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The screens that ate school
It wasn’t sent to us, at least not directly, but we decided to pretend it had been. “As we often ask our children to do their best,” the principal at a state primary school in Melbourne’s west had written in the second week of April, “we now ask that of our parents. But please do not let it become too overbearing or too difficult to the stage where it causes upset in the household – this does not assist anyone – child or parent.”
As my partner reads the letter, I watch the tension in his face ease. I also notice that his hair has greyed. Mine has too. We’re down to one income and even that has taken a battering. We’re rattled. Everyone is. For the first two weeks of lockdown I’d lie awake at night thinking of all the people and things I touched before I last saw my parents. WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE, was a refrain lodged in my head like a lewd joke.
“Ha,” my partner says, interrupting my thoughts.
He reads aloud: “Schools have been directed to provide students with up to five hours of study per day. Research and experience will tell us that a primary-school child is usually good for about 2–3 hours of study at home per day – and that is a good day.”
“That makes sense,” he says. I agree. The entire letter makes sense. It is also striking for its simplicity, unencumbered with reams of information, apps and portals, or the tap-dance of public relations that so many state schools seem compelled to produce. Instead, this principal tells families that, contrary to the hype, this is not homeschooling, it is “crisis schooling”, and to “never underestimate” the implicit learning and value in ordinary home life: baking, drawing, bike rides, board games. As my partner finishes reading, he looks as I imagine I did when I had first read it. Relieved, reassured. Grateful.
We hear the rattle of a metal fence, the thump of bricks and scrape of metal from the street, and my partner passes the phone back to me, disappearing out the front door. Our kids are breaking into the building site again. I re-read the letter and find myself blinking back tears. I don’t know why. I mean, I know these things. But it’s the last paragraph that really gets me.
“Having the kids home all day is often going to be difficult enough without having the burden of causing household disruptions because ‘you have to get your schoolwork done’. If there are times when you need to alter or change the program to make it better for everyone, please feel free to do so and together we can get the best out of a difficult time for us all.”
The tears spill over. And they annoy me in a way, the tears, because this was always our intention during the lockdown. Not to be snowballed by other people’s panic. To not only give the pandemic the pause it requires, but to do the same for each other. Then to hear a principal drawing on his own wisdom and experience, instead of department speech bubbles, telling families to take care without suggesting an app to fix it – well, it’s the nice things that often make you cry.
In the lead-up to Term 2 in the year of coronavirus, I asked parents of school-aged children, mainly from Australia’s largest school jurisdictions, New South Wales and Victoria, to forward me their schools’ learning plans and correspondence. The materials they sent included a wealth of links and logins to portals and platforms and free apps prepared for students – secondary, primary and even kindergarten. CISCO’s Webex Meetings, Mathletics, Epic!, Sound Waves, Google Classroom, Microsoft Teams, ClickView, Reading Eggs, Studyladder, ClassDojo, Sunshine Online, Seesaw, Adobe Connect, and so on. And in among the squall of usernames and passwords, there were emails with reoccurring phrases and headlines sometimes in capitals: DIGITAL LEARNING SPACES AT HOME. Digital Devices. INTERNET. Urgent Action Required. Synchronous Learning. Rapidly changing times. Remote, flexible. URGENT. Asynchronous Learning.
“So, do you know what you’re doing?” I asked a primary-school parent who’d received a particularly mountainous load of information.
“Nope – not a single thing,” she said.
In Australia, the Easter holidays were looming and most states held out closing schools until then, creating anxiety for thousands of teachers who felt their health was being compromised.
Then as the second term rounded the corner, confusion reigned. Schools were open nationwide. But they weren’t. Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged parents to send their children to school, while state premiers proffered different directives. Am I an “essential worker”? It became an almost existential query. If you’re a health worker, in emergency services, and so forth, said Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, then yes. But otherwise, no. Stay home.
In Victoria, at 9am, Wednesday, April 15, school began at home for most students. Astonishingly, and in spite of all the preceding correspondence, this was the same time many parents and carers were first made privy to what the day would involve. Bizarre, because most parents, particularly those of primary school–aged students, were required to deliver it.
Over the next fortnight the other states and territories began their learning from home programs.
“Maybe I’m an idiot,” one parent says to me, “but I hadn’t even thought about a printer … I don’t mind that we’re using worksheets, but they could have at least told us.” Or printed them out during the holidays and posted them, another parent suggests.
Some families, suddenly advocates for the vital role played by teachers, begin to demand that schools reopen, while others are surprised by the profoundly substandard lessons they have been supplied with.
“We’ve basically just been given a whole lot of YouTube links,” says a father of two girls, eight and 10. I am reminded of Karim Kai Ani, an American maths teacher and educator who’d noted dryly in The Washington Post in 2012, “Experienced educators are concerned that when bad teaching happens in the classroom, it’s a crisis; but that when it happens on YouTube, it’s a ‘revolution’.”
Other families have good reports. One maths teacher has dedicated the first week of learning at home to teaching problem-solving with a deck of cards, along with a few tricks as well, while another parent is pleased to see his 14-year-old is measuring up rooms in their home with a tape measure.
Still, the pressure of ensuring your children start Term 2 at home while you’re also working, or simply dealing with the fact your job just disappeared, seems overwhelming, if not a little ridiculous.
I speak to a mother trying to work from home with a seven-year-old. She’s livid. “At the start of every exercise, ----’s teacher has written ‘get mum to sit next to you for this’. The kid has a dad!”
A father tells me that after downloading the school’s chosen app and spending far too much time trying to log in, his six-year-old son is finally online. The class video for that day is a YouTube link on how to make paper airplanes.
A secondary teacher finds the virtual conversation she’d been in with her students uploaded to Instagram, the scenario digitally altered thanks to a “tech-savvy” 13-year-old student.
A parent with two children at a private primary school says they are in their uniform and at their devices by 8.50am without any help at all.
I call a primary teacher in Sydney to see how she is faring. When the realities of COVID-19 started to hit home, she and the older cohort of teachers were used as an example to colleagues at a staff meeting. The assistant principal alluded to their resistance to Seesaw, a social media app for schools. You’re in for a steep learning curve, he said.
It was last year, BC (Before COVID), when the permission slip came home in the Year 1 student’s book bag, rumpled by excited hands. The seven-year-olds at a state primary school in Melbourne’s south-east were going on an excursion! But Kelly (names have been changed to preserve anonymity), the boy’s mother, was confused. “Apple Store Permission”, the excursion slip began. The kids were going to the Apple Store at the local shopping centre. Of the six bullet-point items Kelly was asked to consent to, two stood out:
I hereby consent to any and all photographs, interviews or video taken of my child, and hereby grant to Apple the right to use, publish, duplicate, transmit, display or copyright my child’s image, interview or video for any reasonable purpose related to the program. I shall have no right of approval, no claim to additional compensation, no right to enjoin Apple’s rights hereunder or to otherwise seek injunctive relief and no claim (including defamation or invasion of privacy) for any use, alteration, distortion or illusionary effect.
Kelly had read the permission slip twice, then laid it flat on the table, took a photo with her phone and sent it to me. “He is not going,” she told me. “One of us will take the day off work and take him somewhere, like, I don’t know, the museum?”
Today the museum is closed. Almost everything is. Even fossicking at the rock pools at the beach isn’t an option.
