Globalizing education standards with ISO 21001

Ben Williamson

Compass Vivek Raj large

Standards are everywhere but largely invisible. They define the production of things, from the size of a brick or the dimensions of a credit card to the programming languages used to code software, and act as rules for specific processes and practices. The creation of a new global standard for management processes in education may not at first seem terribly significant. This post interrogates ISO 21001, a standard for ‘Educational Organizations Management Systems’ due for release by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) later in 2018. While few will have heard of it, it could define priorities, products, processes and practices in the education sector at global scale for years to come.

Standard definitions
A lively academic literature has grown around standards over the last two decades. In the influential Sorting Things Out Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Star defined standards as ‘any agreed-upon rules for the production of (textual or material) objects’ which are ‘deployed in making things work together.’ Standards, they added, persist over time and different places, are often enforced, difficult to change, and define certain ways of organizing things and actions.

That may sound a little abstract. In the tangible world, standards define almost everything. There are standards for the dimensions of kitchen goods and furniture, standard measures, standard fonts and paper sizes, standard economic models, standards for food products, standard business practices, standard forms to fill in, standard formats for cataloguing and indexing, governmental standards, standard classifications of illness and healthiness, standards for ensuring software can operate on computer hardware and that data are interoperable across systems, and much more.

People are standardized too. Standard measures of personality or citizenship, standards of dress and behaviour, standards for credit-scoring and social media profiling, and standards that define social class, socio-economic status, gender, nationality and ethnicity all affect people’s everyday lives. Standard linguistic definitions help us make sense of ourselves and the world we inhabit.

Standards are, as Lawrence Busch memorably called them, ‘recipes by which we create realities,’ and they are ‘about the ways we order ourselves, other people, things, processes, numbers, even language itself.’ And as Susan Star and Martha Lampland have noted, they are not innocent or neutral, but ‘codify, embody or prescribe ethics and values, often with great consequences for individuals (consider standardized testing in schools for example).’

In short, standards may seem invisible, but they matter—they are consequential to how the world is organized, how people and their behaviour are regulated, and how processes and objects are defined and measured. Those who control standards therefore hold great power to coordinate and organize social, economic, cultural, ethical and political life. Standards constitute societies.

Standardizing education
The field of education is awash with standards. Although standards have always played a significant part in education—in standard class sizes, teacher standards, standards of achievements, standard codes of behaviour, standard school uniforms and so on—today the most common references are to standardized curricula, learning standards, and standardized tests. Rules specifying consistent approaches to defining the content, objectives, and levels of achievement expected from students of a given course underpin them.

Dorothea Anagnostopoulos and coauthors have argued that quantitative scores from standardized tests based on defined learning standards and courses of study in standardized curricula have become the major measure of student, teacher and school performance, and thus of what ‘counts’ as a ‘good’ student, teacher or school. Standardized tests, standardized curricula and learning standards play significant roles in the complex of technology, people and policies that make up ‘data infrastructures of test-based accountability.’

With the expansion of international large-scale assessments such as the OECD’s PISA, researchers such as Sam Sellar and Bob Lingard have drawn attention to how these ‘products’ are now standardizing how education is approached in countries around the globe. Globalized data infrastructures based on standardized assessment products exert powerful effects on national education systems, schools, staff and students alike. Data infrastructure may even reshape education policy to become more globally standardized, supported by a global education industry of products, technologies and services. One such service provider is the International Standardization Organization, currently preparing a standard for educational management processes and practices.

Global standards
The ISO is a global organization based in Geneva and made up of over 160 national standards organizations working in partnership. It has published 22,047 International Standards, described as ‘documents that provide requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose.’

The ISO states that ‘standards touch almost every aspect of our lives,’ and its mission is therefore ‘successfully sharing the best ideas and methods’ through its standards. In this sense, although it describes itself as a ‘neutral environment,’ the ISO is profoundly normative, seeking to promote its standards to achieve specific objectives as agreed by expert participants in its technical committees. It sees itself as a ‘global platform for creating consensus.’ A promotional ISO video explains how its standards can help promote growth, open markets, make trade fairer, tackle global challenges, maintain connectivity, keep us entertained, enhance productivity, promote innovation, and keep us safe and healthy. Keller Easterling, in a chapter of Extrastatecraft, defines the ISO’s standards as a ‘global operating system’ that ‘formats and calibrates’ many aspects of the contemporary world.

