Reposted with permission from Missouri Education Watchdog.
Project Unicorn: Billionaire partners promoting data interoperability and online “Personalized Learning”
When the Unicorns “protecting” student data are interoperable with the Unicorns taking it, parents and lawmakers might want to pay attention.
According to Technopedia, in the Information Technology world, “a unicorn is most commonly used to describe a company, for example, a Silicon Valley startup, that started out small but has since increased its market capitalization to, say, $1 billion or more. …For example, the social media giant Facebook, which has a market capitalization of more than $100 billion, is considered as a “super-unicorn among unicorns”. Interesting coincidence because the name of a MEGA financed K-12 student data alliance is a unicorn.
Meet Project Unicorn.
Project Unicorn’s Mission is to Leverage Student Data and Make Data Interoperable
Project Unicorn’s steering committee is a who’s-who of edtech bundlers, billionaires, and student data power-players. They have formed an “uncommon alliance” committed to leveraging student data by making the data interoperable, flowing seamlessly, between all K-12 applications and platforms. While addressing student data security and privacy is a much needed conversation, it would seem that Project Unicorn has the cart before the horse. There is no talk of student data ownership or consent prior to collecting and using student data but rather, per this press release, Project Unicorn will continue to take the data, make data interoperable and talk about it afterwards, “Once interoperability is in place, we can start working with teachers and students to ask questions about the data.” You can see by tweets below that Project Unicorn initially claimed it wanted to “shift data ownership to the student”; they have since withdrawn that statement. Several schools and districts have been encouraged to join the Project Unicorn Coalition; we wonder if parents in these schools were given an option or are even aware of what this means. We’re going to talk about a few of the Project Unicorn partners and then circle back to their interoperability goals and how that fits with student data ownership, ethics, and the newly formed and related Truth About Tech and Humanetech.
A few points before we start:
- When it comes to “free” edtech products, you know if it is free, you are the product; you pay with your data and your privacy. With edtech and 1:1 devices, personalized learning, online assessments online homework, LMS systems, students usually do not have a choice. Students do not have the ability to consent or opt out. Why?
- Not all philanthropy is charity. As this article points out, for some, philanthropy is an investment, these nonprofits may “look” charitable but they are truly meant to make money and to buy power and influence policy, and sometimes do harm.
- McKinsey Global estimated that increasing the use of student data in education could unlock between $900 billion and $1.2 trillion in global economic value.
- Children are not data points to predict, standardize and analyze. Currently online platforms can collect every key stroke, analyze and predict children’s behaviors. Children are not meant to be experimented on and#KidsAreNotInteroperable.
- Currently, students’ data can be shared, researched, analyzed, marketed without parental consent. Often, parents cannot refuse the data sharing, cannot see the data points shared and how they are analyzed.
- Edtech and Silicon Valley companies can gain access to personal student information without parent consent, under the School Official exception in FERPA. The US Department of Education not only promotes edtech companies, it tells tech companies HOW to gain access to student data, and is partnered in this project to make data sharing interoperable.
- Interoperable data systems will allow even larger, very predictive data profiles of children–everything they do, are. The best way to protect privacy is to not collect data in the first place. Interoperability, with bigger and more detailed, sensitive data sets, sharing and mixing data with third parties is risky for both privacy and security. The US Department of Education has already warned of cyber hackers ransoming sensitive data from schools; who will be responsible and liable for more data breaches?
Back to unicorns.
How is the US Department of Education involved with Project Unicorn?
The USDoE (your tax dollars) has been a major driving force of funding and support in online education, and data interoperability. Part of the data interoperability requires common data standards. CEDS (Common Education Data Standards) are codes used to tag student data, you can see these over 1,700 different data codes or elements, in the federal student data dictionary. These common data tags were created with the help of Bill Gates, funder of the Data Quality Campaign; read about the mission of DQC at the US Department of Education Summit here. Data Quality Campaign also provides policy guidance to legislators and education agencies, such as this 2018 DQC Roadmap promoting Cross-Agency data sharing. With the shift in education focusing more on workforce talent pipelines (see both ESSA and WIOA), the Workforce Data Quality Campaign (Gates, Lumina, Arnold, Joyce Foundation funded) has also influenced the US Department of Labor. The US Department of Labor-Workforce Data Quality Initiative plans to use personal information from each student, starting in pre-school, via the states’ SLDS data system. You can read more about the SLDS, the roles that the US Department of Education and Bill Gates play in student data collection, the weakening of federal privacy law FERPA here. In recent years Microsoft’s commitment to data privacy has been called into question, as per this EdWeek article. Even Microsoft itself admits they can take a peek and trend through student data and can put it on the market.
