May 30, 2021

Velislava Hillman: EdTech in schools – a threat to data privacy?

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Velislava Hillman is a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, and she has some questions about the motivations of ed tech companies.

Essentially, it doesn’t matter what edtech businesses want from and for schools. What matters is how their business decisions affect education, children and their futures. Edtech businesses create powerful narratives that their products will fix education’s problems. They generously reimagine education through the prism of their products. But edtech businesses offer a hidden pedagogy of oppression, whose ‘generosity’, as the great education critic Paulo Freire argues, “begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes of the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism”.

The interests are expressed in ‘what makes business sense’ and end with the endless opportunities provided by the collected data. For example, in CaliforniaTennesseeVirginia and other states in the US, students’ Google Chromebooks came with a pre-installed software called Gaggle (a ‘proactive approach to suicide prevention’), which scans student coursework and behaviour to detect signs of depression. Students can’t avoid the surveillance if they want to have access their Google Classroom material. The benefits of having the devices and access to schooling therefore comes at a cost which the student does not have the choice to refuse.

Edtech companies thrive on digital data. Data in education increasingly influence decision making and change not only how the curriculum is designed (through data) but also who designs it (the agents that extract the data and their algorithms). Data create a new structural power, eliciting granular information about individuals and putting this in the hands of those that control the data systems. Data therefore can be seen as a pedagogic agency, which can override existing pedagogies and the very expertise of educators.

The function and business models of this new regime live off data, and data are generated and dependent on their main stakeholders – students. Students are the value source of edtech’s business model. Moreover, they are no longer seen as ‘human beings’ but data points. As Freire argues, an oppressor will see the oppressed only as ‘things’.

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