datafication of education

Education shaped by big data and Silicon Valley. Is this what we want for Australia?

The recent banning of smart phones in public schools by several state governments shows Australian policymakers are concerned about children’s use of technology and social media in school time. But what about the way our schools use digital technologies and, in particular, how the data collected by schools about our children is being used?

We believe the frenetic data collection activity taking place in schools today is transforming education. Australia may be heading towards an educational future designed by Silicon Valley not by educators and school communities. The developers of educational technologies have a growing influence in our classrooms, and we are witnessing a shift of public education from a democratic controlled system to one designed and run by corporations.

Is this the future we want for our students, teachers and schools?

What data is being collected on students and what is the impact?


First they said they needed data
about the children
to find out what they’re learning.
Then they said they needed data
about the children
to make sure they are learning.
Then the children only learnt
what could be turned into data.
Then the children became data.

(Michael Rosen, 2018)

There is more data being collected about this generation of students than any previous generation. Beyond test results such as from NAPLAN, students’ educational progression from preschool to further and higher education can be tracked; their physical activity, use of digital devices, social media, school absences, behaviour infringements and physical locations can be recorded in perpetuity as well as tracked in real time. This can be done via software such as Sentral, currently used in over 3000 schools in Australia.

The ready availability of this wealth of data has generated new norms against which students are measured, new moral codes and social expectations, and defined students against data-derived categories. Learning analytic platforms  and personalised learning apps are being introduced to classrooms in a bid to overcome the limitations of traditional classroom arrangements. Such products measure not just students’ learning choices but keystrokes, progression and motivation. Additionally, students are increasingly being surveilled and tracked.

Students’ rights to privacy has been subsumed by the desire to maximise learning potential and to create the illusion that they are being kept safe.

How is big data transforming what teachers do?

The nature of teachers’ work is being changed by data. Firstly, they must collect more data than ever about the students in their care. Not just educational results and progress, but data is collected on the minutiae of daily student life: behaviour; demerits; uniform infractions; homework, etc.; combining to create detailed data-driven histories of students’ educational life-course. The collection of data becomes the indication that teaching has occurred.

Data has become a part of the way the teaching profession is now governed. The datafication of teaching makes teachers countable, measurable and able to be ranked. And not just through data generated about their students, but against the data that they themselves must produce about their professional development. Accreditation against the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers requires teachers to not only demonstrate their teaching via their students’ learning, but also their own ongoing professional learning and development must be documented and assessed; a process that codifies and domesticates the profession.

Educational systems are being reconfigured by data-based technologies

Learning analytics platforms and personalised learning apps are based on behaviourist theories designed to change learner’s behaviour. While behavioural modification is not a new feature of schooling, traditional discipline techniques (such as the classroom, timetables, uniforms, etc.) are being supplemented by digital technologies such as ClassDojo (the most popular educational app in use at the moment) that collect data about students’ behaviour and, significantly, also their emotional/psychological, and cognitive/neurological states. ClassDojo, for example, is used to help children develop psychological traits such as ‘grit’ and a ‘growth mindset’. Data is collected about students’ demonstrations of these traits and behavioural profiles are generated for each student. This data is not merely gathering information but also being used to govern and shape students’ bodies, emotions and thinking. Certain behaviours are rewarded through gamification techniques, while other behaviours which can’t be measured are ignored. This is an instrumental focus on behaviours and mindsets that are deemed appropriate which ignores complexity and nuance in children’s learning and behaviour.

Following on the success of ClassDojo. Silicon Valley is seeking the development of further “innovative” digital technologies that can shift more educational authority into the hands of the programmers. Such a move could potentially change the nature of teachers’ work, (from designers of educational experiences, to data administrators), and subject students to further datafication.

School students around the globe, regardless of the education system in which they are physically located, could be learning from the same apps or techno-education programs. These Silicon Valley technologies would determine what, when, and how students learn – with curriculum and assessment determined algorithmically based on students’ prior engagement and achievement.

Technologies such as learning analytics platforms replace teacher expertise with the pattern detection abilities of data analytics algorithms, risking students’ opportunities being narrowed by the assumptions encoded in algorithmic logic. 

In this potential educational future, not only are teachers bypassed (with their experience and professional judgement removed from the learning setting) but local and national educational systems lose authority to those who design such technologies.

The risks of a big data future

We have described the increasing use of data in education so that the future trajectory of schooling can be considered. The potential role of Silicon Valley in designing the educational methods of the future is highlighted. Further infiltration of educational technologies into classroom means that not just students’ results but also their behaviours and mindsets become quantifiable sources of data. Students will become more enmeshed in intensifying surveillance networks, where the teachers’ expert judgement is displaced by disembodied algorithmic and adaptive decision-making technology.

