The Cool ‘New Thing’: Are You Giving Away Your Freedom to Teach?

Lead Features July 19 / July 21, 2019

 – Thomas Mennella –

Is it possible that the “big” challenges we see in K12 education pale in comparison to a larger looming trend that is impacting every classroom? What if mandated state testing, public education’s decline, teacher turnover, and budget crunches are the small stakes? Could it be that we are overlooking how that “cool new thing” in our classrooms is slowly but steadily disempowering teachers and compromising the privacy of our students?

First, some facts. Natasha Singer of the New York Times has been a vocal columnist exploring why tech companies even care about education. Their “efforts coincide with a larger Silicon Valley push to sell computers and software to American schools, a lucrative market projected to reach $21 billion by 2020. Already, more than half of the primary- and secondary-school students in the United States use Google services like Gmail in school” (Singer, NYTimes, June 6, 2017). I bet you never thought of yourself as working in a lucrative market, did you? And, amazingly, already more than half of US K12 students are using GAFE (Google Apps for Education). But how did we get here? And, more importantly, is this a bad thing?

Your Freedom to Teach

Perhaps Singer gets to the point far better than I ever could in this May 2017 piece: “In the space of just five years, Google has helped upend the sales methods companies use to place their products in classrooms. It has enlisted teachers and administrators to promote Google’s products to other schools.” Singer goes on to state, “Google is helping to drive a philosophical change in public education — prioritizing training children in skills like teamwork and problem-solving while de-emphasizing the teaching of traditional academic knowledge, like math formulas.” In other words, a tech company is dictating how and what our students are taught; teachers are conforming to the technology, rather than the other way around. The autonomy and freedom of a teacher to teach in a way that suits our strengths is increasingly at the mercy of ‘Big Tech.’ Singer continues on, though with more eye-opening revelations.   

Your Students’ Privacy

Her May 2017 piece goes on to tell how high school seniors are urged by their districts to convert their school Google accounts to a personal account before they graduate; doing so easily migrates all of those K12 years’ worth of data from one account to another. But lost with that data transfer is the anonymity and privacy protection that school district Google accounts provide. In one single click of an ‘OK,’ Google can become privy to over a decade’s worth of that child’s life. Google is trading education for personal information, and that information has value. From Singer’s piece: “Unlike Apple or Microsoft, which make money primarily by selling devices or software services, Google derives most of its revenue from online advertising — much of it targeted through sophisticated use of people’s data.” 

The New Normal?

Other tech players with a hand in education are Netflix (yup, their algorithms for telling you what movies you’ll like to watch also tell your kids which math problems to do based on performance and responses to previous problems), Salesforce (with its $100,000 K12 principal grants for school improvements. Why? It’s not really clear), and of course, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft. 

In November of 2017, the MIT Technology Review asked: “Are Big Tech Companies Doing Right by America’s Students?” It noted that this brave new world of education as a lucrative market has lead to “fierce competition and courting of superintendents by Silicon Valley companies… some are resorting to tactics similar to those drug companies use to influence doctors, including flying school officials to conferences and paying them as consultants.” In other words, ideas for ‘innovations’ in our classrooms are being marketed to top-level decision-makers, and then those in charge can push initiatives down from the top. Ultimately, teachers are left asking:

“I have to redesign how many courses?”

“I have to embed which device into my curriculum 1:1?”

“I have to network with my colleagues using which mandated platform?”

“I have to teach how?!”

Many educators likely agree that technology companies should not have a vote on curriculum or pedagogy. As educators, that purview belongs to us. Perhaps, the time has come to say enough; we don’t need it, and we don’t want it.

We are not powerless against this potential infiltration of education by tech companies; we have choice. If you’ve been flipping your class for any length of time, you know this. Flipped Learning started and spread as a grassroots, organic, teacher-led and student-centered approach to teaching.  More and more educators across the globe — by their own free will – choose to teach in this way, year after year.

Who Should Lead the Learning?

Faculty, from kindergarten teachers to graduate school professors, are the guardians of the curriculum. We are the educators, we are on the frontlines with our students, and we — in constant collaboration with our students — achieve the magic of learning every single day. We do that. It is for us to decide how to teach, and with what to teach. And it is time for us to reaffirm our control of teaching and learning before it’s lost for good.

Be the teacher who protects the sanctity of education. It’s time to stand up for what’s right for us, for our students and for education.

Thomas Mennella
Dr. Thomas Mennella Mennella
I have been an instructor in higher education for over ten years. Starting as a lecturer at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, and then moving on to an Assistant Professorship at Delaware State University (DSU), a small public university, I experimented with Problem-Based Learning (PBL) and was an early-adopter of the iClicker student response system. Now an Associate Professor at Bay Path University, a private liberal arts institution in western Massachusetts, I primarily teach Genetics, Cell and Molecular Biology. I am Flipped Learning 3.0 Level -II Certified and a founding member of the FLGI International Faculty.

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1 Comment

on July 23, 2019

Thanks for the thought provoking piece Tom. It makes me look at the influence tech companies are having on education in a new, cautious light.

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