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My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part VIII — Who Teaches the Teachers?

Posted in Free/Libre Software, GNU/Linux, Google, Microsoft at 3:24 pm by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

By Dr. Andy Farnell

Series parts:

  1. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part I — 2021 in Review
  2. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part II — Impact of a ‘COVID Year’
  3. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part III — Lost and Found; Losing the Mobile Phone (Cellphone)
  4. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part IV — Science or Scientism?
  5. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part V — Change in Societal Norms and Attitudes
  6. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part VI — The Right Words
  7. My Year as a Digital Vegan — Part VII — Staying the Course and Fake It Till You Make It?
  8. YOU ARE HERE ☞ Who Teaches the Teachers?

Some teachers

Summary: Dr. Andy Farnell explains the oft-overlooked, oft-ignored, oft-forgotten problems associated with outsourcing schools to tech monopolies and, by doing so, giving unjust control to surveillance-centric firms (usually foreign if not hostile to one’s country) over children’s lives and their future

Taking back tech in education is a major challenge for everyone in digital rights.

Being a teacher, and also a parent, many of my battles for fair and ethical technology are within educational institutions. I’ve been raising awareness of digitally mediated abuse in schools and universities, such as invasive student monitoring and the degeneration of our schools’ privacy and integrity as Google and Microsoft “infrastructure” intrudes into places it does not belong.

“Parents have a vague idea that “technology is good” because we “don’t
want kids left behind”. Both ill-formed sentiments are pernicious.”
We all want the best for our students and our own kids. But when it comes to understanding whether educational technology (and the administrative technology we use) is good or bad for them I think we are clueless, and we ought to admit that.

Parents have a vague idea that “technology is good” because we “don’t want kids left behind”. Both ill-formed sentiments are pernicious. We should want our children to learn about technology, not be taught by it. And “being left behind” is not a warning, it’s a threat. Teachers think that all and any technology is unquestionably good. The myth of digital literacy uber alles, being an unqualified good for the economy, has remained unexamined since the 1980s. We conflate mere exposure to tech with understanding, and with life value.

Free but restricted entryI’ve pushed back a lot against the disgraceful scam that is “Turnitin”, first criticised by Dutch technology writer Hans de Zwart as the plagiarism monopolist, with onerous terms that demand a “royalty-free, perpetual, worldwide, irrevocable license” to students’ works. Turnitin is the poster child for everything wrong with careless application of “algorithms” to human trust problems.

For one thing, plagiarism detectors are like “lie detectors”. Although the theory looks impressive, in reality they are merely intimidation devices, as Bayesian Analysis with first order Markov chaining produces a laughable avalanche of false positives. They are bad algorithms that effect a disproportionately negative impact on the lives of young people, almost always without their explicit consent.

“Digital Veganism is a family thing too.”Far from improving student behaviour we encourage an assignment cheating arms-race that feeds essay mills. I design assignments such that we don’t need to worry about plagiarism, make sure that, wherever possible, automatic submission is unchecked in Moodle systems, and explicitly warn my students where I think their rights are being violated.

I’ve written about the flexibility, equality and low-bandwidth ecological benefits of text based teaching methods – amidst which came the unexpected demise of Freenode.

Digital Veganism is a family thing too. This year a moment of great pride has been watching my daughter log onto her Unix system with her username and non-trivial password, then type on the command line to play her favourite music. She’s also been helping me teach some classes, and chastising adults pawing their smartphones for “not paying attention to their children”.

Careful technological parenting makes its demands. Every letter from the school about some new “Lunch monitor system” might require push-back and a little explaining to a teacher about “why that doesn’t work for us”. On the other hand, I’ve had overwhelming support from parents for kids “hacking classes” (where we actually teach Python), so much that they badger me in the street and home asking when the Covid subsides will I run them again? Demand for real technological teaching feels insatiable.

I think the sociological interplay around technology and education is fascinating. Most of us have no real idea what is good or dangerous technology for young people in our care, but we have to muddle through and pretend we do. Especially for teachers – why should they? Most will just uncritically use the tools they are told to 3.

