Big tech and education bite each other – column by Hans Schnitzler

By Hans Schnitzler


In May of this year, Human Rights Watch published a study that barely received any media attention, but whose results would not have been out of place on the front page of an average newspaper. The human rights organization scrutinized 164 so-called ‘edutech’ products. These are digital applications for the classroom that promise to improve the quality of education and increase the teacher’s productivity.


For example, there are all kinds of adaptive learning systems that enable teachers to follow the individual progress of their students. This should make it a lot easier to intervene in the learning process quickly and purposefully when necessary. It is the realization of the time-honored dream of “customized education,” now made possible in part by digital means.


There is, of course, nothing against the use of technology in education – blackboard and abacus were the analog predecessors of the interactive white board and calculator – but when it comes to edutech, vigilance is called for.


For what does the Human Rights Watch report reveal? A whopping 84% of the software surveyed appears to track and monitor children well beyond the classroom – or offers the ability to do so – sharing students’ personal data with no less than 196 third parties (read: advertisers). ‘Children are being monitored on a staggering scale in their online classrooms,’ the researchers state.
Once again, it appears that smart technologies are almost by definition synonymous with surveillance. After all, the condition of existence for surveillance capitalism, which aims to map and manipulate human behavior, hinges on the collection of data. And anyone who wants to collect data will have to gain access in one way or another to the comings and goings of the data person, in this case the schoolchild.


In doing so, politicians, policy makers and, in this case, educational administrators, too often allow themselves to be seduced by the cheerleader talk of the tech industry. That is, for every major human problem a technological solution is available (Internet critic Evgeny Morozov coined the term technosolutionism for this), smart applications optimize work processes, increase efficiency and make every human action measurable and thus controllable. And so, under the spell of all the wonderful things people are promised, the disruptors of Big Tech are given free rein to consolidate their grip on the public infrastructure. In other words, they are exchanging public values for technological and commercial values.


“Children are being monitored on a staggering scale in their online classrooms.”


But those who leave the storage and processing of private data to the invisible hand of the market quickly sell out public values. Schools, for example, are tasked with protecting the integrity of their students. Allowing third parties to peek in on children who are supposed to be learning and experimenting – and in the process may commit missteps and stupidities or be allowed to follow paths without outcome or clear purpose – detracts from this. The school building should be a safe indoor space, closed off from the prying eyes of anonymous data collectors.


There are also numerous educational and pedagogical reasons that call for a much more critical approach to the use of smart applications in educational environments. To name just one, there is evidence that adaptive learning systems particularly benefit strong learners. Because this practice software adapts to the individual level, fast kids go faster and slow kids go slower. Pupils who like to work independently and who are already performing well are thus at an advantage.


Before introducing new digital applications into learning environments, we should ask ourselves two questions: for what problem are we looking for a solution and is it technology that is leading here or the learning needs of our students? As long as there are no clear answers to these questions, it would be wise to keep the doors of the school building firmly shut to the whizzkids of the edutech industry.


About the author
Hans Schnitzler is philosopher, author, columnist and speaker. He is the author of ‘Het digitale proletariaat’ (2015) & ‘Kleine filosofie van de digitale onthouding’ (2017) at De Bezige Bij, columnist for Follow the Money, former columnist at de Volkskrant. His essays and columns are published in NRC, NRCNext, Trouw and more.
Photo: Michiel van Nieuwkerk