I should have anticipated the response to my Blockchain video would be muted. Digital wallets for e-vouchers and lifelong learning badges probably seem like a distant threat to most people. And yet as we begin a new school year I can’t help but reflect on the fact that more than a handful of people I know have felt sufficiently harmed by current public education policies to put their children into private schools, leave town, or in some cases move to a whole other state only to find the situation there just as bad or worse than it was back where they started.
Many students are spending their first weeks of school being issued devices, having logins set up, creating accounts for various “personalized learning” programs, and taking surveys to identify their workforce pathway options. Meanwhile, parents lie awake in the middle of the night nervously calculating the ages of their children against how fast they anticipate badging and apprenticeship programs will come online. We’ve hit a moment of fight or flight. The stress is palpable. It’s nothing a mindfulness session can ease away. The dread is growing.
So which is it? Fight or flight? Though I am fortunate in that my child graduates next spring, I keep wracking my brain for a “Plan B.” For years I have fought to save authentic, human-based learning in neighborhood schools; first on the standardized testing front and lately on the tech front. But the odds feel so very long and progress slow and people are in deep, deep denial about the scope of the problem. In those moments I think perhaps flight is warranted. If the adults in schools don’t want saving, perhaps it is best to walk away and find people who want to build something else.
Nationally, there are groups calling for the wholesale withdrawal of children from public education systems that have been commandeered by ed-tech interests with the apparent blessing of both major political parties. Pennsylvania has many, many families that enroll in cyber-school. This of course is not an answer to the ed-tech conundrum, because while conducted “at home,” it is a corporate franchise charter school education carried out on a surveillance device. In Philadelphia, there are also sizeable home school and un-schooling communities. This model is more traditional in approach, often drawing on local cultural offerings to supplement a home-based curriculum. It’s labor intensive and not something many families have the time or income to sustain over the long haul.
As Education Savings Account programs gain momentum, I feel I must point out that flight is not going to be a workable option either, even if a family goes the traditional home school route. You see ESAs are early stage e-wallets. Social impact investment markets will demand education impact data in exchange for “equitable” funding. No question. The reformers see the e-wallet concept as an elegant solution, well suited to the needs of investors. Digital money can be programmed by the authorities and spread around “out of school” and online education providers using Blockchain micro-payments. Student data, lots of it, will in turn flow in. There will be synergy between digital payments and digital data. The child is transformed into a vehicle through which the capital of the neoliberal financialized education system can flow.
So, if you are a parent who decides to go the low-tech, traditional home school route, what happens when all the civic and cultural spaces in your community sign on to the learning ecosystem program and start taking ESAs? Well, at that point they’ll be pulled into the system of payment / data exchange. The programs on offer will have to be redesigned for check-the-box impact demonstration. They will likely move towards more tech-integration. They’ll need it to capture the quantity of data required by the social impact dashboard systems.
The e-wallet transformation, once fully implemented, will hijack recreation centers, art spaces, theater groups, science meet-ups, sports leagues, outdoor programs, even public libraries, turning them into badge-issuing nodes of the learning ecosystem. They will be expected to monitor the behavior and emotional regulation of students and report back. At that point there will be no place to flee, unless we organize parallel community spaces that refuse all public funds and the strings of data harvest that will come along with them.
So I sit here on a rainy Friday night seeing storm clouds on the horizon, wanting to fight but not sure who is fighting with me. I’m still looking for a viable Plan B. Got any ideas?