Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan arrive at the annual Breakthrough Prize Ceremony at the NASA Ames Research Center this month in Mountain View, Calif. (Peter Barreras/Invision/AP)

Students at a New York high school have protested in recent weeks an online education program developed with engineers working for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in the latest challenge to the growing “personalized learning” movement in U.S. education.

More than 100 students from Brooklyn’s Secondary School for Journalism left campus during school hours last week and this week. Protest leaders sent a letter to Zuckerberg questioning his support for the Summit Learning Platform, which is being used in some 380 schools in a number of states and the District of Columbia.

The students said they weren’t learning on the platform and are concerned about the privacy of personal information collected on it. Their demonstration was the latest in a number of states, including one in a Connecticut school district, where officials ended their collaboration with Summit.

The free platform, which offers online lessons and assessments, was developed by a network of 11 charter schools in California and Washington known collectively as Summit Public Schools, and Facebook engineers helped develop the software. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, back the learning platform with engineering support through their for-profit Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The Summit website says the platform is a “personalized, research-backed approach” to teaching and learning.

“Personalized learning” — one of the reform models being promoted by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, philanthropists and businesses — is the latest form of what used to be known as “differentiated learning,” or, simply, learning specific to the student. Today, online programs allow students to move at their own pace.

Though there is no consensus definition of “personalized learning,” and though it seems to make intuitive sense to enable students to move at their own pace, in practice, this has amounted to computer-based learning programs of varying quality that require kids to sit in front of screens for a good part of the school day.

Kelly Hernandez, 17, a senior at the Secondary School for Journalism, said she helped organize the protest because students felt their complaints about Summit were not being heard. She said students began using it at the beginning of the school year without background information.

“We weren’t asked for an opinion about whether we would want to do Summit Learning,” she said. “ ‘Just use the computer. Here’s your name and password. Enjoy.’ ”

Akila Robinson, 17, another protest leader at the school, said she had problems logging on to Summit for two months and couldn’t get help. Another student, she said, had the same sign-on information.

School officials declined to comment on the protest or issues with Summit.

After the protest, school officials told students the program would no longer be used for juniors and seniors, but that ninth- and 10th-graders would continue using it.

Hernandez and Robinson sent a letter to Zuckerberg, which says in part (see the letter in full below):

Unfortunately we didn’t have a good experience using the program, which requires hours of classroom time sitting in front of computers. Not all students would receive computers, the assignments are boring, and it’s too easy to pass and even cheat on the assessments. Students feel as if they are not learning anything and that the program isn’t preparing them for the Regents exams they need to pass to graduate. Most importantly, the entire program eliminates much of the human interaction, teacher support, and discussion and debate with our peers that we need in order to improve our critical thinking.

Unlike the claims made in your promotional materials, we students find that we are learning very little to nothing. It’s severely damaged our education, and that’s why we walked out in protest. . . .

Another issue that raises flags to us is all our personal information the Summit program collects without our knowledge or consent. We were never informed about this by Summit or anyone at our school, but recently learned that Summit is collecting our names, student ID numbers, email addresses, our attendance, disability, suspension and expulsion records, our race, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status, our date of birth, teacher observations of our behavior, our grade promotion or retention status, our test scores and grades, our college admissions, our homework, and our extracurricular activities. Summit also says on its website that they plan to track us after graduation through college and beyond. Summit collects too much of our personal information, and discloses this to 19 other corporations.

What gives you this right, and why weren’t we asked about this before you and Summit invaded our privacy in this way?

Raymonde Charles, communications director for education at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said in an email:

We were very concerned to learn about the experience of students at the Secondary School of Journalism. The conditions described are unacceptable -- and not reflective of Summit Learning’s high standards that have led nearly 70 percent of Summit teachers to recommend the program to their peers and year on year 90 percent of schools stay in the Program. We understand that there were issues in terms of the implementation of the required elements of the Summit program, including participation in teacher training and infrastructure needs. The Summit team is on the ground meeting with the administration to see if they can help address these issues.

Charles also said the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative “partners with Summit Public Schools to help build tools that allow teachers to customize instruction to meet students' individual needs and interests.” She also said, “CZI is an independent philanthropic organization that is entirely separate from Facebook. We don’t own or sell student data — and have no intention to — and adhere to the Student Privacy Pledge.”

The pledge is a joint venture of the Future of Privacy Forum and the Software & Information Industry Association, and it asks organizations to promise to “safeguard student privacy regarding the collection, maintenance, and use of student personal information.”

