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Zuckerberg-backed education program faces backlash for its dystopian learning environment and creepy data collection practices

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Correction – April 27, 2019: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the Chan Zuckerberg initiative as a family charity instead of an independent philanthropic organization. It also incorrectly reported that the Summit Learning platform had been criticized for causing increased seizures in epileptic students when the student in question had never participated in the Summit Learning program. Additionally, it said that parents were criticizing Summit Learning for changing the classroom into an environment where students spend the majority of their time staring at a screen without including Summit Learning’s data which suggests that students spend less than half of their day on the platform. We have updated the post to remove the incorrect reporting and added additional information from the Summit Learning blog about the relationship between students and teachers when using the platform. We apologize to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and Summit Learning for the errors.

Facebook is well known for its creepy data collection practices and the negative impact it has on mental health. Now we’re starting to see similar concerns being raised about Summit Learning – a high-tech, personalized education program which is funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician and philanthropist, through their independent philanthropic organization the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). Parents and students initially welcomed the Summit Learning program but are now taking issue with the dystopian educational environment it has created, the amount of data the program collects, and the many negative impacts the program is having on student’s mental and physical health.

The Summit Learning platform is web-based and encourages self-directed learning. Students use the web-based platform to get lesson plans and take quizzes at their own pace while teachers act as mentors to the students. According to The New York Times, Summit Learning asks teachers to commit to meeting their students in person for just 10 minutes each week and many students have claimed that these meetings actually last around two minutes if they happen at all.

Summit Learning has grown from a small pilot program that was being used in just 19 schools in 2015 to a program that operates in over 380 schools and is used by more than 72,000 students across the United States today. The CZI has given $99.1 million in grants to Summit Learning since 2016 and also provides engineering support for the Summit Learning platform.

When the Summit Learning program was first proposed, parents and students embraced it and believed that the free program was a welcome solution to underfunded public schools with deteriorating test scores. However, they soon realized that this screen-based approach to education has many downsides.

One of the biggest concerns parents and students have with Summit Learning is that they believe it changes the classroom from an environment where students and teachers would regularly communicate with each other into an environment where there are fewer interpersonal interactions and computers do the teaching.

Tyson Koenig, a factory supervisor in McPherson, said the following after visiting his son’s fourth-grade class which was using the Summit Learning platform:

“We’re allowing the computers to teach and the kids all looked like zombies.”

Myriland French, a student who’s used the Summit Learning platform, added that she developed eye strain and missed talking to teachers and students in class.

However, Summit Learning says that the relationship between teachers and students is at the heart of Summit Learning and that the platform is not a substitute for student-teacher interactions. The company adds that students spend the majority of their time engaging with teachers and classmates on real-world projects while spending less than half of their day on the Summit Learning platform.

Some parents have added that they’re worried about how Summit Learning handles their children’s private data. Summit Learning says that it is compliant with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. However, Leonie Haimson, the co-chairwoman of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, has highlighted that Summit Learning collects a significant amount of data from its users:

“Summit demands an extraordinary amount of personal information about each student and plans to track them through college and beyond.”

Parents and students have also criticized Summit Learning for:

  • Having a negative effect on children’s health and causing headaches, hand cramps, and anxiety
  • Directing students to questionable online content which includes Daily Mail articles featuring “racy ads with bikini-clad women”

These concerns from parents have led to a major backlash against the Summit Learning program. This month, Indiana Area Junior High School decided to stop using Summit Learning and in 2017, Summit Learning was pulled from elementary and middle schools in Cheshire, Connecticut after parent protests. Summit Learning has also triggered walk out protests from students in Kansas and Brooklyn.

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