Amazon Has Some EdTech Trend Ideas

This week, EdSurge featured some "sponsored content" (aka advertising made to look like an article). The article was written by Katie Herritage (or at least one of her interns), currently the AWS Global Leader, Worldwide Customer Innovation and Acceleration Program, and is entitled "7 Edtech Trends to Watch in 2022: A Startup Guide for Entrepreneurs." AWS is the sponsor.

AWS is Amazon Web Services, a division of the Amazon empire that provides hosting for corporations and governments and just a whole lot of people while owning like a third of the cloud market. They are the reason that even if you are trying not to give Amazon any of your money, you probably are anyway.

Prediction articles are a staple in the edtech world, and they all have to be read the same way. "This is what's coming next" really means "this is what we hope to make money on soon." These articles are not works of thoughtful research; they are marketing copy. 

But as such, they are a useful guide to what edtech folks are going to try to sell us next. So let's take a look at AWS's seven "trends."

First, before we even get to the trends, know that AWS has the AWS EdStart program, its "edtech virtual startup accelerator, designed to help entrepreneurs build the next generation of online learning, analytics and campus management solutions on the AWS cloud." Super. Because Amazon's attempt to enter the education market have been so super duper in the past (more on that in a bit).

Trend #1: Data is abundant and the key to today's edtech solutions.

Yes, please, more data mining. That has been super for education so far, as test-driven education has continually harvested plenty of data and accomplished absolutely nothing with it. Herritage writes "as the pandemic and shifts to virtual learning are only giving the flood of data more strength and momentum" and hold on a minute-- did AWS somehow miss the widespread dissatisfaction with virtual learning that has been an ongoing theme of the last two years? Also, as always, the edtech visionaries skip over the question of data quality. Harvesting junk data has become a huge industry in edtech, but junk data is junk and no amount of crunching piles of poo will yield diamonds.

Trend #2: Artificial intelligence and machine learning are powering the latest generation of edtechs.

Mostly there is no such things as artificial intelligence. Just algorithms. Machine learning isn't really learning so much as building an algorithm's ability to recognize patterns. We still have precious little evidence that these provide any useful applications for education. There are some limited applications for doing grunt work; the endorsement here is from a company that makes digital flashcards

Trend #3: Game-based learning is transforming how students learn.

This is one of those trends that has been right around the corner since the days (thirty years ago) when my kids were playing with the Zoombinis. There's no question that a game can be the spoonful of sugar that makes boring repetition go down smoothly, but there continue to be limits. For one thing, students aren't stupid--they know when you're trying to trick them into learning stuff. For another, today's hot new game is next month's boring old Over It.

Trend #4: Edtechs are at the forefront of digital transformation in the classroom.

Or, in plainer language, computer software for classrooms is the leading source of computer software for classrooms. Sad clown is sad. Tautologies are tautological. "As education institutions lean into technology," says Herritage, there's an opportunity to sell them more technology. I'd like to believe that school districts are getting smarter about how they buy this stuff, and I'd really like to believe that edtech companies are getting smarter about providing what teachers want and not what edtech companies want to sell. 

Trend #5: Workforce upskilling is being supplemented by edtech solutions.

I sure hope that the marketing whiz who coined "upskill" got a nice4 bonus, because what word, managing to suggest that when your last job gets "outsourced" and you have to get trained for some new meat widget position, it's a step up and not just a further grinding down of human beings by late stage capitalism. This trend says that when your new employer wants to train you in their brand of meat widgetry, they'll do it with a computer. This may be the most accurate prediction on the list.

Trend #6: Edtechs are being called upon to help with student wellbeing.

Translation: schools are going to be implementing social and emotional learning programs, and some of them will want to implement the programs via software on screens. Furthermore, parents are going to get antsy about the data being collected by these programs (as well they should), so you'd better be able to do a god imitation of security protocols. 

Trend #7: Augmented reality and virtual reality are top of mind.

"Top of mind"?! What the heck does that even mean? Herritage insists that "the metaverse...is here" which I guess means that AWS is prepared to back Zuckerberg's play for the metaverse as the Next Big Thing. I admit, the idea of virtual field trips ("Everyone put on your headsets and we'll tour the Globe Theater") is appealing. But since teachers can't even reliably say "Everyone open up your Chromebooks and we'll work on our Google Docs," I have my doubts about just how close the metaverse actually is. 

It's worth noting that these "trends" are aimed at developers and not educators. In other words, the message is not "here are some things you should plan to incorporate in your classroom" but is instead "you could make some money if you started a business doing one of these things." As such, it's unfortunate that none of the advice and trendiness here suggests that entrepreneurs might want to involve actual educators in their plans. But there are certain things that have remained consistent about the edtech industry--one is that they will consistently and repeatedly write checks that their products can't cash, and the other is that they will create products at teachers rather than with them.

Amazon's own record with educators is not great. Way back in 2016 they tried to launch Amazon Inspire, an attempt to create a marketplace of teacher resources that immediately got in trouble because it had zero safeguards against ideas that were not so much "shared" as "stolen." The GM of the project, Rohit Agarwal ("serial entrepreneur") walked away less than a year after launch (nowadays he's co-founder and CEO of DoctorPlan, a medical data platform). Amazon Inspire supposedly snuck back to life in 2018, but right now, the Amazon Education page instead features something called Amazon Ignite that "connects educational content creators with Amazon customers" and allows you to "sell your original teaching resources." You have to ask to join. It's free to join, but Amazon takes a cut of everything you sell.

Are these real trends? Well, someone at Amazon hopes they are, or at least hopes a sufficient number of entrepreneurs hopes they are. Should actual educators pay attention to articles like this? Only if you want to be forewarned about what education-flavored products tech vendors are going to try to sell you. Heck, maybe they'll really happen. After all, have edtech companies ever lied to us before