If we’re really serious about continual assessment of our children’s educational development, isn’t it time to accept the use of surveillance technology in the classroom?
Some 30 Montessori schools in the United States, Wildflower Schools, founded in 2014 by a professor from the MIT Media Lab, Sep Kamvar, are to experimentally use sensors to monitor student and teachers activity: where they go, who with, who they prefer to study with, or how long they interact with educational materials.
About 18 months ago I wrote about this in an article: this kind of monitoring in education has been criticized by some as portending a dystopian future, but I believe could also make sense if approached in the right way. With the progressive availability of monitoring technologies, from cameras to GPS, along with algorithms for analyzing the information they generate, the approach has been tried out in China, France and the United States, motivated by concerns about performance or safety, but things are evolving rapidly. The use of artificial intelligence to grade papers and exams, for instance, makes assessments possible based on more data, without placing an unsustainable burden on teachers, while the collection of more and more information makes it easier to profile students’ interests, skills and attitudes, information that could be used in many ways, some potentially very dangerous, while others could be very interesting if some fundamental principles regarding the ownership, control and uses of information are respected.
In reality, Wildflower Schools’ approach makes sense: supporters of the Montessori philosophy say it is based on detailed and systematic observation of pupils, which teachers usually document through notes. The creator of the method herself, Maria Montessori, advocated intense attention to children’s activities. Applying technology to this process is, in that sense, simply a logical next step, one of adapting and individualizing the educational process to produce better outcomes. Schools that follow the Montessori method vary greatly in how they interpret its methods: the Wildflower Schools would simply be doing so in the light of current technological possibilities.
In general, teaching today is overly standardized with a lack of variables. Teachers tend to judge students based on tests that are not only very poorly designed and memory-oriented, but also too infrequent, making assessment dependent on external and uncontrollable factors. The result is a failure, demonstrated by the fact that the main variable supposedly used to assess students doesn’t correlate to precisely what the method was supposed to be designed for, professional performance.
To evolve toward more data-rich methodologies that take into account a greater number of variables is simply a matter of time, preparation, and logic, but it is a process that should be subject to certain controls, and should be developed not as a way of discriminating and limiting a student’s possibilities, but as a way of granting him/her more control, more information, and more degrees of freedom over his/her education. This process must also be framed in a future in which our relationship with work will change radically, and therefore, education will no longer be used to train workers but will be more oriented to other aspects related to what people must do to give meaning to their lives. Seen in this light, it might even make sense for those of us who are strongly opposed to surveillance and monitoring in society to agree with such monitoring as applied to educational institutions, with the proper controls, and when it is put at the service of education.
The Wildflower Schools initiative will likely prove controversial. But it is also possible that it will serve to make progress with a process that, with time, will be seen more and more as a natural evolution of education: that it takes place in an environment rich in information and analysis. The sooner we submit this subject to a complete and exhaustive analysis, and stop labelling it simply as a dystopia, surely the better for everyone.
(En español, aquí)