The mosquito and the raindrop

From Lindsay Tanner’s “adapt to eLearning or die” speech to Australian higher education, to Adrian Sannier’s soothing evolutionary metaphors to spin Pearson’s arrival as a predator in the LMS ecosystem, all sorts of people are drawing on the history of everything-until-now to figure out where we might be going with edtech.

It’s evolutionary thinking, baby.

I’m now trying to figure out how to make sense of the latest move that joins up Pearson and Knewton to deliver content, platform and analytics. The slightly offputting company vision of jacked in kids learning through a secret sauce mix of tracking and psychometrics has quite a bit in common with Club Penguin’s new predictive text feature, that finishes and cleans up your children’s sentences for you so that even poor spellers and the potty mouthed can pay to play in Disney’s branded social network. (And thanks to Audrey Watters for both of these.)

But by adding reporting and analytics Knewton’s going a step further, presenting itself as a transformative horizon of accountability that will meet the needs of educators, parents and government (memo to Knewton: when talking to educators, remember that it’s not universally accepted that these are the same needs) and so it fits well with Pearson’s self-concept as the most benign big fish in the sea.

Worrying about where actual educators come in all this, especially since sitting through the Knewton video, I’ve become distracted by two metaphors for cooperative co-existence, and a fable. What they’ve helped me to think through is that not all partnerships are mutual, and that in the long term, not all partnerships arrive at the same destination, even when they set out to work together.  Sometimes, instinct is just too strong.

So this isn’t just cautionary thinking for Pearson and Knewton, but for the rest of the educational ecosystem, and particularly for educators, as our role in this kind of threesome is far from clear.

The first story involves the orchid and the wasp. Philosophers Deleuze and Guattari use this to try to explain how the apparently fixed identity of anything gives way to the more important business of what it is that thing is actually used to do. It’s attached to another part of their thinking, involving the rhizomatic way that meaning can get about with a central distribution point, a metaphor that Dave Cormier brought into the conversation about open education in 2008. The rhizome gets a lot of attention including from Michael Feldstein and his readers, but the story of the orchid and the wasp less so.

Its explanatory value involves the way that the wasp and the orchid evolve in cooperation. By producing a reasonable facsimile of the markings of a wasp, for example, the orchid persuades the wasp to come a little closer to take a look, and as a result this fragile species that likes to grow in out of the way places (presumably off the flightpath of regular bee traffic) lives on. The wasp is still a wasp, but is lured into collaborating with the reproductive needs of the orchid, so it’s also part of the orchid world. At the heart of the bargain is a bit of deception and possibly some waspish disappointment, but no real harm.

The second metaphor is the mosquito and the raindrop. Mosquitoes thrive in rain, but how exactly do they survive the impact of raindrops that are in general 50 times heavier than they are? Apparently, there’s been an urban myth that mosquitoes do this by thinking ahead and navigating around the rain, but this has now been disproved by researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology, to whom we all owe this immensely touching scrap of slow motion photography.

What they’ve found is that mosquito survival depends on their offering no resistance at all to the raindrops. As a result the raindrops, which really do have momentum and somewhere-to-be, simply push them aside:

High-speed videography of mosquitoes and custom- built mimics reveals a mosquito’s low inertia renders it impervious to falling drops. Drops do not splash on mosquitoes, but simply push past them allowing a mosquito to continue on its flight path undeterred.

In other words, the mosquito has evolved to survive in the rain by making itself very inconsequential as far as the raindrop is concerned. The raindrop isn’t really involved in the deal.

And then there’s a third metaphor, which isn’t a truly evolutionary story, but a fable: the scorpion and the frog.  In this well-known tale, the frog agrees to give a ride across a river to the scorpion on the grounds that—as the scorpion argues—it makes no sense for the scorpion to kill the frog as they will both drown.  The frog goes along with this, although its motives in doing so aren’t all that clear. When the scorpion stings the frog after all, the frog complains, to which the scorpion’s reply is simple: it stung the frog because that was its nature.

So I can see why it makes sense for powerful companies to promote competitive evolution in the market system as a form of coexistence that can pay off for everyone, but stories of species collaboration aren’t always so reassuring: there’s the orchid’s self-serving deception, the raindrop’s indifference born of superior size and power, and the helpless dishonesty of the scorpion. The wasp does well out of it, the mosquito makes the best of it, and the frog comes off very badly indeed.

The fact that each of these relationships is constructed in the awkward space between mutuality and sharing helps explain why external partnerships alarm risk-averse educational institutions looking to make be-all LMS contract decisions. It’s like going on holiday with a couple: so much could go wrong.

So if we’re also going to thrive as the combination of platforming and vendor concentration places extreme pressure on the smaller and more specialised edtech players, we’re going to need to do more than watch nature do its thing. Specifically, it makes sense to remember the power that lies in the fact that we’re the clients, we have relatively large budgets, and we have urgent reason to invest in protecting the health and diversity of the global edtech ecosystem—especially in Australia, where the goal of our startups is already to make it to America.

So one way we might do this is to create better opportunities for educators to become much more actively and routinely invested in supporting small edtech startups—but how to do this without becoming either the mosquito or the raindrop? That’s going to take some smart thinking.

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