ISO 21001
Later in 2018, the ISO intends to release a new international standard for education. It has the potential to become part of the global operating system for the education sector.

ISO 21001 ‘Educational Organizations Management Systems’ has been in development for nearly 5 years, having been first approved as a proposal in early 2014. Development of the standard has been undertaken by Technical Committee 288, which itself consists of 140 expert members from 44 participating countries, plus 14 ‘observer’ countries, led by the Korean Agency for Technology and Standards. A map of participation shows involvement of the UK and much of mainland Europe, Australia, Canada, and many South American and Asian countries.

Keller Easterling claims that the ISO is hard to examine because of its opaque technical language, labyrinthine website, and inaccessibility of its standards documentation. Because the ISO’s standards are only available if you purchase them, it is hard to tell exactly what requirements, guidance or characteristics they promote. This is true of ISO 21001, not helped by the fact that it is at present still in ‘final draft’ form. Although  notionally open for consultation, even access to the draft requires the user to purchase it.

As Easterling notes, while the ISO ‘strives for universal impact’ it operates as a ‘secretive institution with no truly public dimension—no appeal to a citizen who is not also a consumer.’ But a published ‘Briefing Note’ and publicly available PowerPoint slides on the planned implementation and implications of ISO 21001 can help us get closer.

Standardizing educational organizations
The standard applies to management systems used by educational organizations, by which it means ‘what the organization does to manage its processes or activities in order that its products or services meet the organization’s objectives.’ These include ‘satisfying learners’ requirements’ and ‘meeting educational objectives’ as well as ‘balancing requirements from other stakeholders’ and ‘complying to regulations.’ In slightly different terms, ISO 21001 ‘concerns how an organization goes about its work,’ and ‘provides a common management tool for organizations providing educational products and services capable of meeting learner and other customer requirements and needs.’

So ISO 21001 is primarily a standard of management process for administering large and complicated educational organizations. Notably, the ISO claims the standard is making available a ‘comprehensive set’ of ‘successful practices’ that is for ‘applicable to all educational organizations that provide, share and facilitate the construction of knowledge to learners through teaching, training or research, regardless of type, size and product and service provided.’ It is not confined to either the schools or HE sectors, but ‘applies to the management system of any organization which utilizes a curriculum to provide, share and transfer knowledge.’ In other words, it appears to take a highly standardizing approach to educational organizations, treating them as universally comparable and manageable through the same best practices.

Standard benefits
Additionally, ‘Although learners and educational organizations worldwide are the main beneficiaries from this new management system standard, all stakeholders (everyone) will benefit from the output of standardized management systems in educational organization.’ The explanatory PowerPoint details that while learners have requirements of educational organizations, so too do the labour market and government, which, like learners, expect ‘satisfaction’ from a well-managed service.

The benefits listed in the briefing note are: a) better alignment of educational mission, vision, objectives and action plans, b) inclusive and equitable quality education for all, c) promotion of self-learning and lifelong learning opportunities, d) more personalized learning and effective response to special educational needs, e) consistent processes and evaluation tools to demonstrate and increase effectiveness and efficiency, f) increased credibility of the educational organization, g) recognized means to enable organizations to demonstrate commitment to education management practices in the most effective manner, h) a model for improvement, i) harmonization of national standards within an international framework, j) widened participation of interested parties, and k) stimulation of excellence and innovation.

Some of these need unpacking, because they are full of assumptions about the ways educational organizations should operate.

Standard language of learning
The first thing to note is the language of learning it operationalizes. The slides and briefing booklet refer to ‘self-learning,’ ‘personalized learning’ and related terms. The available PowerPoint notes that the ‘first principle’ of the standard is that ‘Educational Organizations should actively engage learners in their own learning’ and that ‘teaching is defined as working with learners to assist and support them with learning.’