We get a phone call from our six- and seven-year-olds’ primary school. They are automatically creating Google G Suite logins for students to use for document sharing and the like. If we want to opt out, they need to know now. My partner relays this to me, the school still on the line. We stare at each other, well aware not everyone is getting this phone call. We queried the school’s information and communications technology (ICT) policy at the beginning of the year, and requested to know what apps they’re using in class. We had decided not to sign all and sundry digital consent forms. It was a kind of hubris, I’ve learnt, and as COVID-19 brings the country to a standstill, I feel briefly chastened.
“Anna?” my partner says. Thoughts dart between us. It takes an immense quelling of anxiety. We opt out.
For an industry that reserves its highest regard for “disruption technology”, you could say COVID-19 has been the ultimate disrupter. According to Goldie Blumenstyk in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the global pandemic is edu-tech’s “black swan” moment, an “unforeseen event that changes everything”. It could be, she writes, more of a “catalyst for online education and other ed-tech tools than decades of punditry and self-serving corporate exhortations”.
It is curious, the way Blumenstyk words this. As if COVID-19, by being a genuine emergency and catalyst for remote learning, somehow redresses the stealth and all-in lobbying from the tech giants in the past decade. Because be it a black swan, a trojan horse or just a crappy time all round, it is possible that under the cover of this virus, almost every school student in Australia has been signed up to one or another private and opaque platform without much in the way of informed consent. It would be an understatement to say that the private vision for public education just got a few extra runs on the board.
At first, it was simply unease. That’s what parents tell me. A feeling that edu-tech was not what they had expected when their children began primary school. But then again, most figured, parenting is all about misguided assumptions and coming to terms with new realities. On this count, I agree: my children will eat three vegetables at dinner… well, make that two. Okay, one. Please? Still, parents’ unease about the sudden heavy presence of edu-tech in schooling lingered, but most assumed it was nothing a few queries to the school couldn’t clear up.
And that’s when the can of worms was opened.
Parents’ concerns varied. Among them were student privacy, informed consent, evidence-based pedagogy, the school’s own digital literacy capability and the sucking up of already limited funds. But they could all be paraphrased by a simple question: Who is deciding what tech is being used in class and on what basis?
The responses many parents received were similarly varied, but identical in their dismissiveness. Many schools inferred that querying parents were “anti-technology”; families found themselves awash with buzzwords such as “The Future is Digital”, “21st Century Skills”, “Personalised Learning”, “Enhanced Collaboration”, “Unleashing Your Child’s Creativity”, and so on. One parent tells me she felt like she was inside an Apple advertisement when she and her husband met with the assistant principal in charge of IT at their children’s primary school.
Other parents were sent jumbled answers via email, which they soon discovered had been copied and pasted from the internet.
At a primary school in Sydney’s north, Kate, a mother of two and a computer systems manager, organised to meet with the principal, assistant principal and a few other parents to discuss their concerns about the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy for Year 3. They arrived to find several others in attendance, including an employee from a private tech company.
It was, Kate says, far from reassuring.
Technology has long played a role in Australian education: from the hand-cranked mimeograph (a precursor to photocopiers) to the television, and from handheld calculators to PCs, stuttering printers, vast operating systems and “IT people”. Whiteboards replaced chalkboards and in the early 2000s interactive whiteboards began to replace whiteboards.
In 2007, laptops became part of the mix when the then prime minister, Kevin Rudd, announced the Digital Education Revolution, committing $2.4 billion over seven years. A national fund provided laptops loaded with Microsoft and Adobe software for all students in Year 9 and above, and further funds were divvied out to schools to access broadband, build infrastructure, buy hardware and develop their own ICT proficiency.
The revolution proved difficult, and critics accused the government of underfunding it and failing to think the scheme through.
Tablets first entered the educational fray in Rudd’s home state, Queensland, with the state education department’s chief information officer floating the possibility of using iPads before the device had even been launched. “When it [the iPad] becomes available in Australia,” David O’Hagan told The Australian, “the department … will conduct an evaluation to determine its suitability for teaching and learning as well as network compatibility.”
Predictably, the Digital Education Revolution’s budget blew out. It also failed to hit its marks, said critics. In 2016, John Vallance, then headmaster of Sydney Grammar School, told The Australian the billions of dollars spent on digital technology in schools over the previous seven years had been a “scandalous waste of money”.
“It didn’t really do anything,” Vallance said, “except enrich Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard and Apple. They’ve got very powerful lobby influence in the educational community.”
In 2014, when national funding for student devices was wound up, state-based BYOD policies were rolled out. Reporter Alexandra Smith wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald at the time, “While primary school students were asked to bring hand sanitiser, tissues and paper towel at the start of this year, public high school students were expected to turn up with their own iPad or laptop.”
Six years later, primary-school students are increasingly being asked to turn up to school with a digital device and a box of tissues, and many families – trusting the system – comply. But trust can erode.
Jacqueline, a mother of three, all at primary school in Sydney’s northern beaches, says her community is regularly called on to donate money and volunteer for fundraisers. In a relatively well-off area, the biannual school fete brings in about $80,000, and is delivered off the back of parents’ time and money.
“I enjoy it,” Jacqueline insists. But increasingly, as cuts are made to the school’s art and music programs, she is beginning to wonder where the money is going. She recalls walking past the school’s bin area, seeing five interactive whiteboards shoved into a skip. “They’d been bought three years prior,” she tells me, “and now they’re obsolete?”
“I don’t know how we could be [considered] dinosaurs,” says Steven of the parents at his daughter’s school who have come together to convince the principal to share more information and insight around the school’s digital policy.
“I love technology,” he says. He is a computer systems analyst. He adds, “I know this industry.”
Steven’s daughter attends a state primary in Melbourne’s north. He’d chosen the school for what he thought was a sensible digital and BYOD policy: laptops in Years 5 and 6 only.
But then, three weeks before Christmas in 2018, the school held a meeting for parents and carers, including those who would have children in prep the following year. “We sat in rows,” Steven recalls, “and the principal flipped incredibly quickly through a series of slides with impossibly small print. Basically, we were told that the school would be introducing a new BYOD policy: iPads, next year from prep.”
He laughs dryly. “I later found out this was their consultative process.”
From the way the principal was speaking, many parents at the meeting had come away thinking the BYOD policy was compulsory, Steven says. But he and others were pretty certain you couldn’t force parents to buy their children iPads. Steven consulted Victoria’s Department of Education and Training website and found the state’s policy on personal devices in schools.
“The ‘Personal Devices: Parent Payments and Access’ policy?” I ask.
“Yeah, that one.”
I have it on my desk. It states that schools must “not mandate that a parent purchase or lease a device based on the adopted program; [and must] advise parents that while the school has a preferred model, they can choose whether or not to purchase or lease the device”.
Only two Victorian parents I spoke to for this essay had seen this policy, and they’d had to scour the state department’s website for it.
Another parent, with a child at a primary school on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula, also uncovered the policy and posted it on the primary school’s Facebook page. It caused a furore as parents began to comment, saying they felt misled. The school soon shut down the forum.
At Steven’s school, armed with the policy, he and other parents asked for a follow-up meeting. “We had to force the principal to admit that it is optional,” he says.
It was a small win for accountability, but not really a win at all, he soon learnt. What the parents really wanted, Steven says, was evidence from valid sources to show how giving primary-school children, particularly preps, their own personal digital device was of educational benefit. Or, in lieu of any evidence, whether the school could explain why it was being so gung-ho.
He says they are still waiting to hear back.
