"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Indiana, Personalized Learning, Smart Drugs, and the KnowledgeWorks Foundation

By Doug Martin 

(for a background on what edtech is up to, please see Alison McDowell’s post here—and all of her posts.  If you want to witness the frightening scenario many like the KnowledgeWorks Foundation have in mind for American education and the workforce, watch this video.)  

Although I’m deep into writing a new book on the national edtech movement to follow Hoosier School Heist and haven’t blogged for a while, I want to take the time to warn Hoosiers about so-called “personalized learning” (also referred to as competency-based learning) not only because of the idea to use online learning to teach pre-schoolers here, but also because Robert Behning’s House Bill 1386 offers a personalized learning pilot programThankfully, Bill 1386  died recently in a House Education Committee vote of 8-3, but don’t expect the personalized learning movement to go away.  This movement is not just about using technology in the classroom, which, done well, can be a good thing.  Now a major national force, the personalized learning movement has some scary things lurking inside it and everyone should take notice.


Speaking edtech and corporate school reform clichés, the KnowledgeWorks Foundation’s Matt Williams testified in favor of Behning’s personalized learning bill before the Indiana House Education Committee in February, stressing the need for Indiana to become “a leader” nationally by creating a personalized learning system where “formative assessments ….measure student mastery of academic knowledge and social and emotional competencies”  and students “master the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in college and career,” which is “an essential step” for “our country’s education system.”

Personalized or competency-based learning glues students to computers, allows students to learn at their own pace, and sometimes even does away with grade levels altogether.  But, as even the Gates Foundation-funded iNACOL(International Association for K12 Online Learning), which promotes ALEC’s online learning model legislation, has publicly admitted, this is a Trojan Horse for more harmful things the billionaires have in mind.

To promote the online learning agenda, the Ohio-based KnowledgeWorks paints futuristic scenarios focusing on training workers for the gig economy via online personalized learning (K-university level) in the event that tech titans’ dreams will be eventually fulfilled when one day students will no longer go to real buildings or real jobs, since all education will be done online merely for credentials, and job gigs (like Fiverr, TaskRabbit, the Global Survey Group, etc.) will be done online to earn literally a couple of dollars (yes, literally) an hour, since these will be the only jobs left because of the quick expansion of technology (for an excellent outing of the gig economy scam and the real possible threat of technology eliminating future jobs, read Steven Hill’s book).   
Originally a student loan lender, KnowledgeWorks recently called on Donald Trump to “overhaul….the Federal financial aid system to ensure it is more flexible, better able to address changing career requirements, and reflective of the nation’s increasing interest in personalized education” (page 4).  For its “cradle-to-career framework,” the KnowledgeWorks Foundation in 2013 was awarded $1.8 million from Indianapolis’ Lumina Foundation, a group formed out of the student loan business “when government-sponsored enterprise Sallie Mae,” which was beginning to privatize, “purchased USA Group” and federal regulators required the $770 million from the deal to go into a “successor nonprofit” since the USA Group was a nonprofit enterprise.  The Lumina Foundation is a major player in the new credentials movement to wipe out universities and replace them with online credential-giving platforms geared specifically for the workforce, even investing in the alternative credential-granting platform Credly.

The Gates Foundation, the most well-known of the edtech promoters, has handed KnowledgeWorks millions of dollars over the last few years.  Judith Peppler, KnowledgeWorks Foundation’s CEO, had a total compensation package in 2015 of $638,000 (page 45) and the group had over $59 million in total assets (page 1)

KnowledgeWorks, like several futuristic promoters of extreme edtech, has some frightening ideas, which Indiana House member Robert Behning may or may not know about.  Here is a very rough excerpt on KnowledgeWorks from my new book-in-progress.  As you read, keep in mind, too, that although much of the edtech hype is pure pseudoscience for marketing purposes, so-called “smart drugs” are in vogue in Silicon Valley now, and research on biosensors and biometrics in education, as well as using electric shock to improve math skills is already taking place.


