Commericalisation and Privatisation in/of Education in the Context of COVID-19 – Williamson and Hogan – 2020
Basically, COVID has changed the educational landscape and embedded EdTech directly into it. this is likely to stay in the future, probably even in the longer term. This report looks at how this shift has been commercialised, looking at a range of organisations. There are several key findings.
● Global EdTech industry solutionism: private, global companies and a global industry has played a big role in dictating EdTech solutions to the current crisis. This includes pursuing long term integration of this technology into schools. COVID has been treated as a novel way to reimagine education, as a catalytic opportunity for educational transformation.
● COVID coalitions and public-private policy partnerships: bodies across public, private, and third sectors have supported commercial providers here. This includes global bodies like the OECD and World Bank who seek to develop a best practice for policymakers. New coalitions of multisector public-private partnerships and policy networks have formed to promote EdTech to end users too.
● Pandemic philanthropy ‘reimagining’ education: bodies like the Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have provided financial and policy support to EdTech solutions currently which again seeks to consolidate EdTech into education in the long term. Tech philanthropists have been deemed experts here, allowing them to reimagine education in their own vision and for their own desires.
● EdTech market-making: financial institutions have invested in EdTech at this time, capitalising on the pandemic. The likelihood is in the long term there will be future investment in technologies which ‘disrupt’ the educational ‘market’.
● Private re-infrastructure of public education: the biggest tech companies like Google and Microsoft have seen surges in demand to deliver at such a scale. They have integrated schools into global cloud systems, creating long term dependencies of public education on private technological infrastructures. Platforms like Tik Tok or Youtube have capitalised on it through using education as a content vehicle for advertising.
● Edu-business expansion: many EdTech companies have made their products free or very cheap for a reduced time. This includes AI technologies due to their ability to provide ‘personalised’ learning. This extends to affective technologies measuring socio-emotional learning and wellbeing and will likely expand beyond this in the future.
Klein (2007) describes natural disasters and the like (now including pandemics) as disaster capitalism. Here, the free market often provides solutions (which benefit them) to seemingly insurmountable public problems. In reality, these solutions only serve to promote the interests of Capital. COVID combines health, economic, social and political spheres in one. This impacts billions of young people via education, which quickly shifted to online learning. EdTech companies have acted as emergency respondents here, providing services for free or subsidised. EdTech companies are not all bad and they didn’t themselves create the problems with education systems that have been going on for decades but we should still think critically about how much power they have to shape education today and for the future. Being critical here means being realistic about what education looked like pre-pandemic too.
This research takes a broad conception of EdTech, viewing EdTech not as one bound industry but a an element of Capital within organisations which sell technologies for use in schools. It also does involve public sector bodies like government departments or universities. It is a multifaceted field embedded within social, geo-political and economic contexts, rather than just one thing. The research was done through mapping changes and activities of various organisations, such as offering products or services for cheap to multinational companies working with national governments from April-June 2020. This aims to produce a cartography of the commercialisation landscape of EdTech during the pandemic, including likely implications for future processes. key case studies are identified here which exemplify wider behaviour. The research is English language based and mostly in OECD countries. It deals primarily with large organisations and their interrelationships. This seeks to show EdTech’s growth into a full blown global industry across the public and private sectors. The issues addressed here often exited previously but were compressed by COVID. Both the immediate and long term consequences of this are addressed.
I. Review of relevant literature
The Global Education Industry
The Global Education Industry (GEI) is reflective of market intervention in public services. This has ranged from services for assessment to the current EdTech solutions industry. The GEI is dynamic and can reconfigure markets in response to new contexts. This is an industry driven by private actors and tech companies, often responding to calls for efficiency in public policy. Ball (2012) states that this comes from the new forms of outsourcing and public-private partnerships conducted by governments. The GEI: provides to non-profit and for-profit sectors; works on a global scale; creates competition between businesses and encourages public services to be run like businesses; is primarily for-profit for private actors; uses financial capital markets to expand; and involved mergers and acquisitions between companies (Verger et al, 2016).
