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