Big data at the little school house
As a teacher's aide for the past ten years and a conspiracy nut all my life, the NSA spying revelations have made me think about the growth of data collection I have witnessed in education and how this serves Big Brother. Two education writers have pieces on this issue:
Jim Horn is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Cambridge College, Cambridge, MA. He is also an education blogger at Schools Matter and has published widely on issues related to social justice in education. He writes:
NSA “Architecture of Oppression” Outed
The inner workings of the Panopticon now come under scrutiny through the courageous acts of one individual. May our movement to free schools be characterized by the same kind of courage that Snowden has demonstrated. Will we fight? Will we stand up? Will we act to make sure that “turnkey tyranny” doesn’t happen to our educational systems?
Audrey Watters is a journalist specializing in education technology news and analysis. She has worked in the education field for the past 15 years: as a graduate student, college instructor, program manager for an ed-tech non-profit. She writes:
Data, Surveillance, and Teaching Machines
[T]he news of this past week has been fairly distracting… revelations about the US government’s massive spying programs that include the monitoring of all our telephony metadata, as well as our usage of many popular technology sites. Verizon. Google. YouTube. Apple. Microsoft. Skype. Yahoo. Facebook.
My worries here aren’t simply about the sanctity of the US Constitution (although, god yes, there’s that). Nor are my education-related concerns that schools have been outsourcing many of their IT functions – hardware and software – to these very companies (although, god yes, there’s that too).
And these also have me thinking about the relationship between Boundless Informant, the government surveillance program, and the boundless informants/information we’re collecting and developing and analyzing in education.…
[InBloom’s] plans to create a data storage and analysis infrastructure to, in its words, offer a “more complete picture of student learning and [make] it easier to find learning materials that match each student’s learning needs.” Many people are concerned about the organization’s plans to collect and centralize an unprecedented amount of data about public school children. Baptismal records. Disruptive behavior and disciplinary consequences. Immigration status. Parents’ marital status. Homelessness. Foster care. Learning objectives. Life insurance policy. Pregnancy. Attendance. Grades. Graduation Plans. Test scores. And so on.
[And there are] …other organizations – schools, districts, universities, non-profits, and for-profits – that are amassing huge amounts of student data. Through learning management systems. Student information systems. Digital textbooks. Apps. Websites. Email.
[The lure of "Big Data" (a term popularized by surveillance apologist Thomas Friedman) is reflected in] inBloom’s “vision statement”: more data ostensibly means better products and services, more “personalized,” more “individualized” tools to meet learners’ needs. That “personalization” involves the collection of data – mouse clicks, keyboard strokes, viewing patterns, quiz answers, likes, purchases, course enrollments, reading habits – and the development of algorithms, models, graphs and profiles to deliver “appropriate” content, assessment, recommendations, tutoring, and so on.
But who decides what is “appropriate”? Who has oversight over these algorithms? What is the profile of a “good student”?
This last question seems particularly relevant in light of the NSA surveillance: who is a “good citizen”? Can the government build a profile of one? Can it identify the patterns “good citizens” make and, with enough data amassed, identify threats or deviance?