My notes on this report by Google Transparency Project 

There are many reasons to be cautious about the educational ambitions of tech firms. If these firms seem likely to be the dominant actors of the global economy over the coming decades, how will shape the influence they exercise over education. To offer the most concrete example I can think of: if tech firms shape the curriculum for digital citizenship and digital safety, will they present themselves as sources of digital risk? I doubt it and it’s one of many reasons why their projects and initiatives need to be carefully scrutinised. Capturing the Classroom by the Google Transparency Project is an important contribution to precisely this agenda.

It investigate how technology procurement has been upended in American schools, with “a rigorous and competitive process that carefully weighed factors including cost, usefulness and safeguards on children’s privacy” being radically transformed by Google “directly enlisting teachers to push their products into the classroom”. This has been undertaken through the recruitment of teacher evangelists and organisation of teaching summits (pg 2) with existing professional development budgets bearing the cost of helping teachers adapt to this new technological infrastructure. It is a process which “focused on teachers and their power to spread the word about Google’s classroom potential—all while bypassing the administrators that typically make decisions about technology and other educational tools” (pg 7). In some cases, the teacher trainers win consultancy contracts with no disclosure terms attached, echoing the established practice of Big Pharma offering paid speaking gigs to doctors in the expectation they act as advocates for their products.

It has also sparked the proliferation of an ecosystem of blogs, resources and consultancies “among educators and administrators looking to cash in on school districts’ technology craze” (pg 12). In some cases, these businesses then work with other tech firms, creating a sustained mobilisation of big tech advocacy within education. Third party firms can place a distance between a teacher and Google, blunting the appearance of a conflict of interest.

The authors draw the contrast to Coke and Pepsi’s ambition to produce customers for life by placing vending machines in every school. They suggest Google have already seen considerable success:

Today, 25 million students worldwide use Google’s Chromebooks at school, 30 million teachers and students use Google Classroom, and more than 80 million people use G Suite for Education. (Pg 2)

The success of their initiatives has inspired other firms to follow their lead, described on pg 5:

Google isn’t the only technology company trying to push its products into the classroom. Microsoft, Amazon and Apple, as well as other device manufacturers and software developers, all have aggressive programs targeted at classrooms. Many, such as Amazon Inspire, Microsoft’s Certified Educator program19 and Apple’s Distinguished Educator program, take a page directly from Google’s playbook, also courting teachers and administrators with free trips, software and, increasingly, lucrative consulting gigs moonlighting for EdTech companies. (Pg 5)

However they note that Google has a crucial advantage, in that it can offer hardware as loss leaders in a way that its competitors cannot. Many questions remain unanswered about the commercial significance of this, including whether student profiles built up in school are ‘switched on’ when students enter adult life (pg 7).

I found this comparison by Robin Wilton extremely thought-provoking. It’s correct as a statement about why we should treat these skills as fundamental to education. However it glosses over a number of differences and we should be cautious about the comparison:

  1. While there are corporate interests involved in reading, writing and arithmetic they exercise less power in society at large than big tech
  2. Connected to this is the fact that these corporate interests in no way control the infrastructure of reading, writing and arithmetic whereas big tech does, at least in a collective sense
  3. The harms children face in their future use of reading, writing and arithmetic have no connection to the firms who produce instruments for these purposes, as opposed to big tech which is itself a source of the privacy harms it seeks to educate children about

There’s an interesting piece by Alastair Creelman in Elm Magazine on platform literacy and the collaborations which will be necessary to develop it as an agenda. While transnational initiatives have their value, their efficacy is likely to be dependent upon their mediation by professional stakeholders:

There are excellent guidelines and initiatives from the EU Commission aimed at raising awareness of media literacy issues and digital literacies in general but these need to be implemented at national level and downwards. Teachers need to work with other professions such as journalists, publishers, media specialists, librarians, researchers and civil servants to offer a wide range of training resources and arrange workshops, meetings and lectures focusing on media literacy.

https://elmmagazine.eu/articles/towards-platform-literacy/

Building the space for these collaborations is important work. But it is costly and requires resources, creating a temptation to accept support from wherever it can be found. However with tech firms increasingly effective in shaping the implementation of digital citizenship, even if a much broader conversation continues around it, the risk is that these spaces are captured to institutionalise an anaemic, individualised and instrumental citizenship devoid of platform literacy. The collaborations between professional groups described by Alastair Creelman could function as an important bulwark against this agenda and it is important that they resist co-option, even if it comes in the shiny and appealing guise of a friendly tech company bearing gifts.

December 13th-14th, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

In recent discussions of capitalism, the notion of the ‘platform’ has come to play a prominent role in conceptualising our present circumstances and imagining our potential futures. There are criticisms which can be raised of the platform-as-metaphor, however we believe it provides a useful hook through which to make sense of how socio-technical innovations may be leading to a new phase of capitalist accumulation. To talk of ‘platform capitalism’ in this sense does not exclude consideration of parallel notions such as digital capitalism, data capitalism and surveillance capitalism but rather seeks to frame these considerations through a focus upon the platform as a novel assemblage.

While research into social media and the sharing economy is relatively advanced, the increasing centrality of platforms to the operation of the university remains understudied and undertheorised. Our conference seeks to rectify this, raising the possibility of the ‘platform university’ as a provocation to stimulate discussion concerning platforms, the commercial and academic science they depend upon and contribute to reshaping, as well as their implications for the future of the university. We see the university as a case study for inquiry into platforms, but also as a horizon of change within which the social sciences seek to address these processes.

Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/capitalism-social-science-and-the-platform-university-tickets-51955542426

There will be a keynote by Ben Williamson on The expanding data infrastructure of higher education: public-private policy networks and platform plug-ins.

Full schedule of speakers and talks:

  • Aliandra Lazzari Barlete and Mário de Azevedo – Higher education, platforms and the academic profession in Latin America: a case for platform academic capitalism
  • Abdullah Ciftci – What is the role of YouTube for teaching profession?
  • Armen Aramyan – Datafication as a Synonym for Efficiency: Neoliberal Policymaking in Russian Academia
  • Eleanor Dare – Ontological platforms: deconstructing Moodle and the ideology of personalised learning
  • Carly Foster and Peter Francis – Critical Reflections on Educational Analytics and the Platform Universit
  • Morten Hansen – Black boxing the university
  • Eva Hartmann – Degrees of deceptions: Faking of and in the credential society
  • Martin Henry and Alba Henry – Quality teacher and digital student in the age of platform capitalism
  • Marc Jacquinet – What we can learn about platform capitalism from past speculative bubbles
  • Janja Komljenovic – Varieties of European universities’ engagement with social media  platforms
  • Anna Kosmützky – “There will be only 10 Universities left in the world in 50 years” – Market Dynamics of Massive Open Online Course Providers
  • Chris Muellerleile – Wasting the University:  The Costs of Competition
  • Seppo Poutanen & Anne Kovalainen – Gig Science and the Platform University – the Future of Knowledge 2.0
  • Annika Bergviken Rensfeldt – More than a blank Canvas – Platformization of Nordic universities
  • Susan Robertson – The Production of Scientific Knowledge and Value in an Era of Platform Capitalism
  • Richard Terry – ‘MOOCs are really a platform.’  Prefiguring platform capitalism in the case of online learning platforms
  • Nikola Wachter – Platform capitalism and open educational resources
  • Steve Watson – What we can learn about platform capitalism from past speculative bubbles