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Peter Thiel and the Future (and Funding) of Education Technology

Hack Education - 16 Octubre, 2016 - 09:01

The New York Times reported over the weekend that, despite a growing number of women who’ve come forward in the last week claiming that Donald Trump has groped or assaulted them, billionaire investor Peter Thiel will be making his first donation to the Republican Party candidate’s presidential campaign.

While some have scoffed that the size of the donation – $1.25 million – isn’t that significant, I think the timing of the donation is still notable for a number of reasons:

Well-known for his libertarian beliefs, Peter Thiel wrote in a 2009 article for the Cato Institute that “Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women – two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians – have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron.” Giving women the right to vote, in other words, was a disaster. That sentiment was echoed this week in the hashtag #repealthe19th trended on Twitter, as Trump supporters responded to an image shared by poll analyst Nate Silver showing a landslide victory for Trump if only men voted this fall.

Thiel appeared on stage at the Republican Party convention this summer, perhaps the first time that most Americans had heard of the billionaire. But Thiel has been in the news quite frequently as of late for his bankrolling of Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, a suit that bankrupted the publication and has raised concerns about how this legal tactic will be used to curb free speech and free press. Thiel’s lawyers have threatened other lawsuits against the media – some on behalf of Melania Trump, Trump’s current wife – and Donald Trump himself regularly threatens and files lawsuits against news organizations who report damaging information about him.

Peter Thiel’s beliefs about free speech and the free press are particularly important as he sits on the Board of Directors of Facebook. (He was the first investor in the social media company in 2004.) 44% of US adults, according to Pew Research Center, get their news from Facebook.

Silicon Valley Ideology and the Future of Education

I’ve written extensively about “the Silicon Valley narrative” and the ideological underpinnings of the technology and education technology industries. Libertarianism. Individualism. Global capitalism. Empire.

Although many in these industries – pundits, entrepreneurs, and investors alike – try to paint Thiel as an anomaly, Thiel operates at the center, not at the margins. He operates at the center financially. He sits on boards. He shapes technology products and politics alike.

That matters for the future of democracy, clearly. It matters for the future of "diversity" in tech. It matters for the future of education.

Wait, Who Is Peter Thiel?

Peter Thiel’s entrepreneurial and investment history, in brief:

He co-founded the online payments company PayPal in 1998 with Max Levchin. PayPal merged with Elon Musk’s financial transaction company the following year, going public in 2002 and then sold to eBay later that year.

In 2004, Thiel founded Palantir Technologies, a data analysis company funded in part by Q-Tel, the investment wing of the CIA.

In 2005, Thiel launched his investment firm Founders Fund. Other partners in the firm include Napster co-founder Sean Parker and PayPal execs Ken Howery and Luke Nosek.

Thiel joined the tech accelerator program Y Combinator as a partner in 2015.

A quick look at Thiel’s philosophies and philanthropy:

He is openly gay, and some contend that Gawker’s outing him in 2007 was part of Thiel’s rationale for supporting Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the publication.

He has supported other political campaigns, prior to becoming a pledged delegate for Trump this year. He endorsed Ron Paul for President in 2008.

Thiel believes in the singularity – the theory that artificial intelligence will reach a point where it far surpasses human intelligence, eventually bringing about the end of the Anthropocene. Thiel has funded the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence. He’s also a financial backer of OpenAI (along with Elon Musk, LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, and Y Combinator president Sam Altman), a non-profit research organization that promises to develop “friendly” AI and, according to recent New Yorker profile of Altman, to “prevent artificial intelligence from accidentally wiping out humanity.” In that profile, Altman described himself as a survivalist of sorts and name-checked Thiel as his back-up plan if the end-of-the-world does come and Altman can’t make it to his bunker. Thiel has also pledged money to the Seasteading Institute, supporting its efforts to develop autonomous ocean-dwelling communities outside of current nation-states’ jurisdictions. And Thiel has supported anti-aging and life-extension research.

And then there’s his influence and investments in education…

Thiel and the Silicon Valley Narratives about Education

Thiel, a graduate from Stanford (with a BA in philosophy and a JD from its law school), pronounced in 2011 that we are in the midst of a bubble – not a real estate bubble but a higher education bubble. He told then Techcrunch editor Sarah Lacy, “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed. Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.” College just isn’t worth the price, Thiel argued.

