Assembling ClassDojo

A sociotechnical survey of a public sphere platform

Ben Williamson

ClassDojo mojo

The world’s most successful educational technology is ClassDojo. Originally developed as a smartphone app for teachers to reward ‘positive behaviour’ in classrooms, it has recently extended significantly to become a communication channel between teachers and parents, a school-wide reporting and communication platform, an educational video channel, and a platform for schoolchildren to collect and present digital portfolios of their class work.

In a previous post I began sketching out a critical approach to the ClassDojo app. In this follow-up (note that it’s a long read, more a working paper than a post)  I want to explore ClassDojo as a more extensive platform, and to consider it as a sociotechnical ‘assemblage’ of many moving parts. It is, I argue, simultaneously composed of technical components,  people, policies, funding arrangements, expert knowledge and discourse, all of which combine and work together as a hybrid product of human and nonhuman actors to enable the functioning of the platform. Each of these components has been assembled together over time to make ClassDojo what it is today. The purpose of the post is twofold: to help generate greater public understanding and awareness of ClassDojo among teachers and parents, and also to scope out the contours of the platform for further detailed research.

Education in the ‘platform society’
When it was first launched as a beta product in 2011, ClassDojo was a simple app designed for use on mobile devices. It has subsequently become a much more extensive platform, spreading rapidly across the US and around the world. As new features have been added over its 5 year lifespan to date, ClassDojo has become much more like a social media platform for schools. It allows teachers to award points for behaviour, somewhat akin to pressing the ‘like’ button on Facebook; permits text and video communication between teachers and parents, as many social media platforms do; acts as a channel for video content; and also has capacity for schoolchildren to create digital portfolios of their work. It has also extended to become a ‘schoolwide’ platform, whereby all teachers, school leaders and pupils are signed up to the platform and school leaders can take an overview of everything occurring on it.

Given its expansion beyond its original design as an app, ClassDojo needs to be understood in relation to emerging critical research on digital platforms, where ‘platform’ refers to internet-based applications such as social media sites that process information and communication. Jose van Dijck and Thomas Poell have argued that ‘over the past decade, social media platforms have penetrated deeply into the mechanics of everyday life, affecting people’s informal interactions, as well as institutional structures and professional routines.’ More recently, van Dijck has suggested that we are entering a new kind of ‘platform society’ in which ‘social, economic and interpersonal traffic is largely channeled by an (overwhelmingly corporate) global online infrastructure that is driven by algorithms and fueled by data.’ This emerging platform society is gradually interfering with more and more aspects of everyday life, including key public institutions of society such as health and education. Van Dijck has called these ‘public sphere platforms’ that promise to contribute to the public good in areas which are under funded by governments, but are owned and structured by private actors and networks.

ClassDojo is prototypical of a public sphere platform for education, one that is designed to contribute to the public good by supporting teachers to manage children’s classroom behaviour and allow parents to communicate with schools at a time when schools are increasingly under pressure. Before detailing its various dimensions as a platform, however, it is important to note that any platform ultimate consists of multiple moving parts, both human and nonhuman, that have to be assembled together. Putting it simply, social researchers have recently begun to attend to the messy ‘assemblages’ of digital technologies such as online platforms, while education researchers have begun to acknowledge that their objects of study—classrooms, tests, policies, or educational technologies—are in fact assemblies of myriad things. In recent work on ‘critical data studies,’ Rob Kitchin and Tracey Lauriault have described a ‘data assemblage’ as:

a complex socio-technical system, composed of many apparatuses and elements that are thoroughly entwined, whose central concern is the production of data. A data assemblage consists of more than the data system/infrastructure itself, such as a big data system, an open data repository, or a data archive, to include all of the technological, political, social and economic apparatuses that frames their nature, operation and work.

An assemblage such as a digital platform, then, needs to be understood in terms of the ways that all its moving parts—whether human and social or nonhuman, material or technical—come together to form a relatively coherent and stable whole. For Kitchin and Lauriault, researching such an assemblage would therefore involve an investigation of its technical and material components; the people that inhabit it and the practices they undertake; the organizations and institutions that are part of it; the marketplaces and financial techniques that enable it; the policies and frameworks that govern it; and the knowledges and discourses that promote and support it.

Importantly, they—like others working with the assemblage concept—acknowledge that assemblages are contingent and mutable rather than fixed entities:

Data assemblages evolve and mutate as new ideas and knowledges emerge, technologies are invented, organisations change, business models are created, the political economy alters, regulations and laws introduced and repealed, skill sets develop, debates take place, and markets grow or shrink.

