Student Debt Likely to Rise when Colleges Add Alexa


For the past decade, the first and second editions of Interpersonal Divide have tracked technology purchases by universities, and all of them resulted in the same unfortunate outcome, adding costs directly or indirectly to student debt.

And now we have three universitiesArizona State, Northeastern and St. Louis universities–making the same questionable decisions, only this time, inviting Alexa to interact with and engage students, all in the belief that this will enhance the student experience.
The decision has been controversial in some quarters. Consider Barbara Fister’s astute questions about privacy, published in Inside Higher Ed:

How much information is shared with college staff? How much is shared with Amazon? Can students purge information from its history? Can campus police or other law enforcement use recordings in an investigation? Can the policy be read in under 30 minutes and understood without a JD? What about people who didn’t agree to the policy but are captured as they visit the student who lives with an Echo? What do you do if some joker visits your room and orders up fifteen pizzas to be charged to your credit card?

I would add to that list of questions the potential violations associated with the Family Rights and Privacy Act, which protects student records. How about roommates or visiting parents and friends overhearing grades?

Cost is my main concern, as Alexa is programmed for profit rather than for pedagogy.

With student debt now at the $1.5 trillion mark, we continue to disenfranchise generations in the belief that consumer technology promotes education rather than corporate revenue.
I have been tracking this since 2008.

In 2005, in Inside Higher Ed, I was among the first to criticize Duke’s iPOD giveaway to 1,650 first-year students. In an essay titled “The Medium is the Moral,” I wrote: “Almost immediately, the ‘iPod First-Year Experience’ was dubbed a trendy gimmick, and the university went on the defensive, emphasizing that the Apple music player was the device of choice for a variety of educational tasks meant to keep pace with a mobile generation of learners.”

In 2008, in an essay titled “Harsh Realities About Virtual Ones,” I wrote: “Rising costs of a college degree at our wireless colleges and universities have resulted in increasing public scrutiny, student debt and budget models based on marketing rather than pedagogical concepts. Academe’s insatiable investment in virtual worlds, social networks and other consumer applications is a benchmark of how far we will go and how much money we will spend in the name of engagement.”

My Chronicle of Higher Education articles also addressed this issue throughout the years:

Facing the Facebook,” 23 January 2006. One of the first essays about Facebook use and misuse in academia.

Distractions in the Wireless Classroom,” 26 January 2007. Another glimpse into one of the earliest pieces about wireless technology undermining pedagogy.

Second Thoughts About Second Life,”  14 September 2007. A look into the consequences and expenses of institutions requiring or recommending classes participate in virtual worlds, adding to the cost of a college degree.

Second Life, Revisited,” 12 November 2007. A more in-depth look into issues like harassment in virtual worlds and whether institutions could be held liable.

Classroom Clickers and the Cost of Technology,” 5 December 2008. The added cost of requiring students to purchase what amounted to a TV-like remote control meant to foster engagement.

Reduce the Technology, Rescue Your Job,” 9 November 2009. How costs of corporate technology not only increase student debt but decrease funds for teacher salaries.

These are but a sampling of my critique of university administrators failing to understand the nature of technology. Developed by military to surveil and advanced by business to sell, consumer gadgets like Alexa do both simultaneously to reap profit for mega corporations.

We’ll close with an excerpt from Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine that addresses this effect:

Throughout Interpersonal Divide we have argued that data define us more now than ever based on delivery systems that surveil and distract us around the clock. Students, in particular, often fail to deliberate the impact of overuse on their psyches as well as the digital consumerism that defines their mores and generation. Mediated communication isolates as much as it collaborates, insulates as it innovates. Without interpersonal engagement, Digital Natives will lose authentic connectedness that is the chief attribute of physical community.

Perhaps that paragraph should have been directed at university administrations that believe the hype of digital devices providing a virtual connection with their constituents.

As Barbara Fister astutely observers in her Inside Higher Ed essay, “Eventually, proponents hope they will be able to answer highly personalized questions – “what grade did I get on my chemistry test?” – and even become personal tutors. Because going to college is all about spending time in your room talking to a sentient hockey puck.”

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