Silicon Valley: A Laboratory of “Smart” Surveillance and Privatization

The scope of my research has expanded greatly since I began this journey five years ago. My starting point was standardized testing. At the time I was under the naive impression that withholding student test scores could in and of itself  forestall the closure or “turnaround” of neighborhood schools in Philadelphia. During the spring and summer of 2015, I realized “end of year testing” was merely a warm up for “all-the-time” online testing ushered in by ESSA. Valuable relationships came out of that movement; still, it was a blow. It took me half a year to regroup. I continued digging and slowly came to understand the vast reach of technology-enabled predatory social impact investing, grounded in Dr. Tim Scott’s foundational research, here, here and here.

The machine bearing down on us will use online interventions to manipulate student data in ways that redirect public funds into private hands under the guise of “evidence-based” “impact.” These systems are being deployed not only in charters, where they are field tested, but in neighborhood schools where blended “personalized learning” has taken hold. The incubation of Zuckerberg’s Summit Basecamp within Summit charter schools is but one example. Privatizers no longer need to close schools and replace them with charters to turn a profit. It is efficient, and often less rancorous, to negotiate agreements with outside management organizations that ostensibly keep schools “public” while setting children up for expanded data extraction. Once agreements are signed, administrators have free reign to impose data-driven initiatives that claim to “close gaps.” Flush districts (are there any left?) or those caught in the web of deep-pocketed donors may open “innovation” model schools to carry out this agenda. Technology-based instruction, whether implemented via laptops, tablets or Internet of Things tracking, sustains global markets in hardware, software, broadband and cloud computing, as well as “impact” investment markets linked to educational outcomes – DATA. The speculative nature of this enterprise centers “risk” analysis and profiling of students. It is incredibly dangerous.

By following the money, lots of it, I came to see how this system of converting human life to data for profit would not be limited to education, but extended into other social services: health care, counseling, workforce development, supportive housing, addiction treatment, prison re-entry. The goal is exhaustive data profiles collected on all children from pre-k through college, even extending to long range employment and health outcomes if they are able to successfully legislate it. Through continued austerity and reliance on outsourced services, including highly-anticipated “wrap around services,” education is systematically being woven into the nonprofit industrial complex, or as Sir Ronald Cohen father of British venture capital calls it, “The Social Sector.” Wherever the tech / telecommunication / impact investment sectors can take human services and put them online to leverage data-mining for profit, they will. Faux “tele-services” and apps are being pushed onto families and into schools using deceptive “community school” branding. These interventions, meta-data tagged bait and switches callously proffered in response to deep trauma and life and death need, will be weaponized against children and families, pushing the lives of the most vulnerable onto data dashboards for review by financiers.

Gambling on the life outcomes of those accessing public education and other services is a challenging endeavor requiring deft coordination of many moving parts. Those setting up these predatory public-private investment schemes must:

  • establish easily measurable sectors for for “impact” interventions
  • set agreed-upon terms of success
  • develop technology that can cheaply and efficiently capture impact data
  • fund research to establish credibility
  • convince elected officials that outcomes-based contracts are a bipartisan “win”
  • align government procurement systems to the new model
  • maximize data interoperability across sectors
  • coordinate public private partnerships with venture capitalists
  • compel administrators (and their staff) and clients (including students) to comply

Despite the billions of dollars pouring into these ventures, financiers haven’t yet figured out how to bring it to scale, which is good news. There is still time to derail it, but we must get people to understand the danger to organize effectively. A lot of the most nefarious aspects of this plan are cloaked in progressive language, which makes it difficult to deconstruct, especially in such hyper-partisan times as we now face.

Global monopoly capital believed Social Impact Bond finance would be their tool to launch a new era of biocapitalism. Happily, SIBs have proven too cumbersome, which bought time. SIBs have now largely been supplanted by generic pay for success initiatives, which offer more flexibility in how deals can be structured. This past summer the branding was further tweaked as both sides of the aisle celebrated the Social Impact Partnership Pay for Results Act (SIPPRA). That language hit a lot of targets: social impact, partnerships, and results. Win, win, win! If you were to buy their fraudulent sales pitch, such P3 arrangements will bring “equity while minimizing public expense; it is already embedded in “what works” “moneyball for government” programs nationwide. So how to upend this evil construct, steeped in surveillance? Venture philanthropists always seem to be twenty steps ahead, establishing the narrative and determining the talking points. I’m committed to using this blog to disrupt as much as possible and hope you’ll digest the material and share it with others. At the end of a trying year, I’ll admit to being tired and discouraged. 