Along with references to learners’ ‘construction of knowledge’ these sound laudable principles for those with a slightly ‘progressive’ view of education, but they do clearly presuppose that such approaches to education are widely agreed-upon. Given that educational research and practice remains philosophically divided between those who (broadly speaking) take a progressive ‘student-centred’ view and those who emphasize more liberal values regarding the transmission of powerful knowledge through subject-based curricula, the ISO’s standard-setting of student-centredness in educational organizations is controversial.

Even more controversial, perhaps, is that the ISO’s endorsement of ‘personalized learning’ resonates strongly with a particular (contested) view of education that has become closely associated with the entry of big data and artificial intelligence into education. In the slides promoting the standard, one of the stated aims is standardizing processes for the ‘identification and traceability of learners throughout the organization.’ Making students trackable through their data traces is therefore being put forward as a requirement of an effective, ‘personalized’ educational organization.

Standard harmonization
The standard’s benefits also include harmonization of national standards with international frameworks. This kind of harmonization has of course been the long-term goal of other international organizations such as the OECD, which has used evidence from its international large-scale assessments to compare national systems and derive ‘policy-relevant’ findings that might shape national-level decision-making, intervention and reform.

In this sense, the new ISO standard is supposed to participate in the contested practice of ‘commensuration’ whereby different qualities of educational systems and institutions are rendered equivalent through quantitative methods. As Steven Lewis points out, it ‘involves comparing how different national schooling systems are positioned within a commensurate global space of measurement’ and, coupled with the production of ‘examples’ of ‘best practice,’ influences how schooling is understood and practised. ISO 21001 is a commensuration instrument for easing the harmonization of school measurement at national and international scales.

Management standards
Another aspect of the standard is its references to the language of effectiveness, efficiency, evaluation, and improvement. As a management standard, it’s inevitable perhaps that it would appear managerialist. Indeed, ISO 21001 is in fact an adaptation for the education sector of its existing ISO 9001 quality management standard.

Easterling has documented how the ISO 9000 family of standards have become the ISO’s most popular products, thereby imposing uniform management and quality assurance processes on organizations worldwide. They are based on existing management theories pertaining to ‘the process of production, the procedures and practices of a company’ and their ‘social architecture,’ and have catalysed the development of a global consultancy industry regarding standards compliance. Compliance with ISO 9000 standards involves an organization evaluating itself in terms of its objectives, such as customer satisfaction, and often, Easterling argues, lead to ‘obsessive data gathering and metrics  … to quantify or prove that deliberate objectives have been met.’

Indeed, the ISO 21001 PowerPoint itself says it contains over 50 references to documented information and records that must be maintained or retained, and ‘an entire informative annexe gives examples of measures and tools which can be used in collecting and managing information.’ Compliance with the standard will involve mandatory internal auditing, review of programmes and annual reviews of the organization’s management systems ‘to address deficiencies.’

Data standards
As a further requirement, institutions must communicate publicly ‘learners’ performance data’ and ‘learner and other feedback, including satisfaction surveys and complaints.’ As these examples indicate, compliance with the standards will require data infrastructure to enable collection, analysis and presentation to the public of the required information. Moreover, making such measures public is likely to configure organizational behaviours. Geoffrey Bowker has argued that ‘It is not only the bits and bytes that get hustled into standard form in order for the technical infrastructure to work. People’s discursive and work practices get hustled into standard form as well. Working infrastructures standardize both people and machines.’

As an adaptation of ISO 9000 standards, then, ISO 21001 makes data gathering on customer satisfaction into an essential requirement of educational organizations. Of course, there is nothing especially unique about this. In the UK, a new Higher Education infrastructure for student data collection is already being built that requires universities comply with ISO 9001 quality management standards. As with ISO 21001 prioritizing students’ requirements and satisfaction, the UK data infrastructure starts from the principle of putting ‘students at the centre of the system.’ It will enable data to flow from HE institutions for centralized analysis to produce competitor rankings on many metrics, and is supposed to make HE data more usable for customers (students) as well as for policymakers and institutions themselves.

In this sense, compliance with ISO 9001 or its ISO 21001 outgrowth will reshape people through standardizing their practices. It will reshape academic staff as providers of ‘satisfying’ services, and students as consumers with rights to feed back and complain.

