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The screens that ate school

Jun 1, 2020 • 15m 17s

Big Tech has become an integral part of education. But there are questions over how much private companies are influencing curricula and what data they are collecting.

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The screens that ate school

235 • Jun 1, 2020

The screens that ate school

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Big tech has become an integral part of education.

But there are questions over how much private companies are influencing curricula and what data they are collecting.

Today, writer for The Monthly magazine, Anna Krien, on how coronavirus accelerated this take over.

**

RUBY:

Anna, what prompted you to write this story? Can you take me back to the beginning and back to some of those first questions that you had about technology in schools?

ANNA:

The beginning was quite personal, taking my own children to primary school, to their zoned state primary school, but I noticed the older children from Grade 3. So that 7 years old, I noticed them all walking around with iPads. I sort of have this really strange way of carrying them out, walking lines crossed across their chest, hugging their pets that took their iPads to play, and they took their iPads to music. And they took their iPads to art.

You know, the first really striking question I had was who's deciding what tech is being used in classrooms and on what basis. So, I mean, I was sort of investigating just this issue on its own. You know, sort of trying to understand the influence of tech companies on curriculum and then COVID hit.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Schools in NSW and Victoria will be closed today as education departments implement new procedures.

Archival tape -- reporter:

If you can learn from home you must learnt from home and you will be supported.

ANNA:

And it was all on basically.

Archival tape -- reporter:

C’mon, you are here, at the table, you’re around the table.

ANNA:

And I basically had been speaking to 60 or 70 different parents when I was doing research for this story, pre-code. So I said, can everyone start sending me through their correspondence? Like, what kind of things that they're getting from their schools to set up these sort of learning from home programs.

Archival tape -- parent:

Your iPad, grab me your iPad! Are you going to use my computer for your class meeting? Can you see if you can find the AirPods then?

ANNA:

Parents were getting these reams of information. Cisco's, WebEx, mathematics epic, Google Classroom, Click View Reading Eggs, study letter class Dojo, Seesaw. It just kept going.

Archival tape -- parent:

Does that work? Can you login with the Webex ID? Nah. I’m confused

Archival tape -- parent:

Then we press that, and then we gotta type in the meeting and put your name in there.

ANNA:

All these emails basically say, here's your Logins. This is how you sign up.

Archival tape -- parent:

You sure that's right? Wait... I don’t know why that won’t work.

ANNA:

Welcome to remote, flexible learning.

Archival tape -- parent:

‘You have entered an incorrect password, try again’. Okay, hang on, oh stupid thing.

ANNA:

And, you know, the tech industry, basically disruption is the name of their game. And the pandemic was the perfect disruption. This was the perfect time to get almost every single student in Australia signed up onto a private platform. And I would say not only signed up but with very little informed consent.

RUBY:

So Anna you said that many schools have been implementing tools from tech companies for a while now. Can you tell me more about what’s been happening?

ANNA:

So in Australia, in schools, Google is implicitly endorsed by it via YouTube for maps for its search engine.

In 2012 Google really took it up a notch and they started to basically give away their ways. Google classroom giving that away to those applications for free. And then also sort of grooming teachers saying, can you come to this conference and present to other teachers and can you become a Google school and can you present to other schools and sort of growing their brand on the inside.

On the Victorian Education Department's website, which provides resources for teachers. There's 221 resources using and promoting Google products. It's deeply embedded in Australian schools.

RUBY:

Mmhmm. And can you tell me why you think this should raise alarm bells?

ANNA:

Yes. So Google settled a 170 million dollar case last year in the United States after it was accused of illegally harvesting children's data from YouTube.

Archival tape -- reporter:

YouTube repeatedly violated the law that protects the privacy of children online.

ANNA:

In New Mexico, in America, there's a lawsuit currently underway against Google.

Archival tape -- reporter:

Google is an important partner with New Mexico schools by offering important educational technology, but the state says the company is illegally gathering information from school kids.

ANNA:

In Australia, Google's been sued by the ACC for misleading Australians.

Archival tape -- reporter:

The whole case revolves around users of android phones who did not want their location data to be tracked and collected and used by Google.

ANNA:

It just... the list goes on.

And it's one of those moments where you like, why are we doing deals with companies that clearly have different motives to what we want when it comes to the education of our children?

RUBY:

And when you talk about motives - you’re talking about the collection and use of data that children in our schools are generating?

ANNA:

Yeah, I mean, it's basically seen as the oil of the digital age, I mean, this is big data is huge.

Data is being collected and we don't really know what for. And what really struck me and rattled me is that we have education departments doing deals with tech giants who have pretty sketchy track records when it comes to respecting children's privacy and grown-ups' privacy. And it doesn't really seem to be causing much of a ripple across education departments.

When you actually ask the Education Department's side in New South Wales Department or the Victorian Department what data there is on which schools have partnerships with what tech companies, what devices are they using? What grade are they using them from? They have no idea.

RUBY:

And what about parents - do you think they actually understand what is happening in schools?

ANNA:

Yeah, I think a lot of parents, understandably, are ill-informed, even though these are state schools, these are public schools, very few parents are even told that a device is not compulsory. I actually had to find that policy myself, and it was hidden deep down in the Education Department's website. So parents are not even being properly informed.

Tech companies have been selling us a rather shallow concept of privacy, and I think we're catching up with that.

