Monopoly Technology Platforms are Colonizing Education

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.

Monopoly Technology Platforms are Colonizing Education

By Larry Kuehn

The exposés of abuse by social media corporations like Google and Facebook have finally brought attention to the dangers of monopolies over our communications. The way these monopolies have been colonizing public education has, however, gone almost unnoticed. This is rampant privatization sneaking in as essential to “21st Century learning.”

The top five global capital corporations are technology platforms—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. Platforms are a host for a variety of services and uses. All of the big five platform corporations have become too large in a short period of time to have any significant competition outside of this group. They compete against one another, adding services to secure their monopoly by offering users everything they do online.

If a new service is developed that seems to be gaining users, or that competes with an element of their platform, it is purchased and integrated into the platform—avoiding new competitors. Alternatively, they use their massive resources to develop a comparable app and push the potential competitor aside.

Snicek, in Platform Capitalism, points out that the development of these monopolies “introduces new tendencies within capitalism that pose significant challenges to a post-capitalist future.” Building public cooperative platforms becomes an impossible dream.

No surprise—these platforms have moved to colonize education. Public education represents a big chunk of potential revenue. Just as importantly, schools are where one can find most of the future potential consumers and users of the platform services.

Colonization is a process where a significant force moves into an area and dominates. It takes over not only the production and resources, but imposes—often by stealth and power—the processes and approaches and even values of the social and cultural environment. And, dominate is what the monopoly platforms are on track to do in public education.

The most successful colonizer has been Google. A recent report indicates that Google’s G-Suite for Education is being used by half the teachers and students in the U.S. Canada is fast approaching the same level of use. It includes a range of free software tools that can be used by students and teachers—word processing, presentations, spread sheets and the like. G-Suite incorporates “Classroom,” an integrated learning management system that keeps track of grades, attendance and more. And, of course, YouTube is linked to student use.

New elements are added frequently. “Google Sites” is promoted for student e-portfolios, because “every student should publish for the world.” Google acquired Workbench, integrated with Google Classroom to give “lessons connected to a variety of ‘maker’ activities focused on STEM.” It is part of Google’s plan to “help schools and educators address their universal needs around education content.”

Google, rather than democratic public institutions, therefore shapes what is on offer. Google’s position as colonizer is strengthened by the hardware increasingly used in schools—the Google Chromebook. It is less expensive than other computers because much of what it needs to operate is supplied by Google in the cloud—operating software, applications and memory. No need to build those into the computer.  According to market reports, Chromebooks make up the majority of all computers sold to schools in the U.S. and are marketed globally.

However, one must have a gmail account to use these Google tools—so if a parent wants to protect the privacy of their child and refuses a gmail account that kid is left out while the rest of the class works away on their Chromebook and other Google tools. (See here the kind of consent form parents are asked to sign, giving Google access to acquire and store student information outside of Canada.)

Google has even taken up teaching “internet safety,” with a program aimed at reaching 5 million students. Its core is a game for students in Grades three to six to teach them to avoid “schemers, hackers and other bad actors.” However, as critics point out, it doesn’t talk about privacy concerns when users’ personal information and actions are tracked online. Google conveniently ignores its role as a “bad actor.”

A Swedish study of Google’s strategy concluded that “By making an implicit demarcation between two concepts (your) ‘data’ and (collected) ‘information’ Google can disguise the presence of a business model for online marketing and, at the same time, simulate the practices and ethics of a free public service institution.”

In “The Weaponization of Education Data,” Audrey Watters points out “the risk isn’t only hacking.  It’s amassing data in the first place. It’s profiling. It’s tracking. It’s surveilling.”

Google isn’t alone in the business of colonizing education and student data—just the most successful so far. One competitor is Microsoft 365 Education, with a promise of “empowering every student on the planet to achieve more” and that it will “unlock limitless learning.”

It’s not an accident that it is “Microsoft 365” that is being pushed. It offers a cloud-based software and cloud storage for your work. It is the new business model for Microsoft: they don’t sell you software, you rent it—and you keep paying for it. And your work isn’t saved on your own computer, so you have to keep up your subscription. Like Google, they are hoping that students will keep using their tools when they finish being students.

Microsoft is imitating much of what Google offers, but by charging for the service rather than trading it for data. It offers apps, educator training and STEM lessons “to enrich science, technology, engineering and math classes.” They offer “budget friendly” Windows 10 devices with licences for Microsoft 365 Education.

The other major tech corporations have programs as well. Apple, for example, was the first into education with the Apple IIe and the “Apple Classroom of Tomorrow” way back in the 1980s. More recently it depended on the ease of use of the iPad, despite its cost, to sell classroom sets along with Pearson curriculum in an ill-fated project with Los Angeles schools.

Venture capitalists are hoping to find the magic app that will make a fortune. The potential market is indicated by expenditure of hundreds of millions each year on developing new products. The “winners” are likely to be bought up by one of the major corporations—or find their product idea taken by the monopolies.

Not enough attention is paid by education authorities or researchers to the shaping and distortion of education that is possible—even likely—by this colonization of education by technology monopolies.

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

How GERM is Infecting BC Public Education

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

How GERM is Infecting BC Public Education

By E. Wayne Ross

The Institute for Public Education BC is committed to public education for the good of all children, families and communities and this is reflected in its tag line, “public education is a public interest.”

This proposition may seem obviously true, but it’s not.

Public education in British Columbia, across Canada, and globally faces serious challenges when it comes to serving the common good. Over the last half century, the dominant world view has privileged the individual over the well-being of the general public.

