The app store for higher education

Ben Williamson

young people phoneA government competition aims to make choosing a degree as easy as swiping a smartphone. Image by Garry Knight

App stores are among the most significant aspects of contemporary cultures. Commercial environments where consumers choose digital products, they are also important spaces where app producers and platform businesses first come into contact with users. As the shopping centres of platform capitalism, app stores enable users to become sources of data collection and value extraction.

Apps for higher education have become a key focus of government investment, and have the potential to become significant intermediaries bringing students, applicants and other publics into contact with HE data. This post continues ongoing research documenting the expanding data infrastructure of HE in the UK, which has already explored the policy context, data-led regulatory approach, data-centred sector agencies, and involvement of data-driven edu-businesses. New apps for shaping student choice bring small businesses, edtech startups, and the not-for-profit sector into the expanding infrastructure, and are introducing the idea that student choice can be shaped (or ‘nudged’) through the interactive presentation of data on apps, price-comparison websites, and social media-style services that indicate the quality of a provider’s performance.

An ‘information revolution’ in student choice
Universities Minister Sam Gyimah announced a competition in summer 2018 for small businesses to create new apps or online services to assist young people in making choices about going to university. Controversially to many in the sector, he claimed the competition would allow tech companies to use graduate earnings data—taken from the Longitudinal Educational Outcomes (LEO) dataset—to ‘create a MoneySuperMarket for students, giving them real power to make the right choice’.

A budget of £125,000 was allocated to support the winning entrants, which were expected to produce working prototypes during September and October. A few months later he announced five shortlisted companies, an additional £300,000 investment for two of the products, and the release of ‘half a million cells of data showing graduate outcomes for every university–more than has ever been published before’.

‘This is the start of an information transformation for students, which will revolutionise how students choose the right university for them’, said Gyimah. ‘I want this to pave the way for a greater use of technology in higher education, with more tools being made available to boost students’ choices and prospects’.

In other words, the competition is just a prototype of what is still to come–a government-backed marketplace of apps, platforms and other products and services to enable applicants, students and graduates to produce, interact with, and use HE data. Elsewhere, Gyimah was reported saying there is ‘clearly a market opportunity’ for services like this, even for those not awarded part of the £300,000 funding from the Department for Education.

Although the competition at this stage has only generated prototypes–only two of which will be more fully developed–all of the companies have already developed a web presence for their apps and products. A Department for Education video tweeted from the official finalists’ event also offers some glimpses of the these prototype products. This allows us to see how an expanding ‘app store’ for student choice might extend the data infrastructure in new ways.

MyEd UniPlaces app
MyEd is an existing provider of services designed to enhance choices in education institutions.

MyEdMyED provides educational choice-enhancement services. Image from https://myed.com/

MyEd already runs services supporting parent choice in nurseries, schools, colleges and universities, in particular by aggregating key data and previous reviews to enable easy user comparison and shortlisting of providers. According to its website:

Our unique reviews process is an intelligence data analysis system that has been designed to provide our users with the most relevant and digestible information to help them make the best decisions on their investment in education.

For the competition, MyEd proposed a UniPlaces app, which it pitched as a ‘web-based compatibility checker’  to assist applicants in making HE choices. Driven by a questionnaire capturing students’ achievements and preferences, the app then seeks to match them to HE options that are linked to certain job prospects.

As an established company, MyEd already compiles together information from a range of sources, including institutions, government departments, published performance tables, and agencies such as HESA and the QAA. in these ways, it is emblematic of the shift toward marketized education and choice across all sector–from early years to HE–in recent education policy.

Uni4U
The unique aspect of the Uni4U proposal is that it was designed by students, though the organization was founded by an entrepreneur with support from the NatWest Business Accelerator.

Uni4UUni4U is gathering additional data by surveying students and school children online. Image from http://uni4u.co.uk/

Like the other apps, Uni4U supports HE choice through the graphical presentation of data about universities, including their location, campus facilities, and graduate earnings.

While in prototype phase, Uni4U produced a website featuring two online surveys to gather further data from future students and current students. It invites future students to identify what would most help them make university choices, and current students to rate the quality of their existing provider and the support they gained in making their initial choice.

Coursematch
Coursematch presents itself on its website as a fully functioning app available via the Apple App store and Google Play, with a claimed 25,000 users. It was already upgraded in its current form in May 2018 and has been marketing itself on social media as ‘The #1 social network to help find your perfect university course and meet future friends!’

