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How Big Tech Innovations Affect Educational Equality & Access

“And right now [big tech companies are] making a lot of sweet offers to schools to use their platforms. But once we’re hooked, we’ll be stuck with proprietary software that isn’t ours. And it’s just another example of wealth being funneled up.”

Jeff Elkner, Adjunct Professor in Information Technology and Computer Science, Northern Virginia Community College

The demand for remote learning services has exploded when all education has been forced to shift online in the wake of the global novel coronavirus pandemic.

Nearly 1.1 billion learners across the globe have been affected by school closures as of July 2020, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). These statistics include learners in pre-primary, primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education, demonstrating the widespread impact of closures across the education industry. As a result, educators have been forced to seek online solutions in lieu of their usual in-person classes.

And tech giants are helping to meet that demand. In the wake of the pandemic, big tech companies rolled out a slew of initiatives—both free and for-profit—to help schools and students connect over distance.

While remote learning has often been lauded as an avenue for educational opportunities across socioeconomic levels, others are not so sure the surge of big tech’s involvement in online education is positive.

Professors Sandy Baum and Spiros Protopsaltis argue that online coursework has contributed to increasing gaps in educational success across socioeconomic groups while failing to improve affordability. Other educators fear tech giants’ growing involvement will further threaten inequality in education.

We talked to knowledgable educators and professors about the structural impact of big tech developments in education.

Emerging Innovation and Growing Involvement in EdTech

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, companies recognized the rising demand for educational technology, tools, and services.

The latest “2019 Global Learning Technology Investment Patterns” report from Washington-based advanced learning research institute Metaari stated that a “breathtaking US $18.66 billion flowed to edtech companies around the world in 2019.” This amount, according to the paper, was the “highest in history” for the edtech industry, outpacing previous records set in 2015, 2017, and 2018. The report also declared three “big winners” in the edtech space for overall 2019 investments, including:

  • Artificial intelligence-based learning ($3.7 billion, most obtained by U.S.-based companies)
  • Collaboration-based learning ($3.3 billion, most going to companies in China)
  • Mobile learning ($3 billion, with the largest investments won by China-based Q&A tech unicorn Zhihu, which develops a “homework helper” app, as well as India-based Aakash Educational Services, which offers students both in-person and virtual exam prep services)

The overall market for online education is projected to reach $350 billion by 2025. Financial experts also predicted at the start of 2020 that online learning would accelerate this year, with emerging technologies beginning to make their mark on education. Some emerging edtech ventures garnering significant investor interest include immersive technology (VR/AR), AI and machine-learning, robots and adaptive learning, and of course, blockchain technology.

These innovative technologies in edtech offer the opportunity to continue to fill gaps in learning and teaching, while also helping personalize education as data is gathered from students interacting with these digital tools. VR and AR can also create different environments to help students engage with learning material, while blockchain may provide educational institutions the ability to store and secure student records.

While these trends are still in development, the World Economic Forum has already recognized the clear boom in the usage of online tools like video conferencing, language apps, virtual tutoring, and online learning software as schools sought to connect with students when countries worldwide implemented stay-at-home orders. And given the spotlight on the market, big tech companies recognize it is a prime time to leverage edtech to differentiate themselves from competition, particularly in terms of brand consciousness.

Both K-12 and higher education make use of edtech technologies, but generally, the K-12 market sector is not a core profit center compared to wider business.

Several big tech companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft have shown they are willing to provide many free educational tools: Google Classroom, Google Apps for Education, iTunesU, Amazon Web Services Educate, Office365 for Education, and Skype in the Classroom, to name a few.

The K-12 segment does, however, present a big branding opportunity in that it offers a good hedge against public policy interference; is a good shareholder branding opportunity; and makes employees feel good. It also allows companies the chance to ingrain their respective influence and operating systems on students, affording a major source of investment for the future in potential workers and customers.

