Will “smart” cities lead to surveilled education and social control?

“What is a Smart City?” is the third entry in my slide presentation series “Education in the Cloud.” If you haven’t yet seen them, prior posts include an introductory essay and “Digital Classrooms as Data Factories.”

Part 3 of Education in the Cloud: What is a “Smart” City

A growing number of metropolitan areas are being shaped by “Smart” City policies. Bloomberg Philanthropy’s “What Works Cities” aims to bring these programs to mid-size cities as well. Even in communities without explicit “smart” initiatives, “innovation” or “empowerment” zones are being proposed, often around school districts, enabling outside interests to sidestep existing legal and contractual protections under the guise of “autonomy” and “flexibility.” I hope the information I’ve pulled together will reveal how “smart city” and “learning ecosystem” interests often intersect and encourage others to think critically about similar programs in their communities. It is important to consider digital classrooms as nodes of smart cities. Classrooms touch the lives of many, and thus are logical places to begin normalizing the idea that as citizens it is our duty to generate and hand over massive quantities of personal data that will supposedly shape policy for the “public good” and manage our economy.

Smart Cities are defined by their reliance on digital technology across government functions and the use of sensor-transmitted data to regulate provision of public services. The high cost of installing such networks, monitoring data, and maintaining the systems, especially in our current climate of austerity, means municipalities will increasingly look to partner with private companies and outside investors to provide basic public services. I anticipate “smart city” policies will fuel social impact investing. There is a belief that investments in “efficient” technologies will yield future cost savings, and therefore such infrastructure projects could become significant profit centers for venture capital.

Cisco Financiers

This video from Cisco discusses the role financiers are anticipated to play in the development of “Smart+Connected” cities. Social Impact Bonds are also mentioned on pages 94-97 of the “Handbook of Urban Infrastructure Finance” put out by the New Cities Foundation. In November 2015, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and the Philadelphia branch of the Federal Reserve hosted an all-day conference on “Capital for Communities” where Pay for Success Finance and social impact bonds were discussed with representatives of Bloomberg Philanthropies, Goldman Sachs, and the White House Office of Social Innovation. After his term ended, Nutter joined the Economic and Community Advisory Council of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve.

Philadelphia has been on the Smart Cities’ bandwagon since 2011 when it teamed up with IBM to develop Digital On Ramps, a supposedly “ground breaking” human capital management program. As part of this initiative Philadelphia Academies, led at the time by Lisa Nutter (wife of Democrats for Education Reform former mayor Michael Nutter), developed a system of badges for youth that promoted workforce-aligned “anywhere, any time learning.” You can view a 2012 HASTAC conference presentation on the program starting at timestamp 50:00 of this video.  Lisa Nutter now works as an advisor to Sidecar Social Finance, an impact investment firm, and Michael Nutter is, among other things, a senior fellow with Bloomberg’s What Works Cities. This relationship map shows some of the interests surrounding the Digital On Ramps program. Use this link for an interactive version.

Digital On Ramps

Digital On Ramps has since combined with Collective Shift’s initiative City of LRNG operating with support from the MacArthur Foundation. Besides Philadelphia, ten other Cities of LRNG are spread across the country: Chicago, Columbus, Detroit, Kansas City, Orlando, San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento, Washington, DC and Springfield, OH. The premise is the “city is your classroom” where students “learn” through playlists of curated activities that are monitored via phone-based apps. Many of these cities are also “smart” cities. The Philadelphia program is presently housed at Drexel University, an institution that is involved in education technology research and development, that is a partner in Philadelphia’s Promise Zone initiative (education is a major component), and whose president John Fry served a term on the board of the Philadelphia School Partnership, the city’s ed-reform engine. Drexel’s graduate school of education is currently the lead on an unrelated NSF-funded STEM educational app and badging program being piloted with Philadelphia teachers in the Mantua neighborhood within the Promise Zone. It is touted as “an immersive, mentor-guided biodiversity field experience and career awareness program.” In April 2017, Drexel’s School of Education hosted a lecture by DePaul University’s Dr. Nichole Pinkard entitled “Educational Technologies in a Time of Change in Urban Communities,” in which the MacArthur-funded 2013 Chicago Summer of Learning pilot was discussed. In this clip from the Q&A that followed the lecture, an audience member raised concerns about credit-bearing out-of-school time learning in the ecosystem model.

The 2011 IBM summary report for Digital On Ramps noted that among the four top priority recommendations was the creation of a “federated” view of the citizen in the cloud.” Of course, 2011 predates developments like Sesame Credit, but looking at it now I can’t help but conjure up an image of the “federated citizen in the cloud” as portrayed in Black Mirror’s dystopian Nosedive episode. Digital On-Ramps appears to be a prototype for a career pathway, decentralized learning ecosystem model for public education. As the task-rabbit, gig economy becomes more entrenched with freelancers competing for the chance to provide precarious work at the lowest rate (see this short clip from Institute for the Future’s video about Education and Blockchain), what will it mean to reduce education to a series of ephemeral micro-credentials? And what dangers are there in adding behavioral competencies from predictive HR gaming platforms like Knack into the mix? Tech and human capital management interests are counting on the fact that people are intrigued by new apps. We’re predisposed to seek out pleasurable entertainment. Gamification is both appealing and distracting, consequently few people contemplate the downside right away, if ever.


I would argue that the LRNG approach to “appifying” education is something we should resist at all costs. Take for example the XPrize adult literacy apps being piloted in Philadelphia right now with support from the Barbara Bush Foundation. Certainly adult literacy is an issue of great importance, but do ICT interactions provide a way to meaningfully support adult learners in developing reading skills? Or are they an inexpensive means by which to compile data on individuals, one that could perhaps be used to establish baselines for future Pay for Success investments? Education should be a human-to-human activity, free of intrusive data-mining and tracking. Embracing micro-credentials, badges, and educational apps will hasten the transition to an era in which we, and our children and grandchildren, will be pushed into cut-throat competition with one another as we quantify ourselves and work to maintain up-to-date, online portfolios of skills supplemented by socially-acceptable “reputation scores.”

This April Philadelphia joined a group of six cities chosen to explore use of connected everyday devices (Internet of Things) as part of a Knight Foundation grant. Two other programs related to the grant include the MetroLab Network and NetGain, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and Mozilla, both of whom are interested in decentralized, badge-based learning. Drexel University and the University of Pennsylvania, whose graduate school of education is designated a “Future Ready Schools Partner,” are coordinating with Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology as part of the MetroLab Network. The office, which manages the information and communications technology programs for the city, was established the same year as the IBM grant by executive order of Mayor Nutter. In a future post I will discuss the ways in which xAPI protocol will be used to track learning experiences outside of school settings. For the moment, however, simply note that IoT infrastructure is key to widespread adoption of “anywhere” learning.