This view and the policies that flow from it are referred to as “neoliberalism.” Governments across the political spectrum, both the politically conservative and liberal, share belief in the major tenets of neoliberalism, including fiscal austerity, privatization of public goods and services, government deregulation, and free trade.

In education, neoliberalism is manifest in what Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg has dubbed the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), which:

  • prioritizes and imposes a business model on public education;
  • increases competition among students, teachers and schools (test-based accountability; performance-related rewards; league-tables; attacks on teacher unions);
  • supports an audit and accountability culture that takes education out the hands of teachers, students, and the public;
  • commodifies education via “school choice,” which positions students and parents as consumers in an education marketplace;
  • promotes the privatization and marketization of public schools (education becomes a service sector open to trade and investors; off-shore schools; and selling seats in schools and universities on the international market);
  • sees public education as an opportunity to maximize human capital (i.e., a narrowly educated workforce) as opposed to maximizing the common good and social cohesion.

These reforms are backed by many governments as well as The World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Despite rhetoric linking GERM to benefits for all within the vast constituency of public education, the fact is that those who regulate both knowledge and the economy work for their own political and economic agendas, acting as though the public extended no farther than their privately secured office buildings and comfortably gated communities.

GERM in British Columbia

GERM has infected public education in British Columbia and the symptoms are obvious.

  • School closures – In the past 15 years, over 200 public schools have been closed in BC.
  • Government destruction of agreed upon guidelines on class size and composition, which have had deleterious effects on learning and teaching conditions.
  • Reduction in the number of teachers, teacher-librarians, and classroom aides. Educators in BC are responsible for more children on average, than educators in the rest of Canada, a gap that is widening.
  • Selling school and universities seats on international market has become a major source of income growth for schools and universities in BC.
  • Off-shore schools – BC public school districts have been encouraged to create private business companies that are owned by school boards and operate to sell education overseas.
  • An estimated $5 billion in deferred maintenance for school buildings.
  • School rankings that oversimplify the characteristics of good schools; commodify education; and rely primarily on standardized test scores, which advantage schools with students from wealthy families.
  • Commercialization – Corporate incursion into schools that encourages competition; injects corporate advertising, exploiting underfunded schools.
  • Expansion of private tutoring companies, many of which are owned by international corporations.
  • British Columbia now spends $1000 less per student than the Canadian national average.
  • Reduction in government spending on public education. In 2001, the BC government put 20% of its total spending into education, now it spends just 11.8% of its budget on education.
  • Reliance on parent fund-raising via Parent Advisory Committees; it is estimated that parents now spend $132 million yearly in subsidies to public education.

Examining BC education funding trends, we can see how neoliberal education policies shift social costs on to individuals. These same trends can be found in other public services such as the health care and transportation.

At the same time, the BC government gives public money to subsidize private schools, many of which serve the rich and charge thousands of dollars in tuition.

Public Funding of Private Education is Undemocratic

Public funding for private schools is at odds with creating a more equitable, just, and democratic society.

It is a policy that almost always privileges families with more disposable income over the less wealthy and poor, and often privileges religious education over secular education. Moreover, public funding of private schools supports a two-tiered system of education that allows some schools to cherry-pick who attends, and undermines the concepts of the public good and community in favour of individual gain.

Public-school budget cuts result in closed libraries, reduced special-education services and increased class size, while private schools are publicly subsidized to provide the advantaged with more benefits. These advantages include smaller class sizes allowing teachers to be more responsive to student needs, to customize learning activities, and to provide private-school students with enriched curricula in art, sports and music programs.

For the first hundred years of British Columbia history there was no public funding of private or religious schools. The Social Credit government introduced public funding of private education in 1977 and only then did private school enrolment begin to increase, taking a larger share of the provincial education budget.

Under the BC Liberals, British Columbians have been subjected to a steady stream of ideologically driven public-policy decisions that shift responsibility for providing and financing public services from the public to the private domain. As with other public assets, their aim is to privatize the commonwealth of the province.

Public funding of private schools is a form of privatization consistent with fundamental ideological positions of the BC Liberals in particular and neoliberalism in general. Privatizing public enterprises, goods and services is usually done in the name of increased efficiency, but mainly has the effect of concentrating wealth in fewer hands (the gap between the wealthiest and the majority of BC families has grown dramatically over the past 30 years) and making the public pay more for its needs (see, for example, BC Ferries).

Not unlike academy schools in England or charter schools in the US, public funding of private schools in BC is privatization through the back door.

Elite private schools are subsidized by the public, while public schools are told to look to the market — recruiting tuition-paying international students, setting up school-district business companies, or opening their doors to corporate programs — or to parent-fundraising, to solve a budget crisis imposed by government’s distorted priorities.

The fundamental idea of public funding for private schools is based on the false premise that private schools do a better job. In reality, public-school students outperform private school students. A 2012 study of first-year physics students at the University of BC found that those who had graduated from public schools in Metro Vancouver outperformed their private-school peers. This finding is reiterated in a study just published by the University of Chicago Press, which concludes public schools achieve mathematics results the same as or better than private schools with demographically similar students. In 2006, the Educational Testing Service reached similar conclusions, finding that US public-school students outpaced private-school students in both reading and math.

Private-school enrolment is soaring because it is encouraged by public policies that divert public money to support private interests and by ideologies that promote individualism and private gain over community and shared interests.

It is time for education policy in BC that recognizes public education is a public interest.

E. Wayne Ross is a Professor of education at the University of British Columbia and an IPE/BC Board Member and Fellow.