By Patricia Burch, University of Southern California
“It was my mistake and I am sorry.” Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified on April 10th before a joint session of the Senate commerce and judiciary committee. He and his company have been accused of looking the other way as companies and governments mined Facebook data for voter information to influence the 2016 Presidential election. In their opening remarks, the lawmakers called for greater transparency and accountability on the part of multi-national technology companies. In that same week, researchers and scholars from across the globe gathered at a symposium organized by New York University to talk about the ways in which privatizing trends in technology have permeated every aspect of education –and some of the disproportionate negative impacts on communities and countries trying to provide quality education for all.
All over the globe, education technology is being sold to schools as a central mechanism for improving access to quality learning for high poverty populations. Panelists at the symposium reported that aspects of the EdTech Craze include the rise of cyber charters and big data predictive analytics -in which students participating in online classrooms unknowingly provide companies such as Google classroom with information about their consumer preferences and their learning styles. Unregulated data gathering on students is often justified as a cure all solution to the financial and structural shortcomings of the public-school system – although the claims about benefits of technology tend to far outpace evidence of effects. In some regions of the world, new technologies are reportedly being used to monitor teachers, their actions reported by “the screen”.
Technology enabled privatization deserves serious scrutiny by those concerned with the future of democracies and the democratic purposes of education. Participants at the symposium discussed evidence of how linkages across markets, technology, and policy can at times put profits before students’ rights and interests. Rather than something endemically evil, technology can be a powerful tool for social justice with the potential to address enduring problems within public schools, increasing access and quality to good education and transparency of government. But, what will it take?
Dialogue and action forged by cross sectoral alliances of researchers, activists and policy makers is needed to hold CEOs such as Mark Zuckerberg more accountable to democratic institutions such as public schools. What does it really mean to be a technology company committed to the PUBLIC good? Beyond 12th hour hearings, what is the role of policy and the state in regulating education markets? When it comes to students, muted apologies by CEOS (especially after crimes have been committed) will not do.