Your child's learning may soon be "personalized" by a computer algorithm created by people who know more about ones and zeros than they do about human beings.
I just read another one of those stories that scare the crap out of me every time I see them. The headline on the latest article in Education Week: "How (and Why) Ed-Tech Companies Are Tracking Students' Feelings
." A few hundred words into the story, you learn that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla are sinking hundreds of millions of dollars into "whole-child personalized learning." Oh, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have decided to team up with the Zuckerbergs. For all I know, Mark and Bill's wives are genuine sentient beings, but the two men are beta version androids, strong on smarts but weak on understanding of what makes humans human. They'd most likely fail the human/replicant test in Blade Runner.
Here's how the Orwellian world of computerized "personalized learning" works. A student uses, say, an online math learning program. The software keeps track of the student's every keystroke, pause, fast forward and rewind, and of course every right and wrong answer. If the program is sophisticated and invasive enough, it may record facial expressions and eye movements as well. The information is stored in an individual folder on the company server. The next time the student logs on, the software uses what it has "learned" about that child to personalize the lesson to the student's academic and emotional learning style.
Best case scenario: The lessons are better suited to individual students, increasing their levels of interest and comprehension.
Worst case scenario: As the student interacts with educational programs in a variety of subjects, and maybe plays a few games and takes a few fun quizzes ("Which do you like better, playing video games or playing sports?") as a reward for time spent or points earned, the software company amasses a growing file of psychometric data. Year by elementary school year the data accumulates, creating an intimate, multi-dimensional personality profile. Humans come and go, but computer data lives forever. During their school years, young people's data and psychometric analysis can be used to make them "better" students — more attentive and interested maybe, but also more compliant and conforming. For the rest of their lives, it can be sold to people who think they can gain monetarily, or politically, from knowing what individual buttons to push on millions of human beings to elicit the desired responses.
Big Data Is Watching You. And Evaluating You. And Manipulating You.
Companies are cropping up all over the tech world to profit from the emerging field.
One of the most popular [companies] now administers online surveys to more than 7 million students a year, generating a massive database about children’s “grit” and “growth mindset.”
Others claim they can improve children’s “impulse control” through video games; provide parents with a “high-dimensional psychometric profile” of their preschoolers; and allow school staffers to use smartphones to continually record their observations of students’ feelings.
Meanwhile, cutting-edge researchers are also exploring facial recognition, eye-tracking, wearable devices, and even virtual reality as ways to better gauge what students are feeling.
Jim Shelton, the man heading the Zuckerberg's personalized learning efforts, says the data accumulated on students will help "optimize" their social, emotional and academic development. "Optimize." That's the word he chose to describe human development.
Then there's the company Tinylogics' Fitbit on steroids:
[Tinylogics] is currently testing a wearable it calls FOCI. When clipped to a waistband, the device will track users’ breathing patterns, then tell them when they’re feeling focused, relaxed, fatigued, or stressed. Tinylogics describes an accompanying app as a “focus-enhancing mind coach.”
Imagine the possibilities as they add ever more invasive FOCI apps.
I'm sure it's just one of those weird coincidences, but Tinylogics is based in Cambridge, U.K. Is there a computer chip they insert in the necks of Cambridge professors that programs them to work in the area of human manipulation?
The field of computer-based human engineering will continue to grow, for the same reason George Mallory climbed Mount Everest: Because it's there. The challenge of probing and manipulating the human mind is too tempting for curious minds to ignore. It also doesn't hurt that it can be immensely profitable when it is used to sway what the public buys and how it votes.
Big Data is here, and it's growing. The people watching us need to be watched carefully, especially when they're messing with our children's educations.