image: Zach Dougherty

Why EdTech Sucks

Is that the sound of laughing gas?

“It’s not about a breakthrough. It’s about transformational swim lanes. A marketplace solution generates our blended approaches at the end of the day. Reward, review cycle and excellence diligently influence the mediators.”


This week has been called “London EdTech Week” by a loose and frothy coalition of venture capitalist wannabes short of a few bob, old media vampires looking to drink young blood, a university department propped up by Pearson, and a zombie report generating agency that could be replaced by an AI. Welcome to the rapidly deflating bubble that is “EdTech” and those who would suck on it like teenagers doing Noz at a music festival 🎈.

But why so negative?

I’m not so much negative as disappointed by the lack of ambition and vision of the EdTech community especially the UK chapter. So much so that I welcome the burst which won’t hurt the real innovators in this field one bit. In fact quite the opposite once the cowboys and charlatans abandon EdTech to jump on the next bandwagon. Being British, of course, they’ll jump on too late, without any funds to speak of and even less understanding of what they’re getting into but they’ll bluff well because they went to the right school.

EdTech today doesn’t really exist. At best it’s just education using modern appliances but at worst its focus is the reductive standardisation of teaching and learning to “teacher-proof” content distribution and testing. In this latter form it is the exact opposite of education. But people, whom I thought I knew better, will tell you everything is awesome like an EdTech MayBot. It’s like they swallowed their own software and are now vomiting it back at you, where dissent is characterised as regressive or anti-modern.

Take this “discussion point” from a conference this week about the impact of Artificial Intelligence on Industry, Government & Society and its session on education:

“With a shortage of teachers, what can A.I. do to help improve the learning experience? How can it provide more leverage to current teachers?”

So what this is suggesting is not how to encourage people into the teaching profession, nurture and retain them but how can we replace them with computers. How about becoming the Uber of education? We’ll soon have driverless cars so why not driverless classrooms. Stock options all round Tarquin!

And it gets better, try this gem:

“How do we use A.I. to enable those who can’t afford a good education or have learning difficulties to get the best education?”

Do I even need to spell this one out? Because if I do I really hope that you don’t have children.

So my point is that the Edtech bubble has burst and that’s a good thing because it had got rinsed by dumb money in the hands of even dumber people making bad bets to reinforce a status quo in education that should have been killed off last century.

Earlier this year after BETT, a trade show for the chronologically displaced, I wrote a missive titled the “EdTech Rebel Alliance”. It garnered a huge amount of interest and a database of more than 500 respondents who wanted to join even though it wasn’t really a thing. Using Star Wars as a metaphor it was intended to be a clarion for a rebellion against the education systems and the reinforcing technologies that turn children into cloned stormtroopers.

Go read it to get the big picture but the gist is that how you understand education will determine what kind of supporting or disrupting technology you design. Some believe education should be a transmission of knowledge, others believe that it should be a reconstruction of knowledge. The former is called “instructionism” the latter is called “constructionism”.

Instructionism is popular amongst dinosaur education businesses who rely on scarcity and the selling of text books. These businesses have come up with all kinds of historical innovations to ensure we consume their sacred texts. Measurement being the most obvious one where they award certificates to stormtroopers who can recite them. Evil genius of the Sith.

Constructionism on the other hand relies on abundance and discovery where knowledge is constructed by making things and sharing them. Students use information they already know to acquire more knowledge. It is distinctly collaborative and social in nature, none of that being measured in total silence whilst sitting 3 foot away from your friends. Difficult to see the business model here isn’t it?

And it’s that business model thing that’s the rub and why I’ll be pleased to see the stage vacated by the chinless wonders who are still looking for the door marked entry.

Fortunately there are hundreds of super exciting start-ups and other enterprises who didn’t capitulate to the promise of a 3 year plan, an IPO or a seat in a office overlooking the Thames. They know that 21st century learning isn’t the equivalent of an airport passenger conveyor where you can go quick or slow but always end up at the same destination.

On the first day of London Edtech Week I was lucky to play a small part in one of these brilliant start-ups at the inaugural LitFilmFest, a children’s filmmaking festival hosted at London’s BFI IMAX.

The brainchild of A Tale Unfolds, LitFilmFest recognises the value of filmmaking not only in children developing their own voice and creativity but as a powerful way for children to learn literacy and digital skills. In my career I’ve visited hundreds of schools all over the world and the one thing I have an ear for is the sound of children who are loving learning. It sounds like joy.

A Tale Unfolds was set up by a brilliant team of primary school teachers who have created literacy resources and designed training that uses simple tech to help teachers bring their practice to life.

Chatting with some of the kids at LitFilmFest it was clear that their learning was joyful and engagement with their teachers as a learning partnership significantly better than chocolate covered broccoli in the form of an app. But don’t take my word for it A Tale Unfolds have a bunch of data that shows literacy progress in some schools increasing by a factor of three.

I should point out that I have zero financial interest in ATU nor have I ever received an inducement, more’s the pity, although full disclosure they did buy me a Vietnamese Pho in a street food gaff in Soho. What can I tell you other than I’m a cheap date?

Looking further afield and there are dozens of fabulously innovative firms who dance on the periphery of what we once thought of as EdTech before the wide boys and snake oil salesmen pitched up with their accelerator/ponzi schemes.

Some of these firms were smart enough to realise that calling their wares “EdTech” and then trying to sell them school by school was braindead and so realise that their play is, in fact, direct to children and parents. Others were not so lucky and, taking advice from investors who should know better, have crippled their innovations by following the selling to schools model. Many of the most interesting plays might better be described as media or non-fiction entertainment.

The reality, as I see it, is that EdTech as a thing has been hijacked and whilst there has been a period of more investment than at any time I can remember this hasn’t been matched by a commensurate increase in innovation. A key reason is that the influx of capital has been directed in an attempt to disrupt schools and teaching rather than the existing multinational incumbents like Pearson or the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Company. Scratch around some of the investment funds for EdTech and you’ll find these knackered old dinosaurs.

My hope then is that when the party is over and the Noz has left the bubble these exciting firms will cut their chains and once again we’ll see some excitement where tech meets learning and teaching.

It’s just bants. Have a great week ;)

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