Sunday, June 13, 2010

The corporate confusion machine

What if we let fast food chains give the public lessons on nutrition? Would we allow that? If we did, I am sure there would be many of us who would be highly skeptical of the message they send. I am also sure there would be plenty of people who, if the fast food chains were persistent enough with their message, would start to internalize and trust that message. I am also sure that a growing number of people would come to trust that message or at least give it equal credence as an independent voice. What if the fast food chains hired a well respected researcher to conduct a study that showed eating fast food was better than another diet choice? This research would not have to take into consideration the plethora of other lifestyle or diet, only ones that were less healthy than eating fast food.

I must admit that a guilty pleasure of mine lately has been listening to conservative talk radio. I find listening to most programs on Clear Channel to be kind of like watching a car wreck. I know I shouldn't pay any attention but I can't help but look. I listen because I am intrigued with how each day, like a machine, they twist the facts and through the course of a 24 hour news cycle can move an idea from, "some people may say," to "this is how it is." The whole industry is recursive, building upon itself and opinions expressed earlier as references to build a case for something most rational people would never accept. To add fuel to their fire they go out and find the one or two scientists or researchers who will either present bizarre interpretations of data that support the day's talking points or will present data that contradicts the opposite view but doesn't necessarily support the day's talking points. In the process they stir up enough confusion that many average people will be willing to accept false statements to be true.

Both of these scenarios (one real and one imagined) have one thing in common, corporations. Corporations exist with one chief responsibility above all else: provide profits for shareholders. This profit motif drives much of what happens on conservative talk radio. This is painfully obvious because when something disastrous happens, like the gulf oil spill, they bend over backwards to blame anyone but corporations. In the past few weeks we heard the conservative opinutainment machine try to blame everyone from the Sierra Club to President Obama instead of placing the blame on anyone in the petroleum industry. We have also heard them try to dismiss the problem by saying that this is no big deal, that oil leaks happen all the time naturally, and that the amount of oil spewing into the gulf is minor compared to all the water in the ocean.

This same issue has been at the heart of most major critiques of the charter school movement. Most of the time I get into arguments with people about the pros and cons of charter schools it becomes clear that me as a supporter of charter schools and those opponents of them are usually talking about different types of charters. Most of the time they are talking about big box corporately run schools like KIPP and TFA while the charters I support are small locally run schools. In these arguments I find myself having to concede that we are arguing about different things and that I agree with those who oppose charter schools on this premise. Any time a school is created for the purpose of serving corporate interests instead of the educational interest of its students it is created for reasons that are immoral and disingenuous. The education of our children should not be founded upon what is in corporate interests.

Now, the fast food scenario seems rather ridiculous but, it seems to me that we are allowing this scenario with other facets of public education. The charter movement is just one area where this has been allowed to happen. We allow corporately run schools and corporately driven reform initiatives (and for this case I am also including union voices) the same level of consideration as less biased voices. The same thing is happening with edtech. For the past couple years, whenever I go to a education technology conference it seems that companies selling products (like SMART, Promethean, rSchool Today, Apple, etc.) have been moving their pitch outside the exhibit floor and into conference sessions.

This past fall at the TIES Conference I spoke with a rep from Apple who said that the company has given up entirely promoting their products in the exhibit hall and has instead focused their energy entirely in offering educational sessions. Do you think that a session at a conference by one of these companies will be objective in their presentation of research and best practices? Do you think, if there were a better tool to use to achieve the goal/effect of what they demonstrate, that they would be honest and forthright or is their primary purpose to sell you their product? At that same conference I heard Dr. Robert Marzano present research, paid for by Promethian, that showed use of an IWB had a positive influence on test scores. This research was not peer reviewed and it was clear that it ignored all the plethora of learning environments that may exist. It only relied on a narrow view of education that clearly supports the pitcher and cup method of instructionalist learning environments. Dr. Marzano's research sells IWBs not by what it includes but by what is left out.

I see this as a dangerous trend. The more and more we allow those who sell us things to be given equal floor space as independent educators and researchers at educational conferences and the more we are beat down by their message, just like what happens daily on conservative talk radio, the harder it is to tell what is truth and the harder it is for us to make clear and informed decisions. Minnesota is in the middle of a state-wide budget crisis. Schools have to be careful with how they spend their money. The push is even greater for these companies to scramble to collect whatever they can of what little dollars schools can spend on their wares. When I hear of a school district cutting media specialists in this climate so they can afford to put more IWBs in classrooms I have to wonder if this was the result of the corporate confusion machine.

With states having to delay and reduce payments to schools, districts are forced to make cuts. This spring we have seen a surge in cuts to media specialists and technology integration specialists (I had to change jobs because these budget cuts meant no more financial support for my position at Goodhue Public Schools). In the absence of people in these positions, and with great reductions in dollars for professional development schools are forced to find alternative methods of training teachers. The companies who sell us hardware, software, and curriculum are stepping in to fill this void. Most companies offering high ticket items like SMARTboards offer their customers free training for staff members. These training sessions amount to little more than infomercials masquerading as professional development.

