code acts in education

The tech elite is making a power-grab for public education

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Ben Williamson

Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are linking public education into their growing networks of activity and influence. Image by Steve Jurvetson

 

In the same week that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced a major move into education provision, the FBI issued a stark warning about the risks posed to children by education technologies. These two events illustrate clearly how ed-tech has become a significant site of controversy, a power struggle between hugely wealthy tech entrepreneurs and those concerned by their attempts to colonize the education sector with their imaginaries and technologies. Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and other super-wealthy Silicon Valley actors, are forming alternative visions and approaches to education from pre-school through primary and high schooling to university. They’re the new power-elite of education and their influence is spreading.

I’ve previously written about the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and venture capitalists making a power-grab for the education sector. Benjamin Doxtdator has also written brilliantly about their rewriting of the history of public education as a social problem requiring urgent correction for the future. Here I just want to compile some recent developments of Silicon Valley intervention at each stage of education, to illustrate the growing scale of their influence as they continue linking public education into their networks of technical development.

The Amazon pre-school network
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced via a letter on Twitter his plans to invest $2billion in support for homeless families and a ‘network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools’. The ‘Academies Fund’ will create ‘Montessori-inspired’ preschools through a new organization to ‘learn, invent and improve’ based on ‘the same set of principles that have driven Amazon’. Most notably, Bezos added, ‘the child will be the customer’ in these schools, with a ‘genuine, intense customer obsession’.

While many will admire the philanthropic efforts of the world’s richest man to support early years education, the idea of Amazon-style pre-schools that see children as customers problematically positions education as a commercialized service in ‘personalized learning’. Bezos is not the first tech sector entrepreneur to announce or invest in pre-schooling, and as Audrey Watters commented,

The assurance that ‘the child will be the customer’ underscores the belief – shared by many in and out of education reform and education technology – that education is simply a transaction: an individual’s decision-making in a ‘marketplace of ideas. … This idea that ‘the child will be the customer’ is, of course, also a nod to ‘personalized learning’…. As the customer, the child will be tracked and analyzed, her preferences noted so as to make better recommendations to up-sell her on the most suitable products.

The image of data-intensive startup pre-schools with young children receiving ‘recommended for you’ content as infant customers of ed-tech products is troubling. It suggests that from their earliest years children will become targets of intensive datafication and consumer-style profiling. As Michelle Willson argues in her article on algorithmic profiling and prediction of children, they ‘portend a future for these children as citizens and consumers already captured, modelled, managed by and normalised to embrace algorithmic manipulation’.

Primary Spaces
Primary schooling has been a strong focus for Silicon Valley for several years. Notable examples include Mark Zuckerberg’s The Primary School and Max Ventilla’s Altschool, two of the most high-profile startup schools to embed personalized learning technologies and approaches within the whole pedagogic apparatus. Less is known about Ad Astra, the hyper-exclusive private school project set up by Tesla boss Elon Musk within his SpaceX headquarters, although it too emphasizes students pursuing personal projects, problem-solving, and STEM subjects.

Elon Musk’s Ad Astra school is located in the HQ of Space X. Image by Steve Jurvetson

However, the globally-popular ed-tech company ClassDojo recently announced a partnership with Ad Astra to create new content for primary school age children. Building on the success of its previous content partnerships on ‘growth mindset’ and ‘empathy’, ClassDojo has worked with Ad Astra to create a set of resources focused on ‘conundrums’ that involve ‘open-ended critical thinking and ethics challenges’. The resources are not intended to be used at Ad Astra itself, but will be released to teachers and schools later in 2018.

The ClassDojo partnership means that Ad Astra’s focus on problem-solving and ethical challenges will be mobilized into classrooms at potentially huge scale. ClassDojo already claims millions of users, and is fast expanding as a major social media platform and content platform for primary schools in many countries. The conundrums ClassDojo and Ad Astra have created pose problems that are considered foundational to ‘building liberal society’. This suggests that the kind of ‘liberal society’ assumed by entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk is a vision to be pursued through the mass inculcation of children’s critical thinking and problem-solving.

Given that Musk, like Amazon’s Bezos, is also investing in space exploration, their efforts in young children’s education raise significant questions about what kind of future world and liberal society they are imagining and seeking to build. What kind of child are they trying to construct to take part in a future society that, for Bezos and Musk, may well be distributed into space?

