Big Brother set to watch each pupil

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)


The public education system is facing a technological overhaul, with blueprints planned only in the past two years behind closed doors. The initiative, termed Operation Phakisa for Education (OPE), is the most fundamental transformation of public education since the transition to democracy.

Though OPE has been mentioned in the media, its contents have remained secret — until now. Details provided by interviews with high-level policymakers in the department of basic education and the department of telecommunications and postal services reveal key insights into this sweeping initiative.

These interviews have made clear that “big data analytics” is coming to the public school system, through the detailed study of pupils’ behaviour. Computer network services are a central feature of OPE, designed to collect detailed records of each pupil’s activity on government-subsidised computers. Corporate partners will provide expertise and software for the analysis of the schoolchild’s records.

These big data e-education companies promise to improve pupils’ performance with digital evaluation and “targeted intervention”. Each pupil will be provided with a “personalised” learning plan — which can only be derived by watching and recording nearly every aspect of a pupil’s digital activity.

Such use of big data in education is a relatively new phenomenon, one that demonstrates the strong relationship between the United States government and Western corporations. In 2012, the US department of education held an event at the White House titled “Education Datapalooza”, featuring guests from the crossroads of education and big data. Speakers from corporations such as Pearson Education and Gallup were represented, as was the “adaptive learning” company Knewton.

José Ferreira, Johannesburg-born founder of Knewton, demonstrated the scope of the data being collected by e-education services, stating “we literally have more data about our students than any company has about anybody else about anything, and it’s not even close”. This includes corporations such as Google and Amazon, he claimed.

Outlining the lucrative frontier of big data for education, Ferreira proudly explained Knewton’s collection of “millions” of data points on each pupil, enabling the company to “literally know everything about what you know and how you learn best”.

In June last year it was reported that Knewton partnered with Top Dog Education to provide “adaptive learning” for grades four to 12.

What set Ferreira’s presentation apart is not only the vast scope 
of data collection and analysis, but also Knewton’s desire to capitalise on its magnitude for the purpose of profit.

Today such beliefs are commonly held, shaping OPE into a surveillance engine of South Africa’s youth. OPE data collection entails the creation of a “cloud”, in which data on each schoolchild is stored and processed in centralised government repositories. Part of the department of basic education’s cloud can be viewed at

The department hopes to use “cookies” — small text files that may contain information about your computer, your location and your web browsing history — to track pupils’ internet activity in a centralised government database. Cookies are used by many web services.

OPE couples basic techniques with more sophisticated approaches. Speaking on condition of anonymity, Herman, a high-level member of the telecommunications department’s e-education initiative,  revealed one proposal would entail the use of Microsoft Office 365 to collect data “for the life cycle of the user”. Each pupil would be required to create and use a Microsoft Office 365 account.

As pupils become adults, their Microsoft account data would continue to be collected and fed back into the education department’s cloud for analysis. According to this plan, such analytics would provide insight into the educational development and career paths of pupils in public school, extending into their private adult lives. Under this scheme, South Africa might become a petri dish for big data research, with participants too young and uninformed to consent to lifelong scrutiny.

Big data advocates maintain that the privacy of pupils is protected with features such as “de-identification” and “anonymisation” of the data. But cyber-security experts and electronic civil liberties organisations have long demonstrated that de-identification of “granular” data sets about individuals gives a false expectation of privacy.

This position was explicitly affirmed by the US President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology Big Data and Privacy report to the president in 2014. If data is anonymised so that it cannot be linked back to a specific individual, then the goals of big data education and remote worker management are, in effect, compromised.

Granular surveillance of all youth in a society has never been attempted. According to a large body of research, surveillance produces a “chilling effect” on free speech and inquiry. Study after study shows individuals conform to the expectations of the status quo when they know they are being watched.

How will pupils act if they know that Knewton “tracks everything each student does”, that Microsoft and Google collect and analyse their every behaviour and that the government is using cookies to record every website they visit? Very likely, they will restrict their expression, experimentation and inquiry to the bounds of accepted thought.