Districts are put in a difficult situation. For x amount of dollars they can afford to staff a full time media specialist or technology integration specialist position whose primary objective is help raise student achievement and thus are not influenced by profit motives. These positions are also our schools' best instrument for teaching digital literacy and critical analysis. For less money a district can equip 10 or so classrooms with IWBs and receive free training from the company. This is a Trojan horse. While on paper this might sound like sound investment, what these companies will tell your teachers will only reinforce what they already do and will not revolutionize instruction in ways we have been told it will. Essentially, districts doing this are trading real pedagogical and curricular transformation for smoke, mirrors, and infomercials. Furthermore, teachers receiving this training (be it "in house" or at a conference session) receive continuing education units (CEUs) good toward the renewal of their license, cheapening their credentials.

Teacher unions should be standing up against this. They oppose cart blanch efforts for alternative licensure, blocking legislation that would allow professionals from industry to be granted teaching licenses and opposing corporately funded school reform efforts but not this. Why is that? I suspect it is because the free training offered in these sessions reinforces the status quo they also protect. They offer a path of least resistance, sending the false message to teachers that they do not have to change anything fundamental to their practice to integrate technology in their classrooms. Teachers like these tools because they provide a false impression that traditional teaching methods can work well for all kids. And, operating from a profit motif, companies selling you goods are not going to challenge you very much to reflect upon your practice or make fundamental changes to your pedagogy.


Hall Jackson said...

Hmm something to think about since I'm on the "other side" now. I can certainly see your point of view in relation to vendors getting into the workshop and even keynote space.

I work for an "Ed Tech" company, and I often do workshops at conferences and forums. In fact I do 2 types of workshop.

Vendor workshop - This is specific and advertised as such - I will be talking about product, demonstrating it and showing how it can be used in the classroom.

Teacher workshop - This is where I put on my free/open source hat and show how to use free/open source tools with "generic" Ed Tech in innovative ways (IWB's, Doc Cams, projectors...)

The problem is that as an ex school teacher I know that conferences is where you can really get inspired - it is hard to take a step back in your classroom when you are still in your classroom. Take teachers out of the school environment and you can reboot/refresh their perspective.

As an educator, I know that there are just not enough technology integrators around, so I can't help but try and fill the void with a little PD.

Teachers also like to know that the people selling the Ed Tech have actually been in a classroom and know what works and what doesn't. They like to know that the company actually cares what a classroom needs as far as reliability and ease of use goes. How do you get that kind of message across without doing some sort of workshop session at a conference?

The last point I would like to make is this. With all of the marketing via email and post, it is very hard to be noticed, to be on the radar when decisions about ED Tech are being made. Most teachers ignore the brochures, emails and flyers we send them. I've been to numerous conferences where I've talked to more exhibitors than teachers. They are too busy to see us at school so conference workshops seem to be the only way to get face time so we can get to talk to them.

I'm quite proud of the company I work for in its approach to education - especially the push towards individualised education and project-based learning. A lot of the work we do is based on sound pedagogical research (peer reviewed) and if there isn't enough research on a piece of technology we encourage our tertiary based customers to independently study the effectiveness of the technology and publish it good or bad.

Yes vendor takeover of education conferences is a bad thing, but don't dismiss us altogether either, we have a lot to offer.

Oh and those free training sessions... Well we don't like teachers and schools spending money on Ed Tech and not using it either. So we offer free training so teachers feel comfortable with the technology so they can then change their pedagogy.

Carl Anderson said...


Thank you for your thorough response to my post. I want you to know that I find no fault with the edtech companies in this. I even like a lot of the products and will at times recommend them. My concern is that teachers and administrators attending a conference might not readily differentiate between a session funded by a corporately employed trainer or salesperson and those presented by independent teachers and researchers. This is especially true with edtech where I hear a lot of districts tell me, "We don't know enough about what we don't know to know what we need with regard to technology." Districts in this situation are very vulnerable. As an employee of a company trying to sell technology to schools it would go against corporate interests for corporately employed trainers not to take advantage of this, whether or not what you are selling is in the best interest of schools. My question is should conference organizers allow vendors to sell their products in PD sessions?

Hall Jackson said...

Thanks for your reply Carl.

It is hard for conference organisors as well. Sometimes the best knowledge comes from the vendor, other times you think that a vendor has lined up a "sales neutral" workshops - and then halfway through they turn it into a sales pitch.

Confrernce organisors also have the problem of economics. They always want to reduce delegate cost, and one of the ways to do it is to offer "vendor" PD for a price. Getting good workshop presenters is always hard so offering up space to vendors is always a temptation.

I suppose it comes down to labeling and being clear at to who is presenting, where they are coming from and what their purpose is. Otherwise known as quality control.

I'd love to be a full time reviewer/integrator not tied to any particular company - I think Marc Prensky does well out of it but thats about it.