Utilizing the concept of a sociotechnical assemblage, in what follows I aim to detail how ClassDojo has been assembled over time as a mutating and evolving public sphere platform for education that consists of many human and nonhuman moving parts. I have arranged this as a kind of sociotechnical survey of the elements that constitute the ClassDojo assemblage.

Technicalities & materialities
As a technical platform ClassDojo consists of a mobile app and an online platform. Teachers can access and use the app on a smartphone or tablet in the classroom, and open up the online platform on any other computing device or display hardware for pupils to view. The platform allows class teachers to set their own behavioural categories, though it comes pre-loaded with a series of behaviours that teachers can use to award or deduct feedback points. Each child in the system is represented by a cute avatar, a dojo monster, which can be customized by the user. Behavioural targets can be set for both individuals and groups to achieve positive goals, and teachers can also deduct points. Children’s points are represented as a ‘doughnut’ of green positive points and red ‘needs work’ deductions. Teachers are able, if they choose, to display each child’s aggregate points to their entire class as a kind of league table of behaviour, and school leaders can access each child’s profile to monitor their behavioural progress.

Launched in 2016, its ‘school-wide’ features to allow whole schools, not just individual teachers, to sign up for accounts, which enables ‘teachers and school leaders to safely share photos, videos, and messages with all parents connected to the school at once, replacing cumbersome school websites, group email threads, newsletters, and paper flyers.’ At the same time that ClassDojo is expanding in scope to encompass new technical innovations and serve other practical and social functions, it is therefore obsolescing existing school technologies and materials. The new school-wide application of ClassDojo also makes it easier for the platform to be used by administrators, and means that a child’s individual profile remains persistent over time as that child moves between classes. Teachers can also create ‘Student Stories‘ for each child in a class, where digital portfolios of their class work can be uploaded and maintained.

The public ClassDojo website acts as a glossy front door and public face to the platform and the company behind it. It presents the brand through highly attractive visual graphics, high-production promotional video content and carefully crafted text copy. The website also features an ‘Idea Board’ where ideas about the use of the platform in the classroom can be submitted by teachers to be shared publicly, plus a blogging area for teachers and an engineering blog where the technical details of the platform are discussed and shared by its engineers. For parents assigned a login, it is possible to access the ‘Class Story’ area where teachers can share messages and video with all parents of children in a specific class, and individual teachers and parents can also exchange short text messages.

Less visibly, ClassDojo consists of technical standards relating to network security, data storage, interoperability, and communication protocols. All of the technical aspects of ClassDojo also need to be written in the code and algorithms that make the platform function. The ClassDojo engineering blog details some of the complexity of the code and algorithms that have been used or designed to make all the different elements of the platform function. Much of its source code is available to view on the ClassDojo area of the GitHub code repository. GitHub is therefore part of the assemblage of ClassDojo, a resource that both contains the code and algorithms used in the platform and a resource used by its engineers to locate existing re-useable code.

As a cloud-based service, all of ClassDojo’s data servers and analytics are hosted externally. For this it employs Amazon Web Services. The safety and security page of the ClassDojo website notes that the web servers of Amazon Web Services ‘are physically located in high-security data centers – the same data centers used to hold secure financial information. … Our database provider uses the same https security connections used by banks and government departments to store and transfer the most sensitive data.’ (Unfortunately, at the time of writing the link provided on the ClassDojo website to the ‘security measures’ provided by AWS does not work.) Any interaction with the ClassDojo platform, therefore, takes place via Amazon’s vast global infrastructure of cloud technologies, including being physically stored in one of Amazon’s data centres. ClassDojo is, in other words, physically, financially and technically located within one of the key global organisations that orchestrate the emerging ‘platform society.’

As well as being a technical platform, ClassDojo consists of a variety of material artefacts under the ‘Resources‘ section of the website . These include teacher resources to support the use of ClassDojo in the classroom and lesson planning, training resources such as powerpoint presentations to enable school leaders to train staff, and a variety of glossy printable posts and other display materials that can be used to decorate the classroom. In addition to this, the website provides resources for parents such as introductory letters that can be distributed by schools to explain the platform, detailed parent guides as downloadable PDF files, and simple video content that can be used in the classroom to help young children understand it too.

