Personalization or Profiling? Childhood in the Ed-Tech Era

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It was great spending time this afternoon with opt out activists in New York City discussing Ed Reform 2.0 developments and digital education. I created a slide share for that presentation, and because it contains a number of useful links and resources, I wanted to make it available to others. Click on the image above to access it. This is a work in progress, so feel free to make suggestions in the comments!

Trade you a backpack of badges for a caring teacher & well-resourced school.

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This is the third in a series intended to describe the process by which education reformers are transitioning us from neighborhood schools to learning eco-systems. For additional background you can read “From Neighborhood Schools to Learning Eco-Systems, A Dangerous Trade” and “Questions We Should Be Asking About Future Ready Schools.”

Since the passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the drumbeat for “innovative,” “personalized” education has grown stronger and more insistent. Key to the successful implementation of Education Reform 2.0 is convincing the public that education in school buildings with certified human teachers is obsolete. The No Child Left Behind Act laid the groundwork. It created increasingly hostile working conditions for teachers, inhumane learning conditions for students, and emphasized standards and test scores above all else.

While the public was sold a story that national standards were about ensuring equity for all children, parents of children enrolled in predominately low-income districts know that is not true. Time and time again we have seen that the standards-based accountability frameworks established under NCLB focus on outputs, NEVER inputs. These laws did not secure additional resources for children in need. They were designed to raise expectations for college and career readiness while kneecapping, through ongoing austerity budgets, our schools’ ability to meet our children’s most basic needs. Imposition of Common Core State Standards, value-added measures, high school exit exams, third-grade reading guarantees, test-score based “turnaround” policies, data-walls, and the like, have gradually institutionalized a punitive, data-driven approach to education across our country.

So what exactly does that have to do with badges? Well, data-driven education and badges go hand-in-hand. It makes sense once you realize the end goal is to replace our current system of public education with individualized pathways geared to “anytime, anyplace, any pace” learning mediated largely through technological devices that collect and aggregate educational data. The data is all aligned to The Common Educational Data Standards and now xAPI or Tin Can has replaced SCORM to make collection of online and offline educational data easily trackable.

This is not limited to K12 or even P20, the powers that be envision this process of meeting standards and collecting badges to be something we will have to do our ENTIRE LIVES. If you haven’t yet seen the “Learning is Earning” video-stop now and watch it, because it makes this very clear. Badges are representations of standards that have been met, competencies that have been proven. Collections of badges could determine our future career opportunities. The beauty of badges from a reformer’s perspective is that they are linked to pre-determined standards and can be earned “anywhere.” You can earn them from an online program, from a community partner, even on the job. As long as you can demonstrate you have mastery of a standard, you can claim the badge and move on to the next bit of micro-educational content needed to move you along your personalized pathway to the workforce.

In this brave, new world education will no longer be defined as an organic, interdisciplinary process where children and educators collaborate in real-time, face-to-face, as a community of learners. Instead, 21st century education is about unbundling and tagging discrete skill sets that will be accumulated NOT with the goal of becoming a thoughtful, curious member of society, but rather for attaining a productive economic niche with as little time “wasted” on “extraneous” knowledge as possible. The problem, of course, is that we know our children’s futures will depend on flexibility, a broad base of knowledge, the ability to work with others, and creative, interdisciplinary thinking, none of which are rewarded in this new “personalized pathway/badging” approach to education.

The reformers needed to get data-driven, standards-based education firmly in place before spotlighting their K12 badge campaign. Low-key preparations have been in the works for some time. In 2011, Mozilla announced its intention to create an Open Badges standard that could be used to verify, issue, and display badges earned via online instructional sites. The MacArthur Foundation and HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory) supported this effort. In 2013 a citywide badging pilot known as “The Summer of Learning” was launched in Chicago. 2013 was also the year that the Clinton Global Initiative joined the badge bandwagon. They have since agreed to incorporate badges into their operations and work to bring them to scale globally as part of the Reconnect Learning collaborative.

Other partners in the “Reconnect Learning” badging program include: The Afterschool Alliance, Badge Alliance, Blackboard, Digital Promise, EdX, ETS, Hive Learning Networks, Pearson, Professional Examination Service and Council for Aid to Education, and Workforce.IO.

The Chicago Summer of Learning program expanded nationally and has since evolved into LRNG Cities, a program of the MacArthur Foundation. According to their website: “LRNG Cities combine in-school, out-of-school, employer-based and online learning experiences into a seamless network that is open and inviting to all youth. LRNG Cities connect youth to learning opportunities in schools, museums, libraries, and businesses, as well as online.”

In some ways such a system may sound wonderful and exciting. But I think we need to ask ourselves if we shift K12 funding (public, philanthropic, or social impact investing) outside school buildings, and if we allow digital badges to replace age-based grade cohorts, report cards, and diplomas, what are we giving up? Is this shiny, new promise worth the trade off? Many schools are shadows of their former selves. They are on life support. It is very likely that expanding the role of community partners and cyber education platforms via badging will put the final nail in the coffin of neighborhood schools. But before that happens we first need to ask ourselves…

Do we really want pathway designers and non-credentialed mentors guiding our children instead of certified teachers who understand pedagogy and child development?