In June, representatives of hundreds of “smart” city projects descended on Philadelphia for the annual “Smart Cities Summit,” preceded by the LoRa Alliance Open House and Marketplace. The LoRa Alliance is a member-based non-profit established to promote adoption of the LoRa Protocol “as the open global standard for secure, carrier-grade IoT (Internet of Things).” James Kenney, our current mayor, addressed attendees of the Summit noting that the city’s “ReBuild” program, funded in part by a newly approved soda tax, would endeavor to incorporate technology into renovations of Philadelphia’s libraries and recreation centers. It should be noted that “Pay for Success” proponents John Arnold and Michael Bloomberg pitched in funds for an ad-campaign in support of the soda-tax last year. Philadelphia City Council recently approved ReBuild’s $500 million investment in libraries, recreation centers and parks. Also worth mentioning is that a $100 million for ReBuild is coming from the William Penn Foundation, the powerful regional philanthropy that hired Boston Consulting Group to recommend closure of 23 Philadelphia schools in 2013. In January, the foundation launched a new initiative in support of community-based “informal” learning. The focus? Why it’s early literacy, an area of particular interest to the social impact investing community. The Pritzkers and Goldman Sachs are funding a pre-k social impact bond with an early literacy component in Chicago right now. There has been considerable emphasis on grade-level reading programs in Philadelphia in recent years. I feel strongly that pay-for-success literacy pilots may be coming to Philadelphia very soon.

The William Penn Foundation also gave $25 million to the Free Library’s strategic plan “Building Inspiration: 21st Century Libraries Initiative.” The plan has a strong emphasis on “partnering” with local schools, which for the most part have no school libraries. The headline of a January 2017 Inquirer article describes Philadelphia school librarians as “a species nearly extinct.” Despite the direness of the situation, the Free Library system has remained silent with regards to the plight of school district libraries. Libraries are a key part of the learning ecosystem model, and the Free Library System was designated a teen learning lab pilot with support from IMLS in 2014. There is some overlap between cities that received funding for library learning lab pilots and Cities of LRNG: Dallas, Columbus, Philadelphia, and Kansas City. Certainly we all appreciate the need for up-to-date, safe public amenities, especially those serving our children. It will, however, be interesting to see what the technology infrastructure looks like, given that the goal of learning eco-systems is to gradually shift public education into out-of-school settings like libraries.

Comcast Smart Cities

Comcast, headquartered in Philadelphia, began to implement its new Internet of Things machineQ platform here in the fall of last year. Chicago, home of an IoT “array of things” program, and the Bay Area were also selected as early adopters. machineQ uses a system of LoRa (low range, low power radio frequency) chips to connect devices to the Internet of Things in Smart City applications. Comcast sponsored many events during the summit, including a hackathon. The second place winner of that competition was a team that developed a “noise sniffer” intended to be installed in parks and other public spaces. So it would seem we are on the threshold of an age where cointelpro meets invisible ubiquitous computing.

In the Smart City milieu there is pressure to aggregate data, automate processes, incentivize efficiencies, limit human oversight, and deliver metrics to justify the provision of meager public services or invite private-sector investment. It can be couched in the language of innovation and autonomy or flexibility and transparency, but ultimately it is about doing more with less and squeezing profit from public assets for private benefit. All aspects of society are affected, from water systems to the prison-industrial complex to public education. In some cases, like the predatory “Pay for Success”-ready, MacArthur-funded Edovo tablet-based online “education” and “behavioral therapy” program piloted in Philadelphia prisons in 2014, they actually overlap. As community leaders make decisions about software systems, sensor deployment and consulting contracts for “smart” services, we must hold them accountable. What does it mean to live within increasingly monitored environments that will become even more so as the Internet of Things takes hold? We owe it to our children to slow down and consider how the choices being made today will affect their futures and the future of both public education and employment.


If digital classrooms evolve as extensions of “Smart Cities,” where big data rules and efficiency and control are prized, to what degree will students and educators be able to imagine, think and act independently? Will learning beyond the reach of devices and sensors be allowed? If a student learns something, and it isn’t uploaded to their Learning Record Store (LRS) will it “count”? What is the impact of digitally mediated feedback loops on developing minds? How is the concept of public education changing in the age of the quantified self? How will a student’s data define them? What if the data is wrong?

What does it mean for communities to outsource public education to cultural institutions and businesses offering “playlist” learning opportunities? What impact will credit flexibility have on school funding? Who funds the badge providers, and to whom are those providers accountable? Who would ultimately be responsible for the safety and well being of children navigating a brave new world of learning ecosystem education?

LRNG About

In a society that is increasingly unstable socially and economically, does it make sense to delegate public education to private entities working at the behest of global finance, telecommunications giants, Silicon Valley, Big Energy/Petro-Chemicals, Big Pharma, or the military industrial complex? Is it prudent to amass vast amounts of personally identifiable data on children and upload it to cloud-based servers that are vulnerable to hacking and ongoing surveillance? Will we have to train up future generations steeped in coding just to control the Internet of Things nightmare that our government and their corporate solutionist consultants are so busy creating? And if the world ends up revolving around code, will we remember all we have lost? Who will be left to write the novels and tell our stories?

Digital Classrooms As Data Factories

Yesterday I shared an introductory essay to my series “Education in the Cloud,” which included the slide presentation “Big Data vs Teachers.” Today’s post features “Digital Classrooms As Data Factories.”

Slide Presentation: Digital Classrooms As Data Factories

My goal for this series is to make it clear that the “Future Ready” changes we’re seeing in today’s classrooms stem from the drive to create a speculative market in education data linked to social impact investing, Pay for Success, and Social Impact Bonds. These bonds are designed to be bundled as asset backed securities and traded on global markets. Did we learn nothing from the 2008 housing market crash? In addition, there are troubling elements of social control and surveillance embedded in the shift to online education as data dashboards and digital portfolios of “competencies,” academic AND behavioral, have begun to take precedence over authentic, offline learning experiences.

Recent “philanthropic” interest in universal pre-kindergarten, early literacy interventions and post-graduation plans (college, career, military or certifications) does not stem from some benevolent impulse. Rather it is about creating opportunities to embed digital frameworks into our education systems that reduce children’s lives to datasets. Once education is simplified as 1s and 0s, global finance will be well-positioned to speculate (gamble) on the future prospects of any given child, school, or district.

That is what accounts for intrusive preschool assessments like TS Gold and the pressure for middle school students to complete Naviance strengths assessments.  Impact investors need baseline data, growth data and “value added” data to assess ROI (return on investment). There are opportunities for profit all along this human-capital value chain. That is why end-of-year testing had to go in favor of constant, formative assessments. That is why they needed to implement VAM (Value Added Measures) and SLOs (Student Learning Objectives). These speculative markets will demand a constant influx of dynamic data. Where is this student, this class, this district compared with where they were projected to be? We need to know. Our bottom line depends on it.

We must recognize that beneath the propaganda of expanding opportunities for our most vulnerable populations, what is happening with “Future Ready” education is predatory and vile. It demeans education, turning it into a pipeline for human capital management at the very moment more and more experts are conveying grave concerns about the future of work in a world increasingly governed by artificial intelligence and automation.

The shift away from neighborhood schools to “learning ecosystems” of the type promoted by Knowledgeworks relies on the public accepting the premise that the future of education will involve tracking and aggregating demonstrations of student (and later, worker) competencies across multiple device platforms in many different locations. These demonstrations will be uploaded to our “lifelong learning lockers.”

The system for doing the tracking is already in place. It’s called xAPI or Tin Can API. This future of education, one underwritten by the Department of Defense, sees knowledge as something to be converted to a noun, verb and object. It’s suited to “just in time training,” and perfect for future workers expected to continually reinvent themselves in the gig economy. It’s simple, and trackable. They can track your learning, from whatever source, via multiple devices and platforms, your whole life. Watch the video. You may want to watch it more than once. Remember, “We can track it…” Consider the implications of that as education is being positioned as both a global investment opportunity and a mechanism for digitally-mediated social control.