Fin-tech continues to tinker with the formula. The stakes are high as the bottom of the economic pyramid balloons. The oligarchs must figure out a way to extract profit from people with little money, and quickly. For capital to circulate on terms that further concentrate wealth in the hands of global investors, full-scale privatization of the social sector, including education, must advance rapidly.  And what better place to refine the mechanics than the Bay Area? As a playground for tech bros who who love nothing more than to move fast and break things where there is ready access to the Stanford Business School network and billions in untapped assets at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, it should come as no surprise that the environs of San Francisco have seen a lot of technology-enabled, social impact, financial tinkering over the past five years.

In fact, a new social impact product was trialled this year at San Quentin prison. It is called an “impact security,” and the idea is that venture philanthropy will agree to pay back private investors when outcomes-based contracts hit their data targets. What is significant is that this iteration of “profiling for profit” doesn’t require ANY government participation. A non-profit can issue debt to provide a social service (market created courtesy of austerity budgeting), and that debt can be purchased directly by investors. It’s a P3 initiative where there is NO public oversight. The government is left out of the equation altogether. The concept was developed by NPX, and the test case called “The Last Mile” is funded by Omidyar Network, a major player in global impact investing. The terms of “success” involve hitting a set number of hours of prison labor logged by incarcerated people. In this case the labor is computer coding, which begs the question are we expected look the other way when state-sanctioned oppression involves STEM training?

The relationship map below depicts projects underway in the Silicon Valley.

Santa Clara San Jose Impact Investing

Interactive version here.

Four of these are social impact initiatives: straight up impact investments (The Big Lift and Strong Start), a social impact bond (Welcome Home), and a pay for success program (Partners in Wellness). There is a test case for the collection of impact data around executive function, a known area of interest for impact investors. And a prototype interoperable data warehouse (Datazone), as well as a youth badging pilot program being deployed in San Jose. San Jose is of particular interest, because there are many parallels to Philadelphia. San Jose and Philadelphia are both Smart Cities seeing a lot of “what works” initiatives, “innovative” partnerships linking city government, technology interests and venture philanthropy. If you’re curious, see the links below:

Similarities between San Jose and Philadelphia.

Smart Cities: Philadelphia / San Jose

Comcast machineQ IoT Pilots: Philadelphia / San Jose

Knight Foundation IoT Grants: Philadelphia / San Jose

FUSE Corps Fellow Programs: Philadelphia / San Jose

Living Cities Members: Philadelphia / San Jose

Cities of LRNG (learning ecosystems): Philadelphia / San Jose

Digital Badge Pilots: Philadelphia / San Jose

Ideas42 Research Sites: Philadelphia / San Jose

Pre-K Initiatives: Philadelphia / San Jose

Charter School Lobbyists: Philadelphia / San Jose

Third Sector Capital Partners has had a role in all four Silicon Valley impact investing initiatives. George Overholser, formerly of Capital One and the NonProfit Finance Fund, founded the organization with Caroline Whistler, who had also worked for the NonProfit Finance Fund and before that at Ashoka. Third Sector has offices in Boston, San Francisco and Washington, DC. They were among those tapped to accelerate the growth of the nascent pay for success market in October 2014. That year Congress significantly increased the budget of the Social Innovation Fund, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Third Sector received $1.9 million to provide technical assistance to spur development in the field. In the case study prepared for the ROCA SIB, George Overholser stated the mission of Third Sector Capital Partners is to “accelerate America’s transition to a performance-driven social sector.”

