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:
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.
While 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.