Beware The “Learning Engineers”

I watched Nova’s “School of the Future” when it premiered in the fall of 2016. The vision of education it promotes, one steeped in rapid innovation and technology, was profoundly disturbing. Funded by the David H. Koch Science Fund and the Carnegie Corporation, a powerful advocate for digital education and competency-based learning, the episode tried to normalize the use of MRIs as a tool for evaluating learning. At the time, I found the producer’s repeated references to MRIs strange. Now, seeing how social emotional learning, ed-tech, gamification, brain science, impact investing, behavioral economics, and digital medicine are beginning to intersect, everything is starting to click.

Reformers hope to convince the public that education is a science that should be evaluated using quantitative measures. As they work on this front, they are also expanding cyber education nationally, not just 100% virtual schooling but also blended/hybrid “personalized learning” programs like Mark Zuckerberg’s Summit Basecamp. Such models demand hardware, software, telecommunications, and cloud-computing contracts that divert public funds from paid human staff into corporate accounts. It also creates favorable conditions for ed-tech and digital therapeutic “interventions” venture capitalists plan to use to gamble on early-childhood, literacy and workforce outcomes via Pay for Success contracts.

As anyone who has been following Cambridge Analytica knows, digital platforms generate extraordinarily rich data profiles on individuals. And it’s not just academic data that is captured. Industry is now demanding metrics on “soft skills” and “mindsets.” Adoption of biometric monitoring and video games with embedded psychometrics has vastly expanded the amount of data being aggregated on children. See this video promoting BrainCo’s brain wave monitoring classroom wearables created in 2015 by Harvard’s innovation lab.

Affectiva Personalized Education

Affectiva uses voice and facial recognition software to track real-time emotions of device users interacting with online content. That company spun out of the MIT Media lab and contracts with global brands to test advertising campaigns; but it is also used to gather data about student engagement with online education programs (see above screen shot). You can watch a short clip from Rosalind Picard’s presentation on the software from the 2017 Wharton Business School’s People Analytics conference here.

Affectiva at Wharton

And in this one-minute clip, also from Wharton’s People Analytics conference, Guy Halfteck of Knack, discusses that capacity of online gaming to unlock information about a job candidate’s personality. Watch it here. The Rockefeller Foundation, the initiator of the global impact investment movement, provided start up funding for Knack, software that combines gaming, neuroscience, machine learning and predictive analytics to assess the workforce competencies of players.


Wharton People Analytics Knack

In the clip, Halfteck describes online games as rich machines into which you can immerse people to evaluate their creativity, emotional intelligence, leadership qualities and resilience. The company claims Knack will be used to surface undiscovered talent in “opportunity youth.” However in a world where automation is making full-time employment an increasingly rare commodity, it seems far more likely that it will be used to negatively profile vulnerable young people rather than help them.

On January 30, 2018, Dr. Melina Uncapher of the University of California San Francisco came to Philadelphia to speak about learning engineering at Drexel University’s ExCITe Center. Her talk concluded the center’s annual “Learning Innovation” conversation series. You can watch it here.

Drexel Uncapher
Click here to watch.

She describes a growing movement where powerful interests are reimagining learning as an “applied science” where instruction can be administered in a clinical way, not unlike a medical treatment. She describes the creation of a new kind of career, a “learning engineer” to bridge the fields of learning science and classroom instruction. A learning engineer? I have so many questions:

Who is being subjected to this engineering?

Does it vary by race, class, and gender?

Engineered by whom?

Engineered with what technology?

Using whose standards?

To what end?


Uncapher’s talk emphasized the need for “evidence-based” education. Instruction must be measureable so they can “tell the leeches from the penicillin.” Of course this feeds the emerging narrative touting the importance of “efficacy” and “return on investment,” all of which is tied back into Pay for Success finance. In the clip below, Uncapher describes a research project she is carrying out with one thousand elementary school students in Santa Clara County, CA.

Santa Clara Neuroscape
Click here to watch.

Faculty from Stanford and UC Berkeley are participating in Uncapher’s three-year study funded by the National Science Foundation. A summary of the $750,000 award can be accessed here. The first two years involved extensive mapping of the executive function of the participating students using video games. Data on attention, memory, and goal management was captured via ACE (Adaptive Cognitive Evaluation), a platform that delivers 5-minute online assessments via adaptive algorithms. Video tutorials, graphics, and “motivating” feedback are built into the system. In this final year of the study, Uncapher will use digital interventions to attempt to “build” the executive function of these students.

Neuroscape ACE

Uncapher is also the director of the education program at the Neuroscape Lab, which began at UCSF in 2005 but was launched in its present form by Dr. Adam Gazzaley in 2016. The lab supports research into how video game technology can be incorporated into diagnostic and therapeutic digital products that “improve mind quality.”

Akili Interactive Labs is a for-profit enterprise that Gazzaley spun out of Neuroscape. Gazzaley is on its board and is its senior science advisor. Thus far the company has secured $72 million in venture capital from Canepa Healthcare, Jazz Venture Partners, PureTech Health, Amgen Ventures, and Merck Ventures.

AKL-T01 is a prescription pediatric ADHD digital video game treatment that completed clinical trials at Duke University last December. The company continues to advance their product through the regulatory process. It “looks and feels like a high-end video game, leveraging art, music, storytelling and reward cycles to keep patients engaged and immersed for the delivery of therapeutic activity with excellent compliance.” According to the website, they have many other digital treatments in the pipeline. If Akili attains FDA approval for their ADHD game and is able to get insurance companies to pay for it, an enormous new market for prescription digital therapies will open up.

Akili pipeline

I fear if we don’t start to speak up now, within the next five years it may become “normal” to deploy digital protocols to “fix” non-conforming children. Reduce face-to-face interaction and ramp up data-driven brain science. Picture data dashboard managers issuing personalized digital gaming scrips to “optimize” academic performance and mental health. Special needs students, English language learners, and those labeled “behavior problems” will be most at risk for remediation by systems designed to extract data and generate profit for investors.

We must challenge the National Science Foundation’s decision to fund a research program intended to “engineer” the executive function of Santa Clara County’s children. The data they are gathering on students in their public school will be used to build a base of research Neuroscape can hand over to Akili to refine and develop commercial products. Our children’s minds do not belong to the disruptors of Silicon Valley or the financial predators of Boston. Keep your MRIs, your immersive VR faux realities, and your human capital predictive analytics. Instead, let us come together as human beings and build a future that is neither financialized nor data-driven. Our children deserve nothing less.

Prescription Video Games


2 thoughts on “Beware The “Learning Engineers”

  1. Laura H. Chapman says:

    This is the tip of the iceberg. There is a whole patent classification for digital therapeutics.
    I believe the following link will show the patent for the game (and allied products). The patent includes diagrams in addition to a detailed description of the process of training the artificial intelligence systems that will, in theory, change behavior. You can do a keyword search for the word ‘game.” I became interested in patent searches some time ago. My brother was a mechanical engineer and learned to file his own patent claims.
    See also the speakers on”peak performances” at

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