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Education International

Hidden Markets in the Digital Age: Global Patterns in the Privatization of Education?

published 15 June 2016 updated 15 June 2016
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Both in the U.S. and abroad, there exists a political movement in support of education reforms based on the logic of the market that assumes that business strategies can and should transfer to education. The rise of the private provision of public education services reflects such marketplace values as profit-making, outsourcing, limited government regulation, competition and choice. It also incorporates elements of government contracting and vouchers [1].

Digital education is part of this trend. Despite claims that digital education represents a much needed twenty first century evolution for an information rich society, there is little evidence to date that technology is significantly addressing problems of access and equity in education. The reality of digital education on the ground can be in stark contrast to the digital education nirvana, pundits suggest we have achieved. What we do know – is that business is booming [2]. The largest firms in the industry are multi-national; (with Pearson being the most prominent example) that are marketing product lines sold in the U.S. to governments in the former Soviet Bloc, Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Further, U.S. based companies are outsourcing aspects of the work (for example, technical support and computer programming) to overseas subcontractors in the interest of reducing labor costs, such as the costs of online tutors. Firms such as Apple and Google are using state-sponsored education technology as a means to build their brand name and increase consumption of their products among school age children. There is even more money to be made in big data – the reams of information about student preferences that companies acquire as part of doing business with schools. In the United States, there are national and local policies that regulate and restrict what companies can do with student information.

The reach of global companies into local markets is facilitated by technological developments which allow firms to make fast in-roads into communities while managing systems and products (e.g., technical support for test scoring, on-line tutoring) from a centralized location. In the current rush to adopt and expand digital learning, many important considerations are being overlooked including who is bankrolling the changes.

Who is Bankrolling? Education technology is pitched as addressing the needs of children living in abject poverty around the globe. Governments from the United States to India to Australia are making huge investments in digital education – with proponents often touting digital tools as a way to close achievement gaps and improve learning opportunities for economically and academically disadvantaged students. Hedge funds are investing in online charter schools because they have the potential to create a recurring revenue stream (paid for with public funds) at low cost. Big money is in play: One estimate values the U.S. school market for education software and digital content at nearly $8 billion. In 2012, the New Schools Venture Fund found that in 2012 alone, 74 early-stage companies focused on the US primary and secondary demographics received a total of $427 million dollars in funding. Advances in technology allow digital tools to offer the promise of broad access at low cost, competing with face-to-face methods of instruction for shrinking funds. There are new types of technology and platforms designed specifically for education learning management systems that move nearly all aspects of the schooling process (enrollment, teaching, grading and assessment, discipline, school governance) online. In the United States, the Internet has become the access portal through which students retrieve and post assignments, communicate with their teachers and peers and post profiles about themselves. It is no coincidence that worldwide Internet search engines such as Google have created applications such as Google School and Google Docs that provide students and teachers with “free” tools. The more students and teachers use the Internet for school, the more global digital information on consumer preferences in education is created and shared.

Who Decides? In the United States, schools themselves often are not the ones who decide to purchase digital devices and software. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, a contract to facilitate the largest-ever distribution of computing devices to public school students was beset by problems, including an incomplete curriculum software package purchased at considerable expense. As was the case in Los Angeles, school-level staff members are seldom consulted about the technologies they really need or are prepared to use, yet principals and teachers are left to grapple with the practical challenges.

What is the Quality of the Digital Curriculum? Digital educational tools used well can be an important asset for schools worldwide. However, to date, there is a lot of rhetoric and little in the way of sound research on whether and what types of digital schooling substantially improve learning experiences for students historically disadvantaged or marginalized due to their race, learning difference, or economic status. A global report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggests education systems that have invested heavily in computers have seen “no noticeable improvement” in their results for reading, maths and science in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests. What we do know with some certainty is that in order for digital schooling to add ANY value, it needs to be accompanied by regular interaction between teachers and students, real-time data feedback for teachers, and consistent access to the new technology by all students.

Who has Access to the Quality Digital Curriculum? Our recent work and the limited evidence accumulated by various scholars show that there is enormous variability in how digital instructional programs are rolled out, accessed, and supported both during and outside of the regular school day. There is evidence to suggest that economic privileges breed technological privilege. Students in inadequately resourced schools, students who are homeless and living in extreme poverty, students who are recent immigrants, or don’t speak the native language tend to have limited access to quality education technology. In this regard, economic privilege breeds technological privilege, creating a new kind of digital divide.

There are three main themes emerging from my own and collaborators’ work on digital instruction in the United States that have relevance internationally [3]. First, while government contracting for digital education is justified as addressing local needs and regional educational crises, the push for digital education comes directly from both government and big business. While advertised through language of soft liberalism, it is part of a longer trend in education contracting which positions public education primarily as a market, with the potential to increase profit margins deriving from broader institutional arrangements including economic and ideological pressures. In a policy context defined increasingly by the marketplace, doing something about the achievement gap becomes purchasing something from the private sector. These purchases (in the form of government contracts drawing from public funds) typically occur in the absence of any clear evidence of product effectiveness.

Second, the public sector is often equated with large bureaucracy and the private sector with more efficient, flexible and network-oriented forms of organization. However, the providers now “trading” in the new education marketplace are situated squarely in the same institutional environment as schools. In broad strokes, this institutional frame reflects embedded routines and rituals for the organization of schooling. The direction that some technology companies appear to have taken is to reproduce (e.g. through digitized boring worksheets, overcrowded online classrooms) the problems of public schools rather than challenge and transform them. There are exceptions to this rule, but the vast majority of poor non-white children in the United States attend schools that don’t have access to the good technology and still are besieged by problems of racial segregation, teacher shortages and limited access to college.

This institutional template for schooling can have a conservative influence on schools and keep reform ideas from becoming or achieving anything new. In this context, rather than breaking the mold, private firms in the education market can end up reproducing the worst practices of public schooling, offering low-income students “more of the same” and at significant cost.

Third, the problem of digital education is not simply a problem of finding what works. It is not simply a conversation about making sure more students get access to technology. It is not simply a problem of involving teachers and others in the design and production of technology that they are expected to use. All of these questions matter, but particularly to the extent that they help us see how technological privilege breeds or challenges economic privilege in schooling and its intersections with race, sexuality, gender and perceived ability.

In closing, it is important to recognize that private firms have a role to play in public education; they long have acted as suppliers to education and will continue to do so. However, much more attention is needed to these developments and to the economic and social protests that are mounting against corporate greed in education. The governance of public education is not just another education market. The distinction between public policy and private markets in education as in other sectors is very important and it is worth defending.


[1] Burch, P. Hidden Markets: The Education Privatization. New York: Routledge.

[2] Burch, P and Good, A. Equal Scrutiny: Accountability and Privatization in Digital Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

[3] Read more in Patricia Burch, Carolyn J. Heinrich, and Annalee Good, “Improving Access to, Quality and the Effectiveness of Digital Instruction in K-12 Education,” University of Texas at Austin and University of Southern California, 2014.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.