The Report – Education: what is it good for?

Since industry has a growing role to play in education, Charley Rogers asks where are the ethical guidelines in private companies' vested interests?


The Breakdown

  • The DfE’s edtech strategy states: “Making the most of the opportunities afforded by edtech will require a partnership approach that brings teachers, lecturers, leaders and experts from across the education sector together with businesses to tackle common challenges.”
  • Edtech has a huge commercial impact. How can we align this profit-making approach with the more holistic endeavour of public education?
  • In 2018, over $16bn of private funding went into edtech companies across the world. – Metaari
  • “There is a fine line between a supportive role and promoting or marketing a particular product or brand to children, and this is where schools need to be careful.” – Christian Turton, London CLC
  • “Increasingly, edtech suppliers need to support educational institutions to ensure that educators and trainers can use the technology effectively.” – Prof. Rose Luckin, UCL Knowledge Lab
  • Choosing between a multitude of edtech outreach programmes means educators need to have a critical approach.
  • Programmes such as UCL Educate and BESA’s code of practice for its members are important steps in regulating private vested interest.
  • “We should never have to rely solely on private companies to educate our children, but this is not to say that their input does not provide a crucial resource amidst government frameworks that outwardly encourage this collaboration, despite not providing the necessary funding or infrastructure.” – Emma Grant, Manchester Digital

What’s the issue?

As part of their much- anticipated edtech strategy, released in April, the Department for Education (DfE) has encouraged the close participation of industry in education. The strategy says: “Making the most of the opportunities afforded by edtech will require a partnership approach that brings teachers, lecturers, leaders and experts from across the education sector together with businesses to tackle common challenges. ” It is the word ‘partnership ‘ here that raises questions: what should this partnership look like? How does industry’s role fit into an existing education system? And to what extent should private companies be able to influence a public sector? We know that edtech companies play an important role in education, from providing products and services that save time and improve learning outcomes, to running educational competitions and offering real-world career support.

Emma Grant, talent and skills manager at independent trade association, Manchester Digital, says: “As the digital sector continues to gather pace, industry has a duty to ensure educators are kept up-to-date to deliver a curriculum that is fit for purpose. It’s the only way.” But edtech is also a huge money-maker in the UK, as well as in places such as the US, China and India. For instance, Metaari’s ‘Analysis of the 2018 Global Learning Technology Investment Patterns’ report reveals that: “In 2018, a total of$16,344,641,828 in funding went to 1,087 companies across the planet.” This is rising annually, with an increase from $2,440,478,700 in 2014, an increase of 570%.

So how can we unite these approaches? On the one hand, edtech is a money-making opportunity, but on the other it is part of the much more holistic and less profitable endeavour of public education. As Christian Turton, co­director at London Connected Learning Centre (London CLC), says: ‘There is a fine line between a supportive role and promoting or marketing a particular product or brand to children, and this is where schools need to be careful.”

How is it playing out?

Educators are faced with a mammoth task. Not only are they charged with preparing a generation of young people for jobs that don’t yet exist, but increasing budgetary cuts and overworked staff means that there are numerous barriers to a streamlined teaching and learning experience. Tech is proven to help overcome many of these boundaries, and this cannot be achieved without the involvement of private companies’ innovations. Still, even with such pioneering input, teachers are often left behind due to a lack of up-to-date technical knowledge, and training, and a lack of confidence in using these new tools. Industry has a further role to play here. Rose Luckin, professor of learner-centred design at UCL’s Knowledge Lab, says: “Increasingly, edtech suppliers need to support educational institutions to ensure that educators and trainers can use the technology effectively.”

Training is one thing, but it is edtech support – as a part of wider and more comprehensive CPD – that is vital, says Turton: “It is important that support comes in the form of continuing professional development (CPD) rather than ‘training’ – a subtle but crucial distinction.” Turton explains that training means acquiring a new skill, whereas CPD concerns broader professional development.

He continues: “Any salesperson can do a finely tuned demo of a product, but for the CPD to translate into impact, the CPD facilitator needs to be an experienced educator who understands the pressures on the school, what research says about approaches and what the expected impact will be on learners.”

Once again, prioritising educational impact over sales is key.

The edtech industry not only has a responsibility to educators, but to learners.

Nick White, head of junior talent at Fujitsu EMEIA, notes that exponential growth of the tech industry means maintaining top-of-the-line technology and approaches can be almost impossible for education. This is where industry comes in. “What students are learning in year one at university, by the time they’ve finished their course, could be out of date,” says White. “Industry is probably then at the forefront of how we adopt this type of technology, so there is definitely a role for industry to work more closely with education providers.”

