Emergency edtech

Ben Williamson


The education technology industry has positioned itself as an emergency response to the coronavirus pandemic. Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Education institutions around the world are switching to ‘remote’ teaching and learning, and the education technology industry is generously offering its products to support them in the current emergency. To a significant extent, the emergency edtech response is providing much-needed services to help educators provide some continuity of study and learning for their students. But the edtech sector has been preparing for remote education for years, and built up a marketplace of products that could radically alter how education is organized long after the world has recovered from the public health crisis.

Pandemic markets
The novel coronavirus pandemic is a health emergency, a political emergency, an economic emergency, and an educational emergency. Since its effects on education systems first became apparent in south east Asia early this year, education companies and technology businesses have ramped up their marketing of products to support online learning, seeing the public health crisis and the quarantining of students partly as an opportunity to prove the benefits of edtech.

Coronavirus may also be beneficial for the edtech industry for financial reasons. Early in March, the investment bank BMO Capital Markets predicted a spike in edtech stocks. ‘While we are uncomfortable citing “winners” in the coronavirus situation, some companies may be positioned better than others,’ it claimed. ‘Specifically, those that specialize in online education could see increased interest should the situation worsen’. BMO Capital Markets specifically singled out major market leaders including K12 and Pearson as potential for-profit beneficiaries of mass education closures and population quarantining measures. These companies have already created the technologies to support ‘remote’ forms of teaching and learning across both the schooling and higher education sectors.

To take one of these example companies, the multinational, multibillion dollar edu-business Pearson has been seeking to reshape education as a remote process as part of a ‘digital transformation’ and corporate restructuring stretching back nearly a decade. In the past few years, Pearson has adopted a ‘digital first’ strategy, begun ditching its production of textbooks, and embraced new forms of ‘platform’ delivery. It has also reconceived its customers as ‘Gen Z’ student-consumers who prefer ‘on-demand streaming’ content to conventional educational delivery, and developed a ‘Global Learning Platform’ to position itself as the ‘Netflix of education’.

At the same time, Pearson has significantly increased its emphasis on online learning for higher education, with a strategic focus on growing its Online Program Management (OPM) market share specifically in the US and UK. OPM models are attractive to universities as they provide the infrastructure necessary for institutions to deliver distance courses and thereby increase their share of the international student market. Institutions across the US and UK have signed 10-year deals with the company, where Pearson provides the back-end systems to host courses and then takes a 50% cut of the fees when students enrol.

Pearson’s Global Learning Platform and Online Program Management services are not just technical developments but ‘market devices’ that have enabled the company to create new markets for its products, and establish itself as the market leader in edtech as part of its corporate vision of education. It is both reaching out to students themselves as remote customers of streaming education services, and partnering up with universities to deliver remote courses. As Anna Hogan and Sam Sellar have argued in relation to Pearson’s vision of education in 2025, the company is seeking to create disruptive changes to the educational profession, deliver personalized learning as a private service, and generate huge quantities of student data for further analysis and product development.

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 reorganize public education as a market for its products, platforms and services. As Pearson’s 2018 corporate strategy document stated, the company aimed to shape the future of  education and lead and shape the market too.

Edtech companies, exemplified by Pearson, wish to make ‘remote learning’ the new normal mode of education. ‘Remote’ may not even mean students being geographically distant from their schools or campuses, but simply that edtech platforms act as  intermediaries between educational institutions and their students, acting at a distance to shape the possibilities of teaching and learning. The global pandemic has appeared as an opportunity to rapidly grow market share, generate competitive advantage, and boost stock market valuation, with a view to long-term consolidation of market advantage and to reshaping public education at the same time.

Pandemic experiments
The global coronavirus pandemic is also an opportunity to produce very large quantities of student data, as students are forced online into data-intensive digital learning environments at unprecedented scale. For researchers and organizations invested in data scientific forms of analysis in education, as Jonathan Zimmerman put it in The Chronicle of Higher Education, coronavirus is an opportunity for a ‘great online learning experiment’.

Coronavirus … has created a set of unprecedented natural experiments. For the first time, entire student bodies have been compelled to take all of their classes online. So we can examine how they perform in these courses compared to the face-to-face kind, without worrying about the bias of self-selection. It might be hard to get good data if the online instruction only lasts a few weeks. But at institutions that have moved to online-only for the rest of the semester, we should be able to measure how much students learn in that medium compared to the face-to-face instruction they received earlier.

The working assumption here is that coronavirus is a natural experimental opportunity for education data scientists–both those in academic education research and analysts working in edtech companies and other edubusinesses–to demonstrate the effectiveness of online education over face-to-face teaching. Zimmerman even argued that it should be considered a kind of moral responsibility for universities to use the chance to figure out if online education outperforms in-person teaching, even though, he said, ‘if students showed more gains from online instruction, professors who teach face-to-face classes–like I do–might find their own jobs in peril’.

The Chronicle article is fraught with methodological and ethical problems. Clearly any analysis of the data of populations of online students affected by pandemic conditions could not be meaningfully compared with other data from face-to-face teaching under other conditions. Treating a pandemic as an experiment in online learning reduces human suffering, fear and uncertainty to mere ‘noise’ to be controlled in the laboratory, as if there is a statistical method for controlling for such exceptional contextual variables. Yet the data scientific dream of measuring learning at scale in order to develop a precise understanding of the benefits of remote instruction is clearly animating part of the effort by edtech businesses and associated researchers to utilize the coronavirus emergency as a mass data-gathering and analysis opportunity. And this might ultimately, as Zimmerman suggested, lead to a consolidation of online instruction and lead to further worker precarity for educators.

Emergency edtech eventually won’t be needed to help educators and students through the pandemic. But for the edtech industry, education has always been fabricated as a site of crisis and emergency anyway. An ‘education is broken, tech can fix it’ narrative can be traced back decades. The current pandemic is being used as an experimental opportunity for edtech to demonstrate its benefits not just in an emergency, but as a normal mode of education into the future.

A full paper on Pearson’s market-making activities in higher education is published in Critical Studies in Education, or available at ResearchGate.
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