ClassDojo also extends into other platforms. It has its own Facebook page and a popular @ClassDojo account on Twitter with 61,000 followers. Much of its initial word-of-mouth marketing worked through these platforms, allowing ClassDojo to rapidly extend to new users as enthusiastic early adopters recommended it to friends and colleagues via social media. Facebook and Twitter are part of the ClassDojo community, enabling its vast user base to engage with the organization and other community members. User-generated materials such as lesson plans and classroom resources to support the use of ClassDojo are made available for sharing by teacher advocates of the platform on teaching websites and other public sharing sites such as Pinterest, thus extending it beyond the enclosures of its own technical infrastructure to other platforms and material resources. Via other platforms, teachers have created and shared, for example, ‘Dojo dollars,’ ‘reward coupons’ and ‘vouchers,’ created their own incentives and rewards systems and displays, posted ‘points tracker’ posters and sets of ‘Dojo goals for data folders, and suggested the use of ‘prize centres’ where physical prizes are displayed for pupils that top the ClassDojo league tables.

As this survey of the technical aspects of ClassDojo demonstrates, it consists of myriad technologies, materials, standards and so on; but these technical elements all need to be orchestrated by human hands.

People & organizations
Who makes ClassDojo? Critical studies of software code and algorithms have demonstrated that their function cannot be separated from their designers. As Tarleton Gillespie has phrased it, ‘algorithms are full of people.’ Humans make decisions about what algorithms do, their goals and purposes and the tasks to which they are put. Likewise, any system of data collection or online communication platform has to be programmed to perform its tasks according to particular objectives, business plans and within financial and regulatory constraints.

ClassDojo depends on a vast network of people and organizations. It was founded in 2011 by two young British entrepreneurs, Liam Don and Sam Chaudhary. Don was educated as a computer scientist and Chaudhary as an economist—with experience of working for the consultancy McKinsey in its education division in London—before both moved to Silicon Valley after successfully applying to the education technology ‘incubator’ program Imagine K-12. Imagine K-12’s founder Tim Brady was the very first investor in ClassDojo and continues to sit on its board; he has been described by ClassDojo’s founders as a key mentor and influence in the early days of its development. Brady himself was one of the very first employees at Yahoo! in the 1990s, where he acted as Chief Product Officer for 8 years. Considerable Silicon Valley experience is therefore accommodated on the ClassDojo board.

In addition to its founders, ClassDojo is staffed by a variety of software engineers, designers, product managers, communications and marketing officers, privacy, encryption and security experts and human-computer interaction designers. Notably, none of ClassDojo’s staff are listed as educational experts, but instead are all drawn from the culture of software development, many of them with experience in other Silicon Valley technology companies, social media organizations and consultancies. Founders Don and Chaudhary themselves have some limited educational experience of working with schools in the UK prior to moving to Silicon Valley.

ClassDojo mojo 2

Through external partnerships, ClassDojo employs three independent privacy experts to guide it in relation to data privacy regulation in north America and Europe, and works with a team of security researchers to continually test ClassDojo’s security practices for vulnerabilities. Its board consists primarily of its major investors (detailed more below under funding and finance). ClassDojo also works with over 20 third-party essential service providers who primarily support the platform with specific technical services, including data storage, video encoding, photo uploading, server performance, data visualization, web analytics, performance metrics, conducting A/B testing on different versions of the website, and managing real-time communication data. The third party service providers include Amazon Web Services, which hosts ClassDojo’s servers and data analytics, Google Analytics, for analytics on its website, and many others, without which the platform could not function.

Support for ClassDojo has been confirmed through the award of a number of prizes. The business magazine FastCompany listed ClassDojo as one of the 10 most innovative education companies in 2013, and in 2015 it won the Crunchie award for best education startup from the TechCrunch awards while its founders were featured in the ’30 under 30’ list of Inc magazine. These prizes and recognitions have helped ClassDojo and its founders to consolidate their reputations and brand, both as a successful classroom tool and an entrepreneurial business.

As a sociotechnical assemblage it is important to note that ClassDojo functions through the involvement of its users. Users are both configured by ClassDojo—in the sense that it makes new practices possible—but can also reshape ClassDojo to their own purposes. The basic reward mechanism at the heart of the ClassDojo behaviour management application can be customized by any signed up teacher. These reward categories then shape the ways in which points are awarded in classrooms, changing both the practices of the staff employing it and the experience of the pupils who are its subjects. With the announcement of school-wide features in 2016, entire schools can be signed up to ClassDojo, ultimately becoming institutional network nodes of the platform. By mid-2016 the ClassDojo website reported that the platform was in use in 180 countries, with other 3 million subscribing teachers serving over 35 million pupils. ClassDojo is, in other words, constituted partly through the practices of a vast global constellation of users.

