New pandemic edtech power networks

Ben Williamson

networks alina-grubnyak

New global networks of organizations have begun to propose technical policy solution to mass disruption to education systems during the coronavirus outbreak. Image by Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash

Mass closures of schools and universities plus rapid switches to remote online teaching and learning around the world have empowered technology vendors and promoters to position themselves as frontline emergency response providers during the current coronavirus outbreak. In the early stages of the crisis, individual organizations sought to offer up novel solutions and potentially gain advantage from the new pandemic markets stimulated by the shuttering of schools. Very rapidly, however, new coalitions, collaborations and alliances have formed around shared objectives to solve the global disruption of education.

Powerful networks, consisting of big tech companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook, international organizations including the OECD and UNESCO, as well as a global education industry of edu-businesses, consultancies, investors and technology providers, are coming together to define how education systems should respond to the crisis. But their objectives do not just focus on the short term. These pandemic power networks are developing new long-term policy agendas for how education systems globally should be organized long after the emergency ends.

Some researchers have begun to suggest research agendas and developed fast-track special issues for the social sciences, arts and humanities to make sense of the coronavirus crisis. The aim of this post is much more modestly to start mapping out the actors that have emerged as influential organizations in relation to education during the pandemic, focusing on the intersections of education technologies and education policies. By mapping and documenting some of their activities, we can begin to understand how emerging networks of organizations are both seeking to solve the global disruption of education, and pave the way for longer-term transformations to education systems, institutions and practices. Much more sustained analytical work remains to be done–this is just a descriptive, first-draft sketch of current emergency policy developments that are still in motion.

Pandemic policy mobility
It is now clear that the dominant education policy preoccupation globally is how to deliver schooling without schools and degrees without campuses. The primary policy solution has been identified as digital technology and online ‘remote learning’. Despite considerable debate about the difference between well-designed online learning and emergency remote teaching, consensus on digitally-mediated distance education has become a remarkable instance of policy mobility. According to policy researchers, rather than solely emanating from central authorities, many contemporary policy processes are now distributed across different sectors, giving non-governmental organizations, businesses and other experts much more influence in the direction of policy, the dissemination of policy ideas, the formulation of policy advice, and the enactment of policies. A single policy may be the result of myriad interests and concerns being slowly translated and aligned into shared objectives. Policies also travel across borders, are borrowed, shared, adapted and recontextualized, and are fashioned and refashioned through the involvement of diverse actors from a range of sectors.

The mobile, networked policymaking condition has proven ideal to the expansion of educational technologies and media. Edtech is increasingly present within formal education policies as a result of the significant effort of advocacy networks, think tanks, consultancies, campaign coalitions, and business lobbying. Policy discourses and agendas around digital education, ‘personalized learning’ and ‘AI in education’ have travelled at speed around the world, lubricated by network relations. These edtech power networks are actively intervening in education systems in ways that suggest new forms of power and influence over education and its future.

Edtech has long been presented as a powerfully ‘disruptive’ force in education. During the ongoing coronavirus crisis, new pandemic power networks have begun to coalesce around claims that edtech is not just disruptive, but in fact palliative. One example is a collaborative edtech network facilitated by the UK venture investment company Emerge Education. Badged as an ‘EdTech industry collaboration to help schools and colleges deal with CV19 and the need for home learning,’ the online summit featured a diverse cross-sector mix of US-based tech businesses (Adobe, Amazon Web Services, Google, Microsoft), alongside UK-based edu-businesses and their supporters. Its key aim was to help school leaders and teachers learn how ‘curated EdTech resources (both online and offline) are available to set up effective homeschooling.’

The claims made through such networks about the palliative benefits of digital technologies and online teaching for ailing education systems are not confined to the period of the health emergency itself. Instead, many of these organizations are seizing the opportunity to project their longer-term objectives for large-scale educational adaptation and change, forming into pandemic power networks to achieve their transformative objectives.

Coronavirus coalition-making
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has positioned itself as the world authority on disruption to education caused by the global coronavirus outbreak. With approximately 1.5 billion students affected by school and university closures in 165 countries (87% of the global student population), UNESCO has taken the lead both in monitoring national responses and in formulating international responses to the educational crisis. On 24 March it released a ‘snapshot of policy measures’ as part of its Global Education Monitoring project, reporting that ‘all countries are introducing or scaling up existing distance education modalities based on different mixes of technology.’ Most countries, it reported, were using the internet and providing online platforms to deliver live lesson or record massive open online course (MOOC) styled lessons for continued learning, encouraging teachers and school administrators to use existing apps to support communication with learners and parents, or using TV and other media to deliver educational content.  However, it also noted major concerns about equity in access to ICT-based learning.

