Edtech Needs Recoding to Transform Student ‘Users’ Into Digital Citizens

Getting digital doom out of the classroom means cultivating an ethical and creative approach to educational technology.

Cha Pornea

Citizens of the future will look back at this time and observe a strange thing. As we decry the surveillant, exploitative, and socially corrosive features of Big Tech and its disciples, we force their products on students as if they were as essential and harmless as the ABCs.

The tech industry has colonized education, allowing Big Tech and startups alike to market their wares and self-interested technological vision to those who will shape our future. Simultaneously, education has become one of the top brokers of one of the world’s hottest commodities. Student-generated data is estimated to represent a potential billion or even trillion-dollar industry. Edtech companies were already seizing their piece of the pie before the recent pandemic-induced surge of distance learning fueled the rush.

Apps and sensors are tracking student movements and attendance. Facial recognition technology watches over campus. “Remote exam supervision software” snoops on students in their bedrooms. Predictive analytics are used to determine students’ chances for academic success and guide college admission decisions. Machine learning is regularly deployed to monitor student communications in university systems and social media for potential threats and indicators of mental illness. Constant surveillance has become a feature of student life.

Advocates of these tools claim that they support education, but their real value comes from converting student behavior into priceless data. The media conglomerate Advance Publications acquired Turnitin, which uses AI to scan students’ writing for plagiarism, last year for $1.75 billion. In March, the private equity firm Thoma Bravo paid $2 billion for Instructure, the maker of the learning management platform Canvas, with the edtech company’s massive global datasets on student behavior touted as one of its chief assets. As of January, there are 19 edtech startups worldwide with billion-dollar valuations.

Though the edtech data obsession is relatively new, major tech companies have long recognized the strategic market value of students. In the 1950s, IBM gave universities massive discounts on one of its early computers if they agreed to offer computing courses on their machines. Since Apple’s earliest days, it has pursued initiatives and political lobbying to bring its computers into virtually every educational institution in the US (a strategy that Google is now repeating with its Chromebook). And Facebook, which originally seeded its online user network through student communities and offline campus networks, has doubled down on its student focus with the recent launch of Facebook Campus.

Tech giants continue to pour significant resources into services, educational and productivity tools, and various types of hardware and software for students, educators, and schools. They are often provided for free, suggesting that the return on investment is amply paid in data and access to new consumers. And with the pandemic pushing much of education online, these trends are only accelerating.

Educators and scholars such as Audrey Watters, Chris Gilliard, and collaborators Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris, to name only a few, have for years called attention to disturbing trends in educational technology and their harmful effects on the learning, safety, and rights of students. Their work suggests that what’s truly at stake with edtech is the ethical future of technology itself.

As technological threats to democracy, social justice, and our well-being become increasingly apparent, there is growing public discussion about what combination of solutions might best counteract them. But any potential solutions are unlikely to grow beyond a fringe movement if they don’t confront Big Tech in the conquered territory of the classroom.

Big Tech refuses to be transparent or accountable to the public. We have come to learn, headline by headline, that society can only be as democratic, just, humane, and governable as the technology that supports it. And much of the extractive and profit-motivated  technology that we have today is in fact just the opposite of what we need.

Educational institutions have been used to teach a population at scale not to worry about the immense power this technology holds over their personal and political lives. Or at the very least, to teach them — through normalization, dominance, and the crowding out of alternatives — not to think that there’s anything they can do about it. Long after the academic term ends, students are likely to carry out the technological habits and beliefs reinforced by education as thoughtlessly as they continue to breathe.

Institutions have chosen to submerge students in a culture of computing that normalizes surveillance, exploitation, and control as if these were the objective features of computing itself. Can technological practice within education look any different? 

History suggests that it could. Roughly 40 years ago, there was a modest flourishing of educator- and student-developed tools that embodied a more creative and intellectually-minded approach to technology than today’s productivity-obsessed edtech. While he was still a graduate student, the educator Hugh Burns created TOPOI, a chatbot modeled after Aristotle’s rhetoric to help brainstorm research paper ideas, which demonstrated a playful and philosophically-driven approach to writing technology. WANDAH (Writer’s Aid and Author’s Helper), a more extensive educator-driven composition tool that writing instructors developed at UCLA with help from student coders, was effectively used in first-year writing classes. And two decades before Web 2.0 technologies made “networked learning” a fad, educators were already creating modem-supported networks that allowed students across the US to exchange essays.

