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Technology in Education: Towards Oligarchy or Democracy?

July 05, 2017
While only 36% of fourth graders are proficient in reading [1], the question of how American children will access education should be on everyone’s mind.

Many, such as Purdue University president Mitch Daniels, espouse technology in education as the key to providing more access to education, and Purdue University is looking to implement online schooling so that more of the public can access higher education [2]. Online education seemingly eliminates many of the barriers preventing children and young adults from accessing classes and coursework. Those with chronic illnesses, financial difficulties, or who live in remote locations can take their classes online despite these obstacles. In the case of economic inequality, access to education is particularly important in providing social mobility. Outside of online education, technology can help learning in the classroom as well, and many schools are now adopting laptops, iPads, and new software to help children of all learning types in the classroom. Technology in the classroom, a tentative first step towards online learning, may cater to more learning styles, but the source of the technology for many schools invites third parties to influence the classroom.

Figure 1. Students with learning disabilities find access to computer technology valuable. Source: University of Washington.Figure 1. Students with learning disabilities find access to computer technology valuable. Source: University of Washington.

            Technology in the classroom can help democratize education by catering to many learning styles and by allowing all students equal access to the same tools regardless of economic standing. In one study, an elementary school in a high-poverty district in the United States found that access to videos, spellcheck, and Google empowered students with learning disabilities to conduct research projects and learn math [1]. Videos allowed students to more deeply engage with the material despite their difficulties with reading, and spellcheck helped their writing skills [1]. In another instance, DreamBox, a math algorithm developed by Netflix’s Reed Hastings, claims to improve student’s math scores by 58% (figure 2) [3]

Figure 2. DreamBox algorithm boasts benefits for students learning math fundamentals. Source: DreamBox.Figure 2. DreamBox algorithm boasts benefits for students learning math fundamentals. Source: DreamBox.

            The benefits of technology in education seem to clearly democratize our currently inequitable education system. Introducing technology in the classroom does, however, open doors for companies to influence the curriculum in public schools. For example, Hastings and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have been testing their learning software in public schools [4]. Zuckerberg’s software attempts to allow students to structure their own learning [4]. His software provides a platform where students can choose assignments in a group and work independently until they need a teacher’s guidance [4]. In a similar case, Google has recently transformed many Chicago Public Schools to be Google-dependent [5]. Students use Google laptops, GoogleDocs, and consequently, explore the wonders of Google [6]. These students will also likely become devoted Google customers throughout their lives, having been educated to rely on Google.

Programs such as these by Zuckerberg, Hastings, and Google go largely unmonitored by the government because they are free programs in schools desperate for funding. This philanthropy to test software raises questions of why companies should be allowed to influence children’s education at all. While Zuckerberg may have clear ideas as to how he should run Facebook, this ability does not qualify him to organize how elementary and high school students should learn. Hastings’ algorithm “DreamBox” may be a useful learning tool, the reach of his influence in public schools contributes to an oligarchy allowing a select few, such as Hastings and Zuckerberg, to decide how children are educated in a country where the federal government questions how to best fund education. In addition, these programs eventually provide financial gain for Silicon Valley, raising students within the public school system to be consumers of certain products. These figures with immediate economic interest appear to threaten the democracy of the American public school system.

Betsy DeVos is hoping to cut federal government funding for public school programs, as part of Donald Trump’s goal to reduce the budget by $9 billion [6]. If funding for public schools and public school programming is cut, programs such as “DreamBox” and Google schools may be necessary to maintain adequate public schools. In addition, such programs eventually generate income for companies such as Facebook and Google, urging them to put more resources towards researching education and developing software and technology to help teachers and students. Though economically interested, these companies may be a necessary alternative to a budget-strapped government on the issue of research in education. While these Silicon Valley-based initiatives may be technologically advanced, it seems unfortunate that this non-democratic option might be the only option. The impact on policy, therefore, is twofold; many looking to reduce federal spending may see “DreamBox”-type programming as a crutch to supplement public schools. Others may understand Silicon Valley’s intervention in public schooling as anti-democratic.

Student Blog Disclaimer
  • The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.

 References

  [1] Ciampa, Katia. “Building Bridges Between Technology and Content Literacy in Special Education: Lessons Learned From Special Educators’ Use of Integrated Technology and Perceived Benefits for Students.” Literacy Research and Instruction 56.2 (2017): 85-113.

  [2] “Indiana Officials Consider Purdue’s Online Education Plans,” USNews, June 9, 2017.

https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/indiana/articles/2017-06-09/state-officials-consider-purdues-online-university-plans

  [3] “Success Stories,” DreamBox, 2017.

http://www.dreambox.com/customer-success

  [4] Natasha Singer, “The Silicon Valley Based Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools,” The New York Times, June 6, 2017.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/06/technology/tech-billionaires-education-zuckerberg-facebook-hastings.html?smid=tw-nytimesbusiness&smtyp=cur&_r=1

  [5] Natasha Singer, “How Google Took Over the Classroom,” The New York Times, May 13, 2017.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/13/technology/google-education-chromebooks-schools.html

  [6] Doug G. Ware, “Devos defends proposed $9B education cut in testy  Senate hearing,” United Press International,  June 7, 2017. http://www.upi.com/DeVos-defends-proposed-9B-education-cut-in-testy-Senate-hearing/2451496786218/

  [7] Sheryl Burgstahler, PhD.,“Promoting the Success of Students with Learning Disabilities through Accommodations and Transition Support, Technology Access, and Universal Design,” University of Washington, 2012.

https://staff.washington.edu/sherylb/jald-keynote.html 

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