Education Opinion

That’s Edutainment!

By Jennifer New — April 01, 1998 11 min read
A teacher “swims with the sharks” at Microsoft and concludes that ‘vast and essential differences’ separate schools and the software industry.

The marriage of education and technology appears inevitable, if only because of the sheer number of matchmakers intent on making it happen. School boards, politicians, business executives, and others touting such a union are unanimous in their belief that technology will revolutionize the classroom and revive the anemic parts of our education system.

What these techno-enthusiasts—some well-intentioned and others just plain greedy—fail to see, however, is that the technology industry will always be the dominant partner in a relationship with education. Vast and essential differences separate the two, differences that do not work to education’s advantage. Schools aim to make children wiser, healthier, and more prepared for life, while software companies aim to make money. Both are vital and vast enterprises within America, but they are steeped in such different cultures that moving back and forth between them is not unlike journeying across continents and time zones. Whereas one country is poor in resources but rich in tradition, the other is fast-paced, driven by the youthful, the novel. They are ruled by different currencies, different tongues, different gods.

I have spent time working in both these worlds. After earning a master’s degree in English, I worked in law firms and restaurants in Seattle before settling into a teacher certification program. During my year of observation in the city’s public schools, I felt a bit like a cultural historian, watching the past and future converge. Most of the teachers were veterans in their mid-40s and early 50s. Some were impressive, holding their students’ attention and lending me valuable insight into their craft. Others were tired and cynical; I learned from them, too. The school buildings themselves were older still, relics that elicited memories of both a charming past and a future for which the district seemed too often under prepared.

I looked for teaching work after finishing the program, but feeling the pinch of my student loans, I eventually opted for a job and a steady paycheck at Microsoft, Bill Gates’ high-tech behemoth that sucks up a lot of Seattle’s young talent. Coming off my year in Seattle’s classrooms, I couldn’t walk the hallways at the company without feeling complete culture shock at every turn. The age of those around me plummeted; nearly all my colleagues were under 40, and many were twentysomethings. The buildings, although new and architecturally uninteresting, were filled with impressive pieces of contemporary art, not to mention the snack rooms stocked with free soda of every imaginable brand. The grounds of the Microsoft “campus,” untouched by graffiti or litter, were beautifully groomed and planted, dotted with fountains and soccer fields. No more bathrooms with missing doors, no more dilapidated copy machines. The work was cutting edge, unfettered by any tradition but reflective of an ever-expanding corporation bent on making bottom-line decisions in a fickle marketplace.

I was hired at Microsoft on a contract to create a teacher’s guide for the popular multimedia encyclopedia Encarta. The product is largely marketed to families and individual buyers, but the company hoped that teachers and schools might be sold on it if they saw how to build classroom lessons around it. In my first days on the job, I expressed some misgivings about the project to my supervisors: Few schools would have enough computers equipped with CD-ROMs to make regular use of Encarta in the classroom possible. What they were proposing, I argued, was the equivalent of building daily lessons around the single copy of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary in the library. Such reasoning fell on deaf ears, however, and I wrote the guide.

When I had finished, I still felt unsure of the guide’s ultimate practicality and decided to test it with teachers. This was something I dreaded; I was not nervous about the guide’s quality, but my student teaching experience had taught me that in education, like in medicine or the military, a code of seniority works to keep newcomers in their place. I found it discouraging and not at all welcoming.

I soon discovered, however, that the name “Microsoft” magically levels the field. When I called 20 teachers and asked them to test the guide—each chosen because I’d heard high praise of his or her work—no one refused. I might as well have been offering a free trip to Hawaii, so easy was my recruiting.

Microsoft, meanwhile, was typically blasé about the teachers’ work and their visit to the campus. Oh, they offered each teacher a free copy of the encyclopedia and some dinosaur pencils and stickers, and I was allowed to order cookies for the occasion. But that was it. Should a multinational, richest-in-the-world corporation be excited by the visit of some local teachers? If the company was really dedicated to education, then yes. Why not jump through hoops for these teachers? Why not care wholeheartedly about what they thought of your work? Most members of the Encarta team hadn’t set foot in a school since graduation. They could have benefited from meeting the educators I had invited and hearing about their work, their students, and the realities of the classroom. Better yet, send the product team into the schools to see the software in use.

Instead, I played host to a handful of teachers, offering them trinkets and soda in exchange for their wisdom. Surprisingly, the teachers embraced their role, dinosaur stickers and all. Encarta, with its rich graphics, audio, and video, is very impressive for a novice user. It razzles and dazzles, and these teachers were indeed dazzled. They were equally enthusiastic about the teacher’s guide, saying they would use it and would like more of the same. This pleased me, but I also waited for them to call my bluff, to turn a critical eye to the real usefulness of this product in their classrooms. They never did.

What was also puzzling was the deference these veteran teachers showed me. Seeing me cloaked in the all-powerful, all-knowing Microsoft mystique, they treated me as they would an equal—even more so. This made my job of testing the product easier, certainly, but it also struck me that something was askew. What did it say about these teachers that they should find me more attractive, more worthy of their respect, as the spokesperson for a technology company with no track record in education products than as someone trained in and aspiring to their profession? The cultural gap between the two worlds of education and technology began to seem dangerous to me. And Microsoft was not the one in trouble.

