Killer Apps for the Classroom? Developing Critical Perspectives on ClassDojo and the ‘Ed-tech’ Industry

Ben Williamson raises significant questions for teachers and school systems to consider when apps such as ClassDojo are permitted entry into our classroom…

The digital behaviour-monitoring app ClassDojo has become one of the most popular educational technologies in the world. Widely adopted by teachers of young children in Australia, Europe and North America since its initial launch in 2011, ClassDojo is now attracting critical attention from researchers and the media too. These critical perspectives are importantly illuminating how popular classroom technologies such as ClassDojo and the wider ‘ed-tech’ market are involved in reshaping the purposes and practices of education at an international scale. They are global, networked, demanding of teachers’ labour, and based on the extraction of digital information from schools—all raising significant questions for critical interrogation.

The purpose of engaging with ClassDojo critically is to challenge some of the taken-for-granted assumptions used to justify and promote the rollout and uptake of new edtech products and services in classrooms. Being critical does not necessarily imply militant judgement, but instead careful inquiry into the origins, purposes and implications of new technologies, their links to education policies, and the practices they shape in schools. What do these new technologies ultimately mean for education looking to the future?

Much contemporary education policy and practice tends to be fixated on research that solves problems and offers evidence of ‘what works’ (Biesta, Filippakou, Wainwright & Aldridge, 2019). One of the most important aims of educational research, however, is to identify problems:

Educational research that operates in a problem‐posing rather than a problem‐solving mode is … itself a form of education as it tries to change mindsets and common perceptions, tries to expose hidden assumptions, and tries to engage in ongoing conversations about what is valuable and worthwhile in education and society more generally. (Biesta et al, 2019, p.3)

A critical engagement with ClassDojo, then, is an educational opportunity to identify problems with the current expansion of the ed-tech industry, and to open up its underlying assumptions to debate about what is valuable and worthwhile in education.

We need to recognize that ClassDojo has huge support and vocal advocates in the teaching profession. The highly positive views and experiences of many teacher users of ClassDojo should be heard and reported—though as yet formal evidence remains lacking. At the same time, it is essential to ask critical questions of any educational product, fad, evidence or theory that is impacting on classroom practices at an international scale. Owing to its enormous popularity in schools, ClassDojo exemplifies a series of wider issues with expansion of the ed-tech industry.

Engineering ‘killer apps’

Educational technologies have a long history. In recent years, an ‘ed-tech’ market has grown rapidly (EdSurge, 2016), largely catalysed by commercial influence and investment from Silicon Valley (Selwyn, 2016). ClassDojo, as the product of a Silicon Valley company, exemplifies the changing landscape of ed-tech market expansion (Williamson, 2017a).

When it was originally launched, ClassDojo was a simple smartphone app for teachers to use to award ‘points’ to pupils for positive behaviours and good classroom discipline. Over time, however, it has gradually extended its functionality and expanded its company ambitions. ‘If we can shift what happens inside and around classrooms then you can change education at a huge scale,’ ClassDojo’s chief executive officer has publicly stated (Rodriguez, 2016).

Generously funded with investment from Silicon Valley venture capitalists (Lunden, 2019), ClassDojo has moved from being a behaviour monitoring app to a social media platform for schools and a communication infrastructure for teachers and parents to contact each other (Jackson, 2016). It provides ‘toolkits’ of resources for teachers, while as a social media platform, it allows teachers to share ‘class stories’ and offers streaming content in the form of several series of ‘Big Ideas’ animations on latest educational thinking. The company even recruits teachers to become product mentors, who then create YouTube tutorials and spread ClassDojo messaging on various social media channels. Most recently, ClassDojo extended into family life with a ‘Beyond School’ subscription model for parents to support behaviour at home.

