I have been pretty relentless in mocking Knewton CEO Jose Ferriera for his “robot tutor in the sky” description of the company’s adaptive learning product. And I pledge to continue this proud tradition. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
But the truth is that most of the vendors in this space, both startups and traditional textbook vendors, are not doing a whole lot better than Knewton. The reason the “robot tutors” quote remains so useful is that it is a beautifully compact and self-explanatory illustration of the same symptom that shows up throughout the industry. Vendors struggle find ways to pitch their products that educators won’t find both offensive and ridiculous. In today’s episode of the evergreen marketing sitcom, we’ll see examples of Pearson making analogies or prominent references to Netflix, Google Ads, and one other surprise tech hype guest. (You don’t expect me to give you all the spoilers up front, do you?)
For the most part, it’s not that these companies are conspiring against educators (although we do get periodic outbreaks of “disrupting education” talk driven by Silicon Valley bros who are want to make a virtue out of the fact that they don’t know how to sell to schools). Nor is it that the people in these companies are stupid, or that they don’t understand their own products. Rather, it’s a manifestation of a larger problem of our culture. Most people who are not teachers, whether they work for education vendors or not, don’t understand what teaching is. They have a very rough Gradgrindian sense of it. Learning, in this view, is not an activity undertaken by learners but something that is done to them. You screw off the tops of the students heads, pour the knowledge in, and voila! They have been learned! Learning can be done to students equally well by a person or a machine, since it is not “personal” in any way that relates to normal understanding of the word, and it certainly is not interpersonal.
The people inside education companies that work with customers closely in designing the products often (though not always) have a more sophisticated understanding of teaching than this. But the further away the employees are from product development, the less likely they are to understand how teaching really works. The inner workings of the classroom are just not part of their daily lives. As I wrote in my review of InstructureCon, it’s very hard and rare for any company of over, say, 100 employees to be strongly aligned and consistent across its culture. This is doubly (or even trebly) true when the alignment you’re trying to get cuts against the grain of strongly held cultural notions like the ones we have of teaching. So there are a lot of employees inside most of these companies that don’t get it. Some of them are decision-makers. Some of them are allowed to speak in public. Some of them are both. The result is generally…not good.
It’s probably worth providing a more detailed version of the full disclosure thing than usual for this particular post. Pearson is a client of MindWires, the consulting company that Phil and I run together. When we do consult for vendors (as opposed to universities, which is the other half of our main business), our focus is on helping them understand the needs of students, educators, and schools. We don’t take money to advise them on marketing except in the narrow sense that we try to help them understand the kinds of educational problems that their customers want to hear (and talk) about how to solve. One of the reasons we try to be meticulous about drawing this line is that it leaves our hands clean to write the kind of public critique that I am about to offer here. We always tell this to our corporate clients and let them know that we could write a critical piece about them at any time without warning or editorial review, as long as we are not writing about proprietary information that is part of our consulting work with them.
So here goes….