Big tech companies themselves generally state their work is mission-driven and intended to improve educational quality and access.

Suspending questions of intent, developments in the field compel people to ask an important question: how does Big Tech involvement and innovations in online education affect educational equality and access?

Concerns About Big Tech in Online Education

While online education does offer many positive benefits, some educators are concerned by the full move to online education, as well as big tech’s increasing involvement in edtech.

It is also important to note that although there are many innovations that big tech is churning out for education, these products are still new to the space and difficult to discern their impacts. So, the discussion at this point boils down to involvement, which encompasses all the activities of big tech in online education.

Jeff Elkner, an adjunct faculty member in information technology and computer science at Northern Virginia Community College, is very concerned by big tech firms’ potential to take over online education, especially for public schools.

“I am really worried about seeing Microsoft and Google positioning themselves to come into online education,” Elkner said. “And right now they’re making a lot of sweet offers to schools to use their platforms. But once we’re hooked, we’ll be stuck with proprietary software that isn’t ours. And it’s just another example of wealth being funneled up.”

While proprietary software offers the benefits of product stability and tailored support, it also places the user in a position of dependency when fixing problems with the software closed for viewing. To change vendors once software is embedded in operations is likely to be prohibitively expensive.

Elkner contended an open source software approach would serve public schools better: “Open source software means that we’re toolmakers,” he explained.

This model would require a degree of leg work on the end of schools to ensure programs are running correctly. But Elkner is already experimenting with open source software in his classes and has found it productive in compelling students to compare systems and be critical thinkers in finding solutions.

In terms of inequality, a full shift to online education does threaten exacerbating unequal educational equality and access, particularly for at-risk students.

“It appears that studying purely online without meaningful human act interaction requires a lot of study skill self-discipline,” said Sandy Baum, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute and former professor of economics at Skidmore College. “So knowing already how to process information and learn and think and to seek out communication with other people is critical. What tends to happen is that students who don’t come in with strong academic backgrounds struggle more in a purely online environment, and so that increases the gap between their success and the success of those who already know how or are highly motivated to learn.”

Elkner also recognized the increased threat to educational access for already at-risk students, sharing that many “dropped off the map” with the full move to remote learning in spring.

“Inequities are exacerbated for low-income students who have poor internet connection and no space to be able to study at home,” Elkner commented on the shift to remote learning.

Big tech’s involvement in online education, Elkner believes, can negatively impact learning for students. Even with remote learning, Elkner contended that students and teachers can become co-creators of their educational experience, whereas the corporate experience is very top down, which kills learning.

“It comes down to what kind of society do we want to build,” Elkner said. “Do we want to build a society where students are taught to be creative problem-solvers who take ownership of problems and work together collaboratively to try to solve them by using open source tools we can actually sort of hack on our own learning experience?”

Mitigating the Risks of Big Tech Dominance in Education

Even with concerned educators, the drive of big tech innovations and involvement in online education is likely to continue given the booming market sector. And as this evolves comes the potential growth in unequal access and opportunities for education.

To prevent the unequal access to education in online programs, an important step would be for the federal government to develop need-based programs for low- and moderate-income students applying for online education programs, Baum said. The government can also provide some regulatory framework.

On their end, schools can meaningfully consider the pros and cons of signing on to vendor software and innovations versus open source programs in developing educational frameworks. And students and families can work to ensure they have a learning framework in place and strategies to connect meaningfully with their instructor when embarking in online learning.

Overall, it seems that while big tech can provide innovative opportunities for individual students to learn, there remain risks to the larger population of students in what continues to be a fragmented approach to education in the United States.

Chelsea Toczauer

Chelsea Toczauer is a journalist with experience managing publications at several global universities and companies related to higher education, logistics, and trade. She holds two BAs in international relations and asian languages and cultures from the University of Southern California, as well as a double accredited US-Chinese MA in international studies from the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University joint degree program. Toczauer speaks Mandarin and Russian.