Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Is Bill Gates Data Mining Your Children?

Blooming Automatons? (Image from Flickr, by edenpictures)

Want your child to flower academically? That’s what inBloom Inc. says it will do by accessing your child’s social security number, test scores, hobbies, learning disabilities, attendance records, career goals, homework completion records, and other personal data, in order to develop “personalized” learning aids that it will sell back to you or your school district.

Private Education Companies are School Officials According to Fed
inBloom’s new $100 million database has been in operation for three months, the Business Insider reports. Funded by the Gates Foundation, with its infrastructure built by Amplify Education, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s New’s Corp, the database was designed to acquire and monitor student data from kindergarten through high school. It already contains files on millions of children, according to Reuters. While local school officials retain legal control over the information, federal law allows them to share these files with private companies that sell educational products and services. According to the U.S. Department of Education, parental consent is not required for school officials to share student records with other “school officials,” including private companies, which the department defines as “school officials” if they sell educational services or products.

Needless to say, the project has the corporate education vultures drooling copiously. Jeffrey Olen, from CompassLearning, called it a “huge win for us," according to Business Insider, while Jason Lange, chief executive of BloomBoard, said "It is a godsend for us [as it] allows us to collect more data faster, quicker and cheaper." Other software manufacturers, distance learning companies and distributers of digital textbooks and curriculum all stand to profit handsomely through direct marketing to students and their teachers and families. inBloom eventually plans to charge schools for their “service,” which will bring in additional profits.

Overall, technology startups directed at K-12 education brought in over $425 million in venture capital last year, according to the NewSchools Venture Fund. Meanwhile, twenty-one education technology companies have already started developing applications that will work with the inBloom database, according to the inBloom website.

9 States Already Drinking the Koolaid
For the time being, the “service” is free. Seven states (Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Massachusetts) have already agreed to voluntarily make some of their student data available to inBloom, while Louisiana and New York have committed to providing nearly all their student records.

Proponents claim the project will improve “personalized” learning, which is just another vapid reform that sounds wonderful, but means little. Everyone wants their child’s personal needs and interests to be directly and meticulously addressed, but this is not something that can be accomplished through data mining. Consider how much smarter and productive you have become as a result of the advertisements Google and Amazon have directed to you as a result of their data mining. Even when they hit the nail on the head, the consequence is that you might buy something you might not have otherwise considered buying, not any kind of significant leg up on your peers. Furthermore, that product may be of dubious quality because you lacked the time to research it or test it before purchasing it and it was so easy to just click the purchase button.

While it is certainly possible that some educationally sound products will appear as pop ups on parents’, teachers’ or children’s screens, the overwhelming majority will likely be garbage (like the majority of non-digital canned curriculum). Furthermore, all will come at a cost (e.g., subscription price, future commitment, more pop ups and advertisements encouraging children to whine and beg mommy to buy something else). Plus, with all the fundraisers and other things parents already have to purchase for their children’s free public education, why should they have to buy more? Just because Bill Gates or some other huckster says it’s good for you and they have the data to back it up, they do not have any credible data that their snake oil actually works. In fact, the only thing their data can show is that there may be a need or interest.

Trojan Horse for Union Busting and Lowering Labor Costs
Projects like this contribute to the deskilling of teachers, as they transfer many of the responsibilities best met by sentient professionals (e.g., assessing students’ academic and social skills, identifying their academic and personal needs, tailoring curriculum to meet these needs, communicating with parents, hosting clubs and extracurricular activities) to software designers who never have any face-to-face interactions with children. Like the obsessive reliance on testing (NCLB, RttT), which replaces instruction and pedagogy with test proctoring, online and distance learning make the trained, professional teacher superfluous.  Eventually, districts will move to substantially lower teachers’ salaries and hire greater numbers of untrained factotums to monitor the computer labs, proctor the tests, and cover the other, growing menial tasks that are replacing actual teaching.

One of these menial tasks is data entry. inBloom’s promoters claim that schools currently operate too many databases and these do not communicate well with each other, while they miss considerable data that is still contained on paper. However, regardless of the software, the paper data needs to be uploaded by humans, which requires more mindless toil, much of which will fall on teachers (e.g., administering and uploading data from tests, grades, attendance, student surveys, behavior), taking time from actual teaching. Even though it would be useful for teachers to know how many times a student has been tardy to each of his other classes, something databases can (and already do) readily handle, no database or software can meet face to face with that student’s teachers and counselor to discuss his personal circumstances and home life and how these may be affecting his attendance.

Another claim of proponents is that inBloom will be able to provide tailored professional development to teachers. Of course, inBloom will determine which skills teachers need help with based on their students’ test scores, which actually have very little to do with teacher skill and much more to do with students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. Thus, teachers will find their professional development time taken up with even more mindless test prep training and unproven reforms du jour mandated from above than is already the case. This will further alienate them from advancing their own profession through collaboration and developing a school-wide or subject-based consensus on what the school’s and students’ needs actually are.

Children’s Online Security
Parents probably do not want their children’s disciplinary records, special education status, or counselor’s notes, in the hands of strangers or entrepreneurs whose only goal is to exploit this information to make a buck. In the pre-digital days, this kind of information would have been considered protected by counselor/client privilege. Even today, school counselors do not tell teachers the details of a student’s personal problems at home, as this would violate the student’s privacy, yet this same information, once entered into the database, could be transferred to any number of private companies without the counselor’s, child’s or parent’s consent.

inBloom has promised to guard children’s personal data tightly. However, its own privacy policy states that it "cannot guarantee the security of the information stored ... or that the information will not be intercepted when it is being transmitted." These are reasonable and expectable statements from their legal team’s perspective, considering how often people’s personal data is stolen from large companies and how difficult it is to stay a step ahead of cyber crooks and hackers, but it is not very reassuring to parents who do not want random strangers or advertisers offering their children candy over the internet.

Profit, Not People
If there was ever any doubt about the role of public education in society, the inBloom database ought to dispel it. Schools exist to promote the interests of capital. Traditionally, they did this by providing as little education (at as little cost) as necessary to reproduce sufficiently trained workers to keep businesses running, who were sufficiently compliant and accepting of their lot to consume, obey and promote the status quo. There have always been a few businesses that got a little more from this tax subsidy (e.g., textbook and test publishers, cafeteria service providers), but over the last decade or so there has been a serious drive by capitalists to take full advantage of the millions of obligate consumers (i.e., students and parents) and the steady influx of capital (i.e., tax dollars).

In some ways, inBloom follows in the footsteps of Channel 1, which began marketing directly to teens through faux-educational news programs and advertisements broadcast in public schools starting in 1989. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children remembered the ads more than the news, indicating that Channel 1 was highly effective at its actual goal: marketing to children. It seems unlikely that inBloom will have any greater success than Channel 1 at educating children, but it will very likely result in much greater profits for its clients.

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