Much has been made about the role of private actors here, such as their ability to insert their interests into public policy (Ball and Youdell, 2008) and how the ‘solutions’ to education ‘problems’ are designed around generating profit (Riep, 2019). The GEI combines privatization and commercialization as two distinct but interlinked phenomena in the provision of public services. Hogan and Thompson (2017) suggest that privatization happens to schools by state regulated private sector participation. Commercialization happens in schools through the marketing and sale of educational goods and services. During the pandemic, they have interconnected. Privatization is being used as a policy tool, with governments deliberately using private companies to move school online. Commercialization is happening currently in a prolific but hidden way through the disaster capitalism approach laid out by Klein (2007) and is likely to use education for profit in the future.
The dominant education policy is currently how to deliver schooling without schools. Remote learning has been the solution (West, 2012). Digitally mediated distance education has shown policy mobility here, being formed not only by governments but by NGOs, businesses, and experts very directly. Policies reflect varied interests of Capital and often apply across borders, including through being refashioned. This has resulted in EdTech being increasingly present in formal education policies, becoming about ‘personalised learning’ and ‘AI in education’, spurred on by EdTech power networks (Williamson, 2017). In the current pandemic, EdTech discourse has gone from about being disruptive to palliative.
While schools have still been seen as brick and mortar institutions, they have increasingly become decentralized with the rise of the platform economy. Pre-pandemic the idea was to move towards data driven personalized learning provided directly to consumers (Sellar and Hogan, 2019). Companies like Pearson have started to ditch textbook production in favour of becoming the ‘Netflix of Education’ for Gen Z student-consumers (High, 2018; Williamson, 2020). Companies like Pearson see a lot of benefit from the pandemic and EdTech investments have spiked due to this. While this has been helped by the pandemic, it is the result of a long term strategy by the GEI to reorganize public education as a market of platforms and services (Sellar and Hogan, 2019). This is accelerated by the pandemic which has enabled large quantities of student data to be generated. In this sense, the pandemic acts as a natural experiment for the EdTech market by forcing students online en masse. The idea here is that the pandemic will show online education as being just as effective as face to face education.
Data collection and ownership
The rise of EdTech has not solved issues with broad scale adoption of online learning. This is particularly noticeable in terms of data collection and ownership, with each platform having a different way of doing it at a granular level. It is portrayed as a way to personalize learning but raises questions about privacy, consent, ownership, etc. It is difficult at the best of times for users to understand what data is collected, why it is collected, and how it is used. Responsibility and accountability for good data management becomes complicated here too, with data breaches being an expected element of the lifecycle of data by EdTech companies. The privacy agreements are also left intentionally vague as to how the data will be used and capitalized on later (such as being used to feed AI systems which will then be sold). Students have been shown to feel a loss of autonomy through these services too, particularly when they monitor heavily (Majeed, Baadel & Ul Haq, 2017). IP is difficult here too, with companies like TurnItIn existing in a grey zone of copyright infringement. There is the issue of new forms of discrimination in the curriculum and content too, with only that which can be easily produced or coded online being included (Wyatt-Smith, Lingard & Heck, 2019) as well as obvious concerns about the digital divide. ‘In general, the response to Covid-19 accentuates the broad privatisation of schooling, and leaves many of the issues discussed above, unanswered or ignored.’
II. Mapping organisations and networks
Seven key themes are drawn on in this section which act as the most prominent elements of commercialization of EdTech during the pandemic: international organisations and coalitions; government-commercial partnerships; commercial coalitions; intermediaries; EdTech market makers; big tech companies enrolling schools; and the edu-business sector.
International organisations and coalitions
International organisations have formed coalitions to develop educational responses and recovery from the pandemic, particularly through accelerating the rollout of EdTech. Education and technology businesses have used the pandemic to expand, desiring to take a leading role in the provision of pedagogy and curriculum resources. Thus, they have used the pandemic to reimagine education systems according to this agenda and vision.
COVID-19 EdTech funding programs: these programs are generally targeted at low to middle income countries to help the poorest/most vulnerable. The General Partnership for Education (GPE) has dedicated 500 million USD to this, being used to buy equipment and software but also to generate huge amounts of trackable data. The GPE generally seeks to support developing countries develop strong data systems. The aim with the COVID grants is to develop private-public partnerships through creating remote learning services. So while the GPE is helping these countries, it is doing it through an agenda which involves significant purchasing from large companies and the creation of data regimes in education management and policy making. Other bodies such as the World Bank (of which GPE is a part of too) have looked at crisis mitigation that promote EdTech too. This helps to build evidence for mass educational disruption through EdTech. The World Bank’s agenda previous to the pandemic was still oriented around public-private relations such as education systems working with ISPs, LMSs, videoconferencing, etc. as well as government portals and broadcasting. This positioned the World Bank to be a key player in the promotion of commercial EdTech in the face of COVID, promoting public-private partnerships further.
