Education Technology: The Trojan Horse of Privatization

Perspectives is an opportunity for Fellows and others to share their ideas in short, accessible essays. IPE/BC Fellows hold a range of views and interests relative to public education.

Education Technology: The Trojan Horse of Privatization

by Larry Kuehn

Technology entrepreneurs favorite words are “break,” “disruptive innovation” and “creative destruction.” Uber replaces taxis; Spotify breaks owning music collections; and, Amazon creatively destroys personal shopping for groceries, as it already has for everything from books to appliances to almost every commodity.

The Holy Grail of education technology entrepreneurs is to be the Uber of education… to become the platform that disrupts traditional face-to-face education and replaces it with technology dominated learning. Since this search for the singular platform is being carried out in capitalist economies, profit is the major end. It is not seeking solutions to inequalities exacerbated by the domination of monopoles in day-to-day, technology-driven living.

Education technology has developed in ways that reinforce individualization within a competitive environment, responding to and reinforcing neo-liberal patterns, creating the neo-liberal person. Widespread adoption of education built on this kind of individualization produces a form of privatization within the public education system, one that is based on preparing students for employment in a technological, corporate-dominated system, rather than preparing them for citizenship as a collective responsibility.

This presents challenges for critical educators who recognize that ignoring technology is not an option, but who want to find or create space for alternative approaches that support social justice and pursue pedagogy based on critical and social constructivist approaches.

Developing critical alternatives requires first an analysis of the approaches currently being taken by education technology entrepreneurs, then seeking spaces within these technologies that can be used to promote social goals, not just private, individual gain.  The current education technology landscape employs four dominant strategies: digital content, learning management systems, education apps, and universal platforms.

Digital content  

Historically, print technology has dominated in providing content in schools, but the challenge now is what will replace the physical, hard-copy textbook in this new digital era.

The textbook industry has been going through consolidation, leaving two major textbook publishers—the British transnational Pearson PLC and the American McGraw-Hill. Pearson has adopted a strategy of offering content digitally on a global basis as a way of surviving in the new context.  However, it has not been entirely successful. The corporation has been losing money to such an extent that it has sold off other forms of publishing–the Economist magazine, and its book publishing arm Penguin Random House, as well as software for English Language Learning sold to a Chinese company.

One potential challenge to the corporate publisher model is open publishing. Groups of authors join together to develop online resources for classroom use.  They may be offered at a small cost (teacherspayteachers.com) or made available under a Creative Commons license for anyone to use in teaching.  A major part of the cost of the print textbook is marketing and distribution. Digital distribution reduces costs and allows for cooperative forms of competition with the traditional textbook publishers. Open education resource distribution could disrupt the textbook market.

Learning Management Systems (LMS)

Learning Management Systems are online versions of the structure of face to face classroom. They have content; they have areas for discussion, both with a teacher and with other students; they include the ability to give tests to the student; and they provide the capacity to report student progress, both grades and other data.  LMS’s are used extensively in online learning, but also in face-to-face classrooms, particularly in “blended learning,” a combination of in person and online learning.

As in other areas of technology, many systems were developed, but only a few businesses survive as smaller ones are bought out and consolidated into fewer, near monopoly corporations. The major LMSs still standing are Blackboard and Canvas, as well as Desire2Learn, a Canadian LMS with a narrower market reach. One free to use open source system is Moodle, which has a large user-base.

Pearson sold its LMS, saying that they only work effectively on desktop or laptop computers, not on smart phones. The future market, they say, is in smartphones as billions of people have access, but many fewer have desktops or laptops. Pearson says, apps with a specific purpose will dominate.

Education Apps

Thousands of apps for education have already been created. Development costs are often covered by venture capitalists. They invest in app development with the hope that future profits will provide a return on investment when it captures a significant number of users. In many cases, the return is the sale of information about the teachers and students using the app. It is the users themselves who are the source of profits when their data is sold.

An example of one of these apps is FreshGrade, an e-portfolio system developed and widely used in British Columbia. The student and teacher upload work being done by the student, particularly photos, videos and audio. The parent has access to the e-portfolio of their child. The claim is these portfolio systems engage parents by giving more access to what their child is doing in school.

Special purpose apps have been a hot item in the education technology area, with education app venture capital investments of more than $4 billion in 2015.

Universal platforms: Google Suite, Microsoft Office 365 Education and Facebook

The behemoths of technology don’t require any venture capital because they have huge research budgets to spend on projects without announcing them to anyone until they are ready.

“Universal platforms” are a base on which many different elements can built. They do not intend to develop content, expecting others will do that. The platform brings both creators and users of content together into the same environment. Companies prosper when their platform is the go-to place for any online activity. Education is attractive because it’s a mass of folks, more than 30 million teachers and hundreds of millions of students globally, and Google, Microsoft and Facebook all have global reach.

This description of Google’s G Suite makes clear the comprehensive make up of the platform that is on offer:

G Suite is a package of cloud-based services that can provide your company or school with a whole new way to work together online—not just using email and chat, but over video conferences, social media, real-time document collaborations, and more….You and your team can begin using Gmail, Calendar, Drive, and other core G Suite services, as well as additional services like Google+, Hangouts, Blogger and more.

Google’s strategy for attracting teachers is to use a friend and collaborator approach. It offers training to selected teachers who then encourage colleagues and their districts to adopt G Suite. These teachers offer (often free) workshops for teachers, encouraging the expanded use of G Suite. Google offers the same tools to businesses, making a link for students to use the Google tools when they enter employment.

Google presented itself as an education platform before Microsoft moved in to compete. Microsoft’s focus on cloud-based services is part of its strategy for competing to be the platform for education services. Microsoft has announced that teachers and students can use “Office 365 Education” for free. It offers a free online course introducing teachers to Microsoft education services. Preparing students as workers is made clear when its sales pitch to teachers says, it “allows students to create products as if they were already in the workforce.”

Understanding corporate influence on education through education technology

A New York Times report captured the nature of the edtech Trojan Horse of public education:

The involvement by some of the wealthiest and most influential titans of the 21st century amounts to a singular experiment in education, with millions of students serving as de facto beta testers for their ideas. Some tech leaders believe that applying an engineering mind-set can improve just about any system, and that their business acumen qualifies them to rethink American education.   (“The Silicon Valley Billionaires Remaking America’s Schools by Natasha Singer,” NYT, June 6, 2017)

Historically, the state has had the primary role in defining the purpose and content of education. Edtech corporations are now pushing the state aside, bringing corporate purposes directly into the classroom, an often invisible shift in power. The aim of these technological forms of privatization is not to create private schools. Rather, they seek profits by integrating into public education. Those seeking to create dominant platforms take the longer view on profits and hope to train students to continue to use their platform when they move into life and work after school.

Much of the attention to technology in schools is about the tools. It is essential to pay attention to who really benefits from the use of the tools, not just how to use them.

Note: An earlier version of this blog post appeared in Intercambio magazine.

Larry Kuehn is an IPE/BC Fellow, IPE/BC director and Director of Research & Technology for the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. 

How Education Funding Matters

Through the generous support of Your Education Matters, IPE/BC sponsored an interactive forum on March 8, 2017 engaging academics, journalists, and educational analysts in conversations about how educational funding matters to the well being of public education in British Columbia. The forum focused on several key issues: the structure of education funding in BC; the use of public funds for private schools; and the potential effects on levels and types of education funding as a result of the recent Supreme Court decision reinstating key features of contractual language with regard to class size and composition.

Watch videos from the How Education Funding Matters Forum.