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25 Jul 2023
Moira V. Faul

Education, technology and private sector actors: towards a research agenda

The publication of the 2023 GEM Report on technology and education explores how technology affects education through five distinct channels: “as input, means of delivery, skill, tool for planning, and providing a social and cultural context.” The 2021/2 report focused on non-state actors in education; including the many private sector for-profit actors that are involved in EdTech sub-systems. As part of our continuing project on the digitalisation of education, we have identified the following research directions that need to be addressed regarding technology and for-profit actors in SDG 4.

What would you add to the research areas we identify? Add your short comments below, or contribute another blog post in reply.

First principles

There are four first principles we recommend for any research agenda on technology and education. First, the order of – or priority given to – these two themes must always put education before technology; that is, technology is in the service of the goals of education, not technology for technology’s sake nor technology for which there is no evidence that it supports quality, accessible and equitable education. Secondly, knowledge equity concerns (epistemological, axiological and practical) are critical in future EdTech research agendas. This includes examining whether and how are Indigenous and traditionally marginalised EdTech actors, researchers and knowledges mobilised into mainstream digitalisation products and priorities? How is priority given to multilingual or mother tongue education? How does the promise EdTech compare to the actual implementation to realise these and other knowledge equity concerns. More practically and empirically, it is necessary to assess the impact and relevance of EdTech products in low- and middle-income countries or districts. Such assessments are crucial for tailoring interventions that are appropriate, culturally sensitive, and effective in improving educational outcomes for people in these contexts, and not only the WEIRD contexts (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic) in which much technology research and product development takes place. Finally, it is critical to frame innovation beyond technology; too often, any talk of innovation immediately equates innovation with technology. Yet innovation goes far beyond technology, as seen for example in the diversity of country-led themes and activities addressed in the GPE-IDRC funded Knowledge Innovation Exchange KIX-EAP Hub for the Europe-Asia-Pacific region.


Government procurement for the public purpose and common good

An effective research agenda on the futures of the digitalisation of education would be incomplete without due attention to government procurement of digital solutions, since the majority of affected learners and teachers are in public education systems.

First, research into building government confidence and competence in negotiation with private sector actors in procurement processes by promoting “joined up government” practices. Have civil servants developed these competencies before entering government? What professional development measures are effective? What are effective strategies for fostering collaboration and coordination among the diverse government departments involved in these acquisitions to ensure that EdTech initiatives align with education and development goals?

Most private sector companies develop Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and the technology sector is no different. Research is lacking, however, on what KPIs are – and are not – included in technologies for education. Do companies that offer technology solutions for education use KPIs that align with existing research on student learning outcomes, agency, creativity, and efforts to improve equity? Or are they only focused on immediate outputs such as implementation fidelity? How can KPIs for impact on learning and teaching be systematically included in public procurement tenders or negotiations? If such KPIs are lacking, what is the purpose of this technological intervention e.g. in Education Management Information Systems (EMIS), and how might this purpose link ultimately to the public purpose of educational outcomes? More research and policy attention needs to be paid to how technology products and industry are structuring human choices and making it harder (not easier) to “click wisely”.

Finally, research is needed into which policies effectively serve the common interest, and how these should be formulated and disseminated for wide uptake in a variety of contexts. What can be learned from regulation in other contexts? Should recommendations take the form of guidelines? Or/and an agreed upon go/no-go list of providers for public procurement, identifying those that should be encouraged and those that should be avoided due to potential risks or negative impacts on the well-being and educational outcomes of their citizens. How are the Abidjan Principles implemented and upheld in EdTech? These Principles focus on States’ obligation to provide public education, to respect liberties and dignity in education, and to regulate private actors in education. It is crucial to research successful ways in which EdTech companies (from small start-ups to sprawling corporations) can be held accountable to both the public and governments. Can this be achieved through robust local national, regional or global oversight mechanisms and transparent reporting requirements that hold EdTech providers responsible for the quality, safety, and equity of their products. By fostering accountability, can states ensure that EdTech initiatives are aligned with the common good, as well as serving private interests?


Value creation models

Research is required that analyses the underlying value creation models associated with technology companies’ pricing or business models, particularly since a large proportion of payments to these companies are typically sourced from government budgets (mainly domestic and also bilateral and multilateral aid). Value creation for partners in public-private partnerships has been identified as one of five interlinked pathways to partnership effectiveness. Reasonable profit is, in some cases, the value created for the private sector. How do they generate these profits?

