Schools and data – why it is helpful to think the worst!

A key aim of our research is to support teachers, students, school leaders and administrators to ‘think otherwise’ about how digital data is used in their schools. Usually this involves encouraging people to think imaginatively, helpfully and hopefully about how different uses of data might play a role in improving what goes on in the school – particularly in terms of addressing specific needs and circumstances that are otherwise going unaddressed.

However, it also makes sense to also let this invitation to ‘think otherwise’ be read along more pessimistic lines. As well as encouraging people to think in idealist, ‘best-case’ terms about what school data might do for them, it could well be salutary to consider the flip-side … in other words, what is the worst that might happen?

This question certainly draws attention to possible changes in the conditions under which school technologies might be used in the future. One stark example of this is the changing implications of online distance education in Brazil. Under previous political regimes, the idea of providing online ‘distance schooling’ was welcomed as a progressive means of ensuring that the country’s remote, rural communities received a decent level of basic education. Now, the authoritarian Bolsonaro administration seems keen to extend the use of this technology for rather different reasons – framing online learning as an effective means of keeping Brazil’s young people away from the indoctrinating influence of ‘Marxist’ teachers.

It is therefore worth reflecting on how the massive amounts of digital data now being generated in schools might be open to similar ‘repurposing’ and ‘reappropriation’. While we may well feel assured that current uses of school data are benign and above board, this is not guaranteed to always be the case. Indeed, we know that digital data is never simply used on a one-off basis and/or solely for its initial intended purposes. Instead, the ‘social life’ of digital data means that every data point can be used and re-used many times after it has been generated – often by analysts and for purposes unconnected to its original collection.

This is illustrated by recent reports of school census data being used for immigration enforcement in the UK. While provoking outrage amongst civil rights groups, in technical terms this can be seen as a logical re-use of data by a political administration seeking to tighten-up on unauthorised migration. Regardless of one’s standpoint, examples such as this highlight the problem of how ‘informed consent’ can ever be claimed for educational data that is continually in a state of recirculation and recombination

It is therefore important to think how educational data that is currently being used for relatively benign purposes might be reappropriated under different conditions. For example, the field of learning analytics is showing growing interest in developing indicators of students’ emotional states and psychological traits. We are also seeing growing use of facial recognition systems to record who is entering a school – from teachers and students through to parents, contractors and delivery people.

So, who else might find a use for these types of data in the future, besides from teachers and school administrators? Even if we don’t envisage an authoritarian regime change along the lines of Bolsonaro, there are a number of people outside of education who might well be interested in what is being recorded in schools. These might include government agencies, advertisers, health organisations, insurance brokers, financial organisations and future employers.

More pertinently, it is important to then ask what these ‘third parties’ might want to do with this data. Once it has been collected and stored, how might school data be used for other purposes in the future? How might this data be combined with other data (including data that is yet to be collected) to create new indicators?

Exploring such scenarios should not cause us to descend into a state of doom-and-gloom. Instead, we hope that exploring this line of thought in our speculative design workshops will prove to be a useful exercise. Thinking through ‘the worst that could happen’ should be a precursor to then going on to consider what is required to make sure that such worse-case-scenarios never come to pass.