How ed tech marketers are bad for higher education

A lot of ed tech marketers are really bad. They are probably not bad at their ‘jobs’ — they may or may not be bad at generating leads, creating well-designed sales material, creating brand visibility. But they are bad for higher education and student success.

Bad ed tech marketers are noisy. They use the same message as the ‘competition.’ They hollow out language through the use and abuse of buzz words. They praise product features as if they were innovative when everyone else is selling products that are basically the same. They take credit for the success of ‘mutant’ customers who — because they have the right people and processes in place — would have been successful regardless of their technology investments. Bad marketers make purchasing decisions complex, and they obscure the fact that no product is a magic bullet. They pretend that their tool will catalyze and align the people and processes necessary to make an impact. Bad marketers encourage institutions to think about product first, and to defer important conversations about institutional goals, priorities, values, governance, and process. Bad marketers are bad for institutions of higher education. Bad marketers are bad for students.

Good marketing in educational technology is about telling stories worth spreading. A familiar mantra. But what is a story worth spreading? It is a story that is honest, and told with the desire to make higher education better. It is NOT about selling product. I strongly ascribe to the stoic view that if you do the right thing, rewards will naturally follow. If you focus on short-term rewards, you will not be successful, especially not in the long run.

Here are three characteristics of educational technology stories worth telling:

  1. Giving credit where credit is due – it is wrong for an educational technology company (or funder, or association, or government) to take credit for the success of an institution. Case studies should always be created with a view to accurately documenting the steps taken by an institution to see results. This story might feature a particular product as a necessary condition of success, but it should also highlight those high impact practices that could be replicated, adapted, and scaled in other contexts regardless of the technology used. It is the task of the marketer to make higher education better by acting as a servant in promoting the people and institutions that are making a real impact.
  2. Refusing to lie with numbers – there was a time in the not-so-distant past when educational technology companies suffered from the irony of selling analytics products without any evidence of their impact. Today, those same companies suffer from another terrible irony: using bad data science to sell data products. Good data science doesn’t always result in the sexiest stories, even it it’s results are significant. It is a lazy marketer who twists the numbers to make headlines. It is the task of a good marketer to understand and communicate the significance of small victories, to popularize the insights that make data scientists excited, but that might sound trivial and obscure to the general public without the right perspective..
  3. Expressing the possible – A good marketer should know their products, and they should know their users. They should be empathetic in appreciating the challenges facing students, instructors, and administrators and work tirelessly as a partner in change. A good marketer does not stand at the periphery.  They get involved because they ARE involved.  A good marketer moves beyond product features and competitive positioning, and toward the articulation of concrete and specific ways of using a technology to meet the needs of students, teachers, and administrators a constantly changing world.

Suffice it to say, good marketing is hard to do. It requires domain expertise and empathy. It is not formulaic. Good educational technology marketing involves telling authentic stories that make education better. It is about telling stories that NEED to be told.

If a marketer can’t say something IMPORTANT, they shouldn’t say anything at all.

Does Student Success start with Diversity in Higher Ed Administration?

Twitter has finally begun to add tools to mitigate harassment.

Harassment on Twitter has been a huge problem in recent years, and the amount of poor citizenship on the platform has only increased post-election. Why has it taken so long to respond? On the one hand, it is a very hard technical problem: how can users benefit from radical openness at the same time as they are protected from personal harm? In certain respects, this is a problem with free speech in general, but the problem is even greater for Twitter as it looks to grow its user base and prepare for sale. On the other hand, Twitter insiders have said that dealing with harassment has simply not been a priority for the mostly white male leadership team. Diversity is famously bad at Twitter. A lack of diversity within an organization leads to a lack of empathy for the concerns of ‘others.’ It leads to gaps in an organization’s field of vision, since we as people naturally pursue goals that are important to us, and what is important to us is naturally a product of our own experience. Values create culture. And culture determines what is included and excluded (both people and perspectives). Read more

Student Success and Liberal Democracy

The political environment in the United States has increasingly highlighted huge problems in our education system. These problems, I would argue, are not unrelated to how we as a country conceptualize student success. From the perspective of the student, success is about finding a high-paying job that provides a strong sense of personal fulfillment. From the perspective of colleges and universities, student success is about graduation and retention. From the perspective of government, it’s about making sure that we have a trained workforce capable of meeting labor market demands. For all of the recent and growing amount of attention paid to student success, however, what is woefully absent seems to be any talk about the importance of education to producing a liberal democratic citizenry. In the age of ‘big data,’ of course, part of this absence may be the fact that the success of a liberal education is difficult to measure. From this perspective, the success of a country’s education system cannot be measured directly. Instead, it is measured by the extent to which it’s citizens demonstrate things like active engagement, an interest/ability to adjudicate truth claims, and a desire to promote social and societal goods. Now, more than any time in recent history, we are witnessing the failure of American education. In the US, the topic of education has been largely absent from the platforms of individual presidential candidates.  This is, perhaps, a testament to the fact that education is bad for politics.  Where it has been discussed, we hear Trump talk about cutting funding to the Department of Education, if not eliminating it entirely. We hear Clinton talk about early childhood education, free/debt-free college, and more computer science training in k-12, but in each of these cases, the tenor tends to be about work and jobs rather than promoting societal goods more generally.

