The evolution of the global education industry during the pandemic

Ben Williamson & Anna Hogan


During worldwide disruptions to schooling, a global industry has advanced its vision of a digital future of education. Photo by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

Through the ‘pivot’ to ‘online learning’ and ‘emergency remote teaching’ during the Covid-19 emergency, educational technology (edtech) has become integral to education globally, with private sector and commercial organizations developing central roles in essential educational services. The effects are set to persist in temporary models of ‘socially distanced’ in-school and at-home learning during the period of pandemic recovery, and for longer in fully ‘hybrid’ approaches where commercial edtech and other private technology products and services are embedded in new models of curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and school management. This post summarizes some key headlines from recent research conducted with Anna Hogan for Education International, the Global Union Federation that represents teachers and other education employees around the world, as part of its long-term global response to commercialization in schools.

The project, published as the freely accessible report Commercialization and privatization in/of education in the context of Covid-19, mapped out how privatization and commercialization of education advanced through the application of educational technologies during the 2020 pandemic. The report offers a provisional cartographical survey of the shifting landscape of commercialization and privatization in education, outlining its emerging contours and identifying coordinates and landmarks for further sustained attention from researchers, teacher unions and practitioners as public and state education systems begin the process of recovery.

We started off by recognizing that commercial technology has played a crucial and valuable role in educational continuity for millions of students worldwide, that there is an existing body of edtech research to inform and evaluate its use, and by acknowledging that commercial and private sector participation in education has a long and complex history. What we set out to explore, specifically, was the expanding scale and scope of commercialization and privatization during the pandemic, and its potential effects on state and public education, while recognizing longstanding problems with the structures, practices and governance of schooling.

Pandemic imaginaries
The project was informed by previous research on fast policy and policy mobility – the understanding that policy is the product of sprawling multisector networks of people, organizations and technologies, including commercial businesses – and by studies of technology which recognize that all technologies are shaped by the politics, assumptions and desires of their producers: technologies carry sociotechnical imaginaries of preferred futures that their producers seek to attain, and are also interpreted and utilized by others to achieve specific aims and visions. The expansion of commercial edtech during Covid is both a global fast policy event that involves multisector organizational webs, and a practical enactment of particular ways of envisaging the future of education that emerge from those networks, with potentially profound long-term implications for systems and practices of schooling.

One of the key findings detailed in the report is that a multisector global education industry of private, intergovernmental and commercial organizations has played a significant role in educational provision during the Covid-19 crisis, working at local, national and international scales to insert edtech into educational systems and practices. The global education industry has often set the agenda, offered technical solutions for government departments and ministries of education to follow, and is actively pursuing long-term reforms whereby private technology companies would be embedded in public education systems during the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis and beyond it in new models of ‘hybrid’ teaching and learning.

During the pandemic, this evolving instantiation of the global education industry produced and circulated powerful ideas about Covid-19 as a novel ‘opportunity’ to ‘reimagine’ education, treated home-based learning as a ‘microcosm’ of a digital future for hybrid forms of education, and encouraged ‘experimentation’ and ‘innovation’ to shape education systems for the future. It established the crisis as a catalytic opportunity for educational reimagining, reform and transformation, in ways that favour an acceleration in edtech rollout and that empower commercial organizations to participate more extensively and intensively in public and state schooling.

A key part of the global education industry’s approach during the pandemic is through coalition-making and developing the role of public-private partnerships in education policy. The role of commercial providers has been supported, promoted and advanced by a range of organizations that cut across public, private and third sectors. Some of the most influential promoters of edtech solutions during the pandemic include international multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, OECD, Global Partnerships for Education and UNESCO, in many cases operating in global multisector coalitions of public and private partners to promote ‘best practices’ for policymaking centres to emulate. Commercial edtech providers and advocacy organizations have also formed powerful networks and coalitions to highlight and promote edtech products for use by schools, teachers and parents.

These coalitions illustrate the emergence of new kinds of multisector public-private partnerships and fast policy networks in relation to edtech expansion, and the enhanced role of the private sector in educational delivery and governance. Although ministries of education have retained key decision-making powers, often they have been led and guided by various national and international networks that are orchestrating the educational response to the pandemic.

