The scramble for Edtech — just another data mining operation?

Schools and universities are being forced online at a time when education finds that it is further incorporated into the global turn to neoliberalism.

Everything is going online, and job requirements are fast changing as major US and famous ‘red brick‘ UK universities are moving the learning process online through ‘blended Learning‘. This generally means a combination of online lectures and ‘face-to-face‘ teaching groups, all mediated through third party software companies.

Covidnomics is here to stay.

Some university staff have foreseen a wave of ‘institutional shock doctrine’ and a round of austerity. At a time where after being embarrassed out of claiming its coronavirus package, Harvard announced that its course fees would stay at $49,653 despite its move online. The scramble for online learning is indeed challenging established players in education while shaking up the market. At stake — the data streams student learning will provide.

But covidnomics is here to stay. Hurried by the multiple billion dollars investment of Chinese domestic initiatives into Edtech since 2014. In 2018, Chinese startups received over 50% of all start up capital invested by venture capitalists in Edtech globally. The Edtech market in China has been thriving but is firing up again due to coronavirus, with Beijing home to the most valued Edtech companies. The chinese startup education ecosystem is fast building and dynamic, with most of them being funded and backed by the state. Furthermore, the suspension of the one-child policy also means an upcoming blossoming market with companies such as Squirrel in China — a personalised platform that makes learning accessible to students in remote areas.

Fuelled by another challenge from China, silicon valley and european wide investments feel the pressure to catch up. But investments into education aren’t new; VC capital and silicon valley have been investing in Edtech since at least 2013. This means that state schools and universities, both currently mired in problems, must change fast. However, the online learning ecosystem is vast, it includes student management tools, professional training, coding specialized task based schools to the more classic online lecture based learning. There is no one size fits all solution here.

Edtech’s shadow business model has invaded our education systems.

Rising student tuition fees are a loud sign of trouble from the educational establishment. The educational landscape has dramatically morphed into a wave of universities all tussling for shiny software for their interactive lessons. This is fertile territory for the ‘surveillance capitalists’ that Shoshana Zuboff describes.

In a coronavirus special broadcast hosted by the French Chambre of Commerce in California, an educator and innovator in education Gregory La Blanc stated that in Edtech, student’s aren’t really the customers, they are the product. He suggests that tech companies could capture even much more student data in higher education. He explained that ’10 seconds spent on Facebook yields more data than four years at university’. He claims that capturing 10 GB of data per student to “know everything about them (…)  would provide real value” to the recruiters, who are the real customers.

Many researchers have helped illuminate the extent to which data extraction and behavioural analytics is ingrained in the digital economy. Google’s policy regarding the ‘creepyline’ — coined by then Google CEO Eric Schmitt — is illuminated in this now infamous interview: “the Google policy about a lot of these things is to get right up to the creepy line but not to cross it.”

Feeding that dance around the ‘creepyline’ is data for ‘personalization’. Personalization is the oil behind Google and Facebook holding 56.8% of US digital advertising. It turns out that targeting ‘users’ with their own data gets more ‘bang-for-your-buck’ — it’s a very profitable business model.

Personalizing school material has empowered teachers, but demands more from teachers than ever before. Many teachers have resisted calls for increased Edtech, and warned others of the increased workload and disintermediation of human relationships. They warn about the siren call of tech to solve ultimately budget issues in education, and bemoan the loss of human connection in the learning process. Teachers are now more active in vetting and curating classroom material rather than referring to textbooks that need updating and replacing every few years.

There has been an increasing amount of research and advocacy around more appropriate screen time, and the importance of teacher directed instruction. Findings show that lowering screen time and favouring independent learning offline serves to strengthen the quality of research done by students. Paul Emerich passionately states that:

“We must walk away from this hyper-individualized brand of personalized learning. We must walk away from its reductionism, assuming that education is simply an arrangement of individualized playlist cards or isolated experiences. We must run from the idea that technology is necessary to make the classroom a more personal and humanized place.”

However, within five years of targeting educators directly, Google has managed to circumvent district officials and therefore outmaneuvered competition with their low-cost chromebooks and ‘free’ classroom apps. As Hal Friedlander from the NYC Department of Education describes, “Google established itself as a fact in schools.”

Google developed a practice that involved woo-ing school officials with easy-to-use, money-saving services. They then enlisted the schools to market to other schools, who were held up as early adopters and forward thinkers among their peers. The result was that in 2016, Chromebooks accounted for 58% of mobile devices shipped to primary and secondary schools in the US, up from 1% in 2012. This ‘achievement’ from tech giant was often after exploiting public school teachers and students for free labour by helping them build Google’s kid app, essentially bringing in new markets at low cost.

Companies like Google and Facebook are mining the digital lives of children.

Google has made it very easy for millions of students who have school accounts to upgrade to a regular google consumer account once they graduate. This has the potential to create brand loyalty since it invites them into the Google ecosystem from a young age. It surfaced last year from FTC Chairman Joe Simons that

“YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients (…) Yet when it came to complying with COPPA, the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids. There’s no excuse for YouTube’s violations of the law.”

Google responded in a blog post stating that they would treat data from anyone watching children’s content on YouTube “as coming from a child, regardless of the age of the user.” They continued to state that this will “limit data collection and use on videos made for kids only to what is needed to support the operation of the service.” The Federal Trade Commission had by then announced a record fine in September of 2019.