Two days later, on 26 March, UNESCO launched its Global Education Coalition as a ‘multi-sector partnership to provide appropriate distance education for all learners’, pushing the announcement across social media with the hashtag #LearningNeverStops and endorsement from Angelina Jolie in her role as a UN Special Envoy. Specifically, the coalition aims to help countries mobilize resources and implement ‘innovative and context-appropriate solutions to provide education remotely, leveraging hi-tech, low-tech and no-tech approaches’, identify ‘equitable solutions and universal access’, ensure ‘coordinated responses and avoid overlapping efforts’, and facilitate ‘the return of students to school when they reopen to avoid an upsurge in dropout rates.’ These are of course admirable and ambitious aims.

One additional objective stated on the coalition homepage, however, is to look beyond the context of the current emergency to longer-term transformations to education:

Investment in remote learning should both mitigate the immediate disruption caused by COVID-19 and establish approaches to develop more open and flexible education systems for the future.

In order to achieve both its immediate palliative aim and its longer-term objective of ‘investment’ in ‘education systems for the future,’ the coalition has enrolled partners from across sectors, including international organizations, civil society and private sector companies.

Edtech experiments
In the category of international organizations and multilateral partners, it includes Unicef, the WHO, World Bank, Global Partnership for Education, and the OECD. Two of these partners have already made significant effort to promote transformative agendas for education during the coronavirus outbreak.

The World Bank, for example, launched a Strategic Impact Evaluation Fund on 23 March, part of its funding program matching ‘scientifically sound research methods with policy challenges,’ with proposals invited for a fast-tracked competition intended

to generate experimental and quasi-experimental evidence that would be immediately useful for countries’ education systems as they deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.

In addition to the fund, the World Bank is also cataloguing best practices worldwide to support remote education through educational technologies, and working closely with national government ministries to develop their capacity:

The World Bank actively working with ministries of education in dozens of countries in support of their efforts to utilize educational technologies of all sorts to provide remote learning opportunities for students while schools are closed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and is in active dialogue with dozens more.

It even talks of a long-term ‘crisis of education’ that pre-dates coronavirus, tapping into longstanding policy discourses of education systems being broken and in need of transformation that are also shared among many education-focused agencies, philanthropies and businesses.

The OECD, meanwhile, published a 23 March briefing with recommended policy proposals for national governments to tackle school closures, as part of a package of policy proposals covering many governmental sectors. ‘The #coronavirus crisis is a stress test for education systems around the world,’ the OECD Education directorate tweeted to promote the education proposals. ‘But it is an opportunity to embrace digital learning and online collaboration.’ The education briefing itself stated:

Every week of school closure will imply a massive loss in the development of human capital with significant long-term economic and social implications.

For the OECD, coronavirus is not just a human health crisis but a crisis of human capital stagnation. In order to mitigate this disruption to human capital development, the OECD recommended countries to use existing online infrastructure for online distance courses wherever possible, and to encourage education technology companies to make their resources freely available.

But the briefing concluded with a section on ‘long-term opportunities’.

The  current  wave  of  school  closures  offers  an  opportunity  for  experimentation  and  for  envisioning  new models of education and new ways of using the face-to-face learning time.

Such ‘experimentation’ and ‘envisioning’ should, suggested the OECD, ‘Explore different  time and schooling models,’ such as ‘how students can learn in different places and at different times’ using ‘digital learning solutions’ and ‘provide students with opportunities to have more agency by being given more autonomy.’ It should also ‘Empower teachers to make the most of digital advances,’ to ‘test out different digital learning solutions, and understand how technology can be used to foster deeper  student  learning,’ to ‘think creatively about their role as facilitators of student learning, and how technology can support them in doing so, and how they can combine their expertise as a profession.’

In an article on ‘the world’s biggest educational technology (edtech) experiment in history’, the OECD’s education director Andreas Scleicher claimed ‘It’s a great moment’:

All the red tape that keeps things away is gone and people are looking for solutions that in the past they did not want to see. … Real change takes place in deep crisis. You will not stop the momentum that will build.

