Monday, October 24, 2011

The "transformation agenda" for BC education? - follow the IT contracts...

Education Minister Abbott's plan's for our K-12 education system became alarmingly clear to me when I stumbled upon the presentation given to the School Superintendent's Association by IBM Canada.

A lot of people have looked at Deputy Minister's James Gorman's powerpoint. But the IBM powerpoint shows the agenda in much starker terms.

In fact, a single page of the 64 page presentation was amazingly insightful.

Check out page 46 of the presentation which is available on the BCSSA's web site here:

The page is titled: "A Vision for Education Transformation". Does that sound familiar? Now check out the title of the Minister's recent press release: "B.C.’s plan for education transformation". (see here:

The slide goes on to show the three components of the "transformation agenda":
  • "Using Data and Analytics to Drive Personalized Instructional Plans"
  • "Delivered through a more manageable and scalable device infrastructure"
  • "Supported by broadband networks spanning the community"
The first is the most interesting, as it has the most potential to dramatically damage teaching and learning in BC. But it is needed to justify the second two, which, not surprisingly, are where IBM and Telus and a few other technology companies fit in. As the slide confirms, IBM imagines itself as the provider of the "IBM Desktop Cloud", which conveniently delivers the "data", "analytics" and "personalized instructional plans". Telus, having already been awarded a $1 billion contract, would no doubt provide the "broadband networks spanning the community". On top of the Cloud sit a few other pieces of software, notably produced by "Pearson Auxiliaries" - companies owned or affiliated with Pearson - the company that used to be mostly about textbooks. (You might have read about Pearson lately when they purchases the now infamous failed BCeSIS - the BC Liberal's disastrous student information system now declared by an independent review a  unfix-able waste of $100 million.)

But let's get back to the first part for a minute. The diagram shows a collection of "systems" which will be used to provide the "data" and "analytics" in a so-called "dashboard". I take it the "dashboard" is some kind of user interface for the "Cloud". The picture shows charts and graphs on the "dashboard". I take it these represent the "data" which has been suitably "analyzed".

The data on the "dashboard" comes from another set of computer programs. These are the "Pearson Auxiliaries". Let's have a closer look at some of these companies:
  • SchoolNet - owned by Pearson, produces software for "Instructional Improvement", "Educator Development", "Student Information and Grading", and "District and Parent Portals"
  • SPSS - owned by IBM, produces statistical data analysis
  • SAP - has a forty year history of working with IBM, produces software for data warehousing and data analytics
  • Peoplesoft - produces database software that is used by many universities to manage course selection and student records
  • SEAS - owned by Computer Automation Systems Inc stands for "Special Education Automation Software" and makes software that stores, manages and tracks Individual Education Plans
Clearly what is envisioned, by IBM at least, is a fully integrated, completely computerized data-driven bureaucracy. Where decision making within this system is driven by charts and graphs. Where the human element does not even warrant a symbol in the diagram. Where the assumption is that we need more "analytics" to improve student success, rather than suitable resources, teaching techniques or materials.

So if you had concerns that Accountability Contracts (which all School Boards must produce) were already too "data-driven" by Foundation Skills Assessment test score results, watch out. IBM promises to: "Bring together deep analytics with advanced technology, learning resources and research to create new insights
and guide decisions."

And if you were shocked by the appalling interface on BCeSIS which required five minutes worth of button clicks just to mark a student as late, take a look at some PeopleSoft programs. When I first saw a PeopleSoft screen it my the first of two times I have witnessed a single screen with upwards of three different embedded boxes with slider bars, some of which went sideways and some vertical. The next time I saw these was BCeSIS.

And if you have any concerns about privacy and the use of personal data, beware. This "transformation" imagines every component of the education bureaucracy coded, stored, analyzed, and on screen, from the sick days taken by a teacher to the score of a student's math test to every student's learning plan to the food order for the cafeteria. Hence the need for the government to introduce Bill 3, currently in process in the legislature, which would allow all this "cloud" computing with your personal information. Here is one further quote that gives an indication of the quantity and breadth of data collection envisioned: "Access to learning resources from a variety of mobile devices, Sensors to collect data for large scale research projects
(environment, weather, energy usage, transportation, etc), Digital video surveillance to protect students on campus and in school buildings". It makes Google Street View seem downright tame.

