The New Yorker magazine ran a story in its March 7, 2016 issue on a $30,000 a year private school called AltSchool that has sprouted up in Silicon Valley and Brooklyn Heights and leans heavily on technology and individualized learning. It is a for-profit enterprise that is gathering data on kids, which, on the surface, it say is to help quantify interests, and information. There is a serious problem with the idea that everything from personal growth to poetry is quantifiable on a spreadsheet. It's not, and the very notion sucks the creativity out of learning and life. Though the teachers seem have incredible space to be creative with their day to day (something that is seriously missing from most educational spaces), this school has, at the end of the day, a bottom line and part of their plan seems to be to achieve that bottom line by entering the classrooms of the United States public schools and then they want to move on to the learning spaces of the world.
The biggest problem, though, may be that AltSchool's ceilings are filled with surveillance cameras and microphones that they say help teachers look back at "breakthrough" moments throughout the day and learn more about their learners and classrooms. They say they are preparing kids for the workplaces of the future. Far from challenging students to think critically about our societies, this will only serve to prepare kids for the frightening and constant surveillance we all endure in industrialized countries today. Their growth will likely be deeply stunted as they internalize the fact that this for-profit enterprise is deciding whether they pass or fail each step of the way, and given that they are always watching, it is best for the 4 year old or 14 year old to never, ever step out of line.
Here is how the article describes the surveillance:
“What is a castle?—that was your starting question today,” the teacher said. After the girl wrote a response, on paper, the teacher snapped a photograph of the page, in order to upload it to the girl’s playlist card.
Contrary to the school's stated goals (I mean their goals after their legally mandated goal of gaining profit) as communicated in the article, this school is set up to ensure that critical thought is rarely if ever expressed. Surveillance and quantitative assessment of everything will only help to quell visionary thinking that bucks trends and challenges those in charge, and to convince learners to believe that anything without a number attached to it, whether it is a song or a conversation or something else, is not really worth much in the 'real' world.
It is clear that there are numerous problems with the education system in the United States. It is slow, it is impersonal and has built a pyramid of standardized tests that have harmed educators and learners alike. The system needs to change. It needs to build human interaction into every facet of the day. It needs to challenge kids to experiment with problem solving; to succeed and to fail without the constant knowledge that they are being watched and reviewed. It needs to call on young people to see themselves as important members of communities. Despite the company's insistence that it is only for teacher's use, this surveillance footage can find its way into the hands of third party sales people, used as leverage, or simply kept aside to be used at some later date. After all, these are people who put all of their eggs in the big data basket. They think big data will solve it all, so getting rid of data like that footage could be determined to be sacrilegious in their book; Counter-revolutionary for the digital revolution as envisioned by the rich and homogeneous capitalists of Silicon Valley.
The system that AltSchool is setting up is dangerous. It puts kids at risk and therefore puts us all at risk. We should be building a society based on critical thought and action as well as genuine human interaction, with technological advancements at our side helping us as we move forward, not hovering above us recording every single picked nose and test answer. What we need is an education system that is learner-centered and focused on critical pedagogy that challenges us to learn technology, art, science, math, and one another. Instead we are getting algorithm-centered data gathering from a for-profit startup.