Will E-learning Platforms change Education?

Big data enthusiasts argue that the greater data collection and analysis potential provided by e-learning platforms such as Khan Academy and Udacity provide much more immediate feedback to students about how they learn, and they thus predict a future in which schools and private data companies will work together in a new educational ecosystem…

This is a continuation of my summary of  Meyer-Schonberger and Cukier’s in their (2017) ‘Big Data: The Essential Guide to Work, Life and Learning in the Age of Insight.

You might like to read this previous post first – How will Big Data Change Education? (according to the above authors).

The advantages of e-learning platforms over traditional education

Khan Academy is well-known for its online videos, but just as important to its success is the software which collects data about how students learn, as well as what they are learning.

To date, Khan Academy has data on over a billion completed exercises, which includes information on not only what videos students watch and what tests scores they achieve, but also on the length and number of times they engage with each aspect of the course, and the time of day they did their work. This enables data analysts to deduce (probabilistically) how students learn most effectively, and to provide feedback as to how they might improve their learning.

The Kahn Academy is just one online learning platform, along with a whole range of MOOCs offered through Udacity, Coursera and edX, as well as SPOOCs (small, private online courses) which are collecting huge volumes of data on student learning. The volume of data is unprecedented in human history, and Cukier suggests that this could change the whole ecosystem of learning, incorporating third parties who do the data analysis and with the role of instructors (‘teachers’) changing providing advice on which learning pathways students should adopt.

At least some of the Khan Academy Data on learning is available to third parties to analyse for free, and information personal to students is presented to them in the form a dashboard, which allows for real-time feedback to take place.

Cukier contrasts the above, emerging ecosystem of online learning, to the present ‘backward’ way in which data is collected and managed in the current education system as backward (he actually uses the term ‘agrarian’ to describe the process) – in which students are subjected to a few SATs tests at predetermined stages, and this score is ‘born by them’ until the next test, which makes labelling by teachers more likely.

In addition to this, the school day and year are run in a 19th century style, pigeon holed into year groups, pre-determined classes, students exposed to the same material, and with digital devices often banned from classes. All of this means data cannot be harnessed and analysed.

Where does this leave existing institutions of learning?

Schools and universities are well poised to harvest huge amounts of data on students, simply because they have 1000s, or 10s of 1000s of students enrolled.

To date, however, these traditional education institutions have shown a very limited ability to collect, let alone analyse and use big data to better inform how students learn.

The coming change will affect universities first – these have mature students, and this audience is more than capable of digesting insights about how to learn more effectively… the big universities where fees are expensive and students don’t get much back in return are poised for disruption by innovators…

Some of the very top universities seem to have got the importance of BIg Data – MIT identified EdX as a crucial part of its forward strategy in 2013 for example, but some of the universities lower down the pecking order may find it difficult to compete.

The response of some forward looking schools is to embrace elearning – recognising the importance of getting and utilising more data on how students learn – Khan Academy is partnered with a number of schools, for example Peninsula Bridge, a summer school for middle schoolers from poor communities in the Bay area. – Cukier cites an example of one girl who managed to improve her maths due to this (again, evidence cited is almost non existent here!)

The chapter concludes with imaging a future in which schools are just part of a broader ecosystem of learning – which includes a much more prominent role for private companies and where data plays a more central role in learning.

Comments

There are number of factors which may contribute to schools’ inability to harness big data:

  1. Time limitations – as Frank Furedi argues in ‘Wasted’, the function of schools have expanded so that they are now expected to do more than just educate kids – thus an ever larger proportion of schools’ budgets are taken up with other aspects of child development; combined with meddling by successive governments introducing new policies every few years, schools are caught in the trap of having to devote their resources to adapting to external stimuli rather than being able to innovate.
  2. Financial limitations/ equality issues – correct me if I’m wrong, but any online course tailored to GCSEs or A-levels is going to cost money, and this might be prohibitively expensive!
  3. The negative teacher experience of governance by ‘small data’ – there is a staggering amount of small data already collected and teachers are governed by this – it might actually be this experience of being governed by data that makes teachers reluctant to collect even more data – no one wants to be disempowered!
  4. Child privacy rights – there is the not insignificant issue of letting big ICT education companies have access to our children’s learning data!

