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Audrey Watters

Ed-Tech and Neo-Feudalism

7 min read

I'm posting my responses here to a friend that's working on a story on neo-feudalism. I think there are some interesting ideas here that could be developed more...


One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you was because it occurs to me that this use of the term ‘neofuedalism’ seems to represent an acceptance of (or fear that) the myth of meritocracy has finally failed, and that class structures are being ‘firmed up’, or even formalised. As such it feels a little like an admittance that large scale social mobility has ended, Considering your research interests - especially in relation to education and technology - what are your thoughts on this?

In some circles, education has long been touted as “the silver bullet.” (I think there’s a famous quotation from The West Wing that makes such a claim. I dunno. I’ve never watched the show.) If we just improve access to a good education – to higher education in particular – then all sorts of other problems will be ameliorated. Poverty, for example. Bigotry. Ignorance.

Education isn’t the fix for inequality. It does not address structural issues like racism. It does not redistribute wealth. Black people are paid less than whites at every education level. A college degree is clearly not enough.

A college degree is, of course, a signaling mechanism. It’s not just about what you know. It’s about where you went. Higher education is very bunch bound up in our notions of prestige and social hierarchy.

But many in Silicon Valley – and that’s are the stories I pay closest attention to – claim that one needn’t go to college. They point to Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs as college dropouts. Those in Silicon Valley like to suggest one can simply take a MOOC (a massive open online class) or get a badge or attend a coding bootcamp instead. As long as one can demonstrate “skills,” one can do anything. It’s the classic meritocracy mythology, and I see the tech sector as one of the myth’s greatest promoters. But if we look more closely at the powerful entrepreneurs and powerful investors and powerful companies in the tech industry, we can see there are powerful networks. And these networks often involve where people went to college: Stanford. MIT. Harvard. Even the famous dropouts – Zuckerberg, Gates, Jobs – had wealth and, of course, their whiteness to connect them to these networks.

The tech industry remains overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male, and yet it insists that it’s a meritocracy. This insistence allows Silicon Valley to continue to ignore the structural inequalities at play – who gets hired, who gets funded, what technologies get built, and so on. This has grave implications for the future, no doubt, as computing technologies are increasingly central to all aspects of our lives – professional, personal, political.

Again a very wide, general question - sorry! - but in what ways are you observing a transfer of power and decision making when it comes to education from government to private corporations? And is that leading to a two (or more) tier model for education? How is technology accelerating this?

Schools have always relied on private companies to supply things like desks and chalkboards and textbooks. So in some ways, new computing technologies are no different. But if we think of these technologies as simply upgrades to textbooks, we might be able to recognize the ways in which textbooks have long served to diminish the expertise of the classroom teacher. That is, content expertise resides outside the teacher. It’s in the authors of the textbooks, perhaps. It’s in the publisher itself. With new technologies, we see expertise – content expertise, technical expertise – increasingly moving outside of the school. Schools readily outsource all sorts of administrative and pedagogical functions to companies.

One of the most important transfers of power involves the role of technology entrepreneurs as education philanthropists. The Gates Foundation, for example, is a $44 billion endowment. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the venture philanthropy firm founded by Mark Zuckerberg, was started with $1 billion worth of Facebook shares. Both of these organizations have a vast, and I’d argue incredibly anti-democratic, influence on US education policy. These organizations help shape the narratives about “the future of education” – which of course will by highly mediated and monitored by computer technologies (unless you attend an elite private school as Bill Gates’ children do or Gates and Zuckerberg did). We can see this currently with calls to “personalize learning” – this isn’t so much about the adoption of progressive pedagogical practices, but rather the adoption of data-driven teaching machines.

Our historical concept of feudalism is always tied to relationships to land - and digital platforms and data are often referred to as a new form of real estate. In what ways do you see platforms (and the control/ownership of data) the new land of neofeudalism? In the same way that serfs worked on land they didn’t own, are we producing data we don’t own in spaces we don’t control? Are we being locked in to feudal relationships with those that own and control the online spaces we inhabit and the data we produce?