The way that technically disenfranchised adults vicariously shrug their heteronomy via kids is astonishing. In some ways it’s heartwarming, in that we still believe they can build a better future and be more courageous than us. But it’s also pitiful. This happens when we say “Kids are whizzes, they know all about technology”, or “Don’t worry they will just figure it out”. This is dangerous romanticism and shrugging of responsibility. I wrote about this complex psychology in Digital Vegan, citing real examples from social work in which “role reversal” takes place and children are forced to “be the adult” in a world where the actual grown-ups have given up 4.

“Teaching children to take control of technology, to master it, use it to express their creative and intellectual energy, and to explore a library of carefully curated knowledge is what we can achieve.”Because of Covid again this year I was unable to attend ICICTE, the unbelievably cool Greek conference where freethinking teachers, sysadmins and researchers come to share ideas on using technology creatively for teaching. You’ll appreciate, I have a lot of amazing arguments there with people who disagree with me. And then we get drunk together until 4am. There’s a lot more work to do with advancing the idea of “Digital Self Defence” as an approach for kids as young as five.

Teaching children to take control of technology, to master it, use it to express their creative and intellectual energy, and to explore a library of carefully curated knowledge is what we can achieve.

Luring children into a lifetime of helpless dependency on expensive products that work as dark magic, over which they have no control, which expose them to hostile entities and damaging ideas, all while allowing corporate data vampires to juice their souls dry is what we have achieved. And it’s a deplorable tragedy we should be ashamed of.

“Luring children into a lifetime of helpless dependency on expensive products that work as dark magic, over which they have no control, which expose them to hostile entities and damaging ideas, all while allowing corporate data vampires to juice their souls dry is what we have achieved.”Parents nod mindlessly to the platitudes and empty “assurances” given by heads or school boards, yet no-one involved has the requisite technical knowledge to make or evaluate such assurances.

Administrators literally say stuff like; “I can assure you this software is absolutely safe.”

So ask them;

“Do you have any knowledge of cybersecurity?”


“Do you know who wrote the application?”


“Do you know if it uses a client or server-side model?”

“Err, No.”

“Do you know where data is stored?”

[embarrassing silence]

“Have you read the source code?”

[embarrassing silence]

“Have you any basis whatsoever to feel you can sincerely
offer me any assurances?”

[long embarrassing silence]… “No.”

Here’s a little problem;

Anyone who has opened a newspaper in the past twenty years should have a little enough knowledge of cybersecurity to know that applications written by convicted criminals store your child’s data outside the school and that nobody has ever seen the extremely-badly written source code, and so nobody can attest to its safety.

So, with respect, one must say:

“please don’t embarrass us both by claiming you can offer  assurances”.

Most-times though, the conversation is more like;

“I can give you assurances that this software is absolutely safe.”

“Oh, assurances, why didn’t you say so. You’re obviously some kind of expert. Please sell my kid’s life to corporate monsters”

By tacit conspiracy of avoidance we construct a “theatre of fake understanding”. It is a folly of overconfident negligence that puts our children at risk. I am staggered that, other than parents who work in IT or security, so few of the other parents at my child’s school are educated on the issues. They are aware of the issues, but that isn’t the same. Strange confusions of 5G virus or radiation risks are unhelpful.

All are made fools by the salesmen, Microsoft and Google lobbyists who want to exploit the lives of our children. I believe more and more that corporate edu-tech is utterly unfit for purpose, offers no substantial advantages, has no useful place in education up to university level.

I think that for school ages 0 – 17 (primary and secondary):

  • Government mandate open-source Libre software
  • Software used in schools meet the general approval of PTA board
  • Any Parent, Teacher or Child5 may audit the code and raise concerns
  • Parents unsatisfied with the security or ethics of any code or data handling have an unchallengable right to require an alternative be used or to abstain their child from a system.
  • Compatability regarding “employability” or “industry standards” should not be a concern below the age of 17.



3 Which I actually think is a problem. It’s telling that some sceptical teachers might refuse to participate in organising vaccinations (which is their – misguided in my opinion – prerogative), yet they would compliantly expose children to insecure Microsoft software that can damage a kid’s whole life.
4 For example; this happens when a child (who speaks English) of immigrant parents who do not speak English, intermediates with police, sometimes having to translate traumatising crime details like rape. This inappropriate pre-mature role is what is happening when we abdicate responsibility for technology so that kids have to manage their own digital self-defence.
5 Children learning that they have a stake and agency in the machinery that runs their lives is a cornerstone of Civic Cybersecurity. There is no age too early to start.
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