Education International released a report last summer. Written by Ben Williamson (University of Edinburgh, U.K.) and Anna Hogan (University of Queensland, Australia), "Commercialisation and privatisation in/of education in the context of Covid-19" is sixty-some pages of thorough research and depressing news for fans of public education. The attempt to "map the powerful network of commercial edtech players and coalitions" who are trying to shape the world's edu-response to the pandemic via disaster capitalism (a term the report uses) is not uplifting reading.
I've read this, but I'm not going to attempt my usual speedy explainer because there are several large, critical points made in the report and I don't want them to get lost in the explaining and dot connecting. For those who spend a lot of time down the education rabbit hole, there are bits of this that reach out and knock you right between the eyes. I'll probably return to some of this at greater length in the future, but I want to lay out the highlights now.
Ed Tech Solutionism
"A 'global education industry' of private has played a significant role in education provision during the Covid-19 crisis, working at local, national and international scales to insert ed tech into educational systems and practices. It has often set the agenda, offered technical solutions for government departments of education to follow, and is actively pursuing long-term reforms whereby private technology companies would be embedded in public education systems during the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and beyond it in new models of hybrid teaching and learning."
Also, a lot of folks are pushing this, including big players like the World Bank, UNESCO, and OECD.
The favored model
It is now clear that the dominant education policy preoccupation globally is how to deliver schooling without schools and degrees without campuses.
The report points to the rise of virtual schooling, and they offer Pearson (yes, those guys again, currently the second-largest cyber school provider in the US) as an example of a big corporation that is strategizing around a move away from books, buildings and teachers. And while Covid figures into this move--
these are not changes that Pearson and its competitors are simply offering up, opportunistically, in response to sudden coronavirus measures. Instead, they are part of a concerted long-term strategy by the edtech industry to actively reorganise public education as a market for its products, platforms and services.
Data collection and ownership
Still scary, still a problem. Edtech is posited on gathering this stuff by the truckload, without particularly dealing with the privacy issues involved.
Who's driving this bus?
The report also looks at the different kind of organizations and networks behind all of this. There are seven different categories they get into:
International organizations and coalitions
This includes big players like the World Bank and its Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund which is aimed at seeing how much ed tech can "accelerate" education. There are financed networks, like one funded by UK investment firm Emerge Education. UNESCO has a Global Education Coalition. The OECD. All of these outfits gather together the usual assortment of non-profits like Khan Academy, ed tech companies like Canvas, and big corporate players like Amazon and Google.
What we call public-private. This is much of what the previous groups help facilitate.
Companies partner up, too, especially in the area of creating websites and organizations that are meant to look like third-party observers. Peel back the masks and you find the Gates Foundation, Chan-Zuckerberg, and corporate backers. They may try to look like they're educator-forward (e.g. Oak National Academy in England) but their boards are filled with folks borrowed from the sponsoring organizations. They are about "increased commercial penetration into state schooling."
Remember when New York State was going to "partner" with the Gates Foundation to reimagine education? Well, here's a sentence:
Venture philanthropy is exemplified by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which has advanced corporate interest in education reform through funding awarded to advocacy groups, nonprofit reform organisations, think tanks, and research centres.
Foundations, think tanks, and "impact" specialists are helping push the agenda by looking like disinterested third parties. They aren't.
Public education "has become a key site of venture capital and private equity investment" in the last decade. That has also given rise to a whole industry of edtech market intelligence and financial advisory agencies to help spot the next sweet investment opening. Big players like Pearson have their own in-house departments. And for those of you who have followed the whole social impact bond biz, here's an alarming little factoid:
In June 2020 [Pearson announced] a new 350 million GB pound, ten-year social bond with the net proceeds to be used exclusively to support the provision of online learning services.
Impact investment is about creating ways to make money off a market that didn't already exist. And the report notes that these market-makers are not just looking for VC to invest in products, but new ways to organize the market and infrastructure.
Big tech companies enrolling schools
While companies like Microsoft, Google and Amazon are busy playing investment games and exerting influence at the policy level, they're also worming their way directly into schools. You already know plenty about this, though you may not have known that TikTok is trying to position itself as a provider of "micro-learning" videos.
The edu-business sector
The sheer scale of what is happening on the edu-business level is harder to capture and trace.
Pearson figures the virtual schooling market is worth about $1.5 billion, which is enough honey to attract a large number of flies. The report touches on many individual businesses in this market, and it is just a spoonful of water tossed into the Grand Canyon.
The "global education industry" has, during the pandemic, "amplified its influence and the scale of its penetration into education systems." And they are not viewing this time as a short-term chance to help out, but "as a long term opening for expanding their business interests, generating revenue, gathering data, shaping teaching practices, and influencing policy agendas into the future."
So not just cashing in, but changing the face of infrastructure and the public-private governance of education. And more of it privatized. The report says that under covid, private sector business and global tech companies have "consolidated the market share" for digital infrastructure. This goes hand in hand with pushing the idea that education is and should be a "sector for investment and profit making and management by private organizations." So "pay for results," social impact bonds, exam proctoring, AI-based tutoring--entire news ways to make a buck are coming forward.
And, the report notes, much of the products out there are currently free or bargain-priced, but that's because the industry is "banking on future profitability."
The digital and data risks remain great, in part because one of the ed tech industry's defining characteristics is constant over-promising on tech that cannot do what it claims it can do. AI is front and center for this, but data protection and privacy are also issues that the ed tech sector hasn't really addressed or solved.
Ownership is also an issue. Ownership of data, for certain. But also curriculum control.
Organisations as varied as Google, Pearson, Oak National Academy, ISTE and Yuanfudao have in many ways established control over what gets taught during school closures.
Maybe your virtual school curriculum isn't simply being designed by a software designer (or maybe it is--do you even know), but these are private organizations with, as the report puts it, their own "idiosyncratic visions of education and...their institutional values."
The report ends with a list of research that needs to be done.
If you're still reading
God bless you. There's just one other thing I want to remind you of--this report was issued last July, so we've had a few months to watch it play out. Regardless of what the next few months bring for Covid, I don't expect the situations outlined in this report to get any better.