We do use the language of labor to talk about learning – schoolwork, homework – but students have never really had much control over that process at all. They have – arguably – been able to “own” their work. That is to say, at the end of the school year, they could walk away with a manilla envelope containing the worksheets they’d filled out and the essays they’d written and the pictures they’d drawn. But as school work becomes digital, there’s no manila envelope. Often what students do is trapped in a piece of proprietary software. And these software systems don’t just administer and store assignments and grades; they track all sorts of additional data: what time the student used the software and for how long; where the student was located when she used the software; what other applications are on her computer. All this data feeds the narrative of “personalized learning” that Zuckerberg and Gates and other technology investors like to push. But this data also feeds the algorithms and the knowledge base of these software makers. Students see no remuneration for this work. Nor do the schools that buy or license the software. And often, students and schools seem quite unaware that their data is being harvested and mined this way.

We’ve long been threatened in school with the saying “this will go down on your permanent record.” But now, with this massive data collection, it just might. We don’t have a lot of insight into how decisions are made based on this data – how algorithms are designed and implemented, how algorithmic decision-making in education is made. It’s a “black box,” as Frank Pasquale calls it – a “black box society.” Rather than being a silver bullet, this might make our education-related data trail precisely the thing that maintains social inequalities, but in ways that are even more opaque.

Finally: what’s your job title/how would you like to be described?

Writer and scholar who focuses on technology and education. Spencer Fellow at Columbia University School of Journalism. (Gotta take advantage of that prestigious title while I can.)

Audrey Watters

My Twitter Advertisers

11 min read

Twitter has updated its privacy policy, indicating that it plans to use our data more extensively. I requested a list of advertisers whose "audiences" I am apparently a part of. (This is odd since I block ads and block any promoted tweet,)

The list (a 33-page PDF):

