Three rows of children sit at their desks. Heads down, headphones on. On each desk sits a laptop, awake and alert to every eyeball saccade. The metrics of “engagement” are propelling algorithms into classrooms.
Three rows of data sources come online, and begin streaming information. Each data source feeds an unique personalised avatar tutor -- and a consumer profile. Algorithmic education is propelling surveillance capitalism into classrooms.
In this essay we will explore how metrics of engagement are both driving the development of educational technology, and reshaping the expectations and behaviours of children and teachers in classrooms. We argue that educators are increasingly charged with managing the attention resource of children, and evaluated against metrics of engagement, rather than learning. In this environment we see algorithmic technology being used by educators as a teacher aide, and by administrators as a teacher evaluator.
The metrics, however, are wrong. We argue that technology framed as supporting increased engagement is itself attention-seeking, both in its design and in its impact. It mimics the logic of surveillance capitalist platforms, where the battle for eyeballs becomes the defining dynamic. We argue that the attention and engagement of children has always been a contested commercialised space, and compare the future of algorithmic educational technology with the history of educational television programming and advertising. In both we see educational objectives subordinated by commercial imperatives.
We envision a future in which algorithmic technologies empower children to regulate their own attention, and explore the metrics by which such algorithms could be judged and developed.
Charlotte Bradley and Glen Berman are both members of the first Masters program cohort of the 3A Institute at the Australian National University. Charlotte has a Masters of English Studies from Sydney University and is a new parent. Glen has worked at leading human rights advocacy organisations and is not a parent.