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Ulterior motives: Why ed tech is parasitic by nature

Technocrats are concocting problems and convincing educators that only their technology-driven products provide the solution. Schools should be wary of wolves in sheep’s clothing, writes Joe Nutt, educational consultant and author 

Covid-19 has disrupted every imaginable aspect of modern life but arguably none so controversially as education, or, more precisely, schooling. I stress the difference because it really matters. The two things are not necessarily synonymous. An explosion of interest in professional tutoring and the UK government’s decision to fund a £350 million National Tutoring Programme illustrate that. While independent schools went into overdrive to try and continue to deliver some kind of uninterrupted school life, many UK state schools which kept their doors open to small numbers of key workers’ children struggled to simultaneously deliver lessons or materials online. The government again stepped in and backed an initiative to record 10,000 online lessons by Oak National Academy, a schools-led effort that has been expanded and extended into next year, using an additional £4.3 million in funding. 

The different responses of the two sectors in the UK prompted a lot of predictable political debate, finger-pointing and blame. But it’s been the similarity – not the difference – in the reaction that made me reflect more deeply on the business model that characterises ed tech. 

Globally, the World Bank, DfID and other aid and development organisations have become intensely engaged in trying to do the same for developing nations where the whole process of educating children has been, at best, catastrophically reduced and, at worst, has completely stalled. The United Nations’ second Millennium development goal – to give all children a primary education – announced in 2000 and for so long a focus of international development expenditure and effort, has taken a massive hit, and just as in the case of UK schools, in every instance, these organisations are looking to technology to help limit the damage. 

Almost every global think-tank and influential NGO you care to mention – UNESCO, the OECD, Unicef, the WHO – has reacted to the massive disruption to schools caused by the pandemic by forming ‘visionary’ partnerships with some of the technology giants. UNESCO has set up a Global Education Coalition, what it calls a “multi-sector partnership to provide appropriate distance education for all learners”. It embraces a number of major technology businesses, including Google, Microsoft, Facebook, KPMG, Weidong, Coursera, Zoom, Khan Academy, Moodle and These are some of the biggest players in the ed tech world. 

This investment of hope in ed tech isn’t limited to nations. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, set up a new panel led by the ex-chief executive of Google, Eric Schmidt, to do the same for New York. He also invited the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others, to design a “smarter education system”. 

Tech giants must be salivating at what looks like a glut of commercial opportunities in education generated by political responses to the pandemic. 

Yet what I realised, reflecting on the more than 20 years I have spent working with ed tech businesses on international projects, is that the way technology businesses work with the education sector is fundamentally dysfunctional: it is, and always has been, entirely parasitic. 

In an article for online magazine Quartz, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of education, commented: “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.” Speaking on the BBC’s flagship news programme Today, he said: “Education is not a place; it’s an activity.” 

Both these statements expose precisely why Silicon Valley’s relationship with schools and universities is parasitic and needs replacing with something new, that is healthier for the hosts. In the same way businesses have taken a long time to recognise the dysfunctional business model that made Facebook a tech giant, and have started to withdraw their advertising from the platform, educational institutions need to grasp the reality of their relationship with the tech industry. This article spells that out. What they do next is up to them. 

The first thing to understand is exactly how technology businesses think about and talk to schools and universities – but, more precisely, how they talk to the people whose job it is to procure technology on behalf of teachers or students. 

The ed tech market is unlike most real markets in one crucial feature. Whereas in a true market the customer exchanges cash for a product, in education, the real customer is always a teacher or a student, but the cash transaction is almost always executed on their behalf by someone else. 

These conversations are always what the industry calls “solutions-based”. Technology businesses regard education, and inevitably schooling, as a problem to be solved – never as a professional activity secure and confident in its own practice. 

What this means in reality is that even something as routine and trivial as registering pupils every day is discussed and envisaged as a problem to be solved. Schools are offered quicker, more efficient, data-driven ‘solutions’ like biometrics, where children sign in via a thumbprint or by facial recognition. Once you establish the idea in people’s minds that registering pupils is a ‘problem’, then it becomes easy to expand on the difficulties. Biometrics then become a security ‘solution’, too, by telling you who is on site at any one time, even when the need to know this is of no intrinsic educational value whatsoever.  

