What’s in It for Companies? Talking Assessment and Tech

This week’s blog prompt for EC&I 833 from Tyson, Jen, Nathalieand Nicole is a great one on assessment but… not too doable for me since I’m not teaching a class myself. So, instead, I got some inspiration from Launel who mentioned that she was tempted to talk about the politics of assessment but instead talked about assessment strategies she finds to be “underused and undervalued.” I agree both that the politics are incredibly important and that many great assessment strategies are underused and undervalued.

flickr photo shared by William M Ferriter under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

Note that I said assessment strategies. When I work with an instructor to help them put together a class, I am much more interested in what they want to assess than in what tool they think they want to use. I can always come up with a variety of ways of assessing something but I want to know what they are getting at. What value does it have for students? Does it have any value for the instructor? What’s the context (is there one? has the instructor even thought about a context for the assessment?)? But sometimes it is easy to get caught up in tools and talking about the tool itself, choosing for reasons other than student learning. It’s cool, it’s fun, students love it. All reasons instructors adopt tools. It makes marking easier, it makes communication easier. Great. But Alec raised some concerns with Class Dojo last week in terms of it influencing the teaching and the uses rather than teachers making more conscious decisions.

flickr photo shared by PS3 Attitude under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

Tech is not neutral. Someone designed it. Someone programmed it. Someone made assumptions about how you would and should use it. We are not talking about the Force which just is and only the use determines if it is good or bad. Sometimes the tech itself is problematic. And sometimes the tech itself is amazing. Sometimes it can be shifted to good through effort. Sometimes it can be used poorly and be detrimental to students. I know I’ve used things poorly (hi, PowerPoint!). Anyone got a great example of redirecting a tool that might be a bit questionable?

What muddies all this up is the fact that most of our assessment tech tools are created/coded/written/sold/designed by a company somewhere. Sometimes it is pretty obvious what the company gets out of it: Money. I’ll be coming back to these types of products because it isn’t always that straightforward.

flickr photo shared by 401(K) 2013 under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Sometimes we can use them for free. I’m cynical and this sends up some red flags for me that get me investigating. And sometimes, things really are free and there are no apparent ulterior motives. Other times the company is getting something else out of student use: data.

That’s right. “Data is the new oil.” The video was about AI but the same goes for learning analytics which, to a certain extent, are sort of in the same field. The intent is to learn how students learn, to build a better guide to learning, to help the machine think like a teacher who can guide students along the learning path.

As the video says, nothing is for free and if you get a service for free in exchange for your data, your data is valuable. And even if you paid, you might still be giving your data. Well, so what? So you’re giving your data? Wait… no, you’re giving your students’ data. And you may have access to some of it in the form of reports and logs and analytics. Okay, cool! You (the teacher) can track your student. We have been conditioned to think this is the way it should be. But what about students having access? Audrey Watters has written a whole lot about student data: Student Data, Algorithms, Ideology, and Identity-less-ness, Student Data, Algorithms, Ideology, and Context-less-ness, Student Data and Privacy for just a few related ones). Just what are these companies learning from our students? And are our students learning from their own data?

I very much think that students should know what we are tracking and be able to see it. It is, after all, their data. It is their work and they didn’t sign a release saying that because they are our students, we own their work (unlike some contracts signed by teachers, content experts, developers, etc, but that’s another matter). But since they haven’t signed it, isn’t it theirs?

It’s something to think about every time we use tech for assessment. It can be fantastic and can make life easier, but sometimes there are other costs to think about.

3 thoughts on “What’s in It for Companies? Talking Assessment and Tech”

  1. Wow, this is some serious food for thought.
    First, I really appreciated your comments about asking instructors what they want to assess vs how they want to assess it. As a teacher, I sometime find myself getting hung up on the assessment tool and losing the purpose of the assessment in the meantime.
    Secondly, your “data is the new oil” analogy really got me thinking. I blogged about an assessment tool I really liked, Quizziz, and one of the reasons I liked it so much is because it gave me usable data. Not once had I thought about the use or misuse of that data.
    Thanks for the post!

    1. I definitely understand, Heidi! It’s fun to try tools and even more when we get data from it! It’s hard to remember that in most cases, someone other than us sees that data too. It isn’t private in the way a notebook or even a computer file would be (and a computer file depends on who else has access to your computer and the shared drives, etc). Especially for companies, they are often taking some note of activity on their sites at least to test functionality of their product. It used to be that people had to explicitly and intentionally agree to be research subjects and that there were releases to sign, etc. Now, we sign that all away so easily by checking “I agree to the terms of service.” We aren’t paid or even acknowledged for our data. Sometimes we even pay to give it away! Every single time a teacher has students use the resources that go with a textbook in an online website, that’s what they are doing. That publisher is learning from your students. I didn’t talk about Turnitin because that’s one I have a lot of frustration with but it is U of R adopted. There are definitely concerns though! If companies are going to consider data super worthwhile, then we should too.

  2. Hey Kirsten, excellent post! You have raised some interesting and thought provoking points. I really struggle with how education is becoming a conduit to greater profits, and how data can and will be used to to the advantage of the corporation that mines said data. My bigger issue will always be how we try to reduce complex student learning into quantitative data. As stated on Logan’s blog, teaching is an art, not a science.

    Also, if you haven’t, check out https://dianeravitch.net I think her blog would be right up your alley!

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