“If students are using certain cloud infrastructures, and it’s held by a third party, it is possible for [the vendors] to trend through the data,” said Allyson Knox, director of education policy and programs for Microsoft. “When [information] is flowing through a data center, it’s possible to take a peek at it and find trends and put it on the market to other businesses who want to advertise to those students.”
Knox said Microsoft has a “remote data center” where student information is housed but that “students’ data belongs to them.” -Microsoft https://www.fedscoop.com/lawmakers-hear-testimony-on-student-data-and-privacy/
Does Microsoft still believe that student data belongs to the student?
Microsoft, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a nonprofit whose IRS 990 forms can be seen here and (2016) here and TRUST here; their awarded grants can be seen in this searchable database. Gates spends billions on K-12 and higher ed reform. Gates (and Data Quality Campaign) both support a national student database, and now Gates is shifting his Multi-Billion focus from Common Core to K12 networks and curriculum.
(See With new focus on curriculum, Gates Foundation wades into tricky territory .)
Microsoft is desperately hoping to regain ground in the K-12 classroom 1:1 device market, with management systems, cloud, gamification of education (yes, Microsoft owns Minecraft and is promoting Minecraft in classrooms), K-12 LinkedIn Data Badges (yes, Microsoft owns LinkedIn-and yes there are LinkedIn K-12 badge pilots in AZ and CO), introducing chatbots and Artificial Intelligence into education and several online tools like Microsoft OneNote, favorably reviewed here by their unicorn partner Digital Promise. Microsoft is also part of the US Department of Education’s push for online curriculum, via Open Ed Resources OERs. Microsoft will be handling and indexing the content for the Federal Learning Registry. (You can read more about how the Federal Department of Defense and Department of Education are involved in OERs here.)
According to this December 2017 New York Times piece, Microsoft is fiercely trying to regain ground in the K-12 classroom market.
Tech companies are fiercely competing for business in primary and secondary schools in the United States, a technology market expected to reach $21 billion by 2020, according to estimates from Ibis Capital, a technology investment firm, and EdtechXGlobal, a conference company.
It is a matter of some urgency for Microsoft.
Chromebooks accounted for 58 percent of the 12.6 million mobile devices shipped to primary and secondary schools in the United States last year, compared with less than 1 percent in 2012, according to Futuresource Consulting, a research company. By contrast, Windows laptops and tablets made up 21.6 percent of the mobile-device shipments to schools in the United States last year, down from about 43 percent in 2012. – https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/02/technology/microsoft-google-educational-sales.html [Emphasis added]
If you aren’t familiar with Digital Promise, it is a non-profit created by the US Department of Education, to PROMOTE edtech in the classroom. Read about Digital Promise and Global Digital Promise here. Digital Promise is demanding data interoperability for school districts. Digital Promise presented their report The Goals and Roles of Federal Funding for EdTech Research at this 2017 symposium which was funded by tech foundations and corporations, such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Chan-Zuck, Strada, Pearson, Carnegie… you get the idea. In their report, Digital Promise acknowledges that the federal government has spent significant money on developing and disseminating technology-based products in the classroom with little to no information on how these products are working. So, is the answer to rely on tech financed entities and unicorns to review and research the efficacy of future edtech products? No conflict of interest there. Digital Promise also utilizes the heavily Gates funded and controversial Relay Graduate School, which you can read about here.
The Personalized Learning algorithm driven model does not work.
Digital Promise and others in edtech continue to push for online Personalized Learning despite many warnings from edtech insiders including this from Paul Merich, entitled Why I Left Silicon Valley, EdTech, and “Personalized” Learning. Merich’s concerns with the algorithmic driven Personalized Learning, are summed up with this quote,
“It was isolating with every child working on something different; it was impersonal with kids learning basic math skills from Khan Academy; it was disembodied and disconnected, with a computer constantly being a mediator between my students and me.”
