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“Paradoxically, the corporate sector responsible for deindustrialization and cutting wages while receiving tax breaks that starved cities of revenue is now repositioned as beneficent donor, if not savior [of education]. The global billionaires who accumulated unfathomable wealth at the expense of most of the world’s people are now our benefactors and leaders.” – Pauline Lipman & Cristen Jenkins

“The technology always extracts. … Before computers, it was fossil fuels. The idea that you can pull free physical work out of the ground, that was a really good trick, and it resulted in all of these exponential curves. But now we’re discovering how to pull free mental work out of the ground. That’s going to be an equivalent, huge trick over the next 50 years.” – Max Ventilla

 

Platforms and Classrooms

 

Max Ventilla, former head of personalisation at Google, has announced that his start-up, Altschool, will be closing some locations and focusing in on developing and marketing it’s software platform. Marketing itself as a site of ‘hyperpersonalisation’, Atlschool has received $175 million in venture capital as it pursues Ventilla’s for-profit dream to reshape education. According to Bloomberg, Ventilla sent a letter to parents informing them of the upcoming changes:

“Ventilla said AltSchool will only run classrooms near the main offices in San Francisco and New York. ‘We know this is tough news that will have a big impact on your family,’ Ventilla said. But the moves are needed, he wrote, given AltSchool’s ‘strategy, path to growth and finances.’ Ventilla told Bloomberg that the company had long planned to prioritize selling technology to other schools. He said it’s happening earlier than anticipated because of demand. For outside schools, the company charges about $150 to $500 annually per student for its technology, depending on the size of the institution.”

Ventilla’s platform aims to use the same kind of personalisation technology that Google, Facebook, and Netflix use to recommend results and experiences to us. A kind of “mass customisation”, this approach relies on collecting data about individual users based on our likes and clicks, and creating algorithms to use larger patterns in their massive data sets to offer us custom results which we can ‘choose’ from. As Audrey Watters argues, personalisation sounds progressive – we’ll offer you individually tailored experiences! – but it’s more about delivering ‘content’ like customised Facebook ads.

In an interview, Ventilla says that “we start with a representation of each child”, and even though “the vast majority of the learning should happen non-digitally”, the child’s habits and preferences gets converted into data, “a digital representation of the important things that relate to that child’s learning, not just their academic learning but also their non-academic learning. Everything logistic that goes into setting up the experience for them, whether it’s who has permission to pick them up or their allergy information. You name it.”

And just like Netflix matches us to TV shows, “If you have that accurate and actionable representation for each child, now you can start to personalize the whole experience for that child. You can create that kind of loop you described where because we can represent a child well, we can match them to the right experiences.”

After watching a video of what a day in their middle school looks like, I was struck by the contrasting realities of the classroom and the platform. Each class has a maximum of 24 students with two teachers and the life of the classroom looks vibrant: the teachers conference with students about their work, an expert from Stanford helps the students carry out a design project, and the space of the school looks comfortable and inviting.

 

Yet, the bright spaces and two teachers per class is not the business model – the platform – that Ventilla wants to sell because “teachers are expensive“.1It’s unclear if the BBC received that quote from Altschool, or if they are editorialising. See it at about 40 seconds.

The flexibility that Altschool offers to wealthy parents in the expensive neighbourhoods of its lab schools in San Francisco and Brooklyn won’t  ‘scale’ when the platform is sold. In its lab schools, Altschool allows flexible pick-up and drop-off times for parents via their smart phones, and even accomodates surprise vacations to Hong Kong if they should arise. According to the New York Times, “A tablet with your child’s lesson plans would go with you, and he or she could study and work wherever you are. AltSchool’s plan, ultimately, after years of data-keeping, self-assessment and reassessment, is to take its best practices and technological innovations to the universe of public schools.”

The same NYT article contrasts Altschool with the “boot-camp model of so many of the city’s charter schools, where learning can too easily be divorced from pleasure, and fear rather than joy is the operative motivator.” But what will Altschool – the platform – look like when it is exported to public schools where the cost of teachers and space matter? Given that “AltSchool’s losses are piling up as it spends at a pace of about $40 million per year“, it’s not hard to imagine that the more desirable aspects of Altschool’s flexibility will be only be available for purchase by the wealthy.

