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By 2020, technology in the classroom is predicted to be a 21 billion dollar industry. Mark Zuckerberg and his partner Chan have pledged to donate $45 billion dollars in Facebook shares to bring their personalized learning to other educational spaces. Meanwhile, Bill Gates is committing $300 million to similar causes, and Netflix’s Reed Hastings wants to give $11 million to personalized math software. But there is reason to second guess this opportunistic philanthropy. In fact, it would be simply daft to not question what else is going on here, especially with Betsy DeVos as an outspoken proponent to this so-called personalized learning. It’s becoming clear that company interests are intended to groom loyal customers, sometimes at the sake of effective tutelage. And while teachers have begun to criticise their new role as entertainer, strangely, classroom silence is a measure of an app’s success. These are just a few of the reasons why Silicon Valley’s role, which is surprisingly self-serving, is in serious need of examination.
Take Google as an example. Right now, the majority of public schools rely on Google’s Chromebooks. The laptops now host half the nation’s primary and secondary students, with over 30 million students using Google’s educational applications. At a cheap $30 dollars per student and with a suite of free online applications, it may seem like an altruistic move on Google’s part. However, all Google’s services remain free because of advertisements and the data the company tracks from users’ online meanderings. This has led many to argue that its benevolent image is only as good as the promise to not track student data. Otherwise, Google’s educational enterprise allows the company to benefit from its collection of adolescent data mines, serving its corporate wealth early and grooming children’s loyalty to its brand.
Technology’s ample presence is moving at a speed that puts action before implication, meaning that no one can say for certain what technology’s impact will be on today’s children. Research thus far paints a contradictory landscape, with some arguing that innovative apps are improving test scores, while many teachers find students’ classroom attention faintly dwindling — an issue that is already endemic to current schooling. Yet, what seems most profound is technology’s role in shifting both learning outcomes and style.
Jonathan Rochelle, director of Google’s education app program, controversially said when asked about his own children’s education, “I cannot answer for them what they are going to do with the quadratic equation. I don’t know why they are learning it. And I don’t know why they can’t ask Google for the answer if the answer is right there.” Rochelle highlights how technology, and the internet in particular, are shifting student expectations. The answers are expected to come quick, where sustained critical inquiry is de-emphasized and replaced with Wikipedia research.
Recently, The New York Times explored the ways in which tech companies court these partnerships with school districts using tactics which the outlet likens to the pharmaceutical industry’s courting of doctors, where million-dollar contracts are effectively signed after a series of high-profile dinners and business trips. There are steak dinners, expensive conferences and all-out wooing that is characteristic behavior of tech companies, as they vie for the opportunity to become a school district’s digital ambassador.
These district-contracts are no small investment for an already unequal and underfunded public school system. For instance, the Times article covers the $205 million multi-year contract that Baltimore School District signed with Daly computers to purchase HP’s now defunct Elitebook Revolve. At the same time, many districts face a crisis of infrastructure, where water in some schools runs brown and economic opportunity is grossly divided.
Silicon Valley now humbles its image as teacher, giving underserved students greater chance in the future workforce. Yet there are also many examples where classroom technology merely increases the economic disparity between rich and poor schools. Summit Public Schools, Mark Zuckerberg’s semi-successful charter network, is one example of the polarized choices school districts have when it comes to classroom technology. While Zuckerberg’s charter boasts of its innovative software and wood-varnished desks, many other schools are finding themselves with devices that have quickly become obsolete and amidst budget cuts.
So far, the model of “personalized-learning,” i.e. tech-enriched education, is hard to reproduce successfully, especially once it loses its big funders. In Baltimore, parents are already complaining that their children’s Elitebook Revolve is missing pieces to the keyboard and experiencing battery failures. At the same time, the district’s superintendent was revealed to have made 65 out-of-state trips (estimated at $33,000 dollars) to tech conferences, where he was a sort of public school ambassador, while in the market for a contract.
So while Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have admitted they strictly limit how much technology their own kids are exposed to, their brand ambassadors are trying to keep the attention of school superintendents, travelling great lengths and spending small fortunes to win district contracts. They know such loyalty is an intelligent investment. There is no doubt that technology in the classroom will continue to grow over the next decades, leaving education with the capacity for innovation as well as devastation. However, there is formidable reason to practice patience before changing all rules of the lesson and we should demand district figures and educators sign carefully.