This same flawed process, drives everything from the simplest things in education like registering pupils, to entire school improvement programmes run by national governments. 

Powerful intermediaries like the OECD do the technology sales teams’ jobs for them by telling national governments they have a school improvement “problem”, the solution to which is performance data. So international tests like PISA appear, purporting to show how one country’s education system performs in comparison to others, at best an exercise in data generation so culturally naive as to be useless, and at worst educationally ridiculous. School and university league tables are a product of exactly the same, profoundly dysfunctional business model. 

They all spring from the same parasitic instinct. Technology businesses sell solutions to educational problems that they themselves invent and because they are technology businesses, and never make a decision without consulting a spreadsheet; every step of the way they justify the process on the basis of data. The problems are identified and defined not by educators, but by technocrats. 

The entire world of school improvement and educational reform is rooted in the technocratic belief that numbers tell their own story. A belief that naïve politicians eagerly bought into because it gave them a graph to point to, a tangible, colourful image of their personal and party success. In the UK schools were given grades by the schools inspectorate Ofsted, based on the numbers of exams their pupils passed, as though it was the school that was directly responsible for the numbers and not a machine that was merely toying with them before someone else told the story about the school that suited their personal or political agenda. 

Children were placed into groups they didn’t really belong to in any meaningful sense on the basis of the story the numbers might tell. So, some had special educational needs and were immediately labelled SEN; others were tagged NEETs (not in education, employment or training), while some were branded disadvantaged, or, most recently, ‘pupil premium’ reflecting a government initiative to target additional funding at disadvantaged children.

In every case, the only value to accrue was it provided the means for technology businesses to sell more solutions and for politicians to point to graphs to indicate their success; the real children, like unwonted film extras, never made an appearance in their own story.  

Technocratic thinking reduces everything to numbers before any decision is made. If you manufacture computing technology it makes sense that you would use your own products to drive and support your business. The problem started when those same businesses demanded schools and universities do the same, because the numbers always told the truth. 

‘The machines can tell the truth’ turned into: ‘only the machines can tell the truth’.   

Perhaps I should have realised this when I first saw what this dysfunctional behaviour can do even to a world-class school over 20 years ago, when I was still teaching. I returned to school one September, together with everyone else, to find that every classroom in the building, including my own, had been fitted with computer terminals along the rear wall. No one had ever asked me. They just appeared. I stayed teaching at that school for several years and never once saw those terminals being used in any classroom, by anyone. 

In the intervening years I’ve seen that same process replicated again and again, nationally and internationally. Someone in education being convinced they have a problem that needs a technology solution, without ever asking or even thinking about the real customer. 

The situation is exacerbated because the individuals so often guilty of this zealous spending often have incentives that are not in the best interests of those real customers. They frequently get that responsibility because they have an enthusiasm for technology, not because they have experience managing educational budgets and it is not unusual to see people leave an educational role for a commercial role with a successful supplier. It’s also not unusual for them to not last very long there. 

Once a technology business has established this parasitic relationship, it is in the perfect position to benefit over the long term. Nothing in the world of technology hardware of software is designed to last. If very lucky, a school or university might get five years of functionality from any purchase before the supplier offers them a choice between a ‘refresh’, or loss of service, which is no choice at all. At the same time, it becomes only natural for the supplier to continue the same process, repeatedly finding new problems and offering solutions that commit the host to more and more expenditure. The parasite gets fatter and fatter while the host slowly deteriorates. 

Many businesses have realised that Facebook’s dysfunctional business model had sucked them into an unhealthy relationship they would be better off without. Schools and universities need to learn from their example and start to shed anything that isn’t demonstrably and unequivocally adding to their educational purpose because we all know how parasitic relationships eventually end. 

If that sounds too dramatic then remember Schleicher’s words earlier. The unstoppable momentum which he believes has built up is a push towards education being delivered in novel, technology-enabled ways, which have little to no respect for schools or universities as significant, educationally effective institutions. When you really do believe, as Schleicher clearly does, that education is just an activity and not a place, then who needs the places? 

Posted on: 07/07/2020

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