Ravitch on the “Perils” of Ed Tech: Is This Journalism or Propaganda?

“DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER”…….

For those of you who remember the 1960s television sci-fi series: Lost in Space, this was the famous catch phrase that the robot, acting as a surrogate guardian, would voice to Will Robinson whenever there was an impending threat.

Fast forward to July 2013.   A supposedly reputable magazine:  Scientific American, posted an article by self proclaimed education historian Diane Ravitch titled, “3 Dubious Uses of Technology in Schools.”  Interestingly enough, the article was originally published under the title, “Promise & Peril.”  Ms. Ravitch is a very controversial figure in the field of public education, and she has been consistent in her disdain for education reform, especially the influence of private foundations and other stakeholders who Ravitch feels will destroy her “utopian” aspirations for public education.  Per the magazine’s website, it serves as “The leading source and authority for science, technology information and policy for a general audience.”   I believe that the article in question does not uphold the tenets of the brand, and in fact, damages the brand.  Lets discuss my concerns in more detail.

  • The author does not give sufficient weight to discussing the benefits of technology.  The subtitle of the story is “Technology can inspire creativity or dehumanize learning.”   Ms. Ravitch is generous enough to give a total of TWO SENTENCES discussing the benefits of technology in public education.
  • Are her so called “dubious uses” of technology really “dubious?” 
    • Ravitch attempts to stoke fear into readers by claiming that “for-profit” charter schools are evil, while not providing sufficient empirical evidence to support such generalizations.   In any new school design, there will be outliers, but for Ravitch to single out the few in a pool of many successful charter schools is foolhardy.   How many public schools are squandering taxpayer dollars and not governing their schools with integrity?   Quite a few if you did the research.
    • Ravitch does not provide sufficient detail in her discussion about online assessments and the online grading of essays.   I am not up to speed on this development and while I need to look at this area more closely, I share the author’s concern about online grading of essays.  It depends how it will be done, because there is a subjective factor to it.   However, I would not state that online assessments are not in the best interests of the system just because of this one concern which will certainly be worked out.   Certain types of assessments must be conducted online, as this will greatly enhance the efficiency of our public education system, improve productivity, and support adaptive learning systems.   We need to use big data more effectively in public schools so that teachers can spend far less time on remedial work at the beginning of each school year.   It will also help us evolve our system into a competency-based one versus one that depends on seat-time.
    • Finally, Ms. Ravitch continues her assault on the Gates Foundation-funded nonprofit, inBloom.   Ravitch is terrified of the use of “big data” in public education, and the risks of storing personal, confidential data on students in the cloud.   Ravitch, to the best of my knowledge, has not represented that she has even seen a demo of the technology in action, yet she amplifies the propaganda being distributed by self interest groups.   Many other industries such as health care are seeing the material benefits of leveraging the cloud for data storage and data intelligence.  InBloom has been very consistent in their communications that they will not be providing personal data to third parties without consent, yet Ravitch and the teachers unions have used their influence to misrepresent the intent of the inBloom solution and spread fears about applications that are not part of the core use case.  The FAQ page on inBloom’s website states:  “inBloom is not creating a national database. It is providing a secure data service to help school districts manage the information needed for learning, and to support local educational goals. Only school districts decide who has access to that information and for what purpose.”  

It is perfectly acceptable to be concerned about the online storage of data.  However, public education would be best served by working collaboratively with an organization whose intent is noble:  to create a technological standard that connects the entire public education ecosystem.  The main objective of InBloom is to make the disparate systems compatible, and as such, make the job of educators and administrators much easier.   It is unfortunate that Ravitch has taken such a pessimistic view of what this initiative can offer to our education reform efforts, and instead anoint herself the “Ralph Nader” of public education.

Finally, I take personal issue with Ravitch’s comment  that “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.”   That is categorically false and insulting to the many entrepreneurs who are trying to bring innovation to K-12 education, but are stonewalled by an anachronistic system dominated by textbook publishers extracting billions of dollars in monopoly profits from K-12 – something that Ravitch fails to acknowledge in her assault on entrepreneurship.

If Diane Ravitch or any writer for that matter wishes to communicate their skepticism with new technologies, that is perfectly fine.  However, if you are going to write a policy piece for a supposedly reputable publication, then the story needs to provide sufficient empirical data to support the assertions.   It is clear that this story could have easily been posted on Ravitch’s blog, where she is free to publish her “rants” that are opinions devoid of supportable fact.    Instead, we are forced to accept the grim reality that major publications will abdicate their journalistic integrity to forward a political agenda, which in this case is the supposition that technological innovation will seek to destroy public education, rather than improve it.

I think Will Robinson would have ignored the robot because he would have assumed the robot had a technical malfunction……

2 thoughts on “Ravitch on the “Perils” of Ed Tech: Is This Journalism or Propaganda?

  1. You are absolutely wrong in what you write:" InBloom has been very consistent in their communications that they will not be providing personal data to third parties without consent." They indeed are insistent they will provide children's personal data without PARENTAL consent. In fact, none of the participating states or districts are allowing either parental consent or opt out — and that's apparently fine with inBloom.

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  2. It is an honor that the person largely responsible for maligning inBloom and spreading fear across the nation would comment on my blog. InBloom may have erred in their communications strategy, but you and the teachers unions made it a point to miscommunicate their intentions and instead of trying to work with this organization to improve their approach, you chose to tear them down. You have become the Joe McCarthy of public education, and education reform has been set back years, if not a decade, because of self interest groups thinking about adults and not the children.

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