So, Steven now knows he can opt out of buying his six-year-old an iPad. “But it’s not really a true opt-out,” he says. His daughter is simply given a school iPad to use, together with students whose families were unable to afford a digital device.
He could, he supposes, demand that she doesn’t get one of those either. “But would it matter?” he asks me. “Can you imagine how distracted she’d be by all the other iPads?”
The push began in America, in what is now known as the Googlefication of schools. The tech giants have long seen themselves in the education sector. In 1982, Apple’s “Kids Can’t Wait” campaign saw a concerted and ultimately failed pitch to the US Congress to pass a donation act that would allow tech companies to donate equipment to schools and deduct it from their taxes. Congress refused. But for the most part, tech seemed content to market itself from the outside. In 2012, Google took it up a notch.
Previously a minor contender, with much of the school market held by Apple and Microsoft, Google decided to go straight to the source, hawking its wares to teachers and principals, and bypassing department protocols and oversight. It set up Google Educator Groups – a teacher-accreditation program – and enlisted teachers and schools to “share” their newfound love of
Google’s products at conferences, symposiums and on social media.
Today, Google is a major source of devices in US schools – in 2015 it was revealed the default settings for Google’s Chromebook laptops provided to students collect data on web activity and send it to the company’s servers – but it wasn’t just the sales push that saw Google become an education powerhouse. It was the ace up Google’s sleeve: free giveaways.
G Suite for Education. This collection of easy-to-use, and useful, apps are still given away free to educators all around the world. The suite now boasts some 80 million users. Most education departments in Australia, while negotiating varying privacy agreements, pay nothing for G Suite, and nor do schools. In Victoria, parents are informed that G Suite is hosted by Google and offered to schools via the department under a “brokered model”, but the model is commercial-in-confidence.
The NSW education department, on the other hand, believes it has negotiated a sturdier student privacy agreement, although insiders largely credit this to timing – negotiations occurred alongside Google’s somewhat reluctant signature to the US-based “Student Data Privacy Pledge” in 2015.
The pledge has proven to be a farce. Industry-developed, it is self-regulated and loosely binding, and numerous tech companies have been exposed by activist groups as not complying. Regulation in the tech industry has largely come down to a decree that urges users to “trust them”. And often, when this trust is abused, it is put down to individuals not understanding the fine print of privacy agreements.
There is a certain naivety in this, a dopey, unproven optimism that the tech giants would play by the rules in the first place. Consider the discovery in 2010 that Google’s street-mapping vehicles, which had been traversing a dozen countries during a three-year period, had been equipped with sophisticated wi-fi “sniffing” software, secretly collecting names, addresses and snippets of personal data including passwords, emails, text messages, and audio and video files.
Google said the practice was a simple mistake, however a Federal Communications Commission inquiry in the US revealed this misstep to be far more complicated and intentional than the company implied.
In an earlier court hearing, an American federal judge had ruled that the tech giant could be sued under the Wiretap Act; however, the commission squashed this ruling, concluding instead that Google could not be found liable as the data it had intercepted had been flowing, unencrypted, over open radio waves. The regulatory body fined Google US$25,000, not for eavesdropping but for its initial stonewalling of the investigation.
The company announced it had discontinued the practice. Which raises the question: What other Google practices might not survive transparency?
“Google is walking a very fine line,” David B. Yoffie, a professor at the Harvard Business School, told NBC News in 2018. “Search, plus Android gives Google amazing insight into individual behavior. Google’s stated privacy policies seem adequate, but the question that I cannot answer is whether Google’s stated policy and actual behavior are one and the same. Facebook had a stated policy for the last three years which most of us found acceptable, until Cambridge Analytica came to light.”
The free G Suite also gives Google 80 million users, some of whom are being trained as Google consumers from infancy. A brand loyalty scheme, presented as an education revolution.
Kate tells me that she and other parents at the Sydney-based primary school ended up doing some digging and discovered their school had entered into an arrangement with Apple.
“It’s called,” she tells me, “the ‘Towards Transform—’”
“I know,” I say.
It was on my own children’s primary-school website: “2017 – Invited to participate in the distinguished Towards Transformation program.” No further explanation. The only reason it was on the website was because parents, including me, had asked to be better informed regarding the school’s digital policy. At first, I’d assumed it was an education department program. But after finding no reference to it on the many state education and curriculum online rabbit holes, I typed it into a search engine.
The program is a three-year affiliation that schools can renew indefinitely, with the aim of eventually becoming an “Apple Distinguished School”, of which there are presently 38 in Australia. To be eligible, schools must demonstrate certain commitments. This includes that the school implements a “one-to-one Mac or iPad program for students and faculty”; that all students use Apple devices as their primary learning device and all teachers use Apple devices as their primary teaching device; and that the school “deeply integrates” Apple apps including Photos, iMovie, GarageBand, Keynote and iBooks Author. Schools also need to ensure Apple’s own lesson plans and learning materials are incorporated in the school’s curriculum.
There are Microsoft state schools too, advancing through “Pathfinder” and “Mentor” status in the hope of being designated a “Microsoft Showcase School”. Adobe has a point-scoring program for principals and teachers to become “Adobe Campus Leaders” and “Adobe Education Leaders”, the latter requiring individuals to have established a sharing network beyond their own school.
“They paid for everything,” a digital educator tells me, unabashed, as he describes how Adobe bankrolled his accommodation, flights, meals – “the whole bit” – to attend education conferences and make presentations to teachers. It appears that Apple, Microsoft and Adobe have learnt from Google’s dominating tactics in the US education market.
When I learnt the real origins of the Apple program, as well as its many strings attached, I felt sick. The effect it had on the deeply ingrained trust I had in my children’s school was devastating. A friend – a secondary-school teacher of media, coding and digital arts – chuckles wryly when I tell him about it. He has worked at a range of schools from private and middle-class state schools through to struggle town. “Apple,” he says, “seems to largely appeal to schools with a middle- and upper-class demographic – their products are social capital, basically.”
In other words, my predicament is privileged.
“It’s still shit,” I say, and he agrees.
“I don’t have internet at home – I’ve never been able to afford it,” Melbourne dad David Robinson told the ABC in March, when it became clear a lockdown was imminent. Robinson and his family were looking down the barrel of remote learning without an internet connection, and he was convinced his two daughters, eight and 12 years old, would fall behind in their schooling. In the weeks since, the states have distributed digital devices, SIM cards and dongles to families such as the Robinsons to ensure they’re kept in touch with teaching programs.
It is a temporary bridge over what NSW’s Public Education Foundation executive director David Hetherington described on the ABC program as a “chasm”.
The digital divide, Hetherington said, is “bigger than most people think”.
Statistics prior to COVID-19 suggest that one out of six children were living in households below the poverty line, and the situation will be worse on the other side of this pandemic. And this, Mark Scott, the head of NSW education, tells me, is of great concern to his department. He explains that the education department recently invested in critical digital infrastructure in regional areas to improve broadband and wi-fi, and has funding to ensure that every school in the state has the ability to invest in technology.
All schools, says Scott, are well aware of what is expected of them. “Our curriculum expects a critical engagement with technology, and an ability to utilise its strengths but understand its challenges.” The guidelines are not intended to turn schools into “unblinking, unquestioning champions” of the tech companies.
The third-party relationships, Scott says, are monitored. When I ask how, he says it is done through feedback from schools and parents. This methodology, loosely echoed in state departments across the country, does not seem overly rigorous to me. While both the national ICT and digital technologies curriculums place enormous emphasis on students developing “computational” capabilities to collect, analyse and apply data (skills that can be taught unplugged as well as on a device), these same values don’t seem to resonate at a bureaucratic level.