International coalitions: coalitions of various sizes have formed during the pandemic related to EdTech now and in the long term. Bodies like Emerge Education have appeared in the UK to promote EdTech in remote learning, both from large American companies but also through UK based EdTech for both HE and schools. It goes on to give other examples form international bodies, such as UNESCO setting up the Global Education Coalition in order to promote various equitable context based solutions for education during the pandemic. This does not officially endorse any products but it does create a large database of them. These are often what you would expect like Google Classroom, ClassDojo, Zoom, etc. The Global Education Coalition seeks to then turn these solutions into ‘more open and flexible education systems for the future’, which will likely be made up of these large companies who can quickly scale to the needs of whole nations under the guise of educational equity.
Bodies such as UNESCO’s Institute of Statistics has also released guidance on how to measure student performance currently through ‘essential data’ which is then aggregated on points such as gender, poverty, and contract status (for teachers). This will act as an evidence base for the efficacy of digital learning systems and will likely be used by private EdTech companies for legitimation when expanding into new areas. Similarly, the OECD has an overt focus on the benefits of EdTech both now and in the long term transformation of education systems globally. The OECD has suggested greater investment in purchasing from governments for devices and connectivity for students and teachers, for example. They have viewed the pandemic as providing some unexpected positives for education due to the opportunities it provides for introducing new technologies and increasing student autonomy. This is basically a part of the OECD’s larger plan for developing human capital for the digital economy, an overtly political project to ensure future economic productivity, being facilitated by a pandemic.
There has been rapid coalition building between commercial partners currently too, often offering free, time limited resources to help people navigate the ‘uncharted waters’ of online learning. Some examples are given here in order to hypothesise what motivates the forming of the coalitions and their aims beyond the pandemic.
Commercial online school solutions: the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) and EdSurge have developed Keep Learning Going to help provide free tools and expert support during the pandemic. It has received $500,000 from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). Only about a third of their currently ‘free’ resources are considered ‘always free’, displaying how many companies are making concessions currently for future benefit. Common Sense Media has formed a similar coalition under Wide Open School which is a free collection of online learning experiences for children. While Wide Open School is not for profit, many of the resources it links to are. These commercial products (such as Google owned YouTube) can be made part of the planned school day by Wide Open School. This helps to direct parents and students to the ‘best’ free resources of which they may then become long term prosumers.
Public-private open schools: some coalitions are not led by commercial or technological bodies but by schools or those who make up schools, like the Oak National Academy in England. Oak National Academy provides resources equating to 3 hours a day for primary school children and 4 hours a day for secondary school children. It is supported by the Department for Education and many educational organisations like Teach First. Many of these supporting organisations play a large role and have overtly reformatory aims, primarily around getting private bodies to run schools. Oak National Academy should be recognized as currently useful but also as a potentially dangerous body in post-pandemic austerity in education reform. There have already been calls for open schooling models to remain and persist after the pandemic, which Tony Hall of the BBC says would create a new ‘public infrastructure’ while allowing market growth for commercial providers.
Essentially, these coalitions are created by ‘commercial organisations, politically-connected entrepreneurs, teacher-creators, public and charitable institutions’ (p28) and show further penetration of the market into state services, including design and delivery of the curriculum.
Private sector intervention in public education is often facilitated by intermediary bodies like philanthropic foundations or think tanks, who are motivated by a desire to be involved in agenda setting and policy making (Verger et al, 2016). This pandemic has been no different.
Philanthropy: private foundations have been engaged in venture philanthropy (Junemann & Olmedo, 2019) for decades, using philanthropy to further corporate interests, in this case in education. Many of the recent philanthropic initiatives are from tech money and registered as LLCs, rather than as not-for-profits. These companies make use of impact investing, which uses public money for private investors, with interest added as the ROI. The Gates Foundation does this and has been particularly active during the pandemic. New York State has been working with the Gates Foundation in this time and plans to use their ideas to build a ‘smarter education system’ in the long term. One of the main assumptions here is that there will have been a significant learning loss during school closures so rapid and transformative changes are needed to produce equitable student outcomes. The Gates Foundation has also funded UK based research on how EdTech can support equitable education access and learning in poorer countries, showing an international desire to shape education policy.