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@personalcapital @petco @petedge @petsmartcharits @pgacom @pge4me @philipshealthna @phillips66gas @phrma @phunware @piazza @pillpack @pivotal @pizzahut @planetbooking @plangrid @plargentlgs @playerstribune @playfoodstreet @playhearthstone @playkids @playoverwatch @playstationuk @playwell_tek @pluralsight @porsche @portfoliobooks @poshmarkapp @postcardmania @postmates @power_starz @powerimpossible @powertofly @pressroomvip @prezi @priceline @procoretech @proflowers @programmableweb @prologicdesign @propel_jobs @proplan @protegehunters @proxe_pay @prweb @pryan @psdgroup @pssclabs @ptc @puntonewsspain @pureproteinpro @purina @pwc_uk @qaloring @quaker @qualys @quantcast @questarai @quickbooks @quickbooksuk @quip @quizup @quorumreview @qvc @r2rusa @racemovie @racing_uk @rackspace @radeon @rakutenjp @rallysfbay @rankinthomas @rapidsos @rare @ravishastri577 @rbcontentpool @reachnj @reachravens @readypulse @realdonaldtrump @realexpayments @realhomechef @realnameshq @realwotf @reassurancedntl @rebuildingamnow @recurly @redgiantnews @redlobster @redrockapps @reesespbcups @regalmovies @regentu @rei @reservationscom @ressoftware @retailmenot @retentionsci @reuterstv @richstoddart @ridepeloton @rifftrax @rightdrive_cars @rightmove @rightside @ringcentral @riseconfhq @ritzcrackers @robertblakely @robertswesleyan @rocelec_jobs @rohitprologic @rootclaim @rosettastoneuk @royalrevolt @roybluntmo @rsasecurity @ruffles @rupaulsdragrace @rushcard @ruumkidswear @saasler @safeaffordable @sagenamerica @sageuk @salecycle @salesforce @salesforce_nl @salesforcedevs @salesforceiq @salesforcewave @samsclub @samsungbizusa @samsungbusiness @samsungmobile @samsungmobileus @samsunguk @sandralee @sapsmallbiz @sapsports @sarahomecare @sbs @scaddotedu @sce @scenecard @schoolchoicewk @schoolkeep @schoology @schoolsedu @scjohnson @scmp_news @scorementors @scotiabank @scottbaldridge @scottevest @scottforflorida @scottishwidows @scribd @scrowder @scrubbingbubble @sdl @sea_primeteam @seamless @sears 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@tysofast @uaw @uber @uber_brasil @ubereats @uberflip @uberfr @ubisoft_spain @uchicagoalumni @ucrushapp @udacity @udemy @ugo @ultabeauty @umuc @unbounce @undelayio @underarmour @uniicard @unileverusa @uniqlousa @united @universitycu @unmetric @unrollme @updesk @upperquadrant @uproxx @ups @upskilled @upstart @urbanairship @urbanoutfitters @urthbox @usaa @usarmyne @usaswimming @usbank @uscellular @uschamberaction @usertesting @usmarinecorps @usps @uspsbiz @vailresortsjobs @valvoline @vantagedc @vantiv @varaprasadb1 @vascodatanews @vasg4u @vassili @vectrencareers @vegas @velcrobrand @vendhq @venturebeat @veracode @verizon @verizondeals @verizonfios @verizonlatino @versal @verychic @vevo @vh1savethemusic @viacom @viatortravel @vice @viceland @vicenews @victorinox @videoblocks @videogamevoters @vidretal @vidyard @vimeo @vinecreators @virgin @virginamerica @virtual_inst @visa @visiblevc @visitbritaingcc @vmware @vocus @vodacom @volvocarusa @voya @vsco @waistshaperz @wakeupcalltnt @waldenu @walgreens @walkmeinc @wallapop_us @walmart @walmartcomus @waltdisneyworld @warbyparker @warcraft @warcraft_de @warcraft_es @warcraft_fr @warcraft_ru @washingtonian @wastedive @wateraiduk @watsonanalytics @wayfair @wbhomeent @wealthdragonsuk @wealthfront @wearejoybird @wearepolly @weareteachers @webex @webroot @websummit @wehireleaders @welchs @wellnesspetfood @weloveweather @welt @wendys @westerndigidc @wework @wffbarry @wglenergy @wharton @whbm @whereswhatapp @whihofficial @whitetruffle @whsmith @wienervention @willhillaus @williamssonoma @williewilkov @winc @windex @windowsdev @wipro @wishshopping @wistia @wix @wklawfirm @wonderworkshop @woothemes @wordbraingame @wordery @wordpressdotcom @wordstream @wordswfriends @workcast @workforsky @worldfirstuk @worldfirstus @worldofcocacola @wpallimport @wpengine @wrapbootstrap @wsj @wsjambitioushrs @wutswhat @wwlp22news @xactly @xerox @xfinity @xmedialab @xperttechinc @xtrade @yahoofantasy @yelp @yesware @yikyakapp @your_daily_dish @youralley @zadarastorage @zaggdaily @zapatomundo @zapproved @zarbees @zetta_corp @zhihao @zillow @zingypet @zipcar @zipcaru @zipjetuk @zomato @zomatouk @zoom_us @zoosk @zters @zulily

Worth noting the education- and ed-tech-related accounts...

Audrey Watters

Deleting the Network

3 min read

Bryan Alexander wrote this morning that he was making his “ruthless Facebook purge of spring 2017,” announcing his plans to remove some of his “friends” on Facebook. I don’t have nearly as many connections on Facebook – no doubt because I deleted my account a few years ago and only signed up again for a new one. I’ve been fairly cautious about who I “friend” there, as I am uninterested in having a large Facebook network to manage. I have a Facebook page for Hack Education and a page for myself as a writer. I figure that folks can follow along there if they want updates about what I’m working on.

I do regularly unfollow people on Twitter. A few years ago, I trimmed my follow numbers by about half. I now follow about 800 people, which doesn’t seem like too few or too many. (I also rely on lists of journalists and news organizations rather than following these accounts directly.)

