TWIEtR: inBloom, BETT, M&As

Let’s start by getting the TWIEtR acronym in the headline out of the way. It stands for, “This Week in Edtech Reports.”

Every day I scour the web for interesting reports and fact-based analysis about what’s happening in education technology. And, on Twitter, I’ve tended to tweet reports that provide a larger perspective or highlight a sweep of trends.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate anecdotes or pure opinion. Both have their place (and I’ve written lots of columns and commentary). But neither are as useful for reference.

Yet my tweets have the lifespan of a fruit fly. So I’m hoping these weekly round-ups will coalesce what I found interesting, with the caveat that what I find interesting also tends to include industry-focused reports, and may stray to where edtech intersects consumer and other kinds of technology.

As a one-time and long-time journalist and industry analyst, I’m hoping you’ll find these pointers useful, too. I’ll provide brief commentary from time to time.

This is an experiment and I hope to replicate it weekly. If you’d like to not have to check back to see if I have, go ahead and use the “Subscribe” box on the left. I promise you’ll only get blog posts.

It’s rare that an edtech startup gets a detailed post-mortem. But inBloom, which began life as the Shared Learning Collaborative (and which I explained early in its life on MindShift nearly five years ago), gets a useful and thoughtful deep-dive from Data & Society in a report called “The Legacy of inBloom.”

Adding further perspective are four accompanying essays from long-time data privacy experts and observers, such as Bill Fitzgerald, Olga Garcia-Kaplan, and Brenda Leong.

The abrupt implosion of the well-intentioned initiative deserves this kind of analysis, especially as proper handling of, and communication about, student data has become an even larger topic since inBloom died in 2014. Cautionary tales have value.

There have been a number of good analyses and reports about how investor interest in edtech startups flagged in 2016. Now Berkery Noyes Investment Bankers weighs in with a slim “Education Mergers and Acquisitions Trends Report” sporting some stunning statistics about last years’ education merger and acquisition activity.

From K-12 to adult, the news was not great, especially if you compare slightly down deal volume to nose-diving dollar value. As many except the biggest cheerleaders in the industry have said, if you’re an edu startup looking to cash out, better focus on building a profitable business first … or instead (always my preference).

One of the best industry analyst firms in edtech (if not the best) is Futuresource.  And one of the biggest edtech trade shows (okay, the biggest) is BETT in London.

Futuresource’s analysts scoured BETT and developed a free 43-page  “BETT 2017 Show Report” for download, in which each “page” has a text-heavy PowerPoint slide’s worth of content. Annoyingly, there’s a form in front of it (and no summary). But hey, it’s free. And a nice piece if you can’t afford to go across the pond every year to attend.

Trivia: BETT, originally an acronym for the British Educational Technology and Trade show, actually prefers to be called “Bett” now and has booted the meaning behind the acronym. But when it comes to calling it that, I bet few do.

And one more thing:

It looks like EdSurge, once my column home, has completed its transition to being more about edtech resources and information than news. It’s actually been a gradual shift, but the new home page suddenly puts paid services front-and-center. News is clearly secondary.

I’m not surprised. Journalism these days is a hard business and the bills need to be paid, especially if investors are involved. Something’s gotta underwrite the coverage if there are no subscriptions and few ads.

But if you, like me, want to avoid the sea of promotion the EdSurge home page has become, you can get right to the stories at this link. I’ve been promised by those in the know that news coverage will still continue, even if it’s not quite as immediately visible.

Once upon the end of 2016

Once upon a time, there was a writer who didn’t write.

He knew how to write. He had written. He just had stopped.

And not stopped in the dramatic way one assumes writers of melodramas must punctuate their prose (“I am so DONE with this CHAPTER!”). It had more simply quietly slipped away, first as a pause when his mother died the previous May, then was logically extended when he took a new full-time job a month later, and then … well, it just continued. Through the end of the old year, and into the start of the new.

He did take a brief break from not-writing in the spring, but only to review three new Amazon initiatives (and write an impassioned, well-reasoned plea to save a local public radio station for its digital media efforts) at the request of his former column home. It later turned out that those four essays were the end of it — of five years as a columnist and contributor to the tech news site GeekWire, and shorter parallel periods as a columnist for education technology news sites like EdSurge and NPR/KQED’s MindShift.