Timeline with milestone PFS projects for reference:

2012: New York City Riker’s Island SIB (incarcerated youth)

2012: Santa Clara, CA, Strong Start Pre-K Launched (impact investment)

2013: Salt Lake City, UT, Pre-K SIB

2013: San Mateo, CA, Big Lift (Early Literacy), (impact investment)

2013: Silicon Valley Regional Data Trust Grant (NSF)

2014: Commonwealth of MA, ROCA SIB (“at risk” youth)

2014: Chicago, IL, Pre-K/Early Literacy SIB

2014: Datazone Under Development (SCCOE Update)

2015: SVRDT Partners with Datazone, MOU

2015: Santa Clara County, CA, “Welcome Home” SIB

2015: San Jose Smart City Pilot, Press Release

2016: South Carolina, Nurse Family Partnership Home Visit PFS (Pay for Success)

2016: San Jose City of LRNG Launched

2016: Neuroscape Research Initiated in Select San Jose Schools, Gazzaley Lab Overview

2016: Santa Clara County, CA “Partners in Wellness” PFS (mental health)

2017: San Jose, Youth Badging Pilot, Video

Below are brief descriptions and relationship maps for these projects. I intend to go into greater detail on aspects of some of the maps later in the series.

Strong Start

Organized efforts promoting early childhood education began in 2010 with the creation of an early learning master plan targeting children ages 0 to 8 and their families in Santa Clara County, CA. A large coalition of corporate, philanthropic, governmental and nonprofit interests was brought together to advocate for expanded pre-k after Race to the Top funding was obtained by First Five Santa Clara in 2012. In 2016, the county received a US Department of Education pay for success grant to hire Third Sector to consult on the use of outcomes-based contracting as a means of increasing access. Sunnyvale School District was the test case. The process identified screening and assessment tools to advance this financial model. Datazone, which is under the purview of Marcy Lauck, Director of Data Governance for the Santa Clara County Office of Education, was part of this grant. SRI International and the Urban Institute advised on the project. The following year the Strong Start Coalition finalized an updated early childhood education plan with input from these working groups: Access; Articulation, Alignment and Data Systems; Facilities; Family Engagement; Planning; Program Quality; and Workforce Development.

Interactive map here.

Strong Start Santa Clara

The Big Lift

The goal of this program, backed by a coalition of over 200 partners, is to implement the Annie E. Casey Third Grade Reading Campaign framework to improve kindergarten “readiness” and third grade reading and math proficiency among low income students in San Mateo County, CA. Big Lift got its start in 2013 and moved to proof of concept stage in 2015. The plan is to expand the the program to 8,600 children by 2020 at an estimated annual cost of $30-40 million. It builds upon a county-wide “preschool for all” program piloted between 2005 and 2009. Major funding came from the CA preschool block grant program, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, San Mateo County, and First Five San Mateo. Third Sector did not play a major role in this initiative, though they are listed as a partner.

Interactive list of funders here.

Interactive list of select program partners here.

Big Lift Funders

Big Lift Partners

Silicon Valley Regional Data Trust: Datazone

To maximize social impact profit, it is crucial that data across social sectors be compiled in one place. Ultimately, deal evaluators want to know everything about how a given intervention “impacted” a person’s life. Aggregating information that might otherwise be siloed compounds financial gains for investors. For that reason Datazone is the most significant project in this post. The origins of Datazone, and its companion effort the Silicon Valley Regional Data Trust (SVRDT), date back to 2001 when Marcy Lauck, current Director of Data Governance for the Santa Clara County Office of Education, was working as a consultant with Education for the Future, a research institute based at UC Chico. Her major accomplishment was to create a K12 data warehouse for the San Jose Unified School District. Lauck went on to join the National Laboratory for Education Transformation (NLET) where she and colleagues, many affiliated with UC Santa Cruz, secured an NSF grant in 2013 to develop a multi-county database linking health and human service data (child welfare, juvenile probation, and behavioral health) to education data. That effort evolved into the Silicon Valley Regional Data Trust.

Parallel with that work, the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE) launched a data initiative with Hoonuit. In 2015, the county signed a memorandum of understanding linking SVRDT with Datazone. The following year Lauck left NLET and joined SCCOE to become Director of Data Governance, overseeing Datazone, and point person for data on the Strong Start initiative. In 2017 with major support from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, SVRDT was officially launched. The program was a founding partner of the National Interoperability Collaborative (NIC), and Lauck has since made appearances around the country promoting Datazone/SVRDT as a national model for data interoperability with support from NIC’s initiators Stewards of Change and AcademyHealth. According to a feature article about the effort on the Hoonuit website, the warehouse holds data on 250,000+ students in 30 districts with over 90 dashboards and 350 “actionable” metrics.

