The failure of online schooling highlights a basic flaw in our digital infrastructure: It wasn’t built to supply public goods.
Welcome back to Pattern Matching, OneZero’s weekly newsletter that puts the week’s most compelling tech stories in context.
Across much of the United States this week, schools “opened” via the internet, following others that had started remote learning last week or the week before. The results have been, at best, uneven; at worst, heartbreaking.
America’s Covid spring offered a glitchy preview of how replacing school buildings and classrooms with home Wi-Fi and Zoom rooms might work. Now it’s our Covid fall, and this is no longer a test but an emergency. In the face of that emergency, the technologies our society is counting on to rescue our educational system are being exposed as inadequate — and deeply unequal.
The global internet that the U.S. government pioneered and Silicon Valley developed represents a particular vision of cyberspace. With scant regulation or accountability, it has evolved from a Wild West into a sort of corporate feudal state in which giant platform owners and internet service providers set the rules and own the data that their users generate while constantly warring with one another over territory. This privatized internet was neither inevitable nor accidental. “U.S. Begins Privatizing Internet’s Operations,” a New York Times headline reported in 1994, explaining how the federal government had opted to entrust the job of maintaining the “increasingly commercial” global computer network to private firms in the interest of “marketplace efficiencies.”
From a commercial standpoint, the arrangement has in many ways been a wild success. When the pandemic forced office buildings to close and send their workers home, our corporate digital infrastructure proved to be mostly up to the task of keeping things humming — at least, for white-collar information workers. With some hiccups, well-capitalized enterprise software firms such as Atlassian, Microsoft, and Cisco rapidly scaled up to meet the demands of employers, especially larger corporations with deep pockets.
Now, however, we’re turning to this same profit-driven internet as a tool to educate our children. We’re asking the internet of Netflix and TikTok, Verizon and Comcast, Amazon and Apple — a realm optimized for pleasure and productivity and commerce, at the expense of privacy and sanity and equity — to help us develop the minds of our young. We’re asking a VC ecosystem that optimizes for scalability to fund solutions that meet the disparate needs of thousands of different local school districts. Crucially, we’re trying to put that internet, and those solutions, to equal use for all children, not just the affluent. Let’s check in on how that’s going.
The travesty of remote learning is unfolding in real time.
- In Savannah, Georgia, schoolkids are congregating around school buses each day — not to ride them, but to log on to their online classes. The buses have been outfitted as 4G LTE internet hotspots via a “Wi-Fi on Wheels” program for the many children who lack access to high-speed connections at home. A fleet of 10 buses rotate among the district’s campuses, visiting one in the morning, another in the afternoon. This is not a remote, rural district: It’s one of Georgia’s largest, serving some 38,000 students. It’s what passes for an innovative solution in a state where a recent study found that more than half a million homes and businesses lack access to reliable broadband service.
- Elsewhere in Georgia, as in other states around the country, students are trekking to churches, parks, and restaurants to pick up whatever public Wi-Fi they can find. An eye-opening story in the Athens Banner-Herald on Thursday catalogued how online schooling is exacerbating inequality along economic and geographic lines. Rural Oglethorpe County is paying a private firm called Paladin Wireless $350,000 to build a tower system that will serve only the most densely part of the county, the paper reported. Clarke County, which includes urban Athens, is trying to distribute T-Mobile hotspots to families who can’t afford broadband, but many are still waiting as 1,200 of the units are on back order.
- The problems don’t stop when kids log on. Despite school administrators, teachers, and the software companies they depend on having the spring and summer to work out the kinks, technical glitches abounded as classes began. From the AP: “The online learning platform Blackboard, which provides technology for 70 of the nation’s 100 biggest districts … reported that websites for one of its learning products were failing to load or were loading slowly, and users were unable to register on the first day of school.” Microsoft Teams and Google Drive also had widespread reports of problems Tuesday, peaking around the time kids were signing on in the morning. The New York Times added: “A ransomware attack forced Hartford, Conn., to call off the first day of classes. A website crash left many of Houston’s 200,000 students staring at error messages. And a server problem in Virginia Beach disrupted the first hours back to school there.”
