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Questions We Should Be Asking About “Future Ready” Schools



How far are we from the day we’ll be forced to rely on online education modules to inspire and excite the minds of young people; where badge collections replace diplomas; and virtual reality games substitute for Friday night dances, track meets, spelling bees, and school plays?

Editor’s note: Original post written for Wrench in the Gears and re-published with permission. Visit Wrench in the Gears for more information on the danger of “learning eco-systems.” -Carolyn Leith 

Questions we should be asking about “Future Ready” schools


How far are we from the day we’ll be forced to rely on online education modules to inspire and excite the minds of young people; where badge collections replace diplomas; and virtual reality games substitute for Friday night dances, track meets, spelling bees, and school plays? How much time do we have before certified human teachers are replaced by “Task Rabbit” pathway designers and AI personal “tutors?” Before we lose all expectations for privacy surrounding how and when we access our educations? Before the entirety of our educational lives becomes consolidated under a unique ID number and its associated digital shadow?

Online learning is claiming ever-larger blocks of instructional time in bricks and mortar schools. Budgets prioritize technology purchases over investments in human staff and facilities. Increasingly responsibility for assessment is being taken away from teachers and placed under the purview of data dashboards and black boxes that monitor in minute detail our children’s academic and social-emotional “progress” towards standards we had no part in setting.

For all of these reasons, we need to take a critical look at school redesign programs that are showing up in communities across the nation. Our government is rolling these initiatives out right now in coordination with think tanks, philanthropies, and the education technology sector. If thousands of superintendents nationwide are signing on to “Future Ready Schools” it is imperative that as citizens we start considering the far reaching consequences a data-driven, technology-mediated system of public education will have for the health and wellbeing of our children and our democracy.

As we move into the era of the quantified self. I find myself worrying. I worry a lot. I worry that we should be asking questions, a lot of questions, and that our window for questioning is shrinking by the day.

Many who spend their days in our nation’s schools have been put into positions where they are almost compelled to welcome the concept of “school redesign.” They have been living for years in the test-and-punish nightmare that No Child Left Behind created. They’ve been coping with austerity budgets, toxic buildings, staff shortages, lack of respect, frozen wages, and the ongoing challenge of meeting the needs of students living in poverty with far too few resources at their disposal.

Current conditions in many of our nation’s schools are appalling, and that is by design. It is through this dissatisfaction with our current situation that they hope to accomplish a shift away from a “standardized” education based on a single high-stakes test given at the end of the year to a “personalized” digital education that employs ongoing online data collection as children progress through the curriculum year round.

So with that in mind, I invite you to consider the questions below. Hopefully they will give you some ideas you can use to start your own conversations with parents, teachers, and school board members in your own community. In my heart I believe the 21st century schools parents and human teachers desire for their children are very different from the version being pushed, behind closed doors, by the educational technology sector.

Questions we should be asking about school redesign and “Future Ready Schools:”

Technology-mediated education is considered to be a disruptive force. Many “innovative” 21st century education approaches seek to undermine traditional concepts like “seat time,” the Carnegie Unit, age-based grade levels, the centrality of teachers in classrooms, report cards, diplomas and to extend credit-based learning beyond the school building itself. Before moving forward with these ideas, shouldn’t there be a wider public discussion about which aspects of traditional schooling we want to retain moving forward? Disruption for the sake of creating new markets for businesses is an insufficient reason to dismantle neighborhood schools.

Why should we allow our children to be human subjects in this grand data science experiment? This is particularly troublesome given the fact that ethics codes for data scientists are not nearly as well developed as codes of conduct for bio-medical research.

What are the implications of expanded 1:1 device use and screen time on children’s health and emotional states?

How does the use of embedded “stealth” assessments contribute to the normalization of a surveillance society in the United States?

What overlap exists between data analysis used to monitor national security interests and data analysis used to assess educational content and activities in our nation’s schools? How does the Office of Educational Technology interface with the Department of Defense and how comfortable are the American people with those relationships? See xAPI or Tin Can or Douglas Noble’s 1991 extensively-researched book “Classroom Arsenal: Military Research, Information Technology, and Public Education” for additional background information.

As nano-technology advances make wearable devices more commonplace, shouldn’t parents have the right to refuse the collection of live data streams on behalf of their children? What types of monitoring (bio-metric and otherwise) have been enabled through the expanded presence of devices in our schools? Cameras, microphones, touch screens, and fit bits for example?

While personalized learning platforms tout their “individualization,” to what extent do these programs recognize our children’s humanity? As systems thinking becomes embedded within public education policy, are our children being valued as unique human beings possessed of free will, or merely as data points to be controlled and managed?

Feedback loops influence human behavior. In what ways could large-scale implementation of adaptive education programs and online educational gaming platforms contribute to the collective brainwashing of our children?

Personalized education means that algorithms decide what educational content your child CAN see, and what content they won’t see. Is it the duty of education to expose children to a wide range of content that will broaden their view of the world? Or is it the role of an adaptive learning program to feed the child information for which they have already expressed a preference? Consider the implications of a “Facebook” model of education.

How much data is too much? Data is never neutral. Who is collecting the data and to what end? Data is always a reflection of the ideology in which it is collected. Why should we trust data more than the professional expertise of human teachers?

We caution children about their online presence, but through the imposition of digital curriculum we are forcing them to create virtual educational identities at very young ages. Should that worry us? What are the implications of our children having digital surrogates/avatars that are linked to comprehensive data sets of academic and social-emotional information? Do we really understand the risks?

Who owns the intellectual property that students create on school-managed cloud-based servers? Do they have the right to extract their work at will?

What roles do teacher education programs and certification policies play in furthering a technology-mediated approach to public education?

Will students enrolled in private schools have their data collected at the same level as public school students? Is privacy something that will become ultimately be available only to the rich and elite? Will we allow that to happen?

Should it be the basic human right of all children to have access, if they choose, to a public education model in which humans teach one another in (non-digital) community in an actual school building?

-Wrench in the Gears

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