As a former Stanford University faculty member, and as someone who not only studies technology but creates it, Paulo Blikstein knows Silicon Valley – which makes his assessment of its mores and motives all the more pointed.   

“Any discussion of ed tech must address the mythology that Silicon Valley has created about technology being intrinsically benign, and that their CEOs are just good people who want to help – ‘so just give us your data and leave it to us, because we’re good guys, we wear hoodies, we’re cool.’ Otherwise history will tell how an entire civilization was fooled by 10 thirty-something guys.”

Blikstein’s assessment got some pushback from panel moderator Stavros Yiannouka, CEO of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE), a global think tank of the Qatar Foundation. “You don’t have to have a sinister plan for world domination to get things horribly wrong,” said Yiannouka. “Just leave it to the law of unintended consequences.”

The panel that Blikstein and Yiannouka were serving on divided into two camps. On one side, Blikstein and Andre Perry, David Rubenstein Fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution and a columnist for the TC-based Hechinger Report, stressed the importance of attending to the needs of individual learners, both in classrooms and in technology development itself.

[Read an opinion piece by Andre Perry in The Hechinger Report]

Blikstein was especially passionate in defending the importance of flesh-and-blood teachers.

“We need to stop telling public officials that education is cheap and we can fix it with machines,” he said. “When I visit the best schools worldwide, I never see them firing teachers and replacing them with AI. They’re hiring more teachers and creating more classes that are smaller in size.” Whereas, when it comes to low-income, under-funded schools, “you find a discourse that’s a fallacy – 'these schools are broken anyway, so let's try some untested technology.' Well, first of all, no one ever really tried very hard. And when somebody says that, it’s usually a company with a vested interest in getting a big government contract."

Perry, for his part, argued that AI hasn’t yet achieved its full potential in part because “we’re still working in a racist context. I’m always saying, when you’re developing your products – who’s on your team? If you don’t have a diverse group of perspectives, you’re going to exacerbate the problem.”

Panelist Yao Zhang (M.A. ’06), CEO of RoboTerra, also stressed the importance of personalized learning, but more within a context of improving large systems, maximizing limited resources and achieving economies of scale.

“Economics is about optimizing limited resources with ‘what if?” said Zhang, whose company develops robotic products designed to simulate creativity and cultivate STEM talent. She added that “because of limited resources of teachers, teachers don’t have time to help individual students. And now we're working with thousands of schools in 39 or 40 different countries.”

— Joe Levine

Speakers quotations may have been edited for clarity.

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