Thiel had unveiled a “20 Under 20” contest at Techcrunch’s annual conference the previous year – a plan to offer twenty young people under the age of twenty $100,000 to drop out of school and pursue other work. Among the recipients of The Thiel Fellowship (which, now in its sixth iteration, has expanded to thirty recipients per year, all under the age of twenty-two): Dale Stephens, founder of UnCollege, a startup that encourages young people to pursue a non-college path and sells “gap year” services; Vitalik Buterin, the co-creator of Ethereum, a blockchain service; Ben Yu, inventor of sprayable caffeine; and Laura Deming, who has founded a venture capital firm to invest in anti-aging and life extension technologies. (Deming is one of the few female recipients of the fellowship.)

Thiel is also the co-author of The Diversity Myth: ‘Multiculturalism’ and the Politics of Intolerance at Stanford, a book that argues that “political correctness,” restrictions on free speech, an “a curricular obsession with oppression theory and victimology” permeate higher education, lowering the quality of education at Stanford and undermining what he deems the most important type of diversity on campus – intellectual diversity.

Despite actively promoting a narrative that college isn’t worth it, Thiel remains heavily involved in education, teaching at Stanford and, of course, investing in education companies.

Thiel and his VC firm Founder’s Fund’s Education Technology Investments (since 2010)
  • Knewton (adaptive teaching software)
  • Declara (adaptive teaching software)
  • AltSchool (private school that relies heavily on data surveillance and software)
  • Thinkful (coding bootcamp)
  • Clever (helps connect various software products for schools so that data can be more easily shared)
  • Uversity (student engagement platform, formerly Inigral, acquired by TargetX)
  • ResearchGate (social networking site for researchers)
  • Lore (learning management system, formerly Coursekit, acquired by Noodle)
  • If You Can (education game-maker, founded by Trip Hawkins, the founder of Electronic Arts)
  • SoFi (private loans)
  • Upstart (private loans)
  • Affirm (private loans)

This portfolio reflects some of the big stories Silicon Valley is selling via education technology – “personalized education,” data collection and analytics, private student loans, coding bootcamps.

Those last two are noteworthy, I’d contend, particularly considering Thiel’s claims about a “higher education bubble.” That is, he seems quite happy to profit from the growing cost of tuition via the booming private student loan market which is well-positioned to profit from the growth in coding bootcamps, whose students are not currently eligible for federal financial aid.

So What?

I track all ed-tech funding data at The data is freely and openly available via the GitHub repository that powers the site. The data includes a list of all investors in ed-tech companies going back to 2010, as well as a more detailed look at individual investments, acquisitions, and mergers so far this year.

I track this data, in part, because it helps inform the criticism I write of the ideology of education technology – its business, its politics, its stories. It’s important to peel back the veneer of “progress” – technological progress, political progress – and scrutinize the message, not just the product, being sold. It’s worth scrutinizing the networks – powerful networks – behind education technology. Who is funding the technology makers? Who is funding the policy makers? Who is funding the storytellers? To what end?

At the core of the companies that Thiel has founded and funded is surveillance. Palantir. Facebook. AltSchool. The regime of data collection and analysis is framed as “personalization.” But that’s a cover for compliance and control.

What if, instead of wondering how on earth Thiel could support Trump or Trump support Thiel, we consider how they’re quite well-aligned and how the technologies we’re adopting in education are shot through with this very ideological affinity?

Why For-Profit Education Fails

OLDaily - 16 Octubre, 2016 - 03:25

Jonathan A. Knee, The Atlantic, Oct 15, 2016

This is an interesting discussion but actually very light on the explanation it promises. A close reading reveals it to be this: first, VCs confuse size and scale, preferring to create large institutions in an industry that depends on local impact. Second, scope and scale do not always mix. They try to reform the entire education system rather than focusing on a specific activity or domain. Why do theey do this? Ego plays a role, but ultimately the cause is found in their desire to do good (which runs counter to the need to make money ("one cannot do good for very long if the business does not do well enough to survive")). The consistent failure of private institutions, argues the author, gives ammunition to those who oppose privatization, but "that sphere will always comprise public and private, nonprofit and for-profit institutions, and for-profit businesses play an essential role."

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Spiraling Down Minuscule DS106 History Details

OLDaily - 16 Octubre, 2016 - 03:25

Alan Levine, CogDogBlog, Oct 15, 2016

The assignment bank was one of those details that made DS106 so innovative. Basically the idea was that people submit suggestions for assignments, which other people then browse, select from, complete and contribute. Some of  the earliest posts in  my art blog (now used for my photos of the day, but always subject to change) are from the DS106 assignment bank. The title is also from the DS106 course. Anyhow, this post reconstructs the history of the assignment bank. It begins from a  Michael Cauldfield post in which part of this history became the subject for discussions. Alan Levine drills deep into the historical archive and concludes "the Assignment bank is totally the idea and prowess of Martha Burtis." He also comments on the difficulties of doing digital history. I can relate; I've been updating my  Presentations files recently. When people tell you "the internet is forever" don't believe them. So much has already been lost. Take some time now and repair your archives. The future will thank you. Image: one of my DS106 contributions, The Long Goodbye.

