Code capitals–following #edtechuk

Ben Williamson

Silicon Valley companies, venture capital investors and ‘edupreneurs’ have been behind the recent proliferation of ‘startup schools’ in America, and now the financial, technical and political capital of London is now being positioned as the global centre for the educational technology sector through the establishment of EdTechUK, a government-backed ‘accelerator’ for the ed-tech industry. Much of the Code Acts in Education project has focused on trying to ascertain how it might be possible to unpack the lines of code that constitute the technologies transforming much of education today. It has also looked at the ‘code cultures’ of the programmers that write the software. As our e-book Coding/Learning: software and digital data in education sought to demonstrate, it would be misleading to focus simply on the software programs that are now transforming so much of how education operates. The material work of programmers and project managers, plus the financial power invested in code are equally important as the lines of code themselves in making software work as intended.

It is certainly the case that educational software depends on lines of code for its functioning. But that code has itself to be written. Programmers have to craft it, using specific kinds of programming languages and code repositories. Those programmers work according to the business plans, project management schedules and objectives of their employers. The code they produce to enact how software programs function is also dependent on financial investment, funding programs and economic priorities.

This goes beyond the straightforward allocation of programmers’ salaries. It includes the work of entrepreneurs in securing venture capital for software startups, of politicians providing tax incentives for technology companies, and of philanthropists making donations to finance new technical innovations. In other words, the software programs that enact much of education today are also the product of economic and political programs.

Following #edtechuk
A compelling example of how software, finance and politics are interwoven in the contemporary transformation of education is provided by EdTechUK, formally launched on 21 October 2015 as ‘a new strategic body set up to help accelerate the growth of the UK’s education technology sector in Britain and globally,’ in a sector that it estimates to be worth £45billion:

The new body is a ‘front door’ for industry, investment and government and a convening voice for all of the education and learning technology sector including educators, startups, scale up and high growth companies, large corporations, investors, regulators and policy makers. The focus of Edtech UK is to help support, showcase and develop the sector, with a focus on creating more jobs, developing new skills, understanding what works and driving economic growth. Its focus will be global from the outset with an ambitious programme of work to take the Best of British edtech companies to the world and be a launchpad for the world’s best education and learning organisations to base themselves and grow in the UK.

In those astonishing three sentences, EdTechUK announces its capacity as a broker of relationships between government , finance, and the tech sector and an accelerator for economic growth for UK plc. Its enthusiasm appears to run contrary to the fact that investment in ed-tech has not historically changed teaching and learning in any significant way, as Tom Liam Lynch has argued.

EdTechUK has been established by Ian Fordham and Ty Goddard of the Education Foundation, which describes itself as ‘the UK’s first independent, cross sector, education think tank’ and is ‘focused on three priorities: education reform, technology & innovation.’ Since 2011 it has led an ‘edtech incubator’ for new educational technology companies; worked with Facebook on a guide for educators; sought to influence policy development at a national level including running Britain’s first Education Reform Summit in partnership with the Department for Education & the Secretary of State for Education; developed a corporate partners network with Facebook, IBM, Pearson, HP, Randstad Education, Cambridge University Press, McKinsey, Skype, Sony, Google and Samsung; and delivered policy roundtables, conferences, summits, and media events around educational technology in both the UK and USA. In their book on ‘crony capitalism,’ Tamasin Cave and Andy Rowell have described the Education Foundation as a ‘lobbying tool for technology firms with a clear, vested interest in digitizing learning,’ one which also has close ties to pro-business think tanks and lobby groups for greater marketization of education on both sides of the Atlantic.

Itself an ‘incubated’ project of the Education Foundation, the CEO of EdTechUK is also Ian Fordham, and the new company is openly lobbyist in its approach, ‘structured in a similar way to Innovate Finance, the lobby group for tech-enabled businesses in the financial services sector’ as Fordham himself has claimed. Its role is similar to that of ed-tech incubators and accelerator programs in the US. Incubators typically help entrepreneurs and new startups to test and validate ideas, as the Education Foundation’s own ed-tech incubator program has done, while accelerators turn products into scalable businesses, often through direct equity investment, and help provide provide entrepreneurs with legal, IT and financial services along with mentorship, working space and access to educators, entrepreneurs, business partners and potential investors. In the US, Y Combinator is a prominent example, which works with startups on their ideas, makes small seed funding investment in return for an equity stake, and then brokers relationships with potential investors and acquirers. These organizations are prototypical of the emergence of ‘edupreneurship’ as a new kind of expert role for ed-tech evangelists.

