In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools closed their doors this spring, impacting the lives of 1.5 billion students around the world and sending teachers and school administrators scrambling to keep students connected to learning opportunities. To do this they deployed a range of old and new technologies, including radio, television, USB drives, CDs, cellphones, tablets, laptops and even paper packets. Some called it “crisis schooling,” and rightly so.
Crisis schooling surfaced an always-important yet little-discussed fact about so-called brick-and-mortar schools: As physical spaces, schools provide far more than academic instruction. When children attend school, teachers and other support staff have an easier time identifying abuse, neglect, psychosocial distress and suicidal ideation. Children interacting with peers and teachers in school have an easier time developing social and emotional skills. Schools also provide stability, reliable nutrition, opportunities for physical activity, special education services, and mental health and physical/speech therapy. And, of course, public schools are safe, free settings for child care.
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As I write, schools worldwide are developing their learning plans for the fall, and they are facing immense pressure to resume in-person instruction. The United Kingdom’s Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health has warned that keeping schools closed “risks scarring the life chances of a generation of young people.” A statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics reminds decision-makers that the “importance of in-person learning is well documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.”
School closures pose particularly fierce challenges for families with primary care-givers who must work away from home, as well as families without homes. UNESCO affirms that disruptions caused by school closures “exacerbate already existing disparities within the education system” and are “particularly severe for the most vulnerable and marginalized” children and their families.
In some countries, schools remained open despite the COVID-19 outbreak, and more than 20 countries reopened schools just months after closing them. Researchers at Science magazine looked to schools in these countries for patterns that could indicate likely best practices for keeping students and school staff safe. What they found is not surprising: masks, smaller class sizes, hand washing, adequate ventilation, testing and physical distancing help reduce the spread of the COVID-19 disease in learning environments. And it appears that younger children are less likely to transmit the disease or become infected.
Yet despite this promising news, it is likely that many schools will remain closed or deploy a mix of in-person and remote instruction for the foreseeable future. There are many reasons for this, mostly having to do with space, planning, time, money and uncertainty. To follow physical distancing guidelines, a school would need access to more physical space, or mandate that students attend physical school in shifts. In many jurisdictions, schools still lack comprehensive plans for safely opening buildings, as well as the time and financial resources needed to implement such plans. And because there remains so much uncertainty regarding COVID-19, many parents, teachers and staff believe that returning to school buildings is too risky to tolerate.
In the midst of our collective anxiety and grief, pixelated “vampires” have appeared. These dangerously virtual substitutes for physical schools, made glamorous by the ed-tech industry’s rhetoric of innovation, efficiency and cost-savings, promise to save us from the disruption caused by the pandemic. All we need to do is invite them in. But please don’t. I wrote this article to explain why.
What Is Ed Tech?
Education technology — known as ed tech — is a global industry serving the full spectrum of the education market. This includes pre-school, K-12, higher education, corporate/enterprise/continuing education, assessment and verification, and informal learning. Venture-backed ed-tech companies worth hundreds of millions of dollars are based in the United States, China, India, Indonesia and the European Union.
These firms sell content and hardware such as interactive whiteboards, laptops and tablets. They also provide software designed to mediate communication between stakeholders (e.g., students, teachers, parents, administrators), and they extract or accept hand-entered data in order to algorithmically manage student behavior and/or deliver algorithmically-generated reports, instruction and guidance. The poster vampire (ahem, poster child) of the industry is a software-enabled, data-driven (and sometimes gamified) instructional approach called “personalized learning.”
What does gamified personalized learning look like in action? Personalized learning transforms teachers into guides on the side who assist students as they interact with YouTube-style recommendation algorithms that select assignments and determine when a student moves on to the next level of the curriculum. Gamified personalized learning seeks to increase student engagement through the incorporation of game-like elements, such as badges, avatars, storylines, competitions, progression bars, “power-ups” and even the ability to earn in-game cash.