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Lucy Gray Presentation Resources for #GEF16

OLDaily - 16 Octubre, 2016 - 03:25

Lucy Gray, Oct 15, 2016

In keeping with the learning communities theme from last week have a look at these  presentation resources shared by Lucy Gray on the Global Education Conference and the Highly Connected Global Educator. There's a fair bit of overlap between the two slide decks (the latter is the better deck) but you'll see listings of learning communities and networks, overviews of global education projects, and related resources. The focus of these projects, writes Gray, is not on the technology or the content but on the people.

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Exploring more frameworks to understand OER/OEP

OLDaily - 15 Octubre, 2016 - 03:12

David T. Jones, The Weblog of (a) David Jones, Oct 14, 2016

I think this falls into the category of overthinking things, but I still want to pass on this discussion of OER 'frameworks', for example one describing "different stages of OEP using a combination of OER usage and learning architecture." Yes, it's another set of taxonomies-and-stages. And as always they seem to raise more questions than they solve. "Whats an institution?" What about collaborative development? "What about moving beyond the institution?" Why is 'open practice' a continuum? Is the 'value chain' the right place to locate OERs?

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Scraping Google Scholar to write your PhD literature chapter

OLDaily - 15 Octubre, 2016 - 03:12

Jon Dron, The Landing, Oct 14, 2016

What's interesting about the diagram in this post is that you could figure out who the major writers are in the field without knowing anything about the writers or the field. Take a look. Rawls, Sen and Ostrom occupy central locations. "Basically, it automatically (well - a little effort and a bit of Google Scholar/Gephi competence needed) maps out connected research areas and authors, mined from Google Scholar, including their relative significance and centrality, shaped to fit your research interests." When we can do this for everybody, what would we need tests and exams for any more?

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You are almost definitely not living in reality because your brain doesn’t want you to

OLDaily - 15 Octubre, 2016 - 03:12

Buster Benson, Quartz, Oct 14, 2016

Good article listing sources of cognitive bias (always an interest of mine). Numerous links. "In order to avoid drowning in information overload, our brains need to skim and filter insane amounts of information...

  1. Information overload sucks, so we aggressively filter.
  2. Lack of meaning is confusing, so we fill in the gaps.
  3. We need to act fast lest we lose our chance, so we jump to conclusions.
  4. This isn’ t getting easier, so we try to remember the important bits.

By keeping these four problems and their four consequences in mind (we) will ensure that we notice our own biases more often." The item called to my recollection a CBC interview I listened to this morning with Julia Shaw, author of The Memory Illusion: Why you might not be who you think you are.At least, I think I listened to it.

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Learning in the Digital Age

OLDaily - 15 Octubre, 2016 - 03:12

Michael Grant, Conference Board of Canada, Oct 14, 2016

This report from the Conference Board of Canada "explores the potential of e-learning in the Canadian setting." Most Conference Board reports are expensive (like this excellent  Learning and Development Outlook from last year) but this one is free. Most readers of this newsletter will find the report very superficial, dated and quaint. It's not clear there was actually a literature review, as claimed - many of the (sparse) resources in the  bibliography link to error pages on the Conference Board website (the references have other errors, including a '2003' article on MOOCs). The main points of discussion - whether e-learning should be employed, the quality of faculty-created courses, the nature of the LMS - would have been appropriate in 2004. Aside from a short discussion of MOOCs, there is nothing about modern e-learning: social networks, simulations and virtual reality, gamification, workplace support (indeed, workplace learning is all but ignored). The report contains three recommendations: reduce economic barriers, tackle institutional constraints, and adopt excellent practices. Well sure; we'll get right on that, once we get past this Y2K bug thing.

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The Present Outlook Of Speech Recognition Will Convince You We’re Living In The Future

Moodle News - 14 Octubre, 2016 - 17:43
Reporting on research conducted by Stanford, the University of Washington and Chinese web company Baidu, they present results on the current state of Baidu’s Deep Speech 2 speech recognition...

Vols unir-te al moviment edcamp?

Educació Demà - 14 Octubre, 2016 - 15:19
Es busquen edcampers! Us convidem a participar en la presentació del projecte edcamp a Catalunya i als tallers per a futurs “edcampers” que estem preparant!