He finally realized it wasn’t because he couldn’t write. He actually still had quite a bit researched and even drafted. It’s just that he felt he had nothing new to say, and no one wants to become known as the author equivalent of the old guy who repeatedly yells, “Get off my lawn!”

The extended pause carried over to his other public activities, too. As the year came to a close, he realized his last public speaking engagement had been shortly after he stopped writing regularly.

He’d go into 2017 with an 18-month stretch nearly devoid of public writing and speaking.

And for this, he was verified on Twitter as a figure of public interest? No wonder Twitter had issues.

It wasn’t that 2016 was uneventful. He continued as vice president of marketing strategy for West Corporation’s Education group. His father passed away in September after a dramatic incident in January made it clear he had dementia, and he’d been able to fly to California monthly to visit and help as his dad moved from hospital to memory care home to hospital to rehab facility. He and his wife had a wonderful week-long hiking vacation in Palm Springs over Thanksgiving, appropriately punctuated with mid-century cocktails.

But 2016 ended with a one-time public figure not being quite as public. Was it an ending and redirection? Or a long cleansing of the palate?

As the new year brought a new chapter, he’d look forward to finding out if he was its protagonist, author, or both.

One year ago today, I silenced myself

FrankBWSXSWeduOne year ago today, I was preparing my final presentation for an education technology conference, a practical session at ISTE on students’ digital footprints and privacy.

One year ago today, I had finished dealing with comments and tweets on my last education technology analysis, a snarkfest for GeekWire on edtech trends, fads, and WTFs.

GeekWirecolumnsOne year ago today, I walked away from formally writing or speaking about edtech. I did so after two decades of writing and speaking about edtech, in locations as varied as New Zealand and DC, and for vehicles as varied as EdSurge and MindShift.

It was a departure I had planned for months, after many well-received keynotes and columns as an independent observer.

ETIN2As 365 days passed, a few began to notice my absence as a speaker or attendee at industry-focused conferences (this month, I shed my Advisory Board member role for SXSWedu, one that I’d held since 2012). A very fewer have asked: Why?

I usually coyly respond that it was time, that I was pruning extraneous activity. Now it seems worth unpacking that further into three reasons:

  • The influence of stupid money. Venture capital has an important role to play in accelerating startups and good ideas. But cash can equally and aggressively propel bad ideas. It was becoming increasingly clear that, as with consumer tech in the late 1990s, too much money was chasing too few good ideas in edtech by the middle of this decade. That gold-rush mentality was influencing what people wanted to write about, read about, hear about, and even which conferences waned and waxed.
  • The binary religious war. More and more of the conversation about edtech — inflamed by limited attention spans and limited social media character counts — devolved into an “edtech is education’s savior” or “edtech is de-humanizingly evil” binary argument. (There also were hidden financial or social agendas in which edtech was purely used as a stalking horse.) The truth is far more nuanced. Edtech is a tool that can be used both badly and well under human direction. And “edtech” is no longer just one thing, like a network connection, or a device, or software: It takes so many forms, that loving or hating “edtech” generically is meaningless. But nuance is not currently in vogue in popular dialogue, and I deal in nuance and its antecedent, thoughtfulness.
  • The lack of anything new to say. I still have plenty I’m observing and noting about education technology. I’m just no longer saying it publicly, because so much of what I have to say would repeat what I’ve said before about appropriate use, workable business models, realistic speed of change and all that. The only thing worse than a voice crying in the wilderness is the cranky old guy repeatedly yelling, “Get off my lawn!” Sometimes, the best approach when you have nothing significantly new to add is to simply shut up.

I still work in edtech. I still believe it has promise. I still occasionally write and speak about other types of technology (most recently, on subjects from Amazon to digital public media for GeekWire).

But as for edtech? Others can own the microphone and keyboard. I’ll let my previous work speak for itself. Unless or until, that is, I get so worked up that I can’t stand being silent anymore.

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P.S. Still reading? Even though I’m not formally writing or speaking about edtech right now, I do tweet. And an ad hoc comment might occasionally leave my lips. As it appropriately did at ISTE this week, a year after my last formal presentation. Kevin Hogan pulled me in front of a camera to ask me about trends I saw on the exhibit floor for his Tech & Learning Live broadcast. Enjoy. But please don’t get used to it.

