“The education space” is an imprecise sort of street address that’s beginning to bother me.  It seems to mean something more than itself: not the precise space within which teaching or learning actually occurs, but the larger territory of business operations that brings together all those with an eye on the profits to be had from the future of education as a peculiar hybrid of market and service.

And this week, there’s been some agitation in the education space.

Firstly, I’ve been compelled by a spirited bit of back-and-forth involving Audrey Watters of Hack Education, writing as a guest on Michael Feldstein’s blog, and Jarrod Drysdale, the developer of a short-lived analytics app, Knack for Teachers. The essence of this fairly average tale from the entrepreneural trenches is that despite close family connection to individual teachers Drysdale found himself smarting when he couldn’t persuade teachers as a profession to take up his innovation.

So he’s been letting off steam on his blog about teachers failing to get with the program of educational reform. I probably do share Audrey Watters’ general irritation with his tone, as do about half of his readers.  She describes him as underprepared and bitter; he defends himself as merely wanting to enable teachers to generate data about their teaching effectiveness, that they could use to change the educational system. He could have left it at that, but unfortunately went on to describe a market he may want to court again one day in terms that can most generously be described as whiny, and in response to Watters he’s come back for a second go.  Oh dear.

Above all, and despite tactful nudges from his readers that he try to get his head around the facts of life for employees on fixed grade salaries, Drysdale seems not to have understood that the main reason teachers invest time or their own money in anything is that they’re trying to make things better for their students, not because they’re trying to freshen up their careers.  And for many teachers, analytics still seem a little indirect, especially if the tools aren’t easy to use.

The question of paying for teaching tools is close to home for me as I was one of many caught out when Ning replaced its free social networking service for a pricing model that meant I ended up paying for the site I use to teach.  And a colleague of mine who uses clickers in his classroom in well-thought out and interesting ways that students really find helpful is currently wrestling with a request that he make a business case in writing in order to get reimbursed for the batteries that these need.

It seems to me that if bricks and mortar teachers were reduced to renting the conference room at a local motel in order to run their classes, we’d be hearing about it. But this sort of demand is entirely familiar to anyone using educational technology to teach: even when we’re not paying our own money for some kind of app or hosted service, we’re setting up our own private accounts in the clouds to help our students access things that we think are more interesting, useable and engaging than the features of the standard campus LMS we’re wrestling with.

About half of Drysdale’s readers seem to be trying to point this out.  But the other half are far more important. These are the app store entrepreneurs who have an eye on both K-12 and higher education as emerging markets for novel little technologies of all kinds, and it’s worth quoting the most recent comment on Drysdale’s blog in full:

Hi Jarrod,

Looking forward to another post, this time focusing on why the product didn’t really take off. It would be great if you can get into details, other than “lousy customers” and “some people didn’t want their problem solved”, etc. Something more specific could be more helpful for other people trying to venture to this space.

Of course people are still going to ask the same question again (did you solve the wrong problem? was the solution is really practical? would it worth in terms of the value that you giving that they use the systems? why do they choose not to use the app? etc). If you can address that, it would be much more interesting and can lead to better discussions.

Then again you had spent a year on this, and even though I really don’t agree with you on principle, you have tried more than I do in this education space, so kudos.

It’s pretty clear from this that “space” is the new “market”, and that we’re going to need to think very carefully about the grounds on which we might like to offer a counter-explanation. If the education space is more (or less) than the sum of its hundreds of thousands of employees who can be harried into buying tech stuff, what is it instead?

This brings me to the second bit of agitation that caught my eye. George Siemens has been provoked by a generalised attack on the value of education institutions in actually sustaining learning. While at the moment I’d be as happy as anyone to see the DIYers and edupunks storming the citadels of higher learning, I can’t dismiss the clear and sensible point that some of most radical initiatives are currently being made possible by the fact that security of employment is still the enabling condition of both critique and innovation:

At this point, I cannot imagine a scenario or situation that will be more damaging to humanities, social sciences, and, to a lessor degree, media scholars, than the large scale breakdown of traditional universities. What system (certainly not patronage) has given philosophers and scholars better support? Sure, artists will produce art even if they are not eating. And have throughout history. However, artists, thinkers, philosophers – people who shape our view of ourselves and enable us to shape our future – are pushed to the margins of influence if they are not connected to a system that amplifies their influence and preserves their freedom to work.

So, you know, kudos to that.

UPDATE: Hello and thanks to Audrey Watters who has popped by in the comments and sparked a memory that the other phrase that has bothered me this year is “education vertical“.

3 Responses

  • Thanks for pointing out the imprecision (and awfulness) of my phrase “education space.” I hate it too, as I do “education industry” (partly because I feel that that term points a finger at the businesses that make money from education and somehow excuses the education system itself, which is still oh so industrial). “Education system” doesn’t seem quite right either, of course, but nor does “education ecosystem” which comes closer to what I’d like to see but seems all too green and lush for a “space” (OMG UGH!) that’s really not all that conducive to growth. And stuff.


  • In Australia we have a tendency to mention the “education sector” which is rather workmanlike but with a strange sci-fi overlay — not good either. Don’t get me started on “education vertical”. I think what investors are reaching for is a term that conveys market opportunity without actually drooling; what educators are trying to find is the ecosystemic term that magically references their core values and lived realities all in one. I’m starting to wonder if we could propagate education zone. “Educational maelstrom of speculation” seems a bit cumbersome … On the other hand, just plain “education” sometimes does the trick.

    So you’re entirely right, this is about the difficult search for a nifty term to convey a whole world of misgiving and opportunity all rolled up into one.

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