Facebook, Privacy, Summit Public Charters, Adaptive Learning, Getting Into Education, and Doing Things Well
7 min read
One of the things that I look for within schools is how solid a job they do telling their students and families about their rights under FERPA. One crude indicator is whether or not a school, district, or charter chain contains any information about FERPA on their web site. So, when I read that Facebook was partnering with Summit Public Charter Schools, I headed over to the Summit web site to check out how they notified students and parents of their rights under FERPA. Summit is a signatory of the Student Privacy Pledge and a key part of what they do involves tracking student progress via technology, so they would certainly have some solid documentation on student and parent rights.
Well, not so much.
It must be noted that there are other ways besides a web site to inform students and parents of their FERPA rights, but given the emphasis on technology and how easy it is to put FERPA information on the web, the absence of it is an odd oversight. I'm also assuming that, because Summit clearly defines themselves as a Public Charter school that they are required to comply with FERPA. If I'm missing anything in these assumptions, please let me know.
But, returning to the Facebook/Summit partnership, the news coverage has been pretty bland. In fairness, it's hard to do detailed coverage of a press release. Two examples do a pretty good job illustrating the range of coverage: The Verge really committed to a longform expanded version of the Facebook's press release, and the NY Times ran a shorter summary.
The coverage of the partnership consistently included two elements, and never mentioned a third. The two elements that received attention included speculation that Facebook was "just getting in" to the education market, and privacy concerns with Facebook having student data. The element that received no notice at all is the open question of whether the app would be any good. We'll discuss all of these elements in the rest of the post.
The first oversight we need to dispense with is that Facebook is "just getting in" to education. Facebook's origins are rooted in elite universities. The earliest versions of the application only allowed membership from people enrolled in selected universities - Ivy League schools, and a small number of other universities.
Also, let's tell the students interacting on these course pages on Facebook - or these schools hosting school pages on Facebook - or these PTAs on Facebook - that Facebook is "just getting in" to education. To be clear, Facebook has no need to build a learning platform to get data on students or teachers. Between Instagram and Facebook, and Facebook logins on other services, they have plenty. It's also worth noting that, in the past, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has seemed to misunderstand COPPA while wanting to work around it.
Facebook - the platform - is arguably the largest adaptive platform in existence. However, the adaptiveness of Facebook isn't rooted in matching people with what they want to see. The adaptiveness of Facebook makes sure that content favored by adverisers, marketers, self promoters, and other Facebook customers gets placed before users while maintaining the illusion that Facebook is actually responding directly to people's needs and desires. The brilliance of the adaptiveness currently on display within Facebook is that, while your feed is riddled with content that people have paid to put there, it still feels "personalized". Facebook would say that they are anticipating and responding to your interests, but that's a difficult case to make with a straight face when people pay for the visibility of their content on Facebook. The adaptiveness of Facebook rests on the illusion that they allow users to select the content of their feeds, when the reality of Facebook's adaptiveness as manifested in their feeds is more akin to a dating service that matches ads to eyeballs.
Looking specifically at how this adaptiveness has fared in the past raises additional questions.
Facebook's algorithms and policies fail Native communities.
Facebook's algorithms and policies fail transgender people.
Facebook's algorithms and policies selectively censor political speech.
Facebook's algorithms and policies allow racism to flourish.
Facebook's algorithms and policies ruined Christmas (for real - maybe a slight overstatement, but I'm not making this up).
Facebook allowed advertisers to take a woman's picture and present it to her husband as part of a dating ad.
Facebook's algorithms and policies can't distinguish art.
Facebook's algorithms and policies experiment with human emotions, without consent.
I could continue - we haven't even talked about how Facebook simplified government surveillance, but you get the point: the algorithms and policies used by Facebook tilt heavily toward the status quo, and really miss some of the nuance and details that make the world a richer place. In an educational system, it's not difficult to see how similar algorithmic bias would fail to consider the full range of strengths and abilities of all the students within their systems. Facebook, like education, has a bad track record at meeting the needs of those who are defined as outside the mainstream.
In educational technology, we have heard many promises about technologies that will "disrupt" the status quo - the reality is that many of these technologies don't deliver more than a new UI on top of old systems.
There Is An Easy Solution Here
Fortunately, none of these problems are insurmountable. If Facebook released the algorithms to its learning platform under an open source license, no one would need to guess how they worked - interested parties could see for themselves. Facebook has done this with many projects in the past. Open sourcing their algorithms could potentially be an actual disruption in the adaptive learning marketplace. This would eliminate questions about how the adaptive recommendations work, and would allow a larger adoption of the work that Facebook and Summit are doing together. This wouldn't preclude Facebook or Summit from building a product on top of this work; it would just provide more choices and more options based on work that is already funded and getting done.
It's also worth highlighting that, while there will be many people who will say that Facebook has bad intentions in doing this work, that's not what I'm saying here. While I don't know any of the people doing work on the Facebook project, I know a lot of people doing similar work, and we all wake up wanting to build systems that help kids. In this post, I hope that I have made it very clear that I'd love to see a system that returned control of learning to the learner. Done right, adaptive learning could get us there - but "doing adaptive right" requires that we give control to the learner to define their goals, and to critique the systems that are put in place to help learners achieve. Sometimes, the systems around us provide needed support, and sometimes they provide mindless constraints. Adaptive learning needs to work both ways.
Open sourcing the algorithms would provide all of us - learners, teachers, developers, parents, and other people in the decision making process - more insight into and control over choosing what matters. Done right, that could be a very powerful thing.