Astronomer Stephen Hawking recently raised concerns about the threat artificial intelligence poses to human civilization. But even if we are not all turned into drones by some supermind, major changes are afoot, revealing both a bright and dark side of the technologies we find so addictive.
As teachers, most of us are excited to see our students turned on by the latest technologies. Computers allow students to conduct research on the web, email experts for information, gather images and view videos from around the world. Students can use digital tools to create, rather than simply consume. Students can make their own podcasts, tutorials, or creative projects.
But technology has a darker side as well. I have been reading a book, called Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans, which explores these dimensions of 21st century technology. Author Simon Head describes the ways in which computers are being used to reorganize and manage all sorts of aspects of life and commerce.
American society is now organized for the convenience and profitability of corporations, who, as Gilens and Page recently documented, hold sway over the political process. Those corporations have discovered the extraordinary value of “Computer Business Systems,” which allow all sorts of processes to be rendered more efficient.
As I read of the ways these systems work, I began to understand some of the imperatives driving 21st century education “reform.”
CBSs are amalgams of different technologies that are pulled together to perform highly complex tasks in the control and monitoring of businesses, including their employees. The technologies of the Internet are crucial to CBSs because they provide the foundation for computer networks that can link the workstation of every employee or group of employees within an organization. (p. 6) Products known as "data warehouses" and "data marts" are also critical to the CBS control regime. Data warehouses contain the gigantic quantities of information needed to store data in millions of transactions performed daily by tens of thousands of employees - the raw material of the system. Data marts "cleanse" and order this data so that it can be used to evaluate performance in real time and in line with matrices established by management. Once data warehouses and data marts are fused with the monitoring capabilities of CBSs, then the building blocks of a very powerful system of workplace control are in place. (p. 7)
When we think of work being controlled and sped up, the image of a factory worker comes to mind. We see Charlie Chaplin, in Modern Times, struggling to keep up with his assembly line. This movement for efficiency was called Taylorism, and transformed industrial production. In the 21st century, this is not just for factory workers.
The way this works is that system designers develop rules that govern interactions between the different parts of a process - even when those parts are actually human beings. Then those processes are analyzed and the system is reorganized and optimized for efficiency. If you have interacted with telephone tech support, you may have experienced this sort of management. Our medical services are now being organized on this basis, with insurance providers who have very specific ideas about what “best practice” means - and it is usually that which is the fastest and costs the least.
Simon Head explains:
How can this regime of precise measurement and of panoptic managerial vision be transferred to a context where the objects of production are the treatment of sick patients, the transactions between teachers and pupils, or the decisions to hire and fire employees? The answer is that the structure and context of these activities must be expressed in a form that can be captured by the system, so that their digital representations can then be read analyzed. But the limits of "capturability" become apparent when one looks at transactions between human agents where attempts to impose "capturability," and with it the disciplines of CBSs, distort the meaning of what is being done and leave the data generated highly vulnerable to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out.
So what would it take to bring this sort of efficient management to education?
First of all, we need a discrete set of measurable learning objectives that everyone agrees are the goal for the K-12 system.
We need curriculum and most importantly closely aligned tests that tell us if students have met these objectives.
We need devices that students work on capable of recording and transmitting their every keystroke, their every written thought, and everything they have read or viewed on their screen.
Then we need data systems to track the performance of all the parts in the system. We want to know how the students are doing, but we also want to measure the effects of various learning technologies, readings, assignments and, of course, the effect of their teachers. So we need systems to record, store, and analyze all this data.
Not sure how this will be possible? Take a minute to listen to Jose Ferreira, of Knewton:
Education happens to be the world's most data minable industry by far. And its not even close.... The name of the game is data per user. So one of the things that fakes us out about data in education is because it is so big - like the fourth biggest industry in the world - it produces incredible quantities of data. But data that just produces one or two data points per user per day is not really all that valuable to an individual user. It might be valuable to like a school district administrator, but maybe not even then. So let's just compare. Netflix and Amazon get in the ones of data points per user per day. Google and Facebook get in the tens of data points per user per day. So you do ten minutes of messing around in Google and you produce about a dozen data points for Google. So Knewton today gets five to ten million actionable data points per student per day. Now we do that, because we get people, if you can believe it, to tag every single sentence of their content - we have a large publishing partnership with Pearson, and they've tagged all of their content. And we're an open standard, so anyone can tag to us. If you tag all of your content, and you do it down to the atomic concept level, down to the sentence, down to the clause, you unlock an incredible amount of trapped, hidden data. We literally know everything about you and how you learn best. Everything. Because we have five orders of magnitude more data about you than Google has. We literally have more data about our students than any company has about anybody else, about anything, and it's not even close. That's how we do it.
So this “learning system,” according to Mr. Ferreira, can use its predictive power to know how to teach every concept to every student. And it is critical that all the students be connected, because the system draws its intelligence from its ability to analyze these trillions of data points from millions of students. Mr Ferreira, in his 2012 speech above, claimed that in the following year his company would have the data for ten million students, and not long after that, 100 million.
Clearly you do not need teachers in this scenario, except perhaps to supervise the students as they work on their devices. Class sizes can expand significantly. You do not even need schools. All a student needs is some sort of computer and a connection to the internet.
This system to reorganize education sounds remarkably close to what Bill Gates has been advocating for the past few years. The Common Core would provide us with the list of discrete learning objectives, Pearson, Amplify and various other tech companies are producing the devices, tagging their content to the standards. The Department of Education is funding the standards-aligned tests, to be taken on computers. The Gates Foundation created inBloom to function as the data warehouse, (though that has now collapsed.)
If states use common academic standards, the quality of classroom materials and professional development will improve, Gates said. Much of that material will be digital tools that are personalized to the student, he said. "To get this innovation out, common standards will be helpful."
The wave of technology that has transformed the US economy since the advent of the internet twenty years ago has yielded tremendous advances in efficiency and productivity. However, the benefits of these advances have flowed up to the top one percent - or even the top .1 percent. A recent report suggests that nearly half the jobs in the US may be lost in the next twenty years as a result of computerization.
The people running the economy are looking for ways to cut any labor that can be rendered obsolete through technology, and educators are not immune to this trend.
The skills and abilities that students develop in school, under the guidance of skilled educators, are not so easily measured, and this is a powerful reason to reject the mechanization of education. The late Gerald Bracey offered this list of things not measured by tests:
- critical thinking
- sense of beauty
- sense of wonder
In the years to come, we can choose to conform to the most efficient ways to organize our work and the process of education, so as to cost the least amount possible, while delivering the technical skills required by the employers who still require human labor. Or we can flip the paradigm, and organize our schools and our lives to serve the full development of children as human beings. This is decidedly inefficient. Huge amounts of time will be utterly wasted on kindergarten music recitals and artistic endeavors not worthy of a major gallery. This choice transcends education, and runs through every aspect of our culture. It is a challenge that requires not the efficient calculations of a thinking machine, but the slower contemplation of a moral mind.
What do you think? Is the Common Core part of an effort to computerize education?
Continue the dialogue with Anthony on Twitter.
The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.