Products like these are being touted by advocates for the ed-tech industry as one-stop solutions to all COVID-related educational challenges. Dissatisfied with your school’s reopening plan or worried that physical schools are unsafe? Try virtual schools! Lack space for physical distancing? Try blended learning! Baffled by disengaged students with varying preparedness levels? Data-driven personalized learning to the rescue! Worried about your students’ psychosocial distress? Let tech-enabled emotional surveillance help with that! Facing budget cuts or teacher shortages? Let artificial intelligence (AI) teach the kids! Crazed by platform overload? Come buy! Come buy! Sounds great, right? Not so fast. While ed tech’s marketing rhetoric is appealing, its track record is dismal.
More often than not, ed tech fails to deliver on its promises to improve equity and learning outcomes. Many platforms ignore children’s real needs, and some may even violate children’s rights. Others simply waste (or even steal) funding that could have been used for more impactful initiatives. While anecdotes describing ed tech’s shortcomings abound, research seeking to understand the industry’s impact supports unfavorable individual verdicts: ed tech disappoints.
Since 2013, the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) has published an annual report documenting the growth of the ed-tech sector in the United States and examining the year’s research on virtual education. Each year, researchers find that full-time virtual schools and blended schools produce worse outcomes than brick-and-mortar public schools, and that industry claims regarding cost savings are not supported by available research. Research evaluating instructional models used by virtual schools and describing student experiences is sparse, and what is available is methodologically questionable and, in other ways, subpar. Accordingly, the NEPC recommends that policymakers “slow or stop the growth in the number of virtual and blended schools and the size of their enrollments until the reasons for their relatively poor performance have been identified and addressed.”
NEPC researchers aren’t alone in their skepticism. A June 2020 report by McKinsey warns against “uncritically” accepting ed tech as a solution to COVID-related educational challenges, and it urges careful planning and preparation to increase the probability that an initiative will be successful. “These lessons hold true regardless of geography,” the report states.
The World Bank makes a similar claim in its “knowledge map” of the impact of information and communication technology (ICT) on learning and achievement. “In general, despite thousands of impact studies, the impact of ICT use on student achievement remains difficult to measure and open to much reasonable debate,” the bank states. Writing for the fifth volume of the “Handbook of the Economics of Education,” George Bulman and Robert Fairlie, who are researchers based at the University of California, Santa Cruz, state that evidence of ed tech’s effectiveness “appears to be strongest in developing countries” and the outcome depends upon the “characteristics of the intervention.”
So, what does a successful ed-tech intervention look like? Tusome, a USAID-funded program adopted by the Kenyan government and described in a 2018 article for The Economist, offers clues. Tusome means “let’s read” in Kiswahili, a Bantu language spoken in East and Central Africa and the official language of Kenya.
As an ed-tech intervention, Tusome consists of more than hardware and software. Tusome includes a custom-reading curriculum, custom books and detailed lesson plans. Human teachers deliver the lessons in physical classrooms, while coaches log information about the teachers’ and their students’ performances into the Tusome platform using a tablet. Coaching advice based on data entered by the coach is dispensed through the tablet. All entered and processed information can be reviewed by the county offices that run the local schools. The program costs about $4 per child a year, and research shows that thanks to Tusome, the portion of Kenyan grade 2 students who could read 30 words-per-minute doubled, rising from one-third to two-thirds.
Programs like Tusome succeed because they are designed to specifically address local educational challenges — in this case, insufficient teacher training, lack of teacher oversight and teacher absenteeism.
Ed-tech initiatives usually fail to live up to their hype. This is in large part because the characteristics of such initiatives are neither aligned with established research explaining how children learn, nor with local reality. Unsuccessful initiatives are hobbled by core design assumptions that are simply wrong for usage contexts, assumptions regarding things like cultural norms, relevance to existing curriculum, relevance to student experience, connectivity availability, available time on tasks, prior student knowledge and available teacher-training resources.
Consider, for example, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of the MIT Media Lab, launched the program in 2006 with the intention of putting inexpensive but durable laptops in the hands of poor children around the world. “We will literally take tablets and drop them out of helicopters,” The Economist quoted him as saying.