The risk is that such processes shut down educational possibility and that students’ prior actions determine the future learning made available to them. The algorithms that undergird such educational technologies are always based on past data, and not only limit students opportunity based on the programming of those that design the products, but constrain future opportunity because of the inherent bias in the data upon which the calculations are based on.

Reliance on such technologies also limits the opportunity for student-teacher relationships; without these relationships’ education is at risk of further alienating students.

We need to leave the future behind

In considering what can about this situation, we follow Australian educational researcher, Sam Sellar’s lead and argue that we need to leave the future behind.

Sellar argues that built into education is the idea that we are striving for the future, and that through education the future will be better. This optimism is built into policy, which is the political means by which we try to improve the system. It is also built in to practice, this belief that with more information, more data, we can improve the education system and through the education system improve lives.

The use of data as a means of measuring educational progress has become an end in itself. This constant quest for improvement, has led us down the path of measurement and datafication. Sellar’s suggestion of leaving the future behind:

would not mean refusing the direction of time, but rather abandoning ‘the future’ as a psychological attitude with a relatively brief history. As a hopeful disposition toward a time to come, the future has provided a basis for modern educational thought: education is oriented by desire for progress.

Sam Sellar

There are alternatives to the idea of progress as a means of evaluating education. If we stop seeking progress as the goal and start to determine the value of education via other means, we no longer need be trapped in the thrall of future thinking.

Dr Rachel Buchanan is a Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Newcastle. She researches into the equity and social justice implications of education policy and the increased deployment of digital technologies within the education sector. She can be contacted via Rachel.Buchanan@newcastle.edu.au or found on twitter: @rayedish. 

Dr Amy McPherson is a Lecturer in Education Studies at the Australian Catholic University. She researches in the areas of philosophy of education and youth and childhood studies. She can contacted via Amy.McPherson@acu.edu.au or found on twitter: @AmyMak1601

This blog post is a condensed version of our paper ‘Teachers and learners in a time of big data’ published in the ‘Future Education’  special issue of the Journal of Philosophy in Schools.

Vast amounts of data about our children are being harvested and stored via apps used by schools

Electronic data is increasingly being collected in our schools without people being fully aware of what is happening.

We should be concerned about the amount of data being collected via apps and commercial software used by schools and teachers for varying reasons. We need to ask questions such as:

  • How is that data being stored and used?
  • How might the data be used in the future, particularly sensitive data about the behaviour of children?

We also need to ask about data being collected on teachers and schools.

  • Is the collection of data on individual students in fact allowing data to be collected on teachers and schools?
  • How might that electronic collation of data be used in the future?

Potential misuse and consequences for children

Recent times have brought issues about data and privacy to the public eye. A number of ‘data controversies’, including breaches from global giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon, as well as a security slipup from the huge education platform Schoolzilla, that exposed test scores of up to 1.3 million students. These issues reveal the risks of collecting human data and its potential misuse by the companies that store and use it.

A recent report published by the UK Children’s Commissioner also highlights the potential consequences for children. It reported that,

‘we do not fully understand yet what all the implications of this is going to be when they are adults. Sensitive information about a child could find its way into their data profile and used to make highly significant decisions about them, e.g. whether they are offered a job, insurance or credit’.

Many companies already use psychological profiling data to make decisions about who they employ. In the future they might find it valuable to view a behaviour profile developed through schooling to help assess an employee’s suitability.

An example: ClassDojo is accumulating sensitive data profiles on students, teachers and schools

ClassDojo is an extremely popular classroom management app designed to help teachers with school discipline and communication. What isn’t clear to many is its voracious appetite for student data or what happens to that data. Also, it’s not clear that data on teachers and schools is being collected.

New research examining ClassDojo is raising concerns about how student data about behaviour may be collected, accumulated and then used.

Much like the traditional behaviour chart ClassDojo is designed to give feedback to students about their behaviour. Students are awarded positive and negative points to reinforce or discourage particular pre-selected behaviours.

However, unlike traditional behaviour charts, ClassDojo creates a long-lasting record of the data it collects. With the ease of generating a behavioural report with the click of a button, it makes creating a permanent electronic or printed behaviour record simple for busy teachers.

As teachers monitor student behaviour by keeping electronic records, they are also creating a data set on their own behaviour over time. Collectively such student and teacher data records could be compiled for a school.

What data does ClassDojo collect?

Student behaviour in the classroom

The data gathered by ClassDojo to shape student behaviour includes:

  • behaviour performed (default behaviours are psychological character traits i.e. grit)
  • how many times a particular behaviour has been performed
  • the date when the behaviour feedback was awarded
  • the point value that comes with the behaviour
  • who gave the feedback
  • how many ‘positive’ points a student has
  • how many ‘needs work’ points a student has, and
  • a calculated percentage score representing the per cent of positive points compared to total points received.