Teachers using ClassDojo are repositioned by the platform by being conferred new responsibilities. Huw Davies suggests teachers are transformed into data entry clerical workers by the platform, becoming responsible for data collection in the classroom that will ultimately contribute to big datasets that could be analysed and then ‘sold’ back to school leaders as premium features. Although ClassDojo does not market itself as a big data company, its access to behavioural data on millions of children confers it with tremendous capacity to report detailed and comparative analyses that could be used to measure teachers’ and schools’ records on the management of pupil behaviour.

Policy, regulation & governance
The way that the technical platform of ClassDojo operates, and the work of the people who build and use it, is all governed by particular forms of regulation and policy. Data privacy is an area that the ClassDojo organization is especially keen to promote, not least following a critical article in the New York Times in 2014, which the ClassDojo company vigorously countered in an open letter entitled ‘What the NYTimes got wrong.’ Its website features an extensive privacy policy, the product of its privacy advisers. This policy is extensive and regularly updated, organized on the website to detail exactly what information the platform collects, its student data protection policy, and available opt-outs. Notably, ClassDojo claims that it deletes all pupils’ feedback points after 12 months, unless students or parents create accounts. Where schools or individual teachers have set up accounts that parents have then subscribed to, then a persistent record of the child’s personal information will be retained.

ClassDojo claims it is completely compliant with north American data privacy regulatory frameworks such as FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) and COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act). FERPA is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records, while the primary goal of COPPA is to place parents in control over what information is collected from their young children online. ClassDojo’s ‘privacy center’ displays ‘iKeepSafe’ privacy seals from both FERPA and COPPA, alongside a badge proclaiming it as a signatory of the Student Privacy Pledge. iKeepSafe (Internet Keep Safe Coalition) is itself a nonprofit international alliance of more than 100 policy leaders, educators, law enforcement members, technology experts, public health experts and advocates, and acts to ensure that both FERPA and COPPA are enforced.

ClassDojo is additionally compliant with the US-EU Safe Harbor framework set forth by the US Department of Commerce regarding the collection, use, and retention of personal data from European Union member countries. The European Court of Human Justice, however, declared this agreement invalid in 2015, meaning there is a grey area in terms of data protection for children logged on ClassDjo outside the US. Its commitment to data privacy would seem to depend on specific agreements made between the EU and the cloud service provider hosting its data, in this case Amazon Web Services. This seems to put pressure on schools to make sense of complex international data protection policies. Schools making use of ClassDojo in the UK, for example, might need to ensure they are familiar with the Information Commissioner’s Office code of practice and checklists for data sharing. This code covers such activities as ‘a school providing information about pupils to a research organisation’ and would arguably extend to the providing of information of pupil behaviour to an organization like ClassDojo (and stored by Amazon Web Services), not least as the data may be used to construct behavioural profiles of individuals and classes.

ClassDojo also subscribes to the principles of ‘privacy by design,’ an approach which encourages the embedding of privacy frameworks into a company’s products or services. ClassDojo’s Sam Chaudhary has co-authored an article on privacy by design with the Future of Privacy Forum, a Washington DC-based think tank dedicated to promoting responsible data practices through lobbying government leaders, and a sounding board for companies proposing new products and services. The founders of ClassDojo have therefore situated themselves among a network of data privacy expertise and lobbying groups in order to ensure their compliance with federal law and to be seen as a leading data privacy organization in relation to education and young children.

How ClassDojo operates in relation to data protection and privacy is therefore circumscribed by federal regulatory frameworks which govern how and why ClassDojo can collect, process and store users’ data and what rights children and their parents have to withdraw their consent for its collection or request its deletion. Privacy regulation is ‘designed-in’ to its architecture, though inevitably some concerns persist, not least about ClassDojo’s admission that if it experienced a ‘change of control’ that all users’ personal information would be transferred to its new owner, with only 30 days for parents to request deletion of their children’s data.

