Programmable schools? Governing education through code in the smart city

Ben Williamson

I recently presented some work in progress on the idea of ‘programmable schools’ on invitation from the Programmable City research team at the National University of Ireland Maynooth. The presentation sought to investigate how education has been positioned in the context of ‘smart cities’ – urban environments that are becoming increasingly software-supported and that run on code using digital data as a kind of fuel. As educational institutions are increasingly treated as part of smart cities, I wanted to suggest, they too are seen as ‘programmable’ environments where alterations to the space enacted by software code and algorithms might have the effect of modifying student behaviours and sculpting particular forms of citizen conduct. Ultimately, programmable smart schools are those coded spaces where young people are to be fashioned for the future city.

The presentation was  recorded and has been posted on the Programmable City blog. The abstract provides an outline:

Along with the ‘smart city,’ the idea of the ‘smart school’ is emerging in recent imaginings of the future of education. Various organizations and actors have begun to envisage education as a highly coded, software-mediated, data-driven, and computationally-programmable social institution. These consist of commercial initiatives, such as IBM’s ‘Smarter Classroom’ project and Microsoft’s ‘Educated Cities’ programme, as well as non-commercial projects from organizations such as Nesta’s Policy Lab and Glasgow City Council. Smart schools are emerging ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’ formed of a mixture of technological fantasies and related technical developments. The presentation will provide a survey of the key features of emerging smart schools. In particular, it will focus on the constant flows of data smart schools depend on and the ‘quantified students’ they produce; the digital policy instruments used to monitor and measure them; the ways that students are solicited to ‘learn to code’ in order to become ‘smart citizens’ in the digital governance of the smart city; and emerging techniques of predictive ‘learning analytics’ that enable student data to be used to anticipate their behaviours and pre-empt their futures. Such schools are presented as becoming to some degree ‘sentient,’ programmed with the capacity to learn and adapt to the learner. These features are characteristic of a new technocratic way of conceptualizing educational practices and spaces and of emerging modes of both ‘real-time’ and ‘future-tense’ digital education governance.

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