Do we want a public education framework built on the constant input of data into devices in order to earn badges for the skills others value? Is that productive or emotionally healthy?

Do we want an integrated, holistic approach to teaching children that is attuned to their humanity or are we sticking with the data-driven version that has been thrust upon us?

What would the adoption of a “badging” approach to K12 education mean in terms of local control of curriculum? Are we really comfortable handing over the education of future generations to employers, museums, online games/simulations, and learning management systems that are unaccountable to voters?

What are the privacy implications for K12 badging? Are there going to be badges for social-emotional qualifications, too? Because that certainly seems to be the direction that CASEL and NAEP are headed.

Do we want to be that reliant on technology that has such a short lifespan, is vulnerable to hacking and technical problems, and is actually very expensive (cost and energy-wise) to maintain?

Badges appeal to our desire to accumulate and collect. They quench our craving for short-term gratification and allow us to indulge in healthy (and unhealthy) levels of competition. In an age of the quantified self, badges serve to create and reinforce our identity in the virtual world. Badges have their origins in scouting (oh those sashes) and later gaming and avatars. They seem so harmless, fun even. But would we really want to be reduced to the contents of an online backpack of badges? Is that something we want for our children?

I can see how badging could work as a SUPPLEMENT to a properly funded, equitable public education system that prioritizes developmentally appropriate instruction and human teachers and offers a rich, IN-SCHOOL curriculum for children up to the age of 18. IF you have ALL of that in place, feel free to supplement with badges during out-of-school time for children who choose to take advantage of such programs. But don’t require it. And don’t use it as a means to outsource education to community partners and cyber education companies.

While right now badges may seem an innocuous novelty, if they end up being used as a substitute for an independent system of public education we’re in real trouble.

More on badges:
The Business of Badging and Predicting Children’s Futures

Will Public Education Survive the Next Administration?

 

Dell, the NSA & Future Ready Schools

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Dell’s ties to NSA surveillance programs should give parents, educators, and students pause as they assess the idealistic portrayal of personalized online learning promoted in the company’s peppy video for “Future Ready” schools.

Snowden downloaded NSA secrets while working for Dell, sources say (Reuters, August 12, 2013)

“Former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden began downloading documents describing the U.S. government’s electronic spying programs while he was working for Dell Inc in April 2012, almost a year earlier than previously reported, according to U.S. officials and other sources familiar with the matter.

Snowden, who was granted a year’s asylum by Russia on Aug. 1, worked for Dell from 2009 until earlier this year, assigned as a contractor to U.S. National Security Agency facilities in the United States and Japan.

Snowden downloaded information while employed by Dell about eavesdropping programs run by the NSA and Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, and left an electronic footprint indicating when he accessed the documents, said the sources, speaking on condition of anonymity.”

The Snowden Saga: A Shadowland of Secrets and Light (Vanity Fair, April 23, 2014)

“In early 2009 he got the chance, accepting a job with Dell in Tokyo. In addition to making computers, Dell managed computer systems for hundreds of corporations and more than a few government agencies. In Japan, Snowden worked at the Yokota Air Base, outside Tokyo, where he instructed top officials and military officers on how to defend their networks from Chinese hackers. There he also designed a highly sophisticated data backup system called EPICSHELTER. It used an advanced technology to place a shield around every N.S.A. site in the world, ensuring that the N.S.A. would be able to recover information from any of its locations, even if that site were completely destroyed in the event of war or another calamity. The N.S.A., in fact, was one of Dell’s most important and secretive clients.

How Edward Snowden went from loyal NSA Contractor to Whistleblower (The Guardian, February 2, 2014)

“In February 2009, Snowden resigned from the CIA. Now he was to work as a contractor at an NSA facility on a US military base in Japan. The opportunities for contractors had boomed as the burgeoning US security state outsourced intelligence tasks to private companies. Snowden was on the payroll of Dell, the computer firm.”

Questions we should be asking about “Future Ready” schools.

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This is a follow up to my prior post regarding the danger of “learning eco-systems.”

How far are we from the day we’ll be forced to rely on online education modules to inspire and excite the minds of young people; where badge collections replace diplomas; and virtual reality games substitute for Friday night dances, track meets, spelling bees, and school plays? How much time do we have before certified human teachers are replaced by “Task Rabbit” pathway designers and AI personal “tutors?” Before we lose all expectations for privacy surrounding how and when we access our educations? Before the entirety of our educational lives becomes consolidated under a unique ID number and its associated digital shadow?