The program got a lot of people excited. However, it was ultimately a failure in more ways than one. The laptops were more expensive and less durable than Negroponte had predicted, and his plan for selling them was blinkered by Western hubris and lack of global perspective. Most importantly, however, the OLPC laptops did not lead to improved learning outcomes in math and language, though such improvements were the declared objective of the program.
Negroponte’s initiative is a classic example of hardware dumping, a presumptuous and ultimately wasteful way of “improving” education through the introduction of technology. Hardware dumping assumes that hardware and connectivity access alone will improve learning outcomes. Research and experience show that this is simply untrue.
Tech for tech’s sake in educational settings diverts money, time and attention from meeting the learning needs of students. Arguments supporting this approach wrongly imply that mere exposure to today’s technology will translate into tomorrow’s upward mobility.
The Los Angeles Unified School District learned the hardware dumping lesson the expensive way in 2013. The district introduced a $1-billion initiative to give every student an iPad loaded with a curriculum developed by Pearson, a textbook and standardized test publisher. Before the roll-out period was over, students had figured out how to circumvent security locks, allowing them to exit Pearson’s walled garden and visit non-educational sites. The district eventually demanded a refund from Apple, citing what WIRED described as “crippling technical issues with the Pearson platform and incomplete curriculum that made it nearly impossible for teachers to teach.”
Michael Trucano, the global lead for innovation in education at the World Bank, decries hardware dumping in a 2010 article entitled “Worst Practice in ICT Use in Education.” Though the article is a decade old (ancient in internet years), it remains relevant. In addition to hardware dumping, three additional worst practices are particularly relevant to the COVID era. First, it is common to assume technology alone can make equity issues disappear. Second, we are failing to estimate the total cost of operation of an educational technology initiative. This estimation ought to include not just the purchase price of hardware and software, but also maintenance costs, training costs and more, including a calculation of the difference between the cost per participant and cost per graduate. Finally, we are failing to ask what else could be done with the financial and other resources potentially allocated that would have a greater impact on educational goals.
Let Them Eat Tablets
These are the kinds of questions that ed-tech advocates sidestep with rhetoric. Such rhetoric appeals to our collective desire to remain relevant in the future, our intuitive sense that something is deeply wrong with education in its current form, and our moral sense that all children have the right to a good education.
Consider, for example, how the following rhetorical pyrotechnics front-load the old saw that education today is outmoded while obscuring ed tech’s other agenda items. First up, a few lines from a statement called “The Future of School” by the Center for Education Reform (CER), an ed-tech advocacy group based in the United States: “We must change the way we educate and in myriad ways strive to deliver education using the very technologies that are tracking and delivering our food, our supplies, and so many other necessities of life.” (Translation: Education today is old fashioned. Let’s update it by treating students like Amazon packages.)
A sponsored article in Forbes more directly connects the case for ed tech to the case for closing the digital divide, describing the internet as the portal to “new tools” for interacting with students in “new ways that both enhance the teacher’s ability to teach and gives students the flexibility to learn in ways more suitable to the 24/7, always-on society we live in today.” (Translation: Education today is old-fashioned. Let’s update it so that even children regard the boundaries between online/offline life as blurred.)
Writing for The Washington Post, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, suggests that if public funds intended to help schools become COVID-ready were instead used to pay for laptops and connectivity, “students would be better prepared for the learning platforms of college and the workforce. Teachers would be able to deploy more innovative and personalized instructional strategies.” (Translation: Education today is old-fashioned. Let’s update it so that teachers can help children, no matter their income, become accustomed to taking orders from the kinds of machines that will sculpt their lives as adults.)
Such visions of the future give me goosebumps, and not in a good way.
Ed tech has long used rhetoric laced with technophilia and future-proofing to lay the groundwork for increasing its share of the education market. This rhetoric casts ed tech’s products in a rosy light while simultaneously disparaging teachers, their unions and brick-and-mortar schools. Deploying such anti-teacher/anti-school rhetoric while the world still reels from COVID-19 to lobby for the use of public funds to further the industry’s growth agenda — funds that could go to purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE), hiring additional staff to support physical distancing, and adopting other measures that would improve the safety of physical schools — reeks of disaster capitalism. As defined by activist and author Naomi Klein, disaster capitalism involves the use of “large-scale crises to push through policies that systematically deepen inequality, enrich elites, and undercut everyone else.”