As an individual product, ClassDojo’s function creep is illustrative of the current expansion of the ed-tech market to mediate as many educational tasks and relationships as possible. The ed-tech industry has circulated the idea that public schooling is broken—too much one-size-fits-all teaching and high-stakes testing leads to disengaged and stressed kids—and that their apps and analytics can fix it. Such a view has helped the ed-tech industry promote itself as the solution to public problems, and to begin inserting itself actively within the daily routines of schools.

Indeed, the ed-tech industry has been identifying problems with existing school practices and policies for years, as a way of building markets for their products and solutions. The quest for a ‘killer app’ is often based on hype and idealized ‘beliefs about technology’s potential’ as a ‘solution for education’ (Pinto, 2016, p.9). Supported by tech sector venture capital, ClassDojo is imprinted with the Silicon Valley assumption that complex social problems can be solved through technical innovation—while also driven by the financial imperative to ‘scale-up’ in order to deliver return on investment.

In this context, ClassDojo has positioned itself as a ‘technical fix’ for the ‘engineering problems’ of classroom behaviour, discipline and more. Behaviour monitoring, content distribution, parent communication, teacher tools, social networking, pedagogic thinking, even relationships between parents and their children have become ClassDojo-fied as part of its Silicon Valley-backed expansion. As such, the expansion of ed-tech products and markets represents the clear commercialisation of public education.

Strategic media management

An education media sector has proliferated in parallel with the ed-tech industry. In fact, some of the most influential publications are funded by the same sources of venture capital and philanthropy as ed-tech itself. Together, they are ‘crafting and repeating the narratives about “the future of education” that the industry and investors want told’ (Watters, 2018).

In this context, ClassDojo’s expansion is indicative of how globally-focused companies, most based in the US—and more specifically in Silicon Valley—are seeking to influence education systems around the world to fit their company assumptions and aspirations (Williamson, 2017b). This is assisted by a carefully managed public relations and media strategy. ClassDojo itself has been the subject of highly positive press coverage in the business, technology and education media (e.g. Forbes, TechCrunch, BusinessInsider, FastCompany, EdSurge), and the recipient of high-profile prizes (including the Forbes 30 Under 30 list 2012, the TechCrunch Crunchies 2015, and two FastCompany awards in 2016).

The positive media coverage and industry prizes have tracked the expansion of ClassDojo’s new features, and lent authority to its efforts to reshape activity in classrooms. Much less negative media coverage of ClassDojo has appeared (Williamson, 2018; Baron, 2019). Instead, the tech and business sectors’ own media machinery has successfully saturated press and social media channels with upbeat copy. The ClassDojo company itself expertly mobilises social media to attract more users—notably by promoting real-world uses of the app shared by teachers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram—which then attracts further investment.

As ClassDojo demonstrates, success as an influential education technology company is highly dependent on entrepreneurial business influence, investor attraction and media strategy. Quite simply, it exemplifies how the Silicon Valley business model of rounds of investment in constant function upgrades, relentless public relations (PR) and media exposure, and the scaling up of products and services to wider networks of users, has become a key underlying influence in shaping classroom practices at huge international scale. ClassDojo is not just a classroom technology, but an object of media attention that assists its market growth and profitability: in early 2019 it was valued at around US$400million (Lunden, 2019).

Trending topics

The extension of ClassDojo technology has contributed to reshaping dominant ways of thinking about the purposes and practices of education of young children. In particular, through its Big Ideas content, ClassDojo has helped distribute and popularise concepts such as growth mindset, grit and mindfulness (Williamson, 2017a). ClassDojo’s founders claim to be inspired by key positive psychologists such as Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth, even though mainstream psychology has contested the evidence underpinning their theories (Meads, 2013).

Additionally, by using its popular social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, ClassDojo has helped translate these ideas from the field of positive psychology into trending topics for the teaching profession. For example, ClassDojo has previously hosted growth mindset and mindfulness discussions via Twitter. This amounts to a strategy of education influence by hashtag, using social media to reach teachers across national borders.