Besides privacy policy and regulation, ClassDojo is also shaped by education policy, although less directly. A distinctive policy discourse of ‘character’ education, ‘positive behaviour support’ and ‘social-emotional learning’ frames ClassDojo, shaping the way in which the organization presents the platform. For example, ClassDojo’s founders present the platform through the language of character development and positive behaviour management. This is entirely compatible with US Department of Education policy documents and initiatives which, in the wake of a softening of the dominant test-based policy emphasis, has begun to emphasize concepts such as ‘character,’ ‘grit,’ ‘perseverance,’ ‘personal qualities’ and other ‘non-cognitive’ dimensions of ‘social-emotional learning’—the most prominent example being the 2013 US Department of Education, Office of Educational Technology report Promoting grit, tenacity and perseverance. ClassDojo is directly promoted in the report as ‘a classroom management tool that helps teachers maintain a supportive learning environment and keep students persisting on task in the classroom,’ allowing ‘teachers to track and reinforce good behaviors for individual students, and get instant reports to share with parents or administrators.’

As a consequence of the ‘grit’ report, controversial attempts have been made to make the measurement of ‘personal qualities’ of non-cognitive and social-emotional learning into school accountability mechanisms in the US. The prominent think tank the Brookings Institute has described these new school accountability systems as compatible with the Every Child Succeeds Act, the US law governing K-12 education signed in late 2015. The act requires states to include at least one non-academic measure when monitoring school performance. It therefore permits states to focus to a greater degree that previous acts on concepts such as competency-based and personalized learning, and promotes the role of the educational technology sector in supporting such changes. ClassDojo has been described in a commentary as an ideal educational technology to support the new law.

The ClassDojo website also suggests that its behaviour points system can be aligned with PBIS. PBIS stands for Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports and is an initiative of the US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs. Its aim is to support the adoption of the ‘applied science’ of Positive Behavior Support in schools and emphasizes social, emotional and academic outcomes for students. Through both its connections with the non-cognitive learning policy agenda and PBIS, ClassDojo has been positioned, and located itself, in relation to major political agendas about school priorities. It is in this sense an indirect technology of government that can help schools to support students’ non-cognitive learning. In turn, those schools are increasingly been held accountable for the development and effective measurement of those qualities.

ClassDojo is, in other words, a bit-part player in emerging policy networks that are changing the priorities of education policy to focus on the management and measurement of children’s personal qualities rather than academic attainment alone. Such changes are being brought about through processes of ‘fast policy’ as Jamie Peck and Nik Theodore describe it, where policy is a thoroughly distributed achievement of ‘sprawling networks of human and nonhuman actors’ that include web sites, practitioner communities, guru per­formances, evaluation scientists, think tanks, consultants, blogs, and media channels and sources, as well as the more hierarchical influence of centres of political authority. As both an organization and a platform, ClassDojo acts indirectly as a voice and a technology of networked fast policy in the educational domain, particularly as a catalyst and an accelerant that translates the priorities of government around non-cognitive learning and character development into classroom practice.

Markets, finances & investment
ClassDojo is part of a significant growing marketplace of educational technologies. The new Every Child Succeeds Act gives states in the US much more flexibility to spend on ed-tech, which has been growing as a sector at extraordinary rates in recent years. Some enthusiastic assessments suggest that global education technology sector spending was $67.8bn in 2015, part of a global e-learning market worth $165bn and estimated to reach $243.8bn by 2022.

This marketplace is being supported vigorously in Silicon Valley, where most investments are made, particularly through networks of venture capital firms and entrepreneurs and business ‘incubator’ and ‘accelerator’ programs dedicated to supporting startup ed-tech companies to go to scale. ClassDojo was developed as a working product through the Imagine K12 accelerator program for education technology startups in Silicon Valley. When ClassDojo emerged from its beta phase in 2013, it announced that it had further secured $1.6million in investment from venture capital sources from Silicon Valley. It raised another $21million in venture funding in spring 2016. Its investors include over 20 venture capital companies and entrepreneurial individuals, including Tim Brady from Imagine K12 (now merged with Y Combinator, a leading Silicon Valley Startup accelerator), General Catalyst Partners, GSV Capital and Learn Capital, ‘a venture capital firm focused exclusively on funding entrepreneurs with a vision for better and smarter learning.’ Learn Capital has invested in a large number of ed-tech products in recent years and is a key catalyst of the growth of the sector; its biggest limited partner is Pearson, the world’s biggest edu-business, which links ClassDojo firmly into the global ed-tech market. Many of ClassDojo’s investors also sit on the ClassDojo board.

