Thursday, June 29, 2017

Does Zuck Want To Be The Next Gates with Personalized Learning

Here's lead from the EdWeek article:

Pediatrician Priscilla Chan and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg are gearing up to invest hundreds of millions of dollars a year in a new vision of “whole-child personalized learning,” with the aim of dramatically expanding the scope and scale of efforts to provide every student with a customized education.

The power couple's Big Initiative has announced its intent to "support the development of software that might help teachers better recognize and respond to each student’s academic needs—while also supporting a holistic approach to nurturing children’s social, emotional, and physical development." So, slap the child in front of a screen, but somehow have the child turn out physically and emotionally well-rounded.

To head this up, they've hired former Deputy Sec of Ed James Shelton. Shelton knows the territory-- besides overseeing the Office of Innovation and Improvement (before John King took the job), he was an Ed Guy for the Gates Foundation, worked with New School Venture Fund, spent time with McKinsey, and worked for 2U, an organization that helped for-profit colleges take advantages of the loopholes that he wrote into laws governing such schools back when he was at USED. In other words, he has carved out a long and useful career at the intersection of Big Investor Dollars and education "innovation."

The Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative presents new opportunities because A) it has more money than God and B) it's not really a philanthropy so much as a philanthropy-flavored investment business.

CZI will be able to make philanthropic donations, invest in for-profit companies, lobby for favored policies and legislation, and directly support candidates for elected office­­—all with minimal public-reporting requirements.

CZI often runs with the word "start-up," and Shelton's plans sound very businessy.

Within five years, Shelton said in the June 22 interview, CZI’s work should have helped launch a “meaningful number” of schools and learning environments “where kids are performing dramatically better, and feel more engaged, and teachers feel more engaged in the work that they’re doing.”

 The important part of that quote comes in the first half. They are looking to start some education-flavored businesses. The article includes some pointed words of caution from Rick Hess, who is rapidly becoming a prolific sub-tweeter of Betsy DeVos:

“This isn’t engineering a new ride-sharing app,” he said. “It’s how do we influence the learning of millions of children, day after day, for years to come.”

(IOW, Mrs. DeVos, charter schools are not UBER) The article does, however, give an accurate and pointed summary of the recent history of personalized learning:

Over the past several years, other philanthropists, venture capitalists, and advocates, along with the ed-tech industry, have pushed the notion hard. Many district and school leaders have responded favorably.

In other words, the PL "revolution" is about investors and corporations-- not about teachers or educators or schools. It is the new technocratic horizon, with Zuckerberg poised to become for Personalized Learning (at least this particular version of it) what Bill Gates was for the Common Core-- its patron saint, its bank, its armtwister, and all without any real input from people who work in education. Hoo-frickin-ray.

The article's author, Benjamin Herold, notes that it's hard to talk about personalized learning because the meaning is so fuzzy (and that includes when Zuckerberg is talking about it, as he has on many occasions). Part of the question is scale-- at one point Zuckerberg announced his intention to get PL to everyone-- but Shelton told EW that he wanted to focus on large improvements for small groups of students. Well.

"Large improvements for small groups of students" would make an excellent motto for the charter school industry (though they often fail to live up to it). It's not all that helpful for a public education system aimed at all students. And Shelton's exemplar shows that his aim is not true:

As an example, he cited a recent grant to the College Board, aimed at expanding access to the organization’s personalized online SAT preparation and college-planning resources, which have shown early promise.

No. What College Board has sort-of-proven is that when you give students a lot of test prep aimed at one particular test, they get better scores on that test. This is not innovation, and it's not education, either.

Herold notes that some skeptics are calling for open-sourcing. As Bill Fitzgerald notes in the article, "If you’re serious about allowing people to learn in the ways that make the most sense to them, you have to give them more choices than just using your software, under your rules.” On the other hand, if you're serious about getting good ROI on your fledgling education-flavored business, then you make sure all of your proprietary materials stay under wraps so that all customers must deal with you.

And let's remember again how Zuckerberg is specially equipped in ways that Bill Gates was not. In fact, the article notes that the special structure allows CZI to out-Gates Gates. "Levers" they can "pull." For instance, actual philanthropies have their hands tied when it comes to lobbying; CZI has no such limitations. And CZI doesn't "rule out" other sorts of political activities to push its initiatives. Yeah, I know-- the rules didn't slow Gates down a bit. But it's one more level CZI has to yank upon. And while Gates is required to employ some transparency (hence all the research folks have done tracking Gates Foundation grants), CZI will have no such requirement. They can operate in darkness as much as they like.

And CZI has clearly signaled its intent to try to shape policy debates in education and to exert different kinds of influence in complementary ways. An online job description for the position of “director of innovative schools and tools,” for example, called for someone who can “ensure our nonprofits and for-profit investments are coordinated for maximum impact.”

That not only underlines the nature of how CZI will try to impose its will, but what will they want to impose. This is a business, just barely disguised as philanthropic work, and personalized learning is emerging as the next big technocratic frontier in getting public education money tucked into private corporate pockets. And the possibility for conflicts of interest that are huge but invisible to the public-- like basically paying people to use and promote your product while keeping your sponsorship secret-- that's a big concern as well. How does Shelton plan to avoid such problems?

 We’re paying really close attention

Phew! That's a relief.

As is its wont, EW circles back around to a feels-okay finale:

Ultimately, Shelton said, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative feels as though it’s responsible primarily to the people the organization is hoping to serve.

That's probably true. The bigger question is-- who are those people, really. Of course, according to Shelton, it's all For The Children. Call me cynical, but it appears that other large interests are in play as well.


  1. Invest in people, not technology. Human support, not tech support. Human experiences, not virtual experiences. Human insights, not algorithms. Human compassion, not feedback. Human humor, not memes. Human companionship, not machine interfacing. Human role models, not theoretical speeches. Human friends, not visual distractions. Human development, not achievement badges. Human privacy, not data collection and interpretation. Invest in life, not a machine. Live with the uncertainty of it all. Invest in the well being of students and teachers. I hope they don't think that their plan doesn't deny children sufficient human interaction because it most certainly does.

  2. Kids in the US are now on screens 7 hours per day. I wonder how many hours it would be in a school that buys into PL whole hog. 10? 12?

    Of course, no one has any idea of the biological, psychological, social or educational effects of this level of screen immersion.

    Zberg is much like Gates--potemkin missionaries who are really only set-up artists for their own enterprise.