I <3 DATA … the convenience, comfort and certainties of data-driven schooling

It is important for even the harshest critic of the data economy to remain mindful of what others might consider themselves to be gaining through data-driven services, systems and platforms. We have outlined some of the ‘promised’ benefits of datafication for schools in a previous post. These benefits might include the ability to make sense of trends, lend a clarity and focus to one’s decision-making, make quick comparisons with how others are doing, and generally get a more informed sense of what is going on.

There are also a number of emotional and psychological benefits that individual students, teachers or parents might associate with data-driven systems in school. For example, many people get a buzz from getting extra insights into what is going on, especially with regards to their own lives and immediate surroundings. Some people actually enjoy being ranked against others; it can be salutary to have one’s capabilities spelt out and ranked … even if these are ‘hard truths’ that do not portray us in the best light. Just as people have long looked to everything from personality tests to horoscopes to reveal ‘who they are’ and offer guidance on what to do next, then data profiles, predictors and recommenders can fulfil a similar role. While we might not all fully embrace the idea of the ‘quantified self’, there is something in a data-driven lifestyle that many people find self-affirming as well as genuinely helpful.

Will Davis makes sense of this in terms of “an effectively Foucauldian point: that modern power works through satisfying desires, not thwarting them”. A desire to know oneself and/or be seen by others (if only in datafied form) certainly are persuasive explanations for why millions of people submit themselves daily to the restrictions and exploitations of datafication. As such, it is important for critical data studies not to arrogantly conclude that the ‘datafied’ are simply unknowing dupes. Instead, we need to recognise (and explore) the ways in which digital data ‘does’ things for people that make the associated limitations and restrictions worth enduring and/or overlooking.

For instance, it might well be that people welcome data-driven schooling as simply less hassle – what might be termed the convenience of being directed by digital data. Data-driven ways of engaging with school might be seen by students and staff as saving time and mental energy – lightening the load of having to navigate the barrage of tricky questions, decisions and dilemmas that constitute the school day. In classroom environments where students and staff are often ‘flying blind’, making educated guesses and/or simply muddling their way through things, then having some support when fathoming-out ‘what to do next?’ has understandable appeal. There can be a certain comfort in an easily comprehendible dashboard, traffic light or similar indicator – particularly when it relates to learning decisions that are framed as ‘high stakes’ and potentially life-defining. It can be rewarding to be shown that one is one the right path. Indeed, school is a context where one is reminded constantly of the consequences of doing the wrong thing. Any short-cut to avoiding this is reassuringly welcome – especially given the capacity of data to lend a certainty to otherwise ambiguous concepts and issues.

Seen in this light, then, it is important to take seriously the value that individuals might extract from their engagements with digital data at school, even if these are engagements that critics might well still consider to be ultimately disempowering. As just discussed, there are many ways that an individual might perceive digital data to be of benefit that cannot be dismissed out-of-hand. Thus digital data is an area that merits balanced criticism. There is clearly a two-sided, contradictory nature to all data-driven practices and processes. Just because digital data can be critiqued as problematic does not preclude it from also being perceived as helpful. As with many aspects of the data age, these are practices and processes that might be economically bounded but are also socially meaningful; individually exploitative but also individually enriching (c.f. Kylie Jarrett’s work on digital domestic labour).

In exploring these characteristics, one key question is the extent to which individuals are aware of such tensions and, it follows, well-informed in their actions. Nicholas Carr refers to the ‘bargain’ struck between individuals and the data-driven platforms that they engage with. Similarly, other commentators talk of the ‘trade-offs’ that people make when engaging with data systems that are gathering personal data. In theory, having one’s data re-sold to third parties and then being subjected to targeted advertising might be rationalised as the ‘price’ one has to pay for using otherwise free social media platforms. Similarly, it might be tacitly accepted that school authorities will be re-using student ‘learning’ data to inform their other administrative and bureaucratic operations. Such acceptance may be begrudging or rarely reflected on, and is certainly not seen as problem enough to stop using these systems.

Yet even if users are reminded regularly of the ‘trade-offs’ implicit in digital data (for example, being asked to scroll through and ‘Agree’ to Terms Of Service), we need to explore the extent to which they are cognisant of these issues. In short, what sort of ‘understandings’ are people drawing on? How are the ‘benefits’ and ‘harms’ of digital data being made sense of, and what information are people drawing on to reach such conclusions? In particular, how do these ‘trade-offs’ work to disempower individuals in ways that will inevitably be unseen and imperceptible to even the most informed and aware individual? Viewed in these terms, we concur with Joseph Turow’s notion of ‘the Tradeoff Fallacy’ – that is, “a majority of [people] are resigned to giving up their data … Rather than feeling able to make choices, [people] believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them”.

So, rather than framing engagement with data-driven systems as a form of considered choice or implicit bargain, it is perhaps more useful to approach the experiences of living and working within the datafied schools in terms of normative power. As Mark Carrigan reasons, we need to pay serious attention to the reasons why ‘visibility through data’ exerts a ‘powerful normative influence’ over many people’s school work and school studies. This then focuses attention on the broader moral economy of schools – institutions which are predicated upon monitoring, measuring, reporting, ranking and sorting. In this sense, consenting to the ‘data demands’ of a learning analytics plug-in or an electronic registration system is perhaps better described as part of a wider conformity and compliance with what schools inherently ‘are’.

We will continue to develop these lines of thought in subsequent posts on how the notions of ‘digital resignation’ and ‘surveillance realism’ might apply to school contexts. All told, an important part of our research will involve exploring what people feel they are getting from their engagements with digital data. At the same time, in what ways is digital data actually facilitating these ‘benefits’ … and might there be alternate ways in which these benefits might be gained without the use of data?  At the same time, are there other ‘benefits’ that might be extracted from the digital data circulating throughout a school (… perhaps benefits that do not fit with the present normative conditions of monitoring, measurement and overwork?). Our ultimate aim is to help people benefit fully from the datafication of their schools … in whatever ways digital data might be made to work best for them.