Tin Can API-SCORM Could Do More
Rustici Software LLC Youtube Video 1:48 Minutes

Smart Cities & Social Impact Bonds: Public Education’s Hostile Takeover Part II

Ed Reform 2.0 is a different variety of privatization from the one to which we’ve become accustomed. End-of-year high-stakes testing, imposition of value-added measures, alignment to Common Core State Standards, and destabilization of districts through charter school expansion, closures, and turnarounds were actually setting the stage for the final act that is now on our doorstep. Educators and parents can see the harm being done by 1:1 devices, Big Data’s domination of classrooms and the relentless deprofessionalization of teaching, but may have difficulty making sense of it, because it takes deep background knowledge to put all the pieces together. Hoping to make it more accessible, I’ve prepared a series of slide presentations called “Education in the Cloud.”

My goal is to introduce concepts I believe people need to become more familiar with as we navigate the post-ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) landscape. It begins with an overview followed by six sets of slides, each telling a part of the story:

Big Data vs. Teachers: Slideshare Link

Digital Classrooms as Data Factories: Slideshare Link

What is a “Smart” City? Slideshare Link

Tracking Children Via the Internet of Things: Slideshare Link

Blockchain and “The Ledger”: Slideshare Link

How Austerity Generates Data: Slideshare Link

Reinventing Education for Impact Investing: Slideshare Link

I’ll post the introduction at the end of this piece, and share the rest sequentially over the next few days. There are links to the Slideshare uploads above, however, the links and the video in these uploads are not fully operational. I also have a visual timeline in the works that pulls content from the slides and includes links to additional resources for those who want to take a deeper dive. It’s not yet complete, but in the meantime you can take a look here. If there are items you think should be added, please leave your suggestions in the comments.

About two years ago, via Save Maine Schools, I fell into the Global Education Futures Forum agenda and never quite made it back out. So I found myself on July 4 trying to figure out the best way to explain the enormity of all this to you. We need to wrap our minds what it would mean for most of the people on the planet to be living life “on the ledger” and begin organizing effective resistance to a future defined by technocratic feudalism.

Be sure to watch the seven-minute  Learning is Earning video if you haven’t yet.

I’m a mom creeping towards the half-century mark with a daughter enrolled in a large urban school district that’s been under siege for years, which means education activism has been part of my life in some form or another for the better part of a decade. I first lent a hand with the parent association at her elementary school, then stepped up to school district policy and eventually concentrated on opting out of high stakes testing. Now, I’ve finally begun to understand in a more holistic way the complex structures of systemic oppression and racism that underlie the privatization and financialization of our public schools. It is far beyond what I ever imagined in those naïve early years when I started this journey. Along the way I’ve benefitted tremendously from the support and camaraderie of inspiring activists I’ve met in person and in the virtual worlds we’ve come to inhabit. People are incredibly generous with their time, and though the task before us is daunting, I continue to draw hope and strength from our collective power.

I never anticipated I’d willingly spend hours wading through white papers on Blockchain, impact investing and cognitive computing. My graduate work was in historic preservation, after a brief flirtation with art history, and I was trained to look at landscapes, not derivatives. By examining physical clues and the documentary record, I figured out how to discern and describe the stories of places. I also learned to stick with the search even when the trail peters out. Deeds, census records, maps, and oral histories; often if you persevere, the piece you’re looking for eventually clicks into place. That training has turned out to be invaluable as I’ve poked around dark corners of the Internet uncovering next-gen education reform. Being able look beneath the surface, read widely and synthesize information into a bigger picture has been, I think, either my gift or my curse.

The Ed Reform 2.0 push to atomize knowledge into bits and pieces for validation by badges and micro-credentials has me very worried. It’s not what I want for my child, for other people’s children or for future generations. There are many days I feel like a Cassandra. It’s not that people don’t believe my predictions; rather, they are down in the trenches fighting more immediate battles and don’t have the luxury of time or head space to step back and let things come into focus. Part of the strategy, in fact, is to create repeated immediate threats that zap our resources and distract us from the true end game. It is unclear exactly what is to be done, because pushing back against these powerful global forces will take tremendous collective effort. And of course it is a weighty thing to hold this knowledge. I sense there are a lot of people who simply don’t want to look for fear that it will be too hard to carry that knowledge going forward.

I recognize there was no era in which public education was designed to care for ALL our nation’s children. As we stare down Ed Reform 2.0, we must be prepared not only to fight the reformers’ surveillance, human-capital management tactics, but also to collectively imagine and realize a new paradigm that will cultivate the intellect and talents of each and every child while recognizing and celebrating their human dignity. Rather than the toxic construct of “personalized” online learning that railroads children into set pathways, isolates them, and forces them to compete against one another, we need to embrace learning as an inherently human process, one that encourages students to take pleasure in discovering and constructing knowledge with the guidance of trained educators, in the fellowship of engaged peers, and within the context of their communities and culture.

I live in Philadelphia,  home of the Liberty Bell. July 4 is a big deal here, but I can muster little enthusiasm for potato salad or sparklers. This “Independence” Day, I spent the afternoon at Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia listening to a reading of “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” by Frederick Douglass. The understanding that this freedom we celebrate was built on land theft, genocide and the enslavement of millions weighs heavily on my mind. In recent years I’ve grown as a person, recognizing national myths for what they are. In this confluence of national and world events we sometimes have the good fortune to connect with thoughtful and brilliant friends who challenge us and expand our horizons. Through organizing and resistance I’ve been included in conversations I never had access to as a child of corporate suburbia. I simply would not have had the base of knowledge to do this research three years ago, and I’m grateful to everyone who has helped me get to this point, knowing that I still have much farther to go.

I now hold in the forefront of my mind the understanding that our society relies on large segments of the population being rendered disposable, people who are cast aside after their value has been extracted-people of color, the poor, the disabled, the vulnerable. The education system as it is presently constructed is part of that. To normalize this, systems are maintained that isolate us, keep us in echo chambers, dull our senses, peddle distraction and cultivate contempt for one another and for critical thought. Sometimes we allow these systems to operate unimpeded; we don’t disrupt.

I used to be much better behaved than I am now, and I regret that. I hope I can in some way begin to make up for my previous inaction by using this blog to transgress, to ask troubling questions, to provoke discussion and throw a few wrenches in the gears of the disimagination machine. The financial elite class is closing ranks, and technology is on their side. The hour is late. I’m starting to appreciate just how much I did not know, and how much work there is yet to be done. I’m ready; I just hope we have the tools and solidarity needed to meet the challenges that lie ahead.

I write this blog as a digital skeptic parent, but acknowledge that I am doing this work from a place of privilege, a relatively safe perch. I have flexibility in my work schedule that allows me to pursue this research, and this broken system is not yet directly harming my child or threatening my family. I am not a teacher or an academic or a union member. I arrived here without pedagogical credentials, without heroes, an outsider. I aspire to no elected office or position within this world and as such I am free to follow the money, look at the evidence and turn over each and every rock that seems promising. I pursue the facts, and my goal is to share and discuss them with as wide an audience as possible, so we can come to a common understanding of what we are up against and what to do about it. Unraveling these threads has been a challenging, somewhat abstract intellectual exercise that has occupied a lot of my bandwidth over the past year. But as I began to put the timeline of events together last month, I couldn’t help but notice how rapidly things are speeding up. I cling to a fleeting hope for safety, but recognize global finance and digital surveillance reach not only into education but into all aspects of our lives and will soon hit us like a ton of bricks. If you’re not yet familiar with Sesame Credit, you should read How China Wants To Rate Its Citizens. Of course it will hit marginalized communities and communities of color earlier and harder than others. I expect Philadelphia will be on the front lines.