ClassDojo’s mediation of positive psychology into schools is part of a much larger movement to encourage ‘social and emotional learning’ (SEL) in public education. SEL advocates include international policy-influencers the OECD and World Economic Forum, tech entrepreneurs and philanthropic organisations, as well as dozens of other ed-tech companies and influential psychologists, education journalists and economists (Williamson & Piattoeva, 2019). In various ways, these influencers have sought to prioritize the development of social and emotional learning in education policy, often by framing them in terms of economic returns and labour market success.

ClassDojo’s founders, for example, have cited the economist James Heckman as a source of inspiration. Heckman’s work has been pivotal in linking the development of young children’s social and emotional skills and personality profiles to long-term socio-economic outcomes, as measured by econometric analysis of labour market data. In other words, many SEL initiatives are centred on ‘human capital’ metrics, and on linking personality profiles to productivity projections, though such aims are obscured from public view by the ‘feel-good’ language of positive psychology (Williamson, 2019).

The critical issue here is that the key concepts of positive psychology, such as those that have inspired ClassDojo’s development, are being used as part of an economic agenda to boost the ‘value’ of human capital. Children are to be the subject of SEL interventions designed to maximise economic outcomes. In this context, SEL ed-tech products have become attractive within the policy domain as well as in the pedagogic spaces of the school, with the former treating them as valuable investments in long-term economic outcomes and teachers seeing them as valuable to the personal and behavioural development of children.

Proxy policy tools

The ed-tech industry has become so powerful that it is now actively shaping what happens in schools without the need for specific education policy. Indeed, it suggests that because education can be ‘fixed’ with technology, there is less need for government policy intervention into wider social structures or education systems. Ed-tech provides alternative policies for implementation. The uptake of positive psychology by ClassDojo and other companies is again illustrative of how ed-tech can do alternative policy work in schools.

Positive psychology emphasises the importance of individuals developing a positive mindset and resilience to solve problems, without attempting to confront any of the social, political and economic structures that currently shape the contexts in which children are growing up. As an applied version of positive psychology targeted at schools, SEL focuses on measurement and improvement of the individual rather than challenging austerity politics or persistent patterns of inequality or disadvantage. One especially strident critique of concepts such as grit and growth mindset, for example, claims they contribute ‘to an authoritarian politics, one where leaders expect the masses to stay on task’, whereas ‘democracy requires active citizens who think for themselves and, often enough, challenge authority’ (Tampio, 2016).

This semi-medicalised view of the individual pathologises children as needing psychological intervention and personality modifications to be successful and competitive in labour markets as well as personally resilient in the face of societal structures. ClassDojo is by no means alone in reproducing this new dominant view of the purpose and practices of education. It does, however, have the advantage of huge international penetration into schools, classrooms, and teachers’ practices, and acts as a powerful relay of individualised, depoliticised positive psychology and personality intervention into public education.

In this way, ClassDojo can be understood as a proxy policy tool—a way of disseminating new ideas into teachers’ practices at international scale, in ways that short-circuit the normal practices of national or regional policy-making and implementation. It has developed ‘a lifeline directly to classrooms. They can reach … students without bushwhacking through the red tape of school boards or superintendents’ (Dobo, 2016). As its head of research has noted, ‘We look for an idea that can be powerful and high-impact and is working in pockets, and work to bring it to scale more quickly … incorporated into the habits of classrooms’ (Newcomb, 2017).

Although government education policy is by no means uncontested, the displacement of education policymaking to the ed-tech sector—and its capacity to bypass official policy and administrative procedures—raises huge questions. What models of education are the ed-tech sector pursuing? Whose interests are served by its investments and products? Which individuals and companies are empowered to intervene in education systems, schools and classrooms? The ed-tech sector and its media partners and investors are empowering themselves as alternative policy centres in contemporary education, with direct access to teachers yet little to check or balance their rapid expansion.