Neither the NSW nor Victorian education departments have data on individual schools’ BYOD programs – no numbers on which schools have them, and in contract with which companies, for which devices and in which year levels. It seems like a neglectful oversight, but when I put this to a department bureaucrat in Victoria, he tells me the focus is on providing devices to schools in lower socioeconomic areas.
Scott reiterates this point. “I appreciate that some of the issues you’ve raised are that parents don’t want to be involved and how does that work,” Scott says tactfully. “As real for us is the question: What about kids at schools who don’t have these relationships?”
Again, there’s the inference of privilege. Having the agency to engage with the tech companies is a privilege. After our conversation, two thoughts tickertape through my head. First, if we have agency, then why do so many of the parents and teachers I speak to feel so helpless? Second, the digital divide doesn’t end by getting everyone on the internet. “The Rich See a Different Internet Than the Poor,” ran the headline on an article by Michael Fertik seven years ago in Scientific American, and if anything has changed since then, it’s that the segregation and division online has worsened.
Online, futures can be foreclosed.
Sure, wrote Fertik, there is the illusion of choice and control, but the internet is increasingly tailored and controlled by unseen hands. “Some laud this trend as ‘personalization’ – which sounds innocuous and fun, evoking the notion that the ads we see might appear in our favorite color schemes. What we are talking about, however, is much deeper and significantly more consequential.”
There can be consequences for the individual and also for democracy and its ongoing health. Data brokers don’t just trade with marketers, they trade with real-estate agents and landlords who want to investigate potential renters, with security groups and surveillance-software makers, with employers and employment agencies, with universities, credit agencies and insurers, and with political parties and their campaign consultants. The Cambridge Analytica saga revealed the extent to which the tech giants also trade with each other: Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Huawei, for instance, are among the hundreds of companies to have purchased profiles from Facebook.
Australia’s eSafety Commissioner promotes the American not-for-profit organisation Common Sense as a good resource for parents and educators. Like the “Student Data Privacy Pledge”, Common Sense was set up largely by the industry – its edu-tech investors included the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s Chan Zuckerberg Initiative – and many parents who raise privacy concerns with schools are directed to visit the Common Sense Media website. And why not? The site can provide good explanations of various apps and, through a review process, grades each one’s suitability. For example, Google Classroom is given an approval grade of 88 per cent for overall privacy.
Read on, though, and you’ll find that Google just scraped through on data collection at 50 per cent – and this is on an industry-backed site. Imagine the score that might be awarded by an independent resource.
Clearly, digital skills are vital, especially for lower socioeconomic families vulnerable to the ways in which data can be used against them. But by allowing tech giants to determine what constitutes the necessary digital skills, and to convey a shallow harm-free concept of privacy and thus ensure their massive profits, we are accepting the creation of an unbridgeable and entrenched divide between us.
A principal says to me, carefully, that my concerns are philosophical. I understand her meaning: if parents don’t like a school’s policy, get out. But where do we go? I imagine us rock-hopping as schools sink underfoot, sucked into the mud of unseen and unchallenged influence. Is this philosophical? Am I making too much of it?
At the homes of friends who have children in older grades, I look at their iPads and go through the apps. On a maths app, a pirate is climbing a cliff as the app spits out sums – with each right answer, the pirate ascends; with each wrong answer, he falls down.
“Don’t you have to go back to the sum you got wrong and get it right?” I ask the boy. He shakes his head, and when the pirate falls a couple more times, he taps his finger irritably at the screen. “It’s glitching,” he says, closing the app.
A friend’s daughter shows me a slideshow about Harry Potter she’s been working on by dragging images off the web. It is, I have to say, very dull. When her mum and I check the device’s screen statistics and internet history we’re shocked to see she had spent two and a half hours on it in class.
One of the pedagogical perks of iPads, I am told, is that children can easily get up and move around with them. It was the centipedes of primary-school children walking in lines across the yard that first caught my eye, their arms forming crossbones, hugging iPads tight to their chests. They take their devices to physical education, to art, to all their special classes. At the zoo, groups of children in uniform run past enclosures, briefly stopping to take a photo with their devices before running off. It seems indecent. Cruel even. I catch up with a child and ask them what they’re doing. She shows me. They’re dragging the photos onto a map of the zoo. “That’s it?” I ask. She nods, then she’s off, pinballing between cages.
It takes a while, but then it hits me.
This isn’t study; it’s data entry.
There are two dominating themes in Australian education today: intense standardisation and assessment; and the wholesale embedding of digital technology across all school subjects, as reflected in the federal government’s ICT curriculum.
At a glance, the two themes appear unrelated.
The former, as is conducted through the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN), has individual schools and teachers on a tight lead, summoning up images of government holding education to account, ensuring all children rise through the system hitting their marks. The latter, which places emphasis on “a knowledge-based economy … to be empowered within a technologically sophisticated society now and into the future” (according to the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority), speaks to the idea of school autonomy, conjuring up images of individually tailored hothouses where teachers are empowered to observe students and create passionate lesson plans.
These two themes, however, have far more in common than meets the eye. Both are obsessed with data, that which is quantifiable, and both have a distinct commercial presence behind them. Sometimes, as is the case with Pearson, a former textbook publisher that has evolved into one of the world’s largest “edu-businesses”, the same company strives to straddle both discourses.
NAPLAN is predominantly administered by Pearson, working on multimillion-dollar contracts with curriculum agencies both federally and in most states to distribute, collect, scan and mark the tests. Government departments stipulate that Pearson does not prepare the tests, while the company itself has stated it is not involved in developing Australian policy around the test.
All of which gives the impression this is a hands-off operation.
Why, then, has Pearson developed a massive research arm dedicated to psychometrics, the science of measuring mental capabilities and processes?
In 2012, in an in-house newsletter, Pearson’s vice-president of psychometrics and research services refers to the “pioneering” work of the Pearson Assessment Community, a group that had been, he writes, “charged with developing a global community of interest in assessment, content, and project management expertise to assist our Pearson colleagues worldwide in creating assessments in countries where none had previously existed”.
How to untangle the sales pitch from the evidence?
Similarly, lobbying in Australia is far from transparent. It may be true that Pearson plays no role in Australian policy development, but this could be because it has already laid the groundwork elsewhere.
It was back in 2000 when British publisher Pearson acquired a leading American standardised testing provider. Within a year, the company had gone from nil dollars in the lobbying game to millions. Between 2009 and 2014, Pearson Education was one of four big edu-businesses that collectively spent US$20 million lobbying governments to favour education policies that included mandated student testing.
The Common Core State Standards Initiative, which could be described as the US equivalent of NAPLAN, was endorsed by the Obama administration and taken up on a state-by-state basis, during which period, according to a report by the Center for Media and Democracy, Pearson paid for “luxury trips for school officials”.
In 2013 Pearson paid US$7.7 million in a settlement to the New York attorney-general after a state investigation determined the company had blurred the line between its charitable and corporate arms by developing courses under the former to support the Common Core goals. It allegedly used the pretence of social goodwill to garner credibility before shifting these same products to its corporate arm to sell for “tens of millions of dollars”.
