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Personal Data Tracking in Schools: A Fitbit for Education or When Following becomes Frightening?

Any fans of Black Mirror out there?
How about the Bridesmaid Episode

This fascinating and well-written Hechinger Report article describes a student data tracking app that was rolled out without explanation to students, parents, and teachers in Fresno Unified School District this year. It is basically a gussied-up version of the Star Chart you probably experienced/have perpetuated before you knew better/are now familiar with as a bit of an education relic. Because, you know, extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation and all (i.e., since our positivistic society has decided we are able to get inside of each other's minds (even though we are not) through standardized tests and surreptitious behavior-tracking apps and whatnot, many of the elite politicontrolers of our education systems have perpetuated/many of us toiling to teach have inherited the bourgeoisie notion in education that intrinsic motivation is more estimable than extrinsic, even though that is how every one of us has to operate to survive in our economic system). Students get points for conforming to expectations around attendance, grades, participation in extra-curriculars, and even just checking their points. There is a social component that allows students to compare themselves to others' ratings, sometimes anonymously. 

So, in fairness, some things that seem like smart design: 

- leaderboard is anonymous

- social component: accept friends, see their STRIDES score

- easter eggs: random secret ways of getting points (but it also sounds like these rewards kids who are going to be 'in the know', e.g., the gamers' Konami code).

- academic counselor's discussion about why it is important to attend school 

Things that seem worrisome: 

- leaderboard checking is most popular (frequently checked) amongst students who are '"winning" against their peers.' 

- Anyone else find the opening anecdote slighty disturbing? This middle schooler "doesn't want to care" but does, feeling compelled to check her "streak" on the app and accumulate extra points to "level up" with such compulsion that "It's scary!"

- If students in the 'murky middle' (presumably along with those at the super smart tip top and lazy laggard low-life bottom) have typically not received 'contextualized' 'feedback' about things like their attendance to help them maintain progress 'in real time,' that is a problem revealing an ideology in our schools that is faulty and flawed: conformity, normalcy, obedience is primary, so we don't even actually have to explain to you why you have to do something, you just have to. Tale as old as time: Adult says, kid does. Kid is de-humanized by an already dehumanized adult. Rolling out this app -- especially without information and warning, to the point that "several students said they don’t quite understand Strides, or how many points they actually get for any given action or achievement. They don’t know all the ways they can earn points faster — and they can’t turn to their teachers for help" -- doesn't address the underlying ideology of power and dehumanization that causes a problem in the feedback loop and creates a 'murky middle.' 

Finally, for researchers in education like myself, I think the implication is concerning. Now, research is going to be conducted through this already secretive and self-selecting app? "Collecting data regularly over the course of an entire year or more, based on students’ actual actions rather than what they report on annual surveys, could provide a rare opportunity to prove that one thing actually causes another." -- this is huge. We are throwing out a longstanding if maligned truth: identifying causality in social science research? On motivation--a completely psychological construct, one doomed to consume its own tail because it is a product of the mind, which can never understand itself fully by its very nature; like how a reflection is barely distinguishable as a reflection. So now, we are going to measure the minds of the chosen to claim causality in an organism that we don't completely understand  (i.e., the human, which includes the human brain, which is less understood than outer space!). 

I actually think that might even be all fine and well and good because we're on this crazy ride anyway and can't really get off. But the participants should always have the right to say no. To full disclosure. To understanding what they're singing up for, and how it's going to affect them. That is BASIC SOCIAL SCIENCE RESEARCH ETHICS! 


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