Schleicher emphasized how the pandemic response would cut the ‘red tape’ from personalized learning and other new digital formats enabling students to take individual ownership of their learning.

These are familiar arguments from the OECD about the future of education, translated in a new context. It is now treating the global pandemic as an experimental opportunity and a ‘great moment’ to catalyse and sustain the long-term digital transformations to education systems that will enable human capital development for an increasingly digitalized economy. In these ways, the OECD is seeking to lubricate the links between learning and earning, as part of its economization of education, and to guide national education leaders to utilize digital technologies to ensure improved employability prospects for students. As Schleicher argued in his visionary book on building ‘21st century education systems,’ the OECD is shifting its emphasis from ‘literacy and numeracy skills for employment, towards empowering all citizens with the cognitive, social and emotional capabilities and values to contribute to the success of tomorrow’s world.’

Embedding big tech in education 
Besides the multilateral organizations, the UNESCO coalition has also partnered with the private sector and with non-profit education organizations. These include Google, Microsoft, and Facebook from the US tech sector, the international consultancy KPMG, as well as Weidong (cloud-based education services), Coursera (MOOC provider), Zoom (videoconferencing platform), Khan Academy (online learning), Moodle (learning management system) and (learn to code coordinator).

Though it is not explicitly clear from the available coalition documents how these partners will each be involved, a key action of the coalition is to ‘match on-the-ground needs with local and global solutions’ and ‘provide distance education, leveraging hi-tech, low tech and no tech approaches.’ As such, it would appear that tech companies are to become officially-approved providers of ‘global solutions’ to schooling closures and the challenges of distance education.

While this switch to private sector and non-profit tech solutions remains completely understandable in the current context, its future implications for education systems around the world are far-reaching. These tech organizations share the ambition of the World Bank and OECD to embed digital technologies in education at very large scale, not just to assist in human capital development as the OECD explicitly states it, but in some cases to generate commercial advantage and market share too.

Some of these technology companies and organizations do not have unblemished records. For example, controversy has emerged over data collection and privacy of the videoconferencing platform Zoom, which was offered up to schools for free very quickly as lockdowns set in. Reports of racist ‘zoombombing’ of online lectures have raised new concerns over its security. Facebook has been the subject of extensive criticism, and has little record of involvement in education; Zuckerberg’s vehicle for educational influence is through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which has become one of the most influential supporters of data-driven personalized learning software in the US. Google and Microsoft, of course, have longstanding programs in education, with Microsoft Teams and Google Classroom experiencing a surge of customers. Teams has become a key collaboration platform for university staff during lockdown, and Google Classroom, which passed the 50 million download mark in late March, used extensively by schoolteachers around the world to set remote learning tasks.

Google had already launched a new service called Teach from Home in partnership with UNESCO’s Institute for Information Technologies in Education, as a ‘temporary hub of information and tools to help teachers during the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis’. It also provides resources for distance education through Google’s dedicated COVID19 Information and Resources site. Teach from Home actually consists of the standard Google G Suite of apps for education, including Classroom, Drive, Docs, Hangouts, Groups etc. ‘To give any of the suggestions a try, sign in with your G Suite for Education account,’ the Teach from Home site states. ‘If you don’t have one already, your school can sign up here.’ Google also launched Learn@Home through YouTube as a resource for families with children during school closures, with multiple channels of content provided by selected education partners. One of its main features is a daily ‘Homeroom’ video with Salman Khan of Khan Academy, another UNESCO coalition partner.

Salman Khan is also the author of a book popularizing the argument that conventional schooling is ‘broken’ and can be fixed through a ‘tech-friendly philosophy of education’. In Khan’s future vision of public education the borders between schooling and homeschooling become porous, as ‘flipped classrooms’ joined together by intelligent networked technology.

Khan Academy is the software-based embryo of the one world classroom. It’s not the fully functioning system, by itself. Khan Academy is more like a programming brain that the rest of the nervous system (different brick-and-mortar schools and homeschools) can access for the same unified participation in a free global education.

For Khan, as for many other Silicon Valley-based educational entrepreneurs, the software platform and the social media model is itself a template for school reform, where technology-enhanced teaching and learning appears to promise ‘an affordable and equitable educational future’ for all students. Khan Academy, Google, YouTube, Apple and Zoom are also all partners in another US-based edtech network, Wide Open Schools, established by Common Sense Media and powered by Salesforce to provide ‘a free collection of the best online learning experiences for kids.’ These organizations are forming into multiple network relations and formations to promote the kind of ‘flipped’ educational arrangements that tech organizations were already pursuing long before the COVID-19 outbreak, and which they aim to sustain after it.

