Update: This column has been updated to include responses from Summit Learning and a correction.

I have seen some truly dumb ideas in my life but nothing this abysmally stupid. Apparently, some cash-strapped public schools are now using "free" software to turn classrooms into open plan offices.

Summit Learning is a free educational program, funded in part by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a philanthropic effort founded in 2015 by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan to offer grants to worthy organizations. Summit's goal is to provide teachers and schools with resources to bring personalized learning into their classrooms. In a blog post, the company says students using Summit don't even spend half their day on the platform.

As described by The New York Times: Students use "laptops and go online for lesson plans and quizzes, which they complete at their own pace. Teachers assist students with the work, hold mentoring sessions and lead special projects. The system is free to schools. The laptops are typically bought separately."

There are three reasons why this idea is so astronomically dumb:

1. It puts children's privacy at risk.

"Summit demands an extraordinary amount of personal information about each student and plans to track them through college and beyond," according to Leonie Haimson, co-chairwoman of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, as quoted in The New York Times.

Summit says it complies with Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which only covers children under age 13.

"Summit Learning is deeply committed to protecting students' personal information," according to a Summit spokesperson, who notes that the company has signed the Student Privacy Pledge, which is a legally binding commitment aimed at safeguarding student privacy. "We have a strong  privacy policy set for all of the service providers supporting the operation and development of the Summit Learning Platform."

The problem here is that Silicon Valley culture--the source of Summit's ideas about education--is full of privacy promises that are either bogus or not kept due to cyber-security breaches. Facebook, for example, has been guilty of the both.

2. Computers can't teach.

In a recent study, even Stanford University, which you'd think would be rah-rah on computers in the classroom, showed that computers in the classroom have a "null effect." The same study showed that use of computers to practice skills--Summit's raison d'etre--has "negative effects" on student achievement.

According to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Summit is intended to help "meet the student's individual needs and interests [and] frees up time for teachers to do what they do best -- mentor students." While that sounds high-minded, it's actually nonsense. Teachers aren't supposed to be mentors; they're supposed to teach. And teaching is a highly skilled profession that takes years of college and extensive experience to do well. To rhetorically reduce teaching to mere mentoring is frankly disrespectful.

Zuckerberg's statement is also disgusting and hypocritical, considering that Zuckerberg famously doesn't allow his own children to use consumer electronics. I doubt seriously whether Zuckerberg is sending his kids to a school where they'd stare at a screen for even part of the day.

3. It turns classrooms into open-plan offices.

In a classroom using Summit, students sitting in front of screens can see other people's screens and hear other people talking as they work on various group projects. If this sounds familiar, it's because it replicates the open-plan office.

Just as you'd expect, students subjected to Summit surface the same complaints made by office workers who are subjected to open plan. According to The New York Times, students in one Kansas school complained of headaches and anxiety as the result of staring at a screen all day.

One student resorted to bringing in hunting earmuffs to muffle the sounds of conversation. He probably chose earmuffs because, unlike workers, students aren't allowed to use noise-canceling headsets and listen to music. So it's open-plan, but worse.

The stress and anxiety from noise pollution and visual pollution--inherent in this type of environment--can result in major health problems. What's more, working in an open-plan office--especially trying to use computers to learn something--makes some students miserable.

In a school district survey of the Kansas school's parents, which the Times cites, it was revealed that 77 percent of respondents didn't want their children to be in a Summit classroom, while more than 80 percent said their children had "expressed concerns." In Brooklyn, exasperated high school students staged a walkout to protest Summit.

Summit points out that a separate survey of parents from the Wellington, Kansas school district indicated 80 percent of "stakeholders" had a positive experience with the program. In addition, a survey taken in March 2019 of 1,700 teachers in Summit, 95 percent said the program had a positive impact on students' experience, and 94 percent said the program has helped them improve as teachers.

While the jury is still out, this kind of embrace of technology in schools may lead to some unintended consequences--namely, killing the goose that laid the golden egg, the goose being the public school system that educated 99 percent of this country's innovators.

Dumb. So very, very dumb.

Corrections and amplifications: An earlier version of this column inaccurately depicted Facebook's relationship with Summit Learning. It helped contribute early engineering help to the company, and that help ended in 2017. It also inaccurately depicted the extent to which students participate in the Summit platform. Students spend less than half their day on the platform.

Published on: Apr 26, 2019
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