October 16, 2021

The iPad Fiasco: “What do the Terms of Service Say About My Rights?”


A high school teacher asks us to consider the techrights and human rights of the underage human subjects of business-imposed edtech experiments and “innovations”, and to reflect on Audrey Watters’ column, Ed-Tech and the Templated Self: Thoughts from the “Reclaim Your Domain” Hackathon.

by Mary Porter. 

Teachers must protect student agency and identity from the “templated self” demanded by edtech entrepreneurs, cloud based corporate products, and data-fixated institutions.

A recent statement by tech commentator Audrey Watters puts into calm words an urgent concern that I’ve been struggling to articulate. I’m thinking about the threat of data-driven helplessness to my students, and how it affects their emerging sense of self. There is no mechanism whatsoever for this generation to defend itself from a deep, new kind of school-imposed identity theft. Is there some way teachers can shield and empower our students? Would you put your job on the line to do that? See what you think of Audrey Watter’s question:

I want to tease out the connections here a bit more between ed-tech, identity, and data. That is, I want to talk about ed-tech as a “personal endeavor,” one that enables student agency, and not simply an “institutional endeavor,” one that sees students as the object of education.

Many folks ask already: what happens to student data and student content when students are compelled to use certain products (such as the LMS)? Again, how do the institutional demands conflict with students’ needs. But I’m curious too: what happens to student identity? Their professional and personal identity formation; their professional and personal identity performance. And I’d add, more broadly: what is the relationship between privacy and identity formation / performance?

Over the past 2 years, my Title I public high school students have been part of a truly bizarre experiment in market-driven disruption. Each September, the 1500+ kids were issued an iPad tablet, at a cost of $350,000 to the district. The administration then purchased some version of Pearson’s Foundations of Flipped Learning™ professional development package for all faculty with another $250,000 grant from Nellie Mae Foundation . Pearson sent a team to our building, and some teachers were also selected to participate in intensive training, and lead implementation workshops.

Teachers were pressured to transfer our direct instruction to video homework lessons, and to organize, dispense, and collect assignments on the iPads, through pre-loaded apps like Schoology and Note-Anytime.

According to Pearson’s theory, our recorded direct instruction was personalized because students could watch it as many times as they liked, although they couldn’t ask an actual question. Using pre-made direct instruction like Khan Academy was acceptable. Tablet-delivered lectures then supposedly freed our class time for unspecified higher-order constructivist pillars of learning. We have many experienced and dedicated student-centered teachers on our faculty, so many of us continued in our constructivist philosophy. We skipped the pre-recorded homework-lecture “flipping”, and worked to use the iPads in our class activities. But many younger teachers, with only cursory pre-service training of any kind, relied increasingly on the iPad apps as the interface between students and assigned work and assessment.

There is no provision in Pearson’s promotional exercises for ongoing evaluation of how their revolutionary “technology”-driven approach is affecting students. Questionnaires assumed any difficulties we met were due to teachers’ need for more training, and we were readily forgiven for our shortcomings. Small steps toward the unquestioned goal of “flipping” the building were okay. Compliance constituted success, and administrators sought further validation and awards for our transformation. But the successful teachers reported in Professional Learning Group meetings that their failure rates were climbing, and expressed increasingly desperate need for some way to “hold students more accountable” for the flipped lessons. They were losing over half their students each day in the wasteland of the supposedly liberating touch screen app ”technology”, and word circulated that 40% of our freshmen were failing two or more classes. What was happening to the students’ sense of themselves, all that while?

Many students just massively defaulted on the flipped learning homework assignments, and also on the in-class tablet-mediated assignments. It was astonishing to hear, “She has done nothing at all, all term.” “He hasn’t turned in a single part of the assignment, and the rubrics are very clear.” “They have no work ethic.”

My own sense was that the institutional demand for the clunky apps and iPad format conflicted brutally with their academic needs, while the device offers endless opportunity for distraction. It is really a claustrophobic and prescriptive system, despite the lofty rhetoric about pillars.