Edtech markets
A key part of the emergency response to education has been the creation of new market opportunities and the movement of money, especially from venture philanthropies and venture capital sources. Financial support and political advocacy for edtech solutions to school closures during the pandemic have been provided by technology philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. They have dedicated new multimillion dollar funds to a range of edtech programs and sought to consolidate the long-term role of the private sector and commercial technology in public education.

Wealthy individual tech philanthropists have also been given positions of authority as experts in ‘reimagining’ education for the future, in ways which reflect their pre-existing visions, their financial support for technology-centred models of schooling, and their efforts to influence policy agendas. Through pandemic philanthropy, individual technology wealth has become a key source for reimagining education and funding technical development to achieve those imagined futures. Naomi Klein has described the formation of a new ‘pandemic shock doctrine’ and a ‘Screen New Deal’ that is being brokered between governments and global technology firms by wealthy philanthropists.

Financial organizations, market intelligence agencies, venture capital, and impact investors have sought to capitalize on the pandemic too. With edtech investment already at high levels, especially in the US and southeast Asia, financial predictions of the value of edtech have stimulated capital markets, with the Covid-19 treated as a catalytic opportunity to capitalize on the sudden rise in use of technologies in education. Financial models including venture capital, exchange-trade funds, private equity, impact investing and social bonds have all been utilized to invest in and fund educational technologies during the pandemic. Market projections of the surging value of digital learning technologies over the coming decade are likely to attract further investors seeking profit from new disruptive models of public education. The pandemic has been characterized by edtech market-making: the effort to identify and capitalize on new and valuable market spaces for educational technologies.

Private solutions
Technology corporations have also expanded their digital solutions across education at international scale. Major multinational technology corporations including Google, Microsoft and Amazon have experienced a huge surge in demand for their products and services due to their capacity to deliver solutions at international scale, at speed, and for free. Supported by multilateral policy influencing organizations and national government departments, these companies have integrated schools, teachers and students into their global cloud systems and online education platforms, raising the prospect of widening and deepening long-term dependencies of public education institutions on private technology infrastructures. Social media platforms including YouTube and TikTok have also sought to grow their presence in education through content creation partnerships for students learning at home, with TikTok explicitly fast-tracking its investment in new ‘snack-sized’ micro-learning content to make the platform more appealing to advertisers.

Educational companies of various types – from global edu-businesses like Pearson to new startups – have also rapidly marketed and promoted their products for use by schools, often for free or heavily subsidized for a temporary period. Online schooling platforms are promoted by many education companies as long-term alternative models for education, and have experienced huge customer growth and investor interest. ‘AI’ technologies have also experienced significant growth, owing to their capacity to provide ‘personalized’ or automated education in the absence of teachers. Testing companies have scrambled to develop new ways of assessing students in the absence of conventional examinations, including the highly controversial use of machine learning for predictive grading. Moreover, student surveillance technologies have been adopted to monitor students’ virtual attendance, ‘proctor’ examinations, assess social-emotional learning and well-being, and enable schools to fulfil their safeguarding responsibilities.

At the same time, parents and students themselves have been approached as customers of edtech products, as a new market in consumer edtech has become the focus of investor enthusiasm. Direct-to-consumer edtech has opened up a novel niche for the shadow education market of private supplementary tutoring and homework platforms. These developments are extending the reach of edu-businesses to new areas of schooling and learning at home, and heightening their long-term influence over the format of education for the future.

Futures of education
Overall, the project has revealed a particular set of mutations in the global education industry during the Covid-19 pandemic. It has documented some ways in which privatization of education has expanded – through increasing participation of private actors in public education – and of how commercialization of education has developed through the creation, marketing and sale of education goods and services to schools (and parents) by external providers. We understand this as a particularly intense instantiation of fast policy involving multisector actors and networks, and as an accelerated realization of sociotechnical imaginaries of a highly digitalized future of education. The shifting landscape of commercialization and privatization in education we have surveyed will require sustained attention by educators, unions and researchers to ensure that all stakeholders, and not just private or commercial organizations, can participate democratically in imagining the post-Covid future of public education.

The full report is freely available from Education International. This post is an adapted version of the report summary.
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