Silicon startup schools

My notes on Williamson, B. (2018). Silicon startup schools: technocracy, algorithmic imaginaries and venture philanthropy in corporate education reform. Critical studies in education, 59(2), 218-236.

The technology sector has turned its gaze towards education in recent years, manifesting in a whole range of initiatives as well as the increasing prominence of education in how digital elites imagine disruptive change. In this paper Ben Williamson analyses four new schools as embodiments of this trend, prototypical examples of how digital elites imagine a future in which scalable technical platforms meet pressing social needs. They move beyond bringing technology into schools and instead place “schools into private hands as testbeds for a model of schooling that is rooted in the embedded technological knowledges, assump- tions, and practices of corporate technology culture” (219). As he goes on to describe them later on 219:

These new schools are being designed as scalable technical platforms, underpinned by software engineering expertise; they are funded by commercial and venture capital and philanthropic sources; staffed and managed by entrepreneurs, executives and engineers from some of Silicon Valley’s most successful startups and web companies; and proposed to reinvent, reimagine and rebuild education in the mould of Silicon Valley itself.

He identifies a number of pertinent features through his exploration of the websites and branding associated with each fo the four schools:

  • P-TECH, AltSchool, Kahn Lab School and XQ Super School combine venture capital with philanthropic giving in a novel combination. Business backed foundations fund advocacy (the ‘demand’ side) and directly funding charter schools (the ‘supply’ side) with digital elites figuring prominently amongst them. The charter schools framework “enable private organizations to penetrate the publicly funded education sector, govern institutions directly, and to advocate more competitive, deregulated models for public education” (220).
  • Digital technology is a central part of this movement to ‘reform’ schools e.g. learning analytics, personalised learning etc. Williamson argues that these startup schools need to be understanding as the next stage of this movement, marrying its corporate agenda to a new technoutopian impulse: “Rather than tinkering in the margins of state schooling to increase efficiencies and effectiveness by implanting new technologies in classrooms, Silicon Valley is seeking to ‘radically disrupt’ the established model of the school through both its technical practices and its venture philanthropic modes of governance” (221)
  • There is a distinctive socio-technical imaginary (“collectively held, institutionally stabilized and publicly performed visions of desirable futures that are animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order and made attainable through the design of technological projects” – 221/222) underpinning these developments. This algorithmic imaginary embodies an ideal of calculability, rendering a datafied world legible and susceptible to real time intervention through machine learning. This imaginary is becoming the lived reality of education.
  • Code is central to the operation of these new schools and this offers a conceptual and methodological challenge for established ways of understanding educational organisations and systems. Furthermore, as he observes on pg 231, ”

    The Silicon Valley discourse of innovation, entrepreneurship, startup culture, makerspaces, crowdsourced solutions, platforms and philanthrocapital is becoming a new language of schooling”. Schools are become different sorts of objects with important consequences for educational research. The language used by advocates shuts down debate and analysis of the complexity of what they are doing: “The language of an eduOS – a technical operating system for education – ignores the messy complexity of social context, and implies that technical solutions can be applied as software patches or upgrades to outdated and buggy systems.” (232). 

These are the distinctive characteristics of the schools he analyses:

  • The P-TECH approach was initiated by IBM in collaboration with the New York City government, before encouraging others tech firms to launch their own with their own skills needs as the focus, legitimated in terms of providing a pipeline of skilled labour from diverse communities. These are used for real time analytics of the educational ecosystem as an  intensified expression of their smart city agenda, offering a living laboratory in which IBM can test out new products and initiatives.
  • Maker schools teach through a hacker ethos of experimentation rather than formalise learning, increasingly popular with digital elites for educating their own children outside of a school system they see as fundamentally broken. The difficulty with scaling these initiatives has led to the creation of hybrid schools such as AltSchool, “described as a new ‘central operating system for education’, a scalable technical infrastructure that can be transported to new sites.” (225). The AltSchool “encourages greater exploration, inquiry and problem-solving through the active con- struction of knowledge and understanding, whilst monitoring and regulating the experience through learning analytics and adaptive learning software” (226). The Lab School founded by Khan Academy embodies a similar progressivist impulse: “teaches math, literacy and computer programming – in line with its tech sector roots – but also emphasizes ‘real world’ projects, personalized learning, student-centred learning, and a strong commitment to building children’s ‘character’ and ‘wellness’ through, for example, ‘mindfulness’ meditation training(227). But it also positions itself as “an experimental R&D lab for testing different educational approaches and technologies, and aspires to contribute to the production of new theories of learning itself” (227) including welcoming outside organisations for research. Both of these schools project a front door of character education & self-realisation, coupled with a backdoor of learning analytics & applied behavioural science. The contingent compatibility between these two things is a very important point in this analysis by Williamson. 
  • A similar relation can be seen in the XQ Super School Project with its heavy focus on how ‘brain science’ can be a means for empowering students to take control of their learning. This crowd sourcing initiative seeks to solicit radical new ideas for school design, within the narrow ideological constraints found elsewhere in this paper. As he puts it, “The promise here appears to be of activating human capital through brain-targeted pedagogies” (230). 

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