Edtech, coronavirus, and commercialization in public education

Ben Williamson


Schools and universities have been closed during lockdowns around the world, while education technology markets have been thriving.  Photo by moren hsu on Unsplash

While the opening months of 2020 have been marked by huge disruptions to education at an international scale, some organizations have thrived during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the education markets consultancy HolonIQ, the first three months of the year ‘delivered $3B of Global EdTech Venture Capital, nearly 10% of the prior decade’s total, in just the first quarter of the new decade.’ April even saw the largest-ever venture capital investment in an edtech company, with Beijing-based  Yuanfudao receiving $1billion USD for its AI-based online tutoring and homework platform. The company has become the first coronavirus crisis edtech unicorn, during a remarkable quarter of a year for commercial edtech and education markets.

The rapid expansion of commercial edtech during the large-scale closure of schools and universities is the focus for a new project supported by Educational International, the Global Union Federation that represents organizations of teachers and other education employees around the world. The project is a collaboration with Anna Hogan at the University of Queensland. We’ll be bringing together Anna’s research expertise in education policy, marketization, privatization and commercialization with my experiences of researching edtech over the last decade. The project will help inform EI’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, but also its longer-term work on commercialization in public education internationally.

We’ve started initial work already, gathering evidence of commercial edtech activity over the last few months. It includes:

Beyond mapping out and trying to understand these organizations, networks, and activities, the project is also guided by larger questions and concerns. These include questions about the long-term consequences for public education of the emergency switch to online learning and edtech, and the implications for education systems in different international contexts. Already, we are finding claims and arguments for making current emergency measures into lasting reforms, in ways which often reflect pre-existing aims and visions for the future of education. We’ll be mobilizing some conceptual resources from the study of policy networks, the global education industry, education markets, and critical edtech to analyse these developments and consider how they might shape the recovery of public education beyond the pandemic.

Some of my own tentative thoughts on the possible long-term consequences and implications were sketched out in a previous post. In this project on edtech, coronavirus and commercialization we hope to much more clearly understand how emerging networks of organizations across sectors and national borders are both seeking to solve the short-term global disruption of education, and paving the way for longer-term transformations to education systems, institutions and practice.

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