CoursematchCourseMatch is a social network for university choice, already available on app stores. Image from https://coursematch.io/

Perhaps the notable aspect of Coursematch is its claim to use machine learning to make the most effective matches between students and courses, twinned with a ‘swipeable’ interface design adopted from dating apps.

‘Our new look app is going to make it easier than ever to browse University courses, and find your perfect course!’ read a recent promotional Coursematch tweet. ‘We are bringing in AI techniques to recommend a selection of courses right for you, to browse through with just a simple swipe’.

Potential students are provided with projected possible earnings based on the average lower quartile, median and upper quartile for particular courses, and can also interact through the app with existing students on those courses. Coursematch is already supported by Jisc, the HE digital learning agency, and Santander Universities.

AccessEd–ThinkUni app
The ThinkUni app comes from the not-for-profit sector, with AccessEd aiming to ‘increase access to university for young people from under-served backgrounds globally. We are creating a global network of partner organisations committed to this mission, sharing with them our expertise, resources and support’.

AccessEdAccessEd supports access to university for young people from under-served backgrounds. Image from https://access-ed.ngo/

Pitched as a ‘personalized careers assistance’ service that is easy for students to use on their smartphones, ThinkUni builds on AccessEd’s previous university access work–including its ‘Brilliant Club’, the UK’s largest university access programme for 11-18 year olds.

According to the co-founder and executive chair of AccessEd, existing sources such as UCAS are huge databases and glorified spreadsheets that make decision-making difficult. With ThinkUni they can instead access details such as which universities the student could choose based on their school exam grades, and how long it would take them to pay back their student loan based on a projected graduate salary.

The Profs—That’s Life
That’s Life is the most unique of the competition finalists–it’s an education and careers simulator produced by The Profs, a successful private HE tutoring company.

ProfsThe Profs is a successful HE private tutoring company. Image from https://www.theprofs.co.uk/

The idea for the service is that it provides a ‘gamified’ simulation of the outcomes of making certain kinds of decisions, and presents projected data such as their future levels of happiness, work-life balance and income, showing students the impact of their life and course choices, including not going to university all.

The gamification and simulation aspects of That’s Life demonstrate how the logics of video games could be employed to enhance student choice, notably by offering students opportunities to experiment with different pathways and problem solving strategies. But the app’s origins in the private HE tutoring sector is also indicative of how private sector and alternative providers are being actively welcomed into public university service provision.

Scaling up the prototype
Whether apps such as those supported by government–or the earnings potential they present–actually influence student choice remains for now an empirical question. Another question is whether initial government investment will enable these app producers to scale their products. In a way, Sam Gyimah is acting like a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, seed-funding early-stage prototypes that bear a high risk of failure.

However, one existing example of a HE-facing app suggests that appetite for real venture capital investment in such products may be growing. Debut is a smartphone app for talent-matching graduates to corporate employers and labour markets. Graduate users create a profile—as with other social media platforms—and complete a psychometric personality test which can then be used for automated push notifications of appropriate jobs. Partnering corporate employers can even ‘talent spot’ and target individual users directly without requiring an application form or CV.

Debut appDebut is a machine learning based talent-matching app. Image from http://debut.careers/

But Debut is also a direct challenge to universities and the status of the academic degree.  ‘We want to unbundle that and turn our user base into a behaviour- and competency-based user base,’ its founder says. ‘The strength would be the person’s competency as opposed to academic success’. Instead, it emphasizes graduates’ ‘cognitive psychometric intelligence’, behavioural traits and competencies. ‘We have everything on students, from their cognitive background, social background, to how well they perform in a selection process’—data it is using to train machine learning algorithms ‘to make personalized recommendations and predictions’.

Debut therefore instantiates the entry of automated predictive talent analytics into UK HE, inciting students to cultivate their marketable personality and behavioural skills above their academic credentials. Users of the platform generate training data for its machine learning learning algorithm to tune and refine its subsequent job-matches and recommendations. In summer 2018 Debut also received £5 million venture capital investment led by James Caan, the entrepreneur from the TV show Dragons’ Den, and  already has 60 corporate clients, including Google, Apple and Barclays, that pay it an annual subscription to sort and organize the graduate data.

Student-powered & metrics-powered HE
As an established product, Debut is well positioned in the emerging app store of services and products to help shape students’ choices. As the DfE competition demonstrates, apps are emerging to match prospective applicants the courses based on graduate earnings data from LEO, while Debut can later then link them to employers based on a training set of graduate competency profiles and successful labour market matches.

