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Millions of Facebook users were profiled by Cambridge Analytica without their knowledge and that public disclosure has heightened everyone’s awareness of not only the trend to “personality profiling,’ but the potential for massive invasion of privacy. These controversial actions have exposed the scope of Big Data and the wider aspirations of the data analytics industry to probe into the “hidden depths of people.” It has also, as U.K. expert Ben Williamson has reminded us, tipped us off about the growing trend toward personality measurement in K-12 and post-secondary education.

Williamson’s 2017 book, Big Data in Education, sounded the alert that the collection and analysis of more personal information from schoolchildren will be a defining feature of education in coming years. And just as the Facebook debacle raises public concerns about the use of personal data, a new international test of ten and 15-year-olds is to be introduced by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – a powerful influence on national education policies at a global scale.  Almost without being detected, it is also emerging as a key component of the current Ontario Student “Well-Being” Assessment, initially piloted from 2014 to 2016 by Ontario People for Education as the core objective of its Measuring What Matters project.

Most data collected about students since the 1990s has came from conventional international, national and provincial examinations of knowledge and cognitive skills. Preparing students for success in the 21st century workplace has been a major driver of most initiatives in testing and accountability.  International test results such as OECD’s Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) have also become surrogate measures of the future economic potential of nations, feeding a global education race among national education systems.

The advent of Big Data is gradually transforming the nature of student assessment. While the initial phase was focused on stimulating competitive instincts and striving for excellence, more recent initiatives are seeking to “broaden the focus of student assessment” to include what is termed “social and emotional learning (SEL).” Much of the motivation is to secure some economic advantage, but that is now being more broadly defined to help mould students committed to more than individual competitiveness.  With the capacity to collect more “intimate” data about social and emotional skills to measure personality, education policymakers are devising curriculum and assessment programmes to improve personality scores. Despite the Cambridge Analytica controversy, personality data is well on the way to being used in education to achieve a variety of competing political objectives.

The ‘Big Five’ of Personality Profiling

The science of the psychographic profiling employed by Cambridge Analytica is hotly contested. It is, however, based on psychological methods that have a long history for measuring and categorizing people by personality. At its core is a psychological model called the “five factor model” of personality – or the “Big Five.” These include “openness”, “conscientiousness”, “extroversion”, “agreeableness” and “neuroticism” (OCEAN). Personality theorists believe these categories are suitable for classifying the full range of human personalities. Psychologists have invented instruments such as the so-called ‘Big Five Inventory’  to capture OCEAN data for personality modelling.

Advent of Stealth Assessment

The upcoming 2018 OECD PISA test will include, for the first time, a battery of questions aimed at assessing “global competencies” with a distinct SEL orientation. In 2019, the OECD plans to launch its international Study of Social and Emotional Learning  Designed as a computer-based self-completion questionnaire, at its core the test is a modified version of the Big Five Inventory. The OECD version maps exactly onto the five factor personality categories with “emotional stability” substituted in place of “neuroticism.” When implemented, the social and emotional skills test will assess students against each of the Big Five categories.

The OECD Education Skills experts, working in collaboration with Pearson International, firmly believe that social and emotional skills are important predictors of educational progress and future workplace performance. Large-scale personality data is clearly seen by the OECD to be predictive of a country’s potential social and economic progress. Although both the OECD and the Ontario Student Well-Being advocates both claim that it is strictly a test of social and emotional skills, Williamson claims such projects employ the same family of methods used in the Cambridge Analytica personality quiz. Upon closer examination, the same psychological assumptions and personality assessment methods underpin most of the latest education ventures.

The OECD is already a powerful influence on the moulding of national education policies. Its PISA testing has reshaped school curricula, assessments and whole systems in the global education race.  It is increasingly likely that its emphasis on personality testing will, once again, reshape education policy and school practices. Just as PISA has influenced a global market in products to support the core skills of literacy, numeracy and science tested by the assessment, the same is now occurring around SEL and personality development.  Canada’s provincial and territorial ministers of education, working under the auspices of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC) have not only endorsed the OECD’s  proposed “global competencies,” but proposed a variation of their own to guide assessment policy.

The Ontario Student Assessment initiative, announced September 6, 2017, deserves closer scrutiny through the lens of datafication and personality profiling. It’s overarching goal bears repeating: “Update provincial assessment and reporting practices, including EQAO, to make sure they are culturally relevant, measure a wider range of learning, and better reflect student well-being and equity.”  Founder of People for Education Annie Kidder hailed the plan for “embedding” the “transferable skills” and positioning Ontario to take “a leading role in the global movement toward broader goals for education and broader measures of success in our schools.”

Critics of large-scale student assessments are quick to identify the underlying influence of “globalization” and the oft-stated goal  of preparing students for the highly competitive “21st century workplace.”  It can be harder to spot currents moving in the opposite direction and heavily influenced by what Kathryn Ecclestone and Denis Hayes aptly termed the “therapeutic education ethos.” Ten years ago, they flagged the rise of  a “therapeutic education” movement exemplified by classroom activities and programs, often branded as promoting ‘mindfulness,’ which pave the way for “coaching appropriate emotions” and transform education into a disguised form of “social engineering” aimed at producing “emotionally literate citizens” who are notably “happy” and experience “emotional well-being.”

Preparing students to be highly competitive human beings or to be creative and cooperative individuals is risking re-framing public education in terms of personality modification, driven by ideological motivations, rather than the pursuit of meaningful knowledge and understanding. It treats children as ‘guinea pigs’ engaged in either market competition preparation or social engineering, and may well stand in the way of classroom teachers pursuing their own evidence-based, knowledge-centred curriculum aims.

Appropriating and misusing personality data by Facebook and Cambridge Analytica led to a significant world-wide public backlash. In education, however, tests and technologies to measure student personality, according to Williamson, are passing unchallenged. It is equally controversial to capture and mine students’ personality data with the goal of shaping students to “fit into” the evolving global marketplace.  Stealth assessment has arrived and being forewarned is forearmed.

Why is education embracing data mining and personality profiling for schoolchildren? What are the connections between Facebook data mining and recent social-and-emotional learning assessment initiatives?  Should students and parents be advised, in advance, when student data is being minded and mapped against personality types?  Why have Canadian assessment projects like the Ontario Measuring What Matters- Student Well-Being initiative escaped close scrutiny?  Should we be more vigilant in tracking and monitoring the use and abuse of Big Data in education? 

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