If you have ever used Rosetta Stone, you will be familiar with the kind of learning this "data-driven" model encapsulates - sit at a computer, take a canned lesson, get feedback, take a new lesson based on your score, repeat. Here it is described on slide 27 of the presentation:
  • Increase results by shifting to data-driven decisions by...using data to track and evaluate student progress
  • Early identification of performance problems by...leveraging analytics to identify performance issues early
  • Better support for teachers and alignment of resources to needs by...Building and managing customized
    intervention plans using district and other models
  • Improved student outcomes through better engagement and personalized instruction by...Leveraging integrated technology delivery of personalized lesson plans, in and outside the classroom
There a number of real nuggest in this presentation. Note some of the key words we've seen elsewhere in the Ministry literature such as "alignment". Here are a few:

Concerned economics is taking priority over pedagogy?: "Education programs and economic initiatives align for long term sustainability and growth."

Worried your kids already have too much screen time, here's more: "Integration of Consumer IT devices
into learning environments in a device-agnostic manner"

Concerned big brother is tracking your cell phone?: "Social media becomes integral to learning and begins to use analytics."

Worried this agenda will mean less classroom time and more computer time?: "Learning Delivery and Digital Content Management: Assemble personalized lesson plans from various sources, Deliver learning to a variety of in- and out-of-classroom devices, Allow access to learning materials beyond the classroom"

Concerned schools are becoming too competitive and stressful for young children?: "Provide every student with optimized learning and skills development to enable them to compete in the new economy through a dynamic, cost effective and adaptive learning environment."

Lastly, we see where the BC government is getting their "policy" advice on page 30 where IBM suggests that "Successful education systems in the next decade will share a number of strategic policy actions" which are listed:

"Adopt and Promote a vision of Personalized Learning encouraging better use of data and analytics to manage and tailor learning services to individual students

Establish Student-Centric versus Institutionally-Centric Processes to provide better insights, interventions and
opportunities to improve outcomes

Promote Open Standards and Open Platforms in Technology to enable a broad set of providers to contribute to a rich, diverse world of learning

Consolidate Services across Institutions and Agencies to realize the benefits of cloud computing and shared services"

In plain English: Create a need for data and increased technology with the myth of "personalized learning", Diminish the importance of schools and communities by focusing on the individual student, Let all the technology companies in on the spoils (there's enough for everyone), Do it everywhere on a large scale and sell this with the myth of efficiencies of "shared services"


  1. Thanks for this excellent post, Tara.

    At last Friday's BCSSTA conference, a former member of the Premier's Technology Council argued that there isn't enough money in education to make us question the motives of corporate education reformers. But your analysis shows us that there are some serious corporate interests involved in our province when it comes to education.

    I was particularly struck by the following quotation: "Learning Delivery and Digital Content Management: Assemble personalized lesson plans from various sources, Deliver learning to a variety of in- and out-of-classroom devices, Allow access to learning materials beyond the classroom".

    Various sources, indeed... Last year, IBM affiliated consultants recommended that all of the DL school material created by our district's DL teachers (including assessment) should be "borrowed" and put onto district servers so any teacher and student could access it. Thankfully this idea was blocked by school administration (for the moment), but it goes to show how precarious your work might be, especially if it's on a district server. IF you want to create digital content (including simple things like pdf's and Word documents), keep it on your own drive, server or cloud system. Don't feed the beast of personalized learning by allowing your work to be appropriated. Be particularly wary of digital management systems that are run by the district. Any content on them is the district's property, even during a strike. I predict this will be a big issue if/when the gov't gets serious about personalized learning.

  2. Yes, and beyond making money from the unpaid curriculum development work of teachers I imagine this will also refer to the purchase (by cash strapped school boards) of online learning modules by private companies. Pearson has an awful lot of textbooks it can convert if only they had a buyer!

  3. The New York Times has been running an interesting series on technology and education. Yesterday's article (Sunday, Oct 23) was about Silicon Valley tech workers and executives who send their kids to a local Waldorf school to avoid an over-emphasis on computer and other technology use, which many of them find especially inappropriate for younger children. The Times has also done a good job of pointing to the paucity of research about the effectiveness of computer- and internet-based education--except for research undertaken by the corporations themselves, which is rarely peer-reviewed or replicable.

  4. Yes I agree, it was very interesting. It is here for those who want to read it:

  5. There is money available. Tonnes of it. The entire idea of using private companies to fund and direct public education is not only sickening it is the means to the end for us all. This reminds me of my personal vow to "go live in a cabin in the woods" once governments started forcing us to have retinal scans for identification but this is comparable as far as I'm concerned.

  6. Thanks for the always excellent analysis. I'm posting a link on my blog. I'm not pleased with the push to get wifi in schools because of possible negative effects at the cellular level on children (and all living things), and the hidden profit trail which you've exposed here.