The technology companies in these networks are also notoriously data hungry. Key figures such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Eric Schmidt formerly of Google, and Bill Gates of Microsoft are highly influential advocates of personalized education based on data and learning analytics. They see data as a key source of educational improvement, and promote technologies that can automate its analysis and provide real-time feedback to teachers or adaptive support to students. The involvement of these data-driven businesses in the UNESCO global coalition, and the rushed adoption of their platforms at scale, will alarm data protection and privacy campaigners concerned about commercial exploitation of student data, normalization of student surveillance, adoption of data processing technologies without full vetting procedures, or their imposition without full informed consent.

In the health domain, big tech companies have already signed agreements with governments to help solve the pandemic. Google, Microsoft, Palantir and Amazon are partners in the UK government’s efforts to gather real-time data on the virus, while Google is also gathering mass health data in exchange for coronavirus testing in the US:

Google’s ability to, in essence, force users to consent to data collection may become a more common tactic for companies and governments as the coronavirus rolls on, in their ongoing scramble to use technology to more effectively (and, most likely, profitably) stop the pandemic.

Similarly, within education, data-gathering organizations such as Google have now become virtually infrastructural to remote forms of education, if not to stop the pandemic then to mitigate its effects on many millions of students.

While UNESCO’s intentions are clearly admirable and necessary, the Global Education Coalition has empowered commercial technology actors and the global education industry to become a global infrastructure for education during and after the coronavirus outbreak too. Whether their services are desirable or not in the current context or beyond, clearly this coalition is enabling private tech businesses to expand their reach and influence in public education.

Global education for the future
The new pandemic edtech power network emerging through UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition is seeking to fulfil the important requirement for continuity of education for hundreds of millions of students worldwide. Many of its aims and its partners are clearly involved out of strong moral commitment. Not all the partners may always share the same objectives, but have, under extraordinary conditions, translated their aims into a shared policy and technology agenda that may lead to long-term consequences. The multilateral and tech sector partners of the coalition are already pushing for long-term changes to education systems that will:

  • Emphasize digital technologies as a solution to a perceived ‘crisis’ of education that pre-dates coronavirus
  • Embed digital technologies as long-term infrastructures of teaching, learning and assessment
  • Empower private sector technology companies as key providers of educational infrastructure, platforms, apps, content and other services
  • Further decentralize education systems into connected networks where learning can be conducted across homes, schools and other settings
  • Enhance data collection and expand use of data analytics, personalized learning software and AI in education
  • Focus on human capital development for the digital economy, and on lubricating learning-to-earning pipelines

Very similar aims are shared by other networks, such as the Emerge edtech industry collaboration and the Wide Open Schools partnership. These power networks are not so much staging a private ‘takeover’ of education, but together they are seeking to build a private infrastructure on which public education will depend.

These new power networks are also seeking to demonstrate the agility of the technology sector and the capacity of technology itself to solve complex policy problems. They are aiming to make digital technologies perform roles as policy machinery, able to enact significant changes on education systems at short notice.

These are of course not new aims. Multilateral organizations and technology companies have been pursuing them for years. But the UNESCO coalition has brought these organizations and their aspirations into closer contact and alignment with current emergency policy agendas. New network relations are being formed to drive the use of digital technologies to achieve remote education for all in ways that, in the short term, are intended to address deep inequalities in access to education during the coronavirus outbreak, but that also raise the prospect of profound long-term alternations to systems of public education.

These changes are happening fast during the emergency and are occurring almost without contest, despite years of critical studies of the influence of international organizations such as OECD and World Bank, commercial business involvement in public education, and concerns about the impact of the global education industry:

The shift in authority from the state to private actors might make sense on efficiency grounds, but also entails the undermining of democratic control of public education. Moreover, the professional autonomy and rights of teachers, as well as the local control of communities over their schools, may be undercut by the shift in authority to private, corporate, and global actors. Similarly, it is reasonable to question whether the shift in accountability structures away from democratic modes to corporate/consumer arrangements reshapes the orientation of education as a public good.

These remain critical issues as new pandemic edtech power networks plan to embed themselves in public education systems long past the public health crisis itself.

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