I love my adopted city, a place I’ve called home for over twenty years. We live with stark contrasts; conspicuous consumption bumping up against extreme deprivation. Fueled by generous tax incentives “luxury” townhomes spring up at rates defying the number of residents who could ever possibly afford to live in them. Meanwhile librarians are being trained to administer Narcan to waves of heroin addicts seeking shelter in the restrooms; black men are killed by police during traffic stops, like David Jones just this June; our prisons are full and evictions are rising. We celebrate our status as a sanctuary city with a vibrant immigrant culture, but thousands live in daily fear of deportation. Philadelphia has all the accouterments of hipster culture, food trucks and pop-up beer gardens, nestled in the shadow of Comcast’s massive new headquarters. Once complete, it will be the tallest building in Center City and central to the public private partnership’s goal of governing for profit and control. We cannot allow a reductionist approach to education to take hold, one where knowledge is constrained by ones and zeros and consumption prevails over questioning.

Surveillance in the digital world as well as the physical world is something all citizens need to reckon with moving forward. Predictive policing that incorporates “Artificial Intelligence” (AI) analysis of police body camera video footage, ubiquitous CCTV cameras, gunshot sensors, and listening devices, continues to focus the powers of the police state on those deemed problematic and/or expendable. “Smart” technology advancements will soon make that control apparatus absolute. Moving forward, our “smart” cities will be occupied not only by the flesh and blood humans, but also by our cyber doppelgangers, quantified, aggregated “federated citizens” uploaded to the cloud for optimization within increasingly complex, automated man-machine systems. Their vision of the future would value us primarily for the data we produce, and when we consume public services underwritten by private capital using “innovative” partnerships that very data would be used to enrich the impact investment class, driving an engine of speculative derivatives built on the securitization of social impact bonds. In the coming decade we may very well see the rise of fixed digital identities linked to crypto-currency systems; the data flow from every aspect of our lives, seamlessly added to Blockchain, “the ledger.” We must recognize that in bridging the digital divide we are inviting the surveillance state into our lives and into our classrooms. Broadband, mesh networks and 5G will bring a degree of digital discipline to society that, standing on this side of the threshold to the Internet of Things, most cannot yet fully appreciate.

Philadelphia is a “Smart” City. We jumped on board in 2011 with a workforce badging program underwritten by IBM and more recently accepted a large grant from the Knight Foundation to investigate the Internet of Things. This fits nicely with Comcast’s plan to pilot IoT systems using LoRa Wireless Radio Frequency Technology in the coming year. I’m not sure how all of this will play out given that Philadelphia skipped over the Y2K issue, having never upgraded our municipal computers systems in the first place. Sometimes those intractable Quaker values come in handy. But if the transition happens, deliberate austerity makes it unlikely that the city would have funds to retain in-house professionals to manage these complex systems. Which leads us to these larger questions:

If you outsource municipal operations to multinational corporations and those systems become embedded into your city’s infrastructure to the extent they cannot be easily removed, what role then do locally-elected officials play?

If Cisco or IBM is running the show, does that let “smart” city mayors off the hook?

Do they become figureheads providing cover for corporate partners (and their algorithms) to make “data-driven” policy?  

What would local elections even mean in that context?

To whom are the companies running “smart” cities accountable, citizens or shareholders?

And with increasing automation, cognitive computing and Big Data, are humans even going to have a meaningful role in running the show at all?

Pennsylvania recently launched its first Pay for Success project, and while it wasn’t directly for pre-K education, I have concerns about where things are headed. The John and Laura Arnold Foundation (New Orleans school takeover and Baltimore surveillance project) teamed up with Michael Bloomberg (NYC education reformer and founder of the Domain Awareness System) to underwrite an advertising campaign in support of the soda tax intended to fund the city’s universal pre-K program. I don’t take their involvement as a good sign.

Meanwhile out in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Problem Solutions is refining xAPI, the protocol they hope will truly open the door to “anywhere, any time learning.” Philadelphia has an extensive array of museums and cultural institutions that I’m sure would find such an arrangement very attractive. Our public library system, the Philadelphia Free Library, was identified as a national model for community-based learning experiences in the American Alliance of Museum’s 2014  whitepaper “Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem. The William Penn Foundation, the philanthropy that hired Boston Consulting Group to recommend closure of 23 Philadelphia public schools in 2013, just launched an initiative promoting informal “out-of-school time” learning. The Wallace Foundation has underwritten digital architecture to track data in afterschool program settings, all the better to feed the impact investment machine. Philadelphia is one of a dozen “Cities of LRNG” supported by the MacArthur Foundation. They want the “smart” city to become our classroom, but what does that mean for people who seek an education beyond the reach of badges and proficiency demonstrations? If learning happens outside an xAPI protocol will the authorities recognize it as legitimate? Do we need to build an infrastructure to support fugitive learning? Maybe we should have already started.

The corporate partnership’s ability to track water, buses, energy, people, transactions and knowledge through state-monitored systems should give everyone pause. Anyone who’s seen Snowden (or better yet Laura Poitras’s CitizenFour) or followed the advocacy work of William Binney knows this. Our virtual selves live on in Bluffdale, UT, at least for a hundred years.  “Smart” cities are surveilled cities, though undoubtedly this oversight will be presented as being for the collective “good.”

The narrative being crafted by Ed Reform 2.0 aims to convince us that through “personalized” data-driven education any child can become a “winner” in the global economy. That simply isn’t true and completely disregards grave concerns many hold about future labor markets with respect to automation. These interests are very happy for us to take out bonds to build 21st century schools and purchase legions of tablets and laptop carts. Global finance thrives on debt, and if it hastens the demise of neighborhood schools, so much the better. Reformers are selling us the idea that learning ecosystems will be “vibrant learning grids,” when in reality this loose system of unaccountable cyber and community-based learning opportunities will only magnify inequities inherent in the existing system. Their “learning grid” will be a disorienting maze that only children who have the most support and resources can navigate successfully. They know it and even write about it in the dystopian essay A Learning Day 2037. Such a fate would be a disaster for my city. That is why I am doing this work, and why I hope you will join me on this journey.

There are many moving parts to the Ed Reform 2.0 agenda but fundamentally it is about enclosing the commons of public education, pushing learning onto digital platforms where it can be monitored, disciplined, and turned into a commodity for speculation in the global financial marketplace. That fact must be internalized before we can move on. I hope the slides that follow help you in that process, so we can collectively strategize for the resistance.

Education in the Cloud-Introduction

Massachusetts Teachers Take A Stand Against “Personalized Learning”

During the annual meeting in May, representatives of the Massachusetts Teachers Association overwhelming approved three New Business Items opposing the roll out of so-called “personalized” learning programs in the Commonwealth via the MAPLE/LearnLaunch initiative. Additionally, a commitment was made to expand research the MTA has been conducting on privatization to include “personalized” learning and to create a webpage to share information and document the harm being done by such programs to teaching and learning.

