Lamar Alexander’s ECAA Boosts Brave New World ‘Education’

Jane Robbins Senior Fellow, American Principles in Action
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Sen. Lamar Alexander’s Every Child Achieves Act, which recently passed the Senate, is brimming with troubling provisions. One that has received little attention is the grant program called “Innovative Technology Expands Children’s Horizons,” or I-TECH. States that apply for I-TECH grants (and most states are all too eager for “free” federal money) will be hastening the day when teachers are replaced by technology, and children’s minds are mapped in the name of “personalized learning.”

The purpose of the I-TECH program is to ensure that “all students have access to personalized, rigorous learning experiences that are supported through technology” and that teachers and administrators are trained to integrate this technology-based training. Sec. 5701(2)-(4). Access for all students will require funding for “technological capacity, infrastructure, and technical support,” especially for rural schools that otherwise might resort to relying on teachers and books.

The term “personalized learning” is superficially appealing. But parents who think that means the teacher will spend more time helping their child should think again. Personalized learning in the ECAA sense operates with interactive digital platforms of the type that give the student a prompt, record and analyze his response, use it to generate another prompt, and so forth. Think Pavlov. The extraordinarily sophisticated software used in these platforms analyzes not what the student knows in terms of academic content, but rather how his mind works. This is “personalization.”

Here’s an explanation from a draft report released by the U.S.(USED) Office of Educational Technology:

These efforts can be aided by the data generated when students interact with digital learning systems. As students work, learning systems can capture micro-level data on their problem-solving sequences, knowledge, and strategy use, including each student’s selections or inputs, the number of attempts a student makes, the number of hints and feedback given, and the time allocated across each part of the problem.

The report continues that these digital-learning platforms can even make “adaptations based on students’ emotional states and levels of motivation.”

Is this what parents want – the government (and make no mistake, the school is the government) using software that records their children’s “emotional states and levels of motivation”?

The USED report praises the advances made by an adaptive-learning software system called Knewton, currently in use at Arizona State University and elsewhere. The USED report marvels: “By tagging the content and tracking students’ interactions with the content at a micro level, Knewton collects hundreds of thousands of data points per student per day.” (Knewton’s founder, Jose Ferreira, says the correct number is “millions” of data points per day – soon to be “billions.”) Knewton engages in “predictive analytics” to determine how a particular student will react to stimuli in the future. If this sounds like creepy science fiction to you, you probably won’t be reassured that Mr. Ferreira shares some of your concerns.

This is the type of “personalized learning” the I-TECH grants are designed to incentivize. Rapidly multiplying educational-technology companies are promising Knewton-style “learning analytics” that will “transform” education. (Haven’t we learned to view claimed “transformation” with skepticism?)

So I-TECH recipient states will invest in technology that not only is unproven to enhance education, but also collects millions of the most highly personal data points on the workings of a student’s brain. USED bureaucrats love this idea, and the federal government is even investigating how to warehouse and use all this valuable data.

Last October the National Science Foundation awarded a $4.8 million grant to Carnegie-Mellon and other universities to develop “LearnSphere,” a “massive repository for storing, sharing, and analyzing the information students generate when using digital learning tools.” LearnSphere is also envisioned to encompass “’affect’ and biometric data, including information generated from classroom observations, computerized analysis of students’ posture, and sensors placed on students’ skin.” The I-TECH grants will result in copious amounts of data on children’s mental and even physiological processes. This is what a Republican Senate has given us.

LearnSphere developers insist the repository will contain no personally identifiable information. But with the enormous amounts of granular data that will be collected, the dangers of data re-identification are very real. And it’s frightening to think how the data could be misused by governmental and private parties (potential employers?) over time.

But even if the data were completely anonymous and secure and its uses strictly limited, this kind of intrusion into students’ minds is simply wrong. The government has no business encouraging or participating in this Orwellian experiment – especially when parents, who are merely told these platforms will improve their children’s education, have no idea what’s happening. Parents have the right to protect their children from being used in experiments of any kind, even If the government insists the ends will justify the means.

I-TECH is yet another reason the education bill must be defeated when it emerges from conference committee.