"The edtech pandemic shock", by Ben Williamson & Anna Hogan.

The Covid-19 pandemic was the context for two major disruptions in education. The first was the disruption to schooling for millions of students worldwide, and a rapid shift to remote learning online. The second, closely related disruption was the entry of the commercial education technology sector into public education at worldwide scale, and its attempts to profit from the shock of the pandemic.

In our recent project for Education International on commercialization and privatization of education in the context of Covid-19, we mapped the range of ways in which the private sector and commercial businesses capitalized on the crisis of school closures. Our findings suggest that commercial companies were not only seeking short-term profit during the pandemic. They were active participants in multisector networks that are fundamentally committed to ‘reimagining’ and transforming how public education as a sector is organized in the future.  

Reimagining education

The experience of the pandemic in education has been characterized by some as a historic opportunity for reform. Pivoting to remote learning was the ‘greatest edtech experiment’ in history, claimed some media sources. Digital learning was a ‘microcosm’ of the future in the making. The OECD’s director of education, Andreas Schleicher, said it was ‘a great moment’ in which all the ‘red tape’ stifling innovation in public education had been cut away.

These imaginaries of historic opportunities quickly manifested in practical actions. In New York State, Governor Andrew Cuomo drafted in the help of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to ‘reimagine education’ for the state, and to put Gates’s longstanding reformatory ideas into action.

 ‘The old model of everybody goes and sits in a classroom and the teacher is in front of that classroom, and teaches that class, and you do that all across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms – why, with all the technology you have?’ asked Cuomo. The alternative path, it seemed, was obvious—tear down the existing system of schooling and replace it with a ‘smarter education system’.

Naomi Klein described the Gates partnership with New York as characteristic of a new ‘pandemic shock doctrine’. This experiment in reimagining education, she argued, will turn New York it into ‘a living laboratory for a permanent—and highly profitable—no-touch future’ characterized by ‘human-less, contactless technologies’, artificial intelligence, public-private partnerships and extensive outsourcing of government functions, such as state schooling, to Silicon Valley businesses.

The proposed New York experiment in mass-scale educational transformation is a particularly extreme manifestation of the technological ‘shock’ to education systems during the pandemic. But the same transformative imaginary is already playing out in more subtle ways.

New private infrastructures of public education

When school closures swept across the world, the first challenge for schools was how to remote teaching and learning. For this to be possible, they would require the right technical infrastructure. In the UK, as it became apparent that many schools were struggling and many students unable to access a computer, the Department for Education invested £100m for schools to purchase laptops for students plus a partnership with both Google and Microsoft to provide digital infrastructure for remote teaching to all schools that needed it.

Google and Microsoft also became partners of the Global Education Coalition, an international alliance established by UNESCO to provide hardware, software and digital infrastructure to underserved students. Around the world, Google experienced a huge surge in demand for its G Suite of apps, and especially for its class management app Google Classroom, which it repackaged as a ‘Teach from Home’ hub of resources. Microsoft offered schools ‘fast track’ support to upgrade to Office365.

Hastily made agreements and deals made by schools with Google and Microsoft, either for free or heavily subsidized, will be extremely hard to undo. These companies are in competition for structural dominance over the digital infrastructure of schooling for the very long term. They will be integral to new modes of ‘hybrid’ schooling promoted by the tech sector and influential organizations such as the OECD, UNESCO and the World Bank. Their systems are practical instantiations of an imagined future of education in which public-private partnerships play a key role, and private infrastructures undergird increasing aspects of teaching, learning and school management.

Consumer edtech

Despite high levels of financial investment in edtech during the pandemic, selling tech to schools is unlikely to be a profitable long-term strategy as institutions face years of budget cuts. An alternative business model has emerged from the crisis: selling edtech to students and parents in a new direct-to-consumer model of education. Suppliers of online learning platforms reported huge increases in customer demand during the crisis, such as Khan Academy, Pearson’s Connections Academy, and Coursera.

The shift to ‘consumer edtech’ means huge growth for companies with tools and services that parents and student may pay to access for themselves. In China, the online tutoring platform Yuanfudao was the beneficiary of a $1billion investment during the pandemic, making it the subject of the largest ever edtech deal in a financial quarter that saw $3billion of venture capital invested in edtech.

The direct-to-consumer model also opens the doors of the education market to new entrants. The social media platform TikTok experienced rapid growth during the pandemic, especially students seeking learning support resources. As a result, TikTok fast-tracked plans to launch LearnOnTikTok, spending millions on strategic content partnerships in both Europe and the US to generate ‘snack-sized’ educational video content for students to access ‘on demand’.

TikTok’s rationale for its move into the education market is driven by advertising. ‘We certainly hope educational content makes us more appealing to advertisers’ said its European general manager. ‘They’re looking at how they can get incredible levels of engagement from the platform and educational content could be an extension of how they do that’.

The consumer edtech future faces two ways at once: towards more lucrative subscription-based online learning platforms provided by the edtech industry itself, or towards ‘micro-learning’ content delivered by social media platforms seeking revenue from exposing young customers to the advertising industry.

Public-private education futures

The issues we have identified highlight just some of the commercial organizations and activities involved in public education during the pandemic. The multisector support of governments, international organizations, investors and philanthropies has helped create the conditions for further commercialization of education once schools reopen too. Schools will be increasingly dependent on digital infrastructure provided by giant technology corporations and on resources, tools and platforms provided by the edtech industry. Students and parents too are likely to be engaging in new forms of ‘shadow education’ through online courses, digitally-enhanced private tutoring, and even social media platforms.

Questions we have asked ourselves while researching these developments include ‘where is the student voice’ and ‘what do we know about the effects on teachers’ professionalism’ in a private edtech future of public education? We hope the report contributes to urgent conversations we need to have about the needs of students, the labour of teachers, and the very possibilities of democratic control of public education as we begin the long recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.  

To access the research Commercialisation and privatisation in/of education in the context of COVID-19, by Williamson, B. & Hogan, A. (2020). Please click here: https://go.ei-ie.org/GRCovid19  

 


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Ben Williamson

Ben Williamson is a Chancellor's Fellow in the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh, UK, where his research focuses on education policy, technology and data. He is an editor of the journal Learning, Media and Technology, and the author of Big Data in Education: The digital future of learning, policy and practice.  

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