- Wouldn’t it be great to come home to a house whose heating levels match your desired level, whose lighting levels are ideal from your perspective, but whose energy use is optimal?
- Isn’t it convenient that Google retains your recent searches so that you don’t have to type in a lengthy url to get back to a web page you visited 5 days ago?
These questions are easy to answer because these are conveniences that make life easier for us… but both of them are indicative of the kinds of “personalized data collection” done by machines and computers that could ultimately lead to a world where machines ultimately define our desires and every message we read on-line is intermediated by an algorithm. Based on an article in today’s NYTimes by Quentin Hardy it appears that at least two CEOs see us headed that direction and have no hesitation to go that way. In “Business Technology Starts to Get Personal” Hardy describes the visions Apple CEO Tim Cook and GE CEO Jeff Immelt shared at a recent conference where they matter-of-factly described a future where personalized technology is used on every technological device and on every piece of equipment manufactured and the information gathered on each individual is fully integrated. This led me to pose these two questions, both of which reflect existing technology applications:
- Wouldn’t it be convenient for teachers to be able to determine how much time a students spent trying to solve a mathematics question?
- Wouldn’t it be ideal if meetings held in a conference room could be reduced to writing and disseminated instantaneously?
With education theorists and policy makers touting the virtue of “personalized learning” and the expanded availability of low cost web-based laptops, it is not inconceivable that teachers could require all classwork be done on a laptop and, in so doing, determine if students are spending sufficient time trying to solve a particular kind of problem or a sufficient amount of time writing a five paragraph essay. This would enable all teachers to help the student develop persistence, help the teacher determine the best way to present a particular concept to each individual child, and to help curriculum developers determine the optimal way to sequence the materials each student is expected to master.
A part of the “personalized learning” model is for parents, teachers, and the student to confer to develop a de facto IEP for them. This has been perceived as a daunting task… but with “…(e)quipment and software like whiteboards or conference-call phones record who is in a meeting or tag what was said” the paperwork associated with this undertaking suddenly disappears.
Neither of these potential education apps was described or discussed in Hardy’s article… but the article did note “peculiarities” about massive data collection foreseen by Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor of management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the authors of “The Second Machine Age,” which he describes as a “…book on an industrial world enchanted by computing.”
“With enough data, you can infer drug use or political persuasions,” he said. “These are things that are racing ahead, and we haven’t thought them through.”
There will be benefits like buying a used car and knowing how it was driven and what is likely to go wrong with it. There may also be challenging effects from companies that collect and manipulate their data the best.
Mr. Hardy concludes his essay with this:
If it turns out like the consumer Internet, we’ll be delighted with the rewards of being spied on, even if we don’t know what they are yet.
At a conference I attended recently on climate change, one of the speakers talked about our culture’s blind faith in technology, which he called “technology fundamentalism”. He asserted that many believe there is no reason to be fearful of what we are doing to ourselves by spewing toxins into the atmosphere because eventually we will develop some kind of technology that will mitigate it and we’ll be able to continue living the way we are today. In effect, our belief that all data collection will ultimately be used for benign ends is a form of technological fundamentalism, and like all forms of fundamentalism based on faith, such a perspective requires us to collectively drop our guard. I believe we should move ahead with technology applications, but we should also heed Mr. Brynjolfsson’s implicit warning and think things through NOW before we collect the billions of objective data points that could ultimately be used as dossiers that limit the ultimate development of each individual’s potential.
A Truthout article by Cynthia Liu describes Eli Broad’s plan to create charter schools to house 130,000 Los Angeles students as an act of “philanthrocapitalism”, which she defines in this sentence:
“Philanthrocapitalism describes a certain kind of “weaponized generosity” where donors offer their self-interested charitable giving to remedy the very lack they create elsewhere.
Liu offers this description of how philanthrocapitalism served Eli Broad in another venture in LA:
For example: originally, Broad wanted to lease the expensive downtown Los Angeles parcel the Museum sits on for $1 a year over 99 years. Said one county supervisor, “Instead of a project that generates sales and property taxes, we’ll now have an art museum that generates no property or sales taxes and Mr. Broad will get the land for free.” It’s now leased for $7.7 million a year for 99 years, and the 501c3 Broad Foundation housed inside the museum still doesn’t put much by way of revenue back into the city.
Liu shows how Broad, like many “philanthrocapitalists”, funds opposition to initiatives that are intended to provide additional funds for public education and funds support for initiatives that are designed to undercut unions. The ultimate goal in this case is to ensure that their taxes are minimal so that their profits can be maximized.
I look at philanthrocapitalism as a means of giving away seed money to garner profit… in some cases the money goes to political leaders to pave the way to enable for-profit charter schools to thrive and in other cases giving away technology that is on the cusp of being obsolete to prime the pump for future acquisitions. Eva Moskovitz’ benefactors made large campaign contributions to Governor Cuomo and the apparent quid pro quo was assurance that Ms. Moskovitz’ schools would continue receiving rent-free space in NYC public schools and Mayor de Blasio’s control would be limited to one year at a time. The bait-and-switch with computer donations is also a way for technology companies to reap multiple benefits. They get a tax deduction for the giveaway; a de facto tax deduction because the school district budgets in their community do not require the district to spend on the initial acquisition of computers, and the added benefit of effective dictating the operating system and software a school district will be using for years to come, providing them with a new revenue stream.
As Liu suggests, “(t)he cure for oligarchy is more democracy“, which means that parents need to get engaged in the governance of schools. When parents stay home on election day, opportunistic oligarchs will seize the opportunity created by apathy to gain control of the local school board and open the doors for profit-making charters to move in. And school boards, PTAs, and administrators should beware of corporations bearing gifts or grants that require the use of technology: the strings attached will likely cost more money in the long run than the size of the gift. The ink purchases for your printer might be a guide for this reality!