Market standards
What should not be overlooked here is how that data infrastructure is being developed to participate in greater marketization of HE in the UK. Janja Komljenovic and Susan Robertson have persuasively shown how HE markets are being ‘made’ through ‘ideological and political changes in the governance of higher education to make it a more globally competitive producer of knowledge, and a services sector.’ They also, importantly, point out that these macro-objectives of marketization are only possible through micro-processes such as the ‘development and deployment of policies, technologies, instruments and other “formatting devices”.’

Although Komljenovic and Robertson do not mention standards specifically, it is possible to view ISO 21001 as a kind of ‘formatting device’ to ensure that educational organizations fulfil metric requirements of data collection and reporting. As Komljenovic and Robertson note:

New technologies are constantly being invested in and deployed ‘to create efficiencies’ in methods of working, as a means to gather more and more information on the institution and its processes, to monitor staff and to measure a wide range of forms of satisfaction—most particularly student satisfaction. … At the same time, these technologies are also part of governing tools as its results influence university structures, policies and actions. Besides student surveys, there are also national and international rankings, benchmarks, indicators and so on.

The main achievement of ISO 21001, arguably, will be to create a new global standard for educational organizations to be measured and monitored as a market, according to metrics formulated from a strange hybrid of management theory and ‘student-centred’ educational discourse. Educational organizations will be ‘formatted’ by the standard to produce the data required to evidence how well they are achieving their objectives. Those objectives themselves, however, appear to be pre-formatted by ISO assumptions about what counts as ‘good’ teaching and learning.

A global educational operating system
Time will tell what difference ISO 21001 makes to educational organizations, national systems, or even global education policy. In many ways, it represents little that’s new since standardization, quantification and marketization are already well entrenched in many education systems around the world. But it does raise a few headline points:

  • To a significant extent, the ISO is joining a policy network of international organizations that have increasingly participated in shaping global education policy over the last two decades—among them the OECD, UNESCO, the World Bank, and the World Economic Forum
  • ISO 21001 is a potential key instrument for the expansion of global education policy and a global education industry, a standards-based means for identifying policy problems and a specification tool for providers of policy solutions
  • ISO 21001 is intended as part of a global operating system for educational organizations, a kind of ‘formatting device’ to ensure institutions follow uniform management processes which require them to evidence their achievements according to ‘quality’ measures such as students’ and other stakeholders’/customers’ service ‘satisfaction’
  • The standard constitutes the basic set of rules for educational infrastructures–it defines how educational organizations should be organized, managed, monitored, recorded, compared, and acts as a coordinating device to align all actors in the system around the same shared standard
  • It is supposed to stimulate and further enable greater harmonization and commensuration between national standards and international frameworks, leading to national education systems being reconfigured around standards derived in secret by the ‘consensus’ of ISO expert members
  • The ISO endorsement of personalized self-learning and student-centredness enshrines a disputed philosophy of education in standardized form as a ‘principle’ of education systems which  organizations would then be expected to adopt as an objective, and against which they would monitor themselves, and be monitored
  • The standard configures educational organizations as service providers and students as customers whose aggregated levels of consumer satisfaction may be read as economic indicators of an institution’s market competitiveness and positioning, and data on which must be made publicly available
  • The ISO is further entrenching the language and practices of management theory in education systems at global scale, reshaping the organizational practices and social architecture of the education sector around managerialist demands of performance measurement, audit, evaluation, accountability and marketization
  • Compliance with the standard, as with ISO 9000 standards, will bring more consultancies and companies into the education sector able to offer third-party certification and compliance services, further displacing governance of education from the public sector to the private sector

Even if these are not novel or unique, it remains concerning that a secretive international organization is now seeking to stamp a global standard on such practices, effectively creating a uniform international template by which to manage and judge educational organizations and all who inhabit them.

Although it is not yet clear how ISO 21001 will be enacted, the fact that 44 member countries are participating in development of the standard suggests it is likely to have wide international impact in years to come. It could become a ‘recipe for reality’ in education that will shape organizations and practices to conform to its rules and prescriptions. It could have the effect of further standardizing schools, universities and even education ministries. It could configure people into standard form, with practices and behaviours shaped as much as possible to ‘deliver’ standardized services and standardized learning outcomes. As such, it is an important example of why invisible standards need to be brought into public visibility.

Image credit: Vivek Raj

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