As one example of how the implementation of the platform might carry negative consequences in public schools, consider the Altschool’s use of cameras to gather surveillance. According to Business Insider, “Cameras are also mounted at eye level for kids, so teachers can review successful lessons and ‘the steps leading up to those ‘ah-ha’ moments,’ head of school Kathleen Gibbons said. Some children use them as confessionals, sharing their secrets with the camera.”

They even have heat maps – I kid you not.

 

 

Surveillance and Personalisation

 

Venitlla wants to sell the platform, but there’s every reason to worry about how surveillance technologies will be implemented in so-called “bad neighbourhoods” and “failing schools.” Pauline Lipman has carefully documented the connection between school reform and the restructuring of cities, arguing that “bad neighbourhoods” are part of the “racialization of space”, a dogwhistle. Since Ventilla’s platform is marketed as a way to customise education to children, and a less-expensive alternative than hiring more teachers, we should be most concerned about its implementation in schools that are under-funded and where communities are under-served.

Paul Hirschfield has documented the different effects of surveillance in schools “even when implemented under the same federal funding initiative.” Surveillance becomes “disparate and unequal,” especially when it interacts with the racism that drives exclusionary discipline policies. While “surveillance methods that are popular in largely white towns and suburbs appear designed to affirm and preserve student individuality and dignity,” the same is not true in the ‘bad neighbourhoods’ with exclusionary discipline techniques, metal detectors, and the police.

“Principals who run schools with a reputation for chaos and failure have a greater incentive to implement exclusionary surveillance. Aggressive, “no-nonsense” surveillance suggests that they are serious about turning their schools around and offers a means of weeding out the students who are giving their schools a bad name.”2Paul Hirschfield, School Surveillance in America Disparate and Unequal. “Empirical work demonstrates that school security practices, even when implemented under the same federal funding initiative, are highly variable across social contexts. From a critical social reproduction perspective, the resultant disproportionate policing and surveil- lance of urban minority students functions to prepare such students for their rightful positions in the postindustrial order, whether as prisoners, soldiers, or service sector workers. The “school-to-prison pipeline” finds support in evidence that inner-city students are more often subject to carceral rituals at school such as bodily and metal detector searches and arrest.”

It’s too easy to underestimate the importance of urban geography and racism when talking about edtech platforms. But, as Pauline Lipman & Cristen Jenkins argue, neoliberal school reforms are intimately tied to the destruction and gentrification of neighbourhoods which go hand-in-hand with school closures. Reformers wield a powerful discursive weapon, the charge that people ‘don’t want change’, which equivocates on the kind of change that communities have hoped and struggled for with the kind of change Silicon Valley would like to sell.3Lipman and Jenkins: “Detroit is shaping up to be a similar story. The city’s mayor, with the initiative of several foundations, launched a plan to, as residents say, “clearcut” low-income neighborhoods, relocate residents to “opportunity zones,” and destroy the sustainable communities they are attempting to build. According to Sharon “Shea” Howell, Detroit activist and professor at Oakland University: ‘What we’re facing now is the major philanthropic organizations who have absolutely no public accountability are pouring money behind both the demolition efforts and to target some neighborhoods they will develop and other neighborhoods that they will let fall. So our philanthropic organizations, without public accountability or any public discussion, are reshaping the face of the city on a vision they have not even bothered to share with the citizens.’” As Lipman and Jenkins write,

“The charge that community residents of color are simply “against change” denies their histories of struggle and privileged knowledge about their communities. Yet, if neoliberals have succeeded in appropriating the discourse of change, in part this is because the power to act as a consumer has resonance in the face of entrenched failures of the welfare state model and administration of public education, particularly in cities.”