Alternet cross-posted Jill Barshay’s essay from the Hechinger Report summarizing the findings of OECD research based on the 2012 PISA tests that found that the highest performing students on that test used computers in school the least.
While the findings were not as strong based on home computer use, it was evident that students who used computers the most at school did worse on the tests.
Bruce Friend, the chief operating office of iNACOL, a group that advocates the use of technology in school, suggests that US schools might be overlooking the real power of computer technology, which is the real-time analysis of student performance to tailor instruction to meet the unique needs of each student. As he noted in Barhsay’s article, improving education for each child requires much more than giving each of them a computer: it requires trained teachers to assist in the application of that technology.
Barshay ends her essay with this suggestion: “Perhaps it is best to use the computer money into hiring, training, and paying the best teachers”.
Diane Ravitch’s post late yesterday lamented the Regent’s decision to continue using VAM as a basis for teacher employment, referencing an article that appeared in the Gannett papers that explained the background behind the 10-6 vote to support the state law enacted at the behest of governor Cuomo. Two of the Regents quoted in the article clearly see the flaws with the system:
“Quite frankly, I have met with hundreds of people, and all I hear is the joy of teaching is being squeezed out of them as a result of this process,” said Regent Judith Johnson, whose district stretches from Poughkeepsie to Westchester County. She voted against the proposal.
Having worked in that region for five years I am confident Ms. Johnson got an earful! One Regent who was among those who held their nose and voted in favor of the proposal on the grounds that they were compelled by law to devise an evaluation system in accordance with the law, wanted to be on record for his skepticism:
“We have to express a lack of confidence in the current evaluation system,” said Regent Roger Tilles of Long Island, who voted for the rules. “We have to express a lack of confidence in the current growth model. We have to … call for changes to the evaluation system as it currently exists.”
Diane Ravitch, concluded her post with this question:
Has anyone in Governor Cuomo’s office figured out where they will find better teachers to replace those who are fired as a result of his eagerness to oust teachers?
Having just read about the ridiculous arrest of a student in TX who brought a home-made clock to school to show his science class in TX, I left the following response to Ms. Ravitch’s question:
Where will Cuomo find better teachers to replace those who are fired? If teaching to the test is the goal (and it clearly IS the goal of the Regents and Mr. Cuomo) they might look to hire computer programmers and security guards. Programmers know how to develop algorithms for tasks that are iterative and standardized: they can write the programs for the inexpensive computer tablets that will be issued to each child. Security guards can maintain order and arrest creative students who make things at home— like the young man in Texas who made his own clock. With this combination NYS won’t need as many old-fashioned “teachers”— you know, the kind that get to know each child and design differentiated lessons that meet their needs.
My concern is that some charter school owner might read this and take it seriously… because that seems to be the staffing configuration many virtual schools favor.
Today’s NYTimes has an article describing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to offer computer science to all students in NYC schools. Based on my experience, the mayor faces a daunting challenge.
I taught computer science in a Philadelphia public junior high school in 1971-72. I had 30-36 students in my classroom which was located across the hall from a storage closet that had a terminal connected to a mainframe “downtown”. My “training”? I had one course in Fortran in college in 1967— which made me the most qualified teacher on the staff. Here’s what I observed: computer science was unimportant to kids who were fearful of being jumped by a gang on the way home or worried about where there next meal was coming from or had no adult at home during the evening because of their parents’ work schedule. Moreover, these kids would never be able to lay their hands on a computer anywhere outside of the closet across the hall from my classroom.
My conclusion: in order for the mayor to be successful in this endeavor he needs to continue pushing for the anti-poverty measures he is advocating and he needs to make sure that when the kids leave school they will all have the same access to high-speed connectivity and up-to-date technology. I wish him well… and hope he succeeds!
Nearly a decade ago when I was Superintendent of Schools in NH, our district joined most other NH districts and many districts in the use of Powerschool. A classroom data management system used by over 15,000,000 students and parents, Powerschool was originally affiliated with Apple computers who sold the integrated software package to districts who used Apple products to schedule, grade, and track student progress. Powerschool was appealing to our district because it provided a means for parents to monitor their student’s progress on a daily basis and provided a means for teachers to quickly see if a student encountering difficulty in their class was also experiencing difficulty in other classes. Furthermore, once we standardized across all the districts in our administrative unit, it minimized the paperwork in offices by providing a data set that included all kinds of baseline information on the students that typically had to be gathered annually.
But when Apple decided to get out of the student data collection business, it sold Powerschool to Pearson who recently sold the product to Vista Equity and, in the process, created a HUGE data breach. Why? As Ben Branstetter reports in the Kernel,
While seemingly unconcerning on its own, this means PowerSchool—and all the student data it owns—is now in the hands of a company that has failed to join the 153 education companies that have pledged not to sell student data or use targeted advertising toward students.
Branstetter goes on to report that the sale of student data is a moneymaker for companies that collect this information and— despite the fact that students unwittingly over-share private information that is sold on platforms like Facebook— it should be a concern for parents that companies like Vista Equity are attempting to “…sneak their way into the mines of data currently being hoarded by companies like PowerSchool“.
As Branstetter notes, a recent survey of parents indicted that “…79 percent expressed concerns about their kids’ privacy“. But in the case of Powerschool, I daresay hardly ANY realized this pre-existing product was sold to a company that intends to use the data to make money.
Here’s my take: When profit is involved even more vigilance will be needed.