Awards don’t matter, until you get one

SJPAwardsI will openly admit that yes, I’ve won two awards for my recent writing in GeekWire from the Society of Professional Journalists. And I’m delighted to have done so.

This weekend, at the SPJ Gala held in Seattle for the Northwest Excellence in Journalism contest, I was honored with second place in Editorial & Commentary for a selection of three GeekWire contributions, and third place in Critique & Review for my piece, “As science fiction ascends, its popular award – the Hugo – threatens to nosedive.” (Both were in the Small Daily Print and Online division for work appearing in 2015. Size does matter in award competitions.)80100_spjlogo-for-header.png.300x300_q85_autocrop

There is a type of bashful condescension about awards in the creative arts. “My work speaks for itself.” “I’m not competing with others.” “Money will get you though times of no Hugos.” (Anyone with a long memory of awards in science fiction will be able to attribute that last reference.)

But the reality is awards can serve useful purposes: to draw audience attention to good work that isn’t wildly popular, or to give artists (including writers) a rough benchmark of whether their peers think they’re hitting the mark.

Flanked at the reception by KPLU's Ashley Gross and first reader Dee Dee Catalano.
Flanked at the reception by KPLU’s Ashley Gross and first reader Dee Dee Catalano. (Photo: Sara Lerner)

I’m pleased to note that two great online-only news outlets, Crosscut and Seattle Globalist, took the first place awards in the two categories in which I placed. But coming in right after them makes me happy, since they do such good and broad-based work.

The last time I placed in an SPJ competition was in 2013 for columns I wrote in 2012, a third place in Commentary when there was a different Online-only category. This year is better. (I don’t enter every year, though I’ve been writing for GeekWire since 2011.)

If you’d like to see the three pieces that added up to this year’s Editorial & Commentary honor, they are:

And yes, for those counting — the last one actually won twice. Writing about Hugos apparently will get you other awards, if not a Hugo itself.

Old columnists never die, nor fade

It’s been nearly a year since I made the conscious decision to not pursue new speaking or writing opportunities about education technology.  Think of it as a pruning of extraneous activity. But previous columns — and comments — about edtech and even tech persist to spur new observations.

IMG_20150617_132617(For those wondering, my self-imposed exile date was last June 30, shortly after my EdTech for Export keynote in Wellington, New Zealand. That was a wonderful swan song in terms of content and setting. And yes, I want to go back and see more.)DSCN1326

At the same time as I ended my edtech speaking and writing, I took a hiatus from my non-edtech analysis and commentary for GeekWire, which I’ve since resumed as circumstances and snark allow.

Yet I wasn’t invisible in that near-year, even without the recent GeekWire byline re-appearance.

  • EdSurge picked my brain when the Software and Information Industry Association acquired the members of the Education Industry Association in April, because I’d been an SIIA Education division board member and once keynoted events for both organizations;
  • KIRO-FM Seattle interviewed me about what Microsoft’s launch of its Minecraft Education Edition meant for its “ed cred” in January, as I’d analyzed Microsoft + Minecraft for GeekWire in the past (which GeekWire itself noted at the time);
  • USA Today, in a January article on Apple’s brand in education and elsewhere, cited my observation that Apple’s “brand is being nibbled to death by many ducks” (yeah, I love analogy and metaphor); and,
  • GeekWire’s Generation App podcast trotted me out as a long-time tech industry dinosaur observer in March when it examined video cord cutters and why they did or didn’t do it.

Of course, I continue to have a full-time role in education technology. I’m still learning. Just a bit less distracted as I absorb more.

The bottom line of the continuing coverage? In a digital world, when you have a reputation, you can run. But it appears you can’t hide. No matter what that reputation is. Or how much fun you’re avoiding.

Saving (digital) public media in Seattle

Jazz24captureThere is no shortage of media “voices” in a digital world. But when a unique, successful online voice like Jazz24 is set to be extinguished by an unexpected sale, it’s time to speak up.