To be clear: I am not against closing the digital divide. What I am against is reckless profiteering, especially in the form of hardware dumping and a privatized version of public education that pretends to serve the needs of children while, in fact, invading their privacy, treating them like lab rats, impairing their academic achievement and undermining their development as humans.
Temptations to recklessness are great. The ed-tech industry receives little oversight and continues to grow, despite a history marked by startling amounts of waste. Moreover, as the 2019 NEPC report makes it clear, lack of regulation isn’t the worst problem. To date, nobody has even imagined how to regulate the industry in ways that “will increase accountability, identify efficient and cost-effective best practices, and eliminate profiteering.” Policies at the state, local and federal levels regulating the collection, use and storage of student data do not always align. Moreover, ed-tech companies know that schools do not always read terms-of-use statements closely, introducing yet another moral hazard. Effectively, the ed-tech industry operates in a 21st-century Wild West.
When people think about education, they see children and perhaps even themselves preparing for the future. When investors in the ed-tech industry think about education, they see “a critical source of human capital for global growth” and a large market ripe for digital disruption. Publicly-available estimations of the size of this market vary, from HolonIQ’s 2018 figure of $5.9 trillion to TechCrunch’s 2019 projection of $10 trillion. According to GSV Ventures, the ed-tech industry currently represents 2.3% of the global education market. Due to COVID-driven changes in market conditions, the ed-tech industry is now projected to capture 11% of the market by 2026 — up from a pre-COVID 4.5%. The pandemic is boosting the sector’s growth from 100% to 400%.
Why are venture capitalists so excited about the education market? In addition to the size of the market, there are several reasons, including scalability opportunities, a relative lack of competition (especially in mobile-first) and relative ease of identifying “pain points.” Business models vary. Most of us are familiar with freemium platforms that ask users of a free product to upgrade to a paid version. These platforms are used in a bottom-up strategy whereby the company pursues early adopters who then help market the platform by word of mouth. Expensive ed tech is usually part of a top-down business model, whereby a company’s products are marketed directly to the administration.
But when it comes to profit sources for tech companies — even ed tech companies — the elephant in the room is big data. Ed tech is an exciting sector because machine-mediated student/teacher relationships and student/curriculum relationships produce new and valuable data resources. Of course, personalized learning relies on data extraction and analysis. However, educating children is only part of the picture when it comes to ed tech as a for-profit industry.
As students use ed tech platforms to learn, those platforms collect what author Shoshana Zuboff calls “collateral data.” Such data points might include (depending on the product) a student’s location, click patterns, dwell times, time to complete a task, browsing and search history, biometric data, photos, textual, and voice communication content and history — the list goes on. A given platform may collect 50,000 data points or more per student per hour.
In addition to feeding the platform’s recommendation algorithms, this data can be used to make informed budget decisions and “optimize” the platform. Most importantly, it can be used to inspire and guide the development of new, more futuristic platforms. That’s why, along with the new opportunities for data collection portended by future school closures, ed-tech investors anticipate the advent of highly-adaptive ed tech in the form of AI tutors, immersive games that teach subliminally, Hollywood-style educational videos, and even à la carte university degrees whereby students purchase individual courses from a pre-determined group of separate online institutions.
What is unlikely to motivate investors is the selling of personally identifiable data for marketing purposes. Ed-tech companies don’t need to. (Although, Google used to mine student emails to sell targeted advertising, and other ed-tech companies have been caught abusing student data.) These days, there are more sophisticated ways to use big data.
Ed-tech companies don’t need to sell personally identifiable data to make big money because they can use the troves of aggregate data they collect to create and sell “prediction products” designed to forecast how children in a given demographic will think, feel and behave. Such forecasting products are useful to any industry seeking to maximize profit and minimize risk — e.g., advertising, insurance, health care, entertainment, finance, retail, transportation. Hello, disaster capitalism! Meet surveillance capitalism.
