Home > Uncategorized > Technology and Surveillance: A Chilling Combination That COULD Be Undone

Technology and Surveillance: A Chilling Combination That COULD Be Undone

June 27, 2018

Will Richardson who writes the Modern Learners blog, had a thought provoking post a few days ago titled “EdTech is Driving Me Crazy, Too“. In the post, Mr. Richardson described the ways that education technology could be used to transform the way instruction is delivered to schools, but lamented the ways that education technology is actually being used in schools. He is especially concerned with the use of technology as a surveillance tool:

More often than not, ed tech is something done to the student rather than done in service of the student. And there’s no better example of this than a new tool called “Emote” that preys on our current fears around the socio-emotional state of our students and sets a whole new bar for “helicopter educating” (which, I’m sorry to say, is not the first time that phrase has been uttered.) John Warner in Inside Higher Ed does a great job of teasing out the insidiousness of Emote, an app which makes it easier for the adults to record any time a particular student looks depressed or sad or anxious. As Warner notes:

When a child arrives in school, if they are observed to be angry or upset by a staff member, this is logged into the app. Later, a teacher may see additional evidence, creating another alert. The goal, according to Emote CEO Juilan Golder, is to prevent “escalation.” Student behavior can also be tracked longitudinally. Maybe a student is grumpy or sleepy every Monday, suggesting something is amiss at home. The app will know.

No one will be shocked, either, to hear that the CEO says “There’s more interest than we can handle at this point.”

This example of what technology can do leads to the inevitable question about technology in general: is there a limit to what we want technology to do? Just because technology makes it possible to track a student 24/7 doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Don’t children today deserve a chance to be free from adult supervision? Just because technology makes it possible to track a students attentiveness in completing work doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Don’t children today deserve a chance to daydream? Mr. Richardson posits that education technology devoted to surveillance of all kinds is currently make things worse for students, and when that technology is combined with the narrowed test-driven curriculum it makes public schools toxic. Quoting John Warner again, Mr. Richardson writes:

There is mounting evidence that school is demonstrably bad for students’ mental health. The incidence of anxiety and depression are increasing. Each year, more students report being “actively disengaged” from schools.

Mr. Richardson suggests that instead of developing more apps that track how poorly students are doing relative to our definition of “success” based on test scores, we might provide students with an app to tell us how we’re doing in addressing their needs:

But how many therapists or prescriptions or apps could we get away without if we attacked the mental health issues our kids are experiencing through a different lens, one that starts with the premise that we’re the ones that are broken, not the kids? What if we rewrote the script and put mental health above “achievement” or “success” as measured by grade point averages, the number of AP classes we offer, college acceptances, and other “narrow path” measures?

And if you really want to get crazy, why don’t we create an app for students so they can track every time our “narrow path” narrative makes them anxious or stressed, or every time we deny them the agency to pursue learning that matters to them, or hint at their value as humans by the test scores or GPAs they get, or whenever we deny them fundamental democratic rights, or refuse to act in ways that suggest that we are the problem and not them? We could call it “Ed-mote” or some other silly Silicon Valley play on words, and the software would send DMs to superintendents and principals when an intervention is required, like an immediate two-hour play period for everyone in the school. (We could also, by the way, encourage them to track the many positives about their school experience as well.)

Too bad Mr. Richardson isn’t interested in making a lot of money. I think his idea for such an app would be very helpful in transforming our schools into Summerhill-like institutions instead of the imprisoning institutions they are devolving into thanks to technology.

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