In fact, Fujitsu has just launched a degree apprenticeship with Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). The programme is part of the Tech Partnership, wherein digital tech companies in the digital tech sector work collaboratively to address the UK’s skills gap. This group approach means that it is not only one company that is represented within the apprenticeship, but a selection from across the sector.

The collective approach ensures that one c0mpany doesn’t get gain unfair advantage, says White: “To set an apprenticeship standard, 10 or more employers have to come together, whether that’s at degree level, master’s level, or levels 3 or 4. That’s to make sure that not just one organisation is represented, but it’s the view of the industry.”

There are many of these kinds of outreach programmes from industry, but even if they are created through partnership programmes such as this one, how can educators possibly distinguish between worthwhile programmes, and frothy, thinly veiled advertising attempts?

Turton suggests that, though many industry initiatives are of some value, “schools need to look carefully at the purpose of the competition and evaluate if it supports schools, and what impact it will have on pupils”. Impact consideration is essential, says Turton, and there may be underlying motives that don’t have pupils’ interests at heart. He continues: “While they can be motivational, they can also be poorly devised and little more than an opportunity to advertise to children.

“The teacher needs to be critical in deciding what is right for their children, and just like children, use a critical mindset when approaching technology.”

What is being done?

A number of programmes already work to bridge the gap between industry and education, ensuring that ethical guidelines are met, and that educators receive support in traversing the vast edtech landscape. One, Educate, is run out of UCL’s Knowledge Lab. “There certainly can be an important role for industry,” says Luckin, “provided they work in partnership with educators and there is bilateral learning- this is what we catalyse through UCL Educate.”

Edtech trade association, BESA, has a statutory code of conduct for its members, including such statements as: “We will never offer any inappropriate financial or other inducement, including direct and indirect payments, offers of employment or substantial gifts or entertainment, to any person in an attempt to influence any decision-making process which may affect our organisation or our industry.”

The one-page document can be viewed and downloaded at https://www.besa.org.uk/code-of-practice/

While these are certainly important steps in ensuring ethical engagement of private industry in education, what more can be done? The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has issued a proposal for a code of practice for any online services “likely to be accessed by children”. Could something similar work for edtech? Probably not, says Turton: “While an appealing idea, this may be difficult to implement. However, a framework for schools against which they could evaluate products, along with equipping schools with the skills and understanding to evaluate edtech, could be a simpler and more effective approach.”

It is also important to consider what can be done within the current system. Independent regulation would inevitably require an increasingly sparse commodity: money. Patrick Hayes, director at BESA, says too much top-down regulation can be problematic: “When considering nationwide regulations, it’s important to ask who would be doing the regulating. There is much that government can do to help encourage effective use of edtech in the classroom, as is evident in the recently published edtech strategy. “However, surely teachers should be the ultimate arbiters of what resources they should use in the classroom.”

What happens next?

A lot of this debate comes down to what education is believed to be for. If the outcome of an effective public education is intended to make the students employable, then industry has an obvious role to play. After all, it is largely industry that will be providing this employment, and so meeting its criteria will give students the best chance at a job. However, it can also be argued that the purpose of education is to develop young people in a more rounded way, and help them navigate the world with a toolkit of knowledge, consideration and compassion. Either way, a critical approach to resources is essential. Turton says: “Industry involvement is most effective when it is in partnership with experienced educators and when it is used to support schools to implement fully scoped-out plans that are based on impartial advice. “This doesn’t rule out industry engagement entirely, but commercial companies shouldn’t be the only people offering support.” Ultimately, industry involvement should be monitored to ensure that it is the best interests of teachers and learners that lie at the heart of these endeavours. Luckin says: “Companies should not be in a position to drive educational objectives and outcomes for their profit and advantage at the cost or detriment to teachers and learners. “Transparency, ethical guidelines and regulation are essential to underpin partnerships.” A balanced approach, then, seems to be the most advocated.

Though it’s important to be wary of offerings from private companies, and to approach them critically, too much idealism and rejection of all industry involvement can also be damaging. The reality of the situation is that the education sector lacks budget, and therefore the expertise and innovations of private industry can go far in bolstering educational offerings. If the learner comes first, the partnership can be a fruitful one. As Grant says: “We should never have to rely solely on private companies to educate our children, but this is not to say that their input does not provide a crucial resource amidst government frameworks that outwardly encourage this collaboration, despite not providing the necessary funding or infrastructure.”


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