Investment in ClassDojo has followed the standard model for startup funding in Silicon Valley. It first received seed funding from Imagine K12 and others, before securing Series A investment in 2013 and Series B in 2016. While seed funding refers to financial support for startup ideas, Series A funding is used to optimize a product and secure its user base, and Series B is about funding the business development, technology, support, and other people required for taking a business beyond its development stage. Sometime after 2016, ClassDojo will look to scale fast and wide through Series C funding—investment at this stage can reach hundreds of millions of dollars.

The ClassDojo success story for classroom practitioners and school leaders is therefore reflected and enabled by its success as a desirable product of venture capital funding, all of it framed by a buoyant marketplace of ed-tech development and finance. This marketplace is also itself framed and supported by specific kinds of discourses of technological disruption and solutionism. Many Silicon Valley companies and entrepreneurs have latched on to the education sector in recent years, seeing it in terms of problems that might be solved through technological developments and applications. Greg Ferenstein has noted that many Silicon Valley startup founders and their investors ‘believe that the solution to nearly every problem is more innovation, conversation or education,’ and therefore ‘believe in massive investments in education because they see it as a panacea for nearly all problems in society.’ The marketplace in which ClassDojo is located, therefore, is framed by a discourse that emphasizes the importance of fixing education systems and institutions in order to make them into effective mechanisms for the production of innovative problem-solving people.

Expert knowledge & discourse
As already noted above in relation to ClassDojo’s connections to education policy agendas, an emerging educational discourse is that of personal qualities and character education. ‘Education goes beyond just a test score to developing who the student is as a person—including all the character strengths like curiosity, creativity, teamwork and persistence,’ its co-founder and chief executive Sam Chaudhury has said. ‘There’s so much research showing that if you focus on building students’ character and persistence early on, that creates a 3 to 5 times multiplier on education results, graduation rates, health outcomes. It’s pretty intuitive. We shouldn’t just reduce people to how much content they know; we have to develop them as individuals.’

Underpinning the policy shift to character development of which ClassDojo plays a small bit-part are particular forms of expertise and disciplinary knowledge. The particular forms of expertise to which ClassDojo is attached are those of the psychological sciences, neuroscience and the behavioural sciences, in particular as they have been translated into the discourse of character education, grit, resilience and so on. One of the key voices in this emerging discourse is Paul Tough, author of a book about educating children with ‘grit,’ who has mapped out some of the networks of psychological, neuroscientific and economics experts contributing their knowledge and understandings to this field,  including names such as Angela Duckworth and Carol Dweck.

Duckworth and Dweck are both directly cited by ClassDojo’s founders as key influences, alongside other ‘thought leaders’ such as James Heckman, and Doug Lemov. Heckman is a Nobel prize-winning economist noted for his work on building character. Lemov is a former free-market advocate of the charter schools movement and author of the popular Teach Like a Champion. Duckworth has her own named psychological lab where she researches ‘personal qualities’ such as ‘grit’ and ‘self-control’ as dimensions of human character. The relationship between ClassDojo and Carol Dweck’s concept of ‘growth mindsets’ is the most pronounced. In January 2016, ClassDojo announced a partnership with the Project for Education Research That Scales (PERTS), an applied research center at Stanford University led by Dweck that has become the intellectual home of the theory of growth mindsets.

Dweck has argued that teachers can ‘engender a growth mind-set in children by praising them for their persistence or strategies (rather than for their intelligence), by telling success stories that emphasize hard work and love of learning, and by teaching them about the brain as a learning machine.’ Notably, Dweck’s PERTS lab itself has a close relationship with Silicon Valley, where the growth mindsets concept has been popularized as part of a recent trend in behavior-change training programs designed to enable valley workers to to ‘fix personal problems.’ Dweck herself has presented the concept at Google and other PERTS staff have advisory roles in Silicon Valley companies. The growth mindset concept is, therefore, closely aligned with the wider governmental behaviour change agenda associated with behavioural economics. Governments have long sought to use psychological and behavioural insights into citizens’ behaviours as the basis for designing policies and services that are intended to modify their future behaviours. ClassDojo seeks to accomplish this goal within schools by nudging children to change their behaviours at exactly the same time that schools are being encouraged to measure students’ non-cognitive social-emotional skills.