 

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Will Big Data Change Education?

How will big data analytics reshape how we teach and how we learn; and how will it change what we learn?

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This is one of the questions posed in ‘Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work and Think’ (2013) by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger Kenneth Cukier.

Below is my summary of how they answer this question:

You might like to read this post first: What is Big Data?

Mayer-Schonberger and Cukier start off by arguing that public education treats children like ‘another brick in the wall’, seeing them as empty slates on which instructors may make their mark – but this mindset is an artefact of the constraints in which the school system exists – we mass produced graduates because for centuries there was no other way to deliver individualised instruction to a broad population. The old system was based around ‘small data’ which slotted students into set paths, big data favours a more flexible and open approach to education:

How big data will change the process of education?

  • First – we know more about individual differences because we can track student performance better – continuously through the learning process – educational data moves from stock to flow.
  • Second – we can tailor lessons to the needs of the individual, not the general average, which is actually no one!
  • Third – we can more easily learn what works best in teaching, the data enables a feedback loop.

‘The result is that education is one of the most significant areas where big data will make its mark. It will improve learning, which in turn will improve society and economic prosperity. Just as importantly it will improve student’s self-esteem.’ (202)

In short, the education system can be redesigned around handling individual differences, rather than trying to eradicate them or treat them as if they don’t exist.

How big data will change what we learn in education?

As to the question of what we learn – the increased role of big data in society means we will need to become more comfortable dealing with probabilities rather than certainties… and we will need to learn that we know far less than we think!

Big data means that many jobs – many of those involving making decisions – will be automated in the future, but humans have unique capabilities such as creativity and originality, irrationality and the ability to break radically from the past – so education should foster these things rather than seeing education as a process of pouring knowledge into the skulls of students.

Conventional education may have difficulty of breaking out the old mold of education, and digital disrupters are playing an insurgent role….

Problems with the increasing involvement of technology companies in education

There are four main problems of the increasing role of large technology companies in education, all of which stem from the incompatibility of the values of Silicon Valley Digital Capitalism and Public Education:

  1. The algorithmic approach to education cannot take into account the social and moral complexities of real world education.
  2. The idea of ‘learning through failure’ is incompatible with supporting every child to develop
  3. The focus on individualized entrepreneurialism may be incompatible with ideals of social cohesion, justice and equality of opportunity.
  4. The influence of technology companies in public education undermines the democratic process.

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Challenging the Benefits of Commercial Education

Large technology companies and their enthusiasts have made grand claims about both the problems of traditional public education and the potential benefits of disrupting business as usual through digital innovations such as MOOCs.

However, many of the technological disruptions of the last decade have simply failed to deliver positive results – in short, they have promised much but delivered far less.

The tech companies may well blame public education officials for failing to embrace their technologies (and/ or ideologies), however Neil Selwyn argues that tit is more a case of technology companies failing to ‘get’ public education, and the enormous complexities which surround the realities of educating people.

Below I summarize four ways in which the culture of technology firms are incompatible with the culture of public education, as identified by Selwyn (2016)

The problem of viewing education as a ‘computational project’

Innovations such as Coursera, Thiel Fellowships etc. tend to see education as a discrete computational project, that is a set of variables which can be manipulated and programmed so as to avoid any bugs or inefficiencies.

The problem with this ‘reductive approach’ is that education rarely contains variables that can be adjusted or manipulated to achieve optimal cause and effect – in reality, the social complexities of the real-world contexts in which learning takes place cannot easily be included in algorithmic models designed to make learning ‘more efficient’.

Similarly, it is questionable whether a computer can be programmed effectively to answer moral questions about the content of what a student, or students should be learning more generally.

The problem of ‘learning through failure’ 

In the Silicon Valley world of hi-tech start-ups, it is expected that the vast majority will fail, but the handful that survive will go on to be game-changers.

However, this ‘fail fast, fail often’ approach does not necessarily translate well into education, as the start-ups will be gambling with the futures of individual students, schools, or even districts… As Bill Gates reflected on his Foundations forays into education reform… ‘it would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we probably won’t know for a decade’.

