EdTech: Is this our future?
Oh my God. Oh my effing God.
If you want to see where Competency Based Education, data mining, the cradle to career pipeline, the gig economy, and the transformation into a master and servant class society all intersect-- boy, have I got a video for you. Spoiler alert: this is also one way that public education dies.
I'm going to walk you through the video, embed it for your own viewing, and tell you about the people behind this. Hang on. This is stunning. And I'll warn you right up front-- this is not some hack job that looks like amateur hour video production (like, say, an in house USED video). This is slick and well-produced. Which somehow makes it more horrifying. The Video The video is a little SF film taking us ten years into the future. Imagine you are one of the one billion people using a new technology called The Ledger. And our slogan...? Learning is earning. Your Ledger account tracks everything you've ever learned in units called edublocks. An edublock represents, supposedly, one hour of learning in any subject-- which brings us to our first mystery, which is exactly how one breaks down learning into hours. But you can get edublocks from anyone-- from a formal institution like a school (though as we'll see, there will be precious few schools in the Ledger's world) or from, well, anyone. Literally anyone. But especially also your workplace. That connection matters, because edublocks are tied straight to your employment and your income. But they can also come from informal groups, community gatherings, even apps. Even when you are jamming with your garage band or training puppies, you can be earning edublocks. Your profile displays all the blocks you've earned. Employers can use this information to offer you a job or a gig that matches your skills. The Ledger will track the money you make from those gigs and use it to evaluate the edublock sources; ultimately every edublock source will carry a rating that shows which sources led to people earning the most money. Because in the world of the Ledger, money is the ultimate yardstick by which all value is measured. You can even market yourself as a commodity, bartering for free edublocks by offering a share of your future earnings in return. The video does not say anything about what happens if you do not provide a sufficient return on the investment, and I'd rather not imagine how that particular "collection" goes. All of this managed by blockchain, best known for managing the world of bitcoins, which are totally going to change how the world economy works, somehow, someday (but we've encountered them in similar schemes before). But one of the critical features of such a system is that all of these edublocks are part of a public record. This is your cradle to career data backpack, but it's not remotely private. It can't be-- not for the system to work as imagined. When your elementary principal warned you that your misbehavior with the erasers at recess could become a blot on your permanent record that would follow you around forever, she had no idea that she was understating the case. Now we're going to meet some real imaginary people from 2026 to illustrate how all this plays out. Here's freelance delivery driver Michael, who opens with "Always learning, always earning, that's my motto." He tries to learn something every month, which is a challenge ("It ain't easy"). However, his advantage is-- well, I'll just quote him because this is a special moment-- "One thing that helps, I love to read. So I listen to a lot of audio books..." which mostly just calls to mind Ray Stanz saying, "Listen. Do you smell something?" Anyway, the audio app awards Michael some edublocks whenever he gets to the end of an audio book. No word on what happens if he just reads a paper one. Michael also belongs to a book group with other drivers, and they take turns teaching and earning blocks, but the big insight he offers is this-- It's more like, Ledger has opened everyone's eyes to the fact that there are teachers everywhere. With that, we cut to Yolanda, a young woman in the government's Pay It Forward program, in which you pay off your college loans by teaching other people what you've learned. Because when she took her college course, those credits went into the Ledger and she is pre-approved "to teach any subject I passed." Which would seem to suggest that the moment her college professor finished teaching the first class, that professor's job could be eliminated. Then-- and this is not apropos of anything-- there's a bizarre guitar interlude that sounds like a vinyl disk being played with an off-center hole. Next we meet Carl, who in 2026 is a "Learning and earning counselor." The video does not suggest if this 54-year-old man took this job after his college professor-ship was eliminated. Carl notes that people have to decide whether they want to go the traditional college route or just build their own program. That brings us to Alejandra, who is sixteen years old and, by virtue of playing science games on her tablet, has Ledgered her way into becoming a leading scientist in the field of biochemistry. I am not kidding. She got a trophy, and the program now gives her "super-hard" puzzles to solve. But the really awesome thing is that she gets paid for accumulating these edublocks. Because earn while you learn. So the game is like her first biochemistry class, but it is also her job. Now, Aileen, a human resources director, is here to explain how edublocks empower the gig economy. No more entry level jobs. In fact (though she doesn't say it in so many words) no more jobs. Employers have projects. They whip up a list of skills needed for the project and then they go search the edublock database for people with those edublocks and bring them on for the project. "Of course, relationships are still important. And we still help people grow," she says. "But we don't have to pay them jack and there are no benefits or pension costs, so it's hella cheap for us." Okay, I made up the last part. But in addition to whatever money they get, the workers also earn edublocks, which these folks anticipate will be kind of like part of your pay. So, a way to formalize what folks like web designers and writers have always loved abouyt some gigs-- no real money, but a chance to get "exposure" and "experience." Next up-- David, an edublock verification designer. See, we'll all be logging into edublock verification sites where we will be given "a task, a chance to demonstrate your proficiency in a real world context." Because nothing is more real world than an artificial task on a computer program. Wonder what the software for welding or setting broken bones will look like. Very real world, I'm sure. David offers a sample list of skills that you could demonstrate, including designing a logo and grading an essay. David says you're even paid for your time, though probably something minimum wagey. Now we're winding down with big slogans like "Employers are teachers. Jobs are courses. Every gig is a chance to learn something new. Schools