There has been pushback to this meddling by the Gates Foundation due to their previous attempts to reshape education policies (such as the Common Core) but it still shows the power of wealthy individuals and foundations to shape agendas (such as the solutions to complex educational issues being EdTech), as well as the ability to profit from pandemics without much accountability or oversight. This is essentially technological solutionism in action. It goes on to give many more examples of this kind of behaviour from bodies like the CZI and Schmidt Futures.
‘Internationally, the Qatar Foundation hosted a WISE online conference on Covid-19 responses to education with a keynote by the OECD director of education Andreas Schleicher on reimagining education systems for the future’ which suggested that ‘When the dust settles, COVID-19 may present itself as a microcosm of what’s to come’ (p33). There ha1s been a notion that the pandemic is an opportunity to optimize old systems and ‘upgrade’ education systems in doing so. This again is said to be a technological solutionism based approach to complex issues. It shows the ability for tech philanthropists to set agendas and experiment with state education, often in ways which financially benefit themselves.
Think tanks: many think tanks have similar aspirations as these philanthropic organisations. Examples are given here of think tanks in Britain which have essentially called for a lot of spending to facilitate more digital learning and EdTech based solutions for now and in the future. There are then some examples from America such as Brookings suggesting an incentive, outcome-based approach for financing digital education and the Heritage Foundation quoting Milton Friedman stating that educational services could be provided by private companies, for-profit, rather than by the state. The point here is that the solutions suggested are presented as if they are pandemic dependent but really just put forward existing agendas and political commitments to market based transformations of public services.
EdTech impact and evidence intermediaries: ‘impact’ and ‘evidence’ specialists for EdTech have played a role here too in compiling commercial resources. EdTech Impact in the UK, for example, have recently added a COVID-19 filter to their website to help distribute ‘COVID-19 freebies’. EdTech Impact is a body funded by think tanks and investors. It offers subscription models to EdTech companies to have their products featured on the EdTech Impact site and promote their brands. Again, this is also happening in the US with bodies like the Jefferson Education Exchange (being funded by The Gates Foundation and the CZI among others) seeks to tell schools what EdTech exists, where, and why. These bodies act as intermediaries who broker consensus on the implementation of commercial EdTech in schools through novel ‘evidence’ and proprietary credentialing systems. This presents them as ‘object experts’ with data on ‘what works’, becoming authorities on such matters during the pandemic and subsequent school closures.
Over the past decade, public education has become subject to more and more venture capitalism, largely through EdTech, basically as seen above. Again, the pandemic has enabled a growth in this sector due to rapidly escalating demands for distance learning solutions. HolonIQ is an education financial advisory service and shows $3 billion being invested in EdTech in the first three months of 2020 and projected long term growth despite short term fluctuations. They predict over $87 billion invested in EdTech in the next ten years from venture capitalists.
It then goes on to talk about how this exists in many parts of the world, justifying the claim in such a huge amount of investment. This includes detailing Pearson’s announcement of a £350 million ten year social bond for EdTech investing. 80% of this goes to Connections Academy, which is their own k-12 online schooling platform. Pearson states they will comply with UN sustainable development goals so promise free and equitable quality education. The pay out of this investment (as it is a bond) is issued by Pearson, evaluated by Pearson, and paid out by Pearson to its own platforms so seems to exist to heighten their profile and outside investments.
The pandemic has resulted in calls for new models of education financing, including results based financing from the Educational Outcomes Fund (EOF) to improve educational outcomes in Africa and the Middle East. The EOF works with governments to specify learning objectives but also data practices and metrics for efficacy. This includes private investment (and so promises of ROI) but the EOF promotes more than just venture capitalism, also calling for public private models for infrastructure of EdTech research. This is due to ‘pay for results’ schemes requiring forms of outcome measurement, meaning this EdTech research and theory would be centred around quick wins which are easily measured, rather than complex structural issues. Venture capital and impact investing have grown during the pandemic and are presented as education system disruptors. These disruptors have a long term intended impact for reforms to the public education system, moving towards hybrid models of schooling.
Big tech companies enrolling schools
This section goes through key commercial operators who have advanced their positions in EdTech under the pandemic. These companies have acted across the spectrum, influencing policymaking on the school system but also expanding into the learning routines found in the home. Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are examined here.