I have written about digital curriculum in Massachusetts HERE and HERE. Mark Zuckerberg’s “personalized” learning platform Summit Basecamp has been making its way into a number of Massachusetts districts as well as districts in neighboring Rhode Island, which reformers have targeted for conversion as the nation’s first “personalized learning” state. More on that HERE.

In an email to members yesterday, Delegates say NO to personalized learning and YES to funding, MTA president Barbara Madeloni highlighted a number of NBIs passed by delegates during the meeting, including those related to Personalized Learning. See the screenshot below.

MTA Personalized Learning

The email also acknowledged the need to incorporate “personalized” learning into the high-stakes testing discussion, since both further the privatization agenda and seriously impact the time teachers and students have for authentic, meaningful instruction.

MTA Email -2

As far as I am aware, this is the first instance of union members in the United States directly challenging the ed-tech takeover of our schools. I hope you will draw inspiration from the stand they have taken and build on it. I expect this work will have to come through grassroots organizing, since top leadership of both national unions have aligned themselves with a concept of “Future Ready” schools that prioritizes digital curriculum over face-to-face instruction with certified teachers. Read the particulars HERE, HERE, and HERE. Full text of the NBIs can be accessed below. If you are an NEA member and planning to be in Boston later this month come prepared. This is not just Massachusetts’s fight, it is a fight on ALL of our doorsteps. Let’s get to work.

Text of the NBI motions, shared with me by the submitters, includes supporting links and reference information: MTA Personalized Learning NBIs




What the NEA probably wouldn’t want you to know about “personalized” learning in Boone County, KY.

Just weeks before the 2017 Annual Meeting opens in Boston, an article from NEA Today, As More Schools Look to Personalized Learning, Teaching May Be About to Change, makes it clear NEA’s top leadership prioritizes digital curriculum over the right of a student to be educated without data mining and to have unconditional, full time access to a human teacher. For those familiar with NEA’s and AFT’s partnership with Ed Reform 2.0 interests on the Education Reimagined initiative this comes as no surprise, though seeing the propaganda in print is still jarring. If you’re NOT aware of this partnership, stop and read Emily Talmage’s Anatomy of a Betrayal now. Oh, and later check out the NEA’s 2011 Policy Brief in support of blended learning. Here Tom Vander Ark notes the content of the brief is largely drawn from the work of Clayton Christensen’s reformy Innosight Institute.

The general rule for ed-activists is to never, ever read the comments, though I encourage you to make an exception in this case. Over fifty heartfelt statements against digital curriculum have been logged thus far, though you should be aware that at least four other comments were posted and subsequently removed by the site administrator. One was from Emily Talmage and included a link to Anatomy of a Betrayal. Another was from a former NEA member and midwestern teacher “NEA’s motto-destroying public education from within.” A Connecticut teacher and NEA member wrote “What a deceptive article – shame on NEA Today.” And the fourth was submitted by Massachusetts Teachers Association member Mary Porter.

Mary’s comment included the full text of New Business Item 6, MTA Opposes the MAPLE / LearnLaunch Partnership with Massachusetts DESE. The NBI was approved at the state meeting of the Massachusetts Teachers Association on May 20, 2017, and as far as I am aware it is the first instance of a union taking an official position opposing digital curriculum. I am grateful to all who crafted, sponsored and supported this NBI, and I am sharing Mary’s comment below because this NBI is a landmark policy and a model other unions should look to as they develop their own responses to ed-tech’s assault on our nation’s schools.

MTA Opposes the MAPLE/LearnLaunch Partnership with Massachusetts DESE
NBI # 6 Adopted
Massachusetts Teachers Association Representative Assembly, May 20 2017

1.The MTA opposes the MAPLE/Learn launch partnership of the Massachusetts DESE, on the grounds that it reflects a predetermined plan to impose a new, untested “personalized” oversight system on the public schools. This initiative is privately controlled by LearnLaunch, a non‐profit consortium of for‐profit education technology ventures. The MTA will investigate the legality of this partnership and its appearance of being a crony arrangement to guarantee return to for‐profit vendors who would benefit financially from the policies being imposed through collaboration with the DESE.

The MTA will inform the DESE of our position in a letter, accompanied by a press release to the public.

2. The MTA will establish a MAPLE/Learnlaunch Toolkit Page, which will collect and review reports from members, describing instances where, in their professional judgement, the educational opportunity of students and the respect for teaching staff are undermined by the products and working conditions demanded by the consortium.

3.  MTA members and staff will use our toolkit to share strategies to combat the harmful effects of and unvalidated edtech products on our students, and to defend teachers’ professional judgement and standards against interference by business interests.


1.  Office of Digital Learning Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education 75 Pleasant Street Malden, MA 02148-5023 odl@doe.mass.edu www.doe.mass.edu/odl @MASchoolsK12

Digital Learning Advisory Council Meeting Minutes Date: Wednesday, January 6, 2016:

a. MAPLE (Massachusetts Personalized Learning EdTech) Consortium is a public / private partnership emerging between ESE and LearnLaunch as an effort to catalyze personalized and blended learning supported by technology in districts and schools across the Commonwealth. MAPLE is having discussions with some philanthropic organizations to support this effort.

b. There will be a convening of the DCPS (Digital Connections Partnership Schools) Grantees at LearnLaunch Symposium and a second convening of the DCPS later in the spring.

c. The Commissioner set goal of 100% online testing in Commonwealth by 2019. ODL/DLAC will be involved in advising for this effort.”

2.  Promotional materials for the Center for Collaborative Education describe its agenda-driven out-of-state backers:

“In 2016, CCE launched the Massachusetts Personalized Learning Network (MA PLN) to work with district leaders, principals, and teachers to design and implement personalized learning plans…

Center for Collaborative Education (CCE) is proud to partner with Massachusetts Personalized Learning Edtech Consortium, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Agilix. CCE is a regional partner with Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC) as part of a national initiative to scale up personalized learning schools. PLN is supported by EDUCAUSE through the Next Generation Learning Challenges, the Barr Foundation, Nellie Mae Education Foundation, W. Clement & Jessie V. Stone Foundation, and IBM.” http://cce.org/work/district- school-design/massachusetts-personalized-learning-network

3.   Learnlaunch is a “non-profit” consortium of for-profit investors and vendors, which specifically advertises to member investors that it has the capacity to maximize their financial return.


“Investor Path   Want to hear from other edtech investors on how they make decisions in such a fast-paced marketplace? Want to see demos from LearnLaunch Accelerator startups and pitches from our pitch competition finalists? Check out these sessions for a closer look into the trends, innovations, and companies that are shaping the future of edtech.” http://learnlaunch.org/investorpath/

LearnLaunch sponsors http://learnlaunch.org/sponsor2017/

Learnlaunch Accelerator for-profit member Companies: http://learnlaunch.com/accelerator/accelerator-companies/

Some supporting links:
Our Children @ Risk – Parents Across America Details the Dangers of EdTech
Follow the Money – Who is Nellie Mae? Save Maine Schools
Overview and Timeline of personalized learning drive in Massachusetts: Hybrid Learning, Cicada Killers & the Next Big Fight

Given that the NEA has tipped its hand on where leadership stands with regard to Zuckerberg’s “personalized” playlist education agenda, it’s time to shine a light on what is happening in Boone County, Kentucky. The Boone County School District is exactly the type of environment described in the article, and it’s imperative that teachers, parents and community members understand what reformers REALLY mean when they use terms like “personalization” and “innovation,” because it’s NOT what you think.

