Those of you who have been paying close attention to my LinkedIn profile have known that something has been up with me. I have quietly been working with friends and colleagues toward building a start-up. As we have been building the company, we have been collecting a group of Angel investors who are, almost universally, people we respect and turn to for advice. We’ve been very lucky that way.
Yesterday WGU Labs announced that they are our first institutional investor. I am deeply satisfied that our we are starting off with support from a fund that is affiliated with an access-oriented university. It sets the tone for who we want to be and what we want to accomplish.
This post is the first in a series about what Argos Education is. The truth is that I’ve been writing about aspects it for a while without mentioning the startup angle. My post series about the open-source collaboration on a courseware platform between Carnegie Mellon University’s OLI group and Arizona State University’s ETX group was about the software and the collaboration that forms the heart of Argos. If you’re impatient with the meandering Feldstein style and want to get a concise summary of what we’re up to, one of our Angel investors, the wise-beyond-his-years Matt Tower, has written up his own thesis about us. Matt is far more succinct than I am.
Here on e-Literate, I feel compelled to tell the story e-Literate-style. This first entry will be a very personal one. I’ve been lucky to have long-time readers who have traveled my EdTech journey with me for as long as sixteen years. I’m going to take some time to explain how this latest change fits into that journey. You won’t learn much about what Argos actually does in this installment, but if you’re an e-Literate reader, you’re used to my George R. R. Martin style. I promise you, The Winds of Winter is coming and it won’t suck like the TV show.
Argos is very personal to me. It has to be. I walked away from a very comfortable consulting practice during my peak earning years to take on a level of risk and hard work that frankly don’t make sense at this stage in my life. The reason I’m doing it is that I believe I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make an impact. If it succeeds, it will be the culmination of everything I’ve tried to accomplish in my professional life. Beyond my wildest dreams.
So today I’m going to write about the personal mission and values that led me to this step as well as how it will affect my continuing work here on e-Literate and on the Empirical Educator Project. Later posts in this series will delve more deeply into Argos’s mission goals and how we aspire to accomplish them.
I believe in teachers
If there’s one statement that has guided my life choices, including the co-founding of Argos and even a major reason why I fell in love with my wife, it’s that I believe in teachers. This is not a bromide. It means something very specific and nuanced to me.
I grew up in a family of educators. Both my parents and both of my sisters are in the family business. My father, who is my role model in many ways, was an elementary school principal for much of my life. To this day, the highest compliment he can pay to person is to call them “a good teacher” or “a real teacher.” When he says that, he is making a holistic statement about the person’s character, values, intelligence, and skills. Real teachers change people’s lives, not just through their inspiration and dedication but also through their acuity and ability to solve complex problems. Dad reveres reading teachers for their diagnostic skills. I come from a family of real teachers and aspire to live up to their excellence and accomplishments.
When I went to college, I thought I wanted to teach philosophy. My very first week at Rutgers, I met a senior who was a philosophy major and, importantly, had a very impressive beard to prove his bona fides. He told me he was interested in something called “cognitive science.” I had never heard of it before but instantly decided that was what I wanted to study. Since Rutgers didn’t have a cognitive science major, I made my own unofficial one. In philosophy, I gravitated to courses in topics like epistemology, philosophy of mind, and philosophy of science. Outside of my (official) major, I took a lot of courses in linguistics, cognitive psychology, cognitive anthropology, and any other subject I could find that seemed related. I even managed to talk my way into a couple of graduate courses that were genuinely interdisciplinary studies of cognitive science frontiers at the time, like learnability theory.
At first, I thought I was doing it to acquire knowledge of the subjects I would teach. But the more time I spent sitting in graduate classes, the more I realized that I wasn’t passionate about studying how humans learn. No, I wanted to apply that knowledge. My studies were my way of figuring out how to be a real teacher.
I have always been deeply troubled by the lack of recognition of the skill and knowledge required to teach well. I still remember vividly how a well-meaning advisor at Rutgers reacted when I told her I wanted to be a teacher.
“Well, we need good teachers, but you’re too smart to be a teacher,” she said.
I was too stunned to respond, but I thought, “Who do you want teaching your kids, lady? Who do you want to be in the room with them when they get stuck or when it turns out they have an undiagnosed learning problem? Or are going through a personal or developmental crisis? Do you think that any idiot can do diagnose and help your kid and 25 others simultaneously in one class?” To this day, it make my blood boil to think about it. And yet, she was just saying what so many people think. She was trying to help me fulfill my potential. In her world, smart people couldn’t possibly make full use of their intelligence by becoming teachers.
That lack of understanding of teachers as skilled professionals is endemic to our society. It infects the way we talk about, think about, and implement EdTech. While I take every opportunity I can to mock the former CEO of Knewton’s statement that his product was a “robot tutor in the sky that can semi read your mind,” the truth is that he mostly just said the quiet part about EdTech ambition out loud. Sometimes our society seems more ready to entrust the education of its youth to unproven and poorly understood technological gadgets than it is to trust human educators. When people talk about products or strategies that are “learner-centric,” they often implicitly or even explicitly denigrate the role of the educator. So-called “personalized learning” products are often designed to do end runs around the teachers.
