I wouldn’t expect an expose on ed-tech to come out of The Intercept any time soon, despite the solid work they have done on Google and their deep knowledge of online surveillance and ties between Silicon Valley and government officials. Read on to find out why.
I’m always looking for opportunities to raise awareness around ed-tech and digital curriculum. So when the Free Library of Philadelphia announced an author event with The Intercept founding editor Jeremy Scahill interviewing Edward Snowden via remote link, I bought a ticket right away. If there were an audience who would be concerned about cloud-based education, digital curriculum and surveillance, this would be it. See Tim Scott’s piece for detailed background on ed-tech and surveillance. So I made up a flyer, printed a hundred copies and arrived early to hand them out to attendees on the way into the event. Other than the board chair, who expressed concern about my presence, everyone was quite receptive.
For context I need to share that the Ford Foundation’s 2014 study “Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem” lauded Philadelphia’s Free Library, the venue for the talk, as a model community-based youth learning space (p 20). They were one of twelve library systems that received support from the MacArthur Foundation to create innovative learning labs. I wonder about this, since we are a City of LRNG. They did a pilot with badges in 2014. It quietly faded away, though I fear it may resurface once the ecosystem infrastructure (Education Savings Accounts and Blockchain payment/credentialing systems) is further developed. Glancing at those seated in the president’s circle reserved seating area, I couldn’t help but wonder who among them might have a hand in setting up learning ecosystems here? The Free Library has said not a peep about the systematic decimation of our school libraries over the years, by the way. If you’re interested, you can listen to the podcast of the September 11 interview here.
On a related note, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has been inserting itself into Philadelphia School District policy for quite a few years. Their donations of computers to select schools gives them access through grants to push for adoption of reform-minded initiatives like school report cards and universal enrollment systems. It wasn’t until a few years later while watching Oliver Stone’s Snowden, that I made a connection. In one scene Snowden was asked to prove his legitimacy and did so by throwing numerous credentials onto the hotel mattress. One of them was his Dell identification. As I wrote about here, Snowden obtained many National Security Agency documents while working as a Dell contractor. At the time I was fighting Dell’s influence in Philadelphia, I thought it was simply about selling more computers. Until that moment, I had not realized that Dell’s business extended far beyond the sale of laptops. In fact, the NSA is one of Dell’s most important clients. Maybe it was less about computers than it was about access to all the data generated by data-driven education systems. Watch this short video about Dell’s push for online “personalized” learning pathways. Knowing their ties to the NSA, you may see it as somewhat less than benign despite the peppy soundtrack.
It was a sold out crowd that night and a good interview. There were a few quotes from Snowden that stood out to me. “We need to speak not because it’s safe, but because it’s right.” Also, “Look at the world around you. You are not powerless. If all of us do what we can, it will be enough. We have to start somewhere.” Sitting in the auditorium I couldn’t help but think of the passage in Glenn Greenwald’s Nowhere to Hide where he is trying to convince Snowden that it would be better not to go public as a source. But Snowden said that he always intended to take responsibility, because he didn’t want blame to fall on any of his colleagues. He said that the only regret he would have is that if once he wrecked his life, people knew the truth about the data collection and surveillance and they just shrugged it off and went on as if nothing had happened. That stuck with me and has motivated me to keep pursuing the truth behind the imposition of data-driven education and examining its implications for freedom of thought and civil society. Honestly, there are days when I don’t know how much progress I’m making. But I continue to try. I choose not to just shrug it off and move on as if nothing happened, because if I did, it would diminish the sacrifice Snowden made for us to know the truth.
As I was leaving, I glanced at the book signing line. It wasn’t long. The book table included Scahill’s Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. Of course Eric Prince, founder of Blackwater, is the brother of US Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
I made a quick calculation and decided to pick up some not-so-light reading and see if perhaps I could put a bug in Scahill’s ear about looking into digital education and surveillance concerns. I made my pitch, and it seemed to resonate. After offering to tweet him a link to my blog, he said he’d rather give me his email and told me to get in touch. He expressed that as a parent of a young child he had concerns about what he was seeing with online education. He suggested reaching out to a colleague of his working in that area and gave me her twitter handle. It didn’t seem like he was humoring me, but rather that HE wanted to continue the conversation. Feeling pretty good about the evening I tucked the book in my bike basket and peddled home. As soon as I got there I sent this follow-up email.
And then as so many of us do (yes, I do recognize the irony), I posted a somewhat-pleased-with-myself update to a closed group in which I am a participant. That is when the bubble popped. Someone mentioned Omidyar, Pierre Omidyar founder of Ebay and the Omidyar Network. Didn’t The Intercept receive funding from them? Right. I do seem to remember coming across that at some point. But I’ll admit I hadn’t really done my homework before the event, thinking it was primarily about Snowden. I hadn’t sleuthed The Intercept in any real way. If I had, I would come across this well-documented piece on Omidyar from Audrey Watters of Hackeducation, which discusses ties to The Intercept. It would have ruined my prospects for the evening certainly, but made me better informed going in. Turns out The Intercept not only receives funding from Omidyar, but Omidyar actually bankrolls the entire operation. We are not talking about a grant here or there. No, Omidyar’s money created and essentially runs The Intercept.