Interactive map here.


Welcome Home

The number of unhoused people in the United States generally, and the Bay Area in particular, is growing exponentially. Gentrification, displacement, lack of affordable housing and housing insecurity brought about by health circumstances or unlivable wages for gig economy work leave many in dire need of shelter. But if housing, particularly supportive housing, becomes a social impact market, people needing shelter will be integrated into a massive data collection system. Being out of the elements will not be seen a human right. Rather, the data of unhhoused people will become raw material to expand the impact investment machine. The Welcome Home social impact bond was launched by Santa Clara County in 2015 in consultation with Third Sector Capital Partners. The program, which offers “evidence-based” housing-first services was jump-started with a “disruptive innovation” grant from The Health Trust, whose former CEO Fred Ferrer does outcomes-based consulting and serves on the board of Rocketship Academy Charter Schools, to Step Up Silicon Valley, a program of Catholic Charities of Santa Clara. The deal evaluator for the project is Palantir, a company that offers its software pro bono under a “Philanthropy Engineering,” arrangement. The trade-off? Well, they’re taking “free” services from a company that does a lot of business with the Department Homeland Security and sells predictive policing software.

Interactive map here.

Interactive map of funders here.

Welcome Home SIB

Welcome Home Funders

San Jose Smart City Program

City of LRNG Digital Badging

As I noted previously, Philadelphia and San Jose have a lot in common in that both are Smart Cities and Cities of LRNG, a program of Collective Shift funded through the MacArthur Foundation that promotes early stage learning ecosystems following “the city as your classroom” concept where students demonstrate competencies and earn digital credentials aligned to workforce pathways through digitally-mediated “playlist” experiences. San Jose appears to be advancing more rapidly than Philadelphia with the rollout of 5g and facial recognition cameras. In San Jose, FUSE Corps has deployed numerous individuals within the city government to promote adoption of “innovative,” technology-friendly policies. I don’t have the space here to go into detail, but hope to explore this in a future post. This map includes key elements of the smart city program, work histories of individuals associated with San Jose’s implementation, and FUSE Corps fellows. For additional information on LRNG and badge programs as they relate to out of school time learning and impact investing see posts here, here, here, here, and here.

Interactive map here.

Smart Cities : FUSE Corps

EdNeuro Research Project

The National Science Foundation awarded Dr. Adam Gazzaley of Neuroscape, a research institute based out of UCSF, $750,000 in 2015 to assess how precision video games could be used to map and engineer the executive function of students. In 2016, Melina Uncapher, a research scientist affiliated with Neuroscape and Stanford, introduced a “mobile cognitive health assessment battery,” acronym ACE (Adaptive Cognitive Evaluation), to select classrooms in Santa Clara County schools. I wrote a longer post about Uncapher and learning engineering here. The tool Neuroscape used was developed in partnership with mobile gaming company Zynga, Facebook’s app developer. In addition to running Neuroscape, Gazzaley is co-founder of Jazz Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in technologies to enhance human performance, and Akili Interactive, a Boston-based company that develops digital therapies. In 2017, Akili successfully completed clinical trials for a pediatric prescription ADHD video game treatment, AKL-TO1. Numerous global pharmaceutical companies have invested in the company, whose website proclaims “It’s time to play your medicine.” Akili also has digital treatments in development for depression and MS.

Interactive map here.

EdNeuro Santa Clara

Partners in Wellness

This is the first pay for success project in the nation with a focus on mental health. Third Sector consulted on it after working on the Welcome Home social impact bond. The goal for the program is to reduce inpatient treatment for 250 Santa Clara County residents diagnosed with severe mental illness. As with Welcome Home, Palantir is providing the software. However the deal evaluator in this case is Dr. Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry affiliated with Stanford Medical School. Funding was provided through the Social Innovation Fund and the Nonprofit Finance Fund, the organization Overholser founded.  Paul Brest, professor of social impact at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and co-director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, wrote a case study about it in 2016. Brest served as president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation between 2000 and 2012 during which time the foundation provided seed funding that helped to launch Third Sector.

Interactive map here.

