Mike Kwet

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”…