Super High Schools
High schools are the focus for Laurene Powell Jobs’ XQ Super School project, which is a ‘community of people mobilizing America to reimagine public high school’. The project previously awarded philanthropic funding through a competition to 18 US high schools, including Summit School, one of a chain sponsored by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

XQ Super School is not just a competition though—it is seeking to produce a glossy blueprint for the future of public high school itself in its new guise as a ‘community’ or ‘network’ of reform. Its updated website features a variety of resources, videos, guidance, partnership opportunities and other materials to stimulate imaginative thought across the education sector. It also now features highly developed learner goals for schools to aspire to, including problem-solving, collaboration, invention, and the cultivation of ‘growth mindset’–mindset being the preferred success-psychology of Silicon Valley right now, and itself developed and propagated from Stanford University, itself the original academic home of many of the valley’s most successful entrepreneurs.

XQ Super School marketing. Image from XQ Super School

It is easy to view XQ Super School as a commercial takeover of public education. Perhaps more subtly, though, what XQ are others are accomplishing is a reimagining of high school through the cultural lens of Silicon Valley. These entrepreneurs are pursuing a future vision based on their own politics, their own psychological theories, and their own discourse—of community, of problem-solving, of invention, of growth mindset—and propelling it into the remaking of public education at large.

Intelligent Universities
The contemporary university is also being reimagined by the tech power-elite. Peter Thiel—the co-founder of PayPal alongside Elon Musk—for example, established the Thiel Fellowship as an alternative to higher education for ambitious young technology entrepreneurs. Higher education itself has become the target for a massive growth in the educational technology market, part of what David Berry terms the new ‘data-intensive university’.

The social media platform LinkedIn has become one of the most significant players in the data-intensive HE market. Since being acquired by Microsoft for more than $26bn in 2016, Janja Komljenovic argues that LinkedIn is increasingly targeting the HE sector with particular features that are generated explicitly for students, graduates and universities. These features include student profiles, university branded pages, and the capacity for students to search universities based on graduate career outcomes.

According to Komljenovic, ‘LinkedIn moves beyond the passivity of advertising to its users towards actively structuring digital labour markets, in which it strategically includes universities and its constituents’, and argues that it is using its ‘qualification altmetrics’ to build ‘a global marketplace for skills to run in parallel to, or instead of university degrees’.

In this sense, LinkedIn is fundamentally transforming and challenging HE by making students and universities into ‘prosumers’ in ‘data markets’, where ‘the data they produce is monetised and repackaged to become governing devices for their own sector’, and is reframing ‘meanings in the HE sector about quality of universities and degrees; graduates and their diplomas; and skills in relation to employability’. As such, increasingly LinkedIn’s algorithms hold potential to match individuals, skills and jobs as gaps are revealed in labour markets, and appear to challenge the project of higher education to become more outcomes- and skills-focused as a result.

The 2018 higher education technology landscape. Infographic by Eduventures

Amazon, too, is seeking position in higher education. It recently announced that it was installing Amazon Echo Dot devices in all student dormitories at St Louis University as part of its Alexa for Business offering. The move, it was reported, is ‘among the largest smart speaker deployments at a university and could help Amazon to establish smart speakers and the voice interface as typical among younger users’.

Beyond its clear business goals, with the partnership Amazon is marking the entrance of AI into HE, with Alexa becoming an automated student experience assistant. It is hard to imagine that Alexa won’t have a place in Jeff Bezos’s preschool network too, not least as voice assistants may make a better interface than screens with children who have yet to learn to read or write. Amazon is entering public education at both preschool and postsecondary phases, with massive implications for institutions, staff and students of all ages.

The FBI and the ‘ed-techlash’
The tech elite now making a power-grab for public education probably has little to fear from FBI warnings about education technology. The FBI is primarily concerned with potentially malicious uses of sensitive student information by cybercriminals. There’s nothing criminal about creating Montessori-inspired preschool networks, using ClassDojo as a vehicle to build a liberal society, reimagining high school as personalized learning, or reshaping universities as AI-enhanced factories for producing labour market outcomes–unless you consider all of this a kind of theft of public education for private commercial advantage and influence.

The FBI intervention does, however, at least generate greater visibility for concerns about student data use. The tech power-elite of Zuckerberg, Musk, Thiel, Bezos, Powell Jobs, and the rest, is trying to reframe public education as part of the tech sector, and subject it to ever-greater precision in measurement, prediction and intervention. These entrepreneurs are already experiencing a ‘techlash‘ as people realize how much they have affected politics, culture and social life. Maybe the FBI warning is the first indication of a growing ‘ed-techlash’, as the public becomes increasingly aware of how the tech power-elite is seeking to remake public education to serve its own private interests.

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