When I was a kid we used to have ‘book fairs’ at school. Once or twice a year, a room in the school would be transformed into a bookstore. Folding tables were covered in paperbacks. I remember glossy biographies of celebrities, movie novelizations, and TV show themed graphic novels.
Kids loved shopping. Regular books, recommended by our teachers, perfectly suited to our reading levels, were so much shinier and more exciting than the well-worn books in the library. Other than the awkward socio-economic realities it forced us to face–some kids had basically a blank check from their parents on book fair days–it was awesome.
I assume that in exchange for hosting the publishers, the school got a kick back. Some percentage of each sale likely went to the operating budget and kids were exposed to more ‘literacy.’ It sounds like a great deal. Everybody wins. But those were different times: back before the internet, long before we lost trust in corporate ethics, and words like “data-mining” were not even in our vernacular.
These old-school book sales weren’t the only thing that occupied my mind as I sat next to Joel Klein and Jim Steyer at The Student Privacy Zone Summit in Washington, DC. I also thought about other third party vendors with revenue models that historically gave them front line access to parents and students because of creative contracts that they had negotiated with schools. Consider those photos my mother bought for all my relatives on picture day. Consider the plethora of companies that manufacture yearbooks, class rings, and letter jackets.
Of course, we live in a different world now. At The Student Privacy Zone Summit, hosted by Common Sense Media and The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained that “personal data in education should be used only for educational purposes, not to sell snacks or video games.”Senator Edward J. Markey said it is our job to “ensure we animate tech with the human values we’ve inherited.”
I couldn’t help but think about the slippery slope we’re sledding on when we start making value judgments about products that are allowed into our school districts because they’re “educational” and the one’s that are not. The line between for-profit snack chips and for-profit publishing seems rather arbitrary to me.
That particular arbitrary line is one of the tight ropes that edtech walks. It is a tension between two big fears we have about implementing innovative edtech in all of our nation’s schools. One fear resides in some misguided fantasy about the purity of our current system–the idea that we don’t currently have and certainly don’t want–companies selling to our kids while they’re at school. The other is a fear of big data and the Orwellian police state.
What’s especially interesting about edtech is that it conflates these two fears into a jumbled narrative. Put simply, we worry that the data mined by the corporate oligarchy might be used as targeted advertising that’s delivered in such a way that it becomes indistinguishable from class instruction. Think of the school scene in Pixar’s optimistic dystopian movie Wall-E, where box retailers control everything and school children learn that “B is for Buy ’n’ Large, your very best friend.”
To see that this particular fear is not irrational, you need to understand just how much data is being collected.
Ordinarily, the term “student data” brings transcripts, grades, and attendance records to mind. But increasingly, Common Sense Media explains, “through online platforms, mobile applications, and cloud computing, schools and edtech providers collect massive amounts of sensitive information about students.”
Bus scheduling data provides addresses, athletics data provides shoe size, after school activity data provides a list of hobbies. When you cross reference data about all the students in a particular school you can interpolate who a particular student’s friends are likely to be. Add the books they bought at the book fair and their digital class pictures and you’ve got a ton of information that Common Sense Media believes “needs to be kept out of the hands of non-educational, commercial interests and other third parties.”
But is that really what scares us? After all, do those third parties really need that data? They already get metadata from our children’s Netflix queues. They can see purchase histories on Amazon. They can mine the spreadsheets, presentations, and essays students create through cloud based office apps. And social profiling can be taken to a whole new level thanks to public accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, WhatsApp, and Google. Do school records really provide so much more? I doubt it. So what scares us?
Some people are afraid that the goal is to create the school-day equivalent of check-out line candy bars merchandised at kids’ eye level. It may sound paranoid. But it’s a logical deduction to be made in an age when companies that primarily sell advertising (Google, NewsCorp) are implementing one-to-one student-to-device ratios in the name of ‘digital literacy’ and better content delivery.
No wonder a bunch of politicians, industry folks, and lobbyists got together at the The Student Privacy Zone Summit to talk about how we need to do something to make sure kids’ data is restricted to educational use only.
The thing is, we all agree with the idea of protecting kids, but the definition of educational use can be fuzzy. After all, reliance on data is increasingly making it possible to bring mind-blowing adaptive learning technologies to more diverse populations. Personalized learning is dependent upon collecting and assessing data in order to contextualize learning in a way that makes it more efficient and more precise.
Imagine how much more engaged a student would be if the word problems in their math workbooks were based on statistics from the ball game they streamed on the tablet last night? Imagine if school work included considering how a 20% off coupon would impact the final cost of an item put in an online shopping cart last night but never actually purchased. Imagine if essay prompts could be personalized to such a degree that they take into consideration the books and movies that individuals have been watching. Imagine if your history textbook could automatically adjust in such a way that it takes into account your nationality and teaches specifically how your ancestors played a part in world history.
I know that sounds scary to some people. But consider what it would do for knowledge retention. This is precisely the kind of thing that good teachers have always done in their classrooms. They collect data.
In my classroom at Temple University, I start each semester by finding out who the individual students in my classroom are: what are their majors, where are they from, what do they care about? Those goofy ice breakers are not just about creating a learning community, they also allow me to tailor my instruction to the people in the room. I adapt and personalize throughout the semester using the things I learn in personal essays, the jokes students tell in class, every tidbit of personal information they provide.
What frightens me most about big data legislation is that from the standpoint of advocacy we over regulate. I worry that, in the name of protecting people, we will recreate the same two classes of education that already exist: the elite who buy private education, the others who get public education for free.
Those who can afford to circumvent privacy legislation so that their children can reap the benefits of data driven education get shockingly precise adaptive technologies. Those who can’t afford it…well they get what they’ve always had: lowest common denominator content and testing that’s not personalized and doesn’t take cultural and socioeconomic differences into account. Either way, the corporations will continue to target advertising wherever they’re allowed.
At the The Student Privacy Zone Summit, Arne Duncan said, “Privacy rules may well be the seat belts of this generation.” And that may be true. We’re at very interesting time in history. The Orwellian police state has already arrived and it is not all bad. We now see the benefits and the atrocities.
Big data is kind of like an overbearing mother. In some ways it can embrace and nurture us. In other ways it can restrain and constrict us. Being watched can be both comforting and imprisoning.
Of course, this has always been the question for educators, the tension of our craft. Is it our job to mold people into good citizens that abide by collective social conventions? Or to free individuals so they can think for themselves?
Jordan Shapiro is author of FREEPLAY: A Video Game Guide to Maximum Euphoric Bliss. For information on his upcoming books and events click here.