This attitude is by no means confined to the start-up world. I’ve heard smart, well-intentioned people working at highly influential organizations talk about “instructor-proofing” courses with technologically enhanced content.
Some of the most robust longitudinal findings we have confirms the personal experience that’s so pervasive it’s become a cliché: real teachers change lives. To accept those finding while believing also believing that educators cannot be trusted to decide how to teach their students…I don’t know how you square those two beliefs. I don’t know what teaching is in a world in which both of those statements are true. I don’t know what teachers would actually do.
I believe many college instructors are—and/or aspire to be—”real teachers”
There’s a popular notion that most college instructors don’t really want to teach or care about their teaching. I will write more about the evidence base that contradicts this in a future post, but for now, just think about it for a minute. Most professors found their career path because some teacher or teachers sparked their passion. Ask a few. They can usually tell you who it was. They had an encounter with somebody who set their lives on a new course.
That course will have them spending the greater portion of their week…teaching. Very few of even the most talented, elite young professors are able to avoid teaching between six and ten courses every year for at least their first five years (if they’re lucky) until they get tenure. The overwhelming majority of college professors are destined to spend the overwhelming majority of their professional time teaching for their entire careers. And even the ones who are elite enough to be able to spend more of their time researching went through the crucible of teaching. Working really hard for mediocre to lousy pay relative to their level of education. Do you believe that the majority of people who are willing to endure seven years of graduate school to become college instructors genuinely dislike the main job they know they’re going to be spending a large percentage of their lives doing?
Or let’s approach this from another angle. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you have a weird job which is hard to explain. Maybe you’re in EdTech. Maybe you’re a venture capitalist. Or an administrator. Or a learning scientist. You’re probably not a police officer or family doctor. You don’t have a job that most people know a lot about and can picture what you do without you having to explain it. My family mostly doesn’t understand what I do for a living despite us all trying really hard to remedy that situation. I have mostly given up trying to explain it and they have mostly given up asking about it. That’s true with many of my friends, too. Including close ones. When I find somebody who actually gets my explanation and is hungry to learn more, it’s the best feeling in the world. It’s crack cocaine for geeks.
When you’re a college instructor, you have an opportunity in every class to inspire students the way that you were inspired to dedicate your life studying bugs or irrational numbers of some long-dead poet. You get to let your freak flag fly. Students are self-selecting. They come to you. Sometimes it’s to fulfill a graduation requirement, but even then, you have a window of opportunity. You spend a lot of time carefully crafting your 15-week journey with them to invite them into your world.
Again: We know from solid longitudinal research that educators who genuinely want to share that passion for their subject with their students improve students wellbeing for the rest of their lives against a variety of measures, including financial, physical, mental, and social metrics. But if you’re a college professor, you don’t need to read the Gallup-Purdue research to know this. Somebody already changed your life. That’s how you ended up in that classroom. Now you have a chance to be that person who changes people’s lives.
Are there college instructors who hate teaching or just don’t care about it? Sure. Name me one profession in which nobody hates their job. There’s no reason to believe that college instructors are worse than average on this score.
On the other hand, there’s plenty of reason to believe that college instructors are actively discouraged from caring about their teaching by their institutions. At an elite university I know that offers one—one!—course in effective pedagogy for all graduate students, they have to deal with potential enrollees being told by their graduate advisors that “every minute you spend not working on their dissertation is a minute they spend harming your career.” We know about the pressure to publish and research for tenure and promotion even at institutions that pull in fairly little grant money and are primarily teaching institutions. We know that college instructors are not trained to teach, not supported well in their teaching duties, and not rewarded for their excellence in teaching.
This is finally beginning to change for reasons that have to do with the changing nature of college and university funding sources. Worcester Polytechnic Institute has pioneered the tenured position for non-research teaching faculty. I don’t believe they will be alone in this for long. Again, this is a topic for another post. The point for today is that if you want college to be more student-centric, then you have to make it more teacher-centric. I’m not talking about pandering to faculty and letting them do whatever they want in the classroom. I’m talking about cultivating the sense that their excellence and accomplishments as educators should be part of their professional identities that they promote rather than hide in order to advance in their profession and in the eyes of their peers.
And let’s please cut the crap about the word “teacher” being “too K12.” That just perpetuates the problem. If we want our college instructors to teach well, then they have to think of themselves as ones who teach. As teachers. We should embrace that term with pride.
I continue to work in higher education because I believe that it is full of real teachers, in the way my father means it, whose potential is underdeveloped and underutilized.
