This post by Vanessa Richter is part of our series “Global Digital Cultures in times of COVID-19”, written by students of the research master Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam.
Online schooling seems to be the best and most obvious solution to the current predicament of ongoing school lockdowns. However, the best solution for whom?
Digital learning platforms are offered as easy and quick tech solutions to learning during times of lockdown. Yet, these solutions require access to technology. According to a recent Pew Research survey, one in four low-income students in the US does not have access to a home computer just as most families with school-age children do not own a laptop for every child. Let alone that parents have to juggle teaching responsibilities with their job, as well as caring for their children. Addressing the current crisis in education requires more than providing technological solutions.
Shannon Morales, a single mother from New Jersey, shared her struggle in an interview with Forbes. Morales recalls that “the first month was an absolute struggle. I had to acclimate myself with 3 different curriculums and download multiple apps for each class.” The struggles with online learning go far beyond what EdTech platforms we use. Research highlights concerns regarding online education on students’ performances, intersectional issues such as accessibility and affordability of technology, and data privacy concerns. Yet, there is also a dire need for research beyond platforms to understand the wider societal impact of EdTech.
It is easily overlooked that EdTech platforms not only disrupt societal values and public infrastructures online but also the broader infrastructural ecosystem education is embedded in. Questioning students’ food security in relation to internet access might not come to mind when looking at online learning, but these issues surely have a major impact on students’ learning.
As Jonathon Gray, Carolin Gerlitz and Liliana Bounegru propose in their 2018 article Data infrastructure literacy, we need to expand our understanding of data literacy. This shift needs “to include not just competencies in reading and working with datasets but also the ability to account for, intervene around and participate in the wider socio-technical infrastructures through which data is created, stored and analysed”. Their intervention through the concept of data infrastructure literacy is an important asset to understand, question, critique and repurpose data and data infrastructures.
The malalignment of platforms as educational infrastructures needs more attention due to their close intersection with other public services. Who is the most affected? What challenges do we face moving public services such as education onto private platforms? What other essential infrastructures does EdTech intersect with and disrupt in its pursuit of more users, more data and, hence, more money?
Public services versus platform services
Besides their role in knowledge transmission, schools and after-school programs provide a form of free or affordable child care. Especially single parents and families of low income rely on this care to stay afloat, as private child care is limited and expensive. If no public care is available, the burden of childcare still falls largely on women. The German government has tried to address the gendered nature of childcare through special financial support during the pandemic. The UK and other European countries have taken similar measures, but the measures targeting parents are still failing mothers. Governments need to acknowledge and challenge the gender disparity in care when considering online learning and its feasibility as parents take on the extra burden of homeschooling.
We often forget that even in countries like the US and Canada, schools are an important provider of subsidised or free food programs ensuring that children have access to healthy and regular meals. As the Harvard School of Public Health reports, with the advent of homeschooling during quarantine, school nutritionists and non-profit-organisations for child welfare and food security, have spoken up continuously about the struggles to keep their students fed and out of hunger. Lauren Bauer, a Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution, documented the number of families, who were unable to provide enough food for their children.This number more than doubled in April 2020. Bauer emphasizes “it is clear that young children are experiencing food insecurity to an extent unprecedented in modern times.” Ever had to learn or write a test while being hungry? According to current research, it is detrimental to our performance and our brain.
Similarly, schools provide important mental health benefits for children through socialisation, physical activity, and enrichment programs. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, the loss of social activity and stimulation is especially critical for children as “the research demonstrates that COVID-19 is affecting the mental health of children and adolescents and that depression and anxiety are prevalent.” What we learn in school goes beyond math and grammar. So how can EdTech be adjusted to help with social skills and stimulation if we are implementing them long-term?
Is EdTech here to stay?
With education moving primarily online for the first time for many students, universities and governments are starting to more seriously consider the benefits of online learning. The EdTech industry has quickly adapted and expanded following the rising number of COVID-19 cases becoming one of the clear financial winners of the pandemic by offering partnerships like the EdTech Demonstrator Programme in the UK. What happened to previous concerns regarding what our education system should look like and who it needs to benefit?
As even tech-savvy countries such as Germany and the United States are struggling to adapt, the pandemic has pushed governments to consider benefits such as broader access to educational material and reduction of costs. Neoliberal logics play a role in these considerations primarily benefiting the state or higher education business. The responsibilities of public education shift onto students, parents and private corporations, with their first and foremost goal of data collection and profit margins. EdTech is a seller’s market providing quick tech solutions to complex problems focussed more on profit then the user, which can lead to malaligned techno-solutionism.
As governments are adopting EdTech longer-term in light of the continuing pandemic in primary education, our future learning environments are transforming. Experts like the developmental psychologist Amy Bintliff, a professor at the University of California, warn of the psychological and social impact these shifts are having on students and staff alike. So, what kind of educational environment do we want to see and be part of in the future?
Marko Teräs, Juha Suoranta, Hanna Teräs and Mark Curcher provide an important look into the motives and problems of private EdTech as a long term solution in their 2020 article Post-Covid-19 Education and Education Technology ‘Solutionism’: a Seller’s Market. They push for a more complex understanding of the EdTech as a capitalist industry. As educational services are closely intertwined with other essential societal infrastructures, this needs to be taken into account when considering EdTech as a continuous solution.
Moving to online education, even only partially, is impacting far more than schooling. This requires a rethinking of digital infrastructures embedded in broader infrastructural ecosystems. Let’s not forget that these technological solutions threaten especially those who are already struggling to stay afloat economically, and are socially and culturally marginalised. As the digitalisation of education infrastructures can disconnect and disable a complex network of essential services, we need to make sure that EdTech platforms don’t become infrastructural blackholes.
Vanessa Richter is a Media Studies Research Master student in New Media & Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam with a background in cultural studies and journalism studies. Her research interests focus on platform studies, affect theory, and interdisciplinary methodology. She is currently researching the affective relationship between users and platforms as infrastructures especially within digital health and education. (Twitter: @vrichter8)