Però... què és un edcamp? Un Edcamp és una trobada gratuïta i oberta a tothom amb la finalitat de compartir aprenentatges, coneixements i inquietuds per tal de desenvolupar-se personal i professionalment i transformar l’educació. La seva metodologia es basa en l’aprenentatge entre iguals, la conversa i l’intercanvi de coneixements. No hi ha un programa definit per l’organització de la trobada, ja que són els participants els qui construeixen conjuntament el programa a partir dels temes que són del seu interès.

Aquest moviment va ser creat el 2010 a la ciutat de Filadèlfia i, des d’aleshores, la idea de crear trobades obertes entre persones interessades en l’educació, s'ha transformat en un moviment amb més 1.000 edcamps desenvolupats arreu del món en 25 països. 

La Fundació Jaume Bofill vol promoure aquest model a Catalunya i, en aliança amb la Edcamp Foundation dels Estats Units, desitja transferir aquesta metodologia a persones, col·lectius, centres i comunitats educatives que vulguin organitzar els seus propis edcamps. El suport de la Fundació a l’equip de promotors de cada edcamp serà gratuït i es basarà en formació, acompanyament i recolzament logístic i comunicatiu.

Tens inquietuds, aprenentatges i coneixements sobre els quals t'agradaria compartir amb altres apassionats sobre l'educació com tu?  Creus que l'aprenentatge entre iguals és una eina potent per millorar la pràctica educativa? Vols ser promotor/a d’Edcamps? Vols unir-te al moviment Edcamp i organitzar una trobada a la teva ciutat o al teu barri? Vine a la nostra presentació, participa en un dels 3 tallers simultanis sobre metodologia Edcamp que organitzarem i gaudeix d’un Edcamp en viu!

La presentació comptarà amb Ismael Palacín, director de la Fundació Jaume Bofill, i serà dinamitzada per Xavier Pujol, promotor del moviment Edcamp a Catalunya. 

Accés lliure i gratuït.

La presentació es podrà seguir en directe per streaming a través del web de la Fundació Jaume Bofill, i també via Twitter @FundacioBofill i @edcampCAT  amb el hashtag #edcampCAT

No arribes a l'hora de la presentació? Cap problema! Podràs recuperar el visionat aquí.

Anima’t i inscriu-te a l’acte!


Learning Communities

OLDaily - 14 Octubre, 2016 - 15:06

Presented atMOOCs4All. In this discussion I discuss the thinking behind our MOOCs, personal learning environments and connectivism and consider the question of how we know whether the method is working, how we know whether it is effective. Presented online via Adobe Connect and simulcast (using xSplit) to YouTube Live. Above is the SAdobe Connect recording. Also you can view the  xSplit recording to YouTube Live from the presenter screen (doesn't show screen shares, because that's how Connect rolls). Extended Virtual Symposium , Online, Via Adobe Connect and YouTube Live (Keynote) Oct 13, 2016 [Comment]
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We’re Proud to Announce the Launch of MappingEDU

OLDaily - 14 Octubre, 2016 - 15:06

Troy Wheeler, Ed-Fi, Oct 14, 2016

This is a very specialized piece of technology, but if you're building learning technologies, it's also an important application. "MappingEDU is a web-based system designed to do one common,  time-consuming data integration task well: map one data standard to another. The primary users are data analysts and technical staff who create mappings between data sources. MappingEDU also contains features to assist subject matter experts in reviewing data mappings." See also this press release.

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Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Prize in Literature for Creating New Poetic Expressions within the Great American Song Tradition

OLDaily - 14 Octubre, 2016 - 15:06

Dan Colman, Open Culture, Oct 14, 2016

Normally I'd be celebrating a Nobel for peace or physics or something, but this year's Nobel prize in Literature speaks to me. "Dylan has released album after album, decade after decade, that showcase his unparalleled wordcraft in various song forms. And some of his finest work has appeared only in recent years, when it seems his career might have come to a close."

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Digital Sunscreen – What does your school do?

OLDaily - 14 Octubre, 2016 - 15:06

Dean Groom, Playable, Oct 14, 2016

This is not a coherent post - not even close. But there is something interesting going on here. The core metaphor of 'digital sunscreen' is not defined (except for the fact that it lasts two hours). Meanwhile there is an undercurrent about teachers and tech leaders becoming part of the problem we're trying to solve. Then there's this: "I’ ve been using the term edumedia sarcastically. The proper term is mission-driven marketing –   a way to turn awareness into action with those new to your product or to  engage already-supportive people in deeper ways. It uses teachers, enlists paid and unpaid teachers and ex-teachers – to present itself as ‘ the future’ in a duplicity of discussions and forms." Lovely.

