Education shaped by big data and Silicon Valley. Is this what we want for Australia?

By Rachel Buchanan and Amy McPherson

The recent banning of smart phones in public schools by several state governments shows Australian policymakers are concerned about children’s use of technology and social media in school time. But what about the way our schools use digital technologies and, in particular, how the data collected by schools about our children is being used?

We believe the frenetic data collection activity taking place in schools today is transforming education. Australia may be heading towards an educational future designed by Silicon Valley not by educators and school communities. The developers of educational technologies have a growing influence in our classrooms, and we are witnessing a shift of public education from a democratic controlled system to one designed and run by corporations.

Is this the future we want for our students, teachers and schools?

What data is being collected on students and what is the impact?

First they said they needed data
about the children
to find out what they’re learning.
Then they said they needed data
about the children
to make sure they are learning.
Then the children only learnt
what could be turned into data.
Then the children became data.

(Michael Rosen, 2018)

There is more data being collected about this generation of students than any previous generation. Beyond test results such as from NAPLAN, students’ educational progression from preschool to further and higher education can be tracked; their physical activity, use of digital devices, social media, school absences, behaviour infringements and physical locations can be recorded in perpetuity as well as tracked in real time. This can be done via software such as Sentral, currently used in over 3000 schools in Australia.

The ready availability of this wealth of data has generated new norms against which students are measured, new moral codes and social expectations, and defined students against data-derived categories. Learning analytic platforms  and personalised learning apps are being introduced to classrooms in a bid to overcome the limitations of traditional classroom arrangements. Such products measure not just students’ learning choices but keystrokes, progression and motivation. Additionally, students are increasingly being surveilled and tracked.

Students’ rights to privacy has been subsumed by the desire to maximise learning potential and to create the illusion that they are being kept safe.

How is big data transforming what teachers do?

The nature of teachers’ work is being changed by data. Firstly, they must collect more data than ever about the students in their care. Not just educational results and progress, but data is collected on the minutiae of daily student life: behaviour; demerits; uniform infractions; homework, etc.; combining to create detailed data-driven histories of students’ educational life-course. The collection of data becomes the indication that teaching has occurred.

Data has become a part of the way the teaching profession is now governed. The datafication of teaching makes teachers countable, measurable and able to be ranked. And not just through data generated about their students, but against the data that they themselves must produce about their professional development. Accreditation against the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers requires teachers to not only demonstrate their teaching via their students’ learning, but also their own ongoing professional learning and development must be documented and assessed; a process that codifies and domesticates the profession.

Educational systems are being reconfigured by data-based technologies

Learning analytics platforms and personalised learning apps are based on behaviourist theories designed to change learner’s behaviour. While behavioural modification is not a new feature of schooling, traditional discipline techniques (such as the classroom, timetables, uniforms, etc.) are being supplemented by digital technologies such as ClassDojo (the most popular educational app in use at the moment) that collect data about students’ behaviour and, significantly, also their emotional/psychological, and cognitive/neurological states. ClassDojo, for example, is used to help children develop psychological traits such as ‘grit’ and a ‘growth mindset’. Data is collected about students’ demonstrations of these traits and behavioural profiles are generated for each student. This data is not merely gathering information but also being used to govern and shape students’ bodies, emotions and thinking. Certain behaviours are rewarded through gamification techniques, while other behaviours which can’t be measured are ignored. This is an instrumental focus on behaviours and mindsets that are deemed appropriate which ignores complexity and nuance in children’s learning and behaviour.

Following on the success of ClassDojo. Silicon Valley is seeking the development of further “innovative” digital technologies that can shift more educational authority into the hands of the programmers. Such a move could potentially change the nature of teachers’ work, (from designers of educational experiences, to data administrators), and subject students to further datafication.

School students around the globe, regardless of the education system in which they are physically located, could be learning from the same apps or techno-education programs. These Silicon Valley technologies would determine what, when, and how students learn – with curriculum and assessment determined algorithmically based on students’ prior engagement and achievement.

Technologies such as learning analytics platforms replace teacher expertise with the pattern detection abilities of data analytics algorithms, risking students’ opportunities being narrowed by the assumptions encoded in algorithmic logic. 

In this potential educational future, not only are teachers bypassed (with their experience and professional judgement removed from the learning setting) but local and national educational systems lose authority to those who design such technologies.

The risks of a big data future

We have described the increasing use of data in education so that the future trajectory of schooling can be considered. The potential role of Silicon Valley in designing the educational methods of the future is highlighted. Further infiltration of educational technologies into classroom means that not just students’ results but also their behaviours and mindsets become quantifiable sources of data. Students will become more enmeshed in intensifying surveillance networks, where the teachers’ expert judgement is displaced by disembodied algorithmic and adaptive decision-making technology.

The risk is that such processes shut down educational possibility and that students’ prior actions determine the future learning made available to them. The algorithms that undergird such educational technologies are always based on past data, and not only limit students opportunity based on the programming of those that design the products, but constrain future opportunity because of the inherent bias in the data upon which the calculations are based on.

