The datafication of schools … just look at what they are doing in China?

According to some commentators in the West, the possibilities of school datafication are being pushed to the extreme in China. Throughout 2018 we saw regular news reports of what were variously presented as clever, crazy and/or creepy tech developments in Chinese schools. This was the year that we were regularly told how China is ‘winning’ at AI education. Oftentimes these proved to be isolated examples in one or two schools, speculative product pitches, or simply misreporting of what are relatively unsophisticated and limited applications. Nevertheless, “Just look what they are doing in China!” is becoming a side-bar staple in Western media discussions of how digital data might be used (and abused) in school settings.

Take the following examples from the past twelve months:

  • One EdTech trope of 2018 was the use of facial recognition to monitor student attention in Chinese classrooms. For example, there was much coverage of the introduction of the ‘Smart Eye’ system in Hangzhou Number 11 High School. This involves the placement of three cameras in a classroom to scan for signs of engagement or distraction. System developers claim the ability to detect various emotional states in students – including happy, sad, disappointed, angry, scared and surprised.
  • A recent spate of stories document the launch of a range of ‘smart’ school uniforms with microchips embedded into students’ jackets. Here, we are told how GPS data from these chips is used to drive a range of ‘smart education management’ applications – collating attendance data, sending automated messages to parents and teachers, and triggering recorded warnings if students attempt to leave designated areas (such as sneaking out of class).
  • Perhaps the most infamous digital development in China is the so-called ‘Social Rating’ system. This is a pilot national ‘reputation system’ where citizens are continuously monitored and assessed in terms of their social and economic ‘credit’. Already in development in several major cities, this system uses big data techniques to monitor citizen’s trustworthiness and ‘sincerity’. Data points can include financial and credit details, friendship networks, consumer purchases and online behaviour. Tellingly, one of the reported consequences of this technology is determining whether families will be admitted to top-ranked schools. As Wired reported, “Low-rating citizens will also be restricted when it comes to enrolling themselves or their children in high-paying private schools”


These stories are all interesting enough, yet can hardly be said to be cautionary tales from a far-off place of an alternate data-driven education. Indeed, perhaps the most significant point about these stories are the strikingly similar technologies that are currently entering Western schools. We should not fool ourselves into thinking that the types of technology just outlined are unique to China.

So, what happens if we take these ‘Only in China’ examples as a prompt to look more closely at the mission-creep of digital data in our own backyards? For example, can we talk more about US companies now marketing facial recognition systems with claims to improve classroom performance and even guard against school shootings? Shouldn’t we be questioning the trend for parents in many Western countries to equip their children with smartwatches and kid trackers in an attempt to keep tabs of their movements while at school? Surely more needs to be said about the extensive networks of schools in the US that are implementing personalised learning systems to the extent of provoking student protests and mass walk-outs? What about the normalisation of reputation technologies such as the Australian government’s ‘MySchool’ website that forces schools to calculate their own metrics to then be judged by market-savvy parents. Seen in this light, how clever, crazy and/or creepy should we consider the deployment of digital data in our own school systems to be?

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