The Internet of Things Comes to the Classroom: Freedom or Surveillance

The spaceship is coming to get us
The spaceship is coming to get us

This year was declared the year of “The Internet of Things” at the Consumer Electronics Show this January in Las Vegas. This showcase of the newest gadgets and gizmos to make our lives easier featured printers that order their own ink, fitness trackers, toothbrushes that report to your dentist, and cars that schedule their own maintenace.

It won’t be long until we start hearing that the “Internet of Things” is coming to the classroom. Here’s one: Connecting the Classroom with the Internet of Things. Unfortunately, this article shows that there is a dystopian surveillance aspect that is scary to contemplate. Some ideas are fairly innocuous:

“As students take their seats, for example, attendance could be logged automatically using a device such as the Nymi, a wearable “smartband” that uses ECG patterns to authenticate identity.”

OK, so maybe it’s a time saver to eliminate some of the administrivia that steals classroom time. But wait, there’s more!

“A beacon might push a warm-up exercise directly to students’ smart surfaces.”

“Neurosensors … could provide insight into students’ cognitive activity using EEG technology that measures brain activity like one might measure a pulse.”

The pitch is that all this data will “free teachers” from “classroom procedures” and allow them to focus on students who really need help. This is such a weird view of learning it’s hard to even explain all the things that are wrong with it.

Kids are not printers running out of ink. Their brains can’t be scanned for evidence of learning – and even if you believe they could, what is the proper response? Do you “beam” canned lessons or a video about verbs or a pop quiz to them faster/higher/harder? Do you trust the algorithm to decide what to do next?

How much effort and expense do we go to not to have a human relationship with kids?

But wait!!! Still more to come…

“When it comes to keeping students on task, teachers could send a “haptic” vibration—similar to silent notifications on mobile devices—to a student’s wearable or tablet, redirecting her attention or behavior in a way that limits public embarrassment and reduces direct confrontation.”

So you buzz the kid who seems to be “off task”, rather than addressing why they are staring out the window. Maybe they are thinking (I know! what a concept!)  – would the monitoring software know that?

Maybe there should be a device that screws onto a kid’s head so it can provide an electric shock and jerk their head back into place when their eyes deviate from the teacher? (Don’t get any ideas, you edtrepreneurs…)

So if you are thinking “pigeons in a Skinner box” – that’s what it sounds like to me too.

40 years ago, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon warned against this trend in educational technology – and here we go again…

“The phrase “technology and education” usually means inventing new gadgets to teach the same old stuff in a thinly disguised version of the same old way. Moreover, if the gadgets are computers, the same old teaching becomes incredibly more expensive and biased towards its dumbest parts, namely the kind of rote learning in which measurable results can be obtained by treating the children like pigeons in a Skinner box.”

(Read more about this in “Outside the Skinner Box” by Gary Stager)

This is surveillance, not freedom. This is not “freeing” the teacher (and certainly not the student). It’s about wanting to make children into objects that we can command and control every second of the day. Heaven forbid they should have an unmonitored thought or action.

Children are not printers, robots, or cogs in our quest for global economic domination. They have the right to their own actions and thoughts. If school is interesting, they almost always will join in the fun. If it’s made miserable, all the monitoring/nagging/prodding technology in the world won’t make them do it.

And I’m not even addressing the obvious privacy issues.

The only way the “Internet of Things” will help with student learning is if the student is in charge of it. Can students program their own devices to do what they want? Can students learn how the world works behind the scenes so they can make it their own? Can they invent, make, and tinker?

This is a choice and a battle that is coming soon to a classroom near you … are you ready?

One Reply to “The Internet of Things Comes to the Classroom: Freedom or Surveillance”

  1. Interesting post Sylvia. Thanks for sharing. I totally agree with you on how beacons can help add a layer of local experience and interaction to connect students with the physical world. For example, Dixons Allerton Academy in Bradford recently used beacons to trigger information relevant to particular parts of the library directly onto students’ iPads as they move around. We’ve discussed various ways in which beacons can help school bolster education here:

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