Making Cyberschool Creepier

07/03/2017 09:09 am ET Updated Jul 03, 2017

Do you think that cyber-education is just kind of creepy, with students sitting alone in the glow of a computer screen, navigating hundreds of little standardized quizlets and activities, their every keystroke and answer compiled in an undying data file that will follow those students around forever.

Do you find it hard to imagine how it could be worse? Well, a company called LCA Learning has found a way. They’ve come up with a program called Nestor which adds a whole new feature to online learning ― while you’re watching the course, the course is watching you:

The idea, according to LCA founder Marcel Saucet, is to use the data that Nestor collects to improve the performance of both students and professors. The software uses students’ webcams to analyze eye movements and facial expressions and determine whether students are paying attention to a video lecture. It then formulates quizzes based on the content covered during moments of inattentiveness. Professors would also be able to identify moments when students’ attention waned, which could help to improve their teaching, Saucet says.

First, the software will not “formulate” quizzes ― it will pull quiz questions out of a bank of questions according to an algorithm. Let’s just stop talking about algorithms tied to question banks as if they’re artificial intelligence. They aren’t any kind of intelligence. But lets think about the rest of this picture. You have to keep your face in place, and mimic whatever the computer thinks an “interested” face looks like (and as anyone who has taught for more than two years can tell you, if you think students can’t learn to fake an “interested” face, you are dreaming). Feedback to professors will encourage them to make certain parts of their lectures more “interesting,” though I can imagine a quick solution would be to insert random explosions in the lecture.

This software has the potential to collect a whole new data set about each student, a super-creepy data set. And it can also help professors realize that they are no longer experts presenting information about a topic, but video producers trying to create an entertaining info-clip.

Here’s a quick video clip of how this is supposed to work:

Notice that in the “good” example, the robot arm of the computer still rules the student― it’s just nicer about it.

And notice the five great benefits listed at the end:

* Students are more attentive * Fewer physical classrooms * Personalized coach for thousands of students * Machine learning can use data from social networks * Can register missing students from class

Only the last is legit. The magical attentiveness feature is the kind of thing technocrats envision because they don’t spend enough time in the meat world. Fewer physical classrooms (and fewer meat teachers) is only a bonus if you’re intent on making a healthy profit on all this. If you are coaching a thousand students, it’s not personalized. You cannot have personalized education without persons.

But the fourth bullet is perhaps the creepiest― your cybereducation program will also sweep up the rest of your online activity. Big Brother is always watching.

This is all even creepier when you look at LCA Learning itself. Here’s how they describe themselves:

Our specialties are Street Marketing and Alternative Marketing, Innovation, Brand Psychoanalysis, Active Web Listening and Experiential Marketing.

LCA Learning is an academic laboratory on “New Concepts of Marketing” in partnership with the University of San Diego, California

And on their home page, under the heading of “Shades of Learning,” they list Street Marketing, Stealth Marketing, Facebook& Twitter, Undercover Marketing, and Ambush Marketing.

The company’s creator is Marcel Saucet, whose background is in marketing and business. You can reach him in Paris, San Diego, or Dubai. Meanwhile, the website includes some subheadings that turn out to be bad links, and another spot where you can “get more informations

A few news outlets (Engadget, Digital Trends) have picked up the story about Nestor, running more or less the same info (from, one would assume, the same press release), hung on the hook that Nestor is being used in two courses in Paris.

But as near as I can tell, nobody has yet run the explanation of how a marketing company suddenly is a champion of artificial intelligence-driven education. The most likely explanation seems to be that it’s a great piece of stealth marketing and a great way to extend Big Brother’s cyber-arm and add a marketing spin to whatever online courses you’re trying to peddle (LCA has a big list). What’s remarkable at this point is how few people seem to be asking LCA, “Exactly what is your expertise in education, and why should we buy education software from a marketing company?” Or other useful questions like, “How much data will this program hoover up and offer for people who want more informations about their future customers in order to more effectively stealth market whatever they have to sell.

Originally posted at Curmudgucation.

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