To give you some idea of the problems see the post below (shared with permission) describing a school meeting that took place last October in which parents expressed serious reservations about the implementation of the Summit Basecamp personalized learning platform in their local middle school.

Boone FB

Teachers in Boone County are members of the Kentucky Education Association, an NEA affiliate. The county, one of the fastest growing in the state, is located in northern Kentucky within the greater-Cincinnati sphere of influence. Cincinnati is where Knowledgeworks, the primary proponent of the learning ecosystem model, is based. I’m certain they’re paying close attention to how things are playing out across the river. There’s a lot of regional economic development, including recent plans by Amazon to establish a $1.5 billion worldwide cargo hub there. Amazon’s other major business venture is, of course, cloud-based computing which provides critical infrastructure for online learning management systems.

In 2012, Kentucky passed legislation creating Districts of Innovation to enable “rethinking what a school might look like.” “Innovative” districts are released from administrative regulations and statutory provisions and waive local school board policy. ALEC has developed model legislation for “Innovation Schools and School Districts,” which is being adopted in a number of states. Texas, for example, has seen a lot of activity around innovation districts over the past year. The flexibility offered dovetails nicely with complementary ALEC legislation that expands e-learning options. The following ALEC legislative templates have been created or updated since passage of the Every Student Success Act, which incorporated language in support of so-called “innovative” learning: Statewide Online Education Act; Digital Teaching and Learning Plan; Online Learning Clearinghouse Act; Resolution in Support of Student-Centered Accountability Systems;  and the Next Generation Charter Schools Act.

Boone County School District, the third largest in the state and growing, joined the program in 2016 with the intention of creating an “Imagineering Academy” combining personalized learning platforms and work-based projects in a competency-based education framework. The district already had gone down the e-learning road, piloting a Spanish language program using Rosetta Stone software in 14 elementary schools between 2013 and 2016. In a press release touting this “innovative” digital world language program, Linda Black, director of Elementary Education, stated  “Like many public school districts encounter, it can often be difficult for us to find, and more importantly, afford certified world language educators.” Matt Hall, of Rosetta Stone, affirmed this sentiment noting “School districts don’t need big budgets to think innovatively and provide access to 21st-century skills for its students; Boone County is living proof.”

So let’s take a look at the language in the application and the waivers they requested to provide the flexibility to implement the “Imagineering” vision. You can read Boone County’s entire District of Innovation Imagineering Academy report HERE.

Boone County schools are very interested in optimizing their resources in a cost-effective way. Outsourcing instruction to online platforms and community partners through their early college program enables them to achieve these types of efficiencies. Both approaches reduce K12 student access to certified teachers in neighborhood school settings.

Boone Resource Optimization-1

The Imagineering model also directs students to specific career pathways directed by regional workforce needs including: design, robotics, advanced manufacturing and home building. The document clearly states that in addition to specific vocational skills they are looking for “employability traits.” A “Work Ethic Certificate” is referenced.

Boone Workforce-2

Boone Workforce 3

These excerpts describe plans to expand virtual schooling in the district. The intent is to decrease costs by using aides instead of teachers to oversee digital instruction and to reduce Carnegie Unit requirements, which means reducing the amount of time students need to actually be IN a school setting. The plan notes that in some classes “teacher contact is important, but not to the extent that in-class time has been traditionally established.” NEA members, consider how this blended learning approach will affect the amount of meaningful instruction time you will have with students.

Boone Virtual School-1

This excerpt touts supposed public interest in K12 virtual charters, specifically Ohio’s virtual academy. The plan is to increase virtual classes in the district “exponentially.”

Boone Virtual-2

Here we have Knowledgeworks’ trademark “anywhere, anytime learning” language. No need to limit your education to physically going to a school building with certified teachers. You can enroll in virtual courses any time during the year or sign up for performance-based credit opportunities at the maker space or home building campus.

Boone Anywhere Anytime

This portion of the application requests the number of hours of instruction required for a course to be counted towards graduation be reduced by a third, a 33% reduction in student access to in-school courses with face-to-face instruction by certified teachers.

Boone Seat Time

The waiver below is probably the most egregious with respect to the NEA Today personalized learning propaganda piece. Through this waiver Boone County is granted the flexibility of allowing teacher’s aides to take on the role of instructing and supervising students while they are using virtual or digital content. A comment left on the NEA article notes this is already happening in a Utah district.

NEA Comment

Given the sections above describing plans to exponentially increase the number of virtual classes, this policy could decimate the professional teaching force. There is no doubt that aides provide crucial support services in classrooms. I do not want to diminish in any way the importance of their contributions. However we need to recognize that the job description of a “Teacher’s aide” is fundamentally different when the “teacher” is, in actuality, a computer program. I can’t imagine such a situation would be satisfying for anyone-students, aides or the now-absent, certified teachers.

Boone Para

In 2013, the state of Kentucky commissioned a study of Performance-Based Credit through the state office of Education Accountability. Boone County was identified as having three courses that met this criteria. The report summary stated such course offerings tended to be technology-based rather than teacher-led. Once again, certified teachers are removed from the educational process, and student access to human contact and opportunities to learn in relationship is limited.

Boone Performance

The final waiver I’ll post is one where they request an additional reduction of ten instructional days to be replaced by virtual learning or performance-based instruction.

Boone flexible

The 43-page application concludes with an 8-page marketing and communications plan promoting “Imagineering Academy.” It was expected that members of the “Build Champions” leadership group would undertake speaking engagements, develop a website, manage social media campaigns and ad buys, cultivate positive word of mouth, interface with the media, schedule group text messages, even design promotional signage. But the media campaign seems to have backfired, since many families expressed ongoing concerns in public meetings and media outlets  regarding the adoption of the Summit Basecamp blended learning program in the district’s middle schools. See Facebook Program at School Causes Controversy.

Boone Summit

More problems are cited in Carrie Cox: Some parents don’t like the new ‘Summit Personalized Learning Platform,’ want to opt out including: teachers being unable to meet the expectations of providing individual mentoring and differentiation; students completing curriculum modules too quickly; and concerns over privacy and sharing data with third parties. Evidently Summit has dealt with the latter issue by no longer requiring parental consent for students to use the platform.

Boone Summit-3

Boone Summit-4

Summit 6

Indeed many parents spoke critically of the Summit Basecamp program at a November 10, 2016 Boone County Board of Education meeting. Minutes here. Unfortunately there was little the superintendent or elected school board members could do about the curriculum, because those decisions are under the purview of the SBDM or Site-Based Decision Making Councils. Issues with how SBDM’s operate are detailed here.

While “personalized” learning is promoted as an “innovative” opportunity for the 21st-century, the reality is that Zuckerberg, Hastings, Gates, Dell and their ilk are selling us a cyber-parody of education where children are compelled to give up not only their data, privacy and autonomy but also the opportunity to learn from and connect with other human beings in meaningful ways. Certified teachers who have undertaken extensive study, training and credentialing to take up the vital work of educating future generations are being systematically marginalized, while the leadership of both national teacher’s unions actively partner on the ed-tech roll out. The NEA Today article is one more example of those at the top of the “business union” pyramid sacrificing members to advance their own political agenda. I hope everyone in Boston between June 25th and July 5 will take this information to heart. Draw inspiration from NBI-6 developed and approved by members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (see below), organize your colleagues and arm yourselves with tools you’ll need to salvage your profession and protect our children. Come prepared and be stalwart.

