As EdTech grows, concern about corporate influence

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Last April, when New York governor Andrew Cuomo was deciding how to allocate $2 billion for classroom technology, he turned to a three person council for advice. One of the advisors he selected was Google chairman Eric Schmidt, prompting criticism about a potential conflict of interest. Would Schmidt recommend Google-favorable learning technology? This controversy illustrates a larger concern with the growing acceptance and adoption with educational technology: how much of a role should corporations be allowed to play in our education system?

One area of particular relevance to this question is educational technology. A number of school districts in Minnesota are jumping on the EdTech bandwagon, allocating more and more funding to getting every student access to the newest technologies. Some districts, such as Lakeville and Minnetonka, already have bought thousands of iPads for classroom use, with others such as Saint Paul planning on doing the same. Venture Academy, a charter school for primarily low-income students in Minneapolis, is integrating different types of digital learning into their curricula thanks to a grant from the Gates Foundation.

The burgeoning link between tech companies and K12 schools is worrisome. When districts make exclusive deals with tech giants, the companies gain a type of control over the schools. They can use their influence to push unnecessary products and suggest changes to curriculum. Schools should only concern themselves with educating students, not improving the bottom line of a corporation.

The risk for collusion is real. Organizations like the Gates Foundation, Pearson LLC, and Educational Testing Service have long documented histories of anti-teacher lobbying and other chicanery with the Department of Education. Some of the biggest proponents of Common Core have spent millions pushing state governments to adopt the standards – and 46 states have. Last July, Apple was found guilty of conspiring with publishing companies to raise e-book prices. The same could very well happen with education content in our state, especially when schools are tied to the company by contract.

I am not a Luddite. I think the integration of technology into Minnesota classrooms is more or less inevitable. But the legislature and school districts should be cautious about how far they go with EdTech. Peer reviewed research is mixed on the advantages of specific technologies. Computer education is lacking; lots of students do not even know how to effectively use the technology they do have. Digital learning can help students achieve, but simply handing them an iPad the first day after summer break is not going to guarantee success. We need to keep this in mind as technology begins to occupy a larger place in the classroom.