I did exactly that in my role as a commentator and analyst for GeekWire. In the piece, “KPLU’s proposed acquisition by KUOW puts a global online audience at risk,” I pointed out the to-that-point under-covered fact that if the sale of Seattle area public radio station KPLU’s license to KUOW went through, it would likely mean the end of a highly popular, global digital audio stream.

Jazz24studiosessionsThe intent reported in my commentary was later confirmed by the public media news site Current, complete with supporting emails, in a story titled, “Email shows KUOW saw ‘no sound business vision’ for Jazz24.”  (Current also kindly quoted my GeekWire commentary in an earlier story it wrote on the fund-raising drive by the community group Friends of 88.5 FM to buy KPLU’s license from Pacific Lutheran University, instead of letting KUOW buy it.)

There is still no guarantee, as of this writing, that the fund-raising effort of the Friends of 88.5 FM non-profit and the #SaveKPLU movement will succeed, though it’s awfully close to reaching its goal. (Update May 26: The fund-raising goal has been met; negotiations on the purchase remain.)

Yet in a digital-first and sometimes digital-only world, any threat to an analog media source shouldn’t just be dismissed as the inevitable end of an old model. The analog media outlet should be viewed in the entire context of its analog+digital presence because sometimes — as with KPLU — that sum, and the potential loss, is far greater than any individual part may imply.Jazz24Facebook

It’s Amazons, all the way down

CatalanoAlexaA month or so ago, I marked my fifth anniversary as a GeekWire contributor by picking up my writing after a ten-month hiatus. (I’d still “contributed” during that hiatus — notably as a speaker at the GeekWire Summit and inside others’ stories and podcasts — but not in pieces under my own byline.)

It appears that in my absence, Amazon has been busy.

So I visited Amazon’s first physical bookstore in Seattle, and found that its major accomplishment isn’t as a bookstore, but in how it merges the online and offline shopping experiences almost seamlessly (“Amazon Books: 4 months later, the retail giant’s bricks-and-mortar experiment feels like a winner“).

I bought an Echo Dot and was impressed in how it gives you more options to output streaming audio than the original Echo, even as it still lacks sync capability across more than one Echo in a household (“Echo Dot review: Hands-on with Amazon’s smart, squat, almost-too-independent Alexa sibling“).

Then I borrowed an Amazon Tap, and liked how it was smaller alternative to a traditional Echo with portability despite the incredibly crappy Alexa app experience (“Amazon Tap review: Say hello to my little friend — and new travel buddy“).

And somewhere in the midst of all of this, GeekWire’s Todd Bishop and I brought Alexa (in her Echo guise) into the studio to record an entire podcast with us (“GeekWire Radio: Amazon’s Alexa returns as our special guest“).

So at this point, I think I’ve done my Amazon time. I’ve definitely completed my trifecta of Alexa device reviews, if you go back to my first one (“Amazon Echo in the house: Superior streaming speaker with so-so smarts,” an opinion since improved thanks to Alexa’s mad skillz or, as Amazon would put it, “Skills”).

Now on to other subjects. My wife only has to say, “Oh my God. It’s another one,” once before I take notice.

Science fiction and the future

What’s the future going to look like? That simple question has fueled the work of philosophers, theologians, scientists, stock pickers, and, of course, science-fiction writers. So naturally it was the focus of my session at the 2015 GeekWire Summit in Seattle.

Joining me for the lively, 40-minute, and mercifully PowerPoint-free discussion were Hugo and Nebula award-winning author Nancy Kress, futurist and writer Ramez Naam, and former astronaut Ed Lu.

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One of my favorite parts of the session was a utopia/dystopia lightning round, in which I asked for quick assessments of which direction seven developments might take us, including:

  • Uber
  • Self-driving cars
  • Internet of Things
  • Robots overcoming the “uncanny valley”
  • iPhone 17S
  • All knowledge only digital in form
  • President Donald Trump

You can read a partial transcript (including the lightning round) on GeekWire. And, there’s a full video of the session on YouTube.

And for those who prefer podcasts, an eight-minute audio excerpt on the role of science fiction in looking ahead to the future is part of an episode of GeekWire Radio, starting at 25:25.

Lu also had some choice words on the current state of NASA. And the three all expressed both concern and delight when asked what keeps them up at night. I was simultaneously entertained and learned a lot from my guests. I trust you will be, too.