- Frustrating as they are, those setbacks will likely recede as the school year continues. A more enduring problem is that much of the software schools are relying on isn’t really up to the task of facilitating online schooling. For example, Zoom has become the de facto choice for video conferencing, due to its relatively stable performance and ease of setup. But just try to use it for a class of small children and it quickly becomes clear that this was not a use case Zoom’s designers had in mind. Six months in, it still feels like “a corporate meeting app that has been MacGyvered into an education platform,” as Fast Company put it. For a teacher to accomplish a task as basic as calling on a kid, “You have to scan a Brady Bunch-style grid of two dozen wiggling children for raised hands, click ‘unmute’ under one of their names, and cross your fingers that they are not muted on their end (half the time, they are).” The Fast Company article is worth a read: Author Suzanne Labarre talked to teachers about how they would redesign it, if they could.
- Videoconferencing platforms are also a disaster for music classes. On a recent episode of This American Life, a choir teacher explained how Zoom and its ilk actively sabotage any attempt at synchronous performance. Not only does the inevitable latency mess up the timing for anyone without a lightning-fast connection, but the software is designed to identify a single speaker at a time and amplify their audio while filtering out any additional speakers, on the assumption that they’re background noise. My sister, who teaches in an Ohio school for kids with learning differences like ADHD and dyslexia, bemoans the dearth of user-friendly software that facilitates both videoconferencing and an interactive digital whiteboard that teachers and students alike can use. How can it be that the world’s richest and most innovative industry struggles to replicate educational experiences as rudimentary as a classroom singalong, or a teacher looking over a student’s shoulder and helping them through a problem?
- For a hilarious, but not entirely atypical, example of everything going wrong in a virtual second-grade classroom, read this Twitter thread by author Stephanie Lucianovic. Hashtag: #Zoomoftheflies.
- For all its shortcomings, it’s worth acknowledging that online schooling is almost certainly better than no schooling at all — at least for children old enough to do it independently. (For families with small children, there can be a “worst of both worlds” element, as remote school requires nearly as much supervision as homeschooling without the curricular autonomy or scheduling flexibility.) There may even be particular benefits to remote learning for some children. A 15-year-old boy with ADHD went from perpetually “bleary-eyed and resentful” to improbably “happy” when school moved online, according to a New York Times op-ed by his mother, who also related corroborating stories from other parents of ADHD kids. For WNYC’s On the Media, a reporter recounted how distance learning at the college level may have saved the life of a close friend who suffered from schizophrenia. Some Black parents say their kids have found online learning more comfortable, because it spares them the microaggressions and discrimination they face daily in traditional school settings. These stories could help point the way toward needed reforms of our traditional educational institutions.
- In many cases, however, online learning has turned out to be something more like an oxymoron. (In the Atlantic, Emily Gould called it “a bad joke.”) Research from the spring showed that students quickly fell behind, while racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps widened. Broadband access isn’t the only barrier for low-income families. Studies have found that online learning tends to work best when students have an in-person mentor or assistant they can turn to for help when they get stuck. That requires parents with flexible, work-from-home jobs, which tend to be white-collar. For younger kids, parental oversight is a necessity: My kindergartner and his classmates have to routinely log into various online platforms, download and upload assignments, and complete other tasks that no one their age can be expected to do on their own. The unspoken assumption is that every kid has a full-time caregiver on hand. My wife and I have both been afforded the luxury of scaling our jobs back to part-time, for the time being. Many other parents of young kids have had to quit their jobs altogether; others can’t afford to do that, and instead it’s the kids who have had to drop out.
