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The perfomative demonstration of education

I spent a lot of my early career in educational technology. My work “origin story”, such as it is, is that I started to work on virtual learning environments in 2002, realized that everyone involved (teachers, administrators, learners, potentially the developers) absolutely despised them, then applied the principles of the nascent social web to the space.

What I only began to appreciate more recently is how important enterprise education is: particularly when it comes to the certifications required to do business in well-regulated industries. For example, to get SOC 2 certified on an ongoing basis, you really have to run frequent security training for every employee, and do deeper training for every engineer. Keeping a record of who has taken and passed those training modules has a lot of value to a business who might be audited.

Informal learning doesn’t really fit into this model. Yes, you learn better from your peers, and there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that immersive, holistic teaching is more valuable educationally, but that’s not why companies run the training. They run the training to de-risk themselves, but more than that, to prove that they have de-risked themselves. Quantifiable grades, scores, and access records are mandatory in this context. They’re the product more than the actual education is.

The trouble is, that’s how we tend to think about education in a wider context, too. Ultimately, we don’t care so much about actually educating people. We care about showing that we have educated people. It’s not about holistically helping to give people the tools to really succeed in life - or, God forbid, furthering human knowledge - but much more about showing that we’ve hit our Key Performance Indicators for society and de-risked our communities. Stats and analytics are performance; it’s about covering your ass by showing you did your due diligence, the actual effect of your work be damned.

Goodhart’s Law goes as follows: when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to become a good measure. When our goal is to have a certain percentage of A grades instead of to fully and comprehensively educate, our methods change accordingly. We let people slip through the cracks and we start to build systemic, one-size-fits-all approaches. On the other hand, if our goal is to educate, we might well find that a measure or approach that works for one student doesn’t work for another.

A mistake I made in my early career was thinking that people who made the financial decisions generally wanted to educate rather than engage in a performative demonstration of having educated. While the former is usually, gratifyingly true of actual educators, the people who control the purse-strings very often want the latter. I was naive and over-idealistic, and just didn’t get it.

Understanding that would have helped me put better tools in the hands of educators, as well as build a stronger non-profit or business to supply them sustainably. Maybe ironically, I didn’t know enough to do that. C’est la vie.

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