This approach clearly does not fit in well with the ‘supporting every learner to succeed’ model advanced by the social democratic ideals of education.

The Problem of Focusing Too much on Individualised Learning 

Silicon Valley idealism is also rooted in a libertarian belief in the values of personal freedoms and the individualization of action, with a skepticism towards ‘experts’ working within traditional institutions (such as education) which are generally seen as inefficient.

Innovations such as the MOOC or Flipped classrooms are examples of educational transformations which have emerged out of this individualist philosophy. Such disruptive technologies can, at one level, be seen as tackling inefficiency in the provision of existing educational provision.

However, such disruptions might undermine a number of the traditional social democratic values inherent in public education, such as those of promoting community cohesion, communal responsibility and the public good, rather than just emphasizing individual gain.

Such innovations may also undermine the ideal of equality of opportunity. Some research suggests that MOOCs for example are primarily accessed by people from privileged backgrounds, who already have degrees (source forthcoming).

Big technology companies might undermine the democratic process

When the executives of companies such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft have something to say about education, education ministers tend to listen. This has led some commentators such as Joel Spring to suggest that such companies operate as ‘shadow education ministries’ – the problem here is that large tech companies are playing a role in shaping our education systems, they profit from it, and yet they have no accountability!

Conclusion

It’s unlikely that technology companies are going to stop trying to disrupt education, and it’s unlikely that our increasingly neoliberal public managers are going to stop them. However, it’s also unlikely that the public are just going to give up on the ideals of social democratic education that easily, and so at some point stakeholders in education are going to have to figure out a way of reconciling the approaches to education advanced by Silicon Valley digital technology firms and those which persist in our public education systems.

Source 

Nick Selwn (2016) Is Technology Good for Education?

Technology Companies and the Digital Privatisation of Public Education

Education has long been influenced by private companies, but the rise of digital education has expanded the role of private technology companies, in public education enormously. Such companies range from the big global technology companies such as Microsoft and Facebook to smaller, silicon valley tech startups.

This post explores the companies involved, and the neoliberal, Silicon Valley mindset that lies behind what I call the ‘digital privatization of public education’.

Introduction – Digital Capitalism and Education

Schooling in the 1700s and 1800s was provided largely through private institutions, and the expansion of public education in the late 19th and 20th centuries was influenced by the commercial interests of text book publishing companies.

Digital Technology gives private, commercial interests greater potential to influence how public education is organised and delivered.

The reason for this is simply logistical – Nation States do not have the scope to develop digital technologies, and so it is massive, Transnational private technology companies such as Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft which are  driving the development of these technologies, and the public education sectors of national governments who are their largest potential market.

All of the above mentioned companies have education divisions, oriented to developing education software and applications for use in schools, and many other companies are developing educational products: from Pearsons to Lego.

At the other end of the scale from the massive TNC sector there are hundreds, if not thousands of smaller educational technology start ups, as small-fish seek to gain a foothold in the education market.

The fact that digital education is very big business is due to the fact that the global market for education is estimated to be around $5 trillion, with the estimated market for online Higher Education ‘e-learning’ products alone estimated at $91 billion.

In short, the potential expansion of for-profit digital education is huge.

The benefits of commercial involvement in digital education

Selwyn identifies a number of (potential) benefits of the involvement of private ICT companies in bringing digital technology more into public education:

  1. TNCs enjoy economies of scale that dwarf public sector organisations – they have global reach, and enormous sums of money to invest, and they tend to ‘think big’… as one of Google’s international heads of education puts it: ‘Technology was hard to deploy in schools and we’re making the solutions we supply very easy to manage….new technology is finally able to work for us in schools’.
  2. The private sector emphasize the importance of quick results and demonstrable outcomes – they are, after all, ultimately accountable to their share holders.
  3. The IT industry is clearly well poised to bring innovation into education – innovation being defined as introducing new products and ideas that support changes in the established way of doing things. These organisations thrive on thinking big and acting quickly. They pride themselves on thinking differently – they see themselves as risk takers and boundary-pushers, cultivating an ‘outsider perspective’ unfettered by establishment thinking or old money. This is especially true in the ed-tech start-up sector, in which millions of dollars are invested in hundreds of companies, only a few of which will go on to be the next ‘big thing’.