and teachers are obsolete for the lower class." Okay, I just added the last one. But I did not make up this next one-- And with one billion people on the Ledger, there are more teachers than ever before. We're back to Michael, who says that when he's a teacher, he takes it seriously (he does not repeat that it ain't easy) because learning connects everything in his life. Who the hell are these people? The video is courtesy of ACT Foundation and the Institute for the Future. ACT Foundation is an offshoot of the testing folks; their goal is to reach "across organizational boundaries, sectors, and the nation, to develop strategic approaches to support working learners in their journeys toward successful careers and lives." ACT's CEO Marten Roorda is on the board of directors along with Jim Larimore, ACT's Chief Officer for the Advancement of Underserved Learners, Thomas J. Goedken, Treasurer and CFO, ACT, and Ms. Sara R. Netolicky, Secretary and General Counsel, ACT. The Foundation's founding and current executive director is Parminder J. Kassal. Kassal used to work for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the area of postsecondary success for poor kids. Before thatshe was a director of workforce solutions in Louisville, a senior associate at Futureworks, and a head of the consulting wing of Lucent. So, no actual background in education. Which, hey, doesn't matter, because everyone in the world is a teacher. Institute for the Future, based in Palo Alto, is "an independent, non-profit research organization with a more than 45-year track record of helping all kinds of organizations make the futures they want." Their staff includes people from fields in the range of "the social sciences, public policy, technology, and the creative arts." My Reaction? Let me repeat. Oh my God. Oh my effing God. First let's talk about that number-- one billion. US population is currently a tad over 300 million. Primarily-English-speaking people hovers around 400 milllion or more. World population is couple of tads over 7 billion. So who are the one billion? Which multiple nations has ACT targeted for this Brave New World (and how are they jumping across language barriers). Is there a real plan behind One Billion, or did it just sound like a cool number for marketing? And speaking of that, what is the marketing plan? Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple have all worked hard to get the masses of humanity behind their own multifaceted platform for interaction with the digital ocean, and yet people still insist on fishing in that ocean out of different boats. How well will the Ledger work if only some employers and some trainers and some apps and some meat widgets use it? What will happen if a market battle breaks out-- there are other companies out there working on some version of this idea. Does ACT have a plan for getting not one, but several governments to sign off and join up on the Ledger, so that the program can have access to everything, every last bit of data? Because this whole plan would seem to require that a corporation and governments join together to provide a more user-friendly computer-based surveillance state. And by user, of course, I mean corporations, because it's future employers who would find this most helpful. Just check the database, select the meat widget that fits your specs, and slap that widget in place. If enough companies pick up on the Ledger, that might make it useful to future meat widgets, but this is a system with all of the terrible weaknesses and general crapitude of competency based education writ large. I mean, mountain-sized huge. Who, for instance, is going to write all the lists of all the edublocks that comprise all of the possible sorts of education one can get? I suspect the answer is "employers," because implicit in the ledger is that the only "education" or "skills" that matter are the ones that someone will pay you for. The Ledger gives employers total control over what "education" means in this (and apparently several other) countries. Who is going to create all the tasks that will measure and certify certain skills? It doesn't actually matter that much, because the bottom line is that all jobs and skill sets will be broken down to the simplest possible set of tasks, a simplification that guarantees that all nuance, complexity, and higher-order thinking will be kicked right out of the system. Exactly what task will certify that you have acquired one hour's worth of critical thinking? And how do we even begin to discuss the notion that it doesn't really matter whether you learn quantum physics from a PhD in the field or from a person who once sat in one class taught by that PhD? And does anybody think that this is how the children of the wealthy will be educated? Will they accept this sort of "education"? Will they accept this total violation of data privacy? This is not education. This is training. This is operant conditioning for the servant class that also provides the upper class with tools that let them trickle even fewer benefits down to the working class. In fact, I would say that this is just training rats to run a maze, but it's even worse than that, because ultimately even if we were to accept the premise that simply giving some job-ish training for the underclass is good enough, and even if I were to accept the racist, classist bullshit that somehow ignores the immoral and unethical foundations of such a system, the fact remains that this would be a lousy training system. To reduce any job of any level of complexity to this kind of checklist-of-tasks training provides the worst possible type of training. So, no, this isn't even sending rats into a maze to earn a pellet of food. This is carrying the pellet dispenser with you as an app. This is saying, "Well, the maze just involves twelve left turns and seven right turns." Then I hand the rat a tiny phone with an app that measures his ability to turn corners, and once the rat has turned twelve left corners and seven right ones, the app spits out a food pellet. This is also, not incidentally, the death of public education for any but the wealthy. In the world of the Ledger, there are no teachers, no schools, and no education for any purpose other than to satisfy the requirements of the people with power and money. In the world of the Ledger, educationtraining exists only to help workers better react to the demands of employers. There is no benefit to education training except to trade for money. The Ledger is the wet dream of every corporate boss who said, "Why are they wasting time teaching these kids all this extra stuff. I'm not gonna pay them for that." Do I think folks like ACT Foundation or Pearson (who also like a version of this model) can actually pull this off? It doesn't matter-- what matters is that this is their North Star, and even though you never get to the North Star, it still shapes the course you set. Worse, while I hope we never arrive in the world of the Ledger, these folks can do a huge amount of damage trying to navigate in that direction.