New Business Item 6-Approved at the 2017 Massachusetts Teachers Association Annual Meeting: MTA Opposes the MAPLE:LearnLaunch Partnership with Massachusetts DESE. Meeting summary HERE.


Scholarchip IDs: Convenience but at what cost?

I’m grateful to the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools for keeping tabs on the Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission’s monthly meeting agendas. They recently alerted me to a resolution about student ID cards, that in turn started me thinking about ubiquitous computing, digital classrooms as nodes within Smart Cities, and the role big data, payment systems, public-private partnerships, and Blockchain ledger-based finance could play in Ed Reform 2.0.

The SRC passed the Philadelphia School District’s 2017-18 budget last month, and the upcoming meeting on June 15 is packed with resolutions for new contracted services. Among these is a 5-year, $6.5 million contract with Scholarchip, the company that manages the district’s student ID and automated attendance system. Philadelphia is transitioning to a new student information system, Infinite Campus. A perfect name for the learning ecosystem age; no need to restrict learning to schools when the entire city can be your “campus.” One reason the district gave for deciding to extend Scholarchip’s contract was their use of smart card technology.

“The School District has maintained a good pulse on the state of the relatively limited market space for student identification card systems, having conducted previous RFP solicitations in 2005 and 2011. Many of the solutions available utilize radio frequency identification (RFID) as opposed to smart card technology. As a card technology platform, smart cards differentiate themselves by allowing data to be programmed and modified directly on the card itself, thus permitting greater functionality and flexibility such as use with fare systems (i.e. SEPTA), storing lunch money or fee balances, and documenting student health conditions or restrictions. Under this contract, ScholarChip would continue to implement its kiosk station architecture at school building points of entry/egress, and would utilize its cloud-based service to manage and administer kiosks, control access, collect/maintain data, and provide a web-based administrative interface to the system.” See page 51 of the June 15, 2017 School Reform Commission Public Meeting Proposed Resolutions.

I admit to having concerns about “smart” technology. My husband anxiously awaited the roll out of SEPTA’s smart card system, but I find myself reluctant to give up on tokens, which though inconvenient to purchase provide a level of anonymity smart cards do not. Cory Doctorow put RFID chips on my radar. Predictive policing via transit cards was part of the plotline of Little Brother, a book I highly recommend. Beyond monitoring attendance, access, and location services, Scholarchip’s smart cards also come with payment capability. There is a level of convenience there, but if you can put lunch money and transit fare on a card, you can just as easily put an entire Education Savings Account (voucher) on one. In fact education debit cards are already being used in Arizona.

Scholarchip handles student ID cards for private schools, and their payment gateway system is set up for tuition payment plans. The learning ecosystem of the future will have different requirements than the traditional voucher. There will be no up-front, lump-sum tuition payment, because the plan will be for students to chart their own educational pathways as they go along, cobbling together a combination of online and community project-based options. For that reason the industry needs a mechanism, like a card (or at some point even a chip in your finger? See Eggers The Circle) that can handle micropayments to multiple providers. In all likelihood those money transfers will be linked to meeting academic or non-cognitive student performance measures through a Blockchain or smart contract process. I’m sure those pushing ledger-based educational finance will say that it offers security, transparency and accountability, but at that point the process of education simply becomes transactional. Students’ lives are digitally transferred to the ledger, and the money follows the child and his or her performance in a very public way.

Even more concerning is the resolution’s off-hand reference to putting student health conditions onto a smart card, especially given the push to gather social-emotional data on children through gamified classroom behavior management apps and surveys. Plus, there is growing interest in bringing outside health and mental health providers into schools as part of community school initiatives. I would hazard a guess that most parents do not realize HIPPA protections do not apply in school settings, and that FERPA protections are woefully inadequate. This link indicates Infinite Campus student information system has the capacity to store health and mental health information on students. Will these cards eventually pull in that type of data, too? Do parents know?


In 2014 Scholarchip acquired ABE Systems, a web-based behavioral intervention software platform. The card syncs real time truancy, tardiness, and class cuts with the student information system and assigns students to online remediation behavioral remediation programs. See below:

Scholarchip Behavior

Scholarchip Behavior Photo

So what might start out as an attendance tracking device could actually evolve into a school policing mechanism. Much of the language found on the Scholarchip website evokes security, policing and student management. Even the image of the kiosk feels impersonally authoritarian to me, but I admit I may be biased.

Scholarchip 4While this is not part of Scholarchip’s card services, I want to mention Clever badges at part of this discussion. Clever, based in San Francisco, has developed software allows students to access hundreds of online educational apps through a single portal with one login and password. The company connects a district’s student information system to online learning programs associated with various rosters. As blended learning programs have pushed down into K-2 classrooms, remembering even a single password presents challenges. The solution? Badges (cards) printed with QR codes that when held in front of the device’s camera logs the student into the software programs automatically. See this video of students using Clever badges at a Rocketship Academy charter school. A simple card can be used to aggregate a lot of data.


Looking at the Scholarchip resolution, we owe it to our children to consider its broader implications. This is not just about making attendance taking easier, is it? No. It is about investing in an infrastructure that has the capacity to alter education payment systems and mine children for ever-increasing amounts of data that will be channeled into insatiable student information systems. It atomizes the educational experience; each student’s identity embedded into a card, layers and layers of data that can be used to track, manage and optimize them to the needs of the workforce. Or, profile them in ways that guarantee they have no place in the workforce.

A child’s transit patterns, eating habits, health needs, academic scores, career profiles? Is there any guarantee that this data, stored in the cloud and subject to hacking, will not eventually end up in a predictive analytics platform? Jose Ferriera’s Knewton talk from Datapalooza (see below) once seemed amusing, but not any more. That authorities could speculate on how well a student would do on an exam based on what he or she ate for breakfast? If it’s all tied into a child’s Scholarchip card, you can see how that could come to pass.

We should not be investing millions of dollars to mine student data, break down data silos and pull together information across all of these domains. We should protect our children from harmful predictive analytics. We should avoid creating mechanisms that could be used to link educational payments to performance measures. Instead we must invest in the human side of education. We should spend public funds to reduce class sizes, reinstate shuttered school libraries, and expand electives offerings and teacher-led extracurricular activities. Human relationships are paramount. That is what we should be spending $6.5 million on, not Scholarchip, not big data.

Sleight of Hand, Slate?

Over the past few days, my social media feed has been buzzing about Slate’s “The Big Shortcut.” The eight-part series, developed in coordination with Columbia Graduate School of Journalism’s The Teacher Project, explores “the exponential rise in online learning for high school students who have failed traditional classes.” Many of us have been working hard to sound the alarm about online education undermining teaching as an inherently human, relationship-driven endeavor and to draw attention to negative impacts of digital curriculum on student health and emotional well being. So to have our concerns seemingly validated by not just one article but by EIGHT was initially refreshing; that is until I read the whole series. Once I finished the last article, I was left scratching my head.