While there are many entrenched failures in the education system, we should be cautious about adding a layer of surveillance capitalism on top of other structural injustices. Ventilla’s personalisation platform exemplifies the logic of surveillance capitalism, which accord to  Shoshana Zuboff resides in “selling access to the real-time flow of your daily life –your reality—in order to directly influence and modify your behavior for profit.” It’s part of the broader extractive politics that Ventilla praises, but instead of fossil fuels, “we’re discovering how to pull free mental work out of the ground.”

That ‘free mental work’ – extracted through surveillance and delivered into data – is no more free of negative externalities than extracting fossil fuels has been. As Naomi Klein reminds us, we must consider how technologies ‘we’ might find useful “would be deployed in a world of Othering, in a world of racism.” (1:00:35) Our fossil fuel economy has always demanded “sacrificial people and places”, and there’s no reason to think surveillance capitalism works any differently.

In their keynote at Digital Pedagogy Labℳąhą Bąℓi مها بال and Chris Gilliard argue that platforms embody an extractive politics that has deep implications for how we treat each other as people we can ‘extract’ work from. As we bring extractive platforms into the classroom and normalise surveillance, Emmeline Taylor argues that we create a destructive ‘hidden curriculum’. Some schools have rotuinzed finger printing students so that they can access services, such as meals in the cafeteria. Taylor writes:

“Surveillance can create an environment which teaches young people to self-regulate constantly, instead of having freedom of expression or the space to test out new ideas and opinions.” And in cases where students must submit their fingerprints to access services at school, Taylor asks, “What message is this teaching young people? If you do think about the “hidden curriculum” and the messages pupils internalise at school, it is basically telling them that we don’t live in a democratic society. It says don’t question these systems or you’ll be punished.”4Taylor goes on to write:I think surveillance in schools is closely linked to the Michael Gove neoliberal school ideal, where everything is measurable and quantifiable at the expense of a nurturing, creative and democratic environment where teachers have professional discretion. So I think we’re going to see the surveillance of teachers more and more and it’s likely that we will see teachers resisting as the gaze shifts to them.”

Much of my argument applies to regular CCTV cameras and metal detectors, but as we move into what what Selena Nemorin calls ‘post-panoptic pedagogies’, with “rhizomatic structures of surveillance” comprised of the “online monitoring techniques pinned to strategies of data collection”, we intensify the relation between pedagogy and surveillance through the extraction of data, sometimes even biometrics.5Nemorin: “the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested more than $1.4 million in the development of “engagement pedometers”—biometric bracelets that can monitor electrical changes in a student’s nervous system as an indication of increased levels of interest and excitement during lessons.” As we take into account the rhizomatic transformations of power, we must also, as Tung-Hui Hu advises, keep track of the ‘soverignty of data’. Children become datafied, according to Deborah Lupton and Ben Williamson, and turned into “the objects of a proliferating range of digitized surveillance practices that record details of their lives.”

This objectification of children is also nothing new. I spend a lot of time thinking about the similarities between personalisation, the Silicon Valley solution to education, and manualisation, the drive to find ‘what works’ & implement ‘no excuses’ policies. Just because the Silicon Valley version comes with bright-rubber iPad cases and bean bags doesn’t mean that it’s not about the control of children and the deprofessionalising of teachers to the same extent as Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion – different mechanisms and packaging, same result. Children become objects of control and surveillance, and adults give up professional autonomy to platforms and manuals. As Lupton and Williamson argue, “learning analytics platforms appear to displace the embodied expert judgement of the teacher to the disembodied pattern detection of data analytics algorithms.” This platformisation only defers the dreams of emancipatory education, perhaps putting it out of reach permanently, given that it’s backed by billionaires with an agenda to reshape the world.

 

Venture Philanthropy

 

In The Gift of Education, Kenneth Saltman traces the shift from the ‘Scientific Philanthropy’ of the Carnegie, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations to the ‘Venture Philanthropy’ (VP) of Bill Gates. While Scientific Philanthropy extended the “logic of cultural imperialism” and worked to “serve ruling class interests”, it was to some extent built on the idea that the “public sector [libraries and schools] should make freely available the means for individual access to information that would benefit the individual and contribute to the making of a more educated workforce and informed citizenry.”