But in this case, I think it goes far beyond the concept of privacy and far beyond the concept of data and what is happening, what mysterious alchemy is happening with data.

It's also what it is doing to a curriculum and the objectives of your child's education.

I've been speaking to families who turn up with their five-year-olds at primary schools and they're told that their five year old needs an iPad.

If that was so absolutely important for their education, then surely we should be studying this to see if it truly is as beneficial as the tech companies are telling us that it is.

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RUBY:

Anna, we’re talking about how tech companies are changing the way our schools are operating. Can you tell me more about what you’ve discovered about your own children’s schooling?

ANNA:

Yeah, okay. So I started to ask questions of our son's schools. And I was given a digital timeline of the school's digital journey. So one of the points on the digital journey was that the school had been invited to participate in a distinguished “towards transformation” program.

And when I saw that, I just assumed it was an Education Department program or maybe a university program or something with some kind of pedagogical merit. And then I found out it was an Apple program.

RUBY:

Mm-hmm.

ANNA:

And it's basically a three-year long affiliation or partnership, basically with the aim of becoming an Apple Distinguished School, which there are currently about thirty-eight in Australia.

To be eligible, the students have to have a Mac or an iPad, and the school needs to deeply integrate Apple apps into their lessons.

Archival tape -- Hampton school:

‘We believe in developing students as creators, not mere consumers but creators’, the quote from Steve Jobs…

ANNA:

So iPhotos, iMovie, all sorts of apps need to be deeply integrated into the lessons.

Archival tape -- Hampton school:

The iPad is something that students have embraced, it's something that teachers have embraced, but it's become much more than a learning tool, it's become a part of the culture here.

ANNA:

Apple lesson plans need to be taught and learning materials need to be incorporated into schools’ curriculum. So I actually felt pretty sick after I discovered that.

RUBY:

So tech companies are actually influencing the curriculum in schools. Do we know what exactly is in an Apple lesson plan?

ANNA:

Yeah. So I interviewed a few teachers who have found themselves working in primary schools where their leadership has insisted that they do this and they have to become “Apple teachers.”

Archival tape -- teacher:

Once you’ve successfully signed up for the Apple Teacher program and you login, it should bring you straight to the Apple Teacher Learning Centre, you will see here.

ANNA:

I mean, one teacher was kind of hilarious and he was just like, I feel like an idiot. I have to do these quizzes and I have to collect badges. I'm just being treated like a fool.

Archival tape -- teacher:

Then you will go to iMovie for iPad, Garageband, Productivity and Creativity...

ANNA:

And he has to put these lesson plans into action as opposed to, you know, he did a teaching degree: this is his job. He's meant to be developing lessons, but he's been told that he has to implement Apple lessons.

RUBY:

Okay but surely we need to be teaching digital literacy?

ANNA:

Yeah definitely, it's pretty obvious that digital literacy skills are necessary. Increasingly so, because if they're obviously a target of tech companies, they're obviously a target audience, children, all the way down to kindergarten, I think digital literacy skills are absolutely necessary at the moment. I'm just not convinced that we're teaching the right ones.

I think basically what we've done is that we've cut off our hands and our limbs, our legs, like we've hollowed out the public service. We've hollowed out support for schools. We've hollowed out agency for teachers. Everyone's got way too much on their plates, way too much to deliver, that we're allowing big corporations to step in and deliver the really important things, whereas we should be doing that.

The Education Department should be doing that. These are essential public services and public spaces that are being integrated with big tech. Of course, we may need to harness their skills and their expertise and their insight, but at the moment, I think they're center stage in the curriculum and they're calling the shots, which is a bit scary.

Are we moving towards an education system that wants to produce sort of outcomes and skills that, say, the tech giants value? And is that what we value as a society? I think that's a really important discussion that's not being had.

RUBY:

Do you see these trends continuing?

ANNA:

It's hard to know. I mean, first and foremost, students and parents should be informed of their rights. And that's not happening.

Students should be informed properly about how much we don't know what is going to happen with their digital footprint. We have no idea about the ramifications that's going to, you know, that's going to entail for their futures. So I think if families were properly informed, maybe people will make the choices that they think are important and good for their family.

RUBY:

Anna, thank you so much for your time today.

ANNA:

Thank you, Ruby.

[ADVERTISEMENT]

RUBY:

This episode was produced by Elle Marsh in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Anna Krien’s interview is based on the cover story for the current issue of The Monthly.

**

RUBY:

Also in the news —

Protests have escalated across the US, over the death of unarmed black man George Floyd at the hands of a police officer.

25 US cities, including LA and Chicago, have now imposed curfews.

There are also fears that the huge crowds will lead to a new surge in cases of coronavirus.

**

And, as of today, some coronavirus restrictions in Victoria, NSW, and South Australia have been eased.

Up to 20 people are now allowed to gather in Victoria, while in NSW pubs, clubs, cafes and restaurants can have up to 50 customers.

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see you tomorrow.

**

An earlier version of this episode questioned the funding arrangement between Google and the Alannah and Madeline Foundation.

We accept that these funds do not influence the materials produced by the foundation.

Big Tech has become an integral part of education. But there are questions over how much private companies are influencing curricula and what data they are collecting. Even the government doesn’t know the answers.

Guest: Writer and author Anna Krien.

Background reading:

The screens that ate school in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio. New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning. Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app. I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.

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235: The screens that ate school