Academic Richard Striner and teacher L. Michelle Johnson say this is a familiar corporate play. In their book, No Size Fits All: A New Program of Choice for American Public Schools Without Vouchers, they write: “High-paid entrepreneurs from the worlds of publishing, technology and testing would enter the ‘public service’, tout policies that they or their friends had developed in their work for ‘non-profits’, then fade back into the corporate middle distance that separates, but also connects non-profit organisations in the field of education to the vastly lucrative for-profit world of big business.”
In Australia, allegations of an unchecked revolving door between the public and private sectors regularly make the news, particularly in mining and defence. Last year, however, the finger was pointed at education – the Australian Education Union raised concerns regarding the recruitment to Pearson of Stanley Rabinowitz, previously at the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority.
At ACARA for almost five years, Rabinowitz had been in charge of assessment and reporting, with responsibilities including the management of NAPLAN and sample tests, and national data reporting including the MySchool website. An American citizen, Rabinowitz previously worked at an education-sector not-for-profit organisation in San Francisco, at the head of their National Center for Standards and Assessment Implementation.
Now Rabinowitz is back in the US as senior technical adviser for Pearson. Depending how you look at it, his seems like a natural career trajectory or a criss-crossing between corporate and public interests, in what the Australian Education Union suggests is a possible “conflict of interest”.
Alongside Pearson’s quest to promote mandatory standardised testing around the world, the company is also publishing a series of essays it calls the “New Pedagogies”. The first, titled A Rich Seam (2014), was by Microsoft’s Maria Langworthy and Canadian educator Michael Fullan, whose books and teaching on “deep learning” have taken on a kind of guru status. It is a fulsome, gushing and flowery take on digital technology’s capability to motivate bored students, “flip” classrooms, engage alienated teachers and “blow the lid off” learning.
Similarly effusive was a comment by the OECD’s director for education and skills, Andreas Schleicher, at a virtual global seminar, “Education Disrupted, Education Reimagined”, held in mid April this year: “You’re going to have a lot of young people who have experienced different forms of learning in this crisis – learning that was more fun, more empowering.”
It was a poorly timed sentiment. By then, COVID-19 had claimed more than 145,000 lives in four months, in harrowing scenes worldwide: graves dug in New York parkland for unclaimed bodies, churches in Italy set up as temporary morgues, body bags delivered to Indigenous communities in remote Australia. Audrey Watters, an American education writer, was quick to respond over Twitter: “You’re going to have a lot of young people whose family members and teachers died, you fucking ghoul.”
Edu-tech is portrayed as the rebel in learning, the provider of out-of-the-box thinking to placate the emphasis on standardisation. Edu-tech advocates are fond of sharing memes that portray classrooms as the outdated cogs of industrialism, where a teacher stands at the front like an orator while children sit homogenised and mute. “The digital revolution will change this,” is the meme’s message. Putting digital devices into students’ hands will turn them into active learners. The two most obvious ironies here are that the so-called digital revolution is industrialisation, and that a primary-school classroom in which all the children are using iPads is mute absolute.
Sure, in this vision the teacher is not the orator – the software developer is. Here, it’s all about “personalised learning”, a term with which almost every family entering the education system today will become familiar. It implies a developed intimacy between the students, teachers and curriculum. That teachers will strive to understand individual students and find ways to help them learn, and a school will set inquiry projects to help students make a series of connections across the curriculum; by bringing their new knowledge to life, learning is personalised.
But this is not what personalised learning means in the edu-tech industry. It is more like an individualised videogame wherein students learn at their own pace, mastering foundational skills and moving up levels towards success. The device is a constant presence, the mediator between a teacher and students. It is promoted as cutting edge, revolutionary, and yet the origin for this type of learning stems back to 1957, with American behavioural scientist B.F. Skinner’s “Skinner Teaching Machine”, a mechanical machine based on rote learning and a reward system. Turning the box’s crank would present written questions and offer reinforcing praise for correct answers. After developing his machine at Harvard University (with the help of an earlier template designed by Sidney Pressey in 1928), Skinner went on to work with IBM to refine and patent his invention. By the 1960s, he had inspired a market of teaching machines, as well as a familiar flurry of hype (learning problems solved!) and worry (robot teachers?) around them.
One popular device was the Min-Max, sold by door-to-door salespeople. “You learn fast with the Grolier MIN-MAX teaching machine!” reads a 1961 advertisement, alongside a smiling nuclear family standing around the machine, holding Min-Max course boxes like certificates. “Sister is learning Spelling … Father is learning Spanish … Mother is learning Music … Brother is learning Electricity,” it declares. In the time of coronavirus, it’s a familiar mode, as images of sourdough loaves are pasted all over social media. Family is learning to Bake Bread.
In so many ways, this is exactly the kind of person one wants to be in a lockdown – someone privileged enough to make the most of their freed-up time, furthering their education, learning new skills like a good Cub. But with “teaching machines” it is necessary to remember Skinner was neither a teacher nor a professor of pedagogy. Skinner was a behaviourist, an early pioneer of a fascinating branch of psychology that has found itself amplified in the digital world.
“Every app seems to be based around competition, like a gambling gateway,” says Belle, who lives with her partner and their two children in Geelong, Victoria. “We understand that happens in education, but a sticker chart from a teacher is very different to an app designed by Silicon Valley’s best minds.”
It is fair to say that B.F. Skinner’s key concept of “operant conditioning” – learning through rewards and punishments administered for particular behaviours – has been weaponised for ends that the professor himself would likely have loathed, delivering concepts such as “nudge units”, “captology” and “persuasive design”, and the advent of Russian propaganda trolls.
In his 1971 treatise, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner unpacked his underlying philosophy about society, freedom, dignity and the human mind. At its most distilled, the professor’s idea was that human claims to free will and moral agency, while having had some positive results in the past, were ultimately pre-scientific and superstitious concepts that ultimately inhibit the best way forward: the implementation of socially beneficial and effective behavioural technologies. In this, Skinner was one of the first modern “techno-utopians” , believers in the ideology fuelling Silicon Valley since the 1990s: that developments in technology will deliver an ideal world. It is a closed-loop belief system, in that proponents tend to insist they are aware of accompanying problems created by technology, but tech will fix those too.
Critics say there is another word for this belief system and that you’ll also find it among the wolves of Wall Street: arrogance. Curiously, both of these sectors are obsessed with inducements – methods of persuasion – and, in turn, tend to see their subjects as objects. Skinner, for instance, believed that behavioural technology with in-built inducements of positive reinforcement would improve mankind. This was something his technology would do to people. The technology shaped the future, not people – and, of course, the “improvements” were defined by the developer.
Skinner’s findings were revealing and the applications boundless. He claimed, for example, the teaching machine did far more than teach. Through its system of reward and reinforcement, it encouraged good behaviour. It taught students how to behave in order to get the right answer.
It is not as monstrous a concept as it sounds: learning how to learn, by listening and working hard, is as important as the subject of learning, by rote or inquiry. But it does give pause for thought. In a world where habit-forming products are the holy grail and data brokers’ main game is human behaviour that is both predictable and controllable, it is crucial to query: who here is the arbiter of good behaviour? And for whom does the good behaviour serve?
A friend shares with me her daughter’s Year 1 teacher’s method of writing her students’ names on the whiteboard as a way of managing classroom behaviour. “If the kid is good, she writes their name in green,” she explains, “and if they’re bad, red.” Her daughter’s name appears in green every day. My friend is desperate for the teacher to stop doing it – her daughter is shy, almost pathologically so. “And she is being rewarded for it, even though it isn’t good for her.”