And in this piece by Rick Hess, A Confession and a Question on Personalized Learning, the CEO of Amplify admits Personalized Learning is a failure. We wish every policy wonk and educrat would read this:
…“Until a few years ago, I was a great believer in what might be called the “engineering” model of personalized learning, which is still what most people mean by personalized learning. The model works as follows:
You start with a map of all the things that kids need to learn.
Then you measure the kids so that you can place each kid on the map in just the spot where they know everything behind them, and in front of them is what they should learn next.
Then you assemble a vast library of learning objects and ask an algorithm to sort through it to find the optimal learning object for each kid at that particular moment.
Then you make each kid use the learning object.
Then you measure the kids again. If they have learned what you wanted them to learn, you move them to the next place on the map. If they didn’t learn it, you try something simpler.
If the map, the assessments, and the library were used by millions of kids, then the algorithms would get smarter and smarter, and make better, more personalized choices about which things to put in front of which kids.
I spent a decade believing in this model—the map, the measure, and the library, all powered by big data algorithms.
Here’s the problem: The map doesn’t exist, the measurement is impossible, and we have, collectively, built only 5% of the library.
To be more precise: The map exists for early reading and the quantitative parts of K-8 mathematics, and much promising work on personalized learning has been done in these areas; but the map doesn’t exist for reading comprehension, or writing, or for the more complex areas of mathematical reasoning, or for any area of science or social studies. We aren’t sure whether you should learn about proteins then genes then traits—or traits, then genes, then proteins.
We also don’t have the assessments to place kids with any precision on the map. The existing measures are not high enough resolution to detect the thing that a kid should learn tomorrow. Our current precision would be like Google Maps trying to steer you home tonight using a GPS system that knows only that your location correlates highly with either Maryland or Virginia.
We also don’t have the library of learning objects for the kinds of difficulties that kids often encounter. Most of the available learning objects are in books that only work if you have read the previous page. And they aren’t indexed in ways that algorithms understand.
Finally, as if it were not enough of a problem that this is a system whose parts don’t exist, there’s a more fundamental breakdown: Just because the algorithms want a kid to learn the next thing doesn’t mean that a real kid actually wants to learn that thing.
So we need to move beyond this engineering model…” — Larry Berger, CEO of Amplify, excerpt Rick Hess Straight Up Blog [Emphasis added]
And…Digital Promise just published a 2018 report promoting “Personalized Learning”, co-authored by Tom Vander Ark, here. In this report you can find such gems as this global mantra (including in the US) that learning and teaching knowledge is no longer the main goal of education, it is more important to gather data about how students think and feel.
“According to the World Economic Forum, the top five most valued skills for workers in 2020 are: 1) complex problem solving; 2) critical thinking; 3) creativity; 4) people management; and 5) coordinating with others. This is a far cry from simply needing a grasp of reading, writing, and arithmetic to be marketable to employers. While mastery of the three Rs remains critical, it is merely the launching point and no longer the end goal. We need to re-think the education system” –US Department of Education’s Digital Promise http://digitalpromise.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/lps-policies_practices-r3.pdf
Getting Smart, Tom Vander Ark
Tom Vander Ark is Getting Smart author, creator and is the “director of 4.0 Schools, Charter Board Partners, Digital Learning Institute, eduInnovation, and Imagination Foundation, and advises numerous nonprofits.” Vander Ark was also the former Executive Director of Education for Microsoft. Vander Ark, in this 2011 video said that Common Core’s mandate of online assessments could be used as a lever to get computers into the classroom, computers for personalized learning to help replace teachers. Tom Vander Ark also said gone are the “days of data poverty” once we use online formative tests rather than end of year high stakes tests. Vander Ark is also featured in this Global Education Futures conference; notice that Vander Ark is speaking on how to Unbundle Billions in Education.
