Education by algorithm

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In an article on the CoExist website, entitled “Personalization And Analytics: The Future Of Education?”, the author, EdSurge [sic] waxes lyrical about Knewton, the unfunnily-punning paid-for mass-customised online educational delivery mechanism.

“Jose Ferreira has a big vision of what his startup, Knewton (which attempts to make personalized curricula for individual students), can do for education.”

So this dystopian vision of education as a mass-customised experience, driven by Google-style analytics is one in which education is reduced to dehumanised algorithms and in which there appears to be no role for pedagogy, nor the opportunity for students to learn by failing, and which teachers are apparently an out-moded and inefficient resource and the emphasis is on “getting through a course”.

“Knewton will create unique recommendations (both of conceptual material as well as presentation types) to help students successfully navigate a course.”

So all this algorithm and analytics driven effort is to get students through a course. How cynical is that? Pay attention to the language being used here; it’s all about ‘growth’; it’s about restrictive commercial practices to protect the investment potential, it’s about ‘educators wanting more data’; it’s about leaving it to the machines rather than to human beings;  it’s about controlling and creaming off profits from captive markets:

“By late 2012, Ferreira hopes Knewton will have automated the process of tagging content. An automated tagging process would make it significantly easier for any content developer–from a teacher to an organization–to move its content onto Knewton’s platform. Ferreira envisions a scenario where Knewton provides an iTunes Store-like service, offering up a dazzling array of content nuggets that can be mashed together.”

[Thanks to Steve Jobs for establishing the exploitative and lucrative walled-garden-we’ll-have-our-30%-of-everything paradigm]

One thing’s for certain. It’s education that exploits at every level. It’s education that reduces humans to data. It’s production line efficiency dressed up as effective learning. It’s education that reduces the vocation of teaching to a seemingly mindless process of knocking something together from a few mashed-up paid-for  iTune-like gobbets. It’s bugger all like any kind of education I would want.

Yet worse. It suggests that everything about existing methods of teaching and educating is wrong, bad, inefficient, ineffective. True, at its worst it is. But a good teacher already is more than capable of doing anything that Knewton can do – and a bloody sight more besides.Good teachers are infinitely creative; are finely tuned to their students’ needs; offer pastoral care and emotional support; see the learning process as a journey; are dispirited when the are asked to become complicit in a process that is entirely focused on getting students to respond with mechanical efficiency to endless, pointless metrics-driven tests.

This is education that will appeal to the bean counters who want education dumbed down and delivered at the cheapest possible cost; who consider teachers to be an unwelcome financial overhead; who simply cannot see a role for pedagogy; who believe that an education is something that can only ever be effective if it’s delivered via a monitor, screen or mobile device. And in a world in which there is a growing, desperate, delusional belief that good education can be delivered cheaply and without the need for atom-based experiences, then it’s abundantly clear that it will be successful.