Literally every minute of their day, children were trapped in an academic version of the “templated self” Watters describes in her article.

For instance, my initial enthusiasm for a “portfolio” requirement was crushed when it turned out students had to upload and process evidence of their work which meets a pre-specified rubric, into a Mahara platform in the cloud. The platform has its own presumptuous model of rubric-based reflection. Instead of viewing their own work freely, in relation to the real world around them, students upload formulaic reflections into required fields, intended to shape their learning architecture and improve their critical thinking. The experience of interacting with the platform becomes the template for academic self. As the program progressed, administrators increasingly sought more effective sanctions for failure to meet deadlines, and many sophomores found themselves on social probation.

Reflective learning is “..a form of mental processing that we use to fulfil a purpose or to achieve some anticipated outcome. It is applied to gain a better understanding of relatively complicated or unstructured ideas” HE Academy Guides for busy academics, no 4, Moon 2005 (as quoted here.)

The resulting rubric-driven misery bears no relation whatsoever to any idea of student agency, and the students who were “successful” at the uploading were unlikely to show residual enthusiasm or spontaneous connection with their own work, as a price. My students endured anxiety and alienation because of the bugs in uploading and saving, and the administration is now considering a different platform.

In my class students did use their iPads, mostly to create stop-motion videos depicting atoms and reactions, and to film their cool experiments. Whole-class chat functions failed because kids were tenaciously preoccupied with their twitter feeds. Unfortunately, the iPads wouldn’t interface with our wonderful new Vernier probeware without expensive apps which could only be purchased for the Advanced Placement class. In one epic fail, I walked a whole class through the procedure to sign up for online computer access to our Pearson textbook, only to discover too late that the iPad version was a dummy sample. The $115 price we paid for each textbook includes complete online access on any real computer, but requires the purchase of an app for each iPad.

In their English classes, they wrote, albeit sometimes with their two thumbs. Some did collect and comment on historical anecdotes, or compile family recipes in Spanish or Italian. They also sneaked their earbuds in to listen to music. They filmed and photographed themselves, their families, events and each other, and if they had internet access they tweeted, gossiped, and gamed without mindfulness, deep into the night. These forms of social being are also constrained by the template of the device itself, of course, and there are massive bullying and privacy issues to resolve, but in some ways their power and creativity were unleashed.

Then, in June, in the week before finals, the tablets were collected and all the content created by the students during the year was wiped from them. One girl cried, right in front of everybody. There was no storage available in the Cloud, and no procedure to transfer their content to any other device. Nobody in the institution seemed to think this was any kind of issue, but I think it was a psychological blow for many students. Fortunately, it turns out the negotiation and preservation of digital identity is being looked at with both technical and psychological depth by emerging experts like Kin Lane, who has suggested a movement to “Reclaim your Domain” .

“I think about ‘reclaim’ as a personal endeavor. What tech do I use? Why? Can I get my data out? What do the Terms of Service say about my rights?”

Kin is looking at the problem in terms of privacy, and individual rights, and self-determination. We need to do that for our students, and maybe use and teach the technology he and others are reaching now for. Unknowable quantities of external but identifiable data were compiled on my students and stored by Thinkgate (I think) or some other contractor, without their slightest knowledge or permission. Students also had no latitude whatsoever on the document their families signed for the iPads, and so their own internally felt digital imprint was carelessly blown away like a pile of dust. In fact, the coercive terms of service for student consumers of tech products afford them no digital rights whatsoever.

Tech pioneers are sometimes intimately connected to the very edtech entrepreneurs we’re trying to guard children against, but we humanist educators have to engage them. Let us extend our trust a little. The “Reclaim Your Domain” project could be the base for a serious effort to safeguard child development, and we absolutely must keep the heel of institutional tech off children to allow the emergence of a fully free sense of self for each child. We also have to create a lifelong, working framework to safeguard their identity and their individual rights in the virtual universe. That’s going to be some serious technical work, I’m afraid. Read these articles, everybody, so we can talk to each other.

photo credit: Katie Lapham.