The possibilities of the post-platform school

In a recent blog-piece, the artist Ben Grosser raises a number of interesting arguments that prompt us to think about the possibilities of the post-platform school.

We have reached a stage where, for many people, it is practically impossible to envisage a world without the large platforms that dominate our lives (what might be seen as a form of ‘platform realism’). This is certainly the case in education, where it now seems difficult to contemplate a fully-functioning school that doesn’t involve finding information through Google, online teaching through an LMS and Zoom, purchasing supplies without Amazon, as so on.

Grosser makes a call for thinking otherwise, and devoting energy to building ‘avant-garde’ alternatives that embody different sets of values and logics that are pro-public and not rooted in the extractive logics of the data economy. In particular, he makes the point that people need to ‘see, feel, and use’ alternative ways of engaging with technology before they will be emboldened to abandon big tech platforms altogether. 

One initial step in this direction involves (mis)using the big platforms that are currently dominating schools is a subversive, disruptive and challenging ways. As Grosser puts it, these big “platforms can be fruitful spaces for cultivating criticality”. For example, this might involve a degree of mischievous intervention and creative confrontation, as illustrated in the various tech-interventions from artist/activists such as Grosser and others like Joana Moll, Maria Roszkowska & Nicolas Maigre (aka Disnovation). For example, Grosser points to recent work that has involved reconfiguring platforms in counter-intuitive ways, building plug-ins that confuse algorithmic profiling or perhaps expose the inner-workings of the platform metrics and logics.

All these interventions raise a challenge to critically-minded teachers, researchers and ed-tech workers –  how might we follow suit and help students, teachers and parents question the role of big school platforms in their everyday educational lives? How can we (mis)use platforms to raise the questions about the limitations of platform design and companies’ motivations for this? What opportunities are there for raising questions of who benefits (and who does not), who is marginalised and made vulnerable, what is marginalised and suppressed? 

Key here is working out ways of exposing the implicit values that are baked into the design of these platforms – what Grosser describes as “the importance of scale, the imperative of growth, and the superiority of the quantitative”. Students might well be surprised when confronted with how the platform ‘sees’ them – i.e. the algorithmic judgements, comparisons and decisions that are made on the flimsiest of evidence. Teachers might also be surprised (if not indignant) when confronted by the ways in which their work is made visible through these platforms and similarly judged.

Of course, the purpose of these revelatory activities would be to provoke people’s interest in looking for alternatives to the dominant platforms in their educational contexts. Here, Grosser makes that point that while our immediate response might well be to reimagine some form of decentralised platforms, this is is not enough. In short, the main problem with the currently platformisation of education is not centralisation per se. Instead, the major faultline in the way that current dominant platforms shape our lives is their predication around the logics of profit and the broader ideologies of capitalism. As Grosser puts it, this leads to overriding values of …

“growth, scale, more at any cost … it inevitably leads big tech to treat users as resources to be mined, manipulated, and transformed into profit. It makes expendable user-centric values around privacy and agency”

In opposition to this, then, Grosser suggests that our main line of attack needs to be directed against the private profit motive that underpins the EdTech products that dominate our classrooms. It is the profit-driven nature of the major platforms and systems that we find in schools that imbues these products with anti-public values that marginalise (if not supress altogether) genuine concern for principles of privacy, agency and democratic determination.

In this sense, Grosser raises the idea of alternate designs of platforms that “enact decidedly different values than what big tech promotes”. This might see platforms that discourage continuous or compulsive use, that deliberately ignore what students and teachers are doing, that do not compel individual interaction with the code. Here, Grosser proposes the beginnings of what these shared alternate values might look like:

  • SLOW — technology that actively and intentionally works against the “idea that speed and efficiency is always desirable and productive”.
  • LESS — technology that advances “an anti-scale, anti-more agenda”. 
  • PUBLIC — reflecting the belief that technology infrastructure for large numbers users “should never be driven by profit or controlled by single individuals”. 
  • DECOY — to help produce a culture of platform exodus we need new projects and intervention “that get into the platforms and help users turn themselves away from them”.

So what might this technology look like? We might develop an LMS that does not continuously extract data and create profiles of students from their online activities, but occasionally invites students to divulge any information that they feel it is useful for their schools to know. We might have a system that only allows a student or teacher to access it for a finite number of times a week – meaning that people ration their use, and log-in only when really necessary or useful. We might have a system that only allows new messages or comments to be added during week-day mornings – thereby reducing the compulsion to check for new messages during the evenings or weekends …. other forms of technology are possible!