The Platformisation of Higher Education

The UNCESO report provides an overview of the ed tech market and some general context(for schools, mostly) but I feel that the Analytical Framework of the Platformization of Education and its three scenarios aren’t widely applicable in higher education. For instance, the second scenario posits:

In platform-systems, we see the birth of a double educational system. The institutionalised, regular and massive combination of a virtual educational system parallel to the brick and mortar one. The face-to-face school system maintains its homogeneous, national character, with socialisation functions and strengthening of cultural, citizen or moral ties. These dimensions require teachers with moral authority and high doses of daily interaction to regulate behaviours and learning. In parallel, digital platforms accentuate personalisation through artificial intelligence, the penetration of a global market and can be more clearly oriented towards job skills.

While this is the most similar to my context, it certainly glosses over issues of teacher-student ratios and learning contact time. Our students in the brick-and-mortar university. aren’t all experiencing daily doses of interaction, and the digital platforms certainly don’t accentuate personalisation, let alone have much alignment toward job skills. Students are experiencing a deficit on both sides. As the UNESCO report indicates a “frustration due to the unfulfilled promises of the technological solutions (Cuban, 2003). The traditional school seemed invincible in all the good and bad of its matrix”, the Covid emergency and continued unfulfilled promises, both technological and otherwise, hve exacerbated our fragile infrastructure, both physical and digital. The school is not invincible. Students and staff lack the agency to change things.

In my own role, I’ve been tasked with leading our Learning Technologies team with a migration from Blackboard Learn to Canvas. The decision to change VLE, and the choice of the new one, was decided by our T&L committee, a small group of staff representing the larger body. The university is also undertaking a larger Student Digital Pathways project which will change our registration and curriculum management systems as well.

Our digital infrastructure is due to change entirely!

In our context, I feel like the rentee-rentier relations explored in Komljenovic’s article are actually applicable well beyond the digital platforms. Students have proven to be mere commodities to the university, not assets, as highlighted by a serious accommodation crisis, with no current option for online learning. While there are mentions of UDL and hybrid/flexible in the press releases and sound bytes about the new technologies, one does have to wonder if it’s right to fund these platforms considering how the money could be used elsewhere.

Entanglements

In addition to overseeing the Canvas migration, my current responsibility installing a plethora of our ‘other’ tools integrated into the VLE through LTI integration. This involves reaching out to each company to check if running two instances is even covered by our contract, re-examining privacy policies, completing and testing the technical piece, and then documenting the process. Our ‘other’ tools are considered part of our core offerings. I’ve already installed: Turnitin, Kaltura, Vevox, Qwickly Attendance, H5P, Hypothesis, Zoom, Talis Aspire, and still have to follow up on Ally and others. The reason I’ve listed them all is that our staff generally see these tools all as ‘Blackboard’ or what will now be Canvas. To them, it’s one ecosystem because of where they live, but for us, it’s a bit of a minefield. Most staff and students would never check (or find) our data policies. There are tools I’ve flagged concerns about, but I have no agency in the matter. Some days I feel a bit like this:

Lisa and Bart Simpson sitting at the kitchen table, arms folded, both shaking their heads to say 'no'

Komljenovic states that the ‘nestedness of platform integration and nestedness of terms of use and privacy policies imply that students and staff become liable to their educational institution’s data policies and policies of proprietary platforms with which their institution has a contract.’ This is true in our case, and I like the term ‘nestedness’. I have a feeling I’ll draw on this more often.

I’ve also raised concerns about the migration process, as content will be dumped from one platform to another for our staff to untangle themselves. I can’t imagine it will go over well, Doug Jones writes about the iron triangle created by these entanglements here. I shudder to think how our staff will react when all the shiny promises of a new platform present themselves like this:

Content copied from Blackboard to Canvas from David Jones’ article above

Sadly, most of our users don’t have enough jargon-free information available to them to even make an informed decision about data use. I’m waiting for the day when a student refuses to allow their intellectual property to be sent to Turnitin’s database.