Reliance on such technologies also limits the opportunity for student-teacher relationships; without these relationships’ education is at risk of further alienating students.

We need to leave the future behind

In considering what can about this situation, we follow Australian educational researcher, Sam Sellar’s lead and argue that we need to leave the future behind.

Sellar argues that built into education is the idea that we are striving for the future, and that through education the future will be better. This optimism is built into policy, which is the political means by which we try to improve the system. It is also built in to practice, this belief that with more information, more data, we can improve the education system and through the education system improve lives.

The use of data as a means of measuring educational progress has become an end in itself. This constant quest for improvement, has led us down the path of measurement and datafication. Sellar’s suggestion of leaving the future behind:

would not mean refusing the direction of time, but rather abandoning ‘the future’ as a psychological attitude with a relatively brief history. As a hopeful disposition toward a time to come, the future has provided a basis for modern educational thought: education is oriented by desire for progress.

Sam Sellar

There are alternatives to the idea of progress as a means of evaluating education. If we stop seeking progress as the goal and start to determine the value of education via other means, we no longer need be trapped in the thrall of future thinking.

Dr Rachel Buchanan is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. She researches into the equity and social justice implications of education policy and the increased deployment of digital technologies within the education sector. She can be contacted via Rachel.Buchanan@newcastle.edu.au or found on twitter: @rayedish. 

Dr Amy McPherson is a Lecturer in Education Studies at the Australian Catholic University. She researches in the areas of philosophy of education and youth and childhood studies. She can contacted via Amy.McPherson@acu.edu.au or found on twitter: @AmyMak1601

This blog post is a condensed version of our paper ‘Teachers and learners in a time of big data’ published in the ‘Future Education’  special issue of the Journal of Philosophy in Schools.

Republish this article for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons licence.

3 thoughts on “Education shaped by big data and Silicon Valley. Is this what we want for Australia?

  1. This article seems to be conflating several unrelated topics: banning of smart phones in public schools, companies collecting data about students, data collection in schools for educational purposes, and the monitoring of individual students performance using learning management systems.

    Bans on student mobile devices are intended to reduce student distraction. This has nothing to do with collection of data about students. I suggest it would be better to teach students, particularly older students, how to use mobile devices responsibly, than banning them. I am old enough to have been shown how to make an emergency phone call at school: is that still done?

    Data collection via social media, and mobile devices by corporations is an issue, but not one exclusively for teachers. What is a school issue is the use of corporate educational sites which are “free”, but collect student data for resale. Teachers should not use Apps which infringe their students privacy.

    Extensive standardized testing of students predates the Internet, but is facilitated by it, as in the example of online NAPLAN. What needs to be remembered is collecting data is not in itself useful. Also there has been extensive research on how such testing can be harmful.

    The propensity of school systems to measure students and try to put their behavior (not just their academic knowledge), on some sort of scale is facilitated by a greater ability to collect data. But then again there should be a good reason and evidence, this actually works.

    If the data is not being collected for a good educational reason, then I suggest teachers have a professional responsibility not to collect it. Like many AARE articles, this one portrays teachers as powerless employees required to carry out the instructions of their employers. I suggest teachers need to assert their professional status, and decide what is in the interests of their clients (the students), as all professionals are ethically required to do. Where data collection is not educationally justified, or is harmful, teachers have an ethical obligation not to collect that data. Teachers need to put in place guidelines, and then lobby collectively to have them adopted by school systems.

  2. Hi Tom, We are not discussing the banning of mobile phones, they were only raised to note that while there is a lot of discussion at the moment about students’ use of technology, what is not as often considered is the use of technologies by teachers in the classroom and in the school system itself.
    I am in agreement with much of what you say above, but in a piece this short it hard to convey the nuance that comes with all educational issues. I agree that: extensive testing has been shown to be harmful; and that if data is not being collected for a good educational reason then teachers have a professional reason not to collect it; and that teachers need to put in place guidelines and lobby collectively to have these adopted by school systems.
    We raise this issues to get parents and teachers thinking about these things – as sometimes in the implementation of new systems and the use of new educational products (such as those that are free but on-sell the data) the ethical implications and issue of privacy and uses of data that aren’t always considered. Often the uses of the data collected by educational apps is obscured by opaque terms and conditions and so it is worth flagging such issues to enable wider conversations of the implications of some present practices.

  3. Thank you for this article. As an educator with more than 50 years’ experience, I have seen the fads come and go but the bottom line is that teachers make the difference, not the testing and not the data. Teachers are being constrained by data, not released by it to do better for children. Their thinking has been reduced to responding to data and they are discouraged from asking “why”. We are so tied up with data that children are no longer at the centre of learning. In fact, we are so driven by data and research based programmes and teaching methods that learners don’t get a look-in, and are often locked out of learning altogether. We have forgotten that we are teahcing children – not maths, or reading – but children who are the learners!

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