'Transforming' education/health (delete as applicable)

Technology is 'transforming' education, we're told.

It's apparently 'transforming' healthcare and the NHS too.

I know this because this summer (2017) I went to London's ExCel, again, for the Health+Care Show where this message of 'transformation' was proclaimed from every corporate stand.

As it was at the education equivalent, the BETT Show, at ExCel in January this year.

Except, we know that technology is not – definitely not – transforming education, or at least not in the ways we are told.

It isn't 'improving outcomes' in the jargon.

It isn't 'personalising learning' to meet the needs of each individual pupil.

Often, it isn't even particularly innovative.

Technology is, though, changing how education systems operate: it is standardising systems and how children are taught; it is promising to make schools more efficient and cheaper places to run; it is enabling the private sector to enter – and profit from – education in ways that weren't previously possible. 

As noted here, these stories of 'transformation' in education are marketing slogans. Their claims don't have to stand up, even when they are repeated by education ministers.

It is unnerving, then, to see the same slogans in the context of healthcare, where it is arguably more critical whether something works, or not. It is concerning too when the slogans provide the backdrop for speeches by senior NHS officials.

Listening to Matthew Swindells, NHS England's national director of operations and information, the similarities in language and messaging between him and some pretty extreme education reformers are also striking. 

This was Swindells at London's Health+Care Show in June 2017 on the future of the NHS:

'We have to think about what’s next. How are we going to create an NHS which is built around patients and not institutions. Put the patient in the centre of the model of care and then your view on the use of technology, your view on the use of different professions, on the way that services are configured, becomes very different to the one which starts with bricks and mortar.

'We need to move to an NHS which places the patient and the public at the centre of those thoughts.'

Here's Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump's billionaire education secretary and long-time lobbyist for education privatisation saying something similar just a few weeks earlier at an edtech investor summit in Salt Lake City:

'If you were to start from scratch, what would America's education system look like?

'Here's how I would answer the question... [It] starts by focusing on students, not buildings. If a child is learning, it shouldn't matter where they learn. When we center the debate around buildings, we remain stuck with the same old system. We must rethink school. Schools must be organized around the needs of students, not the other way around.'

This is a message common in reform circles. And this is what it means.

DeVos talks about it not mattering where a child learns. It could be in a traditional school, a privately-run charter school, a virtual school, or some 'other delivery methods not yet developed', she says. What she is talking about is the creation of a (mainly) privately-operated education market. Her focus on pupils over institutions is about funding. DeVos is an advocate of education vouchers, where state funds don't go directly to schools, but are instead given to parents to take where they like in this market. Technology is significant, because it takes this 'school choice' idea and puts a rocket up it, allowing personal budgets to be spent on individual digital services and virtual courses, provided by the private sector, with all the implications that has for institutions and the professionals that work in them. 

This is the language of privatisation, and of technology as a means of privatising services.

DeVos is a fan of 'personalised learning' and sees technology as working in favour of privatisation (aka school 'choice'). 'It seems to me,' DeVos has said, 'that, in the internet age, the tendency to equate “education” with “specific school buildings” is going to be greatly diminished.'

In summary, the future imagined by some reformers, is one where education is 'unbundled' and replaced with a tech-enabled market of educational products and services provided by the private sector.

Swindells, who spent the prior six years in the US at health tech giant, Cerner, didn't elaborate on his comments. He did, though, hint of more changes ahead.

He began by telling the assembled NHS leaders that they needed to make the system as lean and efficient as possible. Only then, when they can say they have done everything they can, said Swindells, will they be able to 'hand on heart' have an  honourable conversation with the public 'about what the NHS can afford'.

Only then, he said, can they approach the 'difficult things that we have to talk to the public about'.