Why digitalisation in schools and classrooms should be handled only with extreme caution

by Ewald Wetekamp, Working Group School and Education in Baden-Württemberg

Had we not had a corona crisis with a lockdown imposed everywhere, the IT industry would have had to invent something similar, in order to enjoy such a tailwind for its “visions” of a digitised society and, above all, a “digitised” school. The industry now wants to use this tailwind to entrench itself even more irrevocably in all interpersonal relationships of everyday life. In this context, we can even forget that there is no indication of anyone learning digitally, and that there is much evidence showing that the digitisation of all human areas will lead to a data octopus interfering in all sorts of matters, and not disclosing this interference under any circumstances, because who knows what “power” is behind the collected data? It is obvious that this will fundamentally change the image of mankind: from a creature oriented towards companionship, partnership and the relations with others, whom precisely the caring coexistence in family, community and state will enable to develop into a fellow-player oriented towards the common good and so to find fulfillment in his existence, the new media user is to develop into a “digital consumer” who will lose himself in the digital world, become lonely and so consume more and more of what robs him of his participation in the human community – a vicious circle. We ought to focus closely on the question whether the filigree pedagogical processes characterised by a great deal of educational knowledge, which take place in our schools, our educational institution, can be replaced by digital media. However, this is not the focus of this paper, which will rather cover the presentation and analysis of what has already been insinuating its way into our classrooms for years and what requires critical evaluation.

The integrity of the body and thus, to a much greater extent, the right to life is an indispensable fundamental right. To deny this right would cause outrage and great resistance. For everyone knows that if such a fundamental right is no longer guaranteed, we all have to start fearing for life and limb.

Serious misjudgment carrying immense consequences

But there is also a fundamental right to the integrity of the privacy of a person,1 and this is in no way inferior to the integrity of the body. But if this right is violated, resistance and indignation are not comparable to the case where body and life are threatened. Why not? The violation of the body and its consequences are directly visible and observable and can therefore in most cases not be overlooked. The violation of privacy is a creeping process, and often facilitated by the fact that a considerable number of people believe that the violation of their privacy or, in other words, of their intimate sphere does not constitute a major intrusion, since they have nothing to hide. This is a serious misjudgment with obvious consequences.

Is the use of digital end devices really harmless?

To begin with, the violation of privacy looks pretty smart. We all know the little “helpers” and apparently indispensable companions we love in everyday life and use all through the day in the form of smartphones, which started their global triumph2 just over a decade ago, and are now primarily part of the younger generation’s basic equipment; and this generation often enough does not even want to do without them at night – for whatever reason.3
   The fact that they are thus unresistingly leaving the most private data to Big data’s “data vacuum cleaner”,4 does not raise the slightest concern: Movement profiles, social contacts, peer group networks, visits to Internet sites, preferences of all kinds, whether hobbies, music, films or even political opinions, health apps that measure heartbeat, blood pressure and sporting activities (the evaluation of which can then serve as parameters for the health insurance contribution rate to be determined for the future) are recorded primarily for “interested parties” and indelibly left to the data cloud of an apparently anonymous entity – all without hesitation.

Conditions not guaranteed for unscrupulous use

As long as digital tools remain simply tools, mastered by the person who uses them properly and professionally, there is nothing to be said against them. As long as a digital tool does not lead a life of its own, but which is determined by (unknown) others, as long as the use of this digital tool serves its user’s benefit and leaves his workspace and privacy untouched, everything is fine – unless electronic use would entail health risks, in which case further reflection would be needed.

In the crisis the call for basic digitalisation is becoming louder

The fact that digitalisation, with all its more or less hushed up side effects, has begun a triumphal march through industry and other sectors of the economy, not always to our or even their benefit, sticks out a mile. Neither does it go without notice that with the Corona crisis the call for digitalised teaching has now found a viral amplifier,5 even if this process has been going on for some time. It is however also true, and especially true for teaching, that the personality of the student must remain intact in a rightly well-considered and protected space, especially with regard to his or her privacy. This is guaranteed by each federal state through its constitution and its respective educational mandate. People rightly trust in this. This trust must not be gambled away.
   But what if the undoubtedly useful digital tools do not live up to this trust? What if even the best administrator cannot even begin to prevent the outflow of sensitive personal data? What if the digitalisation of schools and teaching is in fact an attack on the integrity of the students and, beyond that, on their families?

What can the end devices actually do?

All we have to do to answer this question is take a look at the digital devices that schools are usually equipped with and at the servers and networks to which these devices are connected. Computers and the Internet have been used for a long time. And then there are digital classrooms, smartboards and tablets, and network-connected smartphones. Neither is the amount of educational software, that interested IT companies develop and often present in special workshops at teachers’ associations conferences, to be forgotten.

