Twitter selling shows us why edtech companies should be accountable to schools

Theresa Harrington/EdSource

Fifth-grade students at Allendale Elementary at Oakland Unified use the ST Math computer program.

The recent news that billionaire Elon Musk is planning to buy Twitter shows how even widely used tech companies can be bought, sold, changed or shut down at the whim of their owners. This should be of concern to educators, parents and students: such instabilities affect not just social media giants, but all business platforms, including those that have become, over the past decade, vital infrastructure for the day-to-day running of public schools.

Even before the pandemic accelerated schools’ adoption of third-party platforms for virtual learning, teachers were already relying on these technologies to share assignments (Google Classroom), manage student behavior (ClassDojo), monitor school devices (GoGuardian), assess learning (Kahoot), communicate with families (SeeSaw) and supplement education (Khan Academy). According to a study, in 2019, US districts accessed an average of more than 700 digital platforms each month. Since 2021, this number has doubled.

As educational researchers studying the impact of platform technologies in schools, we find this trend disturbing. Education’s growing reliance on a constellation of technologies controlled by the private sector cedes enormous power to corporations that are unaccountable to the publics schools are meant to serve. And the deeper these platforms are embedded in the life of districts, schools, and classrooms, the more administration, teaching, and learning are tied to the whims of their owners.

In our work with teachers, for example, we often hear complaints when an educational app releases updates that remove favorite features or change its functionality. Such instabilities can thwart a lesson or force teachers to restructure a unit. But the consequences could be even greater with a large company. If, tomorrow, Google decided to offload or shut down its education services, there are few American schools that would not be impacted. And because Google is not accountable to the public education system, these schools would have no recourse but to switch to a different third-party platform which, likewise, offers no guarantee of an engagement. long-term towards the needs of teachers and students – or, it should be noted, the security and privacy of their data.

Hypotheses like this might sound far-fetched, but the idea that Musk would try to buy Twitter also seemed unlikely — until it didn’t. Trusting in the stability and benevolence of private companies in a notoriously volatile sector is a fragile foundation on which to build enduring institutions for equitable public education. We should not be satisfied with this arrangement.

While the size and influence of some platform providers may make alternatives unthinkable, there are steps we can and should take to make edtech accountable to the public schools that rely on it.

In the short term, one can wonder about the role of such platforms in classrooms. Edtech specialists have shown how teachers can use “techno-ethical audits” to assess how the design and use of common technologies might work with or against their educational values ​​or the needs of their students. Likewise, our own research demonstrates how such inquiries can extend to coursework, where students explore the place and power of platform technologies in their own lives. Such tactics allow educators and students to demand the platforms they use rather than accept these technologies as they are.

In the longer term, we can create policies that hold tech companies accountable to the public schools that use them. Changing procurement policies in districts, for example, can put pressure on platform providers to take educators’ concerns about stability, security, and privacy seriously, lest they lose valuable contracts (or the usage data needed to maintain the viability of their products). There is also room for state and federal protections. The European Union’s recently proposed Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act offer such a model: create oversight of technology mergers and acquisitions that affect public welfare and subjugate large “gatekeeper” platforms. to further examination. While imperfect, these policies provide a starting point for thinking about how we can create leverage so that the privacy and stability of entire school systems cannot be determined by the business decisions of a few private companies.

If that sounds unrealistic, it’s no more drastic than the future that privately controlled tech companies have imagined – where they present themselves as unregulated infrastructure for all of public education. Challenging this vision requires an equally ambitious alternative: one rooted not in growth or profit, or the mercurial ambitions of tech moguls, but in a commitment to education for the common good, and for the autonomy and development of all students.


T.Philip Nichols is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Baylor University. Antero Garcia is an Associate Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.

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