Microsoft has been involved in education for a while, largely through the provision of software like Office but also cloud services and hardware. They have promoted their digital services for lesson planning and resource banking during the pandemic. Microsoft announced their digital learning passport alongside UNICEF during the pandemic. This passport is a digital platform and curriculum framework intended to map onto local curricula but remain comparable/quantifiable at the global level. This was positioned by UNICEF as an example for the benefit of public-private partnerships in global education provision. It shows three key aspects which have coalesced during the pandemic: the expansion and acceleration of public-private partnerships to create ‘solutions’ to education globally; an increasing focus on data tracking across education systems; emphasis on international comparisons between education systems and curricula as a way of measuring outcomes.
Microsoft has also extended its reach through FastTrack, a way for schools to move systems and data to their cloud architecture. This has clear benefits for school closures but secures long term integration into schools for Microsoft. Secondly, they have offered free deployment of Office 365 Education to schools globally, further integrating themselves into school IT systems. Microsoft has generally used the pandemic to put forward their preferred vision for the future of education, publishing a paper on the need to transform education in the wake of COVID-19. This is in partnership with New Pedagogies for Deep Learning (NPDL), an already influential body with long term education based ties to the OECD. Microsoft is positioning itself as a provider of technical infrastructure, as a business partner for public private agreements, and as a node in policymaking.
Google has been involved in education provision since 2006 for software and 2011 for hardware. It has become dominant through avoiding procurement processes by just being free (at least for software). Google.org has also invested over $250 million in EdTech interventions. Google had a powerful position before the pandemic then but launched Teach From Home in partnership with UNESCO’s Institute for Information Technologies in Education, essentially a hub for resources for distance education. They integrated this into YouTube as well, showing educational videos under the banner Learn@Home. Teach From Home requires whole schools to subscribe to G Suite for Education, expanding Google’s userbase and data extraction possibilities. Google Classroom allows for third party plug ins, allowing for even more data extraction and exploitation. This reopens concerns about Google’s data extraction policies. Google has been accused of disguising the business model of their education provisions in the past and G Suite performs the worst in regard to EU data protection regulations in Ducato et al’s (2020) study of emergency remote teaching software. As with the other companies, Google is training customers from infancy, engaging in brand loyalty development under the guise of education reform.
There is a list here of Amazon’s many EdTech related products and investments prior to the pandemic. During the pandemic they have produced guidance and resources, such as a digital learning platform (EVERFI). They used AWS Educate programs to provide guidance on remote teaching and even promoted the use of Alexa for teaching. As always, this raises issues around data sharing, storage, and ownership. Products like AWS Cloud promotes quantification and measuring of student and teacher efficacy by Amazon, then applying automated machine learning responses. Amazon seeks to act as an infrastructure provider seeking structural dominance across many industries, now including education
Other international tech companies have been more involved since the pandemic too, with Zoom probably being the most obvious. New entrants to the education market continue to emerge, including TikTok’s #LearnOnTikTok policy which involved universities, charities, and experts creating educational content on the platform. This seeks to make TikTok a micro learning service and (as a plan) existed before the pandemic but has been fast tracked. The idea is that educational content will make TikTok more appealing to advertisers. Companies like this are not education companies, a huge part of their business is not education but they are becoming a huge part of education operations. These companies are able to amass unprecedented amounts of data at an international scale with limited transparency about data use.
The edu-business sector
This section looks at education businesses and those which have previously been tech focused but shifted during the pandemic. The scale of the EdTech business and its current boom is very difficult to trace just because it is so big. Five key areas are highlighted: online schooling platforms; school and learning management platforms; AI based technologies; student-monitoring and safeguarding and online learning resources.
Online schooling platforms
Online schooling as a term captures a number of services, including for profit private schools, but essentially all offer schooling through virtual means (Saultz & Fusarelli, 2017). Again Pearson’s Connection Academy is a good example of this as it offers K-12 tuition free online education from a large company. It is a market Pearson’s 2017 annual report deemed in need of growth. While some of the services are currently free, we can expect them to develop into longterm subscriptions. Pearson has a range of these programs, which include online teaching for BTECs and homeschooling today. Other companies like Outschool are also offering time limited free subscriptions due to the pandemic, with registration here including the collection of personal information as well as the possibility of later upscaling.