Google’s statements are an implicit confirmation of ‘behavioural surplus’ as a business model. This is when data obtained goes beyond what is funneled back into the platform for its necessary functions. Evgeny Morozov explains ‘behavioral surplus’ as when tech firms use the extracted data for targeting ads and modifying behavior. Behavioral surplus is thus a key aspect of“surveillance capitalism”.

Facebook, who was also vying for a share of the Edtech market, backed an Edtech offshoot armed with 5 engineers called ‘Summit’. However, they found after a nationwide system launch involving 380 schools and 74,000 students that 70% of students wanted Summit dropped or made optional. It was later terminated despite Facebook having sold them on the idea of personalized learning and a ‘level playing field’. The results showed that children missed talking to teachers and friends and as a result felt more stressed.

As the co-chairwoman of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy Leonie Haimson stated “Summit demands an extraordinary amount of personal information about each student and plans to track them through college and beyond.” Although Summit says it complies with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, we shouldn’t forget that Facebook manipulated 689,000 users’ emotions for a science experiment back in 2014.

Mary Helen Immordino Yang at the Center for Affective Neuroscience, Development, Learning & Education (CANDLE) and Dr. Pamela Cantor from Turnaround for Children, show how online learning illustrates the interrelation of cognition and emotion, both in the brain and in each child’s everyday lived experience. One of their students said that “distance learning has all of the elements of school, but none of the fun stuff.” Another element is that adolescence is the most dramatic period of brain development after infancy.

COPPA requires that websites and online services directed to children obtain parental consent before collecting personal information from anyone younger than 13. However, Dr. Kanad Basu — assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering — research found that many popular apps do not comply: 

“When you download an app, it can access a lot of information on your cell phone (…) You have to keep in mind that all this info can be collected by these apps and sent to third parties. What do they do with it? They can pretty much do anything. We should be careful about this.”

In the US data from children under 13 is considered private, but their parents or guardians usually sign away their privacy in platform-based legal forms. Children beyond the age of 13 do not even have this protection; they therefore do not have data privacy in school. Due to this, Basu advocated for caution when introducing new apps into education.

‘The goal is to change people’s behavior’.

There are many privacy issues generally, yet when centred around children whose development is being recorded forever, these issues become all the more pertinent. Zuboff recalled being told by a chief data scientist of an admired Edtech software was that “the goal of everything we do is to change people’s actual behaviour at scale.” The data scientist explained how users’ behaviors can be predicted and manipulated:

“When people use our app, we can capture their behaviours, identify good and bad behaviours, and develop ways to reward the good and punish the bad. We can test how actionable our cues are for them and how profitable for us.”

This largely shadow business model constitutes the real boon behind the blossoming interest for Edtech and the potential for data capture. The ‘actionable cues’ are techniques of behavioural change. An often employed euphemism included terms such as ‘nudging’, which is essentially a non transparent way to herd a person or group of people, at scale. This is proven to work and has already affected elections, and been used against protesters and worker’s unions and in urinals.

The Norwegian Consumer Agency, Forbrukertilsynet, issued a report ominously called “Deceived by Design” which dives into the settings and User Interface (UI) Google, Facebook and Microsoft submitted. The agency found that these mega corporations funnelled users into their desired non private configurations and that only 5% would change their personalization settings.

As Safiya Umoja Noble argues in her book Algorithms of Oppression, search engines are “allegedly neutral technologies.” The silicon valley ideology has promoted that they provide “accurate information that is depoliticized” — but this is far from being the case. In fact, it has been exposed that algorithms have “statistical regularities of historical injustices and social biases” woven into them.

Austrian privacy advocate Max Shrems famously brought a lawsuit forward against Facebook and Google. His main argument was that they exceeded the minimum required data to perform the service and went beyond their mandate. His camp argued that Facebook is categorized as a social media network, which is the reason that users join. Users are therefore not consenting to being part of an ad targeting database. Shrems criticizes the ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ approach applied to users attempting to exercise their data rights, which he calls ‘blackmail’. 

The digitalization of education comes with many challenges.

Technology should act as a servant to teachers, not the other way around. Unfortunately, using proprietary technology invariably means submitting to its irreducible business logics and internal privacy rules which are always amenable.

These types of platforms have become increasingly embedded in regulating, surveilling and accounting many aspects of our lives leveraging our behavioural data against us. Roxana Marachi, a San Jose State University professor of education, warns teachers to ‘not advocate for their own demise’ and avoid relying on technologies during remote learning. We should correlate the need for data unions — as DIEM25 has been campaigning for — in the education sector.

In many ways, allowing a child’s development to be translated into data and exported constitutes ‘accumulation by dispossession‘. It should serve as a moment of clarity. As Zuboff states, surveillance capitalism qualifies as a coup des gens, an overthrow of the people’s sovereignty. A developing mind should not be subjected to observational forces regardless of what they offer in return, and they should certainly not be playgrounds to embryonic neuroscience theories.

Open sourced solutions and networked teachers can act as a defense barrier to the coming invasive wave in Edtech.

The observational marketplace trading in “human futures” at least while children, should be reconsidered. We must strike a more natural balance; putting educators at the fore in a framework of digital sovereignty DIEM25 backs and encompassing emotional connection, curiosity, compassion spearheaded by empowered teachers.

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