Partners in Wellness : Santa Clara

After reviewing these maps it should be clear that social impact investors plan to exert control over every aspect of the lives of society’s most vulnerable, including students in our public schools, for private gain. There is a sickening presumption that those with power and financial resources should be entitled to engineer the lives of others. In future posts I plan to lay out the details of how pay for success arrived in Silicon Valley, discuss the Silicon Valley Community Foundation’s role in the PFS landscape, and explore conflicts of interest embedded in the relationship maps above. Stay tuned!


When “What Works” Harms Students: Why Stopping Summit Learning Isn’t Enough

Featured image from OpenPTrack, body-based cyberlearning tools, developed as part of an NSF grant “Promoting Learning Through Annotation of Embodiment (PLAE),” Dr. Noel Enyedy, co-principal investigator.

On December 11, 2018 the National Education Policy Center’s e-newsletter confronted the growing backlash against “personalized learning” in general and Mark Zuckerberg’s Summit Learning in particular. Unfortunately, instead of fundamentally opposing the corporate hostile takeover of schools through digital media and learning, they fell back on four data-friendly policy recommendations drawn from Dr. Noel Enyedy’s 2014 brief, which are summarized here:

1) technology investments should not overstep research

2) software developers, researchers, and teachers should partner to determine “what works”

3) dedicate resources to professional development, and

4) be open to new models of technology integration in classrooms

Recent developments around ed-tech and social impact investing make it clear that these recommendations could in fact lead to increased datification of students, especially in light of the passage of Pay for Success legislation embedded in the Every Student Succeeds Act. This post is written as a response to Dr. Enyedy’s recommendations. It also provides additional context around student data privacy concerns and the importance of understanding opposition to online education as a global struggle.

“What Works” Research

Enyedy’s first two recommendations imply technology investments can be made based on research that provides “rigorous evidence of what works and what doesn’t.”  It is significant that his brief predates the Every Student Succeeds Act, which mandates tech interventions based on that same concept. Passage of this legislation the following year opened the door to pay for success (PFS) financial investment schemes. Broad adoption of “personalized learning” is key to scaling the PFS model of privatization, because it normalizes digital instruction, a precondition for cheaply documenting “impacts” associated with outcomes-based contracts.

Narrowly defined “success” metrics are embedded in PFS government contracts to determine how much profit will be paid out to investors. The data collection then dictates how services are delivered and requires intrusive tracking and predictive analytics. Black and brown students enrolled in no excuses charters and “turnaround” schools are disproportionately subject to this type of digital instruction. Student “success” must be captured as quantifiable data to evaluate PFS contracts-hence the rise of digital interfaces and data dashboards.

Teachers cannot possibly enter the amount of data required, especially given large class sizes, which is why they must become “guides on the side.” Screen interactions gather considerably more meta-data, so they have taken precedence over face-to-face instruction. If you’ve wondered why students must take demoralizing pre-tests; the answer lies in PFS. The model only works when there is a baseline from which to assess “impact.” ESSA moved districts away from the big year end test to a regimen of online testing all the time. Efficient, scaleable, automated “solutions” are preferred, which is why PFS and ed-tech are a match made in heaven.

In a PFS world, researchers and deal evaluators play critical roles. They are the ones to set the standards for “what works” and determine if interventions meet expectations. In 2017, three years after Enyedy’s brief, the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and Jefferson Accelerator, an ed-tech incubator, partnered with Digital Promise to host an invitation-only academic symposium. The “EdTech Efficacy Research Academic Symposium,” concluded a year-long collaboration of “approximately 150 researchers, teachers, entrepreneurs, professors, administrators, and philanthropists” exploring “edtech efficacy.”

Their work advanced a very specific goal: to “develop, fund, pilot, procure, and implement” edtech according to efficacy research, which meshes perfectly with PFS. Among the initiative’s ten working groups were “Investors and Entrepreneurs” and “Education Philanthropies.” The symposium was underwritten by proponents of social impact investing, online learning and competency-based education including Gates and Zuckerberg. The discussions took place behind closed doors. Teachers were excluded. Parents were excluded. Community stakeholders were excluded. It was not meant to be an open discussion, but rather a tactical session to advance the primacy of tech and impact investing in educational spaces.