When Children Become Users
I say surveillance capitalism. Ed tech says personalized learning. Rhetorically, the term personalized learning is meant to position recommendation algorithms that match students to learning material as an “innovative” solution to old-fashioned, clueless teachers who are unwilling or unable to connect with students as individuals with individual needs.
In addition to what it calls personalized learning, ed tech also uses gamification to solve what it imagines as problems caused by bad/overwhelmed teachers. Gamification is a type of persuasive technology that is player-centered, rather than user-centered. The term refers to the application of game elements and design principles to non-game contexts.
Together, the terms personalized learning and gamification allow ed tech to conjure visions of delighted, motivated students interacting with data-driven technology that knows what they need to learn and meets those needs in a timely fashion.
But here’s what’s really happening: Under the banner of “innovation,” gamified and data-driven personalized learning platforms are engineering the behavior of children. Gamified platforms are everywhere, not just in ed tech. They work similarly. Like any behavior-change app — from diet apps to social media platforms like Facebook — gamified ed-tech platforms create an absorbing human/computer interaction made all the more attractive by the dispensing of “rewards” on a variable schedule.
Variable reward schedules are a proven way to orchestrate the release of dopamine in humans and animals. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that makes learning possible. It is key to goal-directed behavior, motivating us to act by helping us make associations between actions and outcomes. It is triggered even when we simply anticipate a “reward” that we never receive, or when a reward is not as satisfying as we anticipated.
The behavioral psychologists and user-experience (UX) designers who work together to create gamified ed tech understand all of this quite well. They also know that human brains are wired to crave the instant feedback that gamified platforms provide. And they know that we humans — especially when we’re feeling uncertain or overwhelmed — are attracted to the explicit goals, objectives, and paths to mastery (e.g., “skill trees”) that characterize game-like learning environments.
Advocates for gamified ed tech like to imply that such platforms can help a student build self-esteem because they minimize the impact of “failure” while “rewarding” the completion of target behaviors and the adoption of target attitudes.
Researchers at Ohio State University found otherwise. Over time, students receiving a gamified curriculum felt less motivated, less satisfied and less empowered. No wonder. Engineering engagement through automated, instant feedback risks reducing intrinsic motivation by triggering what psychologists call the “overjustification effect.”
Enterprise/corporate ed-tech companies already incorporate into their pitches this understanding of the negative impacts of gamified platforms. They tell potential corporate clients that they need them, because younger workers have spent so much time on games and gamified platforms that traditional motivators don’t work on them.
Here’s an example of this kind of logic at work in a pitch that proposes gamification as a solution to (as well as a cause of) millennial demands for constant feedback. Here’s an example of that kind of logic at work in a pitch that proposes gamification as a solution to “bad parenting” as well as the millennial “need for engagement” and demand for constant feedback and fun in the workplace.
We can do better than rely upon gamified platforms to “engage” our children in school.
It’s one thing to play a game for fun, or use a gamified informal learning app now and again. It’s quite another (and frankly a quite terrible thing) for schools receiving public funds to participate in engineering into students an intolerance of complexity, an inability to set their own goals and a profound need for external motivators. All students deserve an education that supports, rather than stunts, their intellectual and personal development.
Students understand this kind of critique. In New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Kansas, students have organized to protest against the Summit Learning Program, an ed-tech platform developed by Facebook engineers and backed by the for-profit Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. In a letter to Mark Zuckerberg published by The Washington Post, students attending Brooklyn’s Secondary School for Journalism wrote: “Unlike the claims made in your promotional materials, we students find that we are learning very little to nothing. It’s severely damaged our education, and that’s why we walked out in protest.”
In her award-winning book, “Race After Technology,” Ruha Benjamin wrote: “[T]hese students have a lot to teach us about refusing tech fixes for complex social problems that come packaged in catchphrases like ‘personalized learning. They are sick and tired of being atomized and quantified, of having their personal uniqueness sold to them, one ‘tailored’ experience after another. They’re not buying it.” And neither should we.
Let’s Go Outside
Today’s ed-tech marketing taps into collective fears about sharing space with humans, as well as the frustration with the hodge-podgy usage of technology that characterized many crisis schooling efforts. Yet there is a better path: Making use of outdoor space on school grounds, nearby land, public spaces (like football stadiums) or at home with guidance from schools. Schools with plans to open full-time and those with plans for a mixture of in-person and remote instruction could walk this path.