In contrast, Venture Philanthropy imposes a new logic where “public and civic purposes of public schooling are redescribed by VP in distinctly private ways”: become a lifelong learner, an entrepreneur. Saltman connects this new logic of VP to how the tech giants have made their money:

“Bill Gates earned his historically unmatched fortune specifically by using intellectual property laws to own, control, and license the products of immaterial labor, namely, software and dig- ital information. That is, Gates’ wealth is principally the result not of the sharing and free exchange of knowledge in the public domain, celebrated as the route to freedom and a democratic public by Carnegie, but rather Gates’ wealth is a product of the restriction and commodification of knowledge.”

But don’t Google and Facebook represent a new paradigm where, as Tony Wagner puts it, “Knowledge today is a free commodity and growing exponentially”? Isn’t the path to the future ‘open’?

Altschool Open” – the name of the platform that Ventilla wants to market – openwashes itself: it is neither free nor open-source. As Martin Weller argues, like ‘green’, “’open’ has acquired a certain market value and is worth proclaiming.” And in what we might then call empowerwashing, the Altschool website tells us that their platform is about “Using Technology to Empower People”: “AltSchool tools make insights actionable, super-powering teachers to do what they do best.”

The openwashing of Ventilla’s platform matters at a deeply pedagogical level because much of what is called ‘open’ is in fact black-boxed. Suppose that the Altschool platform delivers up a playlist based on its representation of your child. What mechanism is there for understanding how that decision came about and for contesting it? As Frank Pasquale argues, the extent to which algorithms are black-boxed and protected as trade secrets “makes it practically impossible to test whether their judgments are valid, honest, or fair”; “black box methods are just as likely to entrench a digital aristocracy.”

In an interview with John Battellle, Ventilla tells us that “you don’t leave a place like Google to do something hokey and small.” We should indeed be worried about an entrenched digital aristocracy overtaking education. Battelle asks: “You have raised over $100 million, so when you’re pitching to the big money, like Andreessen or Founders Fund, and you’re saying, “Here’s the total addressable market,” is it the US school system?”

Ventilla responds:

It’s the global system and what could reasonably be spent on, let’s say, high fixed cost, low variable cost inputs to quality. We believe that a future can exist where about 10 cents of every dollar is spent on, essentially, R&D, things that have a very, very high fixed cost, that cost billions or tens of billions of dollars to develop, that everybody can use that cost almost nothing for the additional person to use, and that actually gets better with more and more people using it.”6Here is more of Ventilla:“First off, the background of the team is in personalization, so recommendation technology is hugely relevant because we start with a representation of each child. We believe that the vast majority of the learning should happen non-digitally. It does. In any AltSchool classroom, most of what a kid is doing is not on a screen, but for every kid, we have a digital representation of the important things that relate to that child’s learning, not just their academic learning but also their non-academic learning. Everything logistic that goes into setting up the experience for them, whether it’s who has permission to pick them up or their allergy information. You name it. If you have that accurate and actionable representation for each child, now you can start to personalize the whole experience for that child. You can create that kind of loop you described where because we can represent a child well, we can match them to the right experiences. … At Google, you’re used to having very little information about a huge number of people. The question here is when you have a lot of information about someone, how can you use that for their benefit? How can you ensure that to the extent that there is a privacy implication, there’s clear value that’s being created for that student or for that family or for that educator in terms of their accelerating development.”

What’s really dangerous here? Besides the goal to globally reshape education, I’d argue it’s the extent to which Silicon Valley has been able to astroturf progressive school reform. It’s easy to keep track of the overt authoritarians, but wrapped in the language of ‘choice’, platforms become insidious. Ben Williamson has exposed the deeper structure of the political economy:

“Silicon Valley has successfully juxtaposed the student-centered progressivist philosophy of homeschooling on to its technocratic vision; it has latched on to the U.S. charter schools agenda to launch its own startup schools; its interests are integrated into prestigious teaching and research centers such as Stanford University; it has generated new entrepreneurial apprenticeship programs and fellowships through its philanthropic donors; and it has become entwined with the therapeutic culture of self-help training curricula associated with behavioral economics.”

