More ed tech internet of $h%@$t

I got  an email from Top Hat, an ed tech company that has packaged a content management stystem with slick graphics. I looked at it a year ago and thought, “why would I have my student pay for another LMS?.” Top Hat uses a bunch of fancy buzzwords like “interactive content” and “active learning,” but I haven’t seen anything that one can’t do in a standard LMS or with existing software for which my college already pays.

It costs nothing for instructors to use, but students pay for four months or $38 for a year. That’s on top of the technology fees students already pay to access a college’s LMS.

Today I received an email inviting me to Top Hat seminar on “Strategies for Succeeding as Adjunct Faculty,” hosted by three adjunct faculty. This might appear a noble gesture on the part of Top Hat. In reality, the push by ed tech companies with duplicative technologies into higher ed contributes to the problems of colleges exploiting adjuncts.

By my analysis, there are two issues at play. One, instructors adopt texts and technology and students pay for those adopted resources. Based on different measures (2012 and 2015) textbook prices have gone up over 1000% in the last 40 years. Housing, pharmaceuticals, medical care, even the general consumer price index comes even close to that rise. [As a side note, the costs may be stabilizing given the adoption of Open Education Resources, some of which are free. See the Bureau of Labor Statistics [tracking]( Now, Top Hat claims that they want to help hold down the cost of text resources, which is admirable. But duplicating existing resources doesn’t hold down costs, it explodes them. If three different instructors chose three different add-on CMS’s for their courses, plus a text book, a student could easily be out another $100 every semester. To pay for this extra $100 the student either takes on more debt or works more, and both correlate to lower student success in college.

So, duplicative ed tech that costs students additional money balloons the cost of higher education, which makes fewer students capable of taking as many courses. Downward pressure on enrollment stresses college finances which are increasingly reliant on tuition as state legislatures of all political persuasions have dis-invested in higher education over the last 30 years. As colleges are squeezed in their finances, they attempt to higher cheaper labor, like adjuncts. So, ed tech is contributing to an existing financial problem.

That is just the money. The second issue at play is the idea that technology can solve the problems of money, graduation rates, “student engagement” or the adjunctification of the professoriat. The idea that tech is the answer is being driven by venture capitalists who see the same windfalls they accrued with pharmaceuticals before the FDA cracked down. Pharma as un-scrutinized panacea gave us the opioid crises. What will tech as panacea give us? Certainly not a more just system for adjuncts or better prepared students.

For the record, the arguments against duplicative ed tech are both right (it costs too much) and left (it doesn’t reflect progressive values that empower students).

Safe home.

A short note on the technology of running and teaching.

I saw a fat, middle-age man running yesterday, gut bouncing up and down as he strode past me. He was wearing a button-up-the-front dress shirt that looked like a cheap blouse and some type of khaki pants. I had on the usual panoply of high-tech plastic and wool that is the rich runner’s sartorial norm today. As the fat man ran past, going the other direction, I thought “damn, that guy is awesome.”

No, he wasn’t running fast. No, he wasn’t noble or stoic or anything hidden (that I know of). He was just fat, and dressed for casual Friday, and running. That is, he was doing the exact same activity I was doing.

There are some who might read this story as a “see, triumph of the will” paeon to grit in the face of resource scarcity. I find arguments that anyone can accomplish great things if they put their mind to it to be ahistorical, and blind to issues of structural access and empowerment.

Individuals do succeed in the face of scarcity, but as a teacher, I do not want to design to my courses around superlative dedication in the face of lack of resources. Poor kids with average motivation to access resources should be able to succeed at the same rates as rich kids with average motivation to access resources.

That said, I saw this guy, twice, on each side of the lake and it got me thinking about what is necessary and what is sufficient when teaching with digital history. There’s a conference going on right now called HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) and I’m following it on Twitter. A number of the presenters attend to issues of poverty, a number of them don’t. But this guy got me thinking, what do my students need to learn history and what is nice, both in terms of historical thinking and in terms of technology. You need athletic shoes to run on asphalt. The tights, jacket, special gloves, hat, undershirt, those are great and help me feel better. But I need my shoes.

So, tonight I’m thinking about (again) about minimal computing, and wondering if I need to beta test all my digital lesson plans with an underpowered, 11″ Chromebook. Because that guy is awesome.