But it’s good for the teacher.
Belle and her partner enrolled their son into a small public primary school two years ago. “We liked it because it is small and seemed to match our values about the importance of community and knowledge,” she tells me.
Then, after enrolling, they were informed of the school’s BYOD policy and instructed how to go about purchasing an iPad for their five-year-old.
“There was no other information or explanation as to why the preps needed iPads,” Belle says. They decided to ignore the form. One other family in prep did the same. “When the other parents saw we had done that, lots came up to us saying that they hadn’t realised they didn’t have to either. That’s how we found out most parents hadn’t wanted to send an iPad in with their child.”
But still, their child is given a school iPad to use in class.
“And pressure,” says Belle, “is applied through the child.”
She explains that their son will often come home saying things like: “I need my own iPad. I can’t do this, or that, on the school ones.” After a year of observing what their son is doing on the device, Belle and her partner remain unconvinced.
But Belle is compelled, like so many other parents, to say they’re not anti-tech. “We’re more than happy for our children to learn coding,” she says. “Same as they’ll learn about following instructions in a science experiment and fractions. But, ultimately, we would like our children to want to learn because of the content and their teacher, not because of some persuasive design.”
Digital literacy, Belle says, is crucial. Then, almost reluctantly, she mentions “the lunchtime club”.
Belle sighs. “We found out most of the kids at the school were choosing to stay inside during lunchtime over summer and autumn. When I asked our son why he was staying inside, he replied, ‘You can use the iPads.’
“We stopped it,” she adds hurriedly, as if ashamed. “Lots of parents found out at around the same time and complained. The school stopped it. But why did they think that was okay in the first place?”
It is these kinds of misjudgements that have made many parents wary and, detrimentally, increasingly distrustful of their children’s school. “Are they even digitally literate?” another parent asks me, after sending me a copy of his children’s primary school’s ICT code of conduct.
I read it. Vague and opaque, it basically asks parents to consent to everything and anything. I am also struck by the fact the students as young as six are asked to sign. And while failing to explain the possible implications of the children’s digital footprint, or outlining the far from reassuring history of the school’s chosen digital provider when it comes to privacy, the code of conduct is rather punitive when it comes to student behaviour.
There is zero tolerance for disrespect, says the school, with offending students banned from online lessons until punishment is deemed sufficient. It is a teachable moment. Here is a contract much like those already prevalent online and wielded by the tech giants: vastly inadequate, deeply lopsided in power, and currently under the scrutiny of regulatory bodies in nations including Australia, India and throughout Europe.
If I were the kids’ lawyer, I’d advise them not to sign.
In 2017, The Economist magazine argued for more robust regulation of tech giants such as Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook, writing that data was “the oil of the digital era”.
Data is incredibly powerful. The patterns it can reveal about an individual, a group or a demographic can give analysts information that can be used to change people’s lives for the better. Which also means, obviously, it can be used to do the reverse. The potential for exploitation depends on who controls the data.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan, best known for his classic aphorism “the medium is the message”, suggested that humans will never be able to fully understand the power and effects of new technologies in the present; rather, it is only with the distance and perspective of time that comprehension comes.
Today, many of us now know that Google is an advertising company disguised as a search engine. But this growing awareness has taken nearly a decade to surface and it is already outdated. Advertising is at the core of Google’s revenue, but this is not a static operation. Google – or better put, its parent company Alphabet Inc. – is an artificial intelligence company disguised as an advertising company.
In schools, Google is implicitly endorsed, be it via its G Suite app, YouTube, Maps or search engine and so on, without explicit explanations of the effect of filter bubbles and algorithms that are designed to keep eyeballs glued to the screen regardless of content.
“I don’t know how we’d even begin to undo G Suite at our school,” says a secondary teacher. “It’s so useful.”
A parent describes to me the horror on their principal’s face when he informed her that they did not want to sign their child up to Google. “My first thought was, Shit, we’re going to be asked to leave,” he says. They weren’t, but their decision was far from welcomed.
While it is widely accepted that choice is paramount in the marketplace, it seems that when the market enters the classroom, choice is hugely problematic.
Google has already embedded itself in Australian education via unseen contracts such as Victoria’s commercial-in-confidence agreement. Should the tech giant want to shift the goal posts, what power do our education departments have to resist? What serious and long-term protections, if any, have really been gained for students? Why can’t we find out?
Increasingly, digital citizenship programs are taught in schools, but they are unlikely to refer to real-life events such as the US$170 million fine Google paid last year to settle federal and New York state charges that the tech giant illegally harvested children’s data from YouTube. Another lawsuit against the tech company is currently under way in New Mexico for its use of its education software to spy on children. In 2012, Google was fined US$22.5 million by the US Federal Trade Commission after it was discovered the company had been hacking into Apple’s Safari browser for years, monitoring search activities of millions of iPad, Mac and iPhone users. And here, Google is being sued by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission for misleading users with regards to Google’s collection of personal data.
No wonder children disengage. We’re hypocrites.
On the Victorian education department’s FUSE website, which provides learning and teaching resources, there are 221 initiatives using and promoting Google products, including “Google AI, Advancing AI for Everyone”, which, with a single click, takes teachers out of FUSE and to Google’s AI website.
Big data and artificial intelligence have a reciprocal relationship: the more data we give, the more machines learn. “Often it feels like we are watching kids just become data cows,” says a digital-technologies teacher at a secondary school in the north-west suburbs of Melbourne. He sees his job as trying to counter this – to teach students how to develop agency and understand the ethics of digital data, as well as how to get the best quality data. If the future is digital, he tells me, then surely a deep understanding of technology is tantamount.
As contended in the journal American Affairs last year, increasing a reliance on digital technology while imparting to students only a superficial understanding of technology “is not preparing them for ‘the workplace of the future’, but delivering them into the gaping maw of the ravenous present”.
“The marketing is constant,” says Deborah Netolicky, one of the few teachers I speak to happy for her name to go on the record. Netolicky is a Perth-based teacher with two decades’ experience. “And for an overwhelming number of public schools looking to cut costs, you have tech companies marketing tech solutions that are far cheaper than hiring another teacher.”
Previously the dean of research and pedagogy at Perth’s Wesley College, where she oversaw the independent school’s laptop program and IT systems, Netolicky says she has worked with some great tech companies. “They have listened to our needs and responded appropriately,” she says. “But the danger of oversimplified solutions that come from a for-profit motive is real.”
Disturbingly, adds Netolicky, the big tech companies have started to spruik software with built-in “pre-made, for-profit” lesson plans, essentially seeing private companies deliver key aspects of the curriculum.
“This,” she says, “is incredibly problematic.” Teachers need time to develop their own lessons, Netolicky says. “But the digital curriculums have been dumped on their already-full plate with nothing being taken off.” Add to this a vast shortage of specialist digital-technologies teachers, with schools increasingly asking staff to teach outside their field.
Netolicky is also a researcher at Murdoch University and co-editor of Flip the System Australia: What Matters in Education, an essay collection by Australian educators, in which she penned a piece on the range of factors stifling teachers and boiling their profession down to data entry. And certainly, if current lingo from the edu-tech sector is anything to go by, Netolicky has reason to be concerned.
Teachers, according to Microsoft, are now “facilitators”. In Apple-speak, teachers are “co-learners”, learning alongside their students – or in the case of their students’ swiping prowess, they are learning from their students.