Unless we understand how edtech is intertwined with privatizing, speculative financial schemes, many of the policy changes taking place make little sense. Why have tablets replaced blocks and kitchen sets in kindergarten? Not because it is good for children, but rather because students must generate data to prove the “success” of online programs, justifying the redirection of public funds into private hands. The parameters for these investments have been largely established by University of Chicago economist Jim Heckman, who with financial support from the Pritzker family, created an equation and toolkit promising a 7-13% return on investment in Pre-K to 3rd grade interventions. Advances in cloud-based computing, deeply subsidized broadband installation, and a significant drop in the cost of devices have coalesced. Now, after years of planning, schools are rapidly being transformed into data factories, the role of student evolving into that of unpaid digital laborer, raw material offered up for online intervention.

With bipartisan political support, PFS finance is now being applied not only to public education but to workforce development, housing, mental health, addiction treatment, and post-prison reentry. It has been embraced not only in the United States, but also in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and international development aid circles. PFS is a tool of neoliberal austerity; one that attempts to mask privatization with data-driven “evidence-based” platitudes. It uses research to advance a “what works” narrative, and that research is often underwritten by the same interests that stand to benefit from the findings.

Equal Partners in the Ecosystem?

Enyedy’s second recommendation presupposes a mutually-beneficial partnership among teachers, software developers, and researchers is possible. But is it prudent to make that assumption? If you look at Global Silicon Valley’s 2012 report, “American Revolution 2.0: How Education Innovation is Going to Revitalize America and Transform the US Economy;” the materials associated with GSV’s partnership with Arizona State University going back to 2010; and the “Theory of Change” put forth by Ridge Lane LP’s education division, it is clear the deck is stacked in favor of privatization and global venture capital. The fact that a tremendous power imbalance exists cannot be overstated. With global edtech revenue topping $17 billion in 2017 and anticipated growth projected to be over $40 billion by 2022, it’s hard to imagine teachers entering into a such a partnership on an equal footing.

What about the robots?

The third recommendation addresses the importance of professional development for educators in implementing ed tech. Which begs the question, why is so little funding being allocated for teacher training in ed-tech now? Could it be because venture capitalists don’t actually see a meaningful role for teachers over the long haul? If you take the forecasts of Knowledgeworks and Global Education Futures Forum at face value, the ultimate goal of technology, telecommunication, and venture capital interests is to replace brick and mortar neighborhood schools with digitally-mediated learning ecosystems. Many elements are being piloted now: standards-aligned competencies, badges, digital vouchers, out of school time learning credit, elimination of seat time requirements, and career pathways linked to alternative credentials. As the Knowledgeworks white paper, “Exploring the Future Education Workforce” notes, with the ecosystem model there will be few career teachers. Those stable, unionized jobs with pensions and benefits will be replaced with “flexible” (ie precarious) employment options like competency trackers, data stewards, and pop up reality producers.

Meanwhile, Fourth Industrial Revolution teaching is being digitally platformed and, where possible, automated. Besides growth in online course offerings in traditional schools as well as virtual ones, we have the VIPKid model in which a globalized teaching workforce competes for apple ratings and gig-economy pay. Growing numbers of US teachers, unable to get by on their meager salaries, wake early to log a few hours tutoring kids in China. In some not too distant future, lean production could leverage instruction delivered by virtual pedagogical agents, much of this research being carried out at USC’s Institute of Creative Technologies with US Army support, or humanoid robots like Bina48 that served as a co-lecturer at West Point this fall.

The Saudi sovereign wealth fund, looking to diversify its holdings, is now making significant investments in AI and robotics. They’ve teamed up with Softbank, known for Pepper the robot. Pepper has a academic edition that delivers curriculum from a screen in its chest for the price of $24,990. In Philadelphia classrooms, Milo the robot provides autistic support services. This is not some distant future; this is happening now. So what does professional development mean in this context? Teachers are on the front lines of the reskilling agenda, expected to model micro-credential and badge acquisition to students. Is it reasonable to expect them to engage willingly in ed-tech professional development if the end game for Zuckerberg and Gates is instruction delivered by Pepper or Jett?