Why would Slate and The Teacher Project expend significant resources to discuss one VERY narrow aspect of online education, namely credit recovery? Certainly it’s an egregious practice, but given the rise of personalized “blended/hybrid” online learning that is overtaking regular classrooms, why choose to expend ALL their energy exhausting that topic while remaining silent on so many others? There are millions of students today enrolled in regular bricks and mortar neighborhood schools who are taking one or more online classes as a regular part of their curriculum. In fact, some states actually require students to take an online course in order to graduate. These are not credit-recovery courses. Austerity budgeting, teacher shortages and ever-more rigorous graduation requirements are increasingly pressuring districts to delegate core instruction to the cyber-sphere. Everyone is expected to do more with less—less money, less time, fewer human bodies; and with this disaster by design, digital curriculum becomes a convenient, but ultimately dangerous, remedy. Readers should take note that in this 8-part series, discussion of non-credit recovery cyber instruction, blended-hybrid-personalized learning and flipped classrooms is conspicuously absent.

As Slate focuses our attention on credit-recovery, you might ask what are they trying to distract us from or prepare us for? Well, you should first know that the magazine started out as a Microsoft-sponsored venture in 1996. The original staff operated out of the company’s Redmond, WA campus. It was sold to the Washington Post Corporation in 2004. Slate is now a business unit of Graham Holdings. The name change came in 2013 after the company sold the Washington Post newspaper. At that time Don Graham, Chairman of the Board noted: “We’re especially excited about the increasing number of digital opportunities available to expand our reach and the innovative kinds of services all of our divisions can offer.” Ventures beyond online and print news included a new education division featuring “Kaplan’s diverse and global education businesses.” Currently Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, serves on the company’s board of directors. Former Delaware Governor Jack Markell, a prominent figure in ed-reform, workforce development and blockchain initiatives, was added to their board this month. (Appreciation to Mythos: Education, Political Economy and Culture for making the Graham Holdings/Kaplan connections.)

Columbia University, home of The Teacher Project, has a rather checkered past with respect to predatory home-correspondence/distance education detailed in David Noble’s Digital Diploma Mills (see page 34). Following the money is my preferred strategy and in this case did not disappoint. Who funds The Teacher Project? As it turns out, the Carnegie Foundation is involved. They are among those seeking to kill off the seat-time-based Carnegie Unit in favor of digital learning that can take place “any time, any place.” They’ve been a regular donor to iNACOL (International Association of K12 Online Learning) since 2010 and in 2015 awarded them $1.2 million to advance innovative school models. Another supporter is the Emerson Collective, a financial vehicle for education reform established by Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve Jobs’ widow. It is set up as an LLC just like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The Emerson Collective’s most notable project has been the XQ Super School Initiative whose focus is school “redesign.” The third supporter is the Pinkerton Foundation, whose assets originated with the notorious, strike-breaking private detective agency. They fund youth programs and seem particularly interested in supporting out-of-school time learning, which is the other piece of the learning ecosystem program. Also worth mentioning is the significant amount of Gates Foundation money that has poured into Teachers College, Columbia University over the years in support of various education reform initiatives.

My take is that the series is meant to shine a light on “poor” implementation and “bad” online learning programs and establish the need for rigorous evaluation that will guide districts in purchasing “quality” education products that are managed “with fidelity.” Slate and The Teachers Project devote an entire article to poor quality online products, while wholly neglecting substantive discussion of the issues of social-control, surveillance and financialization that are crucial to gaining a true understanding of educational technology’s influence within the neoliberal education landscape. Their intent is not to fundamentally question the legitimacy of digital curriculum in all its varied manifestations or investigate the structural conditions that led to its widespread adoption. Rather, taken together, the pieces attempt to lay the groundwork for market conditions that will ultimately advantage major players like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft and encourage speculation on educational impacts via Pay for Success.

Quotes like the ones below make it clear the series really wants to lay out the circumstances under which online education will work rather than encouraging broader discussion of whether we should be pursuing digital curriculum at all:

  • “Yet Gadsden’s experience also shows that there are ways to implement online credit recovery without it becoming a sham. Administrators can trade information about providers to become savvier consumers of the myriad products available to them.” Source
  • “Above all else, the students’ stories show that what matters most when it comes to online education is how well—or how poorly—individual schools implement the programs.” Source
  • “An increasing number of states are getting serious about vetting the online education companies that are now responsible for instructing a growing number of their kids.” Source

While calling out problems with the existing credit recovery system, the articles manage to slip in propaganda for Ed Reform 2.0. Woven throughout are references to online learning as “fun and flexible,” “entertaining,” and offering “more freedom.” They note students appreciate logging into a class “anywhere, anytime.” It is true that criticisms are leveled against online credit recovery in the series, but you also get statements that could have been lifted straight out of a CompetencyWorks or iNACOL brief.

  • For scores of students, the flexibility and independence of the mostly online curriculum is invaluable. Source
  • Both teenagers say that online schools can serve an important purpose for disengaged youth. Source
  • For some, learning in a virtual silo is a relief. Sixteen-year-old West Gadsden student Luis Avalos says that he likes working online because he doesn’t get teased for asking questions or giving wrong answers. Another student, 19-year-old Keishon Derrick Brown, also likes learning independently—so much so that he does most of his work from home.  Source

Sarah Carr is the lead on The Teacher Project. According to her LinkedIn profile she has also been an editor and writer for The Hechinger Report since 2012. The publication, affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University, was launched in 2009 with major support from the Gates and Lumina Foundation. Her article in the series, “Online Education Doesn’t Have to Be Isolating” tees up what the series is actually about, namely setting the stage for blended learning. Her piece describes online learning at Bronx Arena, which is part of New York City’s iZone initiative. According to the website “Innovate NYC School projects supports schools by connecting educators and students, who understand school and classroom needs, with edtech companies who are developing innovative teaching and learning solutions.” The program was launched in 2010 under Joel Klein using Race to the Top funding and is affiliated with Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools. The program pushes technology, “personalized” learning, innovation, and alternative pathways—all the hallmarks of Ed Reform 2.0. This version of education is about teachers managing vendor content through data management tools. Carr’s task is to carve out a “middle ground” for ed-tech as a complement to face-to-face instruction. The horrors of credit-recovery provide a useful counterpoint. She describes teachers crafting their own “computer-based” content, which sounds a lot like playlist education using Open Education Resources. In the second-to-closing paragraph she notes that even though models like Bronx Arena may not be as cost-effective, there are benefits to having access to a human teacher who can occasionally offer “help” and supplement online instruction.

What is NOT said can be just as important as what IS said, and it pays to read between the lines. While it pleases me to see discussion of ed-tech’s many problems, we have to recognize this series represents an investment by a major media outlet in partnership with an institution fueled by ed-reform funding to further tech’s desired message. The message they WANT us to take away is that online education that includes some access to a human teacher is not all bad. Don’t buy it. That should NOT be your takeaway. Please, if you share these articles, include an introduction encouraging people to question why we’re allowing this type of controlled, surveilled digital education to be pushed into our classrooms the first place? Who benefits financially? Who holds the power?

This past March, Audrey Watters of Hack Education was awarded in Spencer Fellowship to the Columbia School of Journalism. As far as I can tell the fellowship is not affiliated with The Teacher Project. Ed-tech will continue to be the focus of her research. The day she made the announcement, she also deleted her Twitter history. We certainly need investigative research into ed-tech, venture capital and global finance. But can that come out of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism? After doing research for this piece, I have concerns. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.