At any given moment in the day, I am attached to my cellphone, my iPad or my computer. As a writer, I was an early convert to the computer. I began writing on a TRS-80 from Radio Shack in 1983 on wonderful writing software called WordPerfect, which has mysteriously disappeared. I had two TRS-80s, because one of them was always in repair. I love the computer for many reasons. I no longer had to white out my errors; I no longer had to retype an entire article because of errors. My handwriting is almost completely illegible. The computer is a godsend for a writer and editor.
I have seen teachers who use technology to inspire inquiry, research, creativity and excitement. I understand what a powerful tool it is.
But it is also fraught with risk, and the tech industry has not done enough to mitigate the risks.
Risk One: The Threat to Student Privacy
Risk one is the invasion of student privacy, utilizing data by tech companies collected when students are online. The story of inBloom is a cautionary tale. Funded in 2014 with $100 million from the Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, inBloom intended to collect massive amounts of personally identifiable student data and use it to “personalize” learning to each student.
Parents became alarmed by the plan to put their children’s data into a cloud and mobilized in communities and states to stop inBloom. They were not nearly as impressed by the possibilities of data-driven instruction as the entrepreneurs promoting inBloom. The parents won. State after state dropped out, and inBloom collapsed.
Though inBloom is dead, the threat to student privacy is not. Every time a student makes a keystroke, an algorithm somewhere is collecting information about that student. Will his or her data be sold? The benefit to entrepreneurs and corporations is clear; the benefit to students is not at all clear.
Risk Two: The Proliferation of 'Personalized Learning'
Personalized learning, or “competency-based education,” are both euphemisms for computer adaptive instruction. Again, a parent rebellion is brewing, because parents want their children taught by a human being, not a computer. They fear that their children will be mechanized, standardized, subjected to depersonalized instruction, not “personalized learning.” While many entrepreneurs are investing in software to capture this burgeoning industry, there is still no solid evidence that students learn more or better when taught by a computer.
Risk Three: The Extensive Use of Technology for Assessment.
Technology is highly compatible with standardized testing, which encourages standardized questions and standardized answers. If the goal of learning is to teach creativity, imagination, and risk-taking, assessment should encourage students to be critical thinkers, not accepting the conventional wisdom, not checking off the right answer. Furthermore, the ability of computers to judge essays is still undeveloped and may remain so. Professor Les Perelman at MIT demonstrated that computer-graded essays can get high scores for gibberish and that computers lack the “intelligence” to reason or understand what matters most in writing.
Risk four: The Cyber Charter School
Most such virtual schools, or cyber charters, are operated for profit; the largest of them is a chain called K12 Inc., which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Its executives are paid millions of dollars each year. Its biggest initial investor was the junk bond king Michael Milken. Numerous articles in publications such as the New York Times and the Washington Post have documented high student attrition, low teacher wages, low student test scores and low graduation rates. Yet the company is profitable.
The most controversial school in Ohio is the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), whose owner makes political contributions to office-holders and has collected about $1 billion in taxpayer dollars since 2000. ECOT reputedly has the lowest graduation rate in the nation. The state of Ohio recently won a lawsuit requiring ECOT to return $60 million because of inflated enrollment figures. Studies of cyber charters have concluded that students learn very little when enrolled in them. There may be students who have legitimate reasons to learn at home online, but these “schools” should not receive the same tuition as brick-and-mortar schools that have certified teachers, custodians, libraries, the costs of physical maintenance, playgrounds, teams, school nurses and other necessities.
Risk Five: Money in Edtech
The tech industry wields its money in dubious ways to peddle its product. The market for technology is burgeoning, and a large industry is hovering around the schools, eager for their business. In November 2017, the New York Times published an expose of the business practices of the tech industry in Baltimore County. It documented payola, influence peddling and expensive wining and dining of school officials, which resulted in nearly $300 million of spending on computers that received low ratings by evaluators and that were soon obsolescent. This, in a district that has neglected the basic maintenance of some of its buildings.
The greatest fear of parents and teachers is that the tech industry wants to replace teachers with computers. They fear that the business leaders want to cut costs by replacing expensive humans with inexpensive machines, that never require health care or a pension. They believe that education requires human interaction. They prefer experience, wisdom, judgment, sensibility, sensitivity and compassion in the classroom to the cold, static excellence of a machine.
I agree with them.