Research on Educational Platforms in Public School Classrooms: A Call to Action
by Daniela Kruel DiGiacomo, Jessica Zacher Pandya & Julian Sefton-Green - November 14, 2019
This commentary considers the significance of the growth of new digital platforms that link families, children, and teachers through the well-known example of ClassDojo. The ubiquity of platform use is a relatively new phenomenon in schools, one not driven by findings from empirical research, but rather the result of a perfect storm of popular psychology and market forces. These platforms allow for communication between teachers and families in real time and across many languages. Teachers can send pictures of children, comment about student behavior, achievements, or activities, share information about upcoming programs, and more, all via a self-contained online platform or app on a phone. Parents in turn may message the teacher (usually via smart phone), but not other parents. Although they build on seemingly established and normed forms of communication between teachers and parents, we challenge how platforms like ClassDojo create and shape behavioral norms for families and teachers. For example, what impact does the digital footprint of a student’s classroom behavior have on how their parents treat them at home? And to what extent might casual family conversations become centered on the concerted calculation of ClassDojo avatar points, akin to how our daily “steps” (vis-à-vis the Fitbit) have come to stand for how far we have walked in a given day? We put forth this commentary as part of a broader call to action for the field to consider how interactions via platforms may be shaping family relations with schools and to continue to foreground in our collective studies the more general ways that the “datafication” of education is transforming teaching and learning practice.
THE CASE OF CLASSDOJO
Created in 2011, ClassDojo has the stated goal of helping teachers to manage classroom behavior. Today, ClassDojos mission is to bring communities together and give them the tools, ideas, and energy to improve education for all kids (www.classdojo.com). ClassDojo is popular not only in the United States, but around the world: over 3 million teachers and 35 million students in over 180 countries use it.
The platform provides diverse functions, including home-school communication, strategies for positive behavior interventions, and classroom management. It is also designed for diverse users: parents, teachers, and school administrators. Teachers use it to manage and monitor student behavior and communicate quickly with parents. On ClassDojo, each student has an avatar and the teacher tracks their behavior through assigning (or subtracting) points based on student performance. From our early review of the literature, we understand that teachers can decide what counts as good behavior as well as decide how often to communicate with parents using the platform. For example, if a teacher decides that raising ones hand is good behavior, students avatars receive points for doing so. By contrast, if going to the bathroom out of turn is deemed bad behavior, then students avatars lose points if they do so. All of these behaviors are saved, monitored, and shared with parents (if they choose to opt in).
The assumption that a students education is the responsibility of more than just teachers in classrooms is thus central to the platform. Indeed, there are multiple stakeholders involved. School administrators, instructional coaches, and counselors, for example, might use records from ClassDojo to refine student behavior plans. Parental interpretation of ClassDojo records might inform their organization of childrens time in non-school hours in terms of redeeming good behavior points at home (e.g., getting a treat for reaching 50 points) and in terms of developing supplemental education. Further uses of its associated data in terms of commodification are still emerging. Taken together, ClassDojo makes visible a highly complex nexus of classroom management, parental involvement, and the generation of big data in the contemporary practice of schooling.
DISCOURSE ON DOJO
To begin to understand how stakeholders are making sense of platforms like ClassDojo, we reviewed contemporary discourses on ClassDojo, conducting searches for peer-reviewed research and non-peer-reviewed sources such as educational magazines and popular news media. Three categories of discourse emerged from our thematic analysis of the extant literature:
Socio-technical critical analyses: Within this category, scholars offer predominantly theoretical discussions of how ClassDojo is part of the emerging era of platform capitalism and how it enables new forms of discipline and compliance.
Popular media: The primary themes from popular media discourse on ClassDojo are related to issues of behavior and data privacy.
Educational psychology and behavioral research: Empirical studies on ClassDojo focus on how the platform has been taken up by teachers; so far, this work relies on a predominantly behaviorist and positivist lens, suggesting a need for additional theoretical and methodological approaches.
