By Nanak Hikmatullah
In November 2018, around 100 high school students in Brooklyn, New York, walked out of their classes, protesting against the adoption of an online programme by Facebook. They complained that the programme made them stare at a screen for so long. They also considered the learning unproductive as they had to teach themselves. Under the idea of personalised and self-directed learning, the teachers barely taught them.
Students from Brooklyn during the protest. Image from New York Post
During the Covid-19 pandemic, as teaching and learning have moved online, the usage of surveillance tools has expanded. Minneapolis Public Schools decided to deploy a monitoring programme called Gaggle to safeguard students who study online. The software monitors student accounts and writing for phrases that signal students in danger, like bullying, self-harm, suicide, or sadness. The software then reports the findings to school administrators. The software also highlighted terms relevant to the LGBTQ community, including lesbian, gay, and transgender. As a result, one student’s sexual orientation was made known to their parents without the student’s consent after the software found such words in their writing.
In fall 2020, a student at Miami University was retaliated against by the CEO of a proctoring company after posting on Twitter about their software as intrusive surveillance. The software, Proctorio, monitors students’ eye and head movements, noise in the room, and mouse movements. This is not the first time the company has tried to silence those speaking up about the software’s danger. A Canadian university’s learning technology specialist was sued after writing about Proctorio’s intrusive algorithms and having his research removed from social media.
These are only a few examples of how edtech integration in schools can put students in danger rather than protecting them.
Why does this issue keep happening? Why do students have to suffer if it is for their benefit?
One explanation is that students are rarely involved in deciding which tool to use in schools. To borrow the term from Brazilian educator Paolo Freire, the current edtech integration illustrates the digital banking concept of treating children as empty vessels. When only adults get to decide what is best for students, it symbolises adult hegemony (i.e., school administrators and district officials).
What is worth noting is that this hegemony also amplifies the neoliberal ideology. School leaders have enabled digital corporations to influence school culture through their offerings. Today, education has evolved into a lucrative gold-mining industry
Neoliberalism and Edtech Integration
The idea that technology will save the day and improve learning in classrooms has historically been the driving force behind its integration into educational settings. Many tech firms promote their products and services heavily in an effort to improve learning. They employ buzzwords like “effective,” “efficient,” “productive,” “exciting,” and “inexpensive” to entice school systems, governments, and the general public.
This promotion is part of a long history of attempts by tech giants to infiltrate and influence the educational sector. Take a look at how the three machines—film and radio, TV, and computers—were promoted during the 1920s to 1980s. The phrase “education through the eye and textbook of the air” was used to describe film and radio, as if printed textbooks and teachers’ eyes were inadequate. The teaching profession was denigrated by the claim that TV provided a “richer education at a lower cost.” It was once thought that computers would revolutionise education, making teachers’ skills and experience obsolete in favor of this device.
The fact that tech corporations frequently prioritise profits over improving learning has been left out of the conversation. Education is considered a multibillion-dollar industry with schools as its customers. A major digital business like Google, for instance, gains over $30 million promoting and selling its products to schools in Chicago alone. The privacy of students is compromised in the effort to automate education. Google has been accused of stealing data for its own gain. They gather student online usage data, analyse it, and use it to create new products.
In another case, a video conferencing application called Zoom received a backlash for failing to protect its users from racial, gender, and offensive Zoombombs. Zoom’s revenue grew significantly during the pandemic, but they overlooked the tool’s security and privacy.
Moreover, technology use without public supervision could alter education’s goal. For instance, the widespread use of Google products adds to this transition by emphasising skill development to succeed in the job. To borrow the terms from Labaree (1997), Google changed the purpose of education from democratic equality (preparing just citizens) to social efficiency (creating skilled workers). While not wholly futile, too much focus on skills development will turn education into a means of social mobility. Education becomes a platform for social position competition within the context of this purpose. Longer term, it reinforces the current socioeconomic pyramid, which places more capable and wealthy people at the top while historically marginalised groups of students remain at the base.
Between Schools, Technology Administrators, and Teachers
Why are students being left out of the decision-making process?
Answering this question requires an understanding of the complexity of tech integration. Edtech integration is not always an agreeable process but involves differing assumptions and contestation among educational stakeholders. It reflects the power structure within the organisation of schools. Kimmons identifies four areas where school boards, technology administrators, and teachers differ in their attitudes toward technology. These are proof, facility, compliance, and institutionalisation. These differing beliefs impact which technology to adopt.
Proof is the efficiency and efficacy of technology in helping students learn. This area should be measurable and evident in students’ learning outcomes. If technology fails to improve learning, it is not worth the investment. Proof is important for school boards and teachers, although they may view it slightly differently. While teachers only need to know how it works in the classroom and how it saves them time, school boards might prefer more conclusive data.
The second area is facility, how easy it is for the technology to be learned, implemented, and managed. This area is vital for teachers because they want tools that are easy to learn. They tend to avoid tools that are hard to use because they might not be willing to devote the time and effort necessary to master them.
If the two areas above deal with the pragmatic use of technology, the third area, compliance, deals with technology’s legal and ethical requirements. Tech administrators value this area because it ensures the technology is safe and legal. School administrators and teachers tend to overlook this aspect or consider it after its use. In addition, not all schools have tech administrators to oversee this aspect. In smaller schools or schools with inadequate resources, compliance is often neglected.
Institutionalisation is the last area that addresses the longer-term expenses related to technology, such as cost, durability, and infrastructure compatibility. This aspect is important for tech and school administrators. They need to ensure that the tool is durable and that its maintenance is affordable.
The framework demonstrates how students’ involvement in technology adoption is disregarded. Because their voices are ignored, students are frequently the victims of this hegemony. The usage of monitoring software is a clear example of what is best according to schools is not necessarily best for students.
What, then, can we do?
Student’s participation in the tech adoption is crucial because they are the intended audience for the integration. The success and efficacy of a tech tool depend on their roles. No matter how sophisticated the technology is, if students do not embrace it, it will not help them learn.
As such, they should have a voice in what technology schools will use and how it will benefit them. They need to see eye-to-eye with the word “benefit” and help identify the tool that meets their needs. A way to do this is to increase the number of participatory youth actions in technology adoption for schools and society.
In his study on youth-produced documentaries about technology, Charles Logan provides an excellent example of such a movement. They investigated how social media and surveillance technology were used in society. In her Data Justice Academy, Claudia Scholz engaged undergraduate students in a dialogue on using technology to advance a more just technology. By looking into how technology is used during the immigration process, undergraduate students from Princeton University’s Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab launched a critical perspective on technology use. UMass Amherst students created Responsible Technology Coalition, an interdisciplinary organisation to promote ethical and accountable technology.
At school levels, teachers can start embedding information literacy and critical media literacy into their curriculum. This way, students are encouraged to be more than just tech consumers but also investigators. They will be able to examine the ideology and power relations behind media ownership, production, and distribution. Most importantly, students will become more critical of tech use at home, schools, and society, and how it impacts both their own and others’ well-being. They will be able to ask the following questions:
- What technology do they use, and how does it impact their lives?
- Which technology is used in their schools? Who gets to decide on the adoption? Who benefits from the integration? What are the unintended consequences of this technology?
- What technology do the government and other public sectors use? Who benefits from the integration? What are the unintended consequences of this technology?
- What kinds of future of technology do they envision? What roles do they have in promoting just technology?
The growth in youth participation in technology adoption might not be enough to build a just future. Not until the adults at our schools value their voices. Until then, we might see another episode of intrusive surveillance or other “abusive” technology being used in schools.