The partnership between ClassDojo and PERTS takes the form of a series of short animations on the ‘Big Ideas’ section of the ClassDojo website that help explain the growth mindsets idea for teachers and learners themselves. They present the brain as a malleable ‘muscle’ that can constantly grow and adapt as it is put to the task of addressing challenging problems. The presentation of the brain as a muscle in ClassDojo is part of the recent popularization of recent neuroscience concepts of ‘neuroplasticity,’ where the brain is seen as constantly adapting to the social environment. Rather than being seen as a structurally static organ, the brain has been reconceived as dynamic, with new neural pathways constantly forming through adaptation to environmental stimuli. The videos are basically high-production updates of instructional resources previously developed by Dweck and disseminated through her Mindset Works spin-out company. ClassDojo approached Dweck about adapting these materials, and the videos were produced by ClassDojo with input from PERTS. The ClassDojo website claims that ’15 million students are now building a growth mindset’–this figure is presumably based on web analytics of the numbers of schools in which the videos have been viewed–while at the time of writing in September 2016 the ClassDojo Facebook page was promoting ‘Growth Mindset Month’ .

ClassDojo is increasingly aligned with psychological and behavioral norms associated with growth mindsets, both by teaching children about growth mindsets through its Big Ideas videos and, through the app, by nudging children to conduct themselves in ways appropriate to the development of such a growth-oriented character. In this sense, ClassDojo is perfectly aligned with the controversial recent federal law which allows states to measure the performance of schools on the basis of ‘non-academic’ measures, such as students’ non-cognitive social-emotional skills, personal qualities, and growth mindsets. This governmental agenda sees children themselves as a problem to be fixed through schooling. Its logic is that if children’s non-cognitive personal qualities, such as character, mindset and grit, can be nudged and configured to the new measurable norm, then many of the problems facing contemporary schools will be solved.

The close relationship between ClassDojo, psychological expertise and government policy is indicative of the extent to which the ‘psy-sciences’ are involved in establishing the norms by which children are measured and governed in schools—a relationship which is by no means new, as Nikolas Rose has shown, but is now rapidly being accelerated by psy-based educational technologies such as ClassDojo. A science of mental measurement infuses ClassDojo, as operationalized by its behavioural points system, but it is also dedicated to an applied science of mental modification, involved in the current pursuit of the development of children as characters with grit and growth mindsets. By changing the language of learning to that of growth mindsets and other personal qualities, ClassDojo and the forms of expertise with which it is associated are changing the ways in which children may be understood and acted upon in the name of personal improvement and optimization.

ClassDojo is prototypical of how education is being reshaped in a ‘platform society.’ This sociotechnical survey of the ClassDojo assemblage provides some sense of its messy complexity as an emerging public sphere platform that has attained substantial success and popularity in education. Approached as a sociotechnical assemblage, ClassDojo is simultaneously a technical platform that serves a variety of practical, pedagogical and social functions; an organizational mosaic of engineers, marketers, product managers and other third party providers and partners; the subject of a wider regulatory environment and also a bit-part actor in new policy networks; the serious object for financial investment in the ed-tech marketplace; and a mediator of diverse expert psychological, neuroscientific and behavioural scientific knowledges and discourses pertaining to contemporary schooling and learning.

Like any digital assemblage, ClassDojo is mutating and evolving in response to the various elements that co-constitute it. As policy discourse shifts, ClassDojo follows suit–as its shift to embrace growth mindsets and its positioning in relation to policy discourses of character and positive behaviour support demonstrate. It is benefiting financially from a currently optimistic ed-tech marketplace, which is itself now being supported politically via the Every Child Succeeds Act. Its engineering blog also demonstrates how the technical platform of ClassDojo is changing as new code and algorithms become available, while its privacy policies are constantly being updated as data privacy regulation pertaining to children becomes an increasing priority and a concern–as it demonstrated in its response to a critical New York Times article in 2014. ClassDojo is not being ‘scaled up’ in a simple and linear manner, but messily and contingently, through a relational interweaving of human actions and nonhuman technologies, materials, policies, and technical standards.

Given its rapid proliferation globally into the practices of over 3 million teachers and the classroom experiences of over 35 million children in 180 countries, ClassDojo can accurately be described as a public sphere platform that is interfering in how teaching and learning take place. It is doing so according to psychological forms of expertise and governmental priorities, supported by financial instruments and organizations, and is being enacted through a technical infrastructure of devices and platforms and a human infrastructure of entrepreneurs, engineers, managers, and other experts, as well as the users who incorporate it into their own practices and extend it through the creation of user-generated content and materials. As it continues to scale and mutate, it deserves to be the focus of much further in-depth analysis. This work-in-progress has surveyed ClassDojo to point to possible future lines of inquiry into the reshaping of education in a platform society.