Existing technology companies use a variety of different ways of creating value (or value creation models) for different stakeholders; indeed, sometimes different divisions of the same company adopt different value creation models. Whereas previously the Friedman doctrine demanded that company profit was the only value that counted, an increasing body of research stresses the internalisation of the effects on social and environmental factors that previously had been considered “externalities”. Examples of value creation models include non-excessive profit strategies, upheld by clauses in government procurement contracts. Nevertheless, many larger companies have been revealed (in research outside of education) to pursue predatory pricing practices, for example, where certain aspects of the technology service may be provided for free, but additional analytics come at a cost or student data is harvested to the profit of the company rather than for the good of the students or school. Value creation models may be based on a logic of monopoly rather than market competition. Monopoly models can be identified where one technology firm takes action to squash competition (for example, Facebook buying the start-ups Instagram and WhatsApp when they started to challenge Facebook’s domination of that market). The recent resurgence in competition regulation indicates the growth and growing significance of monopoly value creation models.

In contrast to narratives of “plucky, risk-taking technology innovators”, these predatory and monopolistic technology value creation models are considered to stifle innovation. They also unfairly segment technology ecosystems into a large number of tiny start-ups with precarious working and market conditions pitted against a handful of enormous – and enormously influential – companies. Examining different value creation models is particularly important when considering government procurement, as is usually the case in Edtech. Further questions also remain with regards to how new technology start-ups in Global South countries are affected by, or even copy value creation models and practices from the Global North.

Rigorous research is required that empirically identifies what public money is being spent on and to what ultimate purpose? What value do technology companies create in social, economic, and environmental terms? For whom is value generated? Is the profit generation process is reasonable, predatory, or monopolistic?


Assetisation and financialisation

These practices involve the transformation of various components of the education sector, including data, content, infrastructure, and services, into tradable financial assets or investment opportunities.

Assetisation is frequently seen when student data collected through EdTech platforms (including GoogleClassroom and others) are analysed and segmented (turned into assets) that are then sold on, e.g. to marketers who use these data to target additional products at students. Thus, a product (data) is turned into an asset from which revenue can be generated. These data also serve other purposes, and are also used to personalise students’ learning journeys and to improve the product or platform. Therefore research is needed to disentangle the potential positive effects on learning of data collection from other potentially negative ethical and  financial considerations. 

Financialisation is the process through which aspects of education (or here, EdTech) are converted into investment opportunities. In other sectors, the involvement of venture capital and private equity has provided both positive and negative impacts (for example, Theranos in health). Financialisation processes are most prevalent in higher education and early childhood care and education, but they are also gaining ground in basic education and training. Does the use of financial investment logics provide more and better financing for education; the research question at the heart of our IFE Leave No-One Behind Project? How can financial investors in social or environmental sectors balance their goal of effecting social or environmental good against norms of maximising shareholder profits (examples in other sectors include inflating share price through share buy-backs, asset stripping, reducing service provision)? To what extent do underlying economic models and policies influence the options available to private sector actors who seek to contribute to social purposes such as education?

The assetisation and financialisation of education raises research questions related to data privacy, protection and consent alongside the potential effects of these processes on the public purpose of education as a common good. Can such a shift in financing of education also shift the underlying principles of education, with potentially negative consequences for equality, quality and access? Understanding the impact of these processes on the availability, accessibility and appropriateness of education and EdTech solutions in LMICs  can also inform decisions about the effective and efficient procurement of technologies that serve the best interests of learners and public education systems.


How power operates across all questions in this research agenda

Technical narratives of EdTech can ignore or obscure questions regarding the operation of power inside EdTech, and at the intersections of education and technology systems. Examining questions of how power operates in each of the research questions raised above is critical.

By examining these multiple dimensions of education, technology and private sector actors, through asking – and answering – these questions, we can advance necessary empirical and theoretical knowledge about the extent to which, how and where the digitalisation of education may be fulfilling its potential to maximise a positive impact on education as a common good for a public purpose.



About the author

Moira V. Faul is the Executive Director of NORRAG, and Senior Lecturer at the Geneva Graduate Institute. More

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