Making Education More Commercial?

This is the fourth and final of the four questions posed in the book Is Technology Good for Education?, which I have been summarising in recent blog posts.

In this chapter, Neil Selwyn discusses the premise that business and commerce are infiltrating education increasingly because of technology. He points out of course that education has always had business interests  – hundreds of years ago you had to pay to go to school – but that now major tech corporations such as Microsoft and Google have dedicated educational divisions, and as such, are influencing our study environments and habits. Moodle, an open source learning platform, is currently developing integrations with Office 360 and Google apps because  of the prevalence of these in educational organisations. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Text book publishers such as Pearson have for several years been producing digital versions of their text books – first as SCORM and more recently as LTI. When I was teaching at school, this was a benefit because it meant that a department could both save money and also supply all students with a copy of the text book online. A department might not be able to afford individual textbooks for all students, but by buying the SCORM version and uploading it to the VLE, all students had access. (That said, there were other issues with the poor quality of the SCORM package, but I digress…)

Major Silicon valley corporations pour money into educational initiatives -but are these as altruistic as they appear? I was particularly interested in the background behind the renaissance of teaching Computing in schools: a colleague (and former pupil – I’m that old!) has for several years been a big player in bringing computing teaching back into fashion. I read

The fact that so many people in education have come to see this  as a’good idea’ resulted in no small part from sustained lobbying by what has been described as a ‘who’s who’ of tech industry elite

and I learned that, actually, teaching computing has come back into fashion so that the big software companies and games developers will be ensured of future employees. Not that that is a ‘bad’ thing, but it does imply an disproportionate influence:

When a powerful figure such as  the Head of Google  deigns to take an interest in their education system. public officials have tended to take his pronouncements very seriously indeed.

MOOCs too are another area where, rather than developing from  the desirable aim of providing free education for the masses who couldn’t otherwise afford it, they grew because of corporate self-interest:

While popularly perceived to be driven by a couple of Stanford professors,  Coursera was bolstered by $85 million of venture capital funding.

I was surprised,and somewhat disappointed, to discover that even badges, the flipped classroom and  even gamification all have roots in high tech firms. Again, not that this is a bad thing; just that I assumed these ideas germinated in the classroom. Perhaps they did, but it is the big businesses that are nourising them and allowing them to blossom:

[…]the biggest movers and shakers in education are no longer educators and academics but programmers, hackers and of course the trillion dollar industry that has grown up around them.

The problem with this is that, although bringing big tech ideas from business into education might seem  a smart way to move teaching and learning on – in practice, the business mentality and the teaching/managing education mentality are not the same. I was very much reminded of initiatives from my own experience in K12 when ‘superheads’ from business swooped into failing schools to take over and make them a success. It didn’t work. Because schools are not businesses, and education is not commerce.

[…] many of the ‘new’forms of digital education being driven by commercial interests are based around decidedly different agendas and ideologies than we are used to encountering in public education.

Selwyn, N. (2016). Is technology good for education?. 1st ed. Great Britain:



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