Surveillance schools

With the steady increase in technologies of data collection in education, concerns have grown about surveillance becoming a normalised and naturalised aspect of schooling (Jarke & Breiter, 2019). Since its earliest days, ClassDojo has been the subject of scepticism regarding data protection and privacy. This is because its behavioural rewards feature acts as a system of digitally-mediated surveillance, with teachers incited to constantly record information about classroom discipline through awarding points for observed behaviours (Saroko, 2016).

A recent analysis of ClassDojo in Australian schools concluded it was inducting children into an uncritical culture of surveillance (Manolev, Sullivan & Slee, 2019). Not only does ClassDojo capture student behavioural information through the reward app. It also gathers photos, videos, digital portfolios of work, and permits messaging between teachers and parents. The company has slowly shifted from the behaviour app to become more like a social media platform for schools–even the rewards mechanism is similar to social media ‘liking.’ At a time of heightened media and public awareness of the social and political consequences of commercial surveillance through social media, even the business press has turned its critical attention to this research on ClassDojo (Baron, 2019).

Just as Facebook presents itself as a platform for building ‘communities’, ClassDojo’s founders and funders see it as the platform for building ‘amazing communities’ of children, teachers, schools and parents. The addition of ‘school-wide’ functionality makes it into the main communication mechanism for many schools, and a way for school leaders to have oversight of class data.

There are commercial imperatives and surveillance mechanisms behind the ‘community’ ideals of social media platforms. These communities are ultimately providers of data that can be monetised. The user base of Facebook, it has been specifically argued, ‘isn’t a community; this is a regime of one-sided, highly profitable surveillance, carried out on a scale that has made Facebook one of the largest companies in the world by market capitalisation’ (Tufekci, 2018).

As a platform of surveillance, ClassDojo has subtly worked its way into the central operating systems of schooling, shaping how teachers observe, think about, record and report student behaviour. In other words, it turns teachers into surveillance operatives, constantly gathering and recording student data within the platform. It is also reconfiguring how teachers and parents communicate, giving school leaders new ways of observing behavioural trends, and giving parents ‘real-time’ ability to track and watch their children in the classroom. It is shaping what a school ‘community’ should (ideally) be and how it can connect, with student surveillance based on the behaviour metrics of positive psychology at its core.

Platform education

ClassDojo’s growth and monetisation strategy is typical of the business model of contemporary ‘platform capitalism’. In the book Platform Capitalism, Srnicek (2017) defines platforms as digital systems that allow two or more groups to interact, as intermediaries between users, and as businesses that provide the hardware and software foundation for others to operate on. Some of the key characteristics of platforms are that they rely on ‘network effects’ of expanding numbers of users, the constant extraction of data from users as a source of value generation or monetisation, and the constant addition of new features and upgrades to keep users engaged on the platform.

Beyond their economic function, platforms may also be reshaping society and its public institutions. Platforms are ‘curators of public discourse’ since ‘their choices about what can appear, how it is organised, how it is monetised, what can be removed and why, and what the technical architecture allows and prohibits, are all real and substantive interventions into the contours of public discourse’ (Gillespie, 2010). So platforms act as intermediaries between users, exploit the value of expanding networks of users, and shape what is possible for those users to say and do.

Understood as a platform, ClassDojo has clearly inserted itself as an intermediary between teachers, students and parents, enabling new kinds of interaction that are framed by the reward points system or the home-school communication channels. One of ClassDojo’s most successful strategies is using social media to build a cascading network effect of subscribing teachers, and it is now seeking to build a profitable user-base of subscribing parents too. It also, like other social media platforms, ceaselessly introduces new features, content, and upgrades to keep its existing users engaged and active on the platform while enticing new customers to sign up. These network effects of rapidly growing users mean that the discourses and practices of schooling are influenced by ClassDojo as the platform itself shapes the language that teachers use and the practices they employ in the classroom.

