understanding of how the human mind works." Yet AI built a field on top of that partial understanding about the human brain. We have used analogies, for instance of the brain being like a processor, and then sought to make a machine more efficient at that, she explained. "We took things that are analogies and made them axiomatic. We have some ideas but aren't clear about how people learn." Watters said there are many interesting philosophical issues around what we want humans and machines to do.

Alexander said some people believe that rather than a dystopian future of high unemployment, humans will get to do the creative things and computers and robots will do the rote things they do best in a complementary way.

Watters responded by saying there are many political questions around the future of technology that we don't do a good job of asking, and because the venture capitalists are so powerful politically, we are left with their view. "I don't share political affinity with venture capitalists." Instead, she would like to see issues like ethics, equity and compassion drive the conversation about the future.

Look at who is funding and starting companies, she said. "What percentage of engineers are white men? This shapes the way technology progresses. Those with alternative visions do have opportunities to speak our minds and push back. We see it on social media and blogs, but disrupting economic and political power is challenging."

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