Profiting from a crisis
01 March 2020
The global shutdown of schools in early 2020 rattled education systems and provided a host of new opportunities for the commercial education technology sector to profit.
Private and commercial organisations – often operating in coalitions with organisations such as the World Bank, OECD and UNESCO – have expanded their reach as education service providers.
Public education was already becoming dependent on the private technology infrastructure of global conglomerates such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon, says Dr Anna Hogan, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Queensland. The pandemic just accelerated that.
It is a rate of change that was unimaginable just a year ago, says Education International president and AEU federal secretary Susan Hopgood.
“To these edu-businesses, our students are gold they can mine by inveigling their way into public education systems. While we all recognise public education as a fundamental public good and key driver of a prosperous future, these organisations see it as a source of profit,” Hopgood says.
Data collection concerns
There are also questions about how the pandemic heightened data collection and use, especially in a future of further hybridised education models.
The edtech sector is pouring billions of dollars into the development of personalised learning informed by artificial intelligence that can determine a student’s weaknesses and give a teacher feedback on how to direct their learning, says Hogan.
“With AI-informed technology, schooling could get to the point where teachers aren’t necessarily interpreting the curriculum, setting the lessons or delivering the assessments themselves, it’s all embedded within these programs.
“We need to ask who designs these algorithms, and what sort of expertise they have. Further we need to recognise the limitations of the data being collected and interpreted through these programs. If you ask any teacher what’s the most valuable learning experience they do in their classroom, it’s often the things you can’t test or generate data on,” says Hogan.
COVID-19 has provided a “catalytic opportunity for educational transformation”, according to a research paper commissioned by Education International. The paper, Commercialisation and privatisation in/of education in the context of COVID-19, was co-authored by Hogan with Ben Williamson from the University of Edinburgh.
Hogan and Williamson were astounded by the extent of offerings from individual companies, but even more surprised by the contribution of the OECD, UNESCO and the World Bank.
“Given their global influence they’re able to assemble multi-sector coalitions, teaming up with big edtech companies such as Google and Microsoft. They are setting agendas and telling governments how to respond to the pandemic,” says Hogan.
“And when the World Bank says edtech solutions from these companies are the best way to deal with this pandemic, that’s often what gets picked up and enacted globally.”
A surge in demand
Because edtech companies have been active in online education for a decade or more, many schools were already using commercial student management systems and learning platforms. To work remotely, Hogan says they simply upscaled with plug-ins such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams or One Note for face-to-face meetings.
But there were also schools with no experience in handling remote and online learning systems. “They were happy to take whatever platform they could use for free and make it work for a limited period of time,” says Hogan.
The result was an “unbelievable surge” in demand for products from commercial edtech companies, “particularly the cloud-based solutions and learning management platforms that allowed schools and teachers to transition learning from physical to online spaces”, says Hogan.
A lot of these products and services were initially free of charge for schools and individuals but required users to register and create accounts, presumably capturing customers and their data well beyond the life of the pandemic.
TikTok, the video sharing app owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is another new player in the edtech sector. TikTok has been banned in the US while Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned users to be wary of the app’s connections with China.
ByteDance created LearnOnTikTok, a range of educational videos embedded with ads. “They’re making a huge profit advertising straight to students as they’re getting this bite-sized curriculum content,” says Hogan.
Finding a happy medium
There’s no doubt edtech products and services helped schools provide learning during the pandemic crisis but the longer-term consequences are difficult to predict.
“It’s hard to put the genie back in the bottle,” says Hogan. She expects more hybridised forms of education delivery, but believes we will gradually return to business as usual.
“Schools are suggesting that’s the case. They’ve used these products for a period and say it’s great to know they’ll be able to do that again, but they’re returning to face-to-face learning, with the teacher designing the curriculum and implementing whatever pedagogies suit them.”
A new digital divide?
The pandemic highlighted ongoing concerns about children without access to computer technology and the internet, establishing big gaps in accessibility and equity.
Hogan wonders whether in 10 years’ time the gap will be between students who get to attend a bricks and mortar institution with face-to-face instruction and social and extracurricular opportunities, and those forced into online education because their families can’t afford to send them to school.
However, she believes the pandemic has allowed every stakeholder of education to reimagine what education might look like in the future. “There’s been this idea for the last century that schooling has lacked innovation. This pandemic, labelled the biggest edtech experiment in history, has allowed people to imagine a different style of teaching and learning, and a different way to provide schooling” says Hogan.
Because the influences on schools, teachers and students from these new players is likely to persist for some time during this transition, “we need to be aware of the level of public education sector dependence on private technology infrastructures so we know who is profiting from our children, and what sort of regulations are needed for data protection, privacy and consent to ensure student data is not exploited," says Hogan.
"We need to understand who has ownership and control, not only of data, but of curriculum and the way our public schools are run.”
The Education International research report Commercialisation and privatisation in/of education in the context of COVID-19 is available at https://go.ei-ie.org/GRCovid19
This article was originally published in The Australian Educator, Summer 2020