BUT KNOWLEDGEWORKS HAS an even scarier agenda, having now joined the futuristic tech movement which is sneaking into edtech circles.  In a brave new world where students practice “anytime, anywhere learning,” educators become “Learning Pathway Designers,” “Micro-Credential Analysts,” “Data Stewarts,” and “Pop-Up Reality Producers” (who take their lead “from the positive aspects of both rave culture and massive cultural events such as Burning Man”) (page 8), and “Every Experience” is “a Credential” (page 2), the edtech futurist KnowledgeWorks Foundation hopes that nootropics, better known as “smart drugs,” play a major role in the cradle to career pipeline, too.  Jason Swanson, the director for Strategic Foresight for KnowledgeWorks, an Ohio-based nonprofit closely aligned with the Institute for the Future’s thinking, gives us a glimpse into the future school and work mindset, where school is “disrupted,” “personalized to each learner,” bent on “ongoing” assessments, and geared toward social control and “on-demand” gig economy jobs which “could push many people to be in a mode of constant learning and continuous career readiness and could increase the need for specialized training similar to that required for professionals such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, and scientists” (page 2).  In Certifying Skills and Knowledge: Four Scenarios on the Future of Credentials, Swanson foresees a future that “advances in the understanding of the brain, coupled with ever-expanding data streams generated by students,” which “deepen educators’ understanding not just of how to personalize learning, but also of how each student actually learns” (page 13) Pointing out the edtech desire for so-called social and emotional learning, Swanson says that in a few years, hopefully, teachers will “have the ability to monitor a student’s cognitive, social, and emotional skills,” “their neuro-finger prints, in real time” (page 13). 

     This data-driven neuro-finger print based-education includes feeding children smart drugs.  Glimpsing a future scenario and also noting that neuro fitness programs like Lumosity (busted, as I show elsewhere in this book, for false advertising), Cognifit, and Quantified Mind already exist “to measure and improve users’ cognitive abilities” (page 15), Swanson, who has a degree in Public Policy from West Chester University, a masters in  Foresight from the University of Houston, and is a member of the Association of  Professional Futurists,” looks into the future where:

Educator roles have diversified to reflect schools’ new emphasis on monitoring the development of students’ neuro-fingerprints. Neuro-fitness coaches now work hand-in-hand with students, parents, and other learning agents. Part medical professional, part educator, these neuro-fitness coaches help teachers create lessons and monitor feedback in order to stretch students’ cognitive abilities. When students have extreme difficulty making progress, neuro-fitness coaches may recommend nootropics, changes in diet, mindfulness training, or mediation, to name a few options. In the case of nootropics, coaches watch for signs of “smart drug” abuse in students who may not need the boost but seek to gain an unfair advantage. Coaches also help to monitor whole-student health, being mindful of how issues such as trauma can impact a student’s cognitive development and recommending ways both the school and the learner can take action to begin the healing process. (page 13)

     In this new educational world, where “the employment sector has become actively involved in all levels of the formal and informal education systems” (page 8), students no longer work toward diplomas or degrees or fall victim to annual testing since credentials are set up like online videogames, measuring continuously in real time, where “students now work to attain a standardized level of mastery for a core set of cognitive abilities, along with essential social and emotional skills such as determination, grit, self-control, and growth mindset” (page 13).  So-called “mind scouts” examine students’ credentials and help them with career training in the gig economy or match their neuro-finger prints with “micro-credentials and nano-credentials” programs (page 14), so that for post-secondary education “the skills gap that employers once observed has virtually disappeared because graduates applying for jobs now display deep mastery of skills as a result of matching credential paths with neuro-fingerprints.  Now, a smaller pool of applicants with higher education degrees or other forms of post-secondary credentials is highly desirable” (page 14). 

     Swanson also notes a possible smart drug epidemic in the future, without discussing the bad idea of throwing drugs at students at all, the big boon to Big Pharma, or how making learning into a videogame creates another avenue for youth addiction:

The more stringent post-secondary credential market has also led to a high degree of nootropic abuse, as students try to gain an edge or alter their brain patterns in an attempt to gain acceptance into programs that their neuro-fingerprint may not permit. In an attempt to curtail such abuse, many credentialing organizations have a neuro-regulator on staff, trained at accessing years of neuro-fingerprint data in order to uncover possible abuse. When abuse is found, the student is removed from the program, and his or her neuro-fingerprint is flagged. Students with previous offenses are often subject to a thorough smart drug evaluation when they apply for another credentialing program. (page 14)


Coming from several directions simultaneously, the edtech movement is vast and international, and billions of dollars are being poured into it each year in the hopes of cashing in on a market said to possibly reach $252 billion by 2020.  Personalized learning is just one aspect of the movement, whose overall goal is to rid education of teachers, among other things. 

While everyone was fighting off school vouchers and charter schools, the billionaires and their promoters (many most pro-public school activists have not even heard of) and the federal government were hard at work creating a vast infrastructure for edtech, which encompasses learning apps, gamification, virtual charter schools, online platforms, biometrics, virtual tutors, social media monitoring of students, surveillance, big-data, data-brokers, hacking, social control by the government and corporations, the gig economy, etc., and the complete financialization of education (please read Tim Scott’s piece, too). 


  1. Alison McDowell12:49 PM

    Thank you Doug. It's wonderful to have more people shining a light on this new phase of privatization.

    1. Thank you, too, Alison,for all your hard work on this.