Leonie Haimson, an advocate for public schools in New York, has been monitoring Summit for two years and said parents in 15 states have reached out to her with complaints. Haimson, co-chair of the Parent Coalition for Student Privacy, successfully led the battle to stop nine states from disclosing personal student data to a student database project called inBloom.

She wrote on the NYC Public School Parents blog:

Parents have rebelled against Summit Learning in Boone County, in Kentucky; Fairview Park City School District in Ohio; Indiana Area School District in Pennsylvania; Clearwater County in Idaho; McPherson in Kansas and elsewhere. 

Because of growing parent and student discontent, some districts have completely eliminated the use of the Summit platform, including in Cheshire, Connecticut; several others have rolled back the implementation of the program or made it optional for students and parents, including in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

Last year, for example, the Cheshire Public Schools district in Connecticut ended use of the Summit platform after parents' complaints about some of the content and other issues, Superintendent Jeffrey F. Solan said in a 2017 letter to the community. An EdSurge story quoted a parent, Michael Ulicki, as saying he had seen no long-term data that the platform was successful in teaching students and that he worried the program was “an experiment on our children.”

Here’s the full letter from the students to Zuckerberg:

Mark Zuckerberg

CEO, Facebook

1 Hacker Way, Menlo Park, CA 94025

zuck@fb.com

Cc:  Diane Tavenner, CEO, Summit Public Schools at dtavenner@summitps.org 

November 12, 2018

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:

Students at Secondary School For Journalism have suffered and faced many hardships because of the Summit Learning program. We urge you to cancel this program immediately for our 9th and 10th grade students now that it has been dropped for the 11th and 12th grades, and fundamentally redesign it before implementing it in any more schools. On the job postings for the Chan-Zuckerberg LLC, this statement is made: 

“We engage directly in the communities we serve because no one understands our society’s challenges like those who live them every day.”  

We would appreciate if you engage with us by meeting with us, as well with the students and parents in the other states who are fighting against the Summit Learning system, so you could hear our concerns before implementing it into any other schools. 

Unfortunately we didn’t have a good experience using the program, which requires hours of classroom time sitting in front of computers. Not all students would receive computers, the assignments are boring, and it’s too easy to pass and even cheat on the assessments. Students feel as if they are not learning anything and that the program isn’t preparing them for the Regents exams they need to pass to graduate. Most importantly, the entire program eliminates much of the human interaction, teacher support, and discussion and debate with our peers that we need in order to improve our critical thinking.

Unlike the claims made in your promotional materials, we students find that we are learning very little to nothing. It’s severely damaged our education, and that’s why we walked out in protest. See the NY Post article from November 11 for more details: Brooklyn students hold walkout in protest of Facebook-designed online program.

Another issue that raises flags to us is all our personal information the Summit program collects without our knowledge or consent. We were never informed about this by Summit or anyone at our school, but recently learned that Summit is collecting our names, student ID numbers, email addresses, our attendance, disability, suspension and expulsion records, our race, gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status, our date of birth, teacher observations of our behavior, our grade promotion or retention status, our test scores and grades, our college admissions, our homework, and our extracurricular activities. Summit also says on its website that they plan to track us after graduation through college and beyond. Summit collects too much of our personal information, and discloses this to 19 other corporations.

What gives you this right, and why weren’t we asked about this before you and Summit invaded our privacy in this way?

After you meet with us, and improve the program with the input of students and parents, we urge you to conduct an independent evaluation of Summit involving students who have given their consent before re-imposing it on thousands of unwilling public school students. We also ask that you give all students the right to consent from now on before collecting their data.  

This is important given all the revelations about the numerous times that Facebook has experienced major data breaches and users have had their privacy violated over the past two years. How do we know that our personal information will be any better protected than it has been by you and Facebook in the past? 

As the NY Times recently stated, there is a huge class divide, with the children of the wealthy having small classes and real personalized learning in schools that minimize screen time, while public school students like us are expected to learn by a computer in front of our faces for hours at a time with an educators only there to “facilitate”.  

As one parent said, “These [ed tech] companies lied to the schools, and they’re lying to the parents…Our kids, my kids included, we are subjecting them to one of the biggest social experiments we have seen in a long time.” We refuse to allow ourselves to be experimented on in this way.

Yours sincerely,  

Akila Robinson and Kelly Hernandez, student leaders at the Secondary School of Journalism