As both a lobby group and an accelerator for UK ed-tech startups, notably, EdTechUK was launched by Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, and was a partner in the Great Tech Expedition—a week long trade mission to the USA for 17 British tech startups—funded by the Mayor of London’s Export team, which sought to explore commercial opportunities and build relationships with key US enterprises and investors. On its launch Johnson stated that:

London has all the ingredients to become the edtech capital of the world—a thriving technology sector, the city is globally recognised for education excellence and a leading financial centre.

The EdTechUK launch was supported by the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department of Trade and Industry, L&P Partners (the Mayor of London’s official promotional company), and Tech London Advocates (a private sector led coalition from the tech sector ‘committed to championing London’s potential as a world-class hub for tech and digital businesses’), among others. Follow the #edtechuk hashtag, or the @EdTechUKHQ handle on Twitter and it is possible to trace political connections that go direct to No.10 Downing Street (through the participation in the launch event of Conrad Bird of the Prime Minister’s office), though there is nothing to indicate formal involvement by the Department for Education, which axed the ed-tech quango Becta (British Educational Communication Technology Agency) in 2010. With EdTechUK, regulation of ed-tech appears closer to the business ambitions of government, the technoutopia of accelerator programs, and to the financial lobbying of the tech sector, than to independent NGO control.

Political aspirations and financial capacity, as well as technical expertise and educational performance, are all combined in the activities of EdTechUK. It has powerful political support, it is modelled on financial lobbying and accelerator organizations, and it mobilizes a hybrid ‘politicommercial’ discourse of investment, venture capital, startup and scale-up, and economic growth. Its corporate brochure for new ed-tech startups references, among other things:

  • a ‘large and profitable market’ for educational technology
  • the benefits of ‘flexible procurement’ regulation which allows schools autonomy in their choice of technology suppliers
  • proximity to global ed-tech companies like Pearson and Knewton
  • the presence of ‘talent, venture capital, co-working space, government support, seed funding and events’ in London
  • governmental seed enterprise investment, tax breaks and ‘entrepreneurial relief’ for early-stage companies
  • plus, it claims, the financial attraction of ‘global education technology sector spending at $67.8bn in 2015 and a global “e-learning” market worth $165bn, which is poised to reach $243.8bn by 2022’

EdTechUK aspires to be a dominant source of expertise in ed-tech, one ultimately that positions it very powerfully as a central authority, decision-maker and financial conduit for future ed-tech development in the UK. In this context, it is only amid the political, financial and commercial activities of EdTechUK that the work of programmers in producing educational technologies can take place. The lines of code that enact educational technology are just part of a much bigger script; technical appendices to the new business manual of twenty-first century digital education.

In the language of science and technology studies, we can see EdTechUK as a complex actor-network: a hybrid assemblage of people, technologies, politics and economics that have been brought together into a durable network capable of functioning to bring about forms of action with material effects.

Code/capital
In a previous post, I described how the ‘culture of code‘ associated with software development in the tech sector is based on a logic of applied solutions-engineering that emanates from the Silicon Valley culture of social media programmers and commercial hackers. The new culture of code emerging from the ed-tech sector in London, the subject of EdTechUK’s new lobbying campaign and accelerator program, owes as much to the financial ambition and political ideology of edupreneurs as hacker enthusiasm. The programmers engineering the new ed-tech products that will allegedly transform education are also responsible for helping to engineer the future of London itself, as a new ed-tech capital of the world. Their responsibility is to the Mayor of London’s ambitions for the city as much as to the users of the software. Their work is to be constrained and shaped by the allocation of support by EdTechUK, which is positioning itself as the new default regulator of ed-tech quality and potential and has the potential to act both as a gatekeeper of investment and to accredit ed-tech products.

As such, educational technologies, and their designers, are part of a complex web of technical, financial and political practices which are largely being aligned and made operational by the new infrastructure of code and capital that EdTechUK has been established to orchestrate, maintain, and extend. Infrastructures can be defined as the systems that enable the circulation of goods, knowledge, meaning, people, and power. To possess control over an infrastructure infers extraordinary power. Educational technology has long been a commercialized sector. Its increasing centralization in the kind of code/capital infrastructure being invented by EdTechUK, invested in by its corporate partners networks, and supported by its political advocates and sponsors, concentrates power in a very tight circle of likeminded pro-business enthusiasts, tech investors and lobbyists that is able to designate what counts as worthwhile education, accredit the products that are deemed appropriate to deliver it, and to invest the capitals required to realize it. What kind of code will count in the tightly-centralized future of ed-tech? Will it be written with the needs of learners in the language of education, or written in the language of edupreneurship with the aspirations of investors and political lobbyists in the project management plan?

If you want to follow the actors, follow the money, and follow the power that make up the emerging networks of accelerated ed-tech development, then you need to follow #edtechuk.

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