Outdoor learning environments offer solutions to many COVID-related educational problems. Research suggests that COVID-19 is less likely to be transmitted outdoors. Other studies indicate that being outdoors reduces children’s stress levels and improves their motivation and wellbeing. Outdoor learning environments also provide children with much-needed opportunities for movement and play as well as a chance for place-based learning activities. Moreover, exposure to outdoor environments helps human brains stay in calibration because brains are optimized for high-bandwidth, three-dimensional, continuous-time processing of sensorimotor inputs. Outdoor schools can provide everything that brick-and-mortar schools can and much more.
Outdoor education is an old idea, traditionally practiced across Asia and Africa. It gained popularity in Europe and North America during the tuberculosis epidemic of the early 20th century, spawning the Open Air School Movement. Schools were set up in repurposed structures, tents, prefabricated barracks and purpose-build pavilions. Some schools consisted simply of rows of desks outside.
Today, schools in Denmark, Finland, Singapore, New Zealand, Scotland, and Bangladesh have turned to outdoor learning environments as a way to meet COVID-related educational challenges. In Bangladesh, children have been involved in the redesign of their school courtyard for outdoor learning. That intervention was a success, improving not just the children’s engagement with the curriculum, but also their attainments in math and science.
In the US, outdoor learning tied to public schools could make up for the pandemic-driven loss of outdoor programs conducted by nature centers, parks and outdoor science schools. Facing budget shortfalls, many of these programs are in danger of closing. Those that remain open have plans to freeze subsidized programming, scholarships, grants and fee waivers. It is estimated that by the end of the year, 11 million children in the US will have missed out on outdoor learning opportunities, about 60% of them from communities of color or low-income communities. Around 30,000 outdoor educators across the country have already lost their jobs. Advocates recommend that using public funds to redeploy these educators to K-12 public schools would be a boon to children and their families.
Say No to Vampires
Traditionally, schools have been oriented toward extrinsic motivators: grades, test scores, teacher approval, status, little prizes and rewards. When I was an elementary student, one of my teachers gave the student with the highest spelling score that week a tiny ceramic animal that my teacher had made herself.
Ed tech’s gamified personalized learning platforms turbo-charge this strategy. In this sense, such platforms are not innovative at all. Rather, they are simply new ways to do old things — old things that don’t work very well.
Pairing data-driven “personalization” with gamification is a quick fix solution to a problem that sits at the core of public education today. Groaning under the weight of high-stakes testing, today’s public schools crush student excitement in learning for its own sake.
What if we did away with high-stakes testing? These tests have many problems, from baked-in cultural bias to an over-emphasis on those curricular standards that are easy to test at the expense of less-quantifiable ones. What if we just got rid of them? Surely there are other ways to assess performance. High-stakes tests have already been canceled all over the world this year.
And while I am sharing my dream of public education truly reimagined, I would like to also pose this question: What if during this time of uncertainty and fast change, we, in our various localities, determined from the ground up the role that technology ought to play in our public school systems? By “from the ground up,” I mean asking students and teachers about their own technology use. How has tech helped them? How has it gotten in the way? I suspect the answers will surprise many.
It’s time to shift the focus of education away from the needs of corporations (workforce needs and others) to the needs of children. What do children need to thrive? We know the answer. Children thrive when they experience shared attention, build life skills through developmentally-appropriate challenges, experience a sense of belonging, and are allowed to personally contribute to learning activities.
Let’s help children thrive by making outdoor learning available in public schools. And let’s not stop there. Let’s help children thrive by hiring more teachers and support staff for our public schools. Let’s help children thrive by giving teachers the support they have asked for to translate live, onsite instruction to remote instruction. That support need not take the form of an ed-tech initiative. It can take the form of training, increased time for planning and uniform policies regarding what remote instruction should look like.
I realize all of this will cost money. But then again, so does ed tech.
Let the vampires go to the workplace. Don’t invite them into our schools.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.