Bryan’s efforts seem to address culling the composition of the network. What I’ve been doing recently – and I’m thinking now about how similar or different this might be from what Bryan is up to – is culling my own history on the network.

I now delete all Facebook and Twitter posts that are older than 90 days*. I also delete all email that’s older than a year. (This past week’s phishing scam using a fake Google Docs app alongside the hacking attack on the Macron campaign demonstrated, I think, how vulnerable all our documents and messages and connections are in email. I mean, I thought we’d have learned it earlier thanks to Wikileaks’ release of the DNC’s emails. But hey.)

I think Bryan is severing ties to certain accounts on Facebook because he wants to see better information and he wants his own posts to be more readily seen. Me, I am deleting information because I am not interested in the retention of data as part of a weaponized information gaze. But by deleting “friends” and by deleting posts, we both are actively and willfully reshaping our social networks. We are making adjustments to the reach and level of activity that will certainly alter our “presence” online – in no small part too because these networks increasingly display us information algorithmically.

 

 

* In order to delete my tweets, I used Tweet Deleter, which did require me to sign up for a premium account in order to delete everything. In order to delete my Facebook activity, I used F___book Post Manager, which is a Chrome add-on. Before deleting anything – Facebook, Twitter, Gmail – I made sure to download a copy of my data.

Audrey Watters

Anti-Racist Literacy and Facebook

2 min read

Cross-posted to Facebook

A student asked me last week after I spoke about “higher education in the disinformation age” what I’d suggest she do when she sees dis- and misinformation on Facebook.

In some way, her question was not “how do I fact-check online.” (If she was thinking about fact-checking, she’s already ahead of the game.)

Her question was really “should I say something?” As much of the dis- and misinformation on Facebook is deeply intertwined with bigotry –racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, jingoism, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslimism, and so on – I do believe it is crucial to speak up. (But I also recognize that it can be challenging in many circumstances to decide how to respond. How to respond depends on the poster, for starters, on one’s relationship to her or him.)

A lot of the work on “___ literacy” lately has focused on the skills that everyone needs in order to decipher information online. (For better or for worse. Rolin Moe and Mike Caulfield have pointed out that, at best, it’s mostly for nothing.) But I would argue that this work also needs to be explicitly anti-racist as well.

Audrey Watters

Education and Technology: Critical Approaches

1 min read

I have two chapters in Education and Technology: Critical Approaches, and I was asked by the editors to make a quick video to tease out some of the ideas I write about.

Audrey Watters

Federal Money Bought Me This...

2 min read

Cross-posted from Facebook

Tressie McMillan Cottom wrote on Twitter about how she'd benefited from the various federal education programs that Trump wants to cut. The responses are amazing (and her observation, of course, that by cutting these programs the Trump Administration absolutely hopes to target brilliant Black folks like her is dead on).

I can't even begin to write about all the ways in which I've benefited from federal dollars for my education. I mean, I grew up in Wyoming where I had an amazing public education because of the ways in which the state benefits from federal mineral rights payments.

I bet there were a ton of programs that I didn't even realize growing up that I benefited from that received federal dollars -- band, foreign language class, the Wyoming State Reading Council, my school and public libraries...

I know I learned the alphabet from Sesame Street. I learned compassion from Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. I learned science from 3-2-1-Contact. I learned some Spanish from Villa Allegre. Thank you, PBS.

I learn daily to this day from NPR.

As a college student, I was the recipient of a Pell Grant, federal work study, and a Stafford student loan. I paid off all my loans even though the Department of Education turned me over to a collection agency. My tax dollars at work. Thanks, Dept of Ed. I still don't want to see you defunded, even if you fucked me over.

My family has benefited from the free and reduced lunch program, from SNAP, and from WIC. My son attended a Title I school. (And thanks to SSI and Social Security benefits, I was able to barely scrape by as a parent of a young student while my husband was sick and after he died. The Social Security Admin claims they overpaid me, and that I owe them money. My tax dollars at work once again. But I'd never wish that any of us had no social safety net. Only callous assholes say such things. And even worse, those who move to enact it.)