Like many other social media platforms, ClassDojo is also seeking to generate profit from the sale of additional features. Commenting on its monetization strategy, ClassDojo chief executive said, ‘Your entertainment bundle is Netflix. Your music bundle is Spotify. What’s your education bundle?’ (Rodriguez, 2016). These ClassDojo education bundles have since materialised as pay-to-access features for parents. Its chief technology officer added, ‘It’s a huge distribution platform … to, in the long term, enable parents to be consumers for their child’s education’.

The direct-to-consumer model of paid-for additional content is typical of the shift in education towards platform monetisation models. It treats parents as consumers seeking advantage for their children through the purchase of ed-tech services. It also demonstrates how the logic of venture capital is playing an increasingly powerful role in shaping how education is perceived by parents. While education is bound by red tape, bureaucracy, mass-teaching pedagogies and standardised curricula, venture capitalists are funding models, like ClassDojo, that offer the convenience and immediacy of social media platforms.

Srnicek (2017) argues platform owners are becoming increasingly monopolistic owners of the main infrastructures of society. As an indispensable part of schooling amongst millions of teachers, the owners and investors of ClassDojo are claiming ownership of a significant part of the infrastructure of public education today. School communication increasingly flows through ClassDojo to penetrate family homes in real time. It has made student behavioural data into the central focus for interaction between teachers, leaders, parents and students. Teachers are using ClassDojo content, guidance and shared resources to shape what they teach and say in the classroom, and reproducing the particular educational vision of its Silicon Valley operators and investors. Venture capital funding is flowing to ClassDojo to enable it to scale even further across public education, creating network effects as new users are attracted to its services and contents too.

Having secured massive reach and a possible monopoly position as the social media platform for schools, ClassDojo is now acting to monetise the platform in order to secure its investors profit. In these ways, ClassDojo demonstrates how the political economy of platform capitalism has become a key part of contemporary public education. It is illustrative of an emerging model of ‘platform education’ where more and more functions of the school will be mediated by private ed-tech companies and social media business models.

Conclusion

This article has presented a critical perspective on ClassDojo as a way of identifying problems with the expansion of the ed-tech industry into public education. While recognising that many teachers welcome ClassDojo and find it a useful, inspiring and valuable addition to the classroom, we should also acknowledge that it is problematically tangled up in the commercialisation of education, the increasing influence of individualising positive psychology, the transformation of education policy, the normalisation of childhood surveillance and the reproduction of platform capitalism through the classroom.

The purpose of identifying these problems is to catalyse further conversation about the kind of education that is desirable for the future. As an exemplar ‘killer app’ for the classroom, ClassDojo, and the rest of the ed-tech market, is seeking to establish the future of education through restless expansion into classroom practices, school offices, and even family homes. In other words, the ed-tech industry is already inventing the future of public education by turning it into a set of engineering problems that can be fixed by Silicon Valley innovation and entrepreneurship.

Educational research has a responsibility to generate hard questions about such developments and ambitions. These are ‘ultimately public questions about the societal roles and responsibilities of educational research in relation to its ongoing ambitions towards the improvement in educational practice’ (Biesta et al, 2019, p. 3). Asking public questions about ed-tech and making research on it as publicly available as possible, in order to help inform educational improvement, is essential as education becomes increasingly subject to the private interests of ed-tech companies.

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Ben Williams is a Chancellor's Fellow at the Centre for Research in Digital Education and the Edinburgh Futures Institute, examining the intersections of digital technologies, science, and data with education policy and governance.

Ben’s current research focuses on two key themes. One is the expansion of educational data infrastructures to enable information to be collected from schools and universities, then analysed and circulated to various audiences. The second is the emergence of ‘intimate data’ relating to students’ psychological states, neural activity, and genetic profiles, and the implications for increasingly scientific ways of approaching educational policy and practice.

Ben previously published Big Data in Education: The digital future of learning, policy, and practice, maintain the research blog Code Acts in Education, and on Twitter Ben is @BenPatrickWill.

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