Another EduTech company I now dislike

Dear Ethan Cohen, (CEO of Turning Technologies)

Successful companies, be they large or small, can be divided into two categories. We’ll call them A and B. Category A companies are those whose success is correlated to how much the consumer notices them. Apple for example. The more Apple is a part of your life, and the more you notice its existence the better. Microsoft competes for this space. Both are happy to insert their products into all aspects of your daily activities. And they are even happier when their presence is noted. Such companies can be big or small. My corner pizza joint, Mario’s, likewise benefits when they become a noticeable part of my life. If I think Mario’s immediately after thinking Pizza, then Mario’s wins! (My waist suffers however, in proportion to Mario’s presence on my weekly menu.) In short, the more one notices an A type company, the better they are.

The other type, Category B, is the opposite. These are companies whose identities consumers don’t need or really want to notice. We don’t want to have to deal with them in any way if possible. For example, local municipal waste companies. Waste Management for example. Your life is better the less you have to interact with them. Put the trash out and it goes away. Or Oldcastle Inc, one of the largest concrete companies in the US. They make concrete. You stand on it. Enough said. You don’t need to know the name “Oldcastle Inc” for them to succeed. Succeed they can though. Billions and billions of our economy are invested in the these sorts of companies – somewhat hidden from view even though their products and workings are in plain sight.

Which brings us to the main character of this story. Companies that are in category B and attempt to behave like category A companies are annoying. My current gripe is with your company, TurningTechnologies. As you know, TurningTech started out making so-called “clickers”. These are the little 10 key calculator like electronic devices teachers use to poll large classes in real time, during a lecture. I’ve used them for 4 years in this capacity. And I have a hard time imagining constructing my lessons without them (though, it can be done, and might have to be in the future).

Initially, the devices were small, simple and inexpensive. About as big as a credit card, and only a little bit thicker, the clickers could fit in a pocket, or attach to a keychain. To use them, the student needed to simply give the instructor the device serial number using an online form. You could use the clicker for different classes. You could buy a used one, sell yours at the end of the semester, loose it and get a new one. But most importantly, the students could use them without have to notice them. TurningTech as a name was a nearly invisible part of the classroom – even though we used its products many times every day. We just didn’t think about the fact that we were. And that was great. We could think about physics instead.

TurningTech had a bustling business selling these clickers to students all over the country. They provided software to help the instructors. It was a wonderful thing. And then trouble brews. What happens next, I understand, but am nonetheless disgusted and appalled by. In a boardroom in Youngstown, there must have been some newly promoted manager in the education division looking to make his mark. “Our annual sales projections have become flat” he reports at a meeting. (This of course is my own imagination spinning a yarn here.) He’s wearing a mildly ill fitting dark gray suit with black shoes that are square at the toes. A brown tie that came with the yellow shirt in the same package strangles his neck. His idea to get those sales figures back on track is to now charge students for the privilege of using the clicker they already bought. This of course is accomplished by charging them 20 bucks a year for a Turning Account. Great. Another stupid account the students need to set up and maintain. Another password and login and 20 minutes wasted. Another 5 hours of me having to email students back and forth about how to get an account, how to login, etc.

You justify these actions using several rationals. One is that we as instructors now have easier access to more data regarding our students and their so-called learning. Bullkaka. It was fine before. I could see everything I needed to. I don’t need or want any more data. Class ran smoothly and I knew all I wanted to.

Another is that now phones and tablets and laptops can be more easily integrated with the accounts. Also bullkaka. Encouraging cell phone use in class is not a great plan, as many educators are now realizing. Sure, it’s amazing that we now have little computers in our pockets – but I’ve yet to see anyone (myself included) perform in a less distracted manner when using phones etc. There’s always chats coming in, texts floating up, all kinds of distractions. Pings. Dings. Smiley faces.

I have no interest in having 200 students actively using their phones during a class. Call me old fashioned, but you come and try to teach a room filled with students staring at phones. Seriously, I’m inviting you to try it. Be a substitute teacher for me one day. Before your company tells us how we should be running classrooms, you should really come and try running one yourself.

The clickers did their job perfectly. They were simple. No one knew who made them. But they still bought and used them. I would implore your company to rethink this whole Turning account nonsense. It’s ruining what used to be a good thing.


James Hedberg