Images from ClassDojo media assets
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14 Responses to Assembling ClassDojo

  1. Jamie Manolev says:

    Another wonderfully insightful piece on ClassDojo. Fascinating to read about the links with policy and expert knowledge. Thank you Ben!

  2. leonie haimson says:

    An error here- ESSA does not require that states measure schools in terms of student socio- emotional skills. It requires that states include one non- academic factor that can include a wide range of data, for example, attendance, teacher experience, the provision of arts, class size, or a combination of factors. This may include student socio- emotional skills but certainly doesn’t mandate this.

    • Thanks for clarifying this. I hadn’t meant to imply that ESSA mandated measurement of social-emotional skills (I know that this is being proposed and trialled in California, with some controversy) so have revised those sentences a little.

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  4. Interested says:

    I am curious about the disingenuous marketing and ‘flooding’ of the internet with soft-science and superficial positive commentary regarding ClassDojo, and welcome more in depth analysis of its constituents and mechanisms. Even the term ‘Class Dojo’ was appropriated from previous systems, which it has obliterated. Children are being hooked on their – inanimate, contentless, cute – avatars, before teachers, let alone parents, are fully informed of the extent and nature of influence they are signed up for. The avatars are hugely appealing and addictive to young children. Deletion or reversal of the platform once the children are hooked, creates more classroom angst than it is worth to teachers and parents, and is very disruptive. If individual parents want to opt out, it creates a difficult and strained dynamic that goes three ways – parent, teacher, child, and the child can misinterpret ‘blame’ for that. The news and class activity portion cannot uncoupled from the behavioural data, unless the teacher has opted not to use behavioural points at all. Deletion of points only occurs in a sliding manner, day by day, 12 months after an account is inactive, meaning if a child is inadvertently reregistered even at just under a 24 month interval as could easily happen as children move from class to class and school to school with no policy for parent consent, some data is retained, maximising data coup from those who would attempt to opt out. I do not think any of this was accidental, or the platform would have designed around these issues and created more options. They are after behavioural data.

    This is quite apart from:
    1. Any argument that behavioural pointscoring/public comparison or competition of points is a positive system or may have significant drawbacks. Such as undermining the hitherto highly accepted goal of intrinsic motivation.
    2. Individual child variations which would result in negative outcomes from such a system.
    3. The issue that child psychology is one discipline and paradigm, with useful insights but also with intrinsic motivation to self-justify (see all the acronym-D’s)
    4. Concerns regarding reinforcement of high-stakes reward systems on early brain development toward addictive behaviours.
    5. The creation of a workforce or population that responds to said inorganic, contentless, cute avatar-symbols and the potential for social manipulation outside of schools.
    6. The attractiveness of the generated data to big pharma has already been mentioned. Such data, particularly regional data, would also be attractive to big commercial corporations and the military, for store-location, marketing, and recruitment campaigns.
    7. The doughnut charts – what are they? They are not statistical charts, they cannot be pie charts – they are cartoon symbols of incomplete and highly subjective data sets, and should not be shown to children as they masquerade as something scientific and objective, but are in no way so.
    8. Similar to ClassDojo, and
    9. Why do we need it? It protesteth too much.

  5. Interested says:

    Also, the privacy compliances ClassDojo is so very proud of, seem more in line with contact-detail privacy requirements (which should certainly apply) than with research/data collection ethical requirements (which should also certainly apply) mandating informed consent from the subjects even for use of deidentified data. This becomes more complex where the subjects are minors, and both the immediate and the distant future contexts in which the analyses might be used and impact on the subjects are difficult to comprehensively predict.

    And, why in searching for responses from the general public to ClassDojo, is there a dearth or demotion of critical ones post-2014, particularly with the immediate, rhetorically sound, yet in logic and content weak and somewhat simplistic, response mounted by ClassDojo to the NYT article (which did nothing to assuage my concerns and set my antennae for motive singing). Is this quietness a quirk (euphamism) of the search engines?

    Finally I apologise for two ‘intrinsic motivations’ in earlier response with another ‘motive’ just now. Dear oh dear.

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