Despite the success of my meeting with the teachers, someone higher up the Microsoft food chain decided the teacher angle was not worth pursuing and canceled the project. Most likely, the guides are still in a warehouse collecting dust.

A round the same time, a class of local 5th graders that had been working with a company marketer (I was discovering that education was synonymous with marketing) visited the Encarta team. The students eagerly described how they had used the product. Their teacher beamed. All of them drank free sodas. After a series of benign, kid-friendly questions, a manager made the hard sell: Would the students like to have this product at home? he asked. Following their chorus of yes, he inquired as to how much they thought their parents would be willing to pay for it. And what credit cards did they have? The teacher, still beaming, didn’t seem to register the sincerity in his voice.

I might hesitate to draw conclusions from my experience if others didn’t confirm my impressions. A friend of mine who came to Microsoft from a nonprofit educational publisher says she was well aware of the company’s money-driven climate and the potential effect of such an environment on her work as the editor of children’s multimedia products. But she thought that making a small difference with such an influential software manufacturer might count for more than doing top-quality work at a tiny company without the resources to widely distribute its product.

‘Historians have taught us the importance of weighing the biases of textbook makers. We must now do the same with makers of software.’

My friend was accorded a good deal of respect and leeway. Such freedom was exciting for her, as she was a veteran of the political endorsement battles of the textbook world. At Microsoft, she was part of a young, creative team that earnestly wanted to make positive kids’ products—positive being defined as both fun and educational. And, left to its own devices, her team probably could have collaborated with schools and teachers in successful ways, each side trying to understand the other’s needs, limitations, and strengths.

Certain realities of the software industry, however, prevented such inspired collaboration. The product went through several incarnations—different age groups, different content, ever-changing number of volumes—and it was plagued by staff turnover as team members transferred to other, more prestigious or stable teams. The one volume that was completed now sells as the sorry equivalent of a remaindered first novel, going for $4.95 rather than the original price of $69.95.

Friends at other companies bemoan similar bureaucratic setbacks that slow and diminish the quality of work. And as the “Dilbert” comic strip so well illustrates, business at large is often beset by turmoil and inefficiency. But the software industry—staffed by young workers and trafficking in new, unpredictable forms of communications that industry analysts, much less users, don’t entirely understand—is even more volatile. Often, as in the case of my friend’s product, marketers pull strings too fast for a product to be completed. When her now-defunct $4.95 product began its life cycle, “neighborhoods” was deemed to be a hot theme. Six months later, however, it had fallen out of favor and “transportation” was king. Before my friend’s team could regroup, yet another marketing report was under way. This might be the way sitcoms get made, but it does not bode well for teaching materials.

Like the television executives before them who aimed to make television “educational,” producers of educational software can be derided for their lack of understanding, appreciation, and respect as to what content and formats would best serve children. Indeed, content has such little value in the industry that the rosters of most educational software companies are filled with technical and business types, not teachers. One edutainment company’s Web site that I visited (via, by the way, the site of a California teachers’ group that had given the company’s products an award for excellence) boasted of its business roots. The company was created, according to its mission statement, “to take advantage of the continuing increase in . . . the desire of parents and children for engaging, ‘stealth learning’ products.” Explanations of distribution patterns and the leveraging of intellectual property rights followed, along with biographies of the CEO and other top administrators. Although each had a background in either marketing or technology, not so much as an overture was made to education.

Historians like Howard Zinn have taught us the importance of taking into account the biases of textbook makers. We must now do the same with makers of software, Web sites, and other technology. Teachers are the experts about how children learn—a fact that the teachers I recruited to test Encarta forgot when they saw the pyrotechnics of the software—and they should turn a more critical eye to these products and who is actually creating them. As Ellen Ullman, a writer and software developer, has said, software is created in the image of its makers. In the case of many products, this does not mean educators but, more likely, young, technocentric people who strive only to do “cool” things with a computer.

I worked at Microsoft for three years. Soon after my disappointing experience with the Encarta teacher’s guide, I transferred within the company to a baseball encyclopedia, counting myself as too soft to be mixing education and capitalism. Babe Ruth, I reasoned, was not cause for guilt.

The Microsoft line on my résumé has brought me several offers to create electronic materials for teachers and children. In most cases, these jobs have come from small companies or nonprofits that seem earnestly committed to finding the best way to use the medium for educational purposes. Although none of them has found the holy grail—the kind of truly interactive, open-ended learning that entails getting one’s hands dirty in pursuit of knowledge—I’ve welcomed these projects. Unlike larger companies wed to focus groups and the brightest, newest gizmo, these companies encourage the important questioning that must happen if computers and schools are to be united successfully.

After more than five years of having a foot in the worlds of technology and education, I still see the gulf between them as wide, filled with misunderstandings and assumptions. And although both parties—for greatly different reasons—desire a successful partnership, the barriers still seem too great. Unfortunately, the world of education has more at stake. The money being sunk into technology for the classroom is precious; if it’s squandered on worthless products, children will suffer and the public will become even more jaded about “school reform” than it already is.

Curious and in awe of the technology industry, educators must look behind the curtain to see just who is pulling the strings and what motivates them. And if the wizard looks anything like Bill Gates, teacher beware.