Facebook is taking its first steps into the world of online education, the company announced Thursday, launching an plan that could grow into a major side venture for the social networking company.
The effort is taking the form of a new online education platform, dubbed the Personalized Learning Plan (PLP), which Facebook has already launched in collaboration with about 30 schools. The goal, the company says, is to “create a classroom experience that’s centered around students’ ambitions.” The idea was developed in collaboration with Summit Public Schools, a small chain of charter schools that approached the company looking for a way to enhance its use of technology in the classroom.
The idea of the Personalized Learning Plan, Facebook says, is to allow educational paths to be customized more to the individual student, allowing them to receive assignments, activities, and tests via the Internet. Teachers, in turn, will be allowed to focus more on directing group work or mentoring individual students.
Facebook says the new software will eventually be offered for free to any public school that wants it.
“Whenever I ask [Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg], ‘Do I need to think of this as business?’ he always pushes back and says, ‘That shouldn’t be a priority right now. We should just continue making this better,'” Facebook engineer Mike Sego told The New York Times. Sego is currently leading the new education project, which has just a handful of full-time employees for the time being.
Whatever Facebook’s intentions, though, its foray into education will raise at least a few eyebrows. The company says that the Personalized Learning Plan will be totally separate from Facebook’s social network and that student privacy will be respected — but not everybody believes them.
“We are very concerned about the privacy implications of this deal,” said Leonie Haimson of the non-profit Class Size Matters in a statement to the BBC. “Facebook is known for violating privacy and seems to be getting worse in this regard … Who will control access to the personal student data and who will protect it? Who will decide? Parents or Facebook or the schools or districts?”
Musing about Facebook’s privacy record is hardly alarmist. Besides the fact that the company’s entire business model is based on selling user information to advertisers, the company has also been hit with a lawsuit related to allegations that it has sifted through users’ private messages without their consent.
Fears over privacy have killed past efforts to introduce more technology into schools. For example, the Gates Foundation-backed non-profit inBloom was supposed to revolutionize education by creating a national database of student information to allow teachers to better track students as they aged and moved across the U.S. But parents recoiled at inBloom’s database, which would have allowed third party access to deeply personal information such as a student’s family relationships and medical history. In 2014, inBloom shut down after several participating states backed out. (RELATED: Bill Gates’ Bizarre $100 Million Student Data Project Has Failed)
Education is a major interest of Zuckerberg, who donated $100 million to Newark, N.J.’s public schools in 2010. That gift has been subjected to a great deal of scrutiny, as millions were spent on consultants and other fees while reform efforts alienated many of Newark’s parents and students. In June, Newark superintendent Cami Anderson stepped down following major protests, including a multi-day occupation of her office.
But that hasn’t made Zuckerberg any less interested. Last year, he and his wife Priscilla Chen gave another $120 million to educational causes in the San Francisco area.
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