Though the instructors behind these initiatives weren’t the first to consider the computer as an educational tool, their disciplinary training enabled them to imagine its possibilities in a way that computer scientists and tech companies had not. But these community-driven approaches to edtech all but vanished as universities standardized their technological offerings with commercial, nonmodifiable systems and applications.

As technological threats to democracy, social justice, and our well-being become increasingly apparent, there is growing public discussion about what combination of solutions might best counteract them. But any potential solutions are unlikely to grow beyond a fringe movement if they don’t confront Big Tech in the conquered territory of the classroom. New technologies, laws, and business models will be essential, but the success, efficacy, and continued stewardship of these domains will depend on the transformation of today’s users into digital citizens — individuals who recognize their right and responsibility to exercise agency over technology.

The problem is that it’s much more difficult to create digital citizens than users. The formation of a citizen requires enabling and motivating genuine individual participation in the governance of an entity. Instead of opacity, there must be methods for inspecting and debating technology as well as facilitating and evolving its governance according to public needs. Citizens must also believe that their participation matters.

It’s difficult to overstate the positive effect of supporting students to collectively design and govern their educational tools. There’s no better way to show them how tools can affect their thinking and social interactions, and to prepare them to critically shape the technologies that in turn shape our world.

It will take urgent and wide-ranging initiatives to bring every student user into the governance process of the tools they use in education. Let students study the technical and social processes of these tools, which are currently swept under the desk; let students debate their ethical, pedagogical, and social implications; and let students be the final arbiter in the use of these tools. 

I credit my own technological awakening to a chance encounter with community-driven edtech in graduate school — the City University of New York’s CUNY Academic Commons, where any student, faculty, or community member could create websites and use its suite of networking and collaboration tools for education. Its robust support for collaboration and engagement made learning much more social and creative than my experience with dominant forms of edtech had been. What was uniquely powerful about the Commons was the fact that our academic community had created it, which gave me the rare opportunity to participate in its development and oversight as a student. I took advantage of this by developing a plugin called Social Paper, which allowed students to network their academic papers and feedback. 

It’s difficult to overstate the positive effect of supporting students to collectively design and govern their educational tools. There’s no better way to show them how tools can affect their thinking and social interactions, and to prepare them to critically shape the technologies that in turn shape our world. To my knowledge, there is not at this moment an edtech project where this sort of student agency is supported in a significant and sustainable manner. But various academic technology projects and experiments are demonstrating the value of this approach. 

The “indie” edtech company Reclaim Hosting enables more than 100 institutions to provide students with domains and web hosting that they own and control, and its tools have inspired a cult following among users. The social networks HASTAC and Humanities Commons also highlight some of the unique benefits of community-governed academic tech. They provide a space for educators and students to share research and resources without subjecting them, like their commercial analogs Academia.edu and ResearchGate, to profit-motivated network architectures and data extraction. And academic technology projects developed in connection to the digital humanities, such as the publishing platforms Manifold and Scalar, show how community-driven approaches can excel at innovating for the distinct needs of students and educators today. 

I’ve personally developed initiatives that include the formation of the digital commons KNIT, a network of higher education institutions in San Diego with more than 2,500 members, and KNIT R&D, the undergraduate research group that helped steer its direction. I’ve also worked with educators across the country to advocate for the importance of student agency, such as with the Ethical EdTech group I co-founded with Nathan Schneider and a student syllabus statement that I published on Educause with Autumm Caines alerting students to the collection of personal data by educational tools. 

As anyone working in this area knows well, it can be difficult to build resources and enthusiasm for nontraditional approaches to academic technology. Better organizational structures are necessary to inspire and legitimize student oversight of these tools. What we need are concrete alternatives to the thoughtless ways that we’re accelerating digital doom in the very institutions that should be saving us from it — initiatives that can vitally enable students to claim agency over technological tools as a means of leading us to a better future.

Artwork By

Cha Pornea

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