The finalists of the DfE competition represent the governmental recognition of the potential of data presented on apps to shape choices and decisions. The prototypical app store for HE choice is, therefore, a significant extension of ongoing upgrades to the data infrastructure of HE. It raises some key issues:

  • It exemplifies government ambitions to ‘unbundle‘ and open up HE to new market providers of technologies, entrepreneurs, the private sector, and other business interests, with government itself acting as a market catalyst and seed-fund investor
  • It brings the logic of ‘swipeable’ apps and social media platforms into HE, importing the business model of platform capitalism and the extraction of value from student data into higher education
  • It utilizes persuasive design and behavioural science insights to design interfaces and visualizations that might ‘hook’ attention, ‘trigger’ behaviours, and ‘nudge’ decisions according to the ‘choice architecture’ provided
  • It continues to treat students as calculative consumers, investing in HE with the expectation of ROI in the shape of graduate outcomes and earnings, and puts pressure on institutions to focus on labour market outcomes as the main purpose of HE
  • It incites prospective and current students to see and think about HE in primarily quantitative and evaluative terms, as represented in metrics and market-like performance rankings and ratings
  • It anticipates potential long-term and real-time data monitoring of students in HE institutions, through a digital surveillance assemblage of apps, platforms and infrastructural connections, thereby making students into data transmitters of institutional qualities as well as consumers of institutional data
  • It instantiates the increasing role of algorithms, machine learning and automation into applicants’, students’ and graduates’ decision-making, with Debut even seeking to short-circuit the job application process and automatically talent-match graduate competency profiles to corporate job descriptions
  • It raises questions about the uses of student data to reinforce pre-existing governmental ideology, with the DfE recently reprimanded by statistical authorities for prioritising political messaging ahead of its statistical evidence–could students apps be designed otherwise rather than to conform to market models of cost-benefit calculation?

By releasing a huge trove of LEO data, it also demonstrates how HE is being made increasingly measurable, computable, and comparable as a competitive, market-driven sector, with Gyimah noting that ‘these new digital tools will highlight which universities and courses will help people to reach the top of their field, and shine a light on ones lagging behind’.

The governmental focus on calculating which universities are ‘lagging’ or even ‘failing’ from their data is itself a huge sector concern, with Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students, writing in The Telegraph that ‘While student choice should drive innovation, diversity and improvement, we recognise this won’t always be enough. So where market mechanisms are not sufficient, we will regulate’. The piece, entitled ‘We should allow bad universities to fail, as long as we protect their students’, followed another Telegraph article titled ‘If the higher education market is to succeed, bad universities must be allowed to go bust’.

In this highly conservative political and media context, further amplified by think tanks such as Reform, HE is being driven both by the supposed ’empowerment’ of students and by metrics of market performance. The first perspective sees data as central to a ‘student-powered’ sector characterized by choice, value for money, and market competitiveness. The other takes a ‘metrics-powered’ perspective on universities as comparable market actors with winners and failures, as calculated by the choices of applicants to attend, indicator data on provider performance, and LEO or other student outcomes data on graduate outcomes and earnings.

These two perspectives are, however, binocular rather than oppositional. Barber’s emphasis on ‘bad universities’ and Gyimah’s enthusiasm for student-facing apps are part of the same project, with data from and about students  treated as key performance indicators for both policy officials and university applicants to assess. As Barber noted, ‘With more information at their disposal on the quality of courses and associated salary outcomes, [students] will rightly be thinking carefully about such choices. That places an onus on universities to plan realistically and respond quickly where demand is higher–or lower–than expected’.

The emerging, prototypical HE app store instantiates these demands in software. It reveals to students the best-performing universities in terms of degree awards and graduate earnings, but also reveals the ‘bad universities’ and discourages them from ‘investing’ in these institutions and their courses. In these ways, the HE app store threatens to exert dangerously performative effects. By presenting university providers as a market, these apps will shape students’ choices away from certain institutions, or prompt institutions to drop courses that don’t promise a high percentage of positive graduate outcomes, while privileging elite institutions with stronger existing performance records. The app store will speed up the ‘market failure’ of those providers presented in the data as ‘bad universities’.

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One Response to The app store for higher education

  1. educationstate says:

    Yet the privileged, like the Barbers of this world, will continue to go to the same schools and same universities. Choice and markets are for everyone else.

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