Platforms like ClassDojo raise a number of problems at a number of levels. First, they raise questions about the quantification and regulation of behavior and the way such quantification comes to stand in for meaningful learning. There are questions about professional training and teacher and school administration knowledge and understanding; there is little research on how to train administrators about the implications of the digital data generated by platforms used in their own schools or on how to train teachers about the data their own practices are generating. As Williamson (2017) and Manolev et al. (2018) have argued, these platforms raise deep questions about ownership and commodification of student data, its control, privacy, and student, school, and parent rights over such data (Livingstone, 2018). Additionally, there are larger political and philosophical questions about the ways that such platforms might be further enabling forms of compliance, surveillance, and control beyond the democratic authority we currently invest in schools. While we can absolutely understand the potential value of apps like ClassDojo for teachers and parents, this does not mean that we shouldnt raise these critical questions. Indeed, we find the dearth of research into how these apps and platforms are changing the accountability of public education worrying.
In addition, the central premise of the behavior management benefit of ClassDojo relies on an implied role of parents in a kind of offshoring of disciplinary control. There is little to no research investigating family understandings of how such platforms work, the effects these platforms have on norms for parental behavior, or the positive or negative effects of how being unwittingly drawn into them might shape family life. Schools frequently argue that they are in a partnership with families, but such omnipresent rhetoric disguises the assumed responsibilities built into the functioning of ClassDojo and platforms like it. Without a proper understanding of the consequences of such platformization, without understanding the long-term effects of coercion and reward, and without being explicit about what the quantification of behavior into ClassDojo-like metrics entails, partnerships between schools and families will remain unequal and symbolic at best.
The first and most evident conclusion we draw is that it is technological innovations and new markets that are driving the penetration of these kinds of platforms into everyday education practice and not education research. Platforms like ClassDojo clearly meet needs, which themselves remain under-researched, under-theorized, and implicit. There is no research examining what difference the day-to-day use of these platforms might make on family relationships, attitudes towards schooling, attitudes towards teachers, and teacher communication with parents. Similarly, there are under-researched questions raised by sociotechnical critiques related to the use of data, the value of which is presumed to be driving the growth and adoption of these technologies in the first place. Issues related to potential third-party users of data (and the hypothetical uses to which data can be put) are also mostly unknown.
Yet, while some early research has explored how such platforms create different ways of managing classrooms, establish disciplinary norms, and begin to manage new curriculum (Kumar et al., 2019), there is very little in the way of examining the specific difference the digital makes to existing teacher practices. Routine schooling and classroom management self-evidently establish norms, enforce discipline, and enact surveillance and record-keeping. However, the exact differences that digitizing such processes make to teachers, children, and indeed their learning seems lost in the attention paid to putative long-term or network effects.
Finally, we would argue that education research in general has become extremely focused on what happens in school at the expense of exploring the way that learning takes place across a range of contexts and with a network of actors and relations and practices. Research projects that examine "learning lives" from these more complex perspectives are less common (Erstad, Gile, Sefton-Green & Arnseth, 2016). Platforms like ClassDojo connect these disparate sites and offer helpful lenses to researchers interested in making sense of how learning is actually taking place across digitally interconnected spaces and places. As noted, the operation and success or failure of ClassDojo necessarily involves multiple stakeholders: parents, teachers, district administrators, students, app designers, business entrepreneurs, and others. We therefore remain hopeful about the potential of such platforms to serve as connecting tools between disparate spaces (school/out-of-school/online) as well as between and amongst various stakeholders. But, like any other socio-culturally mediated tool, we see both constraints and affordances in its design, use, and impact. We put forward this commentary as a call to action to our fellow educational research, policy, and practice communities to take seriously the charge of pursuing rigorous and balanced research alongside what has become a seemingly pervasive practice in our public schools.
For more information on early research into platform pedagogies, see www.platformpedagogies.com
Erstad, O., Gile, O., Sefton-Green, J., & Arnseth, H. C. (2016). Learning Identities, Education and Community: Young Lives in the Cosmopolitan City. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Kumar, P. C., Vitak, J., Chetty, M., & Clegg, T. (2019). The platformization of the classroom: Teachers as surveillant consumers. Surveillance & Society, 17(1/2), 145152.
Livingstone, S. (2018). Children: A special case for privacy? InterMedia, 46, 1823.
Manolev, J., Sullivan, A., & Slee, R. (2018). The datafication of discipline: ClassDojo, surveillance and a performative classroom culture. Learning Media & Technology, 44(1), 116.
Williamson, B. (2017). Learning in the platform society: Dissembling an educational data assemblage. Research in Education, 98(1), 5982.
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