In his book Disruptive Fixation, Christo Sims draws an important lesson from his ethnography of a school in New York that venture philanthropists designed to give kids the kind of engaging education they thought would prepare students for economic success. The philanthropists focused on “newly available means”, such as digital technology and game-based learning, but that focus “tended to fix reformers energy and attention on what they could foreseeably control and transform with these new tools.” Thus, “seemingly cutting-edge philanthropic interventions” often “help sustain and extend the status quo.”

As educators, our job is not to nod along with the Silicon Valley reformers, but to look beyond what the edtech billionaires fixate on, to ask about the sacrifice zones, and engage with the community voices that have long been frustrated. Maybe we can reclaim the idea of platform as a verb, something we offer to people so we can better hear their voices, instead of something we can purchase to feed students into.

Header by James Pond

References   [ + ]

1. It’s unclear if the BBC received that quote from Altschool, or if they are editorialising. See it at about 40 seconds.
2. Paul Hirschfield, School Surveillance in America Disparate and Unequal. “Empirical work demonstrates that school security practices, even when implemented under the same federal funding initiative, are highly variable across social contexts. From a critical social reproduction perspective, the resultant disproportionate policing and surveil- lance of urban minority students functions to prepare such students for their rightful positions in the postindustrial order, whether as prisoners, soldiers, or service sector workers. The “school-to-prison pipeline” finds support in evidence that inner-city students are more often subject to carceral rituals at school such as bodily and metal detector searches and arrest.”
3. Lipman and Jenkins: “Detroit is shaping up to be a similar story. The city’s mayor, with the initiative of several foundations, launched a plan to, as residents say, “clearcut” low-income neighborhoods, relocate residents to “opportunity zones,” and destroy the sustainable communities they are attempting to build. According to Sharon “Shea” Howell, Detroit activist and professor at Oakland University: ‘What we’re facing now is the major philanthropic organizations who have absolutely no public accountability are pouring money behind both the demolition efforts and to target some neighborhoods they will develop and other neighborhoods that they will let fall. So our philanthropic organizations, without public accountability or any public discussion, are reshaping the face of the city on a vision they have not even bothered to share with the citizens.’”
4. Taylor goes on to write:I think surveillance in schools is closely linked to the Michael Gove neoliberal school ideal, where everything is measurable and quantifiable at the expense of a nurturing, creative and democratic environment where teachers have professional discretion. So I think we’re going to see the surveillance of teachers more and more and it’s likely that we will see teachers resisting as the gaze shifts to them.”
5. Nemorin: “the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation invested more than $1.4 million in the development of “engagement pedometers”—biometric bracelets that can monitor electrical changes in a student’s nervous system as an indication of increased levels of interest and excitement during lessons.” As we take into account the rhizomatic transformations of power, we must also, as Tung-Hui Hu advises, keep track of the ‘soverignty of data’.
6. Here is more of Ventilla:“First off, the background of the team is in personalization, so recommendation technology is hugely relevant because we start with a representation of each child. We believe that the vast majority of the learning should happen non-digitally. It does. In any AltSchool classroom, most of what a kid is doing is not on a screen, but for every kid, we have a digital representation of the important things that relate to that child’s learning, not just their academic learning but also their non-academic learning. Everything logistic that goes into setting up the experience for them, whether it’s who has permission to pick them up or their allergy information. You name it. If you have that accurate and actionable representation for each child, now you can start to personalize the whole experience for that child. You can create that kind of loop you described where because we can represent a child well, we can match them to the right experiences. … At Google, you’re used to having very little information about a huge number of people. The question here is when you have a lot of information about someone, how can you use that for their benefit? How can you ensure that to the extent that there is a privacy implication, there’s clear value that’s being created for that student or for that family or for that educator in terms of their accelerating development.”
I footnotes