But I don’t want to make this post about politics. Our political climate is merely a reflection of the values that inform our conceptions of student success. These values — work, personal fulfillment, etc — inform policy decisions and university programs, but they also inform the development of educational technologies. The values that make up our nation’s conception of ‘student success’ produce the market demand that educational technology companies then try to meet. It is for this reason that we see a recent surge (some would say glut) of student retention products on the market, and relatively few that are meant to support liberal democratic values. It’s easy to forget that our technologies are not value-neutral. It’s easy to forget that, especially when it comes to communication technologies, the ‘medium is the message.’

What can educational technology companies do to meet market demands (something necessary to survival) while at the same time being attuned to the larger needs of society? I would suggest three things:

  1. Struggle. Keeping ethical considerations and the needs of society top of mind is hard.  For educational technologies to acknowledge the extent to which they both shape and are shaped by cultural movements produces a heavy burden of responsibility.  The easy thing to do is to abdicate responsibility, citing the fact that ‘we are just a technology company.’  But technologies always promote particular sets of values.  Accepting the need to meet market demand at the same time as the need to support liberal democratic education can be hard. These values WILL and DO come into conflict. But that’s not a reason to abandon either one or the other.  It means constantly struggling in the knowledge that educational technologies have a real impact on the lives of people.  Educational technology development is an inherently ethical enterprise.  Ethics are hard.
  2. Augment human judgment.  Educational technologies should not create opportunities for human beings to avoid taking responsibility for their decisions.  With more data, more analytics, and more artificial intelligence, it is tempting to lean on technology to make decisions for us.  But liberal democracy is not about eliminating human responsibility, and it is not about making critical thinking unnecessary.  To the contrary, personal responsibility and critical thinking are hallmarks of a liberal democratic citizen — and are essential to what it means to be human.  As tempting as it may be to create technologies that make decisions for us because they can, I feel like it is vitally important that we design technologies that increase our ability to participate in those activities that are the most human.
  3. Focus on community and critical thinking.  Creating technologies that foster engagement with complex ideas is hard.  Very much in line with the ‘augmented’ approach to educational technology development, I look to people like Alyssa Wise and Bodong Chen, who are looking at ways that a combination of embedded analytics and thoughtful teaching practices can produce reflective moments for students, and foster critical thinking in the context of community.  And it is for this reason that I am excited about tools like X-Ray Learning Analytics, a product for Moodle that makes use of social network analysis and natural language processing in a way that empowers teachers to promote critical thinking and community engagement.

The Trouble with ‘Student Success’

I’m increasingly troubled by ‘student success,’ and am even somewhat inclined to stop using the term entirely.

The trouble with ‘student success,’ it seems to me, is that it actually has very little to do with people. It’s not about humans, but rather about a set of conditions required for humans to successfully fill a particular role: that of a student.

So, what is a student?

A student (within the context of higher education, and as the term is employed within student success literature) is someone who is admitted to an institution of higher education, is at least minimally retained by that institution (many colleges and universities require at least 60 non-transferred credit hours in order to grant a degree), and graduate with some kind of credential (at least an Associate’s degree, but preferably a Bachelor’s). The student is the product of higher education. It is the task of colleges and universities to convert non-students into students (through the admissions process), only to convert them into a better kinds of non-students (through the graduation process). The whole thing is not entirely different from that religious process whereby an individual must first be converted from an a-sinner (someone who doesn’t grasp what sin is) into a sinner (they need to learn what sin is, and that they have committed it) in order to be transformed into a non-sinner through a process of redemption.

The language of ‘student success’ assumes that ‘being a student’ is an unmitigated good. But being a student is not a good in itself. The good of being a student is a direct consequence of the fact that being a student is requisite for attaining other higher goods. Having been a successful student is necessary in order to become a good worker. From the perspective of the individual, having been a successful student translates into being able to get a better job and earn a higher salary. From the perspective of a nation, a well-educated populace translates into an ability to meet labor demands in the service of economic growth. If this is the end of being a student, then, shouldn’t we talk about ‘Worker Success’? Replacing ‘student-‘ with ‘worker-‘ would retain every feature of ‘student success,’ but with the advantage of acknowledging that a post-secondary degree is not an end in itself, but is rather in the service of something greater. It would be more honest. It might also have the effect of increasing graduation rates by extending the horizon of students beyond the shoreline of their college experience and out toward the open sea of what will become something between a job and a vocation.