When asked about the potential effect created by electronic surveillance in the classroom, Herman responded that “children need to be controlled” and stated “they can dissent at home”. Free speech advocates say that such an effect threatens to stifle educational development, exploration and innovation as well as freedom and democracy.

Teacher autonomy may also be undermined by big data e-education. In September 2015, five major teachers’ unions demanded changes to the (now defunct) Annual National Assessments — standardised tests introduced to assess the basic education system. According to press reports, the unions worried that the national tests would be used to name and shame schools and teachers. Use of biometric surveillance tools to track teacher attendance and enforce “accountability” have also become a point of contention between the education department and the unions, as have proposals for teacher inspections and performance-linked pay.

It is not clear whether teachers and administrators will have their computers locked down and tracked under OPE, which involves the department of planning, monitoring and evaluation. Yet if pupils’ devices are monitored, the government will be collecting data on the inner workings of each classroom and could use that data to monitor individual teachers, educators and schools remotely under a hierarchy of education bureaucrats.

The education department is partnered with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation to implement an initiative called Data Driven Districts. Its Dashboard software interface was explained by Gauteng department of education circuit manager Monki Gabashane: district officials can use the software to “zoom into the learner and see which is the learner that is not attending school”. Monitoring capabilities include teacher attendance and syllabus coverage. A sample example of the system can be viewed at

Privacy violations are not just rampant in large, web-based office applications — they are built in. In the US, recent lawsuits concerning Google Apps for Education (Google’s rival to Microsoft Office 365 Education) are revealing: Google was criticised for scanning pupils’ email and collecting data on their use of non-Google Apps for edu-services.

Cloud-based education services watch and record the real-time behaviour of pupils and teachers on a day-to-day basis, providing bureaucratic managers with the power to quantify, analyse, profile and intervene, as well as reward and punish educators and schools according to performance metrics. What is termed a “data-driven approach” also happens to be management based on pervasive surveillance.

Though OPE has been announced to the public, all substantive details have not been revealed. In September 2015, the government hosted a four-week OPE lab for 120 individuals who included representatives from government, corporations, nongovernmental organisations, academics, schools and teachers’ unions. Participants have been prevented from speaking publicly about OPE by non-disclosure agreements.

According to Richard, a policymaker at the education department who also chose not to use his real name, OPE is a comprehensive implementation model to fast-track education technology into the public school system. Within a number of years, the government aims to provide a computer to each of South Africa’s 12-million pupils on a “one-to-one” model. Tens of thousands of schoolchildren have already received tablets through the Gauteng “Paperless Classrooms” initiative.

The government mandates a policy preference for free and open source software (FOSS) in the public sector. High-quality, user-friendly FOSS operating systems such as Ubuntu GNU/Linux are available and offer scalable support services from companies that include Canonical and SUSE Linux. GNU/Linux has been initiated in schools in rural Eastern Cape and Limpopo.

Whistle-blower Edward Snowden maintains that FOSS is “the last lighthouse” for digital freedom and that his National Security Agency leaks exposing US mass surveillance practices could not have been possible without the use of FOSS.

FOSS may not be a serious consideration for OPE deployments, despite government policy. Instead, Silicon Valley corporations seeking to profit from the surveillance of South African education are making inroads. This, combined with a government initiative to join them, has drastic implications for educational, economic and human rights which have not been explained by policymakers.

OPE will be extraordinarily difficult and costly to change, once implemented. For the many millions who cannot afford much more than a feature phone, schools will give pupils their only advanced computer experiences.

“People’s education for people’s power” is a motto endorsed by the ANC, a 1980s anti-apartheid demand for grassroots control of public education. According to government sources, this transformation of education will be fast-tracked into a mostly tech-illiterate population — based on a plan forged in secret.

Do the people have the right to know about OPE and the new vision for education? Asked when a document will be published, Richard said: “The president will have to release it, and you can’t tell the president when to release something.”

Michael Kwet is a visiting fellow at Yale Privacy Lab, an initiative of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School

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