School and learning management platforms
School and learning management platforms keep control with educators but transition from in person teaching to online, often working alongside rather than completely replacing in person teaching. There has been a huge upturn in the adoption of these platforms during the pandemic with many offering extended services or free trials e.g. Schoology deferring payment until July 2020. What happens after July is yet to be seen.
AI based technologies
AI is touted as being truly able to personalize learning through embedded data analytics. In the pandemic, there is the idea that many parents may want to make use of this as it offers a hands off approach for them. Again, companies here like Century are waiving fees currently and Google has launched a child-focused voice assistant. Parent targeted AI programs could slowly replace face to face tutoring at home in the long term then.
Student monitoring and safeguarding
Understandably, there is a push towards digital surveillance during the pandemic to replace normal surveillance in schools. This generally occurs through persistent monitoring. Plugins like Gaggle Safety Management for Microsoft Teams enable school officials to be altered at signs of depression etc while services like Impero engage in health tracking with systems specifically for COVID schooling. there has generally been an increase in resources to support the ‘social-emotional learning’ (SEL) of students. The intention here has been to support children through vulnerabilities resulting from school closures but also for when students begin to return to the classroom. Again a lot of this is persistent monitoring and extraction of data from students via public-private collaborations. It seems likely this will continue into the future.
Online learning resources
This is an attempt to capture the huge amount of learning resources being offered for less than usual or for free. These usually compliment everyday teaching and practices in schooling like digital textbooks or gamification programs. A lot of commercial gaming programs have made a shift to education now such as Roblox now has a ‘learn and explore’ function to teach about game development. Key business strategies here include connecting with educators, offering free trials, planning ready made curriculum-linked lessons, and testimonies from students. Edu-business is booming but what happens after the pandemic and when the subsidised rates end?
III. Key issues, research priorities, and recommendations
Global education industry expansion during the emergency
This section examines activities which indicate the acceleration of EdTech commercialisation as a result of the pandemic. Much of this is out of necessity due to school closures but the focus here is on that which is not necessary for immediate requirements. Instead, they focus on how these actions reflect long term desires for commercial oriented school delivery. This is nothing new but it is amplified in terms of influence and market penetration by the pandemic. There has been commercialisation of public education at the structural level and at the everyday level of individual practices. The long term consequences are as of yet unclear but suggest significant shifts in education systems around the world.
Global and national, public and private policy networks
It is important to point out that while commercial organisations have taken part in the pandemic era education, this is not just straightforward commercialisation as they are one of many types of organisations involved in this. The pandemic has been treated as the catalytic context for new forms of cross sector and cross border forms of education policy. These policy dynamics go from macro to micro levels and involve all types of actors, rather than just multinational EdTech companies. The policy activity from this report is seen as accelerated ‘fast policy’ which fuses the state to the activities of private markets (Peck & Theodore, 2015).
However, the reformatory notions of transnational bodies have resulted in short term emergency response and long term reforms enabling education to recover from the pandemic. International and transnational bodies like UNESCO have responded much quicker than many national governments, showing the agility of these public-private coalitions and the further displacement of policy formation. This results in policy being influenced by powerful individuals or small bodies, rather than necessarily at the public interest.
Experimental pandemic prototyping for future education systems
It is to imagine now that EdTech won’t play a bigger role in the future of education once the pandemic ends, including in a fundamental reimagining of what education should be. Things like the Oak National Academy are becoming embedded into the future of schooling as a hybrid of public and private schooling. This is touted as helping disadvantaged students during the pandemic but is likely to increase inequity in the long term (Sellar & Hogan, 2019). Online schooling is cost effective but it undermines the social and ethical obligations states and societies have in schooling.
New private infrastructures of education
Provisions of digital infrastructure to enable online teaching is another way private sector businesses have expanded their agendas into public education. This is generally done by huge companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon which results in a consolidation of the market for these companies. The involvement of EdTech companies with international bodies like UNESCO also helps them to expand their infrastructures into new geographical locations.
Infrastructure here should be understood also as the move from the classroom to the digital space. Agreements made now in haste will remain in place and allow EdTech to reimagine public education’s infrastructure by creating a new substratum of pedagogy, management, and curriculum provision via their products. There is not one singular coordinated effort to restructure education systems in this way but loosely aligned, ad hoc activities which will become increasingly important for agenda setting at both the national and international levels.
