Pearson’s “Social-Psychological” Experiment Should Make Us Wary

Screenshot of the MyLab Program from YouTube.

Education Week reported that Pearson recently tested ‘social-psychological’ messages in their learning software on unwitting college students with “mixed results” and the privacy implications of this should make us wary.

Pearson presented a paper entitled “Embedding Research-Inspired Innovations in EdTech: An RCT of Social-Psychological Interventions, at Scale” at the annual conference of the American Association of Educational Research.

The experiment included over 9,000 students at 165 two-year community colleges and four-year universities in the United States. The students who used the MyLab Program were divided into three groups. One group received “growth-mindset” messages (stressing the importance of effort and building skills over time), another group received “anchoring of effect messages” (ex. “Some students tried this question 26 times! Don’t worry if it takes you a few tries to get it right.”), and the third group was the control group who received no messages.

Pearson then randomly assigned different colleges to use different versions of the software. They tracked whether students who received the messages attempted and completed more problems than those who did not.

The experiment appears to prove the opposite of what they had thought to be true. Those students who did not receive any messages attempted more problems (212 problems) than students who received a “growth-mindset” message (178 problems), and those who received an “anchoring of effect” message (156 problems).

There are already significant privacy concerns with learning software and other ed tech tools. Gizmodo pointed out overlap one of the privacy issues with Facebook, namely, the criticism they received after experimenting on 700,000 users in 2014 by changing what they saw in their newsfeeds and then recording the impact on their moods.

Pearson’s paper was not without critics. Ben Williamson, who studies big data in education and lectures at the University of Stirling in the United Kingdom told Education Week that there is little evidence that mindset-based inventions will help students. He also pointed out public anxiety over how different companies collect data and use it for psychological profiling and troubling.

Williamson also noted, and I agree, that it is extremely troubling that Pearson did not seek informed consent from students who were the subjects of this experiment.

“It’s concerning that forms of low-level psychological experimentation to trigger certain behaviors appears to be happening in the ed-tech sector, and students might not know those experiments are taking place,” Williamson told Education Week.

Even though Pearson’s experiment backfired, Education Week notes that the idea of placing these messages in education software is “gaining steam.”

Parents take note.