- Then there are the grading algorithms. An online learning platform called Edgenuity, used by 20 of the country’s 25 largest school districts, employs an A.I. to automatically grade students’ papers. After it gave one Los Angeles 12-year-old an F on a history paper, his mother took a closer look and realized it was mostly just scanning for keywords, The Verge reported. She found it could be easily gamed, with a word salad of relevant terms scoring 100%. In effect, Edgenuity’s software appears to be punishing students who do honest work and rewarding those who exploit loopholes. The company declined to even respond to The Verge’s requests for comment. Algorithmic grading in general has been a nightmare: It was the source of the U.K.’s appalling A-levels scandal and a similar fiasco with the International Baccalaureate exams. In the New York Times, NYU professor Meredith Broussard argued the use of Silicon Valley-style predictive algorithms for grading is deeply misguided. “Crude generalizations work for Netflix predictions because the stakes are low,” she wrote. But grading isn’t Netflix: It can alter the course of children’s lives.
- Remote learning probably didn’t have to be quite this bad. A lack of clear direction at the federal level led districts to spend the summer waffling between online and in-person instruction rather than fully preparing for either one. The aforementioned episode of This American Life chronicled what that was like from the perspective of individual teachers, parents, and schools. At least a few of the screwups and injustices chronicled above probably could have been mitigated or avoided, had there been a clear focus on remote learning from the start.
- And maybe part of it is just a matter of time: The tech sector is famously agile, thanks in part to the venture capital system, and no doubt there’s a crop of ed-tech startups trying to fill some of the gaps that have become so painfully obvious since March. Crunchbase News reported in August that VC funding of ed tech was up more than 50% in 2020 from the same period last year, to $4.1 billion. But even that seems somewhat anemic compared to the urgency of the need and the scope of the problem. It amounts to a much smaller fraction of all VC funding than the share of government spending that goes to education. The relative underinvestment in ed tech by Silicon Valley likely reflects the tech industry’s biases toward products and business models that scale easily without the need for human customization or nationwide sales teams.
- The deeper issue is that our privatized, corporatized internet is better at supplying private goods than public goods. No doubt it has done some of both: Google search and Wikipedia are among the many examples of Silicon Valley products that benefit both the rich and the poor, the individual and the collective. It’s also worth remembering that our education system was rife with inequities long before it got pushed online. But the values that public education is supposed to embody — universal access, fairness, respect for childrens’ privacy — don’t align well with those of today’s for-profit internet.
- Economists will tell you that public goods are often best supplied by governments, but we’ve allowed our digital infrastructure to be shaped almost entirely by market forces, with strikingly little regulation. And so instead of municipal broadband, public Wi-Fi, net neutrality, open-source platforms, and auditable algorithms, we have massive, opaque, corporate profit machines masquerading as public utilities. Back in January, even without Covid or online education in mind, the media scholar Ethan Zuckerman made the case for digital public infrastructure. (He is certainly not the first to do so.) If there’s an opportunity here, a cause for hope, it’s that the tragic failure of the private internet to provide public education will underscore the urgency of that need.
Under-the-radar trends, stories, and random anecdotes worth your time
- The 2020 election is under cyberattack. Microsoft has detected cyberattacks targeting “people and organizations involved in the upcoming presidential election,” the company said in a blog post on Thursday. The attacks are coming from at least three countries: China, Russia, and Iran. The company called for more federal funding to states to protect their election infrastructure. Relatedly, the New York Times asked security experts to sketch their worst-case scenarios for election night. Any remaining doubt that foreign interference and online misinformation are now a permanent part of our electoral process can probably be put to rest at this point.
- Amazon is deepening its ties to the surveillance state. I wrote in depth last year about how the company has quietly become a surveillance giant — its ever-growing array of cloud-connected listening and watching devices making it not just the everything store but the everywhere store. This week, the company announced this week that former NSA director Keith Alexander will join its board of directors. Edward Snowden, whose leaks revealed the extent of online spying during Alexander’s tenure there, tweeted: “It turns out ‘Hey Alexa’ is short for ‘Hey Keith Alexander.’”
Headlines of the Week
— Jason Koebler, Motherboard
— Catherine Hickley, New York Times
— Christopher Livingston, PCGamer
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