By the Blouin News Technology staff

FEATURE: Tech giants going ‘back to school’

by in Personal Tech.

Students use the internet and traditional classroom learning in one big open classroom in San Jose, California. Getty Images

Students use the internet and traditional classroom learning in one big open classroom in San Jose, California. Getty Images

On Thursday, Facebook announced an upcoming project aimed at developing and providing software for students that caters to their personalized learning needs. In doing so, it highlighted both the ways in which technology giants, especially those in any realm of social media, are impacting the education system — and the need for a better understanding of how they do so.

While Facebook is obviously a global company, for now it — alongside a few other international tech juggernauts — is targeting U.S. students with an array of services, software, and products at a pivotal juncture for the American school system. Of course, many smaller companies have been working in this field for years, but inevitably it’s the larger companies like Facebook that tend to gain the spotlight and almost inevitably spark controversy.

Facebook’s statement explains its partnership with Summit Public Schools, and the goal of the education software project:

We started by working together to rebuild their tool, called the Personalized Learning Plan (“PLP”), for Summit’s use in the 2014 school year. Last year, more than 2,000 students and 100 teachers spent the school year using it. For 2015, we’re supporting Summit as it partners with public schools who want to explore personalized learning through a small pilot program. We’ll use feedback from this program to improve the PLP so we can eventually offer it, for free, to any school in the US that wants it.

Microsoft is also taking an interest in elevating its presence in schools. The company reported this week that it is bringing eight new resources to education systems to “help enable individualized teaching and learning.” The platforms include new, no-cost features to Office 365 Education, virtual field trips using Skype, the general availability of Sway (a digital storytelling app in the Office portfolio), a new screen capture tool called Snip, and a number of other provisions.

It’s no coincidence that these announcements arrive as the doors to U.S. schools are opening for fall. Google has jumped on the bandwagon as well, unveiling, for example, new collaboration and class management features that have been added to its educational software Google Classroom. Launched last year, the service is largely a forum for teachers to create and collect assignments for their students. Available to anyone with a Google Apps for Education account, it integrates with apps including Google Docs and Google Drive, and now has additional collaborative features. In a blog post, the company details the new features as targeting student engagement, and driving student-teacher collaboration.

It is important to keep in mind that there are a myriad of smaller, and less visible, organizations working on elevating teacher and student experiences. Instructure — the company that makes Canvas, a tech platform that helps colleges and school districts manage their classrooms — is planning for its IPO later on this year. And HotChalk — a startup that sells software to universities that enables them to put their degree programs online and provides them and their students with technical support — is currently in rounds of funding. The Minerva project — a school system that enrolls students who occupy dormitories in various cities around the world, yet take classes solely online — moved its first year’s worth of students ahead this April. These companies are just a few of many that employ communications technology to improve the U.S. school system.

Yet, even with these recent strides, it’s hard to ignore the controversy surrounding tech giants’ insertion — some argue, invasion —  into student-based operations. Indeed, privacy has been a paramount concern when it comes to Silicon Valley providing services that interact with school software systems, and in general obtaining access to student data. The debate in the U.S. has been building for a few years, with companies including Google and Facebook coming under fire for their data-capturing practices. Over the past couple of years, states have scrambled to put together student privacy laws as parents and students filed lawsuits against those companies for illegally capturing their personal information. The New York Times reports that in just the last year, “182 bills intended to protect student information have been introduced in 46 states, according to a report from Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit group that supports the use of student data in education. Fifteen of those states have produced 28 laws.”

Google, in particular, claims that students acquiesced to the access to their data. But the issue becomes murkier depending on which U.S. state that student was in, and what the status of that state’s privacy laws were at the time. In January, President Barack Obama proposed the Student Data Privacy Act — a law that would specifically prohibit companies from using data collected on students in the classroom for any purpose related to behavioral marketing. Companies like Microsoft, Apple, and Google signed the pledge. Still, many parent and privacy groups are not satisfied.

The debate will continue as long as companies involved in any sort of social media integrate with school softwares. Bringing students online and merging communications technology with often-outdated school systems seems like a no-brainer to some, and worrisome to others. Still, the education tech industry in the U.S. has proven to be an ever-moving one, and there is much-acknowledged room for improvement.