Online learning is claiming ever-larger blocks of instructional time in bricks and mortar schools. Budgets prioritize technology purchases over investments in human staff and facilities. Increasingly responsibility for assessment is being taken away from teachers and placed under the purview of data dashboards and black boxes that monitor in minute detail our children’s academic and social-emotional “progress” towards standards we had no part in setting.

For all of these reasons, we need to take a critical look at school redesign programs that are showing up in communities across the nation. Our government is rolling these initiatives out right now in coordination with think tanks, philanthropies, and the education technology sector. If thousands of superintendents nationwide are signing on to “Future Ready Schools” it is imperative that as citizens we start considering the far reaching consequences a data-driven, technology-mediated system of public education will have for the health and wellbeing of our children and our democracy.

As we move into the era of the quantified self. I find myself worrying. I worry a lot. I worry that we should be asking questions, a lot of questions, and that our window for questioning is shrinking by the day.

Many who spend their days in our nation’s schools have been put into positions where they are almost compelled to welcome the concept of “school redesign.” They have been living for years in the test-and-punish nightmare that No Child Left Behind created. They’ve been coping with austerity budgets, toxic buildings, staff shortages, lack of respect, frozen wages, and the ongoing challenge of meeting the needs of students living in poverty with far too few resources at their disposal.

Current conditions in many of our nation’s schools are appalling, and that is by design. It is through this dissatisfaction with our current situation that they hope to accomplish a shift away from a “standardized” education based on a single high-stakes test given at the end of the year to a “personalized” digital education that employs ongoing online data collection as children progress through the curriculum year round.

So with that in mind, I invite you to consider the questions below. Hopefully they will give you some ideas you can use to start your own conversations with parents, teachers, and school board members in your own community. In my heart I believe the 21st century schools parents and human teachers desire for their children are very different from the version being pushed, behind closed doors, by the educational technology sector.

Questions we should be asking about school redesign and “Future Ready Schools:”

Technology-mediated education is considered to be a disruptive force. Many “innovative” 21st century education approaches seek to undermine traditional concepts like “seat time,” the Carnegie Unit, age-based grade levels, the centrality of teachers in classrooms, report cards, diplomas and to extend credit-based learning beyond the school building itself. Before moving forward with these ideas, shouldn’t there be a wider public discussion about which aspects of traditional schooling we want to retain moving forward? Disruption for the sake of creating new markets for businesses is an insufficient reason to dismantle neighborhood schools.

Why should we allow our children to be human subjects in this grand data science experiment? This is particularly troublesome given the fact that ethics codes for data scientists are not nearly as well developed as codes of conduct for bio-medical research.

What are the implications of expanded 1:1 device use and screen time on children’s health and emotional states?

How does the use of embedded “stealth” assessments contribute to the normalization of a surveillance society in the United States?

What overlap exists between data analysis used to monitor national security interests and data analysis used to assess educational content and activities in our nation’s schools? How does the Office of Educational Technology interface with the Department of Defense and how comfortable are the American people with those relationships? See xAPI or Tin Can or Douglas Noble’s 1991 extensively-researched book “Classroom Arsenal: Military Research, Information Technology, and Public Education” for additional background information.

As nano-technology advances make wearable devices more commonplace, shouldn’t parents have the right to refuse the collection of live data streams on behalf of their children? What types of monitoring (bio-metric and otherwise) have been enabled through the expanded presence of devices in our schools? Cameras, microphones, touch screens, and fit bits for example?

While personalized learning platforms tout their “individualization,” to what extent do these programs recognize our children’s humanity? As systems thinking becomes embedded within public education policy, are our children being valued as unique human beings possessed of free will, or merely as data points to be controlled and managed?

Feedback loops influence human behavior. In what ways could large-scale implementation of adaptive education programs and online educational gaming platforms contribute to the collective brainwashing of our children?

Personalized education means that algorithms decide what educational content your child CAN see, and what content they won’t see. Is it the duty of education to expose children to a wide range of content that will broaden their view of the world? Or is it the role of an adaptive learning program to feed the child information for which they have already expressed a preference? Consider the implications of a “Facebook” model of education.

How much data is too much? Data is never neutral. Who is collecting the data and to what end? Data is always a reflection of the ideology in which it is collected. Why should we trust data more than the professional expertise of human teachers?

We caution children about their online presence, but through the imposition of digital curriculum we are forcing them to create virtual educational identities at very young ages. Should that worry us? What are the implications of our children having digital surrogates/avatars that are linked to comprehensive data sets of academic and social-emotional information? Do we really understand the risks?

Who owns the intellectual property that students create on school-managed cloud-based servers? Do they have the right to extract their work at will?

What roles do teacher education programs and certification policies play in furthering a technology-mediated approach to public education?

Will students enrolled in private schools have their data collected at the same level as public school students? Is privacy something that will become ultimately be available only to the rich and elite? Will we allow that to happen?

Should it be the basic human right of all children to have access, if they choose, to a public education model in which humans teach one another in (non-digital) community in an actual school building?