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. 

Navigating Educational Technology

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.

Navigating Educational Technology

by Vis Naidoo

In 1998, Shafika Isaacs and I introduced the concept of the value chain for the use of technology in school education. We reviewed various projects in South Africa at the time and noted that unless key elements of the education system are functioning at a basic minimum level, no matter what technology is thrown at it, we would not attain the expected learning outcomes and improve quality. We stressed the need to focus on education and not on the technology and be strategic about how we use it to enhance learning in schools, universities and other spheres of life.

Two key research conclusions about the impact of educational technology are:

  1. Technology itself cannot improve learning and instruction but it is the effective use of technology that will see better education impacts.
  2. Technology developments will continue to influence and change our lives, the way we work and live. It will also change the education landscape.

Technology on its own cannot improve education systems and require other elements to be functional and focus on the effective use of technology. Yet our education systems continue to invest in technology, often based on what seems to be the latest and greatest. How do we address this so that the education system can achieve the results we expect with current and innovative technology developments? How do we avoid our education becoming too influenced by the latest technology development and ‘carpet-baggers’ peddling the latest technology with promises to revolutionize education?

Perhaps a good starting point is to have an agreed understanding of educational technology. I draw on the research work commissioned by DfID where they define edtech as ‘the use of digital or electronic technologies and materials to support teaching and learning.’

For education technology to have an impact is to enable its effective use. Technologies have and will continue to emerge and offer new possibilities to impact learning and teaching, enable large-scale support of learning leading to improvements in learner progress and quality of education. For this to take place the policy environment, school management, digital content and teacher development are important. The report on the impact of educational technology notes the following:

Therefore, useful research on the impact of educational technology should focus on the complete system, including the teacher, the content taught, the technology used, the school system or environment in which the teacher is working, and the environment in which the learning is taking place.

I have developed a framework to consider when looking at ICT integration and use within the school system. Based on this framework, it is useful to consider the following questions to determine what constitutes an effective and cost-efficient edtech program:

  • Is this within the policy framework of the country/province and does it help to advance the strategy leading to the achievement of the national/provincial goals, including the country’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)?
  • What are the learning outcomes, how is the curriculum structured and where will technology be used to enable learning and the achievement of outcomes?
  • What learning support materials and technology will be used?
  • Is there an effective teacher development and pedagogy focus so teachers are able to use technology to improve their teaching methods?
  • What evaluation methods will be used to determine the value of the edtech program and whether it supports the achievements of the outcomes?

When determining the educational technology that will best work for schools, perhaps it is important to note the criteria that will hold the edtech companies to greater accountability. Any edtech purchased needs to have effective support for teachers and their professional development, so there are no further fees required for this. Of course, having the education product developed with the central involvement of teachers is another imperative that helps to deliver relevant learning materials and methodologies in edtech programs.

When choosing an edtech products or services, it is important to understand how these will be used and the kind of after-sales customer service available. This helps ensure it is easy to install and use and there is an effective support to troubleshoot and address system-level problems. Once a purchase of a product or service is made, there should be no need for further purchases to make the edtech tools work.

There is increasing evidence of the value of edtech in support of attaining educational outcomes, the impact on teaching and learning and changing the way learning is taking place. Further evidence is required to understand ‘what difference was made to the educational experiences of the teachers, students, and communities involved.’ This further illustrates the need to ensure the design and implementation of edtech programs are carefully planned to improve educational quality and collect data and conduct analysis to determine the impact.

See also:

Power, T., Gater, R., Grant, C. and Winters, N. (2014). Educational Technology Topic Guide. The Health & Education Advice & Resource Team (HEART) with funding from British Government’s DfID.

Vis Naidoo is an IPE/BC Fellow and education technology expert .

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.