When columns subside: Why I’m taking a break from column writing

GeekWirecolumnsIt usually begins politely: “I really like your stuff in GeekWire.”

I mutter a thank you, asking them what they’ve liked. “Well,” this especially hypothetical reader responds, “That cheat sheet on trends and fads in edtech was great. And your leveraging of Tomorrowland to call for more, and better, optimistic visions of the future was a good read.” Then the pause.

Always, the pause.

“But why were both of those in May? And there’s been nothing since?”

As with relationships, French recipes, and government programs, it’s complicated. But let me unpack it as briefly and best as I can.

First, GeekWire and I have not parted ways. I’ve been a columnist (and occasionally more than that, filling in on the editorial desk and contributing other non-column posts) since Todd Bishop and John Cook founded the tech news site more than four years ago. Technically, I’m on hiatus (or less technically, a very extended summer break) due to several other demands. But it’s unlikely the regular column will return in its earlier frequency and form.

The why?

The speaking. Every public talk I give is a one-off. I don’t reuse presentations, because I know every audience is different (and I’d also bore myself if I always said the same thing).  I’ve been verbose: a June keynote on education technology in New Zealand, an early July session moderating a discussion on student privacy at ISTE, a late July on-stage interview of science-fiction writer Cory Doctorow for Clarion West, and participating in or moderating three panels at the World Science Fiction Convention in August. Every speaking gig requires the research of at least one column; a keynote, far more. Plus, in most cases (and especially New Zealand), travel time.

The day job. The start of June marked a rather intense annual effort as I again researched and wrote two detailed chapters (on instructional content and assessment) of the forthcoming MDR EdNET Insight State of the K-12 Market Report. Not only did that consulting project suck any remaining writing air out of my brain, but at the start of July, I set aside my education technology consulting practice to join SchoolMessenger as its vice president of marketing strategy. Since then, I’ve been drinking from the fire hose of new employment, trying not to drown. So far it’s been refreshing. But also time consuming.

The breather. Occasionally, a columnist needs to take a break and re-assess direction. I’ve done this with tech columnist and news media contributing analyst roles going back (cough) two decades, starting with Seattle Weekly/Eastsideweek, KCPQ-TV Seattle, Puget Sound Business Journal, and now GeekWire. (And that’s just the long-term tech stuff — I’ve also done shorter-term edtech columns for NPR’s MindShift and EdSurge, regular science and science-fiction book reviews for the Seattle Times and Amazing Science Fiction, and even sci-fi film reviews for The Comics Journal.) This is a happy break, very unlike the shorter one a year ago in which both my spouse and I learned some lessons about sharing bad news on social media.

I’ll resurface at the GeekWire Summit in early October in Seattle, interviewing an astronaut, a computer scientist or two, and a science-fiction writer or two on the future of technology.

And after that? There’s no deadline for me to start regularly writing again. But as my history — and the length of this  “brief” explanation — reveal, I will write. I don’t think I’m physically and mentally capable to not.

Edtech fads, trends — and extra-credit myths

Education technology is a hotbed of activity. And some developments will stay warm, while others, now overheated, will rapidly cool.

It’s helpful not just to companies, but non-profit organizations in education and educational institutions themselves, to have an idea of which is which.

At the EdTech for Export conference in New Zealand last week, I flipped the questions I’d been asking other industry execs (“Fad, trend, or it’s complicated?“) into advice for the industry itself. It’s mostly U.S.-centric, and has only a three-to-five year time frame.  Both are key caveats.

Below is my presentation — with screen-by-screen notes — on nine developments (from Open Educational Resources to the rise of iPads and Chromebooks). Plus I highlight five bonus myths about education technology, corrected. The last has turned out to be one of the most popular parts of my presentation on Twitter.

Or, if you’d prefer, the full 30-minute video has also been posted by my New Zealand hosts, which may be more entertaining that clicking through slides and reading text.

(Et4e15 – Keynote 3| Frank Catalano, Intrinsic Strategy from Grow Wellington on Vimeo.)

As with any free advice, it may largely be worth what you paid for it.

Continue reading Edtech fads, trends — and extra-credit myths

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