So why is that a problem? Well, it is becoming increasingly clear that instruction in public schools is being pushed onto digital platforms via hybrid-blended learning, “personalized” digital curriculum and gamified assessments of social-emotional traits and mindsets. This is creating conditions that will ease evaluation of impact investments by venture capital, transforming an essentially human activity into a set of dynamic metrics that can be gathered via devices and monitored using real-time data dashboards.
As public funding for public education (and other human services) continues to be withheld, conditions favorable to the adoption of “innovative” public-private partnerships are created. These corporatized “solutions,” grounded in impact investing principles of “doing well by doing good” (aka profiting off poverty), advance “exciting new finance structures” like Pay for Success and Social Impact Bonds. For the full run down see Tim Scott’s detailed analysis Impact Investing and Venture Philanthropy’s Role in Sowing the Seeds of Financial Opportunity. Elected officials are now in the process of putting their stamp of approval on data-driven “evidence-based policymaking.” These policies are being advanced with bipartisan support. Evidently they anticipate there is plenty of money to be made off the datafication our lives and the public services we access in the process of living them. Enough for Democrats AND Republicans. That is the reality of impact investing, and Omidyar is in the middle of all of it.
The Rockefeller Foundation has led the global roll out of social impact investing since 2007 when they brought together diverse financial interests in Bellagio to discuss a new model of investment that would leverage not only endowments of philanthropies, but also the hard-won and dearly paid for retirement accounts and insurance premiums of everyday people, in their quest to profit off poverty.
They launched the Global Impact Investment Network in 2009. In subsequent years GIIN established ways to evaluate success to suit the needs of the global finance sector. As you can see in the text accompanying the graphic below, Omidyar is identified along with the Gates Foundation as a major supporter of Rockefeller’s efforts. Teachers should note another key player in this impact investing agenda is TIAA. Yes, your pension fund, which was actually launched by Andrew “now let’s get rid of this factory model of education” Carnegie, is underwriting impact investments that could include ed-tech initiatives that promote AI “intelligent” tutoring systems over human educators. In the long run it is not at all clear how sustainable that can be since chat bots do not pay into pension funds.
This is the source link for the two graphics above.
So Omidyar is a key player in the global impact investment realm. They work with everyone from USAID to the Vatican. They have their hands not only in education and emerging technology, but also digital identity and digital finance for the global unbanked (cue Blockchain). They see their “deep roots in Silicon Valley” as putting them in a prime position to “accelerate social change.” They have deep investments in organizations promoting the scaling of social impact bonds including: Social Finance UK, Social Finance US, and Bridges Ventures, creators of the first wholesale fund to invest in social impact bonds. Not surprisingly they are also a financial supporter of the Global Impact Investment Network.
The education projects they fund include the predatory for-profit education provider Bridge International Academies; the new, Silicon-Valley-backed micro-school concept Alt School; tech promotional outlets like EdSurge; and so-called open education resource (OER) providers like Khan Academy and LearnZillion. In support of this online, OER, playlist approach to education, they have also provided enormous grants to Common Sense Media. My sense is it is their role to cultivate a sense of trust and acceptance of a new digitally-oriented educational system.
Just as with the Ravitch/MacArthur Foundation discussion last week, this Omidyar situation points to the fact that education activists need to begin looking beyond Gates, Walton and Broad to ferret out and expose this next wave of digital privatizers who are quietly wreaking havoc on human-based systems of education with as yet little to no scrutiny. Even I, a person who swims in this information, missed it at first. I was too busy looking for allies in this fight and didn’t dig deeply enough. I kick myself for sending Scahill that email in the first place. Of course as a parent and a skilled journalist, I’m sure he probably would love dig into a story like this. But the technocrats are a savvy bunch, and they have money to burn. They require unquestioning public acceptance of digital platforms to advance their plans to mine global profit from our data. They need to cultivate our dependence on the systems of technology being woven into our lives day in and day out.
For a while the Snowden revelations disrupted that trust, that comfort. The truth about the surveillance, predictive analytics and the breadth of those under scrutiny was frightening. And that fear made all of GIIN’s plans for an impact investment program built on data and digital platforms vulnerable. So of course an offer of financial support was made; one that I’m sure allowed a fair bit of leeway in terms of investigating some things, but perhaps not others. The Intercept does fine work in many areas, but don’t expect them to take on ed-tech or impact investing. I simply don’t think that is going to happen. Which is why everyday people, people who aren’t on anybody’s payroll need to continue to do this research and get the word out. Neither the mainstream media nor the alternative media are in a position to tell the whole truth. I will close with two follow up emails I sent. I never heard back from Mr. Scahill. I emailed him most recently five days ago to let him know I would be writing about Omidyar and to see if he had any thoughts as a parent or investigative journalist; still nothing. I’ll post an update here if he gets back to me.