Caroline Pollock Bilicki felt uneasy about the new education program introduced this year at her children’s Chicago school.
Summit Basecamp, built with the help of Facebook engineers, was billed as a powerful tool that could reshape how students learn. Dozens of schools nationwide have signed up to use the program, which tailors lessons to individual students using software that tracks their progress.
But it also captures a stream of data, and Bilicki had to sign a consent form for her children to participate, allowing their personal data to be shared with companies such as Facebook and Google. That data, the form said, could include names, email addresses, schoolwork, grades and Internet activity. Summit Basecamp promised to limit its use of the information — barring it from being used, for example, to deliver targeted ads — but Bilicki agonized over whether to sign the form.
“I’m not comfortable with having my kids’ personally identifiable information going to I don’t even know where, to be used for I’m not sure what,” she said.
A joint project of Facebook and the high-performing charter-school network Summit Public Schools, Basecamp is an example of an increasingly popular education trend — data-driven “personalized learning.” Its most fervent backers have framed it as the next big thing in education, re-imagining how classrooms work and allowing teachers to reach students across a wide spectrum.
But as the Summit program and others like it have expanded, concerns such as Bilicki’s have emerged, highlighting the tension between the promise and the potential perils of new classroom technologies. Some parents, researchers and privacy advocates worry about what information is being collected and how it is being used. Education experts warn that while using computers to personalize teaching might prove transformative, its effectiveness remains largely unproven.
None of that has dampened enthusiasm for Summit Basecamp. About 20,000 students in more than 100 charter and traditional public schools, including in the D.C. area, are working with the program, a rapid expansion from a handful of West Coast schools two years ago.
“We’re pushing really hard to make it so it can go to as many who want it next year and in the future,” said Diane Tavenner, chief executive of Summit, which runs schools in California and Washington state. The network provides Basecamp to other schools at no cost, aided by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others.
Tavenner said Summit’s success — especially with low-income children, who account for half of its students — has drawn a steady stream of educators who want to duplicate it. In the classroom, personalization means students set goals for their own performance each day. One student might be watching a video about calculating the area of a circle while another reads about proportions and ratios.
Even as Basecamp and countless other tech-centered programs have taken off, there are few independent studies of the programs’ effectiveness, researchers say. “We really don’t know that much about personalized learning,” said Monica Bulger, senior researcher at the Data and Society Research Institute in New York.
Yet the demand is surging as teachers and schools look for ways to close the nation’s stubborn achievement gaps.
“There’s a lot of hype,” said Joel Reidenberg, a Fordham University law professor who researches student privacy. “In effect, they are experimenting on children.”
Tavenner acknowledged the lack of published studies on Basecamp’s results. But she said the approach, based on research on how children learn, has worked well at Summit schools: Almost all graduates are accepted to four-year colleges, and they graduate from college at double the national rate.
And there is ample evidence that the status quo is not good enough, Tavenner said.
“What we are literally doing right now we know undeniably does not work for a huge number of kids in our country,” she said. “I’m just not compelled by the argument that we need to keep doing that.”
Summit officials said personalization used to be a laborious, largely pen-and-paper affair. Then Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — who has made personalized learning one of the focal points of his philanthropy — came into the picture, agreeing to donate the social-media company’s help after a tour of a Summit school in 2013.
Now, Facebook supplies 20 engineers, product managers and designers to work full time on the Summit software, said Mike Sego, the Facebook team’s engineering director.
The team accesses student data sometimes, Sego said, but only to improve the software.
Sego emphasized limits on Facebook’s role: The project is not housed on Facebook servers. The software does not use Facebook log-ins. Cooperation between the two companies is limited to software development.
“We’re not thinking of this as a business,” Sego said. “We’re focused on making the Summit Personalized Learning Platform better for teachers and students, and we have a lot of work to do.”
But the involvement of a tech giant — and one with a history of privacy infractions — has been unsettling to some parents.
