My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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Are We Training Our Students to be Robots?

Excited about the possibility that he would project his creativity onto paper, I handed my 1-year-old son a crayon. He tried to eat it. I held his hand to show him how to draw, and he broke the crayon in half. I went to open the door and when I came back, he had figured out how to scribble… all over the wooden floor.

Crayons are pretty magical and versatile technologies. They can be used as educational tools — or alternatively, as projectiles. And in the process of exploring their properties, children learn to make sense of both their physical affordances and the social norms that surround them. “No, you can’t poke your brother’s eye with that crayon!” is a common refrain in my house. Learning to draw — on paper and with some sense of meaning — has a lot to do with the context, a context in which I help create, a context that is learned outside of the crayon itself.

From crayons to compasses, we’ve learned to incorporate all sorts of different tools into our lives and educational practices. Why, then, do computing and networked devices consistently stump us? Why do we imagine technology to be our educational savior, but also the demon undermining learning through distraction? Why are we so unable to see it as a tool whose value is most notably discovered situated in its context?

The arguments that Peg Tyre makes in “iPads < Teachers” are dead on. Personalized learning technologies won’t magically on their own solve our education crisis. The issues we are facing in education are social and political, reflective of our conflicting societal values. Our societal attitudes toward teachers are deeply destructive, a contemporary manifestation of historical attitudes towards women’s labor.

But rather than seeing learning as a process and valuing educators as an important part of a healthy society, we keep looking for easy ways out of our current predicament, solutions that don’t involve respecting the hard work that goes into educating our young.
In doing so, we glom onto technologies that will only exacerbate many existing issues of inequity and mistrust. What’s at stake isn’t the technology itself, but the future of learning.

An empty classroom at the Carpe Diem school in Indianapolis.
Education shouldn’t be just about reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students need to learn how to be a part of our society. And increasingly, that society is technologically mediated. As a result, excluding technology from the classroom makes little sense; it produces an unnecessary disconnect between school and contemporary life.

This forces us to consider two interwoven — and deeply political — societal goals of education: to create an informed citizenry and to develop the skills for a workforce.

With this in mind, there are different ways of interpreting the personalized learning agenda, which makes me feel simultaneously optimistic and outright terrified. If you take personalized learning to its logical positive extreme, technology will educate every student as efficiently as possible. This individual-centric agenda is very much rooted in American neoliberalism.

But what if there’s a darker story? What if we’re really training our students to be robots?

Let me go cynical for a moment. In the late 1800s, the goal of education in America was not particularly altruistic. Sure, there were reformers who imagined that a more educated populace would create an informed citizenry. But what made widespread education possible was that American business needed workers. Industrialization required a populace socialized into very particular frames of interaction and behavior. In other words, factories needed workers who could sit still.

Many of tomorrow’s workers aren’t going to be empowered creatives subscribed to the mantra of, “Do what you love!” Many will be slotted into systems of automation that are hybrid human and computer. Not in the sexy cyborg way, but in the ugly call center way.
Like today’s retail laborers who have to greet every potential customer with a smile, many humans in tomorrow’s economy will do the unrewarding tasks that are too expensive for robots to replace. We’re automating so many parts of our society that, to be employable, the majority of the workforce needs to be trained to be engaged with automated systems.

All of this begs one important question: who benefits, and who loses, from a technologically mediated world?

Education has long been held up as the solution to economic disparity (though some reports suggest that education doesn’t remedy inequity). While the rhetoric around personalized learning emphasizes the potential for addressing inequity, Tyre suggests that good teachers are key for personalized learning to work.

Not only are privileged students more likely to have great teachers, they are also more likely to have teachers who have been trained to use technology — and how to integrate it into the classroom’s pedagogy. If these technologies do indeed “enhance the teacher’s effect,” this does not bode well for low-status students, who are far less likely to have great teachers.

Technology also costs money. Increasingly, low-income schools are pouring large sums of money into new technologies in the hopes that those tools can fix the various problems that low-status students face. As a result, there’s less money for good teachers and other resources that schools need.

I wish I had a solution to our education woes, but I’ve been stumped time and again, mostly by the politics surrounding any possible intervention. Historically, education was the province of local schools making local decisions. Over the last 30 years, the federal government and corporations alike have worked to centralize education.

From textbooks to grading systems, large companies have standardized educational offerings, while making schools beholden to their design logic. This is how Texas values get baked into Minnesota classrooms. Simultaneously, over legitimate concern about the variation in students’ experiences, federal efforts have attempted to implement learning standards. They use funding as the stick for conformity, even as local politics and limited on-the-ground resources get in the way.

