• Christina J. Colclough

Breaking the cycle: why Edtech must be regulated

Written for Education International on the International Day of Education 2021, this blog argues why unions and regulators urgently need to address the privacy invasive aspects of EdTech.

Read full blog post here - excerpts below



The vicious cycle: dependency on the private sector, data control and surveillance


As public services get strapped for money, their dependency on the private sector will likely grow. When it comes to digital technologies, we are entering into a vicious cycle. Unless public procurement, outsourcing and public-private partnership agreements are radically changed, the private sector’s power grab will be strengthened. It is they who hold the big data and the data analytical tools. The public sector are their dependent customers. As a result, the public sector’s capacity to responsibly gather their own data and make their own analytics will either never be built or will decline. This in turn will increase their dependency on the private tech sector. We can only assume that the same vicious cycle is happening in the education sector.


Educators will, like their colleagues in other sectors, become increasingly subject to the surveillance that is at the heart of all digital tools. Everything digital creates – or extracts – data. This data is combined, aggregated and turned into numerous, often opaque, probability analytics calculating the likelihood that this or that learner will succeed in mathematics, or that an educator from that area, with that gender and that age, will perform badly with large classes. These profiles, known as inferences in the tech world, will - whether we know about their existence or not - influence our personal and professional lives and the opportunities presented to us. This is why the author of “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, Shoshana Zuboff, is fervently calling to make markets in human futures illegal.


Breaking the cycle: why we need Edtech regulations that put people before profit


It is understandable if you now are thinking and feeling that this is all really bad. In many ways it is. But it does not have to be. Digital tech is not necessarily born evil. But it is not necessarily born good either. It is here that we need regulation to steer digital technology into the direction where it puts people and planet before profit. EdTech could serve very good purposes, it could reach out to learners in empowering (for them) ways. It could bring cultures and traditions together across geographical boundaries and increase our understanding of “otherness”. It could support learners in need and high performers to reach their inner potential. It could help track educators’ working time, the balance between their administrative and teaching time, and it could suggest new teaching methods and literature. To some extent digital tech does this already, but it often does so at the price of our privacy rights and human rights. The many inferences made do not disappear. A poor performing child could bear that stamp with him or her for the rest of their life.


Charting the path forward: the crucial role of unions


Where does all of this leave educators and unions alike? For unions to remain powerful, they must have a seat at the table in the governance and ongoing assessment of the digital technologies in place in workplaces. They should hold leadership and authorities accountable to the privacy rights and human rights impact of these tools. They should be party to an evaluation of the systems’ risk profiles – what individuals or groups intendedly or unintendedly will be disadvantaged by the algorithm? Is the tool fair, if so to whom? What trade-offs are being made, and can unions accept these? The list continues, and the details of this co-governance must be sketched out. Having co-governance structures in place will ensure that educators are included in any assessments of Edtech and heard in relation to what tools they might need (EI’s recent survey of education unions showed that this is currently not the case). Across all sectors in most countries, no such structures exist. An exception is Norway, who for 30 years now in their central framework agreement in the private sector, and previously also in the public sector, has a provision that allows for the creation of a data shop steward. This unique institution needs to be explored further, mirrored by others and its role expanded to include the co-governance of algorithmic systems.


Another largely unexplored topic for unions would be to negotiate for much stronger workers’ data rights. Even within the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) workers’ data rights are limited – especially with regards to the inferences we discussed above. In many other data regulation jurisdictions workers are either entirely exempted from the data protection (for example in Australia and Thailand) or as in California are exempted until 2021. Unions need to fight back to rectify this. I speak of the need to negotiate the data life cycle at work as depicted in the figure below (Note: “DPIA” stands for Data Protection Impact Assessment - Cf. GDPR, art. 35).


The Data Life Cycle at Work


Unions simply must build their capacity to meet the challenges of our digitalised economies and societies. This is no easy or quick task, which is evident in the fact that currently 68% of education union respondents to EI’s survey report that they do not offer courses on the governance of digital technologies. It will require that unions pool their resources, think smartly and help one another leapfrog into a more sustainable future. Union leaders, organisers, the secretariat and the staff representatives out there need to be trained so they know the ins and outs of digital technologies. With this training in place and a strategic orientation towards the digital economy, the demands unions have for decent work, safe conditions and the respect of human rights cannot be ignored.


With this survey and the lessons within, EI as a whole can take important steps towards an alternative digital ethos. One that is worker-led and that puts people and planet before anything else.


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