Non-Screen Technologies

Enyedy’s final recommendation suggests other forms of technology implementation be considered beyond traditional adaptive learning systems. For instance, when he published in 2014, an open source “Experience Application Program Interface” (xAPI) was in early development for the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative (ADL), a project of the US Department of Defense. xAPI advances ADL’s goal of scaling mobile personalized learning systems that incorporate emerging technologies including gamification and simulations. It is meant to go beyond the limitations of laptop-based adaptive learning management systems permitted under SCORM (Shareable Content Object Reference Module), its predecessor. Here, too, Zuckerberg exerts his influence. iFest, an ADL sponsored e-learning symposium held August 26-29, 2018 in Alexandria, VA, featured Bror Saxberg as keynote speaker. Dr. Saxberg, formerly an executive with K12 Inc. and Kaplan, currently serves as the Vice President of Learning Science for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. His responsibilities include developing “good learning measurement practice at scale” for pre-K, K-16 and beyond as well as new offline and online learning products.

Using  xAPI, proprietary algorithms can track designated “learning” across platforms including wearable technology, ibeacons, immersive simulations, and phone apps. Thus, in an xAPI world, learning is reduced to a trackable noun, verb, and object statement that can be uploaded to a digital locker or learning record store. This tracking is not just for K12 or P20, but is tied to “lifelong learning” as workers are designated as skilled and re-skilled. Of course there will be an expectation that workers self-finance their own reskilling, likely through for-profit credentialing companies using innovative data-capturing technologies. This will open up vast new markets for educational debt, likely presented as “micro-debt” or income sharing arrangements so as to tap the poorest workers. It should come as no surprise that the Nellie Mae Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, both with origins tracing back to the student loan behemoth Sallie Mae (now operating as Navient), would be leaders in the campaign to deconstruct public education and turn it into a skilling-reskilling, badging, workforce pathway, speculative human capital enterprise.

Researchers are working to connect xAPI with IMS Global, a leader in education data analytics and badging. IMS Global, a non-profit with close to 500 members in 22 different countries, began in 1995 as a program of Educause with the goal of using technology to affordably scale “learning impact.” Educause has received over $87 million in funding from the Gates Foundation. IMS Global facilitates collaboration between educational institutions and edtech suppliers on the development innovative products and digital strategies. When school administrators and teachers, are presented with opportunities to try new technologies like “executive function enhancing” video games or Google cardboard activities, they don’t connect this with xAPI or IMS Global. They don’t realize many of these technologies came out of Defense Department research and are paving the way for cloud-based education that puts data collection before human connection.

While tech initiatives like virtual field trips or work-based learning apps may sound intriguing, it is crucial to recognize that Internet of Things tracking captures not only cognitive performance data, but also social-emotional and biometric data. Dr. Enyedy is surely aware of this, given his position as co-principal investigator on an NSF-funded study “Promoting Learning through Annotation of Embodiment (PLAE)” awarded in 2015 as part of the agency’s Cyberlearning Learning Exploration Project initiative. The study involved gathering and analyzing student motion and location data in “embodied play simulations” for the purposes of assessing improvement in science and math concept understanding. Research on augmented learning environments is advancing quickly. So why are we not yet engaging in robust public discussions on classroom surveillance and student profiling?

Those who see schools as data factories value the prospect of alternative technology deployment. Non-screen applications using wearable technologies actually yield more data points than chromebooks or tablets. That data, particularly soft skills data, is in high demand by employers. Emotion sensing software and even brainwave monitoring devices have been developed for classroom use; for example BrainCo, developed with support from Harvard and now available in Chinese markets. It may sound far-fetched, but the data dust collected in makerspaces or on VR field trips that students take in middle school could one day influence the career pathways available to them.

Framing the Narrative

NEPC’s newsletter noted lack of a clear definition for “personalized learning,” which is intentional. It is difficult to challenge a vague concept that has carefully orchestrated branding. In 2010, the MacArthur Foundation hired Frameworks Institute to create a digital media and learning (DML) toolkit lobbyists and hired “experts” could use to overcome “problematic” ways of thinking about educational technology on the part of the general public. The goal was to enact policy and laws mandating tech-mediated learning environments promoting 21st century skills while breaking down the “classroom bubble” and “the caring teacher model,” which were identified as impediments to education reform. In order to gain clarity about what is happening with ed-tech, we must break free from the framing that industry, in partnership with venture philanthropy, has put in place. We must reject their narrative and develop a language that can speak to the profound crisis we face not just here in the US, but around the world.