The digital class register

Let us just look at the digital class register, which has radically replaced the traditional class register in the form of a notebook. Here you will find students with names, addresses and photos. In order that the subject teachers of a class can inform themselves more quickly, all “necessary” information concerning students and class is stored digitally. In this way, teachers can find out which student is missing, when which tests will be written, when which student is late, has not done his or her material or homework, which reminders or reprimands have been issued to him or her, for what reason pedagogical conferences have come to which measures, which grades he or she has written in which subject. All this is not secured in an in-house intranet, but depending on the provider, the computer that manages this data is located, for example, in Vienna. Why is that? On what basis should parents, students and teachers actually trust the provider? The reference to the data security of the system does not inspire confidence and is in no way convincing. Students and parents have a password that allows them to access the personalised area of the digital class register from home. Ultimately, this could also be used incidentally as a means of digitally verifying whether parents or guardians discharge their educational responsibility.

Educational software

Take the educational software. The teachers’ association VBE holds the so-called German Teachers’ Day in Leipzig every year. This takes place at the same time as the book fair “Leipzig liest” on the fairground. It is attended by about 500 to 700 teachers on average. In addition to the main speaker’s presentation, a large number of so-called workshops is held in the afternoon. Some years ago, Professor Manfred Spitzer was the speaker. He dealt with the topic of sense and nonsense in the use of digital media in class and the question of how the frequent use of these digital media affects learners’ psyche and mind. His conclusion was clear: He does not allow his children to use these digital end devices until they are 16 years old. He agrees on this with the IT developers in Silicon Valley. Their children do not get these devices. Their children attend schools that do not use these devices. They know that these devices have an addictive potential and that a humanistic education is first and foremost a relationship-associated process, that is in the hands of an experienced educator. Professor Spitzer was applauded again and again for his remarks, which were completely in line with the conviction of the pedagogues present.
   Viewed from this perspective, the afternoon programme of the Teachers’ Day thus stood in stark contrast to the scientific presentations in the morning. The only offers available dealt exclusively with the digitalisation of classroom and lessons. One of them demonstrated to the teachers present the use of special worksheets, that each colleague could design for his or her subject and then send to his or her students via the teacher’s computer. The students would then be able to work on these worksheets at home and send them back to the teacher. Then the teacher would have his students’ work on his computer and be able to evaluate it. To the astonishment of many of those present, not only could the answers given now be checked, but the software6 also recorded how long the student in question had been sitting at his work, how quickly he had worked, how often he had taken breaks, how often he had corrected his answers. Imagine all of this data being incorporated into the evaluation of student work, and further imagine all of this data and all other data collected during a school day being outsourced to a cloud provided by extracurricular companies, which from then on will have student data that they can use in their own interest. The IT expert in this workshop explained to the mostly very astonished teachers that this software, used in lessons and evaluated by programmes, is able to evaluate the performance of the students very accurately, so that class tests might even be omitted.
   Experts from the IT industry report similar facts about Big data evaluation of data. Among other things, these evaluations also serve to make fairly accurate predictions about individual decisions and actions in the economic, cultural and political spheres. According to the experts, elections might even be dispensed with, since the algorithms know long before how the elections would turn out.

Why an assessment in vocational preparation?

In all types of schools it is common practice in the 8th or 9th grade to prepare students for finding a profession. For this purpose, so-called assessments are carried out, for which colleagues from the individual schools have to be trained - an enormous expenditure of time and money. These training courses are financed by the Federal Employment Agency, by many independent institutions as well as some companies. How to achieve results is a separate topic (empathy abstinence). Here, detailed reports on cooperation ability, creativity, endurance and stamina, general education, mathematical ability, concentration ability, ability to combine, self-perception and perception of others, and much more, are prepared. All of this can also be done by extra-school evaluators, since – purpurtedly – it is only a matter of empathy-abstinent observing, counting and collecting. All these surveys are either carried out with the aid of appropriate programmes on the computer by the students themselves, or entered into the computer by the observers and sent to a central computer which evaluates the data. This assessment continues for one week. The subject lessons are cancelled or have to be substituted. The effort is enormous. The question of the benefit for school and students is controversial. So why do we make such an effort? Who is interested in this data, why and for what purposes?