Student data privacy has emerged as a concern in recent years, driven by worries that the 40-year-old federal education privacy law fails to protect students from risks inherent in new classroom technologies.
A watershed moment came in 2014, when privacy concerns forced the nonprofit InBloom to fold. The $100 million project had aimed to harness the power of big data to improve education by collecting and sharing potentially sensitive information about students, including about discipline, disabilities, family relationships and socioeconomic status.
Summit officials say they are collecting only limited student data necessary to run the software and sharing it only for educational purposes. But activist Leonie Haimson, who led the charge against InBloom, said she believes Basecamp’s privacy terms are written so broadly that they “basically require parents to give up all rights to their children’s privacy.”
Basecamp’s terms of service allow Summit to share student data with any company it deems necessary. Use of the data would then be governed by that company’s privacy guidelines, which could be more permissive.
“It does say that we can share with anybody if we think we should, and you the parent are consenting to it. You’re giving us complete discretion,” said Nate Cardozo, a privacy lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who said he did not find the terms troubling so much as “sloppy.”
Tavenner, the Summit CEO, said she understands the privacy concerns because she is a parent, too. Her 14-year-old son uses the Basecamp platform at a Summit school, and she feels confident that the terms are strong enough to protect his privacy. The parents of just four of Summit’s students have contacted the school with questions or concerns about Basecamp’s data privacy, she said.
Experts praise Basecamp for requiring parental consent, pointing out that other ed-tech companies including Google — which has education apps that more than 50 million students and teachers use — simply publish their privacy terms in a fine print that most parents never see.
But the Basecamp terms also require disputes to be resolved through arbitration, essentially barring a student’s family from suing if they think data has been misused. In other realms, including banking and health care, such binding arbitration clauses have been criticized as stripping consumers of their rights.
Tavenner said she could not put Summit, a network of charter schools, at risk of legal action.
“We’re offering this for free to people,” she said. “If we don’t protect the organization, anyone could sue us for anything — which seems crazy to me.”
The Basecamp software serves many purposes. It houses Summit’s sixth-to-12th-grade curriculum, including lessons in math, English, science and social studies, and it also keeps a running tally of student grades. It is where students take tests and work through about one-third of their lessons independently, learning at their own pace.
It is also where students set short- and long-term goals and where they, their parents and their teachers can see their progress.
Dan Schwartz, dean of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education, said that this, more than fancy algorithms, is Summit’s secret sauce — a push to focus students on what they want and how they can achieve it.
“Some kids have taken off with it, and others are struggling,” said Adam Zimmerman, director of strategy and innovation at the District’s Truesdell Education Campus, where middle-school teachers adopted Basecamp last school year.
Truesdell Principal Mary Ann Stinson said the program relieves teachers of paper-shuffling so they can spend more time tailoring lessons to individual students.
Each Truesdell middle-schooler has a computer, and on a recent morning eighth-graders sat in clusters of three or four, reading the speech that President Obama gave after a neighborhood watch volunteer fatally shot unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin. They answered questions, guiding them toward writing an essay.
In a nearby seventh-grade science classroom with no computers in sight, students built models of animal cells out of paper plates, pipe cleaners and hot-glue guns.
Truesdell’s eighth-grade students — who are overwhelmingly poor and mostly Hispanic — scored in the 99th percentile for growth in math and reading last year, according to a nationally normed standardized test, and its seventh-graders did nearly as well.
Bilicki, the Chicago parent, initially refused to permit her children to use Basecamp. But then the pressure mounted: Her husband sent a list of questions to Summit, and a detailed reply allayed his concerns. Her children came home from school saying they did not want to miss out on something so fundamental to their classmates’ experience.
A week after she first heard about Basecamp, Bilicki had begun to soften. She was nearly ready to change her mind and say yes. But she still had misgivings about the unintended consequences of signing her name to a form that seemed to hand over so much power to a network of charter schools and some of the biggest companies in tech.
“There’s a lot of unclear nuances that I can’t possibly know and I just have to trust,” she said.