Of course, now we find ourselves plodding along into an even more intricate web of platforms as we’ve acquired Canvas tier 1 support (in addition to our own service desk) and its Impact tools. Canvas support will cut a portion of our workload but comes with a pedagogical cost. We do not want to use terminology like ‘Syllabus’ or ‘Module’ in our course menus, we would opt for ‘Information’ and ‘Learning Materials’ if given a choice, but if we decided to change then the newly purchased support documentation would not match our course shells. The Impact tool will provide a ton of learning analytics, none of which we’ve had a chance to explore from an ethical or usefulness perspective, but it’s already paid for, so we’re using it. Once again, the promises of an ed-tech company not only fall short but will also dictate our pedagogy. Right now, it looks like we have to change a lot of language and terminology already embedded in the university’s culture.

The article examines the ‘conditions of monopoly’, and I have concerns about our current conditions entering into a new contract with one of the ‘big’ VLE companies. The review and tender process in a university of our size takes time, and contracts lock in for years. We are already in a place where we can’t negotiate certain conditions about the user experience, so what happens when the company decides. to change things? What negotiating power will we have?

One of the other platforms we are piloting is Impact, which is supposed to help us with tool adoption by. providing data. and insights. Their description of the Impact tool sounds like it could have been written by ChatGPT:

The digital transformation tool, Impact by Instructure, sets the standard for what easy-to-use education technology looks like today. Learn how Impact by Instructure makes navigating new technology a breeze, and edtech adoption more streamlined and easier for both learners and educators.

More promises, more very confusing, non-sensical promises…

Follow the Money, Lose the Pedagogy

I wanted to spend some time on your comments from last week as you helped me to think about the transition between topics:

…link across to our next topic of platformisation and how that positions what we think the whole educational concern actually *is*, whose concern it is and what it’s meant to do. In sum, what’s the point of education? Who is it serving? (and why?) And then, what’s the point of a specific educational technology? What does it do? Whose interests are served? Whose agency is developed, whose agency is limited by the tech? etc etc

It looks like our users will be paying data rent with Canvas, and while it might be more user-friendly and up-to-date than Blackboard Learn, I can already see barriers arising to both staff and student agency, and I’m not sure how much its promise will really serve, aside from its own data collection, etc. It looks like our university will continue to pay monetary rent. We will find ourselves navigating an even more tangled web of platforms. We’ll have two service desks instead of one, more insights than we know what to do with, and a VLE platform that is telling us what to do.

I also try to be diligent and follow the money, and I don’t think that Canvas’ reputation in recent years has been great:

Phil Hill’s blog is a must-read for all financial and market updates

The frightening part of this post is that I’ve spent all of this time focusing on one platform at the institution, when there is so much more to reflect on, and so much good that could be addressed in relation to de-platformisation. I thought this would be the post where I sang the praises of the DoOO movement, or the use of WordPress multisite at the University of Edinburgh, but sadly, the VLE is on my mind.

I also wanted to return to the UNCESO report, because it isn’t to say that I don’t agree with parts of it. Even when it oversimplifies, it does ask the right questions:

The platformization of education opens up numerous ethical questions. Who will be the authors of these new worlds of digital learning? Who will participate in the discussions that will affect education as a public good? Will large EdTech companies define learning? Who controls student privacy and learning data? Who designs the educational algorithms? What will happen to local cultures amid educational globalisation? How will students be trained in citizenship and ethics if the content’s orientation follows the course of the labour market? What will happen to those who do not have access to technology?

Mocked up album cover with title Delete Yourself with mouths covered in duct tape. and warning messages
I almost recorded a podcast for this post, but I only got as far as the artwork and two minutes of babbling with ominous music in the background.

I was struck by Komljenovic’s final point:

As the currently ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is speeding up platformization of education, the political-economic questions on the value con- struction and power relations between platforms, education institutions, and students and staff as end-users become even more relevant.