What we have to take note of

The digital collection of personal data to create an individual personality profile, which neither parents, students nor teachers have commissioned, is a clandestine, systematic attack on the integrity of the person, an attack on a fundamental right and thus, since our school is a school of democracy, an attack on the democratic constitutionalism of our school. But not only the schools are to be digitally transformed, but also the whole of society, indeed democracy as such. Law graduate Yvonne Hofstetter7 knows these data octopuses from the inside and has written books about them. One of them is entitled “Das Ende der Demokratie – Wie die künstliche Intelligenz die Politik übernimmt und uns entmündigt – The End of Democracy – How Artificial Intelligence is latching onto politics and incapacitating us”. Knowledge of the strategic approach of companies specializing in big data is absolutely essential. However, it is much more necessary that we remember the basics of our joint coexistence. This is the task of everyone carrying responsibility in the family, at work, in the state community, or in any other way in which this responsibility has been assigned to them. Reflexion on this is a very beneficial exercise.     •


1  The degree of individual and family privacy guarantees, among other things, the development of the personality towards a successful life plan as an active member of the human family. In a certain sense, this privacy must also be guaranteed in public educational and training institutions. Otherwise, it is not possible to build sustainable, orienting relationships. Media of total disclosure prevent this and drive many of their users into social isolation.
2  In 1998, there was as yet no smartphone survey in the JIM, the Youth Study on Media Use. With the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, the triumphant advance of digitalised devices began. By 2011, already 26 % of young people had a smartphone, and by 2016, 92 %.
3  In this context, it is important to note that social media are designed to make the user dependent. Peter Hensinger points out that “[…] die Smartphones bewusst auf Sucht programmiert sind. Das haben die Social-Media- und Internet-Macher letztes Jahr in einer Sonderbeilage der ‹New York Times› bekannt und sich dafür entschuldigt. - [...] smartphones are deliberately programmed for addiction. The social media and internet makers announced this last year in a special supplement of the ‘New York Times’ and apologised for it. In: Hensinger, Peter. “Was macht die geplante Schulreform mit unseren Kindern – What will the planned school reform do to our children”, lecture at an event of the parents’ initiative Schule-Bildung-Zukunft, Stuttgart, 9 February 2019, p. 4
4  “Big Data heisst: Alles, was der einzelne Nutzer im Netz kommuniziert, jeder Google-Klick, jeder Facebook-Eintrag wird gespeichert, um Personenprofile – digitale Zwillinge – zu erstellen. Und mit ihnen zu handeln, für Werbezwecke, zur Meinungsmanipulation und Kontrolle, […] der Handel mit den digitalen Zwillingen [ist] ein Milliardengeschäft. - Big data means: Everything that the individual user communicates on the net, every Google click, every Facebook entry is stored to create personal profiles - digital twins. And to trade them for advertising purposes, to manipulate and control opinion, [...] trading with the digital twins [is] a billion-dollar business,” ibid. p. 2
5  The programme “Hart aber fair” with the presenter Plasberg was a propaganda campaign for digitalisation in schools - with Covid-19 as a kind of 9/11 for it, so to speak; coupled with accusations against the teachers. There was not a single critical tone on digitalisation. A relatively young, dynamic digitalisation power woman from an association called “Digitization for All” was free to comment in detail in the second half of the programme and forwarded by the presenter, and everyone in the programme was in sync, including Ms. Eisenmann, Minister of Education of Baden-Württemberg.https://www1.wdr.de/daserste/hartaberfair/videos/video-kinder-und-eltern-zuletzt-scheitern-schulen-an-corona-102.html.
6  “Bertelsmann bosses Jörg Dräger and Ralph Müller-Eiselt write that the software ‘Knewton durchleuchtet jeden, der das Lernprogramm nutzt. Die Software beobachtet und speichert minutiös, was, wie und in welchem Tempo ein Schüler lernt. Jede Reaktion des Nutzers, jeder Mausklick und jeder Tastenanschlag, jede richtige und jede falsche Antwort, jeder Seitenaufruf und jeder Abbruch wird erfasst. - Knewton screens everyone who uses the learning programme. This software meticulously observes and stores what, how and at what pace a student learns. Every user reaction, every mouse click and keystroke, every correct and incorrect answer, every page view and every abort is recorded,’ in: Hensinger, op. cit.
7  Yvonne Hofstetter, born in 1966, lawyer, began her career in leading international companies in the information technology and defense industry in 1999. From 2009 to 2019, she was Managing Director of Teramark Technologies GmbH, a company specialising in the intelligent analysis of Big Data. Today, she is primarily active as a publicist and keynote speaker on the topic of digitalisation. In 2014 she published “Sie wissen alles – They know everything”, followed by “Das Ende der Demokratie - The End of Democracy” in 2016 - both books became bestsellers. In 2018 she was awarded the 53rd Theodor Heuss Prize and in 2019 she was appointed member of the Chatham House Commission on Democracy and Technology in Europe.

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