All this data is compiled and analysed to create behaviour reports about individual students and the whole class. Reports contain red and green colour coded donut charts showing a comparison between the ‘positive’ versus ‘needs work’ behaviours. They also provide numbered statistics based on the data mentioned above, the main one being a percentage score referred to in the above list designed to represent the behaviour quality of a student or class.

The big problem with ClassDojo reports on students

A major problem with creating reports like this is that they only judge students on a small number of behaviours that ‘count’. They ignore, and even deter, diversity. For example, teachers have to identify behaviours they want students to exhibit so they can monitor them using ClassDojo. Default options include working hard, on-task, and displaying grit. This list has to be limited to a number of behaviours that is manageable by the teacher to track. The selected behaviours end up being the ones that count, others are ignored, thus promoting conformity.

Resembling a psychometric report, there is a concern that these ClassDojo reports may be collected by schools to create student behaviour profiles that follow students throughout their schooling.

Such reports could be used to make highly significant decisions about students, e.g. whether their ‘character’ profile is suitable for leadership roles, or whether they should take certain subjects.

Ultimately there is the potential that profiling in this way could influence decisions that limit or enhance future educational opportunities. We know from decades of research on the power of teacher expectations that this is an important consideration.

The vast amount of data collected by the company is a concern for all caught in the net

ClassDojo also collects a vast amount of personal data about its users including students, teachers, parents and school leaders. This data includes

  • First and last names
  • Student usernames
  • Passwords
  • Students’ age
  • School names
  • School addresses
  • Photographs, videos, documents, drawings, or audio files
  • Student class attendance data
  • Feedback points
  • IP addresses
  • Browser details
  • Clicks
  • Referring URL’s
  • Time spent on site
  • Page views
  • Teacher parent messages

Moreover, ClassDoJo says it ‘may also obtain information, including personal information, from third-party sources to update or supplement the information you provided or we collected automatically’.

The ClassDojo messaging function

ClassDojo’s also has a messaging function.  The company describes its ClassDojo’s messaging function as a ‘safe way for a teacher and a parent to privately communicate’ but this messaging function raises further concerns for us about data privacy and profiling. ClassDojo Messaging enables teachers to send text, photos, stickers, or voice notes to parents who can respond using text.

To add to our concerns over the messaging function is ClassDojo states ‘The content of all messages (including photos, stickers and voice notes) are stored. [and] … cannot be deleted by either the teacher or the parent.’

It remains unclear just how private such communication really is. While ClassDojo says it does not read these messages, it declares that school ‘district administrators can request [access to] messaging histories (plus Class/School/Student Story posts) by emailing [the company].

How safe is all of this?

So where does all this data collected by ClassDojo go?

Two of the third party service providers involved are Amazon Web Services and MLab. They are companies used by ClassDojo to store data about its users. Amazon Web Services has a less than ideal record of keeping data stored on its servers secure. Data breaches within Amazon Web Services have exposed sensitive information about thousands of GoDaddy and Accenture customers.

Because ClassDojo stores the data it collects outside of Australia, it is not subject to Australian Privacy Law. A point of difference being that US law states that companies can be forced to hand over hosted data to the government, and to do so secretly.

It’s time to take stock of the electronic data that is being collected in schools

So whilst apps like ClassDojo might be easy to use and friendly, schools need to carefully consider the potential consequences.

Too much sensitive data is being collected about our students and we need to stop and critically reflect on what is happening in schools.

We also need to be aware that by collecting data on students we are also creating data sets on teachers and schools. We do not know how such data sets could be used in the future.

For those interested in our research:  Jamie Manolev, Anna Sullivan & Roger Slee (2019) The datafication of discipline: ClassDojo, surveillance and a performative classroom culture, Learning, Media and Technology

Jamie Manolev currently studies and works at the School of Education, University of South Australia. Jamie does research in School Discipline, Digital Technologies and Primary Education. His current PhD research is investigating ClassDojo as a school discipline system. Jamie also works on the ‘School Exclusions Study’ and as a Research Assistant on the ARC Linkage funded ‘Refugee Student Resilience Study’.

Dr Anna Sullivan is an Associate Professor of Education at the University of South Australia. A/Professor Anna Sullivan is a leading expert in the fields of teachers’ work and school discipline. She is committed to investigating ways in which schools can be better places. She has extensive teaching experience having taught in Australia and England and across all levels of schooling. A/Professor Sullivan has been a chief investigator on numerous Australian Research Council Linkage grants.

Roger Slee is Professor of Inclusive Education at the University of South Australia. He is the former Deputy Director-General of Queensland Department of Education, Founding Editor of the International Journal of Inclusive Education and Journal of Disability Studies in Education, and held the Chair of Inclusive Education at the Institute of Education University of London.