There's a  follow-up post today that helps a bit. Dean Groom writes, "I think I’ ll actively promote two hours a day (school+home) is an essential contract between parents and teachers." So I think the point is to limit screen time to two hours. Groom admits "Two hours a day is going to sound ridiculous to kids and adults alike." And the concern underlying the limit is this: " is dominated by the commercial agendas and belief of a few mega-brands – Apple, Google, and Microsoft. The ‘ social stream’ of edumedia is seduced and propositioned by brands." He's not wrong - but the remedy needs to be fixed.

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Arts-Based Research: Surprise and Self-Motivation

OLDaily - 14 Octubre, 2016 - 15:06

Raleigh Werberger, Edutopia, Oct 14, 2016

Here's the teaser: "Arts-based research is beginning an investigation without expectations and remaining open to all possibilities. Now imagine asking a ninth-grade class to deconstruct and recreate a Happy Meal. Now I wouldn't want a ninth-grade class to ever be in the same room as a happy meal. But I get the point; I remember at SXSW a decade ago watching participants take café offerings and turn them into nouveau cuisine. "Arts-based research, a methodology of inquiry promoted by Professors Shaun McNiff and Elliot Eisner, asks the researcher to begin an investigation, not with a predetermined sense of what is useful, but by remaining open to all possibilities for diving in." That's how I like to do my work, but it's far from universally accepted.

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Why Isn’t Science Class More Like Learning to Play Baseball?

OLDaily - 14 Octubre, 2016 - 15:06

Alison Gopnik, Mind/Shift, Oct 14, 2016

I like the argument. And I think it's more right than wrong. "There is no particularly good reason why ballet or basketball should be taught through apprenticeship while science and math are not. As any scientist will tell you, our profession is as much a  matter of hard-won skill as piano or tennis. In graduate school, where we really teach science, we use the same methods as a chef or a tailor."

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YANSS 086 – Change My View

OLDaily - 14 Octubre, 2016 - 15:06

David McRaney, You Are Not So Smart, Oct 14, 2016

This podcast discusses an experiment whereby the history of discussions was run through natural language analytics. "When they did that, they discovered two things: what kind of arguments are most likely to change people’ s minds, and what kinds of minds are most likely to be changed."

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English man spends 11 hours trying to make cup of tea with Wi-Fi kettle

OLDaily - 14 Octubre, 2016 - 15:06

Bonnie Malkin, The Guardian, Oct 14, 2016

Voice-activated WiFi kettles are still in the realm of future technology (and, I would think, about as safe as a Galaxy Note 7) but this nightmare scenario still draws out an important lesson for the internet of things (IoT) and technology integration in general. But gthe best line in the article has nothing to do with the kettle: "Well the kettle is back online and responding to voice control, but now we're eating dinner in dark while lights download a firmware update." These are all the sort of things that can't happen with household appliances. We tolerated it for decades with software because, well, software, but when the toaster won't toast we're going to begin fighting back.

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How Learning and Development Are Becoming More Agile

OLDaily - 14 Octubre, 2016 - 15:06

Jon Younger, Harvard Business Review, Oct 14, 2016

As the title suggests, learning and development are becoming more agile. By this, what they mean is that there is a much greater use of freelancers. The article draws from an Accenture study (14 page PDF) on outsourcing that suggests "HR will need to redefine its mission and activities— and perhaps create new roles and organizational structures to maximize the extended workforce’ s strategic value... the best HR organizations of the future will offer learning opportunities to extended workers." The article quotes Patty Woolcock, the executive director of CSHRP, the California Strategic HR Partnership, says: "The future of learning is three 'justs': just enough, just-in-time, and just-for-me." So we're looking at technology-supported peer learning, bringing together customers and providers, and focusing on development (growth) rather than deficiencies (or gaps).

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Scaling Up Learning Communities: The Experience of Six Community Colleges

OLDaily - 14 Octubre, 2016 - 15:06

Mary G. Visher, Emily Schneider, Heather Wathington, Herbert Collado, National Center for Postsecondary Research, Oct 14, 2016

I'm preparing for a talk on Thursday on learning communities and encountered this excellent study from 2010. This is a fairly large study, as the title suggests, and the report (153 page PDF) provides a comprehensive overview, including these observations:

  • A paid coordinator and committed college leaders were essential to managing and scaling up learning communities.
  • As coordinators clarified expectations and offered support, faculty responded by changing their teaching practices.
  • Curricular integration remained difficult to implement widely and deeply.
  • Student cohorts led to strong relationships among students, creating both personal and academic support networks.

Additionally, the authors recommend curricular integration supporting active and collaborative learning, including collaboration with faculty and student services, with the objective of promoting student engagement.

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