What could Dell computers possibly have to do with tech in schools and student data you ask? For starters, Dell funds some heavy hitters in data analytics, such as McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group. Dell also has a “free” app for high school students called Scholar Snap, which handles students’ personal scholarship data. Interestingly, Scholar Snap is also partnered with the Common App, both of which are third party vendors within Naviance, a K-12 Workforce data platform. (You can read about Naviance and their data mining, including how Common App asks students to waive their FERPA rights by clicking here.) Additionally, Dell (along with Gates) helps fund CoSN, the makers of the (industry self-policing, self-awarding) Trusted Learning Environment Seal for Student Data. CoSN also promotes data collection and personalized learning. Their “data driven decision making mission” is to “help schools and districts move beyond data collection to use data to inform instructional practice and personalize learning“. Not surprisingly, CoSN is also co-author of this Horizon Report, touting the virtues of Virtual Reality (VR) and robotics and wearable tech, expected to be adopted in K-12 education within the next 3 to 5 years.
“The wearable format enables the convenient integration of tools into users’ everyday lives, allowing seamless tracking of personal data such as sleep, movement, location, and social media interactions. Head-mounted wearable displays such as Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard facilitate immersive virtual reality experiences. Well-positioned to advance the quantified self movement, today’s wearables not only track where people go, what they do, and how much time they spend doing it, but now what their aspirations are and when those can be accomplished.” –CoSN Horizon Report 2018
Side note: It’s not just students who will be required to track and share their biometric and personal data. As this New York Times piece reports, teachers in West Virginia were required to submit their personal information to a health tracking app or risk a $500 penalty.
They implemented Go365, which is an app that I’m supposed to download on my phone, to track my steps, to earn points through this app. If I don’t earn enough points, and if I choose not to use the app, then I’m penalized $500 at the end of the year. People felt that was very invasive, to have to download that app and to be forced into turning over sensitive information.
The Future of Privacy Forum
The Future of Privacy Forum, is a Project Unicorn partner and DC think tank funded by many tech foundations and corporations including but not limited to: Amazon, Apple, AT&T, Comcast, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Verizon, Samsung, Sidewalk Labs (Google’s Alphabet, Smart Cities), Walt Disney, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, National Science Foundation. Hobsons (Naviance), Intel, Palintir, Pearson, Netflix, Mozilla name only a few of their big name supporters. Their K12 arm focuses on balancing student data privacy while supporting innovation and technology in the classroom.
New technologies are allowing information to flow within schools and beyond, enabling new learning environments and providing new tools to improve the way teachers teach and the way students learn. Data-driven innovations are bringing advances in teaching and learning but are accompanied by concerns about how education data, particularly student-generated data, are being collected and used.
The Future of Privacy Forum believes that there are critical improvements to learning that are enabled by data and technology, and that the use of data and technology is not antithetical to protecting student privacy. In order to facilitate this balance, FPF equips and connects advocates, industry, policymakers, and practitioners with substantive practices, policies, and other solutions to address education privacy challenges.
While it is fantastic to have such a well-funded group concerned about student privacy, we wish they would go further. The Future of Privacy Forum doesn’t advocate for student and parent consent before taking or using student data, nor do they say students should own their own data. We wish they advocated for the right of parents to be ensured paper pencil / book / human face to face teacher alternatives to online curriculum. We also wish that Future of Privacy Forum would better highlight that predictive algorithms are not regulated or transparent; meta data and personalized, adaptive learning are exempted from state privacy laws, often with this or very similar language:
And though the Future of Privacy Forum does promote technology in the classroom, screen addiction is a concern for parents. (Although tech addiction has seen increased media coverage as of late, it’s not new; see this 2015 New York Times article on the toll that screen addiction has on children. However, surprisingly, some would still argue that tech is not addictive. ) When promoting technology in the classroom, the Future of Privacy Forum could do a better job addressing the many well-documented health risks of screen use including behavioral changes, link to teen depression and suicide, sleep disturbance, damage to retinas and vision loss, and better highlight guidance from the American Academy of Pediatricians, warning that wireless devices and cell phones can cause cancer.
Common Sense Media
Common Sense Media is a nonprofit who is supported by several foundations, including but not limited to: The Bezos (Amazon) Family Foundation, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of NY, Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation,Overdeck Family Foundation, R.K. Mellon Foundation Symantec ,The Anschutz Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation. Another of their investors states that, “Common Sense Media provides unbiased and trustworthy information about media and entertainment that helps parents and children make informed choices about the content they consume.”
