Schooling the Platform Society

Social media platforms have become key parts of everyday life. The use of Facebook, WhatsApp, Spotify and so on has become so widespread that some commentators have begun to speak of an emerging “platform society” and of “platform capitalism.” At the same time, we are seeing the development of new platforms for use in schools. What might be the impact on education of the emergence of a platform society and platform capitalism?

The sociologists of social media Jose van Dijck and Thomas Poell have argued that “over the past decade, social media platforms have penetrated deeply into the mechanics of everyday life, affecting people’s informal interactions, as well as institutional structures and professional routines.” As a result, they have suggested that we are entering a new kind of “platform society” in which social, institutional and interpersonal traffic is largely channeled by a global online infrastructure that is driven by algorithms, fueled by data, and animated by the commercial ambitions of private, for-profit companies.

A platform society is a society organized by a distinctive business plan. The economic geographers Paul Langley and Andrew Leyshon have suggested we understand this as “platform capitalism,” whereby platforms enroll users through a participatory culture and mobilize software and data analytics to realize a business model that prioritizes rapid up-scaling and the extraction of revenues from users’ data trails.

Ideas about platform society and platform capitalism raise significant issues for education, and for schools specifically. As platform companies are increasingly penetrating into the education system, they are seeking to fundamentally reorganize education institutions and practices of teaching and learning according to the in-built mechanisms and architectures of the platforms themselves. We are used to thinking of schools as built architectures. In a platform society, schooling looks set to take place within technical architectures too, but the consequences of this reconfiguration of schools have yet to be studied or understood.

Educational Platforms

Three educational platform developments announced in 2016 can help us glimpse what schooling in a platform society might look like.

In summer 2016, the social media company Facebook announced that it was partnering with Summit Schools Network, a charter schools network headquartered in Silicon Valley to introduce a new “student centred learning system.”

The Summit Personalized Learning Platform is a data-driven learning system with built-in courses made up of projects and focus areas vetted by Stanford University’s centre for assessment and learning. By tracking students’ engagement and progress on each of the courses, the system automatically adapts to allow students to “work through playlists of content at their own pace and take assessments on demand” and enable teachers to “use that data to personalize instruction and provide additional support through mentoring and coaching.”

Schools outside of the official Summit Schools Network can join as part of a Summit Basecamp program which “provides teachers and schools across the US with the resources they need to bring personalized learning into the classroom.” The Washington Post recently reported that Summit is now being used by over 20,000 students in more than 100 schools across the U.S., albeit not without some concern from parents.

Available for free online, the Summit Personalized Learning Platform is highly indicative of how technical mechanisms and architectures developed in the domain of social media platforms have migrated to the pedagogic apparatus of the school.

Summit is not the only ambitious educational platform company pushing itself into schools. The private “startup school” chain AltSchool established by ex-Googler Max Ventilla (and supported financially by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg) recently revealed details about the software platform it runs — which it has termed a “central operating system for education.”

Organized as a “full stack” company that deals in both software and actual schools (much like Uber mixes software with transport, or Airbnb with hospitality), AltSchool has begun rolling out its software platform to schools beyond those in the immediate chain. According to a recent article in Wired, its eventual goal is “to apply the company’s formula to a network of private, public, and charter schools across the U.S.”

The software platform it is distributing consists of two main applications — the “Playlist” tool for students and the “Progression” tool for teachers — as well as a parent communication application.

“A Playlist is a customized to-do list for students to manage their work,” claims the AltSchool website. “Educators curate a Playlist for each student. Within the Playlist, students can view their assignments, communicate with their teacher, and submit their work. Educators can then provide feedback and assess student work.”

In addition, the teacher tool Progression “provides a comprehensive portrait of a student’s progress in math, language arts, and social-emotional development. It tracks a student’s practice and trajectory against Milestones in core skills and Habits, and gives educators a rich view of past learning experiences, patterns, successes, and areas that need support. Insights from Progression inform how an educator plans future learning experiences and sets goals.”

Playlist is an algorithmic content management system, and Progression a sophisticated data analytics tool that enacts constant measurement on students’ academic and social-emotional learning. These platform tools are designed to support the AltSchool mission to promote personalized learning, social and emotional skills, and inquiry-led knowledge creation.

AltSchool, like Summit, is making a software platform into part of the main infrastructure of schools. The flow of digital data and the use of software platforms to distribute teaching and learning experiences is seen as important as the physical classrooms and outdoor play spaces.

Although ClassDojo is primarily known as an immensely popular mobile app that allows teachers to award positive behaviour points in the classroom, it too is evolving into a significant platform for schools. Earlier in 2016, ClassDojo announced it was rolling out new “school-wide” features. These new features allow principals and other school leaders to create their own accounts on ClassDojo, and teachers and school leaders to securely share photos, videos and messages with parents on the platform.

ClassDojo has become much more like a social media platform for schools than simply a mobile app for teachers. Its chief technology officer has directly compared it to Netflix and Spotify, while other features have been likened to Facebook, Snapchat and Slack. It allows teachers to award points for behaviour, somewhat akin to pressing the “like” button on Facebook, which creates a behavioural data trail for each individual teacher; acts as a channel for educational video content like YouTube; and also has capacity for schoolchildren to create digital portfolios of their work, somewhat akin to social media platforms like Snapchat, encouraging the creation of “user-generated content.”

A piece in the magazine Inc has suggested “Slack would be ClassDojo’s closest comparison. When it comes to Slack, it’s the end users who choose the service, going around the company’s IT officials and downloading it on their own. Similarly, with ClassDojo, teachers can download the app by themselves, without having to ask school administrators for permission or money to pay for the software. For Slack, keeping coworkers connected throughout the day is the objective while ClassDojo is meant to do the same for the support system of every student, keeping teachers, parents and school administrators on the same page.”

Most notably as a platform, ClassDojo has quietly amassed an enormous database of behaviour information about tens of millions of children worldwide, much like popular social media companies collecting data from users’ participation on their platforms. ClassDojo’s founders have suggested that they may seek to monetize the data collected through the platform by selling it as premium features to school districts and principals.

Platforming Education

For all the talk today of transforming education, perhaps the real development we are witnessing today is a thorough platforming of education. Summit, AltSchool and ClassDojo are prototypical of how scalable platforms are being rolled out into schools in ways that are intervening in learning, teaching, administration and communication. Together, these platforms project a distinctive vocabulary of personalization, playlists, community, customization and user-centredness that has its origins in the culture of social media platform development.

They also illustrates how powerful commercial digital organizations aspire to penetrate into public education, transforming it to fit the particular kind of platform society they have helped to engineer into existence. Engineers and entrepreneurs from Google, Facebook and other platform companies are becoming increasingly influential designers of schooling systems and processes, with serious money to invest in their big ideas. Platform capitalism is becoming the business model for education.

Platforms are significant for education because they restructure the work of institutions, leaders, teachers and students according to their technical architecture and their business model. AltSchool’s Max Ventilla formerly worked on Google Plus, and it is clear to see how techniques of personalization developed there have been built-in to the AltSchool architecture. Summit, likewise, is rooted in technical innovations developed at Facebook, particularly its facility for tracing and analyzing users’ data to personalize their experience of the platform. ClassDojo, meanwhile, is transforming classrooms by modelling itself on existing social media platforms such as Spotify and Slack.

For researchers, the challenge of studying social media platforms, according to Jose van Dijck and Thomas Poell, is to study how user and professional practices, technological architectures, and business models have become intricately entangled, and to understand how platforms influence everyday life and reconfigure society. As commercial platforms entangle with education, this is now an urgent task for the digital media and learning community.

Banner image credit: Rob Swystun