But I find the idea of ‘worker success’ still troubling in the same way as ‘student success.’ As with ‘student success,’ ‘worker success’ speaks to a role that humans occupy. It refers to something that a person does, rather than what a person is. As with being a successful student, being a successful worker implied having satisfactorily met the demands of a particular role, a set of criteria that come from outside of you, and that it is incumbant upon you to achieve. A successful student is someone who is admitted, retained, and graduates and so it is unsurprising that these are the measures against which colleges and universities are evaluated. A successful institution is one that creates successful students. Pressure is increasingly being put on institutions to ensure that students find success in career, but this is far more difficult to track (great minds are working on it). A successful worker is one who earns a high-paying job (high-salary serving as a proxy for the amount of value that a particular individual contributes to the overall economy).

What if we were to shift the way that we think about student success, away from focusing on conditional and instrumental goods, and instead toward goods that are unconditional and intrinsic? What if we viewed student success, not as an end in itself, but rather as something that may or may not help human beings contract their full potential as human beings? Would it mean eliminating higher education as it is today? I don’t think so. I’m not a utopian. I readily understand the historical, social, cultural, and material conditions that make school and work important. To the contrary, shifting out perspective toward what makes us human may in fact serve to underline the importance of an undergraduate education, and even of that piece of paper they call a degree. To the extent that an undergraduate education exposes minds to a world of knowledge, at the same time as it provides them with an opportunity to earn a good wage means that they are freed from the conditions of bare life (i.e. living paycheck to paycheck) and can commit their energies to higher order pursuits. Considered in this way, the importance of eliminating achievement gaps on the basis of race. ethnicity, gender, income, etc is also increased. For these groups who have been traditionally underserved by higher education, what is at stake in NOT having a post-secondary credential is not just a wage, but also perhaps their potential as human beings. At the same time as it make higher education more important, considering the student journey from the perspective of human success also opens up legitimate alternative pathways to formal education through which it is also possible to flourish. Higher education might be a way, but it might not be the way. And that should be okay.

I don’t know what this shift in perspective would mean for evaluating institutions. As long as colleges and universities are aimed at producing student-graduates, their reason for being is to solve a tactical problem — “how do we admit and graduate more students” — and they can be evaluated empirically and quantitatively by the extent to which they have solved the problem. The minute that colleges and universities start to reconceive their mission, not in terms of students, but in terms of humans, their success becomes far more difficult to measure, because the success of students-as-humans is difficult to measure. By thinking of education as a way of serving humans as opposed to serving students, our task becomes far more important, and also far more challenging.

But since when were the Good and the Easy the same thing?

The Costs of Privacy

In November 2012, in response to threats of expulsion from John Jay Science & Engineering Academy on account of her refusal to wear a mandatory RFID badge, Andrea Hernandez filed a law suit against San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District. If she continues to refuse even to wear an RFID-disabled badge–an accommodation sanctioned by a federal district judge who ruled against her–Hernandez will be placed in Taft High School beginning in September 2013, the public school to which she would normally be assigned.

In refusing to wear even an RFID-disabled badge, Hernandez’s case seems to have lost its ‘bite’ (it’s difficult to justify her appeal to religious freedom once tracking mechanisms are disabled). In spite of the fact that her concerns were ultimately voiced in terms of an interest in preserving religious freedom, however, the case nonetheless draws attention to the potential costs of privacy.

As elite institutions increasingly adopt comprehensive analytics programs that require students to give up their privacy in exchange for student success, are they also strongly contributing to a culture in which privacy is no longer valued? A robust analytics program requires every student to opt-in (i.e. students are not given the option of opting out). If analytics programs are seen as effective mechanisms to increase the chances of student success, and such programs are effective only to the extent that they gather data that is representative of their entire student body, and, as such, consenting to being tracked is made a condition of enrollment at the most elite universities (universities with the resources necessary to build and sustain such programs), then students must ask what it is that they value more: an education at a world-class institution (and all of the job prospects and other opportunity that such an education affords), or the ability to proverbially click ‘do not track.’ My suspicion is that, if explicitly given the choice, the vast majority of students are willing to give up the latter for the former, a symptom of our growing acceptance of, and complacence toward, issues of electronic privacy, but perhaps also an indication that a willingness to sacrifice privacy for success increasingly forms a key part of the ‘hidden curriculum.’

Erasing Privacy

[Image Creative Commons licensed / Flickr user Alan Cleaver]

(Interestingly, in addition to gathering data from Learning Management and operational systems, universities also regularly collect data from student id card swipes. This data can easily be mobilized as part of a kind of ‘card-swipe surveillance’ program, as in fact has been done by Matthew S. Pittinksy (co-founder of Blackboard) at Arizona State University. According to Pittinsky, tracking card-swipe behavior can allow an institution to effectively map a student’s friend group, determine their level of social integration, and predict their chances of attrition.)