Personalized learning has the potential to introduce an entirely new factor into the education landscape: network effects. Even as ranking systems have compared schools to one another, we’ve never really had a system where one students’ learning opportunities truly depend on another’s. And yet, that’s core to how personalized learning works. These systems don’t evolve based on the individual, but based on what’s learned about students writ large.

Personalized learning is, somewhat ironically, far more socialist than it may first appear. You can’t “personalize” technology without building models that are deeply dependent on others. In other words, it is all about creating networks of people in a hyper-individualized world. It’s a strange hybrid of neoliberal and socialist ideologies.

An instructor works with a student in the learning center at the Carpe Diem school in Indianapolis.
Just as recommendation systems result in differentiated experiences online, creating dynamics where one person’s view of the internet radically differs from another’s, so too will personalized learning platforms.

More than anything, what personalized learning brings to the table for me is the stark reality that our society must start grappling with the ways we are both interconnected and differentiated. We are individuals and we are part of networks.

In the realm of education, we cannot and should not separate these two. By recognizing our interconnected nature, we might begin to fulfill the promises that technology can offer our students.

This post was originally published to Bright at Medium on April 7, 2015. Bright is made possible by funding from the New Venture Fund, and is supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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3 comments to Are We Training Our Students to be Robots?

  • While I agree with much of this, I’m disappointed that you’re repeating the tired and unsubstantiated “schools make factory workers” trope. I know you’ve read _Learning to Labor,_ where schools produced managers and the dropouts became workers. And I imagine you’re familiar with social histories of schooling, play, and childhood, that outline a coupling of school with social reform that took children *out* of factories (where they were working from young ages due to lax labor laws and even more lax enforcement) and put them in schools, where they would learn “American values” (and give up their immigrant cultures). While there are of course problematic aspects of this, the one about making factory workers is a myth. Because it is often invoked to justify the abolishment of public/formalized schooling entirely, seeing otherwise respectable scholars repeat and thus continue to legitimate it just makes me cringe.

  • Kinda untimely to be training our students to be like robots when robots are getting smart enough to take away most jobs that can be automated … we need creativity, not human machinery!

  • Danah:
    I first got introduced to you by your book, I thank you for that. It did help me further understand and balance myself as a parent. As short as it was, it did take me awhile to read, especially the referenced researched. Getting back to your post, I for most part agree with all points you have made. I don’t believe you are saying that schools as it stands are grooming robots, although you are hinting that it is due to pressure from political and industrial complex. As an involved father, I definitely see the political influence into our public school system. I definitely see the federal and State constrains and the attempt to solve our Educational shortcoming through policy and for most parts its failure to do so. Schools and how we learn in my mind is a subset of our Social and political norms. Our learning process has evolved and technology plays a big role, unfortunately our Social and political norms have not, you can see this through our policies (local, state, federal). I also like to place some of the responsibility back on my (Parents) shoulder. Due to economic factors (Single Vs Multiple income) parents find it hard to be involved in their children’s life. I do agree that this sounds like an excuse but never the less thru. Our involvement limits itself to an authoritarian role. Finding the balance is a choir and enigma (You do point to this in your book). We wash our hands off of our children when we drop them to school. In our mind it is the Teacher responsibility to teach them and failure to do so is not pretty (my wife is a veteran K9 Public School teacher for past 20+ years). Times have changed, Kindergarten in 50’s were night and day to what it is today. Today’s K student will learn reading, Writing and basic Arithmetic by the time they are out of K going to 1st or at least the attempt is that. Teachers find themselves with less and less resources and more and more demands and less compensation. I think part of the solution lies with the parents and understanding that the learning experience doesn’t stop when we pick them up from school. Teachers are expected to teach Social norms (potty train, how to talk, how to behave, etc) on top of curriculum. Part of the solution is also the realization that our children are competing in a global arena. The job market is Global. Your article also points to Tyre’s point that the teachers being the key to personalized learning to work and its connection in to use of technology. In particular Good Teachers are more likely to exist in an affluent neighborhood Vs poor neighborhood. I am very interested as to definition of a Good Teacher, What is the matrix that dictates what a good teacher is. Is it the result at the end of the year or is it the result compared to students socioeconomic status or all of the above. Dose resources to teachers play a role. He also dose point to riches and Socio economic inequality in school and the ability to integrate technology in which I agree. Point being Technology is definitely part of the solution. Other variables for a successful academic and non robotic result lie in disbursement of funds through policies (Federal, State) and the will and ability of local governance(School boards) to demand an comprehensive integration of technology through scope and sequence and curriculum in the classrooms and provide the tools and training to do so. Having a computer and or ipad in a classroom is not the question, how are we utilizing it to teach is. I hate to say it but it all point to having enough $$ to fund it. Being the richest country on earth it is a shame to see we don’t. Unfortunately just having it (technology in the class rooms) is becoming an indication that we are advancing and doing something.