Pandemic profit making
The global education industry has advanced the idea that education should be a market for profit making, particularly in an age of increased demand for digital services. The pandemic has only furthered this by increasing desire for spending in models such as ‘pay for results’, impact investing, and social bonds. Many products had been designed previously and trialled (like AI based home tutorials) but were waiting for use on a larger scale. Products like AI tutoring may offer more cost effective ways for parents to get extra support for their children and is also more convenient. The current model is banking on future profitability as income has been reduced (through free trials, etc) while costs go up (from increased use). This is known as ‘support now, sell later’. How this plays out in the future requires more tracking as it happens.
Digital and data risks
Expanding the role of AI in education: while AI is presented as a digital solution to closed schools, it has some key issues: the narrowing of educational goals; privileging types of knowledge/information which are easily tracked; AI training students in skills valued by EdTech companies frames education through market logic; automated decision making can result in discriminatory outcomes. Personalised learning under AI is also very individualised, as opposed to more socialised teaching.
Buggy software: the more new software is used, the more opportunity for bugs which exist. This has already been seen with software not uploading responses from students for exams during the pandemic.
Ownership and control
The first issue here is ownership of data. Tech companies often ‘own’ the data they collect, rather than those the data is extracted from. This gives unprecedented levels of data generation and access, which can be used for commercial gain. Those who generate this data therefore perform invisible and unrecognised labour.
The second issue is curriculum control. EdTech companies have established control over what gets taught during school closures, raising questions about knowledge, content, and skills are selected. It also asks how this will continue in the future. EdTech companies are going to be driven by their own desires and what they find to be valuable and the OECD promotes the generation of further ‘human capital’. Generally this results in a preference for ‘personalised’ learning over a collectively pursued curriculum. Companies therefore have the capacity to process student data while also controlling student access to curriculum content.
There are a number of key research priorities for now and the near future then:
● Studies regarding how much schools maintain EdTech after the pandemic and how this affects everyday practices/work in schools.
● Research on the promotion, rollout, and uptake of EdTech during the pandemic in low income countries and international developmental contexts.
● Analysis of country specific policy evolution in relation to privatisation and EdTech after the pandemic/when schools reopen. This includes how influential private companies are in agenda setting and policy formation.
● Research on how the global education industry is reconfigured in local contexts, including how new public-private partnerships form in these contexts.
● Studies on how large tech companies (Microsoft, Google, Amazon) become more involved in public education and their competition for dominance in infrastructure and data extraction.
● Research on emerging priorities in EdTech developments, particularly AI and SEL.
● Detailed analysis of financial models and practices which have been developed or expanded during the pandemic in funding EdTech.
● Research on the emergence of private online home tutoring as a part of the ‘shadow education industry’, examining why these appeal to parents and why they maintain subscriptions, as well as the strategies of the companies to appeal to parents.
Recommendations for education unions
It seems likely 2020 will be a catalyst for ongoing change in education policy and practice. Teachers have already been shown to have had to adapt to many new forms of work and there has been a huge uptake in commercial resources to achieve continuity of learning. Previous research shows that commodification can be at the expense of teacher autonomy, professionalisation, and work conditions. How EdTech is used must also consider regulatory and equity based issues for students. The recommendations here are summarised in three categories: research, advocacy, and promotion.
Research: education unions are important for funding research through closely partnering with researchers and research institutions, and providing in-kind contributions to these partnerships due to their unique insight into challenges faced by educators. They are also able to promote research to educators, including for participation. They are also able to disseminate information to a broader public.
Advocacy: EdTech has many positives and is not all bad but education unions should act as a voice of reason to ensure that any issues are raised and debated, rather than allowing for an uncritical adoption of EdTech into mainstream schooling. This advocacy involves teachers in schools and local government but also coalitions of public and private actors. Commercial actors must be made accountable for their services to the public and part of this is education unions being more involved with the coalitions which determine how/why EdTech is used in schools. Commercialisation of education feels almost inevitable but this does not mean it cannot be regulated.
Promotion: again, it is important to not view schooling in a dystopian manner but to promote a better future vision. This involves stating what would be acceptable and how it could be done, including how it should work for the equity of both students and educators. Standing against commercialisation and privatisation altogether can be unproductive so being able to state what is acceptable is a benefit for unions to achieve a better vision of school futures.