Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, schools have been the site of fierce political struggles. Notably, resistance to the closure of schools as a public health measure became a key touchstone in the pandemic’s culture wars.

At the same time as debates over school closures were occurring, financial and tech capital recognized an opportunity. The widespread ‘pivot’ to online education presented a potential windfall for those able to provide needed technological platforms and online curricula. On March 5th, 2020, for example, BMO Capital Markets wrote that “while we are uncomfortable citing ‘winners’ in the coronavirus situation… those that specialize in online education could see increased interest should the situation worsen.”

Unsurprisingly then, 2020 and 2021 witnessed a remarkable increase in investment in the EdTech sector (defined widely as encompassing the use of digital technology in the delivery of education). Rather than a neutral process, in a recent study, I argue that the expansion of EdTech is built upon a longer-standing process of creating markets for schooling. Here a combination of markets and EdTech has served to standardize education, disrupt the connections between schools and local communities, deskill labour, and disadvantage marginalized groups.

Markets, finance, and EdTech

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated investor interest in schooling. However, the sector had long been viewed as a potential growth area due to presence of a wealth of untapped public dollars. Indeed, the creation of markets out of public schooling has been a popular cause of the billionaire class, often conducted in alliance with ideological efforts to ‘disrupt the public school monopoly’ and allow for privately-run, religious schools. In the United States, organizations from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have spent significant energy and money lobbying for the implementation of market-based schooling systems.

As a result of these efforts, programs such as charter schools in the United States and academies in the United Kingdom have grown rapidly over the past few decades. These programs allow for private organizations to run publicly-funded schools under systems with reduced state oversight. In such models, schools receive public funding on a per-pupil basis and therefore must compete to attract students (and funding) in order to continue to operate.

While EdTech is used within public systems, its most profit-oriented manifestations have been enabled by new market systems. For example, charter school policies in the United States have allowed corporations such as K12 Inc. and Pearson to receive public funding for their own privately-branded online offerings. In schools like Pearson’s Connection Academy, these corporations have significant control over most aspects of schooling from hiring practices (always non-union) to the technological infrastructure and curricula that students and teachers use.

The connection between the most profitable versions of EdTech and the use of market systems has not been lost on investors and venture capitalists. A 2012 report by Global Silicon Valley Advisors, for instance, highlighted the profits to be made if, in the words of one investor, market systems could overcome local “ingrained, self-interested parties including unions, public school bureaucracies, and parents.”

Power, schooling, and EdTech experiments in Oregon and Michigan

That market-based EdTech is poised to increase in influence is important for a number of reasons. As a key site of social reproduction where students receive care and where society reproduces its values, schools are an essential element of our society. The current struggle over the supposed teaching of Critical Race Theory in American schools highlights how the space of the school is produced through struggles over its format and teaching practices.

Tracing how market-based EdTech interventions shape the actual spaces of schooling is crucial for understanding the stakes of this project. Through case studies of existing attempts to increase the use of EdTech in Oregon and Michigan, my work highlights how the dominant logic underpinning such interventions is one of standardization.

In the simplest sense, EdTech profits can be best maximized when a common technology-based learning system can be applied across different geographies with minimal need for experienced teachers. This reduces community connections and leaves little room for the teaching of critical thinking and controversial topics.

In Oregon, these elements of EdTech were materialized in the opening of state-wide virtual charter schools operated by both K12 Inc. and Pearson. These schools used the charter school law to open in small districts but recruited students from across the state. This model undermined a system where school districts had strong oversight over schools within their boundaries. Locating in small districts allowed K12 and Pearson to hire non-union teachers and shift labor on to caregivers who agreed to spend hours supervising their children’s learning as part of their contracts with the schools. As reported by the Oregon Secretary of State, this level of oversight proved inadequate to assure educational quality and to support students with disabilities.

In Michigan, the roll out of market-based EdTech occurred unevenly. Instead of state-wide, it was only students in the majority-Black city of Detroit who were made to use a EdTech-based personalized learning system named Buzz. This occurred when the state of Michigan took over 15 Detroit schools and handed their operation over to the for-profit company Agilax Labs. As chronicled by Curt Guyette for the Detroit Metro Times¸ Buzz was based around a ‘personalized learning model’ that removed teacher autonomy and replaced it with an algorithmic system that frequently failed and was quickly abandoned.

Across both cases the removal of local control over schooling was essential to the roll out of the most harmful versions of EdTech. In Oregon, Pearson and K12 Inc. located in small districts where they could best exert their influence and minimize the oversight built into the state’s charter school program. In Michigan, state power was used to take over schools in a majority-Black school district and promote a private EdTech system without input from the local community. However, in both cases these efforts were met by local resistance that, in the Michigan case, was ultimately successful in the return of  schools to the local school district.

EdTech futures?

It is not a coincidence that in both cases the roll out of profit-oriented EdTech was built upon policies that delinked schools from their local communities. The breaking of these connections allowed for a standardized educational model that maximized profits through reducing teacher and student autonomy and which sidelined democratic means of opposition.

The future of EdTech is still up for grabs however. As school closures have slowed, experiences with online learning have led many to temper their enthusiasm for its growth prospects. Yet, in places like Ontario, governments are now mandating that high school students must attend at least one online course as a means of cutting costs.

The cases outlined above illustrate that where community control is sidelined, corporate profit margins can determine how schooling occurs. Yet resistance to this future can, and has been, successful. If placeless standardization is needed for the realization of profits, then the alternative can also be true: that place-based struggles can create alternative, and progressive, educational forms.

Dan Cohen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s University (Canada).

To read more, see: Dan Cohen. “Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace: Markets, EdTech, and the spaces of schooling” in Environment and Planning A 2022.

Image: mikecogh via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)