Can Project Unicorn or any of its Partners truly claim to be unbiased, since they are funded by the data driven tech industry? Since they are in a position to inform and advise on education policy, this is an important question.
Common Sense Media, even after hosting an event about tech addiction, see Truth About Tech below, is still advocating that only certain screen time exposure is addictive or concerning. Common Sense says when it comes to screen time, “there really is no magic number that’s “just right.” Parents would argue that while content is certainly important, addiction, retinal damage, cancer risk, permissionless data collection, online safety risks apply to both educational and non-educational screen time, and affect children regardless of digital content.
To their credit, Common Sense Kids Action recently hosted a full day conference (video) on “Truth About Tech– How tech has our kids hooked.” It is great to get this conversation into the spotlight , you can see the agenda here, but there was no mention of giving students and parents ownership and control of how student data is collected, analyzed and shared. With online personalized learning and 1:1 devices being pushed at students as early as kindergarten and preschool, and no laws regulating meta data, data analytics, hidden algorithms, limiting screen time in schools and consent for data collection should have been discussed. Instead, Common Sense along with Project Unicorn is focused on data interoperability to keep the K-12 data flowing and will continue to ask parents to better control children’s screen time use at home.
The last segment of Common Sense’s Truth About Tech event, entitled “Solutions for Families, Schools, and Democracy” was moderated by Rebecca Randall, Vice President of Education Programs, Common Sense with guest speakers and Common Sense partners Dr. Carrie James, research associate, Project Zero, Harvard School of Education,, and Randima Fernando, Center for Humane Technology. This entire piece is worth your time, Mr. Fernando had some excellent points on gaming and technology. However, we are going to focus on Dr. James’ comments since, as Ms. Randall mentions, it is on Dr. James’ work regarding digital ethics that Common Sense bases their K-12 digital literacy and citizenship curriculum. Common Sense Media is about to begin working again with Dr. James and Harvard’s Project Zero to develop updated K-12 digital guidance.
At 49 minute mark, Dr. James remarks:
“In answering a question around parents as role models, responded that, “We have a growing pile of evidence to suggest that parents are not doing a great job in this regard in recent research that we’re doing with Common Sense we’ve reached out to schools and teachers across the country and in a couple of countries around the world and asked you know what are some of the most memorable digital challenges your schools have faced and a surprising number of them have to do with parents.”
With screens being so addictive, we agree that many parents and most of society undoubtedly could be better screen time role models, we disagree with Common Sense’s continued emphasis only on non-educational screen use. We hope that Common Sense, their partners at Harvard Project Zero who will be working on new digital literacy citizenship curriculum, will consider age appropriate screen use, health and safety guidelines, parental consent and data ownership for children using devices and screens for educational purposes, including online homework. Parents send their children to school expecting them to be safe. Many parents do not want their children required to use screens and technology for regular coursework and when learning core subjects. Many parents are uncomfortable with online personalized learning and would prefer face to face human teachers and text books as an option. The cost of attending public schools should not be mandatory screen exposure and loss of privacy. We hope that Common Sense will address these concerns in their work.
Project Unicorn is Promoting Interoperability. What is it?
An April 2017 Clayton Christensen Institute blog posted on the Project Unicorn news website explains the path of data interoperability as this,
“The first path toward interoperability evolves when industry leaders meet to agree on standards for new technologies. With standards, software providers electively conform to a set of rules for cataloging and sharing data. The problem with this approach in the current education landscape is that software vendors don’t have incentives to conform to standards. Their goal is to optimize the content and usability of their own software and serve as a one-stop shop for student data, not to constrain their software architecture so that their data is more useful to third parties.
Until schools and teachers prioritize interoperability over other features in their software purchasing decisions, standards will continue to fall by the wayside with technology developers. Efforts led by the Ed-Fi Alliance, the Access for Learning Community, and the federal government’s Common Education Data Standards program, all aim to promote common sets of data standards. In parallel with their (sic) these efforts, promising initiatives like the Project Unicorn pledge encourage school systems to increase demand for interoperability.” [Emphasis added] https://www.christenseninstitute.org/blog/making-student-data-usable-innovation-theory-tells-us-interoperability/
A one-stop shop for student data, flowing seamlessly for third parties: Interoperability.