Audrey Watters

Distraction Shaming

1 min read

Cross-posted from Facebook

I grow weary of all this talk that certain things are "distractions" from "the real story."

I believe you can hold many ideas, multiple agitations and angers in your head all at once. You can pay attention to many stories. Really. You can.

See, I was widowed on August 29, 2005. And I was able to deal with the grief and horror of losing a husband on that day AND witness the grief and horror of Hurricane Katrina.

Human suffering knows no bounds. But nor should human compassion.

If you're worried about "distraction," maybe work on your own capacity, on your own empathy. Don't scold others who are attending to the world.

Audrey Watters

Rage and Disappointment

1 min read

Cross-posted from Facebook

I'm from a red state, from a red family, tho I know my politics deviated early. So I'm used to different politics and visions for the future.

But right now I am so angry and so disappointed and so disgusted in every single person I know -- including many I love -- for voting for 🍊👹 I don't even know how to proceed with you.

(Most of you have blocked me on FB. That's how *you* proceed.)

I see the white nationalist hatred that 🍊👹 has unleashed and that you've sanctioned, and I'm not sure how I will ever forgive you. How can I ever sit with you and not talk about this? How can I ever break bread with you if I'm supposed to be silent?

This I know:

I will be here for your children -- your queer kids and your trans kids and your immigrant kids and your brown kids and your alter-abled kids and your adopted kids and your daughters and and all those whose worlds you want to foreclose because *they're* curious and *you're* a small-minded, fearful asshole...

Audrey Watters

DeVos' Higher Ed Agenda

2 min read

Cross-posted to Facebook

I don’t think DeVos is going to get much done when it comes to any K–12 policy agenda that involves vouchers.

But this administration is going to come hard for higher ed. Our President, after all, ran a scam college. One of his closer education advisors is Jerry Falwell Jr, the head of Liberty University. Trump tweeted recently he wanted to withhold funding for UC Berkeley because there were protests against a white nationalist speaker.

The regulations that the Obama Administration put in place to curb the exploitative behaviors of for-profits will likely be rolled back. Coding bootcamps and MOOCs, the new for-profit higher ed, will become eligible for federal financial aid.

It wouldn’t surprise me if there were attempts to privatize student loans. (DeVos was an investor in SoFi. Peter Thiel is an investor in SoFi and in several other student loan startups. Let’s just note here that Edsurge – that dangerous piece of trash – refuses to discuss these startups because "they’re not ed-tech.)

Privatization – through ed-tech – will be heavily, heavily pushed.

It’s going to be a disaster.

The bright side: screwing over college students is not a smart plan – for governing, for re-election. And I don’t just mean those young folks age 18–24-ish who stereotypically do not vote. I mean all of us with student loan debt. I mean vets. I mean parents. I mean exactly the people who flooded the Senate with calls and faxes and letters. People are drowning in student loan debt, and these rich assholes have made it clear they want us to drown.

Resist.

Audrey Watters

Education Secretaries and a Progressive Path Forward

2 min read

Cross-posted to Facebook

Even if Democrats lose this vote – and it’s likely they will – I hope that they have learned a lesson with Betsy DeVos: people care about education. It doesn’t always figure into debates. It doesn’t always poll as well as “the economy” or “national security.” But people care. Public education matters. It matters on a personal level that white, middle class folks in particular relate to. (This, to my mind, explains why people are so enraged about DeVos’s nomination but not about other possible Cabinet members.)

The Democrats have not done much to distinguish themselves from Republicans when it comes to education policy in recent years. Obama’s education legacy is much the same as Bush’s which was much the same as Clinton’s. (Perhaps going after for-profit higher education – a centerpiece of the Obama higher ed policy – was a notable exception.)

Can Democrats recenter themselves so that they are committed to communities, to equity, to justice, to democratic education? That’s their path forward to win. Not some embrace of punitive charter school education or surveillance-oriented ed-tech.