Proof Points: Selling and Marketing “Blended Learning” to Educators and Parents

I have discovered the phrase “proof points” recently. I had known of “proof for existence” in arguments about God. I had known about the history of math proofs. But “proof points” in marketing digital technologies to schools, well, that was new to me.

So I looked up “proof points” and found that they are a favored marketing tool.

“Proof points are one of the four elements of a classic brand positioning, and are important for making points of difference believable. They provide credibility and support for the Key Points of Difference.”

Or this “monster list” infographic  that a blogger found citing  dozens of “proof points” for marketeers to use :

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“Proof points” are common when the subject turns to technologies in schools. Here is one example of the extent that selling new technologies have seized the school market–$nearly 700 billion for K-12 schooling.  Proof points: Blended learning success in school districts, is a publication  that summarizes 12 case studies of schools and districts in the U.S. “Each short profile,” the article says,  “highlights key details in the district’s blended-learning strategy, the EdTech products used, and promising results in the form of test scores and graduation rates.”

Here are a few of the case studies the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovations, an organization devoted to spreading “blended learning,”  published last year.

Spokane, Washington, has developed and implemented blended learning in numerous programs across the district with a goal of increasing graduation rates and college and career readiness. Since implementing blended learning, the district’s graduation rate has increased from 60% in 2007 to 83% in 2014.
Hamilton County Community Unit School District 10, McLeansboro, Illinois, began offering blended learning during the 2012–13 school year as a way to shift its instructional model from whole-group instruction to personalized learning. An evaluation based on NWEA MAP scores shows students in grades using blended learning outperforming students in grades not using blended learning.
Spring City Elementary Hybrid Learning School, Spring City, Pennsylvania, uses a three-station Station Rotation model of blended learning. It has seen improved test scores in math, reading, and science since implementing its blended-learning program.
A casual reading of these three (see the other nine to determine how typical these are) make clear that the introduction of some form of “blended learning” caused scores and high school graduation rates to improve. By combining them in the same sentence–“blended learning” and improved metrics–the clear intent is not merely suggestive but forcefully states that one led to the other. That kind of sliding from description to “proven” solution is common in the ads we see when Googling as ads appear in our peripheral vision. Or watch TV ads for miracle drugs.  I assume that the metrics on improved test scores and graduation rates are accurate but, (and here is a huge “but” that should be capitalized) other factors can explain such improved outcomes than the onset of “blended learning.”
Not coming into play are key factors that have long influenced teacher and student outcomes. Consider the demography of students in families in the school and district. Or previous non-technological reforms of a decade or longer that altered existing curriculum, provided community services, and focused on building teacher expertise and skills. Or sustained leadership over a decade. Or altered pedagogies. And there are others yet all go unmentioned in the reductionist “proof points.”
What these “proof points” do, then, is reduce the complexity of schools as organizations where power, influence, relationships, and demography interact daily while avoiding the obvious point that tax-supported public schools are dissimilar to command-and-control operations in business.
From time to time, within the sales and marketing communities, warnings appear about such over-stated claims and shortcomings of “proof points.”  From a “Marketing Boot Camp” blog:
“It’s not enough to say you have studies to prove your claims. Elaborate on how the studies were uniquely conducted to shed light on the product’s proprietary formula so that it works more effectively. “
Or from a blogger on marketing for the well-known Gartner group:
“If you’re bombarded as much as most marketers are with pushed content, then you’re probably skeptical of one more claim for the “next big thing”. Every marketing technology and service provider, every specialized association and publication, and every “independent” pundit has at one time or another proclaimed the “next big thing” you need to pay attention to – and of course invest in. Even when they present proof points, I take the claims with a grain (sometimes a heaping teaspoon) of salt.”
But these occasional challenges to “proof points” are drowned out by marketing practices that have become mainstream in educational products and services. Such shabby logic in using “proof points” befits a carnival barker, not thoughtful and careful marketeers. Yes, it is slippery thinking transferred from the world of sales to the huge school market especially when new technologies are touted to improve teaching and learning. Nearly 35 years after A Nation at Risk roused reformers to tie education to the economy, sales and marketing pitches have grown to become as common as laptops in schools.

 

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Proof Points: Selling and Marketing “Blended Learning” to Educators and Parents

  1. Laura H. Chapman

    Under the Obama administration we taxpayers have paid millions to PR firms to market USDE programs that could not be “sold” on their merits. Edward Bernays, author of “Engineering Consent” might approve. I have several examples but they are wondrously intricate and probably too long. Most of the contracts for PR were/are for “technical assistance” a phrase that masterfully disquises the fact that the contracts calls for marketing a USDE program–e.g. Race to the Top, Charter Schools. Interesting that some of the preferred USDE contractors list their clients on their websites. So USDE appears on a list along with Gates, the Waltons, and other high-profile names. At least one contractor once worked for Gates. Small world of back scratching.

  2. Reblogged this on From experience to meaning… and commented:
    A fair warning for “Proof points”, btw, with the left- and right-brain myth being used in the infographic one should already be very wary…

  3. Alice in PA

    This sums statement of yours sums it all up and should always be at the forefront of our thinking when engaging in any change and then evaluating results :
    “What these “proof points” do, then, is reduce the complexity of schools as organizations where power, influence, relationships, and demography interact daily while avoiding the obvious point that tax-supported public schools are dissimilar to command-and-control operations in business.”

    There are many powerful forces that try to reduce our thinking about improving educational systems to simple solutions like introduce iPads or a longer school day or changes to teacher licensing. Truthfully it drives me crazy that the same folks who spend hours analyzing the intricacies of a single high school football game will readily accept these vague proof points about education reform. I have yet to find a way to help people see the complexities without being labelled an obstructionist or accused of making excuses.

  4. Pingback: Larry Cuban on the Hype of Blended Learning | Diane Ravitch's blog

  5. Pingback: "Proof Points": The [Bogus] Selling a...

  6. Thanks for a great post, Larry. I added “[bogus]” to the title before the ‘selling and marketing’, hashtagged #blendedlearning, and re-blogged on the Educational Psychology & Technology collection: http://bit.ly/edpsychtech. I hope this adds to your traffic as it’s an important piece to reveal the heavy marketing driving these methods forward. Rocketship is one of the tech-heavy corporate charter chains that popularized blended learning over the past decade and continues to pitch it as a core facet of their elementary school model. Here is a recent post on their push for expansions in California. Download and read the letter submitted by the teacher (at the end) and you’ll get a very different sense of what blended learning can look like on the ground as compared to the (cough) “proof points” above: https://eduresearcher.com/2016/03/09/rocketship-pushes/. In my view, the general public is being bought and sold on the glitz/glam of tech scams, and there isn’t nearly enough awareness about the health risks and/or (developmental) costs, especially for our youngest learners.

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