EdTech is about education, not technology
Given the above, I have always believed that that the principal value of EdTech is to enable, promote, and disseminate the craft and science in teaching. When I first starting designing educational software, it forced me to think consciously about teaching moves that I made instinctively in the classroom. They didn’t work the same online. I had to rethink some, abandon others, and invent some new ones. I learned to control my craft better. The name of this blog, “e-Literate,” was meant to be self-deprecating. I considered myself to be illiterate in using technology for teaching. That was a good thing. I was raised to believe that ignorance is an opportunity to learn, which is one of the best things in the world.
Later, when I helped college teachers learn to teach online, I saw it help them become more mindful of their craft the way it had helped me. This, by the way, is further evidence of my point of view about college instructors. Ask a handful what they learned when they were forced to teach online during COVID. The ones with thoughtful, interesting answers—and I guarantee you will find some—have some natural teaching ability.
EdTech could and should be a vector to enable, test, refine, and propagate effective teaching practices. And yet, we almost never think about it that way. Run through your head the list of EdTech product categories you know of. It might be a short list or a long one, depending on your role and experience. It doesn’t matter. However long your list is, think about the product categories in it. How many can you say put meaningful emphasis on the priorities I’ve articulated here? How many are good at it? And on the other hand, how many actively undermine teaching skill by trying to replace educator judgment rather than improve it? Or by focusing on solving other problems, making the exercise of the educator’s teaching craft problem harder in the process?
I care about EdTech because I care about improving education. And one of the best ways I know of to do that is to improve teaching.
Teaching in isolation is a bad idea
My first year teaching middle school, I used to go into the teachers room and ask for help with my latest challenge. In the early months, this would happen at least once a week. Later that year, one of the veterans there told me she thought I was brave for doing that. I thought that was a weird thing to say. I needed help solving a problem. There was help in the teachers room. I got help. Problem solved. How did bravery play into it?
Oh yeah. Because we’re somehow supposed to know what we’re doing. This is even more true in higher education than it is in K12. As a college instructor, even though nobody has ever given you a single lesson in how to teach, you’re just supposed to know. These are scholars who spend their lives exploring the edges of the known in their respective disciplines. But somehow there isn’t supposed to be anything new for them to learn in teaching. If they admit their ignorance, they fear it will reflect poorly on them.
I remember toward the end of my first year teaching, I went back to my favorite high school teacher. Mrs. Galligani. She asked me how it was going. I told her I was a terrible teacher. She asked me why I thought that. I gave her a twenty-minute litany of everything I had done wrong. I mean, everything. She just nodded sympathetically and listened until I wound myself down.
Finally, she said, “You’re going to be great.”
“How can that possibly be true?” I asked. “I just told you a million things I did that were obviously wrong.”
“Michael, she said, “All first-year teachers are bad. The good ones know it. I worry about the ones who tell me that everything is going great. Teaching is hard.”
That fear that you’re a terrible teacher is a core barrier to change. It’s not that college educators don’t care about their teaching. It’s that there’s so much fear and shame.
The irony is that, once you get past that, real teachers love to share. Remember, crack cocaine for geeks? It’s a wonderful feeling to find somebody who understands the challenges you choose to grapple with and an even better one to find somebody who wants to help. Or somebody who wants your help. I started the Empirical Educator Project partly on this belief: If I could just get people talking, great things would happen. And they did. Argos Education would not exist were it not for the spirit of academic collegiality and collaboration between some friends at Carnegie Mellon, some friends at ASU, and some friends at Unicon, none of whom knew each other at the beginning but all of whom are friends with each other now.
So…what’s the point already?
You’ve read all this way and I still haven’t told you what Argos Education is. I could give you some slogans. A sample of the 10,000,000 different elevator pitches we’ve tried.
The short version is that we’re bringing all the values I articulated above to rethinking curricular materials and, more holistically, course design. I’m gonna do me and tell this story my way. There will be more posts in the coming days.
For now, there are two points to keep in mind. First, everything you’ve learned about me in the past 16 years of e-Literate posts is relevant to Argos Education. This isn’t a pivot. It’s not a sellout. It’s a culmination. It’s a big bet on everything I believe in. If you keep that in mind, then my narrative about the company will make more sense.
Second, Argos will let me keep doing what I do. I will keep writing e-Literate. It will not change into a company blog. I will write about the big themes of my current work, as I always have. And I will write about other things, as I always have. I will be inviting some of my great colleagues to write occasional posts about e-Literate–appropriate topics here as well. You’ve already met my co-founder and dear friend Curtiss Barnes. My other teammates are also brilliant.
If you want to read Argos-specific posts and updates, I and my colleagues will eventually be blogging at the Argos web site. We don’t have much there yet, but if you enter your email in the signup form on the site we’ll keep you updated.
This week’s Blursday Social will also be a chat about Argos. So you can come to that if you’re curious. Sign up here.
The Empirical Educator Project (EEP) is also still very much a thing. Consider Argos to be a permanent sponsor of it now. We’ll have a big announcement coming up in less than two weeks. It will evolve, as it should, but the mission goals are the same and I’m as committed to it as ever.