When I went to University I found that banks in the UK were very keen to have me as a customer. It seemed that just about every institution was competing to offer incentives to open an account with them; from free railcards to literally handing out cash. It was generally accepted, as I understood it at the time, that this was because once the account was open I was unlikely to go through the process of closing it and opening account with a competitor. The inconvenience of this meant that the banks were effectively hooking customers in young and were expecting to hold on to them for many years. My mum hasn’t changed banks since Chairman Mao was alive as far as I can tell, even if there might have been financial advantages to doing so over the years.
This model seems to have been playing itself out in education over the last couple of decades. Given the dominance of Microsoft in the 1990s has now effectively been broken by the proliferation of devices running iOS and Android, it seems that tech companies have turned to using similar methods to grab customers young and keep them hooked into their ecosystems. Google is a strong example of this. Through the replacement of internal infrastructure like email systems in favour of Gmail, Google Apps and Chromebooks, schools have been indoctrinating students in using these products without much criticism. Teachers (in this case myself included) are being taken in by slickly marketed “qualifications” like becoming a Google Certified Educator. Why not just call it what it is…unpaid sales representatives for one of the most privacy-invading unethical companies in the world. Glossy pseudo-conferences, where disturbingly upbeat teachers show off how they managed to supposedly revolutionise their classrooms by mastering software designed to be accessible by people fundamentally tech illiterate, are just giant sales pitches. It’s dystopian.
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I mean….come on.
I’m not singling Pear Deck out as any worse than any other company, but it’s an example to me of how ridiculous this is. I watched as my colleagues all clicked “accept” without even reading the terms and conditions. What had they just agreed to share with a company they had only heard of just a couple of minutes before? They couldn’t say because they didn’t know.
More worryingly, it’s normalising data sharing. If students are forced to use these products at school (which in the case of Gmail at mine) they simply do not have the choice of opting out. Surely this benefits the tech companies as it’s pretty easy to see what their products are being used for. Even if you don’t have to sign in to use the services, trackers built into these web pages still slurp enormous amounts of free demographic data for their sales machines. Additionally I feel that anyone who honestly believes the claims of non-identifiable information simply isn’t reading the news as companies like Google and Facebook have been shown to be breaking these promises with alarming regularity.
Can you imagine how powerful it would be to collect how young people use their computers and the web throughout their lives? These companies will be able to see trends on a massive scale and their ability to disseminate targeted ads, propaganda and manipulative information is going to increase even further than it already has.
So can we just stop using these tools?
Absolutely not. The number of colleagues who know embarrassingly little about technology, how to use the internet or still hide behind the excuse of “oh, I’m just no good with computers” while simultaneously using them as a teaching tool with children is of epidemic proportions. There is simply no way that they will give up the feeling of empowerment they get from using a tool successfully, regardless of the wider implications. If you’re reading this as an educator and you have bought into the marketing tosh that is a “personal learning network” based around Facebook, Twitter or any of the other social media companies I am aiming this at you. You are the type of teacher I am talking about.
Education always seems, with regard to technology, about five years behind the rest of the world. In an age where it’s public knowledge that the executives on the boards of companies acting in this manner do not let their own children use their products, education is only just starting to ask questions about privacy. Educators have a responsibility to protect children and educate them to be able to be self-sufficient and capable adults. It’s time that schools and other institutions realised this responsibility extends to technological tools and services that don’t respect privacy and exist only to further corporate interests.