Global Connections

The protest that took place against Summit Learning at the Secondary School of Journalism in Brooklyn and featured in the NEPC email needs to be understood within the context of ongoing campaigns of resistance already underway. The Global South has been fighting colonial ICT Education exports for a number of years. Chan Zuckerberg is heavily invested not only in Summit Learning but also in Bridge International Academies, a private education company serving 500 schools in Africa and India. Heated opposition to the company’s scripted online curriculum and substandard facilities began in 2016 in Kenya and Uganda. In the spring of 2018, 174 signatories from 50 countries issued a formal letter of concern over the company’s policies calling for divestment. Africa has been fighting back hard; we should look to their example.

Data Profiling for “Risk” and “Impact”

Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, and data science are being woven into instruction and school operations to predictively profile and even “threat score” students. Tech’s currency is data. Market logic dictates data-mining must increase, because that is where the profit lies. Case in point: Clever’s single sign-in feature aggregates data across 300+ online learning programs. Are parents and teachers supposed to feel good if research, which is often funded by venture philanthropy, endorses a fraction of these programs as “evidence-based?” Should we tolerate 5-year olds wearing oversize headsets that slip down over their eyes as they use QR coded badges to facilitate the ongoing harvest of their data as depicted in this video from Rocketship Academy charter schools? Should we accept high school students being put on Achieve3000 when they could be reading books of their choice that might open their eyes to new possibilities beyond the institutional framing offered by an adaptive system?

And how can we respond to the creation of “Datazone,” a massive online warehousing initiative that holds 300 metrics on 900,000+ students across 23 school districts in Silicon Valley? Datazone is connected to the Silicon Valley Regional Data Trust, funded by Chan Zuckerberg, that links education data with data about foster care, court involvement, and health and human services. SVRDT is a founding member of the National Interoperability Collaborative, which has ties to the National Fusion Center Association and the National Council on Crime and Delinquency. SVRDT is being promoted as a national model to scale data interoperability.

The most vulnerable are being targeted for massive data exploitation. Few of us have a clear understanding of the vast quantities of data being collected in schools, where it is going, how it is being used now, and how it may be used in the future. This data-driven profiling will not benefit “at risk” children; rather, their lifelong data will be the fuel that runs the impact investing machine, like an inescapable treadmill.

The “what works” narrative being put forward is about “what works” for investors looking to privatize public services and demonstrate “impact.” Ed-tech is, at its core, a system of social control. Billionaires like Zuckerberg, Gates and Hastings hope we won’t notice in time. The online systems and dashboards they fund are designed to isolate and track us, making it harder to mobilize.

What next?

We must recognize that edtech in classrooms can never be neutral. Microsoft, Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Apple, and Facebook are reengineering how we are allowed to access information, how we are expected to relate to one another, how we are forced to interface with digital economic systems, and how we are evaluated for “risk.” Cloud-based computing has been inextricably woven into our lives. It will, admittedly, be difficult to disentangle from it. But Amazon Web Services’ close ties to state surveillance and the existence of Bluffdale make it clear that education for liberation cannot take place in the cloud.

Those who are determined not to submit to algorithmically assigned life pathways for ourselves, for our children, and for our communities, must dedicate ourselves to defending public space, building offline communities where we can develop alternatives grounded in humanity and justice. We cannot swap Summit Learning for some slightly less predatory system. Unsurveilled knowledge sharing will survive only if we fight for it. Our first, most urgent obligation, is to mobilize our popular, legal, and scholarly organizations in defense of the most vulnerable. We  must not only ask questions, we must demand answers when institutions dip into the DML toolkit for talking points. We can make space to think otherwise.

What is the power dynamic at play?

Who is being monitored?

What is the profit motive?

What data are being collected?

What profiles are being built?

What is being automated?

Who stands with opposing data-mining and resisting the dehumanization of education and social services?

Let us unite here while reaching out to those struggling abroad. It is our work that can link Brooklyn’s Summit Learning student protestors to their counterparts in Kenya and Uganda resisting Bridge International. Our voices are in a position to change the course of history, and turn it away from their orchestrated narrative.