How will Project Unicorn help give students ownership of their data? Will students have consent and control over their data? We asked.
Interestingly, up until a few days ago, Project Unicorn’s twitter profile stated that their focus is “shifting the ownership of data to schools and students.” See this screenshot from February 18, 2018 and a twitter conversation below.
Project Unicorn replied the following day but they did not immediately answer my question about student data consent and ownership. Instead, they listed a few of their partners: Data Quality Campaign, Future of Privacy, Common Sense Media, National PTA. Again, I asked them about their statement about shifting ownership of data to the student.
Gretchen Logue also replied to Project Unicorn and their partners, asking if students can NOT have their data shared. Two days later, she still had not received a reply.
I directly asked Project Unicorn’s partner, Digital Promise to help answer whether students can consent to data collection. (Remember, DP is the edtech /personalized learning promoting non-profit created by the US Department of Ed.) Digital Promise never responded to this parent’s questions. Maybe they just need a little more time or maybe parents aren’t important enough to bother with?
Project Unicorn replied: they changed their twitter profile to better reflect the scope of their project. They no longer claim to shift data ownership to students. They are promoting data interoperability. To be clear: they are NOT giving students ownership of their data. See their new twitter profile in this February 23, 2018 screen shot below.
Why do edtech companies and our government have such a problem giving students consent and true ownership of their data? Data is money. Data is identity. Student data is NOT theirs to take.
Without the student, the data does not exist. If a student writes an essay for a class assignment, that written work belongs to the student. If a student draws a picture in art class, that artwork is theirs. Parents (and the Fourth Amendment) would argue that personal information about a student, created by a student, should belong to the student.
#TruthinTech: Unicorns are taking student data and sharing it without consent. What say you @HumaneTech?
Tech is hacking kids brains, but it is also stealing their data, students’ every keystroke can be collected and analyzed and student education records can be shared. (FERPA is a 40 year old law that doesn’t cover data or meta data, or algorithms and was substantially weakened in 2011 to allow personally identifiable information to be shared outside of the school with nonprofits, researchers, anyone approved as a school official or educational purpose–without parent consent or knowledge). HumaneTech folks, are you good with this predictive profiling, leveraging and capitalizing of children who are held hostage in this mandatory surveilled school system? Schools are the new smart cities –except children are a captive audience and they are being exploited. They have no choice.
Why not do real, independent research, set guidelines and protect kids from screens in schools? Why not give parents and students a choice of tech vs paper, allow the option of learning knowledge vs in-school personality surveys and emotional assessments and biometric health trackers? Why not be transparent about algorithms and analytics and get consent BEFORE collecting and using student or teacher data?
Europe requires consent before collecting and sharing personal data, including automated decision making. GDPR gives Europeans (including students) more control on how their data is handled, including breach notification and penalty, data redaction, and consent. Why would American students be any less deserving than students in Europe? GDPR will have global implications. Modernizing FERPA and COPPA to align with GDPR would be both practical and ethical. Why isn’t Project Unicorn also advocating for the GDPR standard of basic human privacy and data identity rights for American citizens and children?
A final question note. Project Unicorn is not an elected, governing body, are they directing US education policy? Decisions should be made democratically, by those closest to the children, instead of by a few billionaires. What gives philonthro-funders the right to leverage children’s data and encourage schools with their procurement $trategies? The Edtech Billionaires directing education-experimenting on children have created (and are profiting from) this data driven problem: teachers are so busy collecting endless data points they don’t have the time or the freedom to teach. Now the regretful tech industry, wants to swoop in and make the data collection process easier, free up teachers (or replace them?), with a Single-Sign-On Standardized data collection tool. Children are not a product to be leveraged. Please stop using schools and children as a permissionless innovation data supply.
And why oh why, Project Unicorn, are you working with IMS Global? Uncommon Alliance indeed.
“…interoperability specification for educational click stream analytics created by the education community for the education community. Major educational suppliers are using Caliper to collect millions of events every week and the data is helping to shape teaching and learning on multiple levels. Several leading institutions are also working on putting Caliper in place. Now is a great time for both institutions and suppliers to begin putting learning analytics in place using Caliper.”