Digital Education and rise of ‘Californian Capitalism’

Sebastian Thrun (co-founder of online learning company Udacity Inc reasoned ‘Education is broken. Face it…. it is so broken at so many ends, it requires an little bit of Silicon Valley Magic’.

The idea of ‘Silicon Valley Magic’ alludes to the set of business practices and approaches that underpin the new high-tech economy and its increased interest in education.

This mentality was described neatly by Will Hutton, based on his account of a visit to Palo Alto during the early 2010s following which he wrote of the global significance of the strain of ‘Californian Capitalism’ that characterizes Silicon Valley institutions such as Google, Oracle and even Stanford University.

‘We are increasingly living in a world where economics, politics, culture and society are being shaped by West Coast ideals of the power of computing, entrepreneurialism and risk-taking approach to investment.

The ways Silicon Valley firms seek to do business are shaped profoundly by the programming and hacking backgrounds of their main protagonists such as Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergcy Brin, Larry Ellision, Peter Thiel and so on. All of these high-tech billionnaires remain steeped in a programmer mindset where a faith in computational power and an always on networked way of life fuel a relentless focus on invention and innovation.

This is a culture of all night coding sessions and a succession of ambitiouss start-ups, most of which quickly fail, backed by investors keen to take a punt on the next ‘big thing’.

These are ventures which are based on big ideas, solving computational problems, entrepreneurialism, openness, collaboration, learning through failure and relentless self belief and optimism, based on a relentless mindset that revels in the power of individuals rather than institutions, and the creative potential of manageable amounts of renewal and disruption.

Although all of these high tech firms seek to make a profit, many of the main industry protagonists also want to ‘make a difference’ and seek to use frontier technologies to engage with immense societal challenges such as world health and global poverty, and it understands that it is part of society and owes a debt to the culture and public infrastructure that created it.

Thinking Big, spending bigger

Education is one of those sectors in which silicon valley firms seek to ‘make a difference’. This is evidenced in many different forms:

In the well-established and vast educational programmes run by all of the large multinational IT companies – often under the aegis of ‘corporate social responsibility’. These activities range from the physical design and construction of ‘schools of the future’ to the development of teacher training programmes, alternative curricula and the provision of computer hardware, software and the infrastructure to educational institutions.

There are also a range of far more ambitious initiatives such as Peter Thiel’s ‘Thiel Fellowship’ through which young people are awarded $100 00 to drop out of college and pursue their dreams by setting up a world changing business idea’; Mark Zukerberg’s ‘Start-up: Education’ through which Zuckerberg has made personal donations of $100 million to the Newark school district and $120 million to schools in the Sanfrancisco Bay area; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation boasts an extensive educational programme, including its key role in driving recent US school reforms around standardised testing and the common core curriculum. It has also spent over $470 million on US higher education reform, funding projects and generally creating what the Chronicle of Higher Education calls an ‘echo chamber of like minded ideas’.

We should also not overlook the considerable ‘soft power’ of high tech corporations in education decision making, such as with the computer industry’s considerable lobbying governments to focus more on teaching coding in schools, which now seems to be accepted universally as a ‘good thing’. The Chairman of Google, Eric Smidt has been a leading proponent of this push since 2010.

Finally, there are the various companies involved in setting up MOOCs, one of the largest of which is Coursera, bolstered by $85 million of venture capital funding.

All of these activities shows that corporate involvement in education is sometimes submerged in complex networks of influence and power, and if one finds time to follow the money, one finds that high-tech firms are in some way involved in seeking to profit from most, if not all, of the digital education initiatives out there.

It follows that the biggest movers and shakers in digital education are not educators and teachers, but rather programmers, hackers and the trillion dollar tech industry which has grown up around them.

These interventions illustrate the power which IT corporations can wield over public education, and these are increasingly strong voices in conversations about education reform, setting the tone for how education should be reimagined in the ‘digital age’.

Sources: Nick Selwyn (2016): Is Digital Education Good for Education?

Forthcoming Post:

The problems of the increasing role of Tech companies in public education