Profiting from public education’s digital nervous system

published 23 January 2017 updated 23 January 2017

By Sam Sellar, Manchester Metropolitan University

While 2016 was a tumultuous year in global politics, it also came with a number of surprises in the world of technology. Google’s AlphaGo triumphed over professional Go player, Lee Sedol, signaling a major advance in the development of artificial intelligence. Facebook found itself embroiled in a fake news scandal and the rise of Samsung phones faltered as its Note7’s began exploding. Microsoft, the long-dominant force in PC operating systems, also took a major misstep when it forced some users to upgrade to Windows 10.

Many would have experienced the low level irritation of being repeatedly nagged to upgrade Windows during the first half of last year. People did not take up Microsoft’s offer as enthusiastically as hoped, so the tech giant changed the function of the red X button in the top right corner of the upgrade window. Rather than performing the deeply ingrained ‘close window’ function it was given a new and arguably counterintuitive ‘I agree to upgrade’ function.

Because Microsoft owns the infrastructure on which so many computer users rely, they could readily change this basic function to suit their business interests. Microsoft rectified the change to the red X button two weeks later, but by then many users were effectively forced to accept the software that Microsoft told them they needed.

Big data is watching you

This is not the first time Microsoft has stood accused of using its dominant operating system to increase its profits. What many people do not know is that Microsoft has also been working for nearly two decades to help establish a different kind of operating system in education: a standards framework that enables data to be collected and shared between schools, governments and software providers.

In February 1999, Bill Gates launched the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) at the US School Administrator’s Annual Conference. Gates described the need for school districts to develop ‘digital nervous systems’ built on data standards that would constitute ‘a big step forward for both the educational software industry and schools’. This initiative was led by Microsoft and supported by 18 other software companies and the Software and Information Industry Association.

The SIF standards were first released in November 1999 and have since been adopted in the US, UK and Australia. In 2015, the SIF Association argued that it offers the most “comprehensive data model and mature infrastructure interoperability framework in use globally in education” [1].

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been a strong advocate of data-driven education policies and practices through its K-12 Education [2] and Postsecondary Success programs [3]. The Foundation’s philanthropic agenda cannot be easily disentangled from its promotion of corporate approaches to charitable work, its network of relationships with corporate actors and its active political lobbying.

Indeed, its influence in US education is such that Gates has been described as the unofficial Secretary of Education. The standardisation and joining up of data systems in schooling is an agenda that he has lead and one which has clear benefits for the education software industry. The Gates Foundation is now also working to develop a national postsecondary data infrastructure in the US, including linking up data sets across government departments.

Software is destiny?

The development of a digital nervous system for schools has clear benefits for public education, not least of which is the ability of software providers to offer cheaper and better software faster. Developing applications for managing staff and student data, school timetables or computer-based assessments is a task that is generally better suited to the capabilities of tech companies rather than governments or schools. Powerschool [4] is one of the biggest players in this space and provides its software to thousands of school districts across North America. Buying off the shelf software packages that can be readily adapted to the needs of particular schools and systems can free up resources that are better spent on improving educational experiences and outcomes for students.

But there is a somewhat obscure but potentially very significant risk associated with the development of this digital nervous system. Tech companies can use their knowledge of the standardised data systems of governments and schools to begin developing products before these governments and schools decide they need or want them. In some cases, they can even use data models generated by school systems as a resource to develop and test their products.

The growth of educational operating systems could place public schools in a similar position to that of Windows users in early 2016. Public school systems face the prospect of being sold what they are told they need, and in the worst case scenario, they may be forced to accept this software, along with the ways in which it reshapes public education, whether they like it or not.

[1] www.sifassociation.org

[2] www.dataqualitycampaign.org

[3] www.ihep.org/postsecdata

[4]  www.powerschool.com

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