Children are “creators of their own learning” and there are repeated references to “paradigm shifts” and “flipping the system”, wherein the teacher is no longer the “deliverer” of knowledge. Instead the student is an “information seeker”. Then you have the “boosters”. “Teachers who are affiliated with the big tech giants, accredited by them and promoting products at teachers’ conferences,” explains Netolicky. “It’s hugely problematic in an ethical sense.”
Paul Hamilton is an “Apple Distinguished Educator”. “Not an ‘Apple Teacher’,” he says, when I incorrectly paraphrase his role. “An ADE.”
“Are you paid?” I ask.
“No, of course not!” Hamilton replies.
Apple Teachers – who have undertaken a program encouraging the use of Apple products in the classroom – receive an accreditation by completing quizzes and online tutorials for iPad or Mac. Six badges and they’re in. ADEs, however, according to Apple, are “part of a global community of education leaders recognised for doing amazing things with Apple technology in and out of the classroom”. They are “trusted advisors, passionate advocates, authentic authors, global ambassadors”.
Hamilton says being an ADE doesn’t feel like a job. He grew up in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne, graduating from his teaching degree in the ’90s, as Liberal premier Jeff Kennett was slashing the education system. In his seven years in power, Kennett closed 350 schools, axed 7000 teachers, hollowed out the state department, and shed thousands of support staff, including school cleaners. NSW Liberal premier Nick Greiner’s government had shown Kennett the way, having axed 2400 teachers, closed small schools and created composite classes in remaining schools.
For graduates like Hamilton, there were no local jobs, so he took a teaching post in Townsville, northern Queensland. That was 25 years ago.
Hamilton has taught both secondary and primary years and was, up until last year, head of technology at Matthew Flinders Anglican College’s primary school, a private school on the Sunshine Coast. His role was to help teachers integrate digital technology into their classrooms. The school has had a BYOD policy for five years. “Originally laptops,” Hamilton explains, “but now iPads from grades 4, 5 and 6.”
“Not earlier?” I ask, telling him I’ve spoken to numerous families being pressured to purchase devices for their children in earlier grades.
“No,” Hamilton says firmly. “We certainly don’t see that as a way to go. For us, it was about waking the older kids up, getting them to work together in new ways and be creative, have their own voice.”
Hamilton thinks that while the curriculum is clear on what it needs to teach, and that there is a lot of support material available from ACARA and other agencies, what is missing are connections between what teachers already teach and digital technologies.
“Schools need to provide time and professional development, but they also need to allow teachers to make those connections themselves. That way teachers can create these rich units of study, rather than just giving them stuff to teach.”
This year, Hamilton is starting work for a New Zealand consultancy that helps schools integrate technology. He believes “little by little” is the way to go.
When I ask him about whether as a teacher he taught students about various platforms such as Google and YouTube before using them, he is firm.
“Absolutely. You need to explicitly teach that stuff. It was a big unit that we put together and it spanned a term.” He adds, however, that his former school is privileged. “We were really lucky in that we had our head librarian, which many schools don’t have, and we worked in a team to teach the unit.”
No, many schools don’t have such a position.
In fact, parents at numerous public schools have found themselves involved in exhausting campaigns to save their children’s school library, to reverse decisions that dismissed specialised teachers in art, music, drama and sport, and either replaced them with unqualified hires or outsourced their roles to private providers. Some parents are also getting their heads around staggered playtimes as student numbers exceed capacity. Others have had to form groups to force transparency into their school’s digital policy – to understand, for example, how a zoned school could make the autonomous decision to instruct its staff to become Apple Teachers or for the whole institution to become “a Microsoft school”.
NSW education department’s Mark Scott says there is nothing new about schools’ relationships with tech companies and private-company influence on education. “For a long time,” he says, “schools have used textbooks, and textbooks have been provided, not philanthropically, but by commercial publishing businesses to make money out of selling textbooks.”
“Is it really that different?” he asks.
I try the “creative” apps used in our children’s classroom. The tech companies selling these apps say they encourage creativity, but with ready-made visuals, pre-made worlds and prescribed characters prompting false choices, limited interactions and worn plotlines, I’m confused. Whose creativity? The designers’ or the users’?
Again, my trust drains. Why are they doing this? Are Clag, pencils and a pile of old magazines too expensive? Too messy? Scissors too pointy?
In 2018, Roger Kneebone, a surgeon and professor at London’s Imperial College, told the BBC he and his peers were seeing a significant decline in manual dexterity in medical students. “It is an important and increasingly urgent issue,” the surgeon declared, pleading with schools to deliver a more rounded education with creative and artistic subjects, “where students use their hands”. Declining dexterity is not the only loss. Ready-made visual content cannot replace imagination; in fact, it is possible that too much of the former can displace the latter. Imagination is not just some artsy attribute you can skip. It is key to cognition, to making sense of abstract imagery and difficult concepts. It is inner work.
But inner work is hard and these apps are easy. There are word prompts and the drawings they offer “are so much better than mine”. They prompt quick praise, and here the underlying values of the tech industry are reinforced: speed, scale, efficiency and constant content.
“Within minutes, a slick video is created,” says Jennifer Scheffer, a “TED-Ed Innovative Educator”, in the not-for-profit TED organisation’s round-up of the best education apps. “The finished product,” Scheffer adds, “can be shared via social media, uploaded to YouTube or embedded in a student’s e-portfolio.”
This is another aspect of the iPads at their children’s primary school that doesn’t sit well with Belle and her partner. “The children are constantly taking photos of their work and uploading them, or taking videos of each other and presenting the videos.”
The schoolroom uses Seesaw, she tells me, a social media platform where the kids are encouraged to upload and comment on each other’s work, and parents can also log in and see what they’re doing.
“There is so much focus on the kids doing something impressive for us, or for their peers, and having to document the final result. Why can’t they just enjoy the process of learning?”
“Did you consent to Seesaw?” I ask.
She pauses, thinking. “We signed a general ICT form at the beginning of the year,” she says, “So I guess we did.”
At Kate’s primary school in Sydney, which also uses Seesaw, Kate says she didn’t provide consent.
In its privacy statement, Seesaw says it does not sell data. But it collects it, which inevitably adds to the company’s monetary worth. The platform’s developer, Carl Sjogreen, is a former Facebook and Google employee. In 2010, he sold his last startup, a travel app, to Facebook. It is well known that troves of data are on-sold when startups are bought out.
In a secondary school in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs, the English teacher sets up a Facebook group for her Year 9s.
“What do we do?” one of the parents asks me.
“Ask her about her thoughts on Cambridge Analytica,” I say. “Or the secret experiments Facebook did in 2012.”
“We did,” the father says. “She didn’t know about it.”
After six months of research, I find out the Victorian education department has “opt out” forms for Google and Seesaw that can be submitted by parents to their children’s school. Parents have to ask for them specifically, but to do so you need to know they exist. None of the 60 plus parents I speak to is aware of these forms.
“You have to not identify me,” one primary teacher at a Sydney public school tells me, the anxiety clear on his face. “He [the school leader in charge of ICT] will make me do more Apple tutorials … We have to collect badges. I feel like an idiot.”
It is well known that teachers are leaving their profession. Older teachers are bailing out, while it is estimated that between 30 and 50 per cent of graduates leave in their first five years.
These attrition rates are often attributed to poor wages, but perhaps there is another way to look at it. Teachers aren’t leaving their professions – their professions are leaving them. They’re devalued and undermined, admonished for not being enthusiastic about collecting badges, the perpetual admin duties and data collection, and all while the essence of teaching – using hard-earned knowledge to design lessons and observe when each child’s eyes light up – the experience of collecting those moments, that has been squeezed dry.