I believe the timing of our VLE move is calculated. While Irish universities are ‘back to campus’ in the midst of an accommodation crisis and no option for online learning, the PR around investing in new platforms to enhance digital teaching and learning is a bit of positive PR. It’s starting to throw up glaring warnings about the power dynamics between the institution/staff/students in a variety of configurations. For instance, all users can control their notification settings (for now). Some welcome the change (me!) and others are calling for the Canvas admins to ensure that all students receive emails for all notifications, keeping in mind that much of that email from programme-level or higher likely has little to do with teaching and learning. It’s disheartening to see the affordances the technology does offer almost immediately challenged due to the power dynamics within the institution. I’ve also enabled the setting that allows users to display their preferred pronouns, and I’m half waiting for someone else to flag that feature could be misused by anyone with an anti-trans agenda.

I’ve enabled all users to set their pronouns on their profiles. It’s not an easy feature to find, but I’m sure some users will look for it when they see others using it.

The power dynamics are confusing and exhausting. At the risk of writing too much more, I’d suspect that the only one who truly benefits from all of this is Canvas.

Published by katemolloy

Kate Molloy is a Learning Technologist with the Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the University of Galway and was the University of Galway lead on the Irish Universities Association Enhancing Digital Teaching and Learning project from 2019 – 2022. Prior to taking up this role at the university, Kate had been a secondary English teacher in both the United States and Ireland for over a decade. As a teacher, she became interested in critical pedagogy, inclusivity, and the use of technology. In 2015, she moved into higher education where she supports staff teaching with technology. Her work focuses on the informed and ethical use of technology in higher education, learning design, inclusive teaching, and open practice. Kate is Secretary, National Executive of the Computers in Education Society of Ireland (CESI). She tweets at @hey_km.

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1 Comment

  1. I really enjoyed this post Kate. You have a lovely, chatty and engaging writing style. Your approach to this week’s task was excellent – picking out key quotations and evaluated them against your own experience in your professional context is exactly what we envisaged in these blog posts and we think, the most useful way to relate to and learn about issues in digital education.

    I like that you have drawn attention to the way reports such as the UNESCO one generalise and universalise things in an often unhelpful way. Your experience chimes with mine – particularly around COVID and the lack of agency for users – students and staff.

    Thanks for the ‘iron triangle’ link – very interesting. See if you can find out how to make links open in a new window – it would be helpful to me as the reader!!

    Two comments you made were particularly striking and pertinent to the issues around plaformisation, I thought:

    “Once again, the promises of an ed-tech company not only fall short but will also dictate our pedagogy. Right now, it looks like we have to change a lot of language and terminology already embedded in the university’s culture.”

    AND

    ‘It’s disheartening to see the affordances the technology does offer almost immediately challenged due to the power dynamics within the institution.’

    It’s frustrating to do your job and be aware of these issues but with no agency to change or raise concerns. The people who are in a position to raise concerns usually don’t have either the technical know-how or the academic interest in the effect for learning unfortunately!

    FOR NEXT TIME

    1. Although I love your style, work on ‘crafting’ your posts some more so that the structure is more efficient – you have a slight tendency to ‘ramble’! When you have a restricted word limit (both here and in the final assignment) you want to ensure that you can make all key points effectively. However, your use of sub-headings is very helpful.

    2. Thank you for labelling your images correctly – for the assignment add Figure 1, Figure 2 to the description as this is academic convention and refer to images as Fig 1 etc.

    3. Remember to add a reference list at the end of posts e.g

    REFERENCES
    Komljenovic, J., 2021. The rise of education rentiers: digital platforms, digital data and rents. Learning, Media and Technology, 46(3), pp.320-332.

    Rivas, A., 2021. The Platformization of Education: A framework to Map the New Directions of Hybrid Education Systems. Progress Reflection, 46.

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