BBC2 film shines light on tech's role in education reform

The third part of Jacques Peretti’s BBC2 series Billion dollar deals and how they change your world screened this week. It's available on iPlayer for the next month.

It looks at the world of work and how it has gone from something we just did, to something that defines us, through to now where we are encouraged (and increasingly monitored) to behave as efficient, productive robots as we compete for our jobs with artificial intelligence.

I feature in a short segment on changes that are happening in teaching, which ‘stands out among all the jobs that we are slowly losing to machines’, says Peretti. The film took us round a school in San Diego where kids now learn online with one teacher overseeing 75 pupils.

Peretti was clever to interview US education reformer Terry Moe – who I am kind of pitched against – on the introduction, or 'seepage' of technology into schools, to borrow Moe’s word. Of all the reformers out there, Moe provides some much-needed clarity about what is actually driving the shift to digital in education.

Start by disregarding his claim that this is about improving children's chances. Even edtech champions admit that it doesn’t lift standards. The OECD found that, while students who use computers in school moderately (once or twice a week) have ‘somewhat better learning outcomes’ than those who use computers rarely, frequent use of computers in schools is more likely to be associated with lower results. Even Bill Gates, a man who has spent billions reforming schools, including ‘personalised learning’, admits: ‘We really haven’t changed [students’ academic] outcomes’.

Ignore too Moe’s pitch about computers ‘personalising’ education. This is largely marketing speak. It is used as a way of framing online teaching as the solution to what reformers claim is the current, failed standardised model of schooling (a class of thirty children all learning the same thing at the same time). It’s a compelling set up, but that’s pretty much all it is.  Teachers, good ones, personalise their teaching all the time, whereas online education is, for the most part, based on the same ‘personalisation’ on offer at Amazon and Netflix, which is more accurately algorithm-driven, standardised customisation.

To understand, then, what tech is really doing in schools we need to look at where reformers like Moe are coming from.

Moe and Co. believe that education should be opened up to market forces. For decades, they have pushed the idea that schools should be run by business, made more efficient and productive in the same way as businesses, with competition being used to drive up standards and drive out weak performers. In short, schools can be publicly-funded, but should not be publicly-run. Their ideas influenced Tony Blair’s academies programme and every UK government since.

But, reform hasn’t happened – in the US at least – nearly as swiftly as they would like. It has been met with resistance.

Reformers like Moe see technology as a means of defeating that resistance.

In 2009 Moe co-authored a book called Liberating Learning with the late John Chubb,  a collaborator of Moe's at the US conservative think tank, Hoover Institution. Michael Gove, then England’s reformer-in-chief described it as ‘an excellent book’ and plugged it in a speech to school leaders.

Liberating Learning is a blueprint for how to achieve Moe and Chubb’s market reforms in education. It expresses their deep frustration at the pace of change and rages against teaching unions, which they blame entirely for holding up their plans.

For the rest of the book, they describe how technology will solve this problem of teacher and union resistance.

The change will happen, argues Moe, not just through technology ‘transforming the way children learn and the way schools are organised and operated’. There are also crucial ‘secondary effects’ it will have as it ‘slowly seeps into the education system’.

Chief among these additional impacts are ‘the dispersion of teachers’ into virtual and other (non-unionsed) education providers and ‘the substitution of technology for labour’. There will just be fewer teachers (paying their union subs). Moe estimates that computer-based instruction requires ‘perhaps half as many [teachers], and possibly fewer than that’. The collection of data also plays a key role, according to Moe, allowing the tracking of not just schools performance, but individual teacher performance. Data – not teachers, or their unions – becomes king.

‘To put it simply,' writes Moe, 'the seepage of technology into the system – which cannot be stopped and will continue – works slowly but inexorably to undermine the political power of the teachers unions. With their power to resist weakened over time, the floodgates will then be opened – not only for high-tech innovation, but also for a wide range of reforms.’

Marketisation, in other words, is enabled by the introduction of more technology in schools. Tech as a means of hastening the private takeover of a publicly-run system.

Moe doesn’t see the change happening overnight, nor will it be announced (he uses the word 'seepage' a lot). But, like so many other tech cheerleaders, he does see it as inevitable.

He’s wrong, though. It is a choice, a political one, that demands public debate.

It's one we should be having in the UK.