There has been no longitudinal research done in Australia on the effects of digital learning in the education system, and in spite of health research and advice from optometrists (suggesting a link between screen time and an increase of myopia and major ocular disorders in young people), occupational and speech therapists (suggesting language delays, decreased physical dexterity and obesity have increased in the digital age), and memory specialists and psychologists (suggesting excessive screen time can be tied to difficulties with thinking and recall, and inadequate cognition development), parents are being told to purchase iPads for children as young as five.
“What is happening with our kids now is the biggest educational experiment in history,” Professor Pasi Sahlberg told The Age in April this year, just as online learning got its biggest boost ever thanks to COVID-19. Sahlberg, the deputy director of the University of NSW’s Gonski Institute for Education, warned that students are struggling to focus as digital technology is becoming both central to their learning and a growing distraction.
It seems like decades ago, but in February this year a student mobile-phone ban was rolled out in states and territories across Australia in various iterations. Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania committed to banning student mobile phones in schools, while NSW introduced the ban in primary schools but allowed high schools to make their own decision.
We have listened to teachers and parents, the state ministers said in their press statements announcing the ban, which aims to reduce classroom distraction and cyber-bullying, and to improve learning outcomes.
And for most of the teachers I speak to, the relief is palpable, though the ban has not proceeded without some odd hitches. One secondary teacher told me some students had been using their mobile phones to type notes. Another says they would often use the students’ phones to hotspot, as the school’s broadband was so unreliable. This aside, the return of noise in the schoolyard and engagement in class had been welcomed.
And yet the mobile-phone ban was not without its critics.
Speaking to ABC Radio Melbourne, Sue Bell, the president of the Victorian Association of State Secondary Principals, said the ban would cause teachers “a lot of grief” and that students needed the opportunity to learn how to manage and self-regulate their behaviour. Patricia Edgar, best known as the founder of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, was quick to quip that a mobile-phone ban to get children to pay attention was a problem not with the technology so much as with the staff’s teaching. Instead of a censorious approach, argued Edgar, schools need to focus on media literacy. Preschool, she says, is not too early to begin.
In this, Edgar is right. Preschool is not too early to begin teaching children media and digital literacy, particularly as they are clearly a target audience for many commercial companies. And this brings us to the next nexus, the knot of the problem.
I go online to start the modules my children’s primary school is using to teach students good digital citizenship. The eSmart Digital Licence is part of the work of the Alannah & Madeline Foundation, a charity set up in 1997 after the Port Arthur massacre to protect children from bullying and violence, with a quickly expanding mandate to keep up with online developments. I click forward, purchasing the eSmart licence for families.
A single line catches my eye. I stare, then slowly sink my forehead onto the desk. The not-for-profit has partnered with Google. (The Foundation states that it "retains full independence and maintains full program integrity". It says student data is not shared with Google.)
The global edu-tech industry will bloom to a value of US$341 billion by 2025, according to HolonIQ, an education market data firm. It would be naive to think tech companies are not utilising every lever at their disposal to ensure they garner a share of that pie – if not the whole pie. From lobbying policymakers, influencing curriculum, providing lesson plans and devising accreditation for teachers and schools, to convincing educators and parents that it is a moral imperative that children learn “21st century skills” lest they be left behind, the digital revolution as dictated by the tech giants could well appear more like manifest destiny rather than the result of true foresight.
Add to this the claim from school leaders and education departments that engagement with tech companies is necessary and unavoidable, and it dawns on me that this is philosophical. That what the principal had said to me earlier is true, except that what I am trying to hold onto is a husk of yesterday, a façade still being spruiked but which is essentially gutted.
In the past, the public service designed and advised on government policies, then delivered them. But for decades now, we have contracted out services on the premise that market-driven outcomes are always the best, and as a result what we have are declining capabilities outside the corporate sphere. Engagement with tech giants is only necessary and unavoidable because we set ourselves up to fail years ago.
I speak to people in tech. People who have worked at Slack, Google, Etsy. I ask the stupid question: “Why can’t we build the education infrastructure ourselves?”
I’m primed to be laughed at. But no one obliges. The difficulty, a senior product designer suggests to me, is not necessarily a lack of tech skills. Rather, whether it’s exemplified by the mismanagement of public projects such as Melbourne’s travel card Myki or the NBN, or the contempt the Coalition government clearly has for the ABC, the issue is, he says, “a lost sense of public infrastructure”.
In other words, we’ve come full circle.
The past four years have seen the tech demigods, once college-aged men dressed in boxy tees, chinos and sneakers, enter middle age and fall from grace. For decades, Silicon Valley, with its shiny headquarters, Google villages and Oprah-attended media events, had sold itself as an altruistic utopia where the solutions to the world’s problems are dreamt up and presented in binary code. However, the Valley has repeatedly been exposed for its ordinariness. The digital revolution, it turns out, is an industry like any other.
There have been blatant, egregious privacy breaches, anti-trust practices, tax avoidance, a profound disregard for consumer rights through built-in obsolescence and resistance to repair, and the prolific use of short-term and dopamine-driven feedback loops, as well as pernicious filter bubbles and autoplay algorithms designed to monopolise attention, which incrementally skew viewers towards extremism, hate speech, conspiracy theories, fake news. Which, in turn, have significantly eroded trust in knowledge-based institutions such as the Bureau of Meteorology, NASA and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Not to mention democracy itself.
And yet, this same tech industry’s influence has continued to rise, unchecked, in Australian schools, outsourcing education to a rapacious and increasingly ubiquitous private sector.
This April, as the death toll in the US due to COVID-19 surpassed lives lost during the course of the Vietnam War, former Google chief executive and current chair of the US Defense Innovation Board, Eric Schmidt, wasted no time in putting critics of the tech giants’ power in their place.
Speaking virtually to the Economic Club of New York, Schmidt reminded his audience of the “benefit of these corporations, which we love to malign, in terms of the ability to communicate, the ability to deal with health, the ability to get information, is profound. Think about what your life would be like in America without Amazon.”
The purpose of Schmidt’s talk was to outline his proposed vision for New York now that the virus had the city on its knees. Regarding education, Schmidt spoke of the “massive experiment” currently under way as students were forced to learn from home, an experiment that would provide significant data to help tech companies “build better remote and distance learning tools”.
The response from a coalition of parent groups sent to the New York governor was rapid and sharp: “We urge you instead to listen to parents and teachers rather than allow the Gates Foundation to implement their damaging education agenda once again. Since the schools were shut down in mid-March, our understanding of the profound deficiencies of screen-based instruction has only grown.”
Kate explains to me that when she and her husband began checking their Year 5 daughter’s screen statistics, they noticed she was daily pursuing aimless internet searches in class that lasted up to an hour, sometimes two. When they brought it up with their daughter, she’d told them she didn’t really know what she was doing.
“I felt bad,” Kate admits.
It was as if she had learnt that her daughter was wandering the streets during school and no one, including her parents, had noticed.
The school’s response to her concerns was, in Kate’s mind, disturbing. “The teacher in charge of IT told us there was new software that would allow a teacher to see all 25 screens of her students on her screen.” She pauses. “That was his solution.”
“And then what?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I guess the teacher just stares at their screens on her screen.”
Kate and I laugh, but it’s gallows humour.
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