ISTE, Digital Tracking, and the Myth of Personalized Learning

From the moment I registered at the ISTE 2018 Conference, it was clear there was something unusual about my presence. I’m used to this reaction to my existence in general, but no one knew me here at the “Epicenter of Edtech”. I watched while my conference badge was checked several times, three people nodding over it seriously, suspicious glances cast in my direction. Meanwhile, at the next booth, there was also consternation at my colleague’s registration. Bemused, rather than perplexed, we moved on until we were approached to be scanned. Looking around, we noted that attendees appeared to have a QR code on their badges. We were conspicuously missing this detail. Through the wonder of GDPR (the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation), ISTE did not have permission to process our data. It made me curious. Why was ISTE tracking data at the conference in the first place? Here is what they have to say:

“ISTE recognizes the value of personalized learning and wants to do all we can to create custom and individualized educational experiences for each of our attendees. Smart badges will allow us to provide you with your own “ISTE 2018 Journey” post conference. The journey will detail the sessions you attended and the resources you collected. It’s like taking notes with your feet! Additionally, this data will allow the ISTE team to further personalize the conference experience now and in the future. This aggregate data, combined with registration information, will provide more comprehensive insights into attendee patterns and activities.”

There is something decidedly Big Brotherish about this. Participants do not automatically subscribe to data tracking yet, should they object, they must opt out by requesting a badge without “smart capabilities”. The default then is to track attendee data, data which, ISTE acknowledges, “we may share … regarding trends and interesting statistics externally, including with sponsors and partners”. There is much about the European Union’s approach to individual rights to privacy that the United States could learn from. While all individuals should have the legal right to explicitly opt-in to data processing rather than having to opt-out, it is more the flawed educational thinking of an organization like ISTE that is disturbing, rather than the actual collection of data itself. Data can inform all aspects of our lives in critically important ways, from healthcare to education, transport to leisure. As is often the case, it’s not the data itself that is problematic, it’s how it is used, interpreted, and who it is shared with.

The assumption that the ISTE Conference data can be used to create personalized learning experiences is a ridiculous fallacy. The fact that an organization that should be leading the effective, thoughtful, responsible use of technology in education implemented such a fad at an event for educators is troubling. The ISTE Expo Halls were a frenzy of Apple, Google, Microsoft and others creating demand for their “learning opportunities” and giveaways with massive lines of early morning attendees hoping for tickets, invites, tokens. The whole time, throughout the Convention Centre, the Big Players deployed troops to frantically scan the QR codes of individuals waiting in line. So what exactly does this evidence tell us about personalized learning and how instructive will it be to ISTE’s sponsors when they receive this data? How will this data shape education? What does it tell us about learning, about institutional deprivation in the teaching profession? Is this about improving learning or the relentless drive of the ed tech industry?

At one expo stand we spoke with a thoughtful educator who asked if we were interested in the “monitor” function of the software on display. We asked what this did. “It allows you to monitor the activities of your students while they use the software. You can see if they are on-task.” We groaned. “Well, you are clearly not American,” came the reaction. Is the mindless use of personal data really going to result in such unfortunate generalisations? As we were leaving the booth the attempt to scan our badges failed. The blank spaces on our badges were noted gravely. Knowing glances were exchanged. We were part of The Others.

Everyone involved in education needs to take a stand against this kind of “personalized learning”. Forego the tee-shirt, the exclusive “hands-on